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.
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.
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.
Diigo (social bookmarking)
Social bookmarking proved a great way to get students both consuming and sharing content relative to their individual research projects and our general interests as a class. We bookmarked independently, but contributed relevant bookmarks to a group on Diigo ("Writing about Literature in the Digital Age") and generated over 300 bookmarks during the term, each tagged for public searching. This was one method through which students documented their research. As they annotated and tagged sources, it gave a good sense of their developing research interests. Students also turned to Diigo for social discovery, looking for groups and individuals currently engaged in bookmarking and discussing topics similar to their own.
Electronic Book Formats
I required students to read at least one of the texts for this term in an electronic format of some kind. Some read eBooks from their desktop computers (see Aly Rutter's post). Others read from their Kindle devices (see Annie Ostler's post). One student, Carlie Wallentine, read Charlotte's Web in multiple formats, including via a video game version of the book. She ended up addressing the issue of multiple formats in the chapter she produced for our eBook, asking the question of what constitutes a primary text in the digital age. As eBooks continue their rapid adoption and evolution, I think having students use and reflect upon these formats as a critical part of being critics of literature in the digital age.
This social book site proved a treasure trove for English majors. First, I encouraged them to get an account and begin to set up virtual bookshelves of what they have read, are reading, or whatever other categories they wished to create. Many of the students used a Goodreads widget to represent on their blogs one of their bookshelves. This also became a place where students could conduct more authentic literary criticism in the form of reviews of their books (and ratings) that would be available online for others to read and profit from. Of course, as they began to research their individually chosen works of literature, Goodreads became a place where they could find not just reviews but reviewers of the works they were studying, enabling social discovery of a ver productive kind. One of the students, Ashley Lewis, contacted the people at Goodreads and found that we could in fact publish our eBook for download there, which we have now done.
I did not require the use of Twitter, since the learning curve is already high for students with all the new tools they are using, but several students were already users or started using it academically on their own. Their success and enthusiasm has convinced me to get students to try it that haven't yet. Ashley Lewis tells about how significant Twitter was for her social / academic research. Ben Wagner tells about how Twitter has become his primary communication and information tool.
This does not cover everything, but much of what we did comes across in the chapters of our eBook for those interested.