Blogging to Learn: Teaching with WordPress

Should instructors incorporate blogging into their courses? Does it have any demonstrable value for learning?

This past semester, I integrated a WordPress blog into my section of Introduction to Writing about Literature at Hunter College. The goal: give students the opportunity to write for a wider audience that includes not only myself, but also their peers in the class (I made the blog private, viewable by course members only). I feel that writing in a (semi-)public forum, as well as reading classmates’ posts, can help to improve the caliber of each student’s work. Blogging allows students to work through ideas and practice thinking about literature in the ways I expect to see in formal paper assignments. I encourage students to write in their own voice (meaning they can be casual) as long as they are expressing themselves clearly. Many of the assignments aim to motivate students by offering them the opportunity to be creative and share a part of themselves with their classmates, something that often doesn’t happen under the time constraints of our regular class period.

In this post, I reflect upon the value of course blogs by considering the ways that the blogging assignments I give draw upon the principles I have learned as a Writing Across the Curriculum Fellow at Baruch and the pedagogical practices under discussion this semester at BLSCI staff meetings.

Scaffolding and Peer Review
Early in the semester, prior to starting work on the first paper (which is a thematic analysis), I give students the following blogging assignment. First, I have them identify a major theme in what we have read of Shakespeare’s play, Measure for Measure, so far and use textual evidence to explain why it is significant. A week later, I put the students in pairs and have them comment upon their partner’s previous post and extend upon it by discussing how the theme develops as the plot thickens, or locating another instance of the theme in the play and providing analysis. This set of blogging assignments functions as scaffolding to develop the skills they will apply in peer-review workshops which we hold as part of the writing process for each paper. Because this assignment familiarizes students with how to provide feedback about another’s claim and make suggestions for extending that claim, they are better prepared to constructively engage with their partner’s draft during the first peer workshop.

Writing to Learn, Creative Writing to Learn
For one blogging assignment during our unit on poetry, I have my students write their own version of Jamaica Kincaid’s poem, “Girl.” This assignment serves to reinforce the skills of poetry analysis I impart in the classroom as we dissect texts because I ask students to reflect upon the interaction of form and content while using poetic techniques to compose their piece. The female students in the class draw upon their unique experiences of being a ‘girl’ and consider how the form of their poems might look similar to or different from that of Kincaid given the disparity in content. The male students explore what a ‘boy’ version of Kincaid’s poem would be like and whether the form and content would be altered radically due to a different gendered experience. The activity takes the WAC principle of writing to learn and applies it as creative writing to learn. While traditional writing to learn exercises are a valuable pedagogical tool for developing skills, students often aren’t motivated by them and consider the exercises to be just another prosaic chore in composition. When writing to learn becomes creative writing to learn, a surprising thing can happen: not only are learning goals met, but students demonstrate inspired thinking in and through the process.

Creating to Learn, Performances of Understanding
For an extra credit assignment, I ask my students to draw a picture, create a collage, pick or perform a song, etc. that is representative of a particular character in a novel we read together, Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion. The character, a web-footed hermaphrodite, defies realist narrative conventions and takes shape through metaphor and allusion rather than literal description. With this in mind, I have my students consider how they might render this character based on lines from the text such as, “Being with her was like pressing your eye to a particularly vivid kaleidoscope.” Or, how they would depict her as a representation of a certain kind of passion. The goal is for students to transfer a skill we have been honing all semester, that is, critical engagement with figurative language in texts and apply it to a creation of their own. Essentially, I want them to execute the kind of performances of understanding, or demonstrating learning by ‘doing’ in another context, we have been discussing in recent BLSCI staff meetings. The results of this exercise are beyond anything I expected. Several students posted stunning original drawings, along with a few sentences explaining their idea. Here’s one example:

img_0500

Another (a music production major) even performed a song that he wrote using descriptions of the novel’s setting as a metaphor for the character in question and for passion itself. Talk about performative learning!

Start by imagining everything in the universe

I have a problem as a writer: I’d want to talk about everything at once. At a recent meeting of Schwartz Institute fellows, the editor of this blog tried to convince us to write smaller posts, pieces that don’t necessarily take on huge subjects or heady academic arguments, but instead simply muse or riff or chat for a little while about what we’re interested in as scholars, teachers, internet trolls, Beyonce fans, whatever. Keep it simple, he said.

To prove that I’ve taken this message to heart, I will share my musings on a little topic I find myself contemplating more and more these days, the cosmos. That is, all of space and time laid out on the grandest scale. Or rather, on Cosmos: A Personal Journey, the 1980 mini-series created by Carl Sagan and the recent reboot of the series currently airing on Fox, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Logo for 2014 Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

Logo for 2014 Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

Cosmos sets out to explain complex concepts from physics, biology, and astronomy to a popular audience, using stories, metaphors, and stunning visualizations to impart to non-scientists the wonder of the universe and the power of science. In essence, the series tells the story of the universe as revealed through developing scientific theories over human history. Taken together, we see how human life emerged as one small part of the cosmos and how human cultures learned to use the tools of science–rational thought, experimentation, careful observation, exchange of knowledge–to build ever-more sophisticated understandings of the universe in which we live.

I won’t go on here about which version of the series is better, especially as we’re only six episodes in to the new series at the time I’m writing this. (Obviously, Sagan’s original version is better, as originals tend to be.) Instead, I want to think a bit here about what Cosmos has taught me as someone who thinks about broad, invisible social and cultural systems like race, class, and disability as revealed through the tools of critical cultural theory. While I study broad theoretical concepts about social and cultural identity, I work in real-world colleges and universities, institutions that deal with practical things like grading rubrics, administrative policy documents, and student transcripts. While I like to talk about everything at once, contemplating vast invisible systems of resource distribution and social privilege, I need to be able to communicate my ideas to administrators, service providers, fellow faculty, and even students who might not share my vocabulary or my fascination with abstract, invisible systems.

I’ll give you an example of what I’m talking about here: the way Cosmos teaches us to think about time. As humans, we tend to measure time in units that make sense to us–hours, days, years. These units are helpful for organizing time in the scale we actually deal with it: how long it takes to get to Brooklyn or to write a dissertation or to live a life. The problem with communicating scientific ideas about the universe to non-experts is that the real scale of the cosmos stretches out over billions of years, a scale far beyond our comprehension in everyday terms.

Cosmos uses a visual metaphor to help us make the tricky conceptual leap from common-sense time to cosmic time: the Cosmic Calendar.

Here the entire timeframe of the universe is translated into a single calendar year. This digitally updated visualization from the 2014 Cosmos helps viewers understand twelve billion years of cosmic change by compressing it into a metaphorical single year, with the big bang occurring  on the first second of January 1st and human cultures emerging on the very last second of December 31st.

Here the entire timeframe of the universe is translated into a single calendar year. This digitally updated visualization from the 2014 Cosmos helps viewers understand thirteen billion years of cosmic change by compressing it into a metaphorical single year, with the Big Bang occurring on the first second of January 1st and human cultures emerging on the very last second of December 31st.

Here we see over thirteen billion years of cosmic development represented as a single calendar year, beginning with the Big Bang on the first second of January 1st and ending (sort of . . . ) with our current moment, the final mili-second of December 31st. In between, we see all 13.2 billion years of cosmic history broken up into months, each representing a bit more than a billion years, allowing us to visually represent events like the formation of the Milky Way galaxy (around “May 15th”) or the development of the first living organisms on Earth (“September 21st”) within their proper historical scale.

Visual metaphors work especially well for chronological information. While time is clearly abstract and invisible, most of us have been well trained to use visual tools comprehend it, tools like timelines, calendars, and daily chronometers (remember wrist-watches?). The Cosmic Calendar works because we recognize the tool of the monthly calendar as more or less universal — kind of like the way news anchors like to measure big physical distances in the number of football fields could fit there.

For my work thinking about colleges and universities, the time scale is much smaller, only a few hundred years.  My challenge comes when I try to think about space.

We are used to thinking about institutions of higher learning in spatial terms. If I want to talk about what Baruch college is like, for instance, I can talk about physically walking around the 14-floor Vertical Campus building, I can see it sitting there beside Lexington Avenue made out of bricks and glass, I can spot it on a map or draw a floor plan of the building.

But representing Baruch on a physical map renders invisible and abstract many of the important features that define universities as institutional systems: you can’t tell by looking at a floor plan which spaces are used by faculty, administrators, or students; you can’t acknowledge that Baruch is experienced different ways depending on your status in the institution. Since I’m interested in the experience of people with disabilities in higher education institutions specifically, these subjective conceptions of space are important to how I map institutions — space as it is experienced from person to person, depending on cultural or social identity. And here’s where I start to need visualizations like the Cosmic Calendar to explain what on earth I’m actually talking about to folks who don’t live in my personal world of theory.

I’ve taken a few stabs at making this kind of visualization. A few years ago I tried to create a map to represent the institutional forces linking me as a first-term graduate student at the CUNY Graduate Center to the geographical spaces I moved through as a teacher at LaGuargia Community College. In this diagram, made in Prezi, I tried to represent institutions as rectangular brackets, which contain both physical spaces like classrooms and offices (represented as green rectangles) and institutional forces (represented as circle frames). Forces either emanate from particular geographical spaces or link them together.

In this institutional map I made using Prezi in 2011, I attempt to represent physical institutional spaces (as rectangles and square frames) overlaid with invisible institutional systems that link them (circle frames). Here I show how the English teaching practicum system produces institutional forces linking Graduate Center to the teaching campuses. The constant here is my perspective as a first-year PhD student and first-time adjunct teacher.

In this institutional map I made using Prezi in 2011, I attempt to represent physical institutional spaces (as rectangles and square frames) overlaid with invisible institutional systems that link them (circle frames). Here I show how the English teaching practicum system produces institutional forces linking Graduate Center to the teaching campuses. The constant here is my perspective as a first-year PhD student and first-time adjunct teacher.

In this visualization, I was trying to communicate how I, as an inexperienced teacher in a PhD program, relied on a series of invisible administrative programs and policies in order to access the geographical spaces at LaGuardia (including my classrooms, where I got to deploy my authority as “instructor”). Without those programs and policies in place, my experiences of the CUNY geography would have been considerably different. I wanted a way to map the administrative programs, to show the institutions and their forces together in one visual map as I had experienced them given my peculiar status as a first-year PhD student making use of the practicum program to secure employment as an adjunct teacher.

I’ll conclude my musings on space and time with an admission that I’m still no expert at using visual metaphors to teach my audiences about complex, abstract systems–not yet. I’m still limited by my abilities with the kind of digital visualization tools that could help me get my ideas across in more dynamic and straightforward ways, for instance.

Cosmos inspires me to be ambitious in my communicative aims while also being inventive in my tools for communication. See the series for yourself at http://www.cosmosontv.com/ where you find the first six episodes streaming in full for a limited time.

On Disorganizing and Reorganizing

(Or, “8 Things That Listicles Tell Us About Process”)

  1. If I begin with a list, I’m about to start a project— maybe tonight’s dinner, tomorrow’s trip, a draft, or a revision. “This is what I need to do,” I assure myself.
  2. The word “listicle” is odd and ugly. But I don’t mean ugly in the same way that Stanley Fish means it when he says: “…‘blog’ is an ugly word (as are clog, smog, and slog).”  The word, listicle, is crudely formed by smashing together “list” and “article.” It’s an article that plays on a system of classification.  The writing (thinking) process, the drafting of ideas, and evaluating of information can be uncomfortable, clunky, and uneven procedures. The word “listicle” honestly reflects the messiness of process.
  3. A list is a familiar form of writing and a tool of organization. Some examples: What do I need to get at the grocery store? How many more course credits do I need? What don’t I know? What do I know? A list is a useful genre for prioritizing tasks, assessing objectives, and discerning values.
  4. A list is a familiar form of writing and a tool for organization. A retail worker uses it to check a store’s inventory. A bartender scribbles a list of what to restock a bar with. An administrator of any rank is an expert in the form. A syllabus is a hybrid list. A student can use it to brainstorm.
  5. I make lists to remember. I realize I haven’t talked about what makes the word “listicle” an odd word… It shares sounds with unexpected words, like tickle, pickle, and popsicle. Listicle also conveniently rhymes with mythological and ideological.
  6. To create a list is to create a mission, a manifesto of some sort. Perhaps a list is content in desire of form; maybe it’s knowledge impatiently in want of coherence.
  7. A numbered list implies order. But sometimes the order seems arbitrary or trivial. “23 Signs You’ve Lived In New York City,” “31 GIFs That Will Make You Laugh Every Time.” Why 23? Why 31? Lists draw on the appearance of structure, but maybe they’re just disorder masquerading as (or maybe they’re new shapes waiting to supersede) order.
  8. A list can be a form of critical inquiry. Place two lists next to each other— one for pros, the other for cons— and a one person debate can commence. Art is in “listicle,” tactically obscured from view, and it’s present if one wants (or has) a poetic mission. A list can be a form of critical inquiry: a “to do” list might actually be a “to know” list. Or maybe a list is, at its core, a performance of: “This is what I do and this is what I know.”

***

A confession and some brief notes on my pedagogy:

This blog post is an attempted exercise in demonstrating how meaning is built into form (which is what I tried to do with my previous piece on the mixtape). It is also an excuse to quarrel with an Internet form that I have long been ambivalent about.

In my classroom, students and I spend a lot of time discussing form and structure. Meaning, I tell them, is not just located in content and plot: meaning is also mediated through its structure. This might be obvious, especially for those who specialize in literary criticism, but it can be a challenge to get undergraduates to think about structure in concert with content. In our more dynamic and fruitful discussions, students and I merge our close-readings of a narrative’s texture and relate our collective reading to that narrative’s structure. Chapter seven, “Structural Principles: The Example of the Sonnet,” of Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter and Poetic Form has been particularly helpful in getting students to think about form and structure, not just in terms of poetry, but also in terms of shaping their own form(s) of critical inquiry.

Performing Poor

Being poor is demonstrable. Poor people wear their lack all over them and demonstrate it in all their actions. Pierre Bourdieu, the French Sociologist was one of the few academics that understood this well and wrote about it and its self-governing aspects. Maybe because one of the aspects of being poor is that it doesn’t allow expression.
Linda Tirado is learning this. Last week Ms. Tirado found herself an overnight internet starlet and spokesperson for the poor because of her paradoxical talent for expression. She posted a comment on Gawker about being poor and wound up published on the HuffPo:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/linda-tirado/why-poor-peoples-bad-decisions-make-perfect-sense_b_4326233.html.

Her experiences read like a practical, quotidian explanation of Bourdieu’s keen understanding as explained in his conclusion to Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste:

“Dominated agents, who assess the value of their position and their characteristics by applying a system of schemes of perception and appreciation which is the embodiment of the objective laws whereby their value is objectively constituted, tend to attribute to themselves what the distribution attributes to them, refusing what they are refused (’that’s not for the likes of us’), adjusting their expectations to their chances, defining themselves as the established order defines them, reproducing in their verdict on themselves the verdict the economy pronounces on them, in a word, condemning themselves to what is in any case their lot, τα ηεαυτου, as Plato put it, consenting to be what they have to be, ‘modest’, ‘humble’ and ‘obscure’.”

Immediately, she was contacted by a literary agent, began a daily blog, had considerable monetary donations made to her so she could focus on writing, and started manning a Twitter account. People wrote from around the world beginning a constant conversation about how it was that she could know how to talk about being poor in a way that only someone who has experienced it knows how to recount its nuances, asking simultaneously how she had the skill to do so. Poor people don’t have time for self-reflection, it’s true, whereas Ms. Tirado has the audacity to know that she’s fucked and that’s suspicious, if not altogether middle-class. She knows too clearly that being poor means that you are temporally bound insofar as not having the right to a future, that it is about being tired but knowing that wanting rest makes you seem lazy and that eating poorly, as Bourdieu points out, is cyclical wherein necessity breeds taste. Poverty has so much to do with taste. That is where she is best at explaining why poor people make bad decisions. We begin to like what we become accustomed to and even think we choose it in that Nietzschean logic that Foucault later realizes creates structures of power. And that is why it is hard to shake being poor should one ever have the chance to escape.

If you’ve seen that documentary, The Queen of Versailles, there are some interesting moments where Jackie Siegel, who grew up poor in Binghamton, directs her limousine be driven thru at McDonald’s. She may have been building the largest home in America modeled on the palace of Versailles but the girl needs some chicken nuggets and doesn’t even think of hiding it for the many cameras turned on her. She doesn’t seem conscious of her incongruities, ignorant to the fact that women with a closet full of Versace should not be caught dead at McDonald’s. High and low culture find equal status in her consumption and it all results in a democratic hoarding that would lead people to belive that she has no. . . taste. Gatsby did it better when he pursued the American Dream. He was careful never to give himself away.

And so is Ms. Tirado. In the most astounding section of the blog she now posts to daily she asks for advice. Her post is titled “In which I try on a new class. Advice, please.” When Ms. Tirado replaces her missing teeth, treats her bad skin, and degreases her hair, ever sheening from the fryers from her job as a cook will she, as she becomes a different “sign-bearing, sign-wearing body” as Bourdieu calls it, fortunes will change. She asks what she knows is a fickle audience that will likely move on to the next internet darling at any moment to invest in her:
“But I want to know what healthy feels like, and I want to experience the difference in a marked way rather then a bit here and there that I could miss. So I will be posting all the little changes and adjustments, and I will be doing this thing in December to see if a month of sleep and nutrition and only some coffee and not so much smoking and a regular schedule will turn me into someone that I do not recognize. I would like your help, because I am trying to identify and eliminate my class markers for this. I want to see how differently the world reacts to me if I have a manicure and a hairstyle rather than chipped nail polish and hair that is greasy from the fryers. I want to see if sleeping enough to get rid of the haggard look will be an effective strategy of getting a clerk’s attention more quickly at a store. I wonder whether I will get quite so many comments about what a good mom I am when I am out with the kids, as though it is something surprising and not the default assumption, if I look wealthier than I have done.”

And people answer. 154 people answer, this having gone up from 119 people yesterday. They are eager to help. StudyingStudent advises drink water; middle class people are always drinking water. A lot of people give advice on shampoo—no “poo”—and makeup—keep it minimal if you don’t want to look cheap—and the difficult question of whether or not to mani/pedi—pedicures turn out to be a must in the summer. One should make sensible shoe choices, take up yoga, watch their posture and put their napkin in their lap immediately upon sitting down in a restaurant. Less Emily Post than a regular 21st century doing up of Eliza Doolittle, the myriad of answers adds up to a shocking self-congratulatory disgust toward poverty and how to get rid of the signs of it. It is a spontaneous sociological study that makes it impossible to call America classless, if anyone still thought it was, evident by the enthusiastic and unhesitating advice of the internet’s welcome wagon to “the good life.” (pssst, Lauren Berlant has bad news for her; it’s already gone).
I want to mention that many people take this space to thank her, many commiserate and appreciate her voice. While she is a lapsed member of the middle-class who found herself in poverty, many people have always “known their place,” and never gotten the education they can’t imagine knowing what to do with anyway that might allow them to form the voice to say what she does. For them she is very important because she makes them visible and so many don’t really want to be seen. Poverty has that way of making people willingly invisible.
As her article gains status on HuffPo as “most e-mailed,” I can’t help but think of Zizek’s little anecdote on why we donate money to those starving children in unnamed countries, swarmed by flies. We do it to ease our consciences, he perhaps cynically explains. We don’t know if those children live or die, if they ever have a proper meal in reality, but we’ll be damned if we haven’t done our part. So let the ideology behind this not go without notice, and hopefully, the greatest discomfort. We the people of the Internet have rehabilitated one unfortunate and worthy person who showed a willingness not to make these bad life decisions any more. But will people remain interested in their Fair Lady or will the rags to riches story grow tiresome in narrative form? Will Ms. Tirado really make an impact on people who suspect that poor people are stupid or possibly degenerate or just enjoy failure outright? Or are we watching the simple satisfaction of people doing their part?

A Babel Mixtape

Adrian Tomine, "Society Dictates" (2001).

Adrian Tomine, “Society Dictates” (2001).

Rewind. A context When I was in middle school, I didn’t realize that I was witnessing a shift in communication. The shift seemed ordinary. Our neighborhood mail carrier, whose mouth gripped a lit cigarette and hands skillfully shuffled through envelopes between houses, facilitated a steady flow of free-trial AOL discs to my home — discs that were later tucked in dust behind the tower of my family’s shared desktop. The discs gradually disappeared. They belong to a period in my life when the U.S. postal system didn’t seem so fragile and my best friend left me coded messages, gibberish to my parents, on the answering machine.

Fast forward, to high school. I live in the same house, on the margins of suburbia, but now I instant message in the evenings. One night, as I type in the dark, I notice that many of the AIM screennames, mine included, share one common adjective, one common unit: “azn.”

Fast forward, to November 11, 2013. Play: It’s November in New York City and, with warm breaths clutching the cold air and the population of shopping bags booming, all signs point to winter’s arrival. Though summer seems to be at a distance, a scene from this past August lingers still on my mind.

Movie still of Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, "In the Mood for Love" (2000)

Movie still of Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, “In the Mood for Love” (2000)

 

Rewind, August 23, 2013. I was at a retrospective screening of Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love, a movie I’ve seen many times before. This viewing experience was different, not only because it was the first time I saw it projected on a screen. This time I couldn’t immerse myself in the Cantonese script, so I straddled between reading the English subtitles and following, whenever I could, the dimming warmth of the Chinese language. There is a scene where the female lead, Mrs. Chan, makes an observation to the male lead. Mrs. Chan’s words sound familiar, but conjure a strange image in my head. I imagine a glistening net of golden honey threads, formed like a three-dimensional word bubble. Then, clunky and literal, words crystallize: “You’re like my husband. Your mouth is sweet and your thread is smooth.” The white letters, the subtitles, tell me: “You’re like my husband; he’s a sweet talker too.”

Pause. A reflection on the form and content of my cac.ophony blog posts: I try to maintain the formal expectations of voice and brevity, of personal tone and notation of  (my writing, thinking) process. Fragmentations and serialities mark the varying tempos of learning, an ongoingness of learning shaped by a historical present. Realizations, to invoke Mrs. Chan’s emotional articulation, can “sneak up on you,” catch you off guard, at a later time. The posts also depict my unfinished thinking with Lauren Berlant, Edward Said, Paul Gilroy, and Raymond Williams. The links embedded in each post are citations of the texts, online resources, and images I’ve been thinking through.

In terms of content, I’ve been trying to cohere some thoughts about the relationships between labor and exposure, between culture and capital, in a digital age. How do these relationships inform the shifting languages of the internet and the communities created around varying idioms and practices? The question that I’m formulating here is one that relates to my academic interests in race and labor:  how do the conditions produced by internet communication affect communities tangled, or aligned, along the coordinates of race, gender, class, and sexuality?

In terms of pleasure, I confess, I delight in the tentative thrill, the brush of potentiality, that comes with being derailed, reoriented, by the simple acts of scrolling down a newsfeed, swiping through images, and clicking on embedded links. Play.

How Do They Use This Thing?

Over the last few months, I have been a developing a plugin for Blogs@Baruch, Baruch College’s massive WordPress Multi-User installation. Responsibly, B@B fulfills a contemporary need that educational institutions often neglect: online spaces, both individual and collaborative, for students and faculty. B@B exists in order to provide these spaces. Before the Fall 2013 semester began, we hosted over 2,800 blogs and served more than 16,000 users —  students, faculty, and staff. Since the beginning of the semester, we’ve registered more than 300 new blogs and added over 2,000 users. Undoubtedly, the numbers show that the service is popular and increasingly utilized.

One version of the plugin.

One version of the plugin.

Yet, we had a problem: we didn’t have a good idea of how these blogs were used and who they were used by. The data was there, but we didn’t have a convenient way to gather it so we could run reports. If we had convenient access to that data, then we would be able to understand where to focus our efforts to best support the Baruch community. So my task was to create a plugin that would ask just a few questions when a new site was registered, enabling us to collect information, in a single place, about who was starting the blog and how they were going to use it. Granted, the data collected is a bit more specific than that, and it will tell us what to implement next and which existing features to publicize. Should we create packaged templates for course blogs that will automatically enable certain plugins and set a different default theme? Should we make other plugins available for hybrid courses as they start to use B@B? Now, we can predict what is needed, and we can even reach out to certain users to ask them what they would like to see. And, this functionality might be useful for other institutions. Unfortunately, this plugin is written specifically for B@B and cannot be used by anyone else because the questions cannot be customized without changing the code. But if you want to browse the code and adapt it for your site, then you can find it on Github.

Abstracting for the Future

The directors of BLSCI wanted me to create this plugin first for B@B and then to abstract it and release it “into the wild” for the WordPress community to use as they wish. Wordpress is open-source software, and, in its ten years,  it has become what is has become because it has a robust community supporting it. To give you a number, WordPress powers 20% of the Internet. Just to emphasize: that’s all of the Internet. Open source software thrives only when the community of users give back. At BLSCI, we feel that obligation. As I mentioned above, the plugin, in its current form, is not useful to anyone else because the code is specific to B@B. In order to make it useful for others, we need to implement a way for the standard WordPress user to build their own forms, place them where they way, and be able to access the data. The interface to create such a form needs to be something as simple as a drag-and-drop interface. The design is necessary because potential users of the plugin probably will not have the resources to create dig into the Wordpress API and code one for themselves (see below for a technical discussion of how this would be done). The plugin needs to have the same easy-to-use interface that makes WordPress so accessible. We have already started to create a new version that will work as such.

NBM Form Element Mock Up

A mock up of the form builder element for version 2.

If you know the WordPress ecosystem well enough, you might be thinking that similar solutions already exist for building forms (like this one), but often they are Freemium software, which offers limited functionality for free but more with a price tag attached. While these sort of solutions are well developed and well maintained, they are not as available to users with a tight budget. And they should be. Often, , and they do not necessarily offer the ability to customize certain forms. If you have any interest in such features, then let us know.

A Technical Discussion

I’ve been building websites since I was twelve, but I have never coded anything in a professional context, as most that I developed were for a personal project to keep me organized or interact with friends. Most of my recent experience had been working with Drupal, and so I was new to the WordPress API, which is elegant, but it did take solid shift in thinking.

photo-8_Snapseed

Code snippet from the first plugin

When I initially approached the project, I thought that it would be fairly simple because the WordPress API is elegant, having been curated by a community of smart developers for the last ten years. Yet, I found out that the page to create new blogs had no usable hooks. I’m pretty sure that WordPress is overprotective of its site registration form. So I was left with altering the page after it loaded with some jQuery which made the page, well, look weird, but it worked. But it did not work on the B@B development environment. It turns out that Buddypress, which is the basis of B@B, hijacks the site registration page, and the template is in the “bp-blogs-template.php” file. The hook is simple:

add_action( 'signup_blogform' , 'nbm_append_signup' , 10, 0);

The function “nbm_append_signup” was the one that I wrote for the plugin.

Here’s a snippet for one of the fields, most of which look similar:

</pre>
<div id="class_site" class="<?php if (!( $data['role'] == 'Faculty' ) ) echo 'hide_question '; ?>faculty question">
<label for="class_site"><?php _e( 'Is this site for a class?' ) ?></label>
   <select name="class_site" class="faculty">
     <option value=""<?php if ( $data['class_site'] === "" ) echo ' selected';?>>---</option>
     <option<?php if ( $data['class_site'] == 'Yes' ) echo ' selected';?>>Yes</option>
     <option<?php if ( $data['class_site'] == 'No' ) echo ' selected';?>>No</option>
   </select>
</div>
<div id="class_name" class="<?php if (!( ( $data['role'] == 'Faculty' ) && ( $data['class_site'] == 'Yes' ) ) ) echo 'hide_question '; ?>class_site question">
   <label for="class_name"><?php _e( 'Class Name:' ) ?></label>
   <input type="text" name="class_name" class="class_site faculty" size="38"<?php if ( $data['class_name'] ) echo 'value="'.esc_html( $data['class_name'] ) .'"';?>>
</div>
<div id="class_number" class="<?php if (!( ( $data['role'] == 'Faculty' ) && ( $data['class_site']== 'Yes' ) ) ) echo 'hide_question '; ?>class_site question">
   <label for="class_number"><?php _e( 'Class number (and section, if you have it):' ) ?></label>
   <input type="text" name="class_number" class="class_site faculty" size="16"<?php if ( $data['class_number'] ) echo 'value="'.esc_html( $data['class_number'] ) .'"';?>>
</div>
<div id="class_type" class="<?php if (!( ( $data['role'] == 'Faculty' ) && ( $data['class_site'] == 'Yes' ) ) ) echo 'hide_question '; ?>class_site question">
   <label for="class_type"><?php _e( 'Is the class...' ) ?></label>
   <select name="class_type" id="class_type" class="class_site faculty" >
     <option value="">---</option>
     <option<?php if ( $data['class_type'] == 'Face to Face' ) echo ' selected';?>>Face to Face</option>
     <option<?php if ( $data['class_type'] == 'Hybrid' ) echo ' selected';?>>Hybrid</option>
     <option<?php if ( $data['class_type'] == 'Fully Online' ) echo ' selected';?>>Fully Online</option>
   </select>
</div>

While frustrating, I found that BP actually provides many useful hooks that allowed the code to be cleaner, and it allowed for a better solution. The next major snag was that a BP plugin named Group Blog alters the site registration page again, and it does so in a way that made my plugin misbehave. The fix was just a simple if statement:

if ( ! ( ( isset( $_POST['groupblog-create-new'] ) && $_POST['groupblog-create-new'] == 'yes') ) ) :

Contemporary applications like WordPress are fairly complex, and plugins can often act like children fighting for attention. Tracing through the logic of what happens when and how leads you down a pleasurable rabbit hole that often has a simple explanation that ends end a “duh” moment. Developing the first version let me learn how to create a robust second iteration. As I have started to draw up the new architecture for the plugin, I have realized that it can be broken into many different components that would be useful in any use case, not just making forms to collect information during blog creation, but also to create forms that can serve as standalone pages or just be embeddable in any page. These forms could serve as simple data collection, or they could serve as contact forms, or, even, they could work as sign-up lists. If the plugin is abstracted at a low-enough level, then it could also serve as an API to create new content types and ways to display them throughout WordPress.

A Call for Collaboration

I’m convinced that the most responsible way to create the second version is to start with a lean yet flexible form API, a similar reporting API, and a robust form builder interface. If the base plugin is pluggable itself, then it has a greater potential to help others. Unfortunately, because of the complexity of the project, I know that development of the public version will be slow-going, but, I am quite fond of collaboration, so if you, interested reader, find that such functionality piques your interest and want to help develop with me, do contact us. If you have ideas or ways that you might like to use it, contact us. Lastly, if you can think of a great name for the plugin, then please, please contact us.

Currently, there is an empty Github repository (field-and-form). Watch it for future development.

On Reading Academic Blogs

Let me invite you into a scene that I often rehearse. Perhaps you are familiar with it too. It’s usually staged with the assumption that one has a concrete research or reading agenda upon opening a web browser. Rehearsing the scene is a risk, for an initially steadfast objective can fray and disintegrate into Youtube videos of cats or Buzzfeed listicles. What I’m about to describe is the point at which the solitary act of paging through a book connects to the Internet’s labyrinth of hyperlinks. In this scene a novice is reminded that she’s been reading with, and was simmering in the ideas of, scholars who blog.

***

Enter doctoral student. With a cup of coffee at a safe distance from her keyboard and a stack of reference books nearby, her laptop warms up while she consults an assemblage of notes and quotes. “It is easy to forget,” the student reads, “that cultural Marxism itself provided us with an account of the matter of affect as key to reading the historical present.” The student did forget and, yikes, she doesn’t recall where this quote is from. She reads a few more scrawls. “History hurts, but not only.” And, oh here’s the give-away: “All attachments are optimistic.” The penetrating and terse sentences, the student realizes, belong to Lauren Berlant’s monograph, Cruel Optimism. The student swivels on this moment of recognition, for she’s encountered this style of writing before, but not only in this monograph. The recognition congeals when she returns to a research blog that she haphazardly explored in the past. She rereads Berlant’s blog posts:

 July 24, 2013: “If I run out of gas, but not out of love, if you let a piece go without completion, if the session isn’t finished but definitively over, if the delicious coffee could only wake us forever…”

June 3, 2012: “Delaminated from week 1 lecture notes, Love Theory (Winter 2012)…I am a love theorist. I sometimes feel dissociated from all my loves.”

September 18, 2010: “I never fall out of love, but run out of gas. That’s what I mean by thinking as a transformation within stuckness.”

As she scrolls down the blog, descending into older posts, the student realizes that she has, in fact, been returning to similar, but not identical, phrases and syntactical structures of thought. She locates Cruel Optimism in the nearby stack, flips to a dog-eared page and revisits a passage about intuition: “[T]he visceral response is a trained thing, not just autonomic activity.” End scene.

***

I love how Berlant returns to and ruminates on ideas. The time-stamped entries on a blog imply shifts and, yet, despite these movements, there often remain fierce attachments to thoughts, feelings, situations, and unresolved queries. It may seem obvious, but I think it bears reiterating: blogs do not simply document content or data in real-time. They also register patterns of thought, continuities in values, revisions in an idea, default modes for inquiring about the world at large. And in an age where we are increasingly saturated in data, I wonder–as a student, a teacher–how we might interlace the production of information (i.e., a blog entry) with the anticipation of return. That is, I wonder how we might return in order to revise, remediate, and assess.

I begin with this scene as a way to introduce, and experiment with, a few thematics that I will return to in the coming weeks: the relationship between access and process, public scholarship, and how writing is shaped by emergent forms of reading experiences.

An Experiment in Online Presentations

Creativity, imparted by Euterpe
(Luigi Cherubini and the Muse of Lyric Poetry, by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres)

This past semester I assisted a professor with using Blogs@Baruch (our local installation and customization of WordPress) in her class for the first time. The experiment was also a new experience for me. In a previous class I have supported in which the professor wanted to use Blogs@Baruch, the goal was writing as a means of thinking through the course material and spurring discussion as a means of creating a sense of community in a large, faceless lecture. This time, however, the blog was a semester-long project that students would use to work through drafts, receive feedback from the professor and fellow students, and scaffold three major assignments leading to a final presentation. Rather than have students stand in front of the class and use PowerPoint slides, which is an all-too familiar exercise for anyone who has taught or sat through a business course in the past decade, this professor wanted to try something new: to encourage a creative response from the business students.

The course was on multinational corporations. Therefore, we thought, why not embrace the theme of the course, and create a final project that more accurately reflects the way a multinational corporation would receive information? More and more, corporations are forgoing the sit-in-a-room-and-watch-a-PowerPoint form of presentation for video conferencing and other types of presentations that do not require all participants to be in the same time zone, let alone the same room. (The uselessness of PowerPoint skills in “real world” business also came up at my table in a discussion during this year’s Symposium on Communication and Communication-Intensive Instruction.)

Part of my plan for this course was to release students from an overly programmed assignment description that is detailed to the point where every final project will look alike and contain no surprises or creativity (except, perhaps, for the surprise of plagiarized content or a particularly well-chosen graphic).

Education—despite what national, homogenizing assessment legislation would lead you to believe—is not the same as rote job training. Including a creative element to a business course would help to get the class away from the fill-in-the-blank answers, the memorization of formulas, and other uncritical thinking assignments of standardized testing.

A less creative way to test students

A less creative way to test students

Yes, there is job applicability to learning how to think creatively–take for example the terms “outside-the-box,” “shifting paradigms,” and all of those wonderful buzzwords that lose all creativity when overused as managerial replacements for creative problem solving.

The assignment would include the important details to be covered—corporate financial data, research findings, recommendations, etc—all of the lifeless bulletpoints that would have been included on a PowerPoint introduction slide. However, the way in which this material was to be presented would be open to the students’ own creativity. Testimony before a congressional committee. A transatlantic video conference call. A video from a high-powered consulting firm on the future of the company. Students would record their presentations, upload them as unlisted videos to a video-hosting site, and embed them in the class blog for the rest of the class to view.

Students were not initially ready for the freedom and creativity afforded by this assignment design. And the professor and I were met with strong resistance when we asked for work that did not have clear-cut right or wrong answers—even a short answer section on an exam elicited complaints from the class. We would take student feedback into account while designing and redesigning the assignments, but that did not mean always kowtowing to their complaints.

We scaffolded the assignments to try to slowly introduce the multiple elements needed to pull off the creative part of the project.

First, teams would post a group-written company profile. This could have been an ink-and-paper assignment, but we had them post the profile so that the whole class could read the reports. Not only was this component an attempt to foster teamwork, it also covered the content area and familiarized the groups with the companies that we would be working with throughout the project.

The second part of the project was a series of posts chronicling the development of the international crisis. Students were given a number of elements that had to be covered—the sequence of events leading to the crisis, the immediate response, the short-term effects, and the long-term effects—but the way in which these elements were presented was left up to the groups. Most groups waited until the last minute and then wrote one post on each element, but a few of the groups posted moment-by-moment analyses of their crisis using all of the required elements in each post. Whichever method they chose, these posts led directly to the final portion of the project: embedding a video presentation on the course blog recommending specific responses to manage the crisis.

By this point, the stress of the semester started to get to the students, and they insisted to the professor that they wouldn’t be able to complete the project. Rather than completely overhaul the final project, we reached a compromise and gave groups the option to record and post a PowerPoint presentation with narration. As part of this compromise, rather than an optional rehearsal with me, I required all groups to meet with me at least once before they began their final recordings. We used this meeting to discuss the current state of the project, outlines for a storyboard, and possible recommendations drawn from the research presented in parts one and two. This meeting was also a chance to allay fears about technology, suggest tools, and help group dynamics (at the very least to get everyone in the same room once before they returned to working asynchronously on their projects).

After meeting with all groups, about half of the groups decided to post a video, and of the remaining half who wanted to narrate slides, most opted to use Prezi, rather than PowerPoint. Many of the students who decided to use Prezi brought up the non-linear presentation application before I even had a chance to offer it as a PowerPoint alternative. (It is important for readers of cac.ophony.org to know that Prezi does offer academic accounts which provide more space, allow private presentations, and remove the corporate watermark.) A native web application like Prezi allowed the files to remain accessible to all group members and to be easily embedded in the class blog when ready.

Groups that opted for the creative presentation could use software like YouTube’s video editor—which has surprising features for a “free” web application and is fairly intuitive—to prepare their recordings for upload. I suggested running a mock video conference call. Students could run a third-party screen capture program to record a video chat, but that is one additional layer of software that could cause problems. Instead, I recommended Google On-Air Hangout which has an automatic recording feature that links to YouTube. However, no groups decided on the videoconferencing approach. Perhaps the very public nature of the On-Air Hangout was intimidating. (Skype has similar video conferencing capabilities, but requires a paid account to use them. There is free access to the video conferencing feature on Skype if you register as a teacher, but that doesn’t help students working independently on a project.)

Elmo, Telly, and friends use videoconferencing tools
(from the USMC program “Talk, Listen, Connect: Helping Families During Military Deployment”)

The results of this experiment were varied. But overall, the groups who opted for the “creative” video presentation were more engaged, appeared more knowledgeable, were more persuasive, and seemed to have more fun with the process. While some of the Prezi and PowerPoint presentations were informative and well-researched, they did not grab the audience the same way as a group speaking directly to the camera in a consultant pitch or a student taking on the role of CEO to defend his corporation’s actions.

In the end, even the students that were less-than-receptive to the idea of creativity in their business class assignments seemed to enjoy the project and learn something besides how to read a list of bullet points.

Widening not Narrowing the Path: More Promises of Blogging for Urban Education Policy

In my previous blog post, I noted that in the past few years, prominent K-12 education reform experts are increasingly using blogs to communicate their ideas. That is in addition to other avenues more typically utilized in academia (journals and books). I briefly profiled Bridging Differences, an education blog initiated by Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch which has evolved into a series of exchanged letters. I also visited Diane Ravitch’s new solo blog. I concluded by reflecting on the promises of blogs in bridging differences (especially in our very polarized education reform world) and in “writing to learn.”

For this post, I thought it would be interesting to peruse a few of the blogs representing much less global and “voiced” stakeholders in education policy debates: teachers and parents. As the blogosphere in urban education expands, an additional question I have is if and how local actors are taking advantage of the blog format. Excitingly, groundbreaking work on this question is taking place at the CUNY Graduate Center.

A colleague of mine in the Urban Education Ph.d program argues that online spaces, and blogs in particular, provide a new and critical venue by which to hear teachers’ voices, traditionally silenced by the policymaking process. She investigated daily classroom and school experiences via recent blogs written by NYC public school teachers. She thematically analyzed 14 public-facing anonymous blogs in years 2008-2012 to chronicle how teachers are living education policy. What’s even more fascinating was that she architected her own blog to do that thematic analysis; in other words, blogging served as both the content and as a methodological tool in her study. Dr. Kiersten Greene’s dissertation “Notes from the Blogging Field: Teacher Voice and the Policy-Practice Gap in Education” will be available online soon. For more information and to learn more about her blog about her own real experiences as a (now former) graduate student, teacher, and New Yorker, find her at opencuny.org/mediated.

Inspired by Greene’s work and given my own research interests in parents’ roles in decisions about schools, I briefly surveyed blogs focused on parents here in NYC and found the following six: http://nycpublicschoolparents.blogspot.com/; http://www.parentvoicesny.org/; http://parentsacrossamerica.org/; http://www.nycparentsunion.org/; http://www.parentadvocates.org/; and http://edvoxny.wordpress.com/.

Each of these blogs features parents prominently or is written by parents themselves. They offer testimony and research on pressing policy issues such as school closings, standardized testing, and college readiness. They also provide information on how to get involved and be part of the conversation including signing petitions, joining rallies, and of course, attending events such as the upcoming mayoral candidate forums on public education. One observation I had in reading all six blogs is that the author’s identity is not immediately clear. With the tendency for more and more parties to speak on behalf of parents in the public school system, sites should make the answer to that question clear. I am also not sure how many parents are accessing these blogs. That’s research we need.

In addition to parents, community leaders, advocates, retired teachers, and students are also using blogs. Studies similar to Greene’s should help answer if and how diverse stakeholders are able to participate more fully in urban education reform conversations via blogs. This is all very new, and at the start of this communication path, we should also be asking how we can be sure to widen the conversation not narrow it.

Own It

I hate when people post to blogs anonymously.

There are several blogs I follow regularly, on topics ranging from Appalachian Trail Thru Hikes to Philosophy (admittedly, there are many more on frivolous topics than rigorous ones). Recently, I was attacked by another commenter who made gross generalizations about the posts I’ve made on the blog and concluded by saying she “was glad [she] would never meet me.” Who was this commenter who took it upon herself to defame my character (on a blog related to clothes, and in response to a post I made about not liking a new style of tank top)? Anonymous. It seems that these days it’s okay to throw punches and then run and hide. Ownership and responsibility have been relegated to the backseat, while cowardice is now riding shotgun.

xkcd: Wikileaks

The vast majority of published content is not a matter of life or death; it does not involve high-profile whistle blowing. In most instances, there’s no need for anonymity. Or rather, there should be no need for it – either you should attach your name to what you’re writing, or you shouldn’t write it. I’m not denying anyone’s First Amendment rights – you can write (almost) whatever you want. But that doesn’t mean that you should. (Keep in mind that you can eat an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream in one sitting, but you probably shouldn’t.)

I have my students post and respond to weekly discussion board prompts. When discussing the assignment with the class, the following conversation ensued:

Student: “Do we have to include our name when we post?”

Me: “Yes – your name automatically appears. You cannot post anonymously, or I won’t know who the post is from and won’t be able to give you credit for the assignment.”

Student: “You could assign us each a secret number or code that we use when we post so that you know who the post belongs to, but no one else knows.”

Me: *confused* “That just seems really difficult when you can just post your name. Is there some reason you don’t want to use your name?”

Student: “Well, you know, so we don’t have to worry about offending someone.”

And there we have the crux of the issue: we are worried about offending people. More accurately, we are worried about people knowing who made the offensive comment. We don’t want any fingers pointed our way.

xkcd: Listen to Yourself

Here’s my suggestion: if you’re that worried about what you’re writing – don’t write it. I don’t mean this simply as “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Indeed, I wholeheartedly reject the notion that we should say only nice things and avoid the unpleasantries of life. Controversial statements need to be made. They prompt us to think critically and question our assumptions – the very essence of philosophical behavior. Controversy forces us to examine, analyze, deconstruct, and reconstruct our own beliefs. It is upon examination of your opponent’s position that you often manage to strengthen your own. Know thine enemy.

Know thyself. If there’s one thing I hope to impart upon my students, it’s that you should be prepared to give good reasons and support for anything you put out there in the universe. You’re not entitled to unsubstantiated opinions; everything you put out there is subject to the follow-up, “why?” “That’s just what I think” is not good enough. Don’t follow blindly; don’t repeat without questioning; don’t just babble without thinking. Stop and consider the arguments grounding your position. Question every premise. What makes them true – if they are? Do the premises add up to the conclusion? Are there alternative conclusions that could be drawn from the premises? If you’re not prepared to take responsibility for what you say and defend it, then don’t say it. To be rather blunt about it – the world doesn’t need more bullshit. And when I see “Anonymous”, that’s exactly what I see – people who feel entitled to spew their opinions all over, but are not willing to own up to them. And that’s bullshit.

xkcd: Dreams

Here’s another lesson: stop worrying so much about offending people. You cannot control everyone’s reactions. There is a fine line between being offensive and intellectual academic discourse. Both are often controversial. The former is usually based on anonymous, unsubstantiated opinions – the latter on well-thought out and defended arguments. Inevitably, someone will be offended by what you say. But if you have a well-considered, grounded argument for your position, then you have nothing for which to be ashamed. I feel strongly on several ethical issues. While I think that I’m correct, and I’m willing to give a defense of my positions, I don’t want my students to take up the mantle just because I said so. I’d rather my students disagree with my views for intelligent, well-thought out reasons than take what I say as gospel. I’m not a preacher, and I don’t want a flock.

So what to do? Be informed. Ignorance is not acceptable. The world doesn’t need more baseless opinions floating around; progress is made through intelligent, informed discourse. What you say matters – so make it count. Own what you write. If you’re not willing to attach your name to it, don’t put it out there in the world.

I’ll leave you with a piece from the New York Times Opinionator Blog: On Questioning the Jewish State. It’s wonderfully controversial, and no doubt many people are offended by its thesis. But there are two things it isn’t – baseless and anonymous. This is what we need.

-Sophia Bishop