Friday, May 27, 2011

eBook Discussion Notes / Research Assignment

A big thanks to Ashley Nelson for taking minutes of our class discussion today. She kept track of things on a Google Doc and then shared this with me. I'm pasting it in here for the sake of those who were absent, and I'd like to call special attention to the bottom portion where it lists the various research tasks we decided we would do before Wednesday, June 1st when we meet next. If you did not get an assignment or forgot yours, take one of the items on that list, research about eBooks, and report your findings on your blog.

Taking Stock: eBook Directions

Our collaborative eBook project requires us to think through its form, our method for constructing it, as well as its content. As for format, Bri Zabriskie rightly worries about practicalities and wonders "if there's a site out there that is like blogger for people who want their own blog type webpage, but for ebooks."

As for method, we must discuss this right away together! I appreciate Taylor Gilbert proposing that we must divide up into teams working on design, editing, etc.

As for content, here are the suggestions as they've accumulated:

Legitimate Literary Criticism

What is "legitimate literary criticism," especially in the digital age? Prompted by this phrase from a student's recent blog post, I thought this was well worth thinking through.

"Legitimate" as she was using this term seems to mean "conventional," or at least it refers to something that would be considered respectable by typical teachers or students of literature. As far as that goes, I think one must consider whether and how the format, method, style, length and audience for literary criticism affect its legitimacy.

What will we find? That many of the traits of traditional literary criticism are essential to carry forward into the digital domain, but that issues of audience, length, and media use are prominent incompatibilities between traditional literary criticism and emerging best practices in online writing.

By the end of this post, I will turn the question of legitimacy around. Rather than thinking of traditional academic and print literary criticism as the baseline for legitimacy, I will work from the assumption that online writing is the default intellectual medium and therefore literary criticism, to be legit in the 21st century, must play by the rules of the emerging dominant cultural medium.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Blogging More Academically

flickr - David Silver
(creative commons licensed) 
I've taught my students that online writing requires a fluency in both informal and formal modes of writing. Blogging only works if it has the low threshold, casual quality that invites regular and personal sharing. When students set out to make each blog post as though it were some academic paper, it kills the spirit of blogging.

At the same time, when conducting academic blogging, or simply more serious blogging, there comes a time when the blog must become something more than an outlet for personal expression or random observations. That is to say, for people to take a blog seriously, one must take the medium seriously, as well as the subject or content. And that means not always skimming along the surface.

Parameters for a Collaborative eBook Project

Flickr - nikkorsnapper
(creative commons licensed)
Yesterday my students and I had a frank chat about where we could apply our efforts, individually and collectively, toward an authentic outcome for this course on Writing about Literature in the Digital Age. Having discussed many alternatives online and in person, it now appears that we are gravitating toward creating some kind of eBook that allows for students to make use of the literary work each has been studying, research about that book, and the more general explorations of digital culture we've been studying in common. I've urged my students to continue with more specific proposals about our eBook project, which must take place within these project parameters:
  • Focus
    Our focus must stay on writing, literature, and research to prepare one for additional literary study and for life-long learning.
  • Authenticity
    What we choose to focus on 1) must be engaging for us personally; and 2) must have demonstrable value to specific stakeholders.
  • Accountability
    As a group, we must decide on benchmarks to measure progress and standards to assess our final product(s). As individuals, we must each be able to demonstrate individual contributions.
  • Individual Researched Writing
    Whatever group work is done in whatever format, each student is responsible for creating formal writing on their blog in which they 1) analyze literary works; 2) make interpretive claims; and 3) use (and document) researched sources.
  • Scope
    We can only take on projects that we can reasonably complete by June 15, 2011.
As our project takes shape, this will require a change in my students' blogging -- a subject I will save for my next post.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Assignment: Annotated Blog Posts for Conventional Literary Research

Yesterday my students received some research training at our library. In an effort not to have them overwhelmed, I set forth a short, selected list of literary research resources on our course wiki that I want them to be sure to explore.

So I am giving them an assignment to blog about their use of three of the listed resources and to report on sources found within them. However, only two of these sources should be relevant to their own research subject; one must relate to the research of one of their peers (I require this in order to promote social learning and engagement with fellow students). The three posts should be completed by Friday, May 27, 2011 at 2:00pm.

This assignment is much like an annotated bibliography assignment, except that I am urging as much attention to their process as to the result of their search; to the tool used to find a good source, as much as that end source itself.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Coaching Rachel to Connect

Rachel Rueckert
One of my very fine students, Rachel Rueckert, is currently in India conducting a field study. She's not new to blogging, having kept a great blog about her prior experience doing a field study in Ghana. But this round, we are focusing more on helping her to CONNECT, one of the three vital principles of digital literacy. I wrote her a long letter about that subject today, and I think my current students could profit from the principles she is applying right now

Hey, I am going to write you every Monday at least. I'd like you to be on a more regular schedule to stay in contact with me as part of the Digital Culture class. 

-- I'm glad to see you focusing on consume/create/connect both in your recent post and in your "blog intent" page. That intent page is a good idea and one I will recommend to students. 

--Your last blog entry was from last Tuesday, nearly a week ago. Let me know if conditions don't allow more frequent blogging, but I'd really like to see you writing more briefly and informally (not that you can't write at length occasionally). Keeping your content fresh is part of staying connected. Think in terms of providing regular updates, rather than fashioning formal content all the time. Even a snapshot with a caption would be enough for some posts. Keep the stream alive.

Library Research 2.0 (part 2)

I heard back from the librarian whose information I found and referred to in a previous post about Library Research 2.0. Here is a copy of her letter, followed by my initial query and my follow up response.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

"Reading" Literature Creatively

I have encouraged my students to read the literary works that are the focus of their study in new ways -- especially through various digital mediations. This post is meant to give them some ideas along those lines from my prior students.

But a word first about reading in general. Reading has always been a creative act, not merely an experience in decoding symbols. As phenomenologists and literacy specialists insist, meaning is created through a complex process of actively interpreting signs by supplying a whole matrix of personal experience to complete the "psycholinguistic guessing game" that is reading.

Our digital culture ups the ante with reading, since we are less and less likely to experience a work of literature merely as a printed book. Books today are not what they once were -- even when read in paper format -- because they are embedded within digitally conditioned literacy practices. Our reasons and methods for reading are evolving as we become more and more immersed in a ubiquitous, networked, information-rich, media-dense medium that thrives on transforming and remixing the familiar in novel ways.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Library Research 2.0

College students today need to be bilingual in their research. On the one hand, they need to know about traditional kinds of inquiry and the rich range of resources now available online and through databases. On the other, they need to know about research that is enriched by media, social discovery, and Web 2.0 resources and methods. One might call this newer approach "Library Research 2.0." Let me show you how it works.

As soon as I used that phrase, "Library Research 2.0," I immediately asked myself, "Who else might be thinking about this?" So I Googled "Library Research 2.0," and opened up a few tabs in my Chrome browser based on the top search results. One of these led me to a Google Doc presentation, "Library Research 2.0," posted by librarian Maria Accardi. Doesn't Ms. Accardi look friendly? It certainly was friendly of her to post her presentation rather than limiting its reach to the people at her university.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Responding Better to Literary Reading

flickr-CaptPiper (creative commons licensed)
My students found little of interest and much at fault in the book I recently assigned to them, Vernor Vinge's Rainbows End. This has caused me to reflect upon what I might have done better to prep them for a more productive read.

On the other hand, I expect my English major students to be more sophisticated about their reading strategies, and I'd like to call them out on that point. By and large, what my students wrote about Rainbows End has been uninteresting and perfunctory. Their blog posts about the book are mostly personal reactions to their reading experience combined with brief criticism of the book's literary failings. These are not unreasonable responses, just not that useful. I want them to respond better to literary reading.

Now, to be fair, I am encouraging my students to be personal in their blogging style, and I also want them to feel comfortable posting informally -- especially about their reading. And if they post a review from to their Goodreads account, it seems perfectly reasonable that they write a short, candid, personally-oriented response to a novel, with a dollop of aesthetic critique for good measure.

But I had hoped for so much more.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Bloggers Setting Sail

flickr - Talba in Iceland (creative commons licensed)

Already we are boldly launched upon the deep; but soon we shall be lost in its unshored, harborless immensities--Melville, Moby Dick, Chap. 32, "Cetology"

In assigning my students to blog, rather than to write traditional research papers, I have launched them into an ocean of possibility with more hope than certainty.  Will these untried vessels of communication be adequate for the "harborless immensities" that await them in the cyber-sea? And now, one third of the way into our time together, we have lost sight of shore and I am taking stock. Are our blogs a leaky fleet, or are they making sail toward real destinations?

I see a few bloggers starting to take off, raising their sails into the wind. How does this happen? 

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Why Tagging Matters

You should be adding tags to any content that you post online. What are tags? They are labels or keywords -- words or short descriptive phrases that can be inserted to accompany a blog post, or an image, or a video, or a social bookmark, or a review, or pretty much anything you post online.

Why does tagging matter? I will explain this in terms of each of the three basic principles of digital literacy: consume, create, and connect:

Authentic Projects

I am urging my Writing about Literature in the Digital Age students to think through possible final projects for our course. They are not writing traditional research papers, and even though they are doing their writing principally through their individual blogs, I have challenged them to come up with a project that is collaborative in nature, and that qualifies as authentic. The new media that we are using make it possible for us to connect not only to one another within the class, but to others beyond our classroom walls, and to the needs and interests of people and organizations that outlast our very temporary class.

What could such socially-mediated, digitally rich, writing-intensive, research-driven projects be? For whom could we make something of lasting value? Or for what group or organization? Let's use our collective intelligence to find the right subject and devise the right format for making a genuine contribution. To me, this is in step with ideals of service learning, life-long learning, and self-directed learning. We have the resources to make a difference and can organize ourselves to do so.

We've talked through a few ideas already, both in terms of content and in terms of format. Yesterday I had my students participate in a collaborative exercise in which all 17 of us simultaneously edited the same Google document, brainstorming mostly about the subject I proposed: "Evolving Format of the Book" (Here is a copy of the current state of the document -- I didn't want to link to the live copy since it will likely keep changing). It was a lot of fun, as students have mentioned in their posts (Ariel, "Taking Brainstorming to a Whole New Level"; Carlie, "Attention Teachers").

So, what about that proposed subject matter? And what would be the best format? The following are a few ideas in the works.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The "In-Process" Post Genre

As I was just telling a student, Nyssa Silvester, blog posts don't have to be opinion pieces, arguments, or finished pieces of thought. They can be a way of publicly drafting one's ideas while in the formative stages.  I'd like to call this genre of blog post the "in-process" post, and I want to encourage my students to try it.

Why create an "in-process" post? Well, there is always the possibility that others will chime in on your idea development. Here is an example of an in-process post from another course I taught. Brooke Knutson talked through her research ideas, and another student, Janelle McCune, gave constructive feedback on Brooke's research direction through a good comment.

Romeo and Juliet in the mall. Flash mob
organized by Whitney Call
There is also a long term value to in-process posts. They demonstrate to others your active thinking, and across your blog, they could see how you develop ideas or complete projects. For example, another prior student, Whitney Call, came up with the idea (from a classmate) to do a Shakespeare flash mob at the mall. She posted about the potential flash mob. Then, over the course of weeks, the event was organized, executed, recorded, and posted about. Whitney used the tag or label "flash mob" so you can browse through her whole process just by clicking on that link. If you scroll to the bottom and work your way up, you can see Whitney's whole process of going from a random idea to a concluded event that was meaningful to many people. Can you see how her in-process updates about the flash mob are valuable? They model to others how to organize such a project, and they tell people about Whitney: she can come up with and execute interesting ideas.

But how about the value of the "in-process" post in the short term? And what kinds of things could go into such a post?

Monday, May 9, 2011

Connecting with Books in the Digital Age

Today I taught my students about nontraditional (non-scholarly) ways of looking up information about books -- especially ways that connect them socially with other people. Here's a recap of some of these sources:
  1. Goodreads
    Goodreads has reviews of books, lists of books (via Listopia), and a variety of ways of connecting with other readers through its social network. 
  2. Amazon
    Amazon provides not just a way to buy books, but to find books, get recommendations based on similar books, find or post reviews, and to create wishlists that can be public and thematically related.
  3. Google Books
    Google Books provides a way to search inside of books, find reviews of books, find related books, etc. One can also add books to one's Google library (essentially bookmarking books). Of course, you can also buy books through this service.
  4. Google Blog Search / Icerocket / Technorati
    These are three different blog search engines to find out who is talking about specific books within the blogosphere.
  5. Diigo
    One can also find discussion about books by searching social bookmarking systems like Diigo. Diigo also has a groups community, allowing one to join communities who are actively researching and bookmarking on a desired topic.
  6. Slideshare / Prezi
    These are both presentation archives with social components. It's a good place to find recent and current presentations people have prepared on all kinds of topics, including books.
  7. Open Educational Resources: OER Commons / MIT OpenCourseWare / Connexions
    There are amazing, freely available collections of online courses or course syllabi. These are often great ways to find out a context in which certain books are being discussed or used, especially currently or recently.
  8. Twitter Search
    Find current comments about books or authors through straight searches or hashtag searches

The Self-Directed Student of Literature

I recently completed listening to the audiobook version of a biography of Isaac Newton by James Gleick. I was both impressed and disappointed over Newton's life and his tactics. On the one hand, he exemplified the life of an autodidact, someone who taught himself and was continuously engaged in attentive learning. On the other, he often delayed publishing his work, or worked in secrecy, paying too much attention to issues of prestige and academic politics.

But I'm glad I read / listened to the book, and this has spurred me on to read other books both about the Enlightenment and books by James Gleick. Recommended by a friend, Gleick's The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood is now on my to-read list. I have lots of books on that list, and I face the same problem described by Ben Wagner, that my lists of things to read grow much more quickly than my capacity to read them. (This all started because of a post by Nyssa Silvester in response to an NPR piece about never being able to read everything that you want to.)

So, does an institution direct your reading of literature, or do you?

Friday, May 6, 2011

Consume to Create

I'm trying to teach my students both good habits for consuming content (such as effectively using Google Reader), as well as to understand the importance of creating content regularly. I think something that will help here is to think in terms of consuming in order to create.

This is actually something that was done long ago in the Renaissance. It was the sort of habit that led to literary greats like Shakespeare and Milton. People in that period were eagerly consuming all of the newly rediscovered works of classical literature that were coming out through the new medium of the printing press. But the way that they learned to read was to do so precisely so that they could then use that reading to speak or to write. (In fact, they did a lot of imitation exercises that really made a close connection between the acts of reading and writing.)

As my students struggle to follow my direction to create content daily, they should really think of this as a habit to accompany their media and information consumption. There are great benefits to combining CONSUME and CREATE in this way. For one thing, it helps you to filter your information and media sources; it gives a purpose to consumption that makes it less random. It can also temper our media hunger, which can be insatiable. If I am in the habit of posting content regularly, I have to get out of the passive, lurker mode of taking things in, and change gears into the active, creative mode of posting and publishing.

Here are some examples of consume-to-create:

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Critical Content: Your Online Profiles

Flickr - IDream_in_Infrared (creative commons licensed)
Perhaps the most important content you can create today is you.

That's right. You've got to represent yourself -- that is, if you want to be taken seriously in the digital age. You can either not attend to this, and let people find what they will when they search for you online (and believe me, they will!); or, you can manage your online identity and build it into something that creates real opportunities.

So, start with managing your online profiles.

An online profile is a place where you can formally introduce who you are, what you do, your interests, social connections, and content streams. I suggest managing at least three such profiles, beginning with those that will be most visible and useful -- profiles on Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn, and your blog profile:

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Are you engaged?

No, not that kind of engaged. I mean are you engaged in meaningful learning, sharing, and interacting? These are reasons to learn and use certain digital tools: they can increase our ability to do all of these. Of course, being an "engaged" student does not require anything electronic. The video I've embedded shows a prior student, Ashley, who has been out in the fields with women in India, engaged very meaningfully in their lives through a field study research project.

I am battling with how to figure out ways to get my students truly engaged -- and not just in special circumstances like studying abroad. I want them to buy in to what they are learning, take charge of their education, not be told what to do, and to take on meaningful projects that aren't dictated to them.

But there is opposition -- lots of it.

We are fighting against entrenched habits from an older paradigm of learning -- one that is based upon learning as a largely isolated affair (when it is now both possible and preferable to be learning collaboratively and interactively).

We are fighting the inertia of students not being expected to demonstrate their learning except through formal knowledge products (such as research papers) or formal evaluations (exams and grades).

We are also fighting the near universal acceptance of school being insulated. Apparently, schooling is legit only if it keeps students in controlled environments, far from active, authentic engagement beyond the classroom walls.

Use Google Reader to Consume Efficiently

Google Reader
One of the principles of digital literacy is learning to consume information intelligently. That means finding worthwhile sources and effectively filtering; it means structuring and channeling sources so they can be readily accessed or found later.

Enter Google Reader.

Google Reader (available to anyone with a Gmail or Google account by just going to is a feed aggregator.

It's a what?

Yes, a feed aggregator. That means it can collect designated information streams and bundle these together for efficient browsing, reading, and research.  Too many people either rely on destination sites to pull sets of information together (like newspapers or major media outlets). Or, they have a set of favorite sites or blogs which they make the rounds to (when they remember to do so). Google Reader (as other aggregators) makes it possible to be highly selective in one's information sources, and to have this richer stream pushed to you automatically and across different devices and platforms. There are social benefits, too, that I will get to.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Constant Content

First, watch my helmet-camera view of taking some ski jumps up at Snowbird for 30 seconds:

Now my question to you: Have you noticed how constantly you are creating content?

Maybe you don't think of all those status updates, text messages, pictures or videos you've put online as "content." But that's what they are. Or when you comment on others' blog posts or "like" something on Facebook. All that is you, a content creator, constantly contributing your ideas, feedback, and media.

It's so casual, so informal, that it doesn't seem to be all that important. But it is! Just think about how much credit you give to what others say and do through the new media. And of course, you've heard all the horror stories about people who are careless in what they post online. (Did you hear about that UCLA student that got expelled for her racist video complaining about Asians?). Hopefully you are being careful about not posting things that would embarrass you. But are you giving enough thought to posting content that will be to your credit?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Traditional Literary Study Breaks Down in the Digital Age

As an English professor who has been teaching students the analysis of literary works for a couple of decades, I am very interested in the process of reading. I value books of all kinds, but especially works of a more literary nature, and I have a real investment in using (and teaching) ways of reading that are substantial. We literary types are all about close, careful readings. We teach literary theories that help to plumb the depths of content, and we comb carefully through the formal qualities that give works clarity and aesthetic texture.

That's all for the good, but the way that literature is taught in the traditional classroom is breaking down in the digital age. What's served generations well is not serving the present generation. I'd like to shine the spotlight on these weaknesses by talking here about typical classroom practice for literary studies.

In classroom practice, we literature professors follow a very established pattern: we assign lengthy readings that require intense discipline on the part of our students (merely to complete the reading assignments); then, we assign formal essays that require the application of literary theories and methods of formal analysis. As our students create arguments about the literary works they study, they acquire a valued kind of literacy that we hope is a transferable skill beyond merely saying something about Shakespeare.

I'd like to analyze this from the point of view of CONSUME, CREATE, and CONNECT, the three principles I believe we need to understand for digital literacy today.