THATCamp Digital Writing, May 2-3, 2014

Sponsors for THATCamp Digital Writing
  Sponsors for THATCamp Digital Writing

From tweeting to multimodal research papers to Prezi, writing these days means more than just black text on a white background. Through workshops and discussions, THATCamp Digital Writing aims to deepen and advance our notions of all facets of writing. Participants in THATCamp Digital Writing will explore how to effectively write using different digital tools and platforms. This event will take place in New York City. We begin with a special lecture on Friday afternoon, May 2, 2014, at John Jay College, and continue all day Saturday, May 3, 2014 at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus with workshops, discussions, and a Maker Challenge.

At THATCamp Digital Writing, join a dynamic cast of participants to

  • Learn more about innovative ways to digitize your work and publish it online
  • Share pedagogical methods that use digital media for writing and research assignments
  • Explore how to evaluate online writing and give feedback
  • Question how tools, technology, and methods for publishing work shape the way we write
  • Take workshops on Scalar, Juxta, and collaborative writing
  • Make connections with others
  • Establish new collaborations.

TCDW is being organized by Amanda Licastro, a PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center, and Elizabeth Cornell, Post-Doctoral Teaching Fellow in English at Fordham University.

WordPress in the College Classroom: Five Sources

A Rothstein A Farmer LOC

Despite their membership in the digital tribe, few of my undergraduates have any experience with WordPress or any blogging platform. Using WordPress in my classroom gives students an opportunity to increase their digital literacy as they read and discuss works of literature.

Because to teach is to learn is one of my fundamental beliefs about teaching, I assign a small group of students to teach themselves how to use WordPress. They then teach their peers. Students also investigate the purpose and content of an academic blog, the pros and cons of student blogging, and then discuss their research with the class. My students use the blog to post short essays. They also use it to post abstracts of their final papers and links to online resources and projects they’ve created.

Here are five sources for using WordPress in the college classroom:

  1. WordPress for Teaching and Learning at Vassar College This slideshow was created for teachers by undergraduate seniors at Vassar. It contains examples of blogs in use at the college along with benefits and outcomes of using blogs in the college classroom. I especially like this piece of advice: “Emphasize WordPress as a discovery process.”
  2. Teaching WordPress: Building and Running Your Website on WordPress The pedagogical goal of this site, which is a resource for students at Portland Adult Education, is the same as the course’s title: “Create Your Own Web Site Using WordPress.” The site, created by a teacher named Frank, is well-organized and seems to have a little of everything you need to know to develop a site, from “Pages and Posts” to “CSS in 10 Minutes,” which can be helpful for tweaking themes.
  3. ScholarPress Courseware plugin should tempt anyone looking for a way to use WordPress as a learning management system. According to this Chronicle article by Ryan Cordell, the plugin can create assignments, schedules, and bibliographies inside of WordPress. ScholarPress recently received an NEH Digital Humanities Start-Up grant.
  4. Psychology in the News Nicholas de Leeuw, Dept. of Psychology, Vassar College, maintains this WordPress site. On the right-hand side of the screen,  you’ll find some pages offering guidelines for attribution, a checklist for blog post content, a discussion of comments versus posts, and other insights. De Leeuw emphasizes the importance of making original posts and comments, and offers advice on to how to create useful and original content.
  5. Using WordPress in Your Class for Student Writing and Websites is for teachers who have a WordPress site. Hosted by the College of William and Mary and created by Evan Cordulack, the site is a straightforward resource covering everything from adding students to a WordPress site to offering links to other instructors who’ve written about their experience using WordPress.

Image Info:
Arthur Rothstein. “A farmer listing his fields under the wind erosion control program. He receives twenty cents an acre for the work. Liberal, Kansas.” 1936. Library of Congress. Rights Advisory: No known restrictions. For information, see U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black & White Photographs http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/res/071_fsab.html. Reproduction Number: LC-USF34-002493-E (b&w film nitrate neg.) Call Number: LC-USF34- 002493-E [P&P].Medium: 1 negative : nitrate ; 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 inches or smaller.

 

 

 

 

What I Learned at School This Year

The Cloisters; The Metropolitan Museum
The Cloisters; The Metropolitan Museum

Though the term “digital native,” which refers to people born after 1980 who have been exposed to the digital world all their lives, has long been exposed as a myth, the myth still persists as fact, even for those who consider themselves to be digital natives. Here’s what happened to me this semester, when I forgot that the digital native is a mostly mythical being:

Just about any college student can probably teach him or herself how to use a new technology or digital tool faster than, as one student from this semester’s Composition class put it, “my grandmother.” Students are also eager to discover new digital tools. They dive in like the Cookie Monster attacking freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. These claims were recently demonstrated by four students in my American literature class. Though they had little or no programming experience, they made a bold effort to use the Python-based Paper Machines to visualize their Zotero collection of sources on Emily Dickinson.

The visualization itself did not really work out. Their Zotero library was not stocked with enough documents (1,000 minimum) and they encountered some bugs in the program. But the process they went through was very valuable. After a great deal of effort to get the program to run on their laptops, an effort which involved soliciting help from their friends who were computer science students, they got the tool to work a little bit and were introduced to the concept of data visualization. I consider that part of their experience most valuable because it forced them to encounter something new in terms of how they researched and what they did with that research.  They had to ask people outside their discipline for assistance. They discovered that two different tools can “communicate” with each other. And it was a genuinely challenging endeavor that involved technology. They were quite proud of themselves for seeing the project all the way through.

But there is crucial a piece missing in the story about my students, and it is this: In their presentation to the class, the students did not convey a strong understanding of the importance of data visualization to humanities scholarship, or what even their slim results might suggest about the existing connections within their Zotero collection on Dickinson.

I assumed that my students’ digital nativeness meant that they would, with a little effort, plug Paper Machines into their Zotero library and in the process of learning a new tool, strive to investigate on their own why data visualization is important to humanities scholarship. That did not happen, though my students know that self-directed research is an important part of the course. So what I learned is that I can’t assume my students, even the advanced ones, can easily figure out how to use a digital tool effectively. Equally importantly, they need sustained guidance about why they should use those tools and how to draw conclusions from their results. This is true not just for advanced tools, such as Paper Machines, but relatively easy ones, such as Wordle. Just because students can operate a digital tool does not mean they understand why they use it or what it can be used for.

To quote from another student in my Composition class, students need “guidance from our teachers about how to use technology consciously and safely. We need them to help us learn how to use it effectively for academic purposes.” That statement is not just an observation, but it’s a call for help. Teachers should not assume that just because students are digital natives they can therefore can easily teach themselves how to use technology along with best practices.

It also reinforces what I strongly believe, that even though students engage with technology on a regular, if not constant, basis, non-digital native teachers should not avoid learning how to integrate technology into the classroom.  All the non-digital, traditional training many teachers have had, combined with the students’ deep exposure to technology, is a potent combination for using technology in the classroom in productive, versatile ways.

Next semester, I will give my students more guidance about the ways and whys they can integrate technology with traditional approaches to reading and writing.

“Teaching Digital Writing” Conference and Workshop at Bard IWT

At the 2013 Institute for Writing and Thinking Conference and Workshop, held at Bard College, I believe I was the lone tweeter. Given that the conference title was “New Kinds Attention: Teaching with Writing in the Digital Age,” I was a tad surprised. But only at first. Many of the conference participants, made up of K-12 teachers and college professors, were new to digital writing. Others were using technology in their courses, but often with resistance and even resentment. I arrived to the conference expecting to discuss with others strategies for digital writing and planned to leave with new techniques and ideas, but that did not happen. Instead, I learned a great deal of first-hand information (much of which should be familiar to anyone who reads about education) about how teachers are contending with technology, from everything they like about it (SMART Boards) to what they dislike (unauthorized use of devices in the classroom; the tools change too quickly to be mastered). The experience gave me insight as to how to better work with people, whether a student or a teacher, who are skeptical or hesitant to try new technologies for writing projects. I plan to expand on those ideas in a future post. Below is a collection of tweets I made, mostly during Cynthia Selfe’s talk, “New Kinds of Attention: Teaching with Writing in the Digital Age.”

Student-Led Discussions

(c) 2012 Robert Goldwitz
(c) 2012 Robert Goldwitz

“21st c classroom needs to be about thinking, collaborating, and creating #pk20”
(Tanya Sasser)

In the “Tales of Gotham: NYC in Literature” course I taught this semester, I challenged my students to lead all the class discussions. The responsibility for leading rotated among small groups of 3 or 4 students who were encouraged to master Prezi to present their questions.

This ongoing assignment had several pedagogical goals:

  • To make my classroom student-centered
  • To use technology with purpose
  • To help students learn to ask great questions so they might discover excellent answers.

The idea of the student-centered classroom challenged many of my students. Initially, some resisted the idea of working in groups. Most students were unskilled at creating decent presentations. They are accustomed listening to a lecture and answering the instructor’s questions, and so they had trouble asking good questions. By “asking,” I mean both senses of the word: They could neither construct a good question nor did they know how to ask it well.

Overcoming Resistance to Group Work
Perhaps the most important factor in helping students overcome their resistance to group work was technology. Specifically, the presentation software they used allowed them to easily collaborate online. They did not have to find a time when they could all meet in the library, for example, to plan the discussion. This was a boon especially to commuter students and for students who work off campus. One student usually took charge of starting the Prezi (or GooglePresentation), and everyone added some questions to it. The end result was that students really enjoyed working in their groups: the technology connected them and the finished project was a group effort that they shared with the class. Learning how to use Prezi together also prepared them to use it in their individual projects, or to tackle other software that was new to them, such as TimeGlider and Vuvox.

Using Technology with a Purpose
As we all know, most students use technology with a purpose every day, all day long. In general, from Facebook to Microsoft Word, they use these familiar tools always for the same purposes. In their other classes, my students are not often asked to explore other digital tools for academic purposes. Out of 80 students in my three classes, only one or two had even heard of Prezi. Most of them loved the way it allowed them to insert background images and add multimedia for their discussions and other projects they did for the class.  It helped teach students how to create an argument through design.

One common problem in these presentations was that students placed too much text in a frame. When shown a frame with a few carefully chosen words and one that was loaded with wordy bullet points or long paragraphs of historical context, students could easily see which frame was the stronger one. By the end of the semester, most students demonstrated the ability to use only essential words in a frame. Needless to say, this exercise develops their critical thinking skills because they must decide which words best articulate their claims and which ones to leave out.

More challenging was the problem with the images they chose for illustrating their frames. The solution led students to become familiar with online image archives. For example, in a discussion on Joseph Mitchell’s 1930s essay “Drunks,” the group illustrated a question with a clip art image of a beer mug, circa 2012. We compared it to an image of a fancy hotel menu from the New York Public Library’s online collection that had been used to illustrate another group’s discussion on Edith Wharton’s short story, “After Holbein.” Though it seems rather obvious why the latter image was much better than the former, many students expressed puzzlement and/or indifference. Through class discussion, they came to understand why a cartoon beer mug sheds little light on New York’s early twentieth-century saloon culture. As a result, they became acquainted with the many fabulous digital archives of images, from the New York Public Library to the Library Congress, and their use of them helped make the course readings far more alive and vital to them than if they’d stuck to the first image to pop up on a Google image search.

Asking questions
Asking a good question was by far the most challenging part of the assignment. This, in fact, surprised me. But it quickly became to clear to me that my students are rarely asked to ask a question in class. They’re much better at answering them, particularly if they’re asked to give factual answers. Thus, many of the questions they asked were about facts: “Who is Peter Lick [a protagonist Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale]?” “What is the weather like in Winter’s Tale?” When these questions were posed, I sensed the rest of the class’s boredom setting in–though few students understood why these questions failed to stimulate them.

After the first discussion, we critiqued the questions themselves. Comparing the more successful questions with others that fell flat, students learned the difference between a simple question and a critical one. They discovered that making a critical question can be as simple as changing the wording. Instead of asking “what is the weather like,” ask “why is the winter important in Winter’s Tale?” or “what role does snow play in Winter’s Tale?” Questions that begin with “how” or “why,” questions that engage wider issues and themes, questions that hone in on the significance of a single word or image that reappears throughout the book, questions that engage context–such as comparing the state of New York City in the 1970s, when Helprin wrote his novel, with the New York portrayed in the book–helped us dig out textual meaning and create lively discussion.

Delivery of the question posed yet another challenge: Often, students would ask the question and then, without taking a breath, proceed to answer it. The best method I’ve found for addressing this is to interrupt the student in a friendly way and ask them to hold off giving their answer. Some students drowned the class with a lot of context before asking their question. Best method: interrupt in a friendly way and ask student to just ask the question and supply the context later, if necessary.

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As a result of this assignment, my students brought to their final research projects strong skills at asking probing questions about their chosen subject, and I think this led them to finding better, deeper answers. Standing in front of the class within the safety of their group as they led a discussion, as well as other group presentations, gave them experience in public speaking and prepared them for individual presentations of their final projects at the end of the semester. They were confident, practiced, and provided some terrific answers to good questions they’d posed to themselves.