Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Varieties of Connecting

As my students know, I'm constantly trying to drive home how critical it is to connect, and that this is perhaps the most critical element in the digital literacy triad of consume/create/connect -- or at least, that it represents the strongest departure from print-based literacy with its isolated modes of thinking, pseudo-audiences, and delayed distribution.

So I'm thinking a lot about connecting, watching my students work through these concepts, and trying it out myself in various ways. The tricky thing here is that in the digital age, much of the casual and informal connecting that we take for granted in social settings is extremely important. To succeed with more professional or academic kinds of connecting, we have to be more observant about social connecting generally (and sometimes independent of things digital). One area of connecting that I have found important is to think of media or content as a pretext for social interaction. I've talked about this previously in a post ("Consume to create"). It's the sort of thing I'm watching happen among my family right now while we are driving across the country.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Term in Review: Spring, 2011

Another whirlwind experiment in teaching advanced writing has just concluded. Whew! It was invigorating. I've just completed teaching English 295, Writing about Literature in the Digital Age, at Brigham Young University (during May-June, 2011). Wanting to be true to my own principles about iteration and reflection, I'm setting down my observations here.

Academic blogs
Each student kept a research blog (here is the index). We used the blogger platform (with one exception), and this was more than adequate for new bloggers, which most of the students were. Beyond setup and platform-specific help, the students required instruction in blog rhetoric -- basic matters such as the frequency, length, and tone for blog posts. I urged them to draft publicly, to include a full record of their research and thinking, interspersed with matters of personal interest. The informal nature of the blogging, plus the regularity and brevity of the posts, combined with the way this accomodated interaction among them, between them and the instructor, and with the world at large -- made a huge difference in their concept of what writing is today, and in their idea of how literature can be relevant beyond the classroom to many diverse audiences.

eBook project
Together we created an eBook, Writing About Literature in the Digital Age. This was a great success. Students each contributed a chapter, derived from their research blogs. We divided into teams (editing, design, publishing, visual art, marketing, and education teams) and formally launched the eBook on June 15th. We skinned our knees a bit, but it met my goal of being an authentic project. It addresses current and important issues about the study of literature today, and it was published and marketed to people who were selected because students had researched the relevance of our content to those potential readers.

Using LearnCentral.org's platform for hosting free educational webinars, we conducted a webinar as our final exam, with each student briefly presenting about his/her chapter in the finished eBook, and then the various teams reporting on their aspect of creating the book. About 32 people attended (half being our students), and the chat stream was very lively as students interacted among themselves and with the diverse guests who attended. Now that it's been done once, we'll know now to schedule the webinar earlier so that it can be publicized along with LearnCentral's other free educational webinars to a large list of educators. Taylor Gilbert was the student who organized and moderated the webinar very successfully. I've embedded a one-minute video clip showing us in action during the webinar.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Webinar Invitation: Writing About Literature in the Digital Age

Please join us for the launch of Writing About Literature in the Digital Age at a free webinar taking place Wednesday, June 15th, 2011 from 5:30-6:30pm MDT (you can sign in using LearnCentral's site, or simply click here at that time).

Writing about Literature in the Digital Age is a free eBook by students at Brigham Young University who are pushing boundaries of traditional literary study to explore the benefits of digital tools in academic writing. This collaborative effort is a case study of how electronic text formats and blogging can be effectively used to explore literary works, develop one’s thinking publicly, and research socially. Students used literary works to read the emerging digital environment while simultaneously using new media to connect them with authentic issues and audiences beyond the classroom. As literacy and literature continue their rapid evolution, accounts like these from early explorers give teachers and students of literature fresh reference points for the literary-digital future.

The table of contents for Writing About Literature in the Digital Age can be browsed here.

During the webinar, we invite you to hear the authors discuss their work and the making of their eBook. You will be able to download your free copy of Writing About Literature in the Digital Age during or following the webinar launch on June 15th, 2011.

Contributors: Alymarie Rutter, Amy Whitaker, Annie Ostler, Ariel Letts, Ashley Lewis, Ashley Nelson, Ben Wagner, Bri Zabriskie, Carlie Wallentine, Derrick Clements, James Matthews, Matt Harrison, Nyssa Silvester, Rachael Schiel, Sam McGrath, Taylor Gilbert, and Gideon Burton.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Marketing our Writing eBook

Today went great. We are now getting lined up to launch into the marketing of the eBook, which is only hours away from getting published.

My students did a crowdsourced editing of the galley proofs for Writing About Literature in the Digital Age today. We actually used paper for the first time all term, with two copies for each piece getting read by the author's and by fresh eyes. The design team entered the edits as fast as the papers were handed to them. It took just over an hour.

Meanwhile, our publishing team (Bri Zabriskie and Derrick Clements) pinned down the details on how and where we can post our eBook for distribution. To our disappointment, it appears our free, creative commons-licensed eBook is not welcome on the Kindle store at Amazon (though it can still be downloaded and read on Kindle devices). Should we have really expected a commercial enterprise to allow us free distribution of a free book? Bri gives details about each of the outlets she and Derrick researched on her blog. Importantly, Derrick got instructions from librarian Elizabeth Smart about how to archive our eBook in BYU's institutional repository, ScholarsArchive.

On to marketing...

I have long stated to my students how critical it is that we not simply complete our eBook, but that we make a good faith effort to get it into the hands of those who would find it valuable. So, in the last few days of our term, marketing is our focus. This has two components: 1) advertising the eBook through an email campaign; and 2) showcasing our eBook in a free webinar.

eBook galleys and finalizing for our webinar

What a weekend!

I was burning the midnight oil in order to complete my chapter for Writing about Literature in the Digital Age. Found an awesome illustration project on Moby Dick with great images I'd love to draw from for my chapter. Hours after sending the request to use his Moby Dick illustration, Matt Kish gave enthusiastic permission. Cool!

The editing and design teams worked pretty much through the weekend doing copyediting and formatting each chapter into inDesign.

Design team Ben Wagner, Annie Ostler, and Sam McGrath

What's left? Today's class agenda:

  • Crowdsourced / group edit of eBook galley proofs (editing team, design team)
  • Finalize marketing list on wiki for eBook and webinar (all)
  • Write category-specific email invitations for eBook/webinar (marketing team)
  • Presentation from publishing/distribution team on how and where our epub will go out
  • Finalize archival copy of eBook for BYU's ScholarsArchive (publishing/distribution team)
  • Prepare for Wednesday's webinar on Classroom 2.0, including how to participate, media to submit to presentation team, and how to advertise to invitees and social graph (Taylor Gilbert), 
  • Final two blog posts
    • Narrative of eBook collaborative work (what did your team do, what tools did you use, how did this coordinate with the overall effort, what went well or could go better?)
    • How did you / we meet the stated learning outcomes for the course?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Taking Our eBook to its Audience

Now that my students' chapters for Writing About Literature in the Digital Age are completed and submitted to our editing team, we are concentrating on making our project anything but an academic exercise; I've asked students to identify specific people who might find our eBook of value. That's right, this isn't going to be a launch into the void; we're going to take our eBook to its audience.

I'd like to formalize this audience discovery process into an assignment for my students, and then give them a number of starting points. As I tried to convey to them yesterday in class -- this is where things can really become a lot of fun. Why? Because when you connect people and content -- meaningfully, not spammily, that's when the sparks start to fly. (Did I, an English professor, just turn spam into an adverb? I think I did!)

Using this "Potential Readers" page in our eBook/course wiki, record the names and contact info for 20 people. Important note: names will not be used if you do not provide a legit rationale for why that potential reader might find value in this eBook. We are not spamming the Interent with our intellectual work; we are targeting people who could truly find this of value. I think some of my students will choke at the idea of finding 20 people, but I hope they will think differently after reading through my many suggestions for finding appropriate potential readers:

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Webinar: Because Digital Writing Matters

Just as I'm urging my students to find ways to reach out and connect with others who are dealing with writing and literature online, I got an email from Classroom 2.0 announcing this event, a webinar with Troy Hicks, author of Because Digital Writing Matters.
I'm hoping many of my students will be able to attend: 
  • for the content (which is right in line with our course on Writing about Literature in the Digital Age); 
  • for the chance to mingle online with other students and teachers who are likely to attend (for networking purposes); and 
  • for experiencing the webinar format so that they will consider sharing their own content through such a means.

I told my students yesterday about LearnCentral's educator network and how they make it possible for people to organize, for free, their own webinars. Would they like to host a webinar featuring the content of our eBook? I think that would serve as a wonderful wrap-up event for our class and a great way to launch our free eBook. Marketing team, how about it?

Anyway, if we participate in the upcoming webinar on digital writing it will help us several ways at once.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Beyond Just Content: Making our Literary eBook Matter

One of the problems of a traditional literary education is that it puts such a high value on private, introspective reading and enjoyment that the idea of actually communicating one's thoughts about a book seem very secondary. This is reinforced within traditional academic settings, ironically, when students of literature think and write critically about a text, but do not think as critically about their current context. In short, one is taught to analyze and make claims about literature, but one is not taught to connect this analyzing or persuading to real audiences.

"Literature is equipment for living," said Kenneth Burke, a dictum I often repeat to my students, and which I believe is all the moer applicable in the digital age. The works of literature my students are reading truly are vehicles for understanding and coping with their present world, and not simply escapes from that world into a place of fantasy or academic philosophizing.

But old habits are hard to break. What I realize now is that we should have been marketing our eBook even before we hatched it. That may sound backwards, but I now think we should have done more market research to really know who it is that cares about our topics. But we will do the best we can now, with one week to go before our launch date.

The heat is on: Finalizing eBook content

My students are finalizing their chapters for the eBook we are creating, "Writing About Literature in the Digital Age." Nothing like a hard deadline to get us all motivated. We've given ourselves one short week to complete the formatting and other details, so content needs to be finalized for the final stages to come into play.

Realistically, not all of my students' chapters are going to be publishable today. But I've read enough of their drafts on their blogs to know that some will be ready, and others will be very close. We may have to go to a staggered model, feeding the most ready chapters to our editing team while the stragglers hurry up. There's little time to waste, since we all have other duties related to the eBook's success that we must attend to in the week remaining.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Call Me Gideon: Being Literary and Personal

Perhaps the strongest difference between traditional writing about literature and how communication works in the digital age has to do with the personal. Traditionally, the focus is upon the literary work, upon the argument, and not upon the critic. Self reference is frowned upon, not to mention any hint of personal biography. This is how students have been taught to write about literature -- objectively, through analysis, research, and persuasive interpretation, not subjectively and personally. Let me read your thesis statement, not your diary.

Okay, here's my claim: In the digital age, discussion about literature is less meaningful the less personal it is. But I think you will be  more interested in my uncle, Wayne Omer.

That's him in the photo, next to another uncle, Andy Childs. Uncle Wayne is pointing with his cane (made from a tree in his yard that I regularly climbed with my cousins when I was young, eating green apples until we were sick). Surrounding my two uncles are my wife, sister-in-law, brother, cousin, and others that travel in a caravan each Memorial Day to family grave sites around Salt Lake City.

Uncle Wayne is the family storyteller, the bard. This time he told those in earshot about John Sutherland, whose grave is my next picture. John was a sailor and a convert to the Mormon faith from the Shetland Isles, far north in Great Britain. He was shipwrecked outside of Boston before meeting up with his fiancee and traveling to Utah.

"You know, John's father, Gilbert Sutherland," Wayne told us, "was a harpooner on a whaling ship."

A harpooner on a whaling ship? One of my great grandfathers?

"Oh yes, he went to sea as a young boy."

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Timeline and Assignments for eBook Project

Yesterday was an important class period in English 295. We made some concrete plans regarding individual contributions for our eBook project. Those absent might wish to download and listen to the recording from yesterday's class, here.

I'm meeting with individual students to review their chapters on Thursday and Friday, June 2-3.

  • Friday, 6/3/11 - First draft of individual chapters posted to individual blogs. (We will be responding to these in class on Friday)
  • Monday, 6/6/11 - Second draft of individual chapters (based upon responses received on Friday)
  • Wednesday, 6/8/11 - Final draft of individual chapter due (to be delivered to the editing team so they have time to edit)
  • Friday, 6/10/11 - Focus on targeting audiences for the eBook
  • Monday, 6/13/11 - Last day of class (details TBA)
  • Wednesday, 6/15/11 - Final Exam - presentation about the final eBook (details TBA)
Requirements for individual chapters:
  1. Primary Text
    Your literary text must figure centrally in your contribution. You must analyze portions of the text using traditional close reading / formalist analysis
  2. Secondary Texts
    You must include at least one traditional scholarly source as well as an online / non-traditional outside source either in analyzing your primary text or in helping you with the third requirement about digital culture.
  3. Relevance to writing about literature in the digital age
    Your chapter must be written in such a way that you are making a larger point about how literature is read, researched, and written about in the digital age (in order to make your own contribution relate to all the others).
  4. Specific claim
    Your chapter must take a stance, making a claim that will engage and divide an educated audience.
  5. Personal
    You need to give some kind of narrative of your process that communicates your personal interest and your personality.
  6. Length
    We are shooting for about 700 words per person, so it will require concision and focus in order to meet all of the above criteria in this limited length (comparable to 3-4 double-spaced printed pages). We may change this but not for our first drafts.
I recommend that you review your past posts in order to leverage work you have already done that contributes to meeting the above criteria.

Each student will also be put onto a production team for the collaborative project. So far, these are the teams and their members:
  • Design Team (Annie Ostler, Ben Wagner, Sam McGrath)
    This team will test the viability of publishing to the epub format using Adobe InDesign and will make formatting recommendations
  • Visual / Art Team (Rachael Schiel)
    This team will find/create/prepare/propose/finalize the eBook cover art and oversee any other visual art elements, cooperating with the design team and individual authors as needed.
  • Editing Team (Nyssa Silvester and Ashley Nelson)
    This team will copyedit the assembled chapters, pin down our style guide, and edit for adherence to that guide)
  • Publishing Team (Bri Zabriskie, Derrick Clements)
    This team will take the edited epub file and get it properly submitted with metadata, etc. to the various outlets (Amazon, etc.)
  • Outreach / Marketing Team
    This team will make a plan for disseminating word about our publication to appropriate audiences, drawing upon group suggestions and target markets we identify together.
  • Teaching / Learning Team (Ashley Lewis, Amy Whitaker, Carlie Wallentine)
    This team will focus specifically on the utility of the eBook for educational purposes and for eLearning and will find and propose specific uses of this book, in coordination with the outreach / marketing team.
Students not yet assigned to a team:
  • James Matthews
  • Ariel Letts
  • Aly Rutter
  • Taylor Gilbert
  • Matt Harrison

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

eBook investigation

Since we last met as a class to discuss our eBook project, individual class members have been doing research on various aspects of it: