Enlivening Space, Writing about Place through Digital Maps

A couple of weeks ago, I presented a paper at the annual conference of the Shakespeare Association of America (affectionately—and appropriately—hashtagged #ShakeAss14). This was one of the most rousing SAA conferences I have experienced, in great measure because it really got me thinking about the convergence of traditional and digital research methods and teaching possibilities. The seminar in which I was a participant, “Theatre and Neighborhood in Early Modern London,” had much to do with spurring me to think along these new lines, not only because of the topic, but also because several of my fellow participants are at the helm of fantastic digital projects. In the early stages of my project last Fall, I had decided that I would publish the article (that will emerge from this paper) in a digital format and then—because my project (an examination of the River Thames as an early modern neighborhood that linked London with theatres in Southwark, via a ferry crossing to an “underworld” of sorts) deals with spaces and spatial connections—I also decided that I would integrate my text with a map that peoples the Thames, locates the playhouses and related entertainment venues, and so forth. Hence my arrival in the world of navigating and creating early modern digital maps—maps that tell stories, expand upon stories, and are expanded upon by additional stories. Though I grappled with my project in the usual conference paper way (reproached it, (re)revised it, hid under furniture from it, cajoled and occasionally admired it), I also had fun working on it, not least because of its digital/interactive/play-with-me possibilities.

Of course, how could I not respond this way after I had discovered the Map of Early Modern London (MoEML)? Click on the link and you will see what I mean. Play with its interactive features. Where do you end up—not just on the map, but in your imagination? I’m seeing and thinking—imagining ways in which this process of making could be used in composition and literature classrooms. Of course, I am at the very early stages of learning how to make digital maps, but it’s an exciting stage because, on the one hand, I’m teaching myself how to make new stuff, and on the other hand, I’m exploring ways to make this material engaging (and hopefully illuminating) for audiences curious about the interactions between early modern playhouses and neighborhoods — and more broadly, about how people define and demarcate “space” and their relationship to it in particular cultural and historical contexts. As I continue to research and build this project, I am also thinking about writing assignments for both composition and literature courses, specifically what sorts of assignments to create around digital maps and vice-versa. For instance, an assignment might ask students to map a part of their city — perhaps their commutes from home to school to work. What do the visual points of the journey reveal about neighborhoods traveled through, or about the journey of pursuing a college degree while working full-time? How do these physical and conceptual dimensions mutually constitute one another? Or, by using digital tools to map a particular character’s comings and goings, students might enrich their understanding of that character. And if students interconnect their maps, they could produce a rich, interactive guide of the play or novel we are studying. As I work on my early modern neighborhoods project, I am making connections between digital maps and writing, particularly the ways in which digital map-making and writing shape each other, stir the imagination, and enhance our abilities to perceive, make, analyze, and share.

Power Pointers

Power Point slides are omnipresent in today’s college classroom. Most textbooks in my field – I have been teaching introductory economics and finance – come with a set of PowerPoint slides prepared by the textbook publisher that feature content, examples and graphs from the textbook. These ready-made slides save a ton of time. Many instructors use them as they are, others personalize them to a varying degree. Instead of having to plan the class one can conveniently follow the slides along. However, although slides make teaching easier, they do not necessarily make it better.

We have all sat through countless lectures where the instructor merely displayed dense slides and even read their content out loud word for word. This is exactly the opposite of what we are trying to teach the students in presentation rehearsals at the Schwartz Institute. We encourage students to keep their slides brief and deliver the bulk of the information verbally.
I feel that slides tend to bore the students, and merely encourage them to copy and memorize as opposed to understand and analyze. Some students actually love the detailed, overloaded slides because they feel like they do not have to take any (or many) notes. However, as research suggests, this does not help their learning process. At the Schwartz Institute, we also encourage presenters to try to limit the number of slides in their presentations.

Excessive use of slides turns the attention away from the speaker and makes it harder to create an active interaction with students. Therefore, in my own teaching, I tend to use PowerPoint sparingly. Teaching microeconomics which is very graph-intensive, I have found that graphs are much better understood by students if I draw them on the board myself, as opposed to using the publisher’s animated slides that show the graphing procedure step by step. Slides also make it harder to pace yourself, and you are more likely to present faster than you probably should be when you are using slides.

However, the problem is not the tool itself, it is how you use it. Power Point can be an immensely useful tool in teaching, if used properly and limited to situations where the visual representation of an idea or concept increases comprehension. Here are a few ideas of how to avoid boring students to death with the slides.

  1.  Use the slide as a prompt, to bring focus to a discussion of the information. Go light on text, use images, statistics or charts.
  2.  Use the slide as the vehicle to deliver a question, problem, or example, not as a tool to deliver information.
  3. Consider not handing out print-outs of your slides. By summarizing the slides in their notes the students’ comprehension and retention may be enhanced. Writing things down facilitates learning.
  4. Turn off the projector to focus attention back on you, when necessary. Alternatively, if you press the letter B on your keyboard, it makes the screen go black. Pressing it again brings the screen back. Similarly, pressing W will make the screen white.
  5. Finally, when using a screen, if possible, try to position yourself near the screen, so you keep the focus on people’s attention and eyes in the same place. This also allows you to quickly place yourself in front of the screen during discussion when the screen may be black or white. Positioning yourself too far from the screen is distracting and force you to compete with the screen for the audience’s attention. In other words, do not make your listeners feeling like they are watching a tennis match.

I-Phone, I-Pad, I-DontRemember

More research is coming out that suggests that new technologies may impact the way people remember and process information. Technology is moving at a rapid pace with more and more students owning a smartphone, a tablet, or both, and almost everyone connected to the internet.

Electronic book readers have got immensely popular in the last few years and many think that they will become the main way people read text in the future, whether for school, work or pleasure. However, research suggests that on-screen reading is actually measurably slower than reading on paper. The study conducted at the University of Leicester finds that people who read on paper develop an understanding of the material significantly faster and in greater depth than e-readers users. Also, tablet users need to re-read the same paragraph more often. The researchers concluded that associations, such as positioning of the information on the page, whether top or bottom, left or right, or near the graphic, so called “spatial context”, plays a role in remembering and understanding the material. What is more, they find that the smaller the screen, the less associations can be made. For example, reading on a smartphone results in the loss of most of the context and therefore brings the least value.

Moreover, new technologies seem to make writing by hand outdated. Anna, in her recent blog entry, stresses the importance of handwriting. Research suggests that handwriting is important to the learning process beyond the “writing” itself. Handwriting facilitates learning since the movements involved leave a motor memory in the sensorimotor part of the brain. By writing by hand, we stimulate the part of our brains responsible for abstract thinking and visual perception. Nevertheless, when I taught courses at Baruch College, I noticed that many students prefer to take notes on their laptop in class. This practice seems to be becoming the new norm, since more and more elementary school students are currently being introduced to tablets and computers for everyday use in school. There is an ongoing debate among educators whether teaching cursive should be made obsolete and some states are removing cursive instruction from curricula and focus on typing instead. Needless to say, this research weighs heavily in favor of continuing to teach cursive handwriting.

Admissions officials at Waterloo University, Canada, have attributed a recent increase in the failure rates of a standard English language exam to students’ use of electronic social media. The university has seen an increase in the use of emoticons, truncated or abbreviated words in formal exams and applications. This suggests that people who text and tweet extensively are more likely to overlook the misspellings, punctuation and grammatical errors in their professional correspondence.

Another study, conducted by a researcher at Columbia University explores how the internet changes the way we handle information. The study finds that we treat internet search engines like our own instant external memory system. The researcher, Betsy Sparrow, explains this phenomenon using the rather old concept of transactive memory. In any long-term relationship or team, people typically develop a group, or transactive, memory. This is the combination of information held directly by individuals and information can access because they know someone who knows that information. Therefore, people are less likely to remember what they read online, but they could remember where they read it. This sounds efficient – as long as we have access to Google. However, the question remains whether the educational system and the economy will evolve to deemphasize the importance of the personal retention of information, or whether these young people will find themselves disadvantaged in a society with higher expectations with respect to their knowledge base.

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.

Anything You Tweet May be Used Against You in a Court of Law…

As is becoming increasingly clear, the United States government is laying claim to virtually all forms of electronic communication. The latest revelations tell us that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been, since at least 2007, working with private corporations to monitor and archive the emails, phone calls, text messages, and internet browser histories of millions of people. The secret program, called PRISM, is part of a disturbing pattern of government surveillance in the years since 9/11.

While the details of these programs are still in the process of being disclosed, many Americans, as this New York Times piece suggests, have become resigned to the idea of a total lack of privacy in the digital age, assuming that nearly anything they type into an electronic device could be subjected to government snooping.

I’m certain that our students have internalized this notion. As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, young people are increasingly aware that their internet activities, including on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, may be viewed by potential employers and factored into hiring decisions. This thought is horrifying enough, but the reality is that more than just employers are interested in mining your data:  corporations want that information for advertising profits, and the national security apparatus wants to run your Tweets and status updates through A.I. keyword algorithms, collecting and archiving justifications for your future arrest and incarceration. Do I sound paranoid? Maybe. But with the New York State Assembly currently considering a law making it a felony (like, prison time) to “annoy” a police officer, please excuse my cynicism.

So, how do we address these issues as teachers of communication? Since it’s basic psychology (and physics) that the act of being observed alters a subject’s behavior, we can assume that the wide cultural awareness (whether conscious or unconscious) that our digital life is being observed by forces potentially hostile to our interests (whether those interests be securing employment, maintaining realities free of personally-tailored consumer propaganda, or avoiding being black-bagged and subjected to extraordinary rendition by private security agents) changes the way we and our students behave online. Since I’m the type of person that frequently experiments with charged political language on social media, I’m often running my thoughts through a legal processor in my mind before clicking “Post,” wondering if what I write might be projected on a screen in front of me someday while a cigar-chomping investigator asks me accusingly what I meant when I posted a photo of a kitten dressed up as Che Guevara on Christmas morning, 2008.  And I’m afraid I won’t have a good answer.

Are my fears overblown?  Again, maybe.  I’ll concede that, being a historian of the Cold War era, I’ve internalized a certain amount of pathological distrust for giant security states. And I’m definitely pre-programmed to become immediately concerned that government surveillance intimidates and silences people that are working for social and economic change, exactly the kind of voices that we need to be listening to and honoring at this moment. But beyond the political stuff, I suppose my main concern for our students is that they will be even more cautious in their digital lives, fearing that they might not “get a job” if they post anything deemed offensive. While it’s important for them (and us) to be thoughtful about the ways that we communicate online, that impulse should not come from fear of punitive action from companies and governments. It’s frightening and disheartening to think that, at the very moment that humanity develops technology with seemingly infinite potential to foster connection and innovation, particularly for young people, elite forces are hard at work creating the practical and psychological frameworks to put severe limits on that evolution.

Do Communication-Intensive Methods Improve Science Learning?

In January, I blogged about the collaboration between the Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute and Professor David Gruber, who is teaching Environmental Science 1020.  Both last semester and this semester, students in Professor Gruber’s class were assigned to lab groups and each group produced a Digital Lab Report for one lab.  The assignments we created were specific to the different learning goals of the labs; however, all required students to use at least one (often more) form of media and incorporate writing and critical reflection into the process.  Each group goes through a series of collaborative and creative steps.  These include: free-writing soon after the lab is complete; brainstorming; research to pull in other relevant material; posting raw footage, audio, and pictures on the class blog; and creating a rough draft of a Digital Lab Report (which might be a video, a podcast of a radio show, a timeline, or a Prezi depending on the assignment).  Then, groups present their rough drafts to the class and receive feedback on the communication, critical thinking, and content components of their DLRs.  Students have the opportunity to revise their Digital Lab Reports over the next couple of weeks before presenting their final versions.  For a timeline of this process for last semester’s Mutualism lab, click here.

There are many obvious benefits to having students create Digital Lab Reports.   They compel students to collaborate and converse more about their lab work.  They encourage critical thinking, as students are expected to articulate reflections on their work through the various stages.  They are fun – students often use humor.  They improve students’ media and communication skills because students get feedback on these aspects of their creations as well.  But the one main question at the back of my mind when we embarked on this project was whether communication intensive pedagogy actually helps students to learn science.

After almost a year of observation, I feel confident answering yes. In class last Wednesday students presented their drafts.  Their introductions to their Digital Lab Reports and the DLRs themselves gave us a great deal of insight into how they were understanding (or not understanding) scientific concepts in ways traditional lab reports might never reveal.  This is partially because the DLRs require students to consider their audience and speak to their audience.  This means re-phrasing scientific language to make it accessible.  To do this, students must take in information, analyze it, and reformulate it in their own way.  Furthermore, the accuracy or inaccuracy of the external information and images they brought in as examples gave Professor Gruber insight into how they had remembered and interpreted the concepts he had explicated, as well as what they were considering “real world” connections.  The collaborative aspects of the DLRs means that students have to hash out these ideas and arrive at a shared understanding.  After each draft presentation, groups were asked questions and received feedback from their peers, Professor Gruber, and me.   Through the process of revising their labs, they will have to address the inaccuracies or gaps in their understanding of scientific concepts.  Their next round of presentation drafts will let us know if and how their scientific thinking has changed.

For me, this reveals that communication and technology-intensive methods are particularly beneficial for science courses and have great potential to enhance student learning.

Be Interested?

A few weeks ago, at the SUNY Council on Writing Conference, I heard Richard E. Miller give a fascinating keynote called “Who’s this for?: Audience in the Classroom without Walls.” What I found most exciting about his remarks was his description of an assignment he gave a creative nonfiction class: Be Interested. My understanding of what this means is that Miller  asked his students to “produce a research project that others would read willingly.” My first reaction was of the “I want to steal that assignment” variety.  But as I thought more about the prompt, I began to wonder if a student would be as excited as I was. Miller mentioned that he had students who grappled with questions like “How do you become interested in anything?” and struggled with finding a way to experience curiosity in a moment when information is “superabundant.”


The more I toyed with this kind of assignment, the more I found myself wondering more about what I’d actually be asking students to do, what it actually means to genuinely be interested in something, and what that might look like in writing. A cursory glance at the OED shows that the word “interest” is defined using terms like “concern,” “curiosity,” and “sympathy.” But, interestingly, one definition also lists “to share in something.”

The idea of “sharing” seems central to composing, at least to me. But, often, I think it is this component–that of engaging and collaborating with an audience outside of the “teacher”–that I think might be lacking for many students (and here I’m thinking specifically of the freshmen I work with). To return to Miller’s prompt–I suppose the “assignment” is really to be interested and to be interesting. And, I also suppose that in an environment where students are perpetually in some kind of rubric quest, this probably feels very very scary.

But, on the flip side, this kind of opportunity is one that we should hope students encounter more and more. As Gardner Campbell points out:

We might begin with a curriculum that brings students into creative, challenging contact with the history and dreams of the digital age, perhaps in a first-year experience that asks them to reflect critically on their own digital lives as well as begin to shape and share their own digital creations, both intramurally and publicly. Research into the neurobiology of learning, building on decades of educational research, has shown that students learn deeply when they are asked to narrate their learning, curate their creations within the learning environment, and share what they have curated with a wide and, when appropriate, a public audience. As students understand that they are not simply completing an assignment at a professor’s behest, but in fact beginning their life’s work, they will necessarily become more engaged and produce more authentic work reflective of their own growing interests.

This excerpt is from part 4 of Gardner Campbell’s excellent series of posts on “The Road to Digital Citizenship,” this one subtitled, “Fluency, Curriculum, Development.” Campbell connects student investment in their own work with developing a pedagogy that allows for rigorous reflection on what it means to live a digital life. Campbell also makes the important connection between “sharing” and “publicness,” an important link where the truly interesting might occur through the kinds of conversation digital compositions enable.

Asking students to approach this kind of inquiry marks an important shift in the definition of what it means to write an “academic essay.” I wonder if what is actually happening is a return to Montaigne’s sense of the essay as a “series of attempts,” or Francis Bacon’s “dispersed meditations.” By encouraging students to “be interested” and “curate their creations,” the usual chore of the “paper” becomes more of an experiment in invention or “making.”


It is no coincidence that “Composition as Explanation,” Gertrude Stein’s sonic exploration of what it means to “create a composition,” employs the verb “to make” as one of its central repeated words. For example: “This makes the thing we are looking at very different and this makes what those who describe it make of it, it makes a composition, it confuses, it shows, it is, it looks, it likes it as it is, and this makes what is seen as it is seen.” This work is also the first time that Stein refers to her sense of a “continuous present” which was crucial to how she thought of her own process.

steintokEducation writer Audrey Watters lists “The Maker Movement” as one of the “Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2012″ and describes the importance of this kind of pedagogical approach as, “we need more learning by making, through projects and inquiry and hands-on experimentation.” When we actually ask students to physically invent something, to take objects and turn them into something that did not exist ten minutes earlier, this is a very different kind of learning from writing a 3-5 page paper. It marks a return to the kind of “learning by doing” that John Dewey advocated for–“Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.” In other words, when we are engaged in the act of “making” or “doing,” that is when real learning occurs, and that is also when I think the sensation of “being interested” is rediscovered.

In many ways this post feels like its own experiment in what Stein might describe as “beginning again and again is a natural thing…”–I wanted to think about this idea of “being interested,” which consequently was so interesting to me that only now have I realized what the connection is to my own recent experiences in the classroom. Meechal recently wrote about one of my latest forays into technology in the classroom, one that I am still processing. When given the chance to use the MaKey MaKey with my 2 composition 2 sections (thanks to Mikhail & BLSCI), I jumped at the chance, trusting a gut feeling that “making” something physically might teach us something about what happens when we “make” academic essays.

Picture1In small groups, the students were given MaKey MaKeys, a number of different materials that conducted electricity, and access to a laptop and told to “make” and “invent.” As a teacher, what was interesting to me was to watch the groups’ progress–many began by seeming a little confused, admittedly not knowing what to “invent,” and feeling at a loss for ideas (or “interest”). But, I also got to watch each group work collaboratively and experientially and ultimate discover the spectrum of things they  might do.

And, after the class session, students blogged about what they experienced through “making.” A few sample responses:

  • “If we just looked at the surface of today’s session, we would see that we were just playing around with the Makey Makey and doing things that are totally unrelated to our English class. However, if we think more deeply, we will see many similarities, especially with the process of writing. At first, we need some ideas to invent something amazing with Makey Makey; if not, we will just be playing and there will not be any creation. It is like writing our essays; we need a specific thesis to write a good essay based on the thesis.”
  • “Making something with the Makey Makeys very musch resembled the writing process. In class on Monday we were supposed to “outline” our plans and ideas for what we wanted to make today in class. An outline plays an important role in essay writing so that the writer has their thoughts and ideas organized and ready to be written down and explained. Each invention also required several “revisions” and “rewrites” in order for it to reach its “final draft” stage. I know that my group changed plans, inventions, and strategies a few times throughout the class period.”
  • “For a good portion of our time we were bouncing back and forth between these questions and sitting there thinking about what we should do. I felt frustrated at the fact that with all these tools we were just stuck, it was like our creativity was at a standstill. However after revisiting the objectives of using the Makey Makey and playing around with it, things made a turn for the better. With developing a greater understanding and applying that understanding to ideas we had, we were able to center on one idea and go with it…Relating to writing, when have that moment where you know the message you want to communicate and gather all your information; everything comes together and flows. Centralizing your idea and making attempts towards it can assist in your creativity. Whether is be the next groundbreaking IT program or your final paper, the initial beginning may prove to be the most difficult; but after you overcome that, you will have your masterpiece.”

3D Research Writing

On November 15, 2012, as part of “The Seminar on Innovative Teaching” series, the Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute hosted a talk by Tim Owens titled “3D Printing and Making Across the Curriculum.” Owens, Instructional Technology Specialist at the University of Mary Washington, invited us to join him in an exploration of how the ability to use 3D printers to create real physical objects impacts the way students (of any level in many disciplines) come to understand their own agency, particularly the agency of producing. I was particularly interested in Owens’ Makerbots and Mashups course, a freshman seminar style course where students were immersed in the process of “making” (on a number of levels), and even more interested in the self-reflective blog his class kept chronicling their collaborations, experiments, and valuable missteps.


I left that seminar feeling particularly charged about the possibilities that 3D printing presents for the first year writing class. I kept thinking about the way that Owens spoke about using the process of 3D printing as a way to “problem solve”—to enable students to explore what it might mean (and look like) to actually create something that could “represent a solution.”


For the past few years I’ve assigned a “digital essay” project that parallels the 7-10 page research paper students in Composition I and II write. My logic behind adding in the mysteriously vague digital component was that I was curious if student writing would noticeably change when the somewhat traditional research/argument driven paper joined hands with something visual and much more abstract. And, student writing did change—thesis statements were articulated through the process of creating the digital project and overall, the research papers were/are noticeably better. Students were/are excited by and invested in their own work in a way they hadn’t been before, or at least I hadn’t seen this level of enthusiasm in previous papers.


I can’t say that I was surprised by these results. I expected student work to change, and I keep working on this project because I love watching how writing grows and changes. Cynthia Selfe discusses the “use-value” of the “digital story” as “we’re not going to teach students to be Spielbergs or anyone like that. We’re going to teach them to be good rhetoricians who can deploy any number of modes of expression and media to make meaning. We’re going to teach them to use all available means to accomplish responsible rhetorical ends.” And, by encouraging students to be proficient in these multiple modes of expression, we are also opening up a space for the digital to speak to the written and vice versa.


Much of the writing about pedagogy and 3D printing focuses either on engineering majors or art/design students, although it is clear that the process of creating, designing, editing, and actually making an object mirrors many of the talents we want to foster in first year writing courses. As Angela Chen points out, “nearly every discipline could benefit from the ability to easily create objects from customized designs.”

So, when I learned that there was a Makerbot on campus, I felt certain that even if I didn’t fully understand what 3D printing meant, it would present students with another tool that might change their relationship to writing. And, after Tim Owens’ talk, I felt even more sure that 3D printing should be a crucial part of Composition I because the creation of an object seemed to parallel the research paper composing process in a way that I’m still not sure I can fully articulate.

My research paper assignments are always quite scaffolded, with the idea that the assignment can be hugely broad and that students can discover their own research questions along the way. I was curious to see if the process of drafting a physical object would influence the discovery and development of the research focus, or vice versa.

Some Student Work:


The above is a student’s “first draft” of his project. Once he realized that he needed to “scrap” this idea, he also realized a number of things about his paper (and thesis statement)–mainly that his argument could be more specific and that he actually wanted to take some more risks with his analysis of the relationship between cognition and physical identity.


This image is a snapshot of this student’s process presentation–he decided to teach himself how to really “sculpt” and alter the original brain model he was working with. The process of carving symbols into a brain ended up mirroring his writing process–he had a solid first draft, and ended up realizing that he needed to really explode that draft–carve into it more specific analysis, focus on one case study related to his larger topic, etc.


The above is a series of images of another student project, which he describes as: “Iron Man’s arc reactor is a symbol of his life and ability to stay alive. I wanted to take the arc reactor and see what would happen if I built a virus that envelopes it. What originally happened was I got something that looked like a globe. So, I flattened out the virus and now you can look through the virus and see the center of the arc reactor…” This student’s paper began as an extremely vague meditation on technology and evolution. But, he was also very interested in learning the software to create his own 3D designs. What happened was that this student became very interested in creating his own original virus–which then led to the realization that his paper might really specifically focus on the current influenza situation–the way the virus overcomes the vaccine and the implications of that.


This post is meant to just be a snapshot of what happened last semester, as I begin to prepare for the coming semester’s classes, where I want to do more with 3D printing and am trying to figure out how to revise my approach. Any ideas, experiences, suggestions would be helpful and appreciated!

Multimedia and Blogging in the Classroom Strategies

While I was preparing for a Multimedia and Blogging workshop, I came up with a list of strategies that professors can use to incorporate multimedia and blogging in the classroom:

1. Scaffolding:  Professors can use blog assignments to build up students’ skills in preparation for more formal assignments. As a form of low-stakes writing, blog entries can make students’ thought processes and inner debates more apparent.

2. Modeling:  When professors give students a blog or multimedia assignment, it is very helpful to model a successful example of the assignment, perhaps from a past semester.

3. Give Students Roles: Rather than treating blog comments as a free-for-all, why not give students specific roles? For instance, students could be asked to be Peer Reviewers of other students’ posts, or one student could be asked to post a Summary of topics that most often came up over a week’s worth of posts.

4. Set Expectations:  When professors give students an untraditional assignment, the expectations for fulfilling that assignment should be even clearer than those for a traditional assignment. Be clear concerning the style, tone, and format that you expect. Also, including a grading rubric can be helpful.

5. Awareness of Student Population: Professors should plan for the learning curve that they can expect from their students regarding the technologies involved in course assignments. Some students may need some individual assistance, and it would be wise not to overburden students with too many platforms in one semester. That being said, Baruch’s student population is quite tech savvy overall.

6. Learning Goals, Learning Goals, Learning Goals:  Learning goals come first, and the technology follows. Blogging and multimedia assignments must be driven by and fully integrated into the course’s purpose.

7. Use Media Repositories:  The U.S. Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, and other institutions offer free and well-documented repositories of media. Working collaboratively as a class with a set group of primary sources can give students invaluable experience.

8. Ask Students to Critique and Curate Sources: An annotated bibliography can turn into a media-rich online annotated bibliography. Before students write their research papers, have them post an annotated bibliography online. If the annotated bibliography can contain popular as well as scholarly sources, then it might present a good opportunity for students to enunciate the differences between a wide variety of sources.

9. Work in a Lab Setting: Setting one or two classes aside for lab work can help you to work with students and give them feedback in real time.

10. Build a Critical Vocabulary: In-class discussions, modeling, and the online sharing of student work and the professor’s comments can all work toward building a critical vocabulary, both in terms of disciplinary knowledge and the competent critique of various types of sources.

11. Scale Your Expectations:  Dramatically switching topics (from gender issues to environmental issues, for example), assigning many untraditional assignments on top of traditional assignments, and using many different types of technology are all sure ways to frustrate and overburden students. Sometimes less is more.

As I think about the literature and composition courses that I’ve taught, these are the major mistakes that I’ve made:

1. Expecting non English majors to understand and effectively incorporate academic articles, especially without any in-depth class discussion.

2. Assigning too many small assignments.

3. Pacing the course too quickly and/or expecting to cover an unrealistic amount of content.

4. Not including enough specific guidelines on untraditional assignments.

5. Not thoroughly pretesting technology.

Those of you reading, what is a teaching mistake that you or someone you know (without naming names) has made? It may or may not involve blogging and multimedia.

FRO12: Now Much Artier

This summer Mikhail Gershovich and I re-wrote the three blog prompts required of all Baruch College students taking Freshman Seminar. The previous prompts, which we wrote a few years ago, were way too formulaic. When crafting assignments, you get what you ask for. We had asked students to tell us “this,” and they responded by writing “this.”

One of the goals of the freshman blogging initiative was to get a sense of who our students are. Instead, we were getting a sense of who our students felt we wanted them to tell us they were. Very few posts integrated media, and students responded to them as though they were a burden rather than an opportunity.

We feel these new prompts are much improved:

Post One, due by mid-September Create a two minute video, an eight image slideshow, or a ten song musical playlist that represents who you think you are to your classmates. Embed your creation in a blog post and then write no more than 500 words that explains how what you’ve created speaks to who you are.

Post Two, due by mid-October For this assignment, you must 1) post the self-reflective monologue you’ve developed in your seminar workshop AND 2) embed a self-portrait, which can be a photograph, an image, a cartoon, a drawing, or some other depiction of how you see yourself.

Post Three, due by early December Create or find a photograph or some other image (a meme, an animated GIF, etc.) that represents in some way your experience at Baruch thus far. Embed your image in a blog post in which you reflect, in no more than 500 words, on your impressions of your first three months at Baruch. Your response should be personal and creative. If you use an image that you did not create yourself, be sure to credit the source with a name, if possible, and a URL!

We trained the Peer Mentors who run Freshman Seminar in how to guide students through producing these posts, and gave them a range of tools that students can use. We also talked to them about the “why” behind these assignments. Each creates an opportunity to talk with students about intellectual property issues, about citation, about public and private publishing (students can password-protect their posts if they want), and about the network of publishers that’s emerging on our campus. In their coursework, we ultimately want students to break down artificial boundaries between the tools and ideas they use and engage outside of their schoolwork and what happens in school. We want to give them permission to apply the skills that power their hobbies to their academic pursuits. We want them to make some art, dammit. And we want them to learn how to do all this in a way that generates both specific expertise and “generalizable knowledge.” Doing so in a low-pressure setting like Freshman Seminar is a crucial first step.

We’re already seeing the fruits of this change in the first six hundred + posts that have come in. Want to see what college freshmen at public, urban university are listening to these days, and how they write about those tastes? Want to see New York City through the eyes of 18 year-olds? Want to see our students’ facility with the moving image (only a few have used video so far, but, this is great)? Then check out the 2012 Baruch Freshman Seminar Motherblog. This space aggregates feeds from around fifty individual sections of the course powered by the work of over a thousand students. That space will be filling up with work over the next few months, and we’re excited to keep looking at, listening to, and watching what our first year students come up with.


Originally posted on my personal blog