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Building Digital Humanities in the Undergraduate Classroom: MLA 2012 Roundtable

I’m excited to be showcasing some of my students’ fabulous Digital Mapping Projects at an Electronic Roundtable/”Show & Tell” session at MLA in Seattle this January.  You can visit the official website of the panel here and read the descriptions of all the projects on display.

Here’s my original proposal for the panel:

At Georgia Tech we are encouraged to teach composition as multimodal and to design assignments that incorporate all aspects of communication.  Gone is the mandated five-paragraph essay and in its place is the possibility of creating a blog, a Dipity time-line, a word cloud, or a Prezi.  My assignments frequently set up a series of tasks and objectives but allow students to complete those tasks in a variety of different ways, using their choice of digital format.

The space for creativity that this opens up has been exciting but challenging, and I will use my presentation to present some of the potential benefits I see in pushing student creativity to the forefront of the composition classroom along with some of the possible problems and pitfalls. For the display portion of the presentation I will showcase a “digital mapping” assignment from my current English 1102 “Literary London” course, along with the detailed assignment, the objectives, and the assessment rubric.  The maps the students are producing include both“geographical” maps like a Google map of locations and landmarks in Oliver Twist or an interactive, annotated map of Mrs. Dalloway’s journey around London, and “digital mapping” projects which visualize data such as the statistics on the plague victims in Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year or use word- and tag-clouds to analyze the occurrence of dialect and slang in Oliver Twist.

Some of the questions and problems implicit in my presentation, which I will address in my discussion or introduction, include:  To what degree should we expect our students to be creative or original?  Is there a place for that in the composition classroom? What are the problems with encouraging creativity in the classroom – does creativity mean  “free-reign” or “multiple submission formats,” or “harder to grade”?  Is there a point at which digital pedagogy becomes too much about the technology?  How do we insure that the students are cognizant of how these creative approaches to teaching and assignments are meeting the course objectives and, more importantly, how they are equipping them with the skills they need to succeed in all kinds of careers?



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Thinking about Feedback

[This post is taken from the “End of Semester Wrap-Up” post over at my other blog on TECHStyle)

At the end of the semester I like to take some time to look back at the classes I just taught and evaluate how they actually turned out.  It always feels like a leap of faith to me, trusting that the syllabus I created in the quiet summer months and the carefully crafted assignments I designed to move students through learning to praxis will actually work in real life, in real time, with real students.

Looking back at my English 1101 class this semester, I feel pretty good about the way that things turned out:  the students performed well across all three sections, the assignments seemed to do a good job of connecting the targeted outcomes with the content of the course, and the students rehearsed all the elements of WOVEN (Written, Oral, Visual, Electronic, Non-verbal) communication in individual and group projects (you can read about one of those projects, a “Digital Archiving” project here).  But if there’s one thing that stands out as “the thing I want to work on next semester” it’s giving feedback.  With my current class load – three sections of 25 students – I always feel like I don’t have time during the semester to give enough individual feedback, either on the assignment itself via comments or face-to-face with students in conferences.  Ideally, I would meet with each student when I return each assignment and talk them through my comments and assessment.  Realistically, I would like to optimize the way that I give students written feedback directly on the assignment (i.e. with comments on a rubric or line-notes on a paper) and also build in time for individual meetings at least twice a semester.

Written feedback on papers/assignments

Currently, I read and grade students’ papers in a word-processing document and then use the “track changes” and “comment” feature to guide the student through my experience and assessment of their papers.

The result looks something like this:

One of the problems with this method is the overwhelming effect that a paper full of highlights and comment bubbles can have on a student.  This semester I tried two things:  first, I changed the default colors of my highlighting to less “harsh” colors, to make the effect less visually stressful – a paper covered in red strike-throughs does not invite a student to read the comments and process the feedback, no matter how positively it is phrased.  An even better idea recommended to me by a colleague which I will implement next semester is to color-code the highlighting to fit with the category of assessment from the grading rubric:  yellow for “Conventions,” green for “Stance and Support,” blue for “Organization,” etc.  That way, students can immediately evaluate what kind of errors they are making and prioritize their revisions accordingly. This prioritization of feedback leads me to the second idea I implemented this semester:  scaling back the number of corrections and comments and focusing on two to three main issues thus giving the students specific guidelines on what to do with this feedback and how to work on it for the next assignment.

Again, ideally I would have a course management software (CMS) that would integrate all of these steps, but, for now, I plan to keep grading online but increase my use of macros to insert comments that directly correlate with a specific assessment rubric.  I use this method for papers and multimedia projects alike (although I modify my rubric for each one) but it is still incredibly time-consuming and still not as effective, I feel, as giving face-to-face feedback to the student.

Face-to-face Feedback

My preferred way to give feedback is to schedule a 10-15 minute conference with each student after every assignment to guide them through my comments and recommendations.  I find I can be much more focused and much clearer in my advice to students in a situation where I can point to specifics in a paper or project and then discuss strategies for revision collaboratively with them.  But, logistically, I can’t fit in three or four conferences per student per semester with 75 students – I wouldn’t have time for class!  I have used the strategy of assigning work on a group project for a class session and then pulling students out of class for individual meetings, but even that spreads into two weeks of class for a Tuesday/Thursday class.  One idea I’ve considered is to record my feedback as a sort of pod-cast that would be available for the student to download within their CMS (T-Square here at Georgia Tech) which would at least allow me to talk directly to the student and narrate my immediate reactions to an assignment along with my assessment.  I’m not sure how I’d go about doing this, but it might serve as a balance between written-only feedback and face-to-face meetings.  Another suggestion I got this semester was to give feedback to small groups and to target one or two problems that appeared class-wide during the discussion.  Students can then apply the fundamentals of our discussion to the specifics of their own papers individually.  I really like this idea and will definitely be trying it out next semester.

So, how do you fit in and organize face-to-face feedback during a busy semester?  I’d love to hear any of your experiences/innovations with giving feedback to students – written or face-to-face.  Please leave your ideas in the comments!

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Thinking Small

Although my outlook on life might be big, I’ve been thinking about small things lately:

1.  I just got back from the wonderful NAVSA conference in Montreal, Canada, where I presented on “Miniature Books” in the Victorian era.  You can read the abstract here.  The talk prompted a great discussion of the relationship between scale and portability in reading technologies (think iPad or Kindle) and made some great connections between Victorian and contemporary reading practices.  I also chaired a panel on “Print Contexts” and heard fascinating papers from Mia Chen, Jillian Hess, and Andrew Stauffer.  I was especially excited to meet Andrew who works on the NINES project at UVA –his presentation on the interaction with Felicia Hemans‘ poetry via readers’ marginalia was fascinating and made a compelling case for preserving hard copies of texts that might be destroyed in the wake of digitization.

2. I’m also thinking small when it comes to pedagogy.  I’m contributing a post this week to our Brittain FellowsTECHStyle blog” on the topic of using blogs in the classroom for short, low-stakes writing assignments.   These “mini” writing tasks help break down the intimidating process of writing an essay into small steps, and the blog format encourages free-writing and reader feedback.  Check back next week and I’ll cross-post my entry here.

3. I’m currently grading my English 1101’s’ “digital archiving projects” which are StoryCorps- style interviews that students conducted with important members of the Georgia Tech and Atlanta community.  The students edited their 20 minute interviews into 3-5 minute excerpts (small!) and we’re in the process of adding them to the SMARTech digital archives at the Georgia Tech library.  The end results are fascinating — I’ll post some samples under the “Sample Student Projects” link on my “teaching” page soon.

4.  And finally, I’m using the concept of less-is-more this week in my teaching.  Yesterday I turned my English 1101 class over to group presenters and let the students steer the direction of our discussion for the first 15 minutes (in the style of “the Zen Ten“). They all had plenty of interesting things to say about this article on the negative impact of texting and social media on the non-verbal communication skills of “digital natives.”  While they concurred that they spend “too much time” texting, they disagreed that this would impact their ability to communicate with the “silent language” of non-verbal communication.  It was a productive session– my own silence freed the students up to have a frank conversation with each other.

So, it’s been a big week with small things!

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William Morris – the original Steampunker?

I’m spent the past few weeks researching the connections between William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement for the upcoming “Useful and Beautiful:  The Transatlantic Arts of William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites” conference, so I thought I’d share my abstract here.

William Morris:  The Original Steampunker?

Although it may seem an odd juxtaposition, there is much about the aesthetic philosophy of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement which prefigures the contemporary concerns of the Steampunk genre.  In my paper, I argue that the values of the Arts and Crafts movement rose out of a similar moment in history as the one we occupy today – a moment in which we recognize that we have lost access to the workings of the commodities which surround us.  Drawing upon the work and philosophies of Morris, Iwill show that the nineteenth-century Arts and Crafts Movement and the contemporary steampunk share a common desire: to reinstate the craftsman at the center of art production.

When Morris and his contemporaries set out to find an authentic style to represent the nineteenth century, they were pushing back against the rise of industrialized manufacturing which favored piece-meal production and constituted a movement away from genuine, individual craft.   Drawing upon the works of theorists and reformers such as John Ruskin and Owen Jones, practitioners of the Arts and Crafts Movement prioritized simplicity of form and quality of materials, linking the purity of construction to a greater morality of art.    Morris especially emphasized the simplicity of such forms, working himself with hand woodblock printing and rejecting more modern techniques for mass-producing books by returning to older, more traditional methods of printing.

This desire to return to older techniques of production, which prioritize the individual craftsman and emphasize the craft itself, resonates with the ostensible goals of today’s Steampunk movement.  Originally a literary genre, Steampunk has exploded in the past decades into an artistic and cultural movement, spawning conferences, clothes lines, films, music groups, and, perhaps most fascinating of all, steampunk artisans. 

Drawing upon philosophical tenets which look remarkably similar to those of Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement, steampunk artists produce artifacts which stress their individual craft.  From a computer retro-fitted into a nineteenth-century style, steam-driven (but still functioning!) machine to earrings made of tiny cogs, the  products of steampunk proudly display all their components, rendering visible that which modern technology hides away beneath smooth surfaces.  Indeed, those who try to define steampunk return again and again to the idea that the nineteenth-century represents the turning point at which we lost the ability to “make” our own products or to open them up and tinker with them.  In a type of protest against the minimalistic, sealed-off aesthetics of artifacts such as iPhones or Macbooks, the artistic work of steampunkers reinvokes the very concerns of Morris and his contemporaries, asking the question – what is lost, or, what do we as consumers of art lose, when industrialization and mass-production render the individual craftsman obsolete.


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