Archive for teaching

Wednesday Links

Social media, film, and other topics I’ve been following over the last few days:

  • Via Tama Leaver, a New York Times article on Wikipedia’s efforts to increase the percentage of female contributors to the website.  Currently, only about 13% of the contributions are by women, while the average age of contributors was in the mid-20s.  There is some interesting food for thought here when it comes to how knowledge is constructed within Wikipedia (and perhaps the web more broadly).  I’m in the process of starting up my (slightly updated) composition students’ Wikipedia project, and this article might provide good discussion material.
  • Tama also points to an article reporting that Google has created a device that allows people to post tweets by making a telephone call in response to the internet blockade in Egypt.  Like a lot of people, I’m reluctant, at best, to ascribe the events in Egypt to social media, but I do think that social media tools might allow people to organize more efficiently, and they can also make these events visible in different ways.
  • In honor (?) of the Oscar nomination for Banksy’s documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop, street artist Mister Brainwash (who was, in some sense, the subject of the film) has created a somewhat perplexing street mural.  I only wish MBW had gotten around to this a month ago when I was writing an article on fan adaptations and activism.
  • The Self-Styled Siren is hosting a film noir blogathon later this month.  Given that I’ll be teaching an early noir, The Maltese Falcon, for the first time in several years (I usually do The Third Man), I’m hoping to participate.  The blogathon is linked to a fundraiser designed to solicit donations for the Film Noir Foundation to go toward their film preservation efforts.
  • Lots of discussion about Amazon’s plans to offer a streaming video service linked to their Amazon Prime membership.  For $79 a year, not only do you get free shipping on all Amazon products, you also get free streaming videos.  This would complement Amazon’s existing streaming video-on-demand service and seems to represent a logical step after the online bookseller purchased the UK-based LoveFilm recently.  It will be interesting to see how Amazon functions as a competitor for Netflix, but as New Tee Vee points out, this could also encourage people to buy more stuff through Amazon thanks to their “Prime” membership.
  • I think I found this via Girish, but it’s worth noting that Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism has a very cool new online launch.  Girish also points to Cinema Scope’s new online presence.
  • Finally, New Tee Vee also has an article discussing BBC research on how to improve online video recommendations.  Interestingly, they found that older viewers were more likely to vote on videos.


Waiting for Superman

Several days after watching it, I’m still mulling Davis Guggenheim’s documentary, Waiting for Superman (IMDB), in which we are presented a number of claims explaining why our educational system is failing.  We are presented with apathetic teachers who casually read newspapers while students play a game of craps in the back of the classroom.  We are told that these apathetic teachers are protected by teachers unions and a tenure system that discourages innovative classroom performance.  After all, why do anything to improve student performance when you will not be rewarded with merit pay?  And we are told that students will be conditioned to do the bare minimum to get by, unless they are challenged to do more.  We get some righteous indignation from activists and teaching executives such as Geoffrey Canada and Michelle Rhee, the latter of whom took on DC’s teachers unions. We are also presented with some of the most emotionally staggering images I’ve seen in some time as five students, of a variety of backgrounds and ages, wait to see if their name is selected in the lotteries designed to choose who will attend local charter schools.  All of this is grounded in Davis Guggenheim’s own experience both as a parent and as someone invested in improving (and supporting) public education.  Guggenheim even cites his past documentary work on public education, The First Year, which documents the experiences of five public school teachers.

However, despite the film’s alignment with Participant Productions, a movie producer that mixes films and activism, it is unclear to me after seeing the film what kind of response Superman is seeking to elicit. The website offers several actions that participants can take, including writing their local school boards to demand “better teachers,” while supplementing the film with statistical information about dropout and college attendance rates for individual states.  It also offers other forms of activism or involvement ranging from seeing the film (done that!) to attending school board meetings.  But within the film itself, we are presented with some pretty clear heroes and villains, as innovative educators are pitched against teachers unions in a struggle over how children will be educated.  As a result, Waiting for Superman has been embraced by a number of conservative bloggers and critics, as Patrick Goldstein documents.  Unfortunately, many of the films claims are misguided, at best, as Dana Goldstein of The Nation points out, listing off unionized school districts that do quite well in educating students, while pointing out that four out of five charter schools are no better than the public schools in their neighborhood.  I think it also gives a pass to some of the more harmful attempts to politicize education, most notably the introduction of intelligent design as an “alternative” to evolution in some science classes.

What seems significant about the film is that it seems to falter when describing the innovations that could be introduced to the classroom to improve student performance.  We see one teacher who makes learning fun by turning multiplication tables into a rap, but for the most part, actual classrooms are less prominent than the talking heads seeking to fix them.  At the same time, we are introduced to five children struggling to get a good education, including Daisy, a Latina girl who dreams of becoming a doctor or veterinarian, to help people.  We also get single mothers and grandmothers struggling to help their children get into a good college.  All of them seem to be banking on their local charter school lotteries, which amount to exercises in emotional cruelty, despite what appear to be their creators’ best intentions.  The five families wait, usually in crowded gymnasiums, watching and waiting for their number or name to be drawn, giving them a ticket to a better school, and presumably, a better life.  It’s implied that if Daisy doesn’t beat the odds–her chances of getting into the charter school are pinned at 1 in 20–she’ll face insurmountable odds in her dreams of attending medical school (a similar practice is depicted in the documentary, The Lottery).  Although Superman seems to imply that all five of these students–and others like them–all deserve the best education possible, I don’t think the film is critical enough of the charter schools themselves for offering this fantasy of escape in such a public format.

There are some things in the film that seem perfectly on target.  Canada’s anecdote about his childhood wish that Superman would come along and eliminate the slums and fix the broken schools in his neighborhood.  It’s a useful reminder that there is no Superman, but that the work of countless individual teachers, parents, executives, and students is needed to make a difference.  The film also argues for higher standards, for challenging students to improve, a position I essentially share.  In too many places, however, the film seemed to be offering reductive answers to complex problems.  I think it avoids the worst excesses of some anti-youth screeds–all of the five children depicted in the film are clearly very bright and ambitious–but by reducing its picture of public schools into something of a stereotype, it does a serious disservice to the work of countless public school teachers who are making a sincere effort to educate today’s students.  It also avoids addressing how we can truly engage students every day in order to instill the pleasures of learning (while also cultivating a better understanding of what we mean by learning).

Update: Via Craig Phillips on Twitter, a pointer to secondary education professor Mark Phillips’ column on Waiting for Superman.  For the most part, Phillips’ comments echo my own, but his post reminded me of another scene that bothered me that I’d forgotten about.  It’s an animated video showing a teacher pouring knowledge into students’ heads, until he/she reaches one unfortunate student for whom the teacher misses the hole, allowing knowledge to spill out all over the student’s desk.  It’s an oddly old-fashioned depiction of (rote) learning, one that Paulo Freire, in a slightly different context, would have called the “banking concept” of education.  Learning as a transaction.  Knowledge can be dumped into our heads, in much the same way that Neo is programmed to learn kung fu in The Matrix.  It’s a highly flawed view of how learning works.  Phillips adds a number of useful observations about how Guggenheim’s film simplifies a much more complex set of practices, so it’s well worth checking out his entire evaluation of the film.


Wikipedia Project 2.0

I’ve decided to revisit the Wikipedia Project I used last fall in my English 120 classes–but with a slight twist.  This time, as an alternative to asking students to evaluate a Wikipedia entry, I’ve also decided to allow enterprising students the opportunity to write their own entries, whether from scratch or from existing stubs that need to be developed.  I’d originally planned to update last year’s assignment, but when an ambitious student asked if he could revise or develop an existing, entry, I immediately said yes.  For those students–and at least 3-4 seem likely to pursue this approach–I have sent them to the Wikipedia Guidelines page for student projects.  It’s a pretty welcoming page and seems to support the general thesis about Wikipedia: that the aggregate contributions of the collective are more crucial than those of any one individual.

Students can still do a variation of the project I assigned last year, which requires them to assess the usefulness of Wikipedia as a resource.  This time, in addition to requiring them to cite sections of the discussion page for a typical Wikipedia entry, I am also requiring that they cite an alternative secondary source on the same topic in order to compare the aims and goals of a typical Wikipedia entry with those of other resources.  I’ve also decided to continue to require that students cite at least one secondary source about Wikipedia in order to engage with some of the existing debates about the website and its place within information culture.  My only concern about this version of the project is that it risks becoming a little too formulaic, but I’m hopeful that it will allow them to think through some of the questions about information literacy that we have been confronting for some time.

It’s also worth checking out all of the new projects that have been added to the Wikipedia Sudent project page, in particular, a University of Maryland project that sounds fairly similar to mine.

Update: I’ve just had a “duh!” moment when it comes to encouraging students to share resources about Wikipedia.  Since all students are required to cite at least one secondary source on Wikipedia, I have offered them credit for going out and compiling sources that could be collected in a class bibliography.  If their bibliography proves to be extensive enough, I’ll post it in an appropriate location.


Monday Links: e-books, Facebook, Hitchcock, and More

Here are some the things I’ve been reading, watching, and thinking about this morning:

  • First, Inside Higher Ed has an interesting discussion of Daytona State College’s plan to convert to a textbook system based entirely around e-books.  There are obviously some benefits here: no more heavy books, cheaper textbook prices, and more profits for publishers.  The campus bookstore would–at least in the short run–appear to be the biggest loser, financially.  I’m still ambivalent about e-book readers, in part because I appreciate the tangibility and permanence of physical books, but this is an interesting experiment, especially given that most students essentially rent their textbooks at a prohibitively high cost.
  • On a related note, Kairos News has been exploring questions about why open-source textbooks appear to be struggling to catch on.  Part of the problem, of course, has been that these open source projects, fairly or not, are perceived as vanity projects.  I can imagine that many tenure committees would look with skepticism at the open-source model, so there is probably a need for some form of institutional change and continued education from open-source advocates.
  • Continuing with the education theme, Catherine at Film Studies for Free (one of the best open-access models out there) provides a pointer to yet another wonderful tool for the Introduction to Film classroom: Majestic Micro Movies’s video primers on film aesthetics.  Catherine cites four videos dealing with topics such as deep focus, shallow focus, tracking, and short-reverse-shot.  They’re witty, fun, and provide some context for why these techniques are often hotly debated.  Their YouTube and Facebook pages are great resources for students and teachers of film.
  • More classroom stuff: The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that a recent study published in the Journal of College Student Retention has concluded that frequent Facebook users are more likely to stay in school and shows that students who have more friends on Facebook are more likely to return for their sophomore years.  Because the study is based on a survey at a single university, Abilene Christian University, I’d like to see the results reproduced elsewhere before I put much stock in them.  Is a public HBCU or regional state university going to be different than a private, religious institution?  A bigger question might be causation versus correlation. Perhaps the networked students are already disposed toward returning to school and Facebook is simply an expression of that.
  • Tama Leaver points to an Economist article on “the future of the internet.”  Like Tama, I appreciate the article’s acknowledgement that the internet seems to be continuing its fragmentation into various “walled gardens,” many of them highly profitable, as well as the discussion of the ongoing attempts to create tiered internet provision (different levels of internet service for different prices), moves that the author characterizes as a virtual “counter-revolution.”
  • The journal Off Screen devotes its most recent issue to internet-based film criticism. Especially noteworthy: Paul Salmon’s “A Film Prof at the Cineplex.”
  • Finally, Christine Becker links to David Carr’s article arguing that there is “too much” TV out there.  A couple of key quotes: “Our ability to produce media has outstripped our ability to consume it. The average photograph now gets looked at less than once simply because there is almost zero cost and effort to producing one.”  And perhaps more crucially: “We don’t watch TV anymore as much as it seems to watch us, recommending, recording and dishing up all manner of worthy product.”  Database TV seems to hold out the prospects of unlimited choice, and yet, as Carr suggests, recommendation algorithms, DVRs, and other tools have become more adept at assessing tastes, analyzing us and, in some sense, choosing what we want to watch.

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Saturday Links

Now that the semester is a little over a week old, things have settled down a bit, and hopefully I’ll have time to blog more consistently.  Here are some of the things I’ve been reading, watching, and thinking about over the last few days:

  • Jonathan Gray has been blogging about the job search process for academics in media studies.  Thankfully, I’m not on the market this year, but I think this would have been incredibly useful for me when I was a graduate student.  His most recent post explains the very long and protracted time line for most searches, a process that almost makes electing a president seem efficient.  He introduces the series here.
  • I’m becoming increasingly fascinated and amused by the story about the Academy of Motion Pictures awarding Jean Luc Godard an honorary Oscar, alongside of Francis Ford Coppola (among others).  First, it’s nice to see Hollywood reward the director behind such challenging work, even when that work has often positioned itself in stark opposition to the Hollywood system.  But now that the news is out, the Academy can’t seem to find Godard, who has yet to comment on the recognition.  I can’t really imagine him actually attending the Oscars but will enjoy seeing this story play out.
  • Ralph Macchio (and others, including Molly Ringwald and Micheal Lerner) have fun with Macchio’s nice guy image in this Funny or Die video.  The “intervention” scene at the beginning is especially clever.
  • Cinematical has the latest on YouTube’s experiments with delivery of full length motion pictures.  The latest: it appears they are making more of an effort to enter into the Hulu model of “free” access to ad-supported movies.
  • On a related note, Anthony Kaufman announces a series of articles that will address whether new modes of delivery can save the mid-level indie film.  As Kaufman points out, there are no easy answers here.
  • Via Chris Becker’s indispensable “News for TV Majors,” Judy Shapiro’s discussion of our “six-screen” future, as screens multiply beyond today’s TVs, PCs, and mobile screens.
  • Anne Thompson passes along the very cool announcement of the launch of SnagLearning, a platform of approximately 125 documentaries for classroom use at the middle and high school level.  On a quick scroll through, many of these films are well-tailored to students and worth reviewing for teachers and others interested in education.
  • Thompson also mentions two other links that may be of interest: a short documentary on the future of digital distribution from Game Industry TV and a discussion of the rise (in the visibility of?) of non-profit micro-cinemas.  Hoping to review both of these in the future for a longer post.

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Independent Film in the Classroom

Now that I am well over halfway through my summer, I’m starting to turn my attention back to the classroom.  Jessica King has an engaging post on teaching “independent film” in the classroom for Lance Weiler’s Workbook Project website.  Although she is primarily talking about her experiences in the high school classroom, her ideas certainly apply to college introductory film courses, as well, especially her discussions of how film courses fit into a more general curriculum and her reflection on what an introductory course in film studies ought to do.

King’s post is especially relevant for me because she addresses the fact that many film courses at the high school level are English electives and that the goals of an Intro to Film course–teaching film language and its effects–may be vastly different than a typical literature course.  She argues that

English teachers are often talented, enthusiastic people who LOVE literature, which means that they want to talk about themes and characters and feelings, but not about how a text creates meaning and establishes purpose. As a result, many teachers who end up in Film Studies teach film as an extension of literature, showcasing them as visual novels.

Although many of my students are often enthusiastic about my class and the films we discuss, I think that many of them enter the class with expectations similar to the ones described by King.  On one level, this isn’t a problem: it shows that our students are developing a methodology for reading, one that is shaped by other professors trained in literature.  But as King points out, an understanding of film language (and how it operates) can be worthwhile.

In many ways, her basic course structure echoes my own (here is an older version of my course), in that I offer a quick lecture on film history before turning to formal elements such as narrative, mise en scene, cinematography, and editing.  But as she moves on to make a case for teaching a unit on independent film, she offers what I find to be a refreshing take on how to tailor her film course for her audience, an urban Chicago audience, by arguing that her students rarely (if ever) see themselves in the characters or situations depicted on the big screen.  She then suggests a range of films–Ballast, Chop Shop, Amreeka, Raising Victor Vargas, Real Women Have Curves, Talk to Me, George Washington, and Waitress–that have succeeded in engaging her students.  I’ve been thinking about how to revamp my film course for a while now, especially during the second half of the semester when students have a basic grasp on film language00and I think King offers some useful suggestions.

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Re-Introducing Adaptation

Last fall when I taught my university’s Introduction to Literature course, I used a theme focused broadly on the issue of adaptation.  The goal was to provide the course with a “hook” that would help to frame a wide range of materials, both historically (from Sophocles to Sita Sings the Blues) and textually (poetry, plays, fiction, and film).  Now, I’m looking ahead to fall semester, when I will be teaching that course again and will have a chance to choose a new textbook for the course.

I liked the “adaptation, remix, remake” theme quite a bit and want to do something like that again.  In addition, I am currently in the planning stages of an essay focusing on adaptation for a book collection (more on that later), so this will be a good opportunity for me to bring some aspects of my research in line with my teaching.  Because the course is designed to introduce students to the practices of reading literature, especially close reading, I’m leaning toward going with John Brereton’s Living Literature and supplementing it with other readings where appropriate.

One of the activities that worked best last semester required my students to adapt a scene from Hamlet, either to video or for the stage (i.e., the front of the classroom).  Most groups chose video, and one group in particular even added “deleted scenes” and a “making-of documentary” that was very funny (and smart).  I may tweak this assignment and have students adapt short stories this time, but I think that one of the strengths of the activity was that it made Shakespeare more accessible.  One of the challenges of teaching adaptation–especially between literature and film–is that such evaluations often start with evaluations based on fidelity: did the director do a good job of remaining consistent to the book?  This is especially tempting in graphic novels that practically provide directors with storyboards for designing certain shots.

So, one of the challenges I’ve been thinking about is how to get around some of the more simplistic comparative analyses that privilege one text over another (this BYU instructional resource is really good on this point).  The approach I’d like to take is analogous to some of the work being done in adaptation theory by people like Thomas Leitch, who challenge the tendency in adaptation studies to focus on fidelity. It’s still way too early to be thinking about next fall–I’m using this blog post as an excuse to avoid grading–but I like the idea of using adaptation broadly as a means for thinking about how texts interact with each other, both within media and across them.

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Digital Nation

This semester I’ve been teaching a master’s-level course for teachers called “Using Technology in the Language Arts Classroom,” and as usual, teaching the course pushes me to think about how digital tools fit into the pedagogical needs of today’s student population.  With that in mind, I’ve been curious for a while to see the PBS documentary, Digital Nation, directed by Rachel Dretzin, with contributions from Douglas Rushkoff, in part because of the attempt by the filmmakers to extend the conversation about the issues presented in the film to the web.  Like Henry Jenkins, who has posted a negative review of the film (but a positive review of the website), I found myself feeling frustrated at how the documentary framed a number of important questions about digital media literacy, but as an example of a transmedia documentary, I think it’s a fascinating case study, something that media scholars and others can use to powerful effect in their classrooms.

Jenkins raises some significant concerns about the frames through which the documentary engages with digital media.  We are presented at the very beginning of the film with scenes depicted addicted South Korean gamers, some of whom undergo a two-week “Internet Rescue Camp” designed to teach them to withdraw from the internet. Other sequences seem to depict family life as transformed with parents and children glancing at each other over a set of illuminated screens in what Dretzin referred to as her “kitchen experience,” while some students (rather anecdotally) report being able to write an “awesome paragraph” but not being able to focus for the length of an entire paper.  Douglas Rushkoff’s “conversion narrative” isn’t entirely convincing, either, and seems to be somewhat imposed on the film to give it a (somewhat tenuous) narrative arc.  Perhaps a bigger problem is the lack of understanding of what it means to “multitask.”  As Jenkins points out, some forms of multitasking have existed for a long time and often involve combining several mundane activities: watching a sporting event or listening to music or talking on the phone while washing dishes, for example.

As Jenkins and others have commented, however, many of these changes need to be placed in a historical context, and to be fair to the filmmakers, they did include Jenkins’ remark that these debates about distraction and multitasking and information overload have a much longer history dating back at least to the Progressive era.  Yeah, movies and kinetoscopes aren’t iPods or Crackberries, but it’s reductive to suggest that these problems and debates about literacy are entirely new.  More frustrating for me was the tendency to refer to today’s students as “digital natives,” an assumption that was (from what I can recall) never really challenged in the film.  To be sure, students today barely remember a time when Google didn’t exist, and many can navigate using a mouse in ways that surprise many adults, but that dexterity may not correspond to the more complicated forms of information literacy raised by web search and other activities.

In places, I found the documentary relatively helpful, especially in its recognition that real communities form in the virtual worlds of online games and Second Life, and the segment focusing on “Cooking with Bubbe,” an online cooking show featuring an 80-something Jewish grandmother, showed the power of online communities, as well.  The questions that the film raised about military uses of digital media were timely and important, especially the concerns about using done aircraft, in which pilots operating machines in Las Vegas direct airplanes to drop bombs in Afghanistan and Iraq.  I think it’s well worth asking about the moral implications of this kind of war: what does it mean when we can fire missiles or drop bombs 7,000 miles from any real danger and then go home and have dinner with our families or go to a PTA meeting?  It’s an unsettling question, one that the PBS version of the documentary can only begin to cover.

Which is why I think any critique of the film needs to acknowledge the mediating role of the Digital Nation website. Although it is no doubt true that many viewers will only encounter the film via the PBS broadcast, the conversation has spilled out onto the PBS website and beyond, illustrating the potential of transmedia documentary to create engagements with the world that are not always defined by a single perspective.  Viewers, like me, who are concerned about military uses of digital media can follow that path.  Or, we could learn more about one teacher’s use of a Ning to make Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird more accessible.  Jenkins is absolutely right that the supplemental material (a vast archive of deleted scenes, user contributions, viewer comments, and other material) can offer us a valuable lesson in media literacy: What was included in the PBS film? How was it organized? What might that tell us about the biases of the PBS audience?  For that reason, rather than dismissing the PBS documentary, I think it makes more sense to see it as just one component of a much larger work, one that is contradictory, complicated, messy, and often very compelling, much like the digital age in which we are living.

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Blogs, Twitter, and Wikis: eCitizenship at Fayetteville State

Just a quick reminder that tomorrow afternoon at 2:30 PM, I will be giving a revised version of my talk, “Blogs, Twitter, and Wikis” in Fayetteville State’s Continuing Education Building.  If you are a student or faculty member interested in these issues, I’d be delighted for you to drop by.  I gave a much shorter version of this talk at our Mid-Year Conference, but this will allow me to cover quite a bit more material.

It will also allow me to show the legendary Stephen Colbert commentary on “wikiality,” which still holds up incredibly well, three and a half years after it first appeared on the air (hard to believe it was that long ago).  Hope to see some of you there.

Update: I’m also hoping to bounce briefly off of the debates about the Siegenthaler controversy before moving into a more specific discussion about wikis and even Wikipedia can be used productively as teaching tools in the college classroom.


Technology in the Language Arts Classroom

Here is the syllabus for the most recent version of my graduate course, Using Technology in the Language Arts Classroom, a course required for the M.A.T. and M.Ed. here at Fayetteville State (I’ll post a link to the course website later).  Teaching (and then reworking) this course has pushed me to think a little more carefully each time I’ve taught it about the needs of K-12 educators, an approach that I hope is somewhat reflected in the most recent version of the course.  Luckily I’ve had the opportunity to learn from others who have taught similar courses or who have created syllabi that touch on similar issues of digital production.  Laura’s syllabus for her Instructional Communications course was especially helpful, as was David Silver’s Digital Media Production syllabus.  With that in mind, here is my syllabus below the fold:

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Twitter, Blogs, and Wikis: eCitizenship at Fayetteville State

This post is part of a panel at the upcoming mid-year conference at Fayetteville State University organized by several faculty members and students who attended the American Democracy Project’s eCitizenship Initiative Meeting in Detroit.  The goal of the project is to introduce faculty to social media tools that we can use to help students become more engaged with their classroom experiences and campus communities.  My contribution to the panel is a very brief overview of Twitter, blogs, and wikis, three tools that I have used both in the classroom and in my professional and personal life.  The panel itself leaves room only for about a 15-20 minute description, so these remarks will be incredibly broad (and I probably won’t be able to cover everything listed below, but want to make it available for faculty after the presentation), but if you have anything you’d like to add in the comments, I’d appreciate it.

Blogs: Although blogs are becoming a fairly visible part of web culture, professors and teachers are still exploring their implications for classroom use.  The most common expectations of blogs is that they are frequently updated, with newer entries appearing at the top of the page, making them valuable for course updates and for organizing class discussion.  Although Blackboard offers a blog function, I have often used public blogs in order to help students learn to write for a public audience.  Some useful links for faculty interested in blogging:

  • There are two major free blogging services, Blogger and WordPress (demo setting up a Blogger blog), where you can set up blogs, usually within minutes.  Both services offer default templates, but if you have basic web design skills, you can customize your template rather quickly.  Both services allow you to insert hyperlinks, video, and images quickly and easily.
  • Here are two past courses, both at Georgia Tech, where I required students to create both personal and group blogs, Rhetoric and Democracy and Writing to the Moment.
  • Be prepared for readers outside the class to discover your blogs and your students’ work, especially if you create a direct link to someone else’s site.  In a few cases, authors have left comments on student blogs responding to what they have to say.  For the most part, this seems to validate student perceptions of their writing, suggesting that others found it interesting or engaging.
  • Sample class blogs by faculty at other universities include David Silver (University of San Francisco), Bill Wolff (Rowan University), and Kathleen Fitzpatrick (Pomona University).
  • For some information about blogging and scholarship, here is a presentation I gave at this year’s MLA conference in Philadelphia, and for another helpful explanation of the value of blogging, you might also read Andrew Sullivan’s “Why I Blog.”

Twitter: Another easy-to-use resource, Twitter is a microblogging service that limits updates to 140 characters.  Although it has been much-maligned, it is also an incredibly valuable tool for sharing information and organizing conversation.

  • My personal Twitter account
  • Possible classroom uses for the @reply/retweet feature: users can direct a response to a specific comment while keeping their tweet public (demonstrate, asking readers to say hi)
  • Role of hashtags in organizing conversations: #MLA09 as conference backchannel.  You could create a course hashtag and allow students to submit questions via cell phone/text during class or to raise questions outside of class (one problem: older tweets may not be successfully archived after a few days; Twitter is more ephemeral than blogs).
  • Posting links: although Twitter is often criticized because it limits discussion to 140-characters, many tweeps use it to link to longer forms of writing, including blog posts.  There are several URL shorteners on the web, including and
  • Although students have been more reluctant to pick up Twitter than Facebook, it is being widely used by film, media, and literary scholars (among others).  For some discussion of Twitter’s use in the classroom, see Kelli Marshall (who identified some problems with using it) and David Parry, who offers a number of helpful instructions on setting up students with accounts.
  • Lists as a convenient way to follow a sub-group of specific Twitter users:  Film Studies for Free’s “Essential Reads” and Dan Cohen’s “Digital Humanities” list.
  • Two recent articles on Twitter: Inside Higher Ed reports on Twitter’s use at this years MLA Convention, Clive Thompson on Twitter’s “sixth sense,” and my AlterNet article, “Why You Should Be on Twitter.”

Wikis: Most people know wikis only from the collaborative encyclopedia, Wikipedia, the massive online encyclopedia that “anyone” can edit.  Although this crowdsourced approach to knowledge organization has been widely criticized, research has shown that it is no less accurate than other major encyclopedias, but most media scholars are interested in the wiki tool as offering a new mode of authorship for the digital age, one that emphasizes collaboration rather than individuality.

  • Blackboard offers a wiki function that I haven’t yet tested.  PBWiki is a free wiki service that offers basic wiki authoring tools (they make money through ads).  Other professors have had success with requiring students to write Wikipedia entries on subjects that haven’t yet been included in the site or to polish entries on subjects familiar to the students.  Wikipedia has a very helpful page offering suggestions for instructors thinking about creating assignments around the site.
  • There is a relatively slow learning curve with teaching students wiki authoring.  I spent several class periods working with students and many of them still struggled.  But here is a typical welcome page for a wiki (login may be required).
  • A more productive project–one that I found to be very successful, even if students were originally resistant–was an assignment asking students to analyze Wikipedia as a source.  Here is my original description of the project (note: this entry offers a number of useful links, including the assigned readings I gave) and an update a few weeks later after I’d read the students’ papers.
  • My project in particular asked students to examine how a typical Wikipedia entry is conducted in order to make conclusions about new forms of digital writing and collaboration.  I used the entry on Representative Joe Wilson to jumpstart this project, showing students both the discussion and archive pages for his entry (see the tabs at the top of the page on Wilson).

If you have any questions or observations about this project, please feel free to leave a comment or contact me by email at ctryon[at]uncfsu[dot]edu.

Update: Here are a couple of pertinent links that have crossed my radar since I composed this post.  First, via David Silver (linked above), an article by Virginia Heffernan of The New York Times about the role of hashtags in reshaping Twitter conversations.  Second, Steven Johnson explains “how Twitter will change the way we live.”

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Wikipedia Project Revisited

Earlier this semester, I discussed a planned first-year composition assignment that would require students to analyze the construction of a Wikipedia page in order to determine the online encyclopedia’s relevance as a source of information.  In short, the assignment required students to select a Wikipedia entry, to look at the entry’s discussion page and history and to make an argument about whether the site’s openness made it a “better” source than other encyclopedias (or other sources of information).  Students were required to cite (preferably quote) at least three contributions to the discussion page and at least one other secondary source on Wikipedia.  After reading the students’ papers and reflecting on other projects I’ve assigned this semester, I’ve decided that I like the project quite a bit and may try to teach it again, albeit with some minor tweaking.

What worked about the assignment: The assignment helped frame the conversation their papers were entering.  Because the paper assignment was fortuitously timed alongside Robert Mackey’s NYT blog post on “Wikipedia’s reaction”* to Joe Wilson’s outburst against Obama, we had a familiar case study that students could use as a reference point.  Students had heard other instructors warning them against Wikipedia but knew little about the site other than the fact that “anyone” could edit it.  After completing the assignment, many students could talk critically about how they would use a source such as Wikipedia in the future.

On a more subtle level, the assignment provided students with helpful models for incorporating sources in a fairly sophisticated matter.  They could use quotations from Wikipedia to illustrate a point and then turn to authors such as Benkler, Parry, and Mackey as secondary sources commenting about Wikipedia. In that sense, the assignment helped to support our department’s turn toward encouraging “information literacy” approaches that helps students to think critically about sources and to use them in their papers.

What didn’t work: The assignment was initially fairly intimidating for many of my students.  This may not be a negative, but I was a little surprised at their initial resistance to the assignment.  The papers ended up taking an either/or position on Wikipedia (it should/should not be used as a source).  Students still treated Wikipedia as something “out there” that they could use/analyze/look at, not as something that could allow them to participate.  I realize this is a difficult step, even for media studies scholars, but it’s still difficult to convey the significance of the idea that the “anyone” capable of editing a Wikipedia page includes them (or you, for that matter).

In the future, I’d like to find a way of framing the assignment slightly differently so that the range of thesis statements/arguments about Wikipedia are somewhat broader.  That being said, the Wikipedia papers were much stronger than the traditional research paper I assigned as the final assignment of the semester, which may be due to a number of factors (competition with other end-of-semester assignments, a narrower project with more clearly defined parameters, continued problems on my part in teaching how to find and cite sources, etc).  But it’s definitely a project I will use again in future composition classes.

* I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea of treating Wikipedia as a singular entity capable of a homogenous, non-contradictory reaction.  If anything, the discussion on how to represent Wilson’s actions display a remarkable lack of consensus.  Still, it is possible to treat Wikipedia “institutionally” to some extent.

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Hamlet in the Kitchen

You may have heard of Hamlet in the Streets; now, here is Hamlet in the Kitchen, with Shakespearean actor Brian Cox teaching a young boy Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy.  Cox’s reaction to the child reciting Hamlet’s lines is priceless.  Warning: the video is dripping with cute, so please take all necessary precautions.  This would have been so much fun to show my students when teaching Hamlet earlier this semester.


Saturday Links

Now that my computer seems to be back up to speed, I’m hoping to blog on a regular basis again.  I’ve got a couple of posts brewing including a discussion of a graduate seminar I’ve been asked to teach, a version of my Using Technology in the Language Arts Classroom course I’ve done twice before.  I was unhappy with how the previous version turned out, so as usual I’ll be soliciting advice, crowdsourcing, and trying to rethink how the course might work best.  I’m also still thinking about a “decadism” post as I contemplate all of the decade-in-film posts that are circulating in film blogs these days.  I think they’re a fascinating form of popular (film) history, but I still need to process those thoughts for a while.  For now, here is a list of some of the things I’ve been reading and watching this weekend:

  • The Film Doctor pointed out a couple of must-watch videos the other day: Matt Zoller Seitz’s insightful documentary short about Bill Melendez, the director of dozens of Charlie Brown specials.  As Seitz observes, Melendez’s eye for visual storytelling is often underestimated, and his influence on contemporary filmmakers, including Wes Anderson, is well worth noting.  Also of interest, Mario Balducci’s “The Knife,” a completely surreal reimagination of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.
  • Via The House Next Door, a sharp video essay on “Video Games & The Tentpole Film.”  One of my biggest regrets with my book is that I spent little time thinking about video games (other than as part of a larger marketing chain within a larger entertainment franchise), but this essay makes a compelling case for the ways that video games are fining new and innovative ways of proucing suspense and horror that are more compelling than their cinematic counterparts.
  • Via Tama Leaver, what appears to be an incredibly useful research report on contemporary practices of movie engagement, Moviegoers 2010, a report that starts with the observation that studios and other entertainment professionals know little about current audience behaviors.  One quick factoid from their blog: most “moviegoers” now spend slightly more time online than watching TV.  Such categories are, of course, rather blurry given that many people now watch TV via Hulu and other online portals.
  • Bad Lit has a pointer to the Sundance NEXT lineup, a connection of ostensibly “low- and no-budget” films that will play at this year’s festival. On a quick skim, I recognize one name, Linas Phillips who made the quirky autobiographical documentary, Walking to Werner, which I saw at Silverocs a few years ago and quite liked.  But, as usual, the list provokes big questions about what counts as “independent” and what role Sundnace seems to be playing in fostering the work of aspiring filmmakers.  On a relate note, AJ Schnack compiles a list of this year’s Sundance documentary competition films.
  • Bad Lit also points to a new documentary that I’m curious to see: Guest of Cindy Sherman, a documentary by Paul H-O, a New York public access TV host who was briefly romantically involved with visual artist Cindy Sherman, famous for her Untitled Film Stills, in which Sherman photographed herself in a variety of poses of different female characters.  The trailer suggests that the film will meditate on what counts as art, how art mediates and engages with identy and celebrity, all things I find fascinating.


Wikipedia Discussion Project

At the request of several of my Twitter followers, here is an overview of the Wikipedia assignment I recently gave my students.  The assignment is designed for first-year composition students and essentially asks them to take a specific Wikipedia entry about a controversial figure or subject–I’ll include the full text of the assignment below the fold–and to analyze the discussion page for the entry on that subject to see if Wikipedia “worked.”  I very consciously left what that meant relatively open, so that students could take any number of positions on the site’s policies and procedures, inviting them to question whether the site should present controversies neutrally or objectively or, in some cases, whether the site is truly free from bias.

At first, students were skeptical.  Most of them were warned not to use Wikipedia as a source.  One even described the debate as a “dead issue.”  But rather than lecture them on the perils of encyclopedia use, I hoped to complicate their notions of collective authorship  (what Yochai Benkler and Helen Nissenbaum call commons-based peer production) and its implications for creating and sharing knowledge.  I introduced the assignment by asking students to read and respond to a set of articles that take a variety of positions on Wikipedia and, in some cases, ask students to edit or author entries themselves.  These articles included:

The latter article, which focused on Joe Wilson’s notorious shout of “you lie!” during Obama’s health-care address was especially successful, both because of it being a recent event and because many of my students are black and were sensitive to Wilson’s racial politics.  Mackey’s blog entry not only showed how to cite discussion pages but also how to process wide-ranging discussions and debates.It could also allow them to see–very quickly–the politics of authorship, the implications of depicting Wilson in a certain way based on past behaviors and comments (a quick glance at the Wikipedia debate about Obama’s citizenship clinched the deal).

There are, as @wiki_nihiltres reminded me,a significant number of projects like this that have been anthologized on Wikipedia.  The entry that lists current projects helpfully lists guidelines for doing edits to wiki entries and a number of suggested projects, but because I wanted to complete the assignment relatively quickly (2-3 weeks), I felt that the meta-analysis would better suit my needs for the class.  And so far, after seeing the thesis statements today, I think the project is working.  Popular topics have included Michael Vick and same-sex marriage, but other students have shown that entries on current figures such as Britney Spears over-emphasize the gossip surrounding her personal life, often at the expense of a focus on her career.  One of the more sophisticated analyses will look at the entry for Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, arguing that the entry fails to conform to Wikipedia’s stated objectivity standards, drawing from a very rich discussion page to support his point.  But, in general, students have reached a variety of conclusions about Wikipedia’s potential as a new model of authorship, which is precisely what I was hoping to see.

I’ll try to post a follow-up in a few weeks, but students are clearly mulling over the architecture of Wikipedia and coming to a wide range of conclusions about it.  One student reminded us, for example, that you could easily compare archived pages under the history tab.  Others were attentive to the various framing devices on many talk pages that called for civil discussion.  But after this assignment, they should, at a minimum, have a better sense of how and why Wikipedia works the way that it does.

The full text of the assignment is below the fold:

Read the rest of this entry »

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