Designing Accidents: Advocating Aleatory Research Methods in New Media Pedagogy

Kyle P. Vealey, Purdue University

Jeffrey M. Gerding, Purdue University


This assignment sequence advocates the use of aleatory research methods in new media pedagogy. Specifically, we see effective inquiry emerging not only from a deliberate search and seizure method of research but also from accidental, chance-based connections and associations afforded by networked technologies. As such, we endorse the productive and vital role chance and accidental associations play in nonlinear practices of inquiry.

Giving Chance a Chance

The overarching purpose of our assignment sequence looks to create and cultivate a space for accidents in research methodology—in other words, to give chance a chance. Put more precisely, this assignment sequence attempts to re-situate research methodology within a wider, more inclusive scope of inventive practices. We move to consider research practices as not only deliberate and choice-based inquiry—the result of a predictive and conscious process of seeking out and seizing information to support already established claims—but also as encompassing activities that develop from accidental connections, surprises, mistakes, and chance associations. The objectives of our assignment sequence prioritize a greater intellectual valuation—in students, instructors, and institutions—of cognitive association and chance-based connections in the creation of meaningful compositions. Such associations, as we will discuss, are made possible by the structure of twenty-first century information environments and networks. By casting chance and accidents as key compositional principles, we offer networked technologies a greater agential role in research and inquiry.

Theoretical Background

The Logic of Boxes

The initial motivation for this assignment sequence emerged from Geoffrey Sirc’s “BoxLogic.” There, Sirc proposes an inventional method (or what Jeff Rice calls “an emerging logic of new media”) meant to transcend enduring essayist conventions that perpetuate the production of linear, unified, and cohesive student prose (Sirc 2004, 116; Rice 2007, 307). The box, as opposed to the traditional essay form, creates a tangible and flexible space for storing, curating, and exhibiting “one’s most passionately cherished items,” items that would otherwise, in an essayist form, be passed over as suitable topics for inquiry (Sirc 2004, 116). Quoting Joseph Cornell, Sirc holds that the box medium acts as a “diary journal repository laboratory, picture gallery, museum, sanctuary, observatory, key…the core of a labyrinth, a clearinghouse for dreams and visions…childhood regained” (Sirc 2004, 118). Whereas the traditional print-based research paper unproductively constrains the type of research that occurs, the box enables and cultivates an alternative form of sustained inquiry.

Sirc’s shift in compositional media—from a print-based text to a more embodied, emotionally laden, material piece of architecture—is not a one-to-one replacement of the traditional research paper with a material equivalent. The box acts as a means, a method, or a route to an arguably more vital component of writing instruction; in other words, “the means or media are not as important…as the expressive or conceptual uses afforded by them” (Sirc 2004, 115). The expressive power of the box allows students to compose, or literally “gather together,” disparate objects of fascination for a personally expressive aesthetic. Sirc suggests that composition can and should be revitalized as a “craving,” as the process of bringing together bits and pieces of one’s life that hold the writer in “intellectual fascination” as well as “emotional possession” (Sirc 2004, 119).

As a genre, Sirc characterized the box as “different, interesting, human-/scaled, [and] inter-/active” (Sirc 2004, 115). In composing their boxes, students are asked to be “not only selector…but collector, where the choosing is suffused with desire” (Sirc 2004, 118). In contrast to a traditional research assignment, the topics and subsequent developments in box-logic are determined by the types of connections that emerge when “materially interesting” objects are juxtaposed, seemingly without purpose. Edward de Bono’s New Think and Mechanism of Mind, two works in speculative psychology that famously pioneered the concept of “lateral thinking,” confirm the inventive possibilities of juxtaposition (de Bono 1967, 4). By setting two ideas or objects next to one another, certain dominant and heuristical forms of thinking are disrupted by what de Bono calls “provocations,” creating a need for new and intelligible connections to be made. Sirc’s box method implicitly enacts this kind of creative work. He writes: “I want students—designers, now, not essayists—free for such associational drifts; entering things naively, without countless rehearsals; trying to capture a mood or vision” (Sirc 2004, 121). For Sirc, the “countless rehearsals,” manifested in revision processes, clean up the inherently messy work of research while simultaneously presenting developed arguments as clear and readymade.

Acknowledging how compositional practices have changed in the last several years as a result of radical changes in the technological landscape, Sirc proposes that the key to “[achieving] powerful ends with new media lies in aestheticizing the scene of composition in an idiosyncratic, obsessional way” (Sirc 2004, 118). Thus, with the emergence of interactive technologies come new ways of inquiring and new ways of inventing. Moving in stride with Sirc, this assignment sequence hopes to gesture in that same direction by focusing on the productive but accidental connections and associations that emerge from networked technologies.

The method we advocate through our assignment sequence is distinct from Sirc’s box-logic in two important ways. First, while Sirc’s model affords students deliberate choice (“suffused with desire”) in what is included or excluded in the boxes, other similar, non-linear models of research procedures (ours included) go further in emphasizing the role of accumulations, associations, and accidents in the invention process (Sirc 2004, 118). Second, associations in a box-logic are attuned to affective or emotional resonances; that is, our capacity for association acts as an emotional sonar of sorts, detecting texts or images that echo a “deeply felt truth” (Sirc 2004, 130). The process of linking and connecting ideas, texts, or images in a box-logic culminates, for Sirc, in the fostering of an aesthetic, or the “passional possibilities” of a poetic (Sirc 2004, 125; 130). What makes it into the box is thus a result of affective decidedness—of choice, motivated by feeling, curious fascination, or desire. By contrast, in creating an environment rich with aleatory techniques, the accidental is a co-contributing factor to how both students and instructors research and invent—a factor that often, as we will discuss, bumps up against institutional and disciplinary demands. Before exploring those disciplinary demands, we turn to a brief discussion of networks and cognitive association. Our next section situates the importance of associative labor in a networked culture. As we note, the rise of digital networks initiates new ways of thinking, inquiring, and, ultimately, researching.

Networks of Association

Central to Sirc’s box-logic is the rhetorical practice of juxtaposition. Arranging and juxtaposing disparate texts, images, and objects side by side often renders them “strange-d” as well as infuses them with new meaning (Sirc 2004, 119). That is, in the process of juxtaposing, we are actively engaging in context-building and the construction of mini-environments that contribute to the meaning of the composition. Key to this juxtaposing process is the operation of association, what Sirc calls the “conjoining logic,” where affect and cognition merge in creating intelligible connections between disparate ideas and objects (Sirc 2004, 125). In other words, our capacity to associate with and between juxtaposed objects veritably constructs their meaning. Sirc provides us with an example of student work that constructs through association: one student sought to overlay quotes from St. Augustine’s Confessions onto selected paintings by Edward Hopper. The project’s juxtaposition not only highlights the curated materials’ contrasting qualities but also creates specific features and linkages that would have otherwise gone uncreated. The “conjoining logic” of associations utilizes the stark contrast between ideas and objects as an opportunity to create innovative and previously unimagined connections (Sirc 2004, 125). The intellectual labor in this practice is in following, tracing, and playing with these associational links.

Recognizing the inventive capacity of associations, Sirc concludes, “it is the associational logic of linkages that we need to develop in our classrooms”—that is, we should help students develop associational thinking in place of the stale inquiry skills that proceed from carefully planned methods (Sirc 2004, 125). Sirc’s point suggests that we are better served in cultivating certain habits of mind that seek to relate, connect, and configure disparate ideas. Indeed, the inventive power of associational thinking contrasts with indexical, linear modes of thought that search and seize evidence to support predetermined ideas. As Steven Johnson explains, innovative ideas do not traditionally stem from deliberative practices, as in the form of a solution to a problem. Rather, the invention process is cognitively imbricated in:

a network…a specific constellation of neurons—thousands of them—fire in sync with each other for the first time in your brain, and an idea pops into your consciousness. A new idea is a network of cells exploring the adjacent possible [sic] of connections that they can make in your mind (Johnson 2010, 45).

Associative thinking, as Sirc and Johnson propose, allows the mind to experiment with combining and recombining ideas, doing so without the constraints of a deliberative and task-based method governing and ultimately limiting exploration. In addition to this experimental quality, associative activity has important cognitive implications. Neural networks are structurally plastic, making them flexible and capable of continually taking on new patterns. When associative thinking stumbles upon a perceived innovation, the mind physiologically takes on a new form due to the “new assemblage of neurons [that have] come together to make the thought possible” (Johnson 2010, 46). Associative thinking, then, is less a function of deliberate discovery and more akin to invention, a neurological making of connections between two ideas.

The type of associative thinking valued by both Sirc and Johnson does not, however, end at the boundaries of the mind. Drawing a similarity between networks of all size, from neural to digital, Johnson suggests that humans are only capable of innovation and inquiry because of our intimate neural ties with the environments in which we work and play. He writes, “to make your mind more innovative, you have to place it inside environments that share that same network signature: networks of ideas or people that mimic the neural network of a mind exploring boundaries” (Johnson 2010, 47). To productively facilitate associative inquiry, an open-ended environment is needed for the free circulation and collision of ideas. If, as Johnson maintains, “certain environments enhance the brain’s natural capacity to make new links of associations” then being connected to external networks of information creates productive, albeit unpredictable, possibilities for both inquiry and invention (Johnson 2010, 47).

Our ability to link unconnected ideas is best fostered in connective environments; in other words, environments rich with informational pathways that afford both the circulation and collision of ideas. When emplaced in such an informational environment, the available resources for connecting ideas and reconfiguring established connections increases in both kind and complexity. Like Johnson, Gregory Ulmer notes that digital networks must operate through associations because networks have no established order, nor are a network’s connections predetermined or given any priority (Ulmer 1995, 34). In place of an indexical hierarchy, a network is constituted by the dynamic multitude of connections and disconnects that continually change and reconfigure. Thus, what we call information in a network is not located on particular nodes and in specific places—instead that information continuously circulates throughout the network’s extensive web of relations. Ulmer suggests that this circulation makes the network less of a “web” and more so a “structure of possibility,” for its shape depends upon how information circulates (Ulmer 1995, 34). Likewise, Thomas Rickert affirms that networks conceived as a “structure of possibility” are not by definition easily navigable: “information proliferates and accelerates, leaving us awash in a chaotic sea of discourse, sounds, and images” (Rickert 2004, 902). Indeed, participating in a network or a series of networks, as we see it, is less about finding or discovering linkages (an indexical and deliberative way of navigating a network) and more about fostering receptivity to potential patterns and configurations that emerge in the mess.

Moving through dense informational environments, we suggest, requires more than simple skill in network navigation. Navigation, interpreted here as a function of a deliberative method of inquiry, relies solely on human know-how, particularly on predictive methods of inquiring. But informational environments constantly circulate and reconfigure into new patterns. Predictive methods of navigation are impossible in a landscape that continually shifts and reshapes itself. Indeed, to participate in a network busied with reconfiguration means being attuned to “pattern making, pattern recognition, [and] pattern generation;” in other words, utilizing the network itself to assist in cognitive labor (Ulmer 1995, 36). Harkening back to Sirc, being free for “associational drifts” necessarily means moving with—and not against—the flow of information, and ultimately being receptive to what the network provides (Sirc 2004, 123). Thus, we see such network participation as aleatory, as occurring in the unpredictable encounters with circulating information.

Being at the “whim” of the network, as it were, is not a form of passive inquiry. It is instead an example of how human inquirers collaborate with networks to develop ideas. Decentering human intentionality in inquiry and research thus affords accidents to emerge. Indeed, Johnson claims that many of his greatest ideas were forged by chance connections provided by networked note-taking software known as “DEVONthink.” Using DEVONthink to archive all of his notes, gathered quotes, fragmented ideas, and hunches, Johnson searches the private network to find connections that his “imperfect memory” could not have made otherwise (Johnson 2010, 114). The software’s search function operates through a complex algorithmic process whereby the software learns common associations between words and ideas and provides an increasing amount of associative results the more it is used. For example, when Johnson queried “Victorian sewage system,” for his work The Ghost Map, the software “detected that the word ‘waste’ is often used alongside ‘sewage,” and thus directed him to information on the repurposing of calcium waste in the evolution of bone structures in vertebrates (Johnson 2010, 114). Johnson notes, “at first glance that might seem like an errant result, but it sent me off on a long and fruitful tangent into the way complex systems—whether cities or bodies—find productive uses for the waste they create” (Johnson 2010, 115). The accidental connection afforded by Johnson’s private network compels him to attribute at least some contributing responsibility to the software, characterizing the connection as the result of “true collaboration” (Johnson 2010, 115).

Thus, the cognitive labor of associations is distributed across dynamic systems, made possible by both network user and the network itself. Networks, for their part, provide the conditions of possibility for accidental connections to occur while users, to the extent to which that term is still useful, “provide the conceptual glue” (Johnson 2010, 115). However counter-intuitive that claim might appear, it implies a veritable shift in how we, as networked writers, think and write within the dynamic networks as well as introduces new ways of encountering and dwelling with information. As Jennifer Bay and Thomas Rickert note, “learning to dwell with our new media and its technologies entails a harkening to their ontological weight and rhetorical agency” (Bay and Rickert 2008, 213). That is, understanding our networked technology as a medium or a tool through which we inquire or conduct research severely limits our understanding of what connections are possible while working in and with a network. Indeed, Bay and Rickert suggest, “new media cannot be reduced solely to human will and practice” and to dwell with new media technology means theorizing and practicing a more nuanced understanding of our involvements in the randomizing informational environments in which we work and play (Bay and Rickert 2008, 213).

Departing from the deliberate search and seizure method that only seeks out relevant information, the kind of networked-inquiry we advocate here might best be situated in aleatory procedures, the purposive wandering through the excess and circulation of informational environments. Advocating for associative methods in the new media classroom widens our available means of inquiry to include resources that have until recently been held outside of the predictive and choice-based purview. To be clear, letting associational thinking into research does not necessitate a formal discrediting of deliberative search and seizure modes of inquiry. Rather, we see inquirers, researchers, and writers as participating in networks that in turn robustly contribute to the process of inquiry. By distributing the inventive work across both networked writer and network, associative linkages and accidental connections emerge as important topics of concern for new media scholars. Our network logic, our associational drifts in the mess are, for lack of a better word, always already accidents. They are surprise encounters; uncontrollable shuttles and shuffles of thought; unpredictable connections; faint, unarticulated resonances; or unconscious linkages that actively shape how we inquire and conduct research in a networked culture.

Herein, we attempt to introduce these alternative methods of inquiry. In characterizing inquiry and invention as happening in and with a network, we turn now to address the various institutional and disciplinary concerns that arise from describing research from an aleatory standpoint. That is, we address how accidents and chance-based connections may, in a networked culture, garner a form of credibility that is intelligible within the university system. Doing so endorses a pedagogy that prioritizes a receptive attitude to accidental connections and associations in new media writing students.

The Credibility of Accidents: Addressing Institutional Concerns

There are, of course, several institutional concerns that must be addressed. First, in attempting to articulate how accidents are involved in research we have come across an immediate counterpoint that complicates an unqualified advocacy of aleatory techniques. The challenge that confronts us is the thin and precarious line we need to walk in actually doing and teaching accidental research. That is, by characterizing research as a chance-based process we run the risk of inadvertently totalizing research as lacking any deliberate or predictive decidedness. In being aware of this problem, we theorize research as a practice that does not privilege accident over choice, or choice over accident, but instead productively builds on their intimate entanglement. We do so specifically by cultivating a technological literacy (or what Ulmer refers to as an “electracy”) in students, providing ways to navigate information-rich environments (Ulmer 2002, xiv). However, part and parcel of that navigation is, for us at least, an openness and receptivity to losing one’s way in encountering accidents, chances, and unpredictable trajectories.

Additionally, we hold that research accidents can, in many ways, be designed. Evan Williams, developer of YouTube and Twitter, suggests that there is a fundamental “irony [to] trying to plan accidents, and orchestrate their frequent occurrence” (“The Accidental Innovator” 2007). Yet, one strategy he suggests is a “self-imposed challenge” in which creativity and innovation are driven by the use of design constraints (such as creating a blogging platform that limits posts to 140-characters). These types of challenges, or “mental tricks,” according to Williams, can be employed at larger levels to facilitate accidental breakthroughs (“The Accidental Innovator” 2007).

Second, perpetuating an uncalled for dichotomy between chance and choice (one that has a long history in both the sciences as well as in the arts) has severe pedagogical implications as well. If happy accidents and chance encounters are a vital component of the research process, then how might one teach sound research practices without mystifying the process? As Victor Vitanza reminds us, chance results in “unaccountable hazard, not accountable probability;” for our purposes, this means assignments that are designed to maximize opportunities for chance also embrace unpredictability, relinquish control, and introduce increased risks, which quite understandably can be unnerving on the part of both students and instructor alike (Vitanza 2000, 187). We believe that introducing unaccountable hazard into students’ conceptions of writing and researching, when done in a structured manner, can allow for unexpected and creative results. Such results, Vitanza argues, might have easily been “discard[ed] as nonsense or as illegitimate” under more traditional views of research (Vitanza 2000, 191).

Indeed, the question of what constitutes legitimate and acceptable research methods has been at the heart of scholarship on alternative research writing over the last two decades. In their influential article “‘Building a Mystery’: Alternative Research Writing and the Academic Act of Seeking,” Robert Davis and Mark Shadle present an alternative to what they call the modernist research paper. Defined by its “logical argumentation, linear organization, acceptable evidence, and… proper way to cite sources,” the modernist research paper has been the dominant model for research taught at almost all levels of writing courses (Davis and Shadle 2000, 418).

In place of “modernist ideals” such as expertise, efficiency, detachment, and certainty, Davis and Shadle advocate a new set of foundational principles for research writing that include “uncertainty, passionate exploration, and mystery” (Davis and Shadle 2000, 418). Though it may seem counterintuitive to describe efficiency or expertise as problematic in the context of effective research, for many students efficiency frequently wins out over thoroughness and quality, and the pursuit of expertise trumps original thinking and risk-taking. In place of a clean and orderly search for authoritative knowledge, Davis and Shadle assert that composition instructors should “want [students] to have, and heed, an itch,” and be challenged to “use research writing to follow questions wherever they lead and write this winding trail in discourse that is dialogic, Protean, and playful, while also passionately engaged in the act of seeking itself” (Davis and Shadle 2000, 423).

James Purdy and Joyce Walker’s 2007 study “Digital Breadcrumbs” examines current trends in research writing pedagogy by identifying the research methods actively used by students. In their introduction the authors explain that, as composition scholars, they wanted to understand how students “actually use online resources for scholarly projects rather than lamenting how they are not following prescribed models of efficient, purposeful online research” (Purdy and Walker 2007).

Their study examines the digital research practices of two graduate and three undergraduate students as they conducted research for academic work. The students in the study demonstrated an existing ability to “use the surprises and juxtapositions of ostensibly disordered, inefficient searches to generate ideas and make connections.” Though these research methods run contrary to those advocated by traditional research models, Purdy and Walker believe that “the seemingly unstructured process of searching” that students in the study exhibited is actually responsible for giving “meaning and enjoyment to their research ventures” and providing “structures for the texts they seek to produce” (Purdy and Walker 2007).

As Purdy and Walker’s work suggests, and our own experiences confirm, many first-year college students come to us already conducting this kind of unstructured, associational research independently. Towards a similar goal as “Digital Breadcrumbs,” we believe it’s essential to acknowledge that networked technology is not only a research tool, but also an aspect of everyday digital practices. It is important for us, then, to understand that our students already collaborate with networked technology. Many of the activities students engage in independently require associational thinking and are mediated by both the potentials and limitations of networks. As such, we need to acknowledge that the experiences students bring into our classroom are relevant and are something to be examined and incorporated, not replaced or exploited.

However, not all students will come with the same technological background; indeed, for every student like the five interviewed in “Digital Breadcrumbs,” there are others who may lack technological expertise or resist the kinds of methods we advocate. Though this is certainly a difficult line to walk, it is critical to raise these issues with students in order to create an environment that values the diversity of experiences students have while simultaneously calling attention to the increasingly vital role of networked technology in academic, professional, and social contexts.

With this in mind, our responsibility should be to introduce students to methods that can maximize their existing use (whatever that may be) of electronic media and help them to become more cognizant of the fundamental assumptions and habits that form their existing interactions with the production and consumption of information online.

It is the responsibility of the new-media writing course to help students develop integral skills necessary for success in a wide variety of future situations. That being said, it is arguably equally important to design connective environments that allow students to develop habits of mind that result in the motivation, sustained inquiry, and genuine curiosity necessary to ask difficult questions and follow connections wherever they may lead. Thus, while it may appear to be an interesting, albeit problematic, choice to use databases such as Wikipedia and Tumblr in our assignment sequence, we emphasize the transferability of these activities in the hopes that students recognize and value this alternative method of research over its traditional configuration as search and seizure. We further discuss the assignment sequence and its transferability below in the section entitled, “Assignment Sequence Analysis.”

Given the countless tales of accidental discoveries emerging from various disciplines in the sciences and arts, sometimes the best solution to a complex problem exists outside of individual attempts in forcefully discovering it. By deliberately designing assignments to include constraints and challenges that change the writing process in such a way that the straightest path no longer becomes an option, we hope to jump-start associational thinking and create an environment in which experimentation and mistakes become an integral part of the process. It is our hope that constraints—such as requiring students to conduct research without control over what they discover or asking students to develop a topic out of the intersection of multiple disparate topics—will challenge them to learn new methods and practices and also re-examine their old ones.

With this in mind, we have developed an assignment sequence that follows a set process yet allows for the continual development of new ideas and associations by way of accidental connections and linkages. That is, our assignment sequence is structured in such a way that students are given both more choices and more opportunities for chance. We believe innovative pedagogy and inventive assignment design can challenge students to open themselves up to accidental association and inquiry-based learning.

Learning Objectives

Objectives are, in their own right, essentially predictive and deliberation-based. However, we hold that stating our approximate aims clearly provides our assignment sequence with productive direction without over-determining those aims and delimiting them. As we state in the “Sequence Analysis” section below, the nuts and bolts of this project are interchangeable. Thus, these learning objectives serve as anchors to the core claims we wish to endorse and cultivate.

  • To introduce students to the often-neglected perspective that successful research must inherently be inventive. Research as an inventive practice necessarily involves connecting seemingly disparate ideas, risk-taking, creativity, inquisitive motivation, and sustained inquiry into multiple aspects of a single topic.
  • To motivate students and instructors alike to embrace the nonlinear, the unpredictable, and the often-messy side of digital research writing as an open-ended, constantly evolving practice.
  • To balance the practice of research with an equal consideration of the role accidents, surprises, mistakes, and aleatory encounters play in the invention process.
  • To foster a flexible and adaptive digital literacy that emphasizes networked technology and the rhetorical affordances of multimedia composing tools.
  • To cultivate a greater intellectual and discipline-wide valuation of association and accidents, through which students can create meaningful compositions.

Assignment Sequence

The following research activities attempt to create the conditions of possibility for accidental research to occur. As stated above, our assignment sequence does not aim to characterize research as purely accidental and random. Rather, in giving chance its due, we hope to cultivate a specific habit of mind that is receptive and open to unpredictable associations and aleatory connections. Our sequence is comprised of two small, introductory activities as well as a final cumulative project. The first two activities, “The Wikipedia Challenge” and “StumbleUpon Research,” provide students with initial practice in chance-based research. They are intended to acquaint students with a wider conception of research methods that are often deemed unproductive, illegitimate, or altogether institutionally proscribed. The final project for this sequence, entitled “A Radiolab Experiment,” utilizes a micro-blogging platform as creative and associative-rich informational environments to encounter, find, store, and disseminate chance-based connections.

It is important to note that we encourage anyone who reads this to use these ideas. Some of the assignments might work as intended, while others will need to be altered and improved. Toward this end, we have written the following as prompts meant for actual student use. However, each of these assignments must be placed within a context specific for the research skills instructors hope to teach their students. Without this context, these assignments might seem impractical or overtly goal-oriented; yet when paired with lectures on research habits and discussions about transferability, for example, the assignments in this sequence are extremely helpful for introducing students to unfamiliar methods of conducting research. Though we leave this context out to make the assignments adaptable to a broad range of teaching purposes, we recognize that context is essential for making these activities relevant for students. Acknowledging this dual purpose of our assignment sequence, we have included two sets of in-text appendices: one meant to add supplementary materials for use in the classroom, and the other designed to provide further explanation for instructors who may use one or more of these assignments.

The Wikipedia Challenge

In order to cultivate contextual thinking in digital environments, this activity asks that you use the popular website Wikipedia to create connections between disparate ideas, people, places, and things. Using the already emplaced links within Wikipedia, this challenge asks that you and your group navigate from one idea to the next using as few jumps as possible. Within the time allotted, you and your small group (two to three students) should chart your movement from one term in left column to its corresponding term in the right, noting how many links you have clicked and what those links were. You are not allowed to click on a link and then travel back. The goal is to navigate without necessarily knowing where you are going.

“Wikipedia Challenge” Categories


Higgs Boson

Civil Rights Movement (1960s)


Timeline of Scientific Discoveries

Web 2.0

Hammer (as in the tool)

Purdue University

Bordeaux (as in the wine)


Cake (as in the dessert)



Quantum Physics

The Golden Girls (as in the TV show)

Bruno Latour

James Bond (as in 007)


Boston Red Sox

The objective of this activity is to continue our thinking1 of the ways ideas, people, places, and things are contextually contingent and thus contingently connected. That is, in connecting two ideas that do not seem to have anything to do with one another, we are creating connections and associations that were not there before. We are thinking of these terms in new ways and navigating the unpredictability of each Wikipedia page.

In addition to charting your team’s movement through Wikipedia, we ask that you create a 5-minute reflection presentation on your thought process during the activity. What was the first thing you thought of when you saw how disparate these ideas, people, places, or things were? How did you begin to make guesses or predictions on how to get from one term to the other? Did Wikipedia often impair or spoil your predictions in charting a potential path? What did you discover along the way? Did your strategy or initial plan change throughout the process? If so, how did you revise it? Finally, what do you think of the connections you and your team made? Are these valid connections? How might you go about persuading someone that your link between, let’s say, “ecology” and the “Boston Red Sox” is sound?

How to StumbleUpon Research

StumbleUpon is a search engine that allows users to enter general search terms (or select from pre-existing terms) and then “stumble upon” a specific website, seemingly at random, that loosely matches their search terms. This method of searching allows three things to happen: it allows you to control what you are searching for but not what you find, resulting in more variability of sources; it challenges you to think about the assumptions you make when you do research; and it asks you to do research without worrying about what you’re going to do with that information.

This mini-assignment can be thought of as a method of pre-search that allows you to find a wealth of material without formally choosing a specific, set topic; in other words, you aren’t trying to find something in particular, but rather searching for many different things that are interesting to you. While your topics should be loosely related, like the hyperlinked topics in the “Wikipedia Challenge,” we don’t want you to spend this entire project with a single narrow focus as your search term.

StumbleUpon gives you less control over what you find, so you should think less about what you’re searching for and more about what it means to search. We realize it can be daunting to wade through all of this information, but we ask only that you seek out something that is exciting, interesting, fascinating, frustrating, and, most importantly, piques your curiosity.

To begin with, go to StumbleUpon and create an account using your school email address. Then watch the brief tutorial, set up your interests, and begin entering general search terms using the box in the top-right labeled “Explore an interest.” StumbleUpon will then use your search term to bring up a website. Use the “like” feature if you find something interesting or press “Stumble!” in the top-left of the page to try your luck somewhere else.

You should start with a broad, general topic and then focus your search terms more as you begin to get more variety in your results. More specific search terms can result in less variety, so start with general terms and then make your terms narrower or broader based on what you’ve found. In this assignment there is no such thing as a “bad” source; sometimes sources that are strange, controversial, or frustrating can be just as helpful. But rather than accepting the source as objective, you need to begin considering what you learn from the source, how it challenges or expands your assumptions and how it makes you feel or think.

For this project you will need a research journal, which can be digital or handwritten (as long as it is legible). Each time you find a source, create an entry in your research journal that tracks the search terms you used and collects notes. Notes can include evaluation of the content and source, commentary on the relevance of the source to your interests, discussion of aspects of the source that can inspire future searches, etc. In all, you should create ten to fifteen entries.

Finally, we would like you to think about how your sources relate to one another. Even though you found each through a separate search, there might be connections or commonalities in your sources. Consider also the search terms you used and how you broadened or narrowed your search. For the final part of this project we would like you to create a visual representation of your search process—this can be a map, a tree, a timeline, a flowchart, or any other visual manner of conveying the process you took and the connections between your sources.

A Radiolab Experiment

We often think of research as a grab-and-go activity. If we want to write on the issue of stereotyping in the modern workplace, we might simply go to the psychology or sociology section of the library, quickly read through a few sources, and then throw together a cohesive paper using information that supports what we thought in the first place. In this model, the basic function of research is to support and “back up” what you believe to be an already evident argument, rather than really trying to learn something new or to challenge your preconceived notions. Deliberately moving against this current, we ask that we begin this unit by considering the process of research as less “fact-finding” and “evidence-gathering,” and more as total immersion in a particular topic. The goal here is to think of research as a method of sustained inquiry, one that might persuade or move us in some manner.

For this project you will use the popular NPR podcast Radiolab as a model for conducting and presenting research. Before settling on a topic, we ask you to listen to a full episode of Radiolab to get an idea of the conventions used in that podcast. In each episode the hosts start with a single, broad, and ultimately unanswerable question—such as, “Where is color?” or “What happens when we die?” They then explore that topic in several separate segments, with each related back in some way to the original question or topic.

Once you are familiar with Radiolab, we would like you to get in groups of three or four and share your results from the StumbleUpon exercise. After doing so, each person should select a subject from his or her own search results to use as a new starting point for the next project. Once this is done, share your subject with your group—these subjects are now the basis from which you will develop a single search topic that encompasses aspects of all of the original subjects. For your podcast you will conduct research separately (for the most part), but you will need to think about how the different segments will come together to form one cohesive composition.

The major requirements for this project will occur in a series of steps over the course of several weeks:

  1. Sign up for Tumblr, a micro-blogging platform that allows you to post or re-blog text, images, audio files, video, and web-links with almost intuitive ease.2
  2. Begin using your Tumblr to encounter, amass, document, and share your research. This will be the site from which you discern and cultivate a large body of source materials on a topic of interest.
  3. After three weeks of blogging, we ask that you begin to synthesize your research material and start making connections with what you have discovered, keeping in mind the goal of developing a Radiolab episode focused on your topic3.
  4. Meet with your group to finalize your topic, schedule times to meet, and begin planning what your podcast will sound like.4
  5. Take notes and gather sources independently, but remember that you are searching for information that can be formed into a “story,” and not simply facts or data.
  6. Finally, record and edit your podcast using Audacity. Please include a credits section that cites all audio files and research used in your podcast.

Each segment of the episode needs to contain both original and recorded content. In other words, your episode needs to include both you own and your group’s thoughts and opinions on the topic, and the ideas of “experts” whom you’ve interviewed, read, listened to, watched, etc. Again, let the podcast be your guide.

Use Audacity or other audio editing software to edit and save your finish project as an MP3.5 Like Radiolab, your final product will be one cohesive episode comprised of separate segments edited together. Please try to make your group’s podcast around an hour—yes, that means each person will have ten to fifteen minutes or so per segment. That may seem like a lot of time, but it’s really not.

Remember to add your own stylistic choices. The unique style of Radiolab reflects the interests and backgrounds of the creators; similarly, your podcast should reflect the interests and style of the group. In other words, use Radiolab as a guide, but make your podcast your own creation.

Assignment Sequence Analysis

This assignment sequence is, of course, not perfect. Indeed, for us to establish and codify a method for teaching inquiry and research practices through accidents would be counterproductive. Such a task would be tantamount to teaching improvisational acting through rigid, step-by-step procedures. Rather, we see inquiry and chance as always interacting and thus already precluding an established methodology that can be said to be certain and attainable. In addition, while some of this assignment sequence is built around experiences in our own classrooms (indeed, the idea for the StumbleUpon activity was incidentally inspired by a conversation with a student), much of it remains theoretical and in need of testing and continual revision.

Like all pedagogical innovations, the results of this sequence are unpredictable and liable to vary from university to university, department to department, course to course, and, of course, student to student. Thus, we are in no way advocating this as the singular way—or much less the best way—to teach inquiry and research using networked technology; at the very least, this is our contingent attempt at modeling a sequence with robust connections to contemporary scholarship on alternative research methods and aleatory procedures. Through this assignment sequence and the ideas with which we have situated it, we ultimately aim to initiate a rich dialogue between theories of networks and sound pedagogical practices that concurrently seek to expand disciplinary valuations about inquiring and researching practices in digital environments.

“Research in the Wild”

In order to create and cultivate a space for an alternative research methodology, we envision networked inquiry as less rigid and formal, and more like the haphazard processes of information gathering that occur in our student’s digital practices. That is, instead of foregrounding the deliberate search and seizure method whereby students navigate the Web for information that is relevant to their established topic, we look to foster information gathering as it already happens in our everyday digital practices, as messy, unpredictable, rooted in accidental connections, and invigorating. As the title of this subsection gestures toward, we see such processes as digital practices occurring “in the wild.” In other words, we are sensitive to the fact that the word “research” often conjures specific modes of inquiry in students—and any move to validate alternative forms of research must pull from the myriad of ways we, as digital practitioners, find ourselves navigating and getting lost in our networked environments. Thus, in foregrounding the types of digital practices that students already perform, we hope to validate those ways of connecting and constructing knowledge as sophisticated, productive, and increasingly vital to networked inquiry.

By no means, however, do we intend to appropriate or incorporate these digital practices as ways of navigating institutional network spaces. In other words, our goal is not to provide a replacement term for “research,” nor is it to provide a suspiciously similar alternative to established research methods. This last point is important if we are to make our sequence and theoretical position distinctive.

While we advocate the use of networked technology and social networking websites like Tumblr or StumbleUpon in our assignment sequence, we do not suggest these as appropriate replacements for other methods of data collection and organization. Instead, we believe that these types of websites are indicative of actual methods of information gathering used outside of the classroom; by having our students associate these sites with research practices we hope to create an on-going discussion in our classrooms about how research methods and practices are defined in academic, professional, and social situations. By engaging these networks and digital practices in their everyday uses (or as close to “in the wild” as we can get), we carefully attempt to avoid appropriating these cultural sites of production for our own de-contextualized uses. This also ensures that we validate these types of digital practices, and the accidental connections and associations that emerge from them, independent of the preferences and conventions of institutionalized writing. Obviously, this is a very complicated issue that we must keep in mind.

As instructors we open ourselves to the chance that students may foster specific habits of mind that are attuned and sensitive to affordances built into our networks, specifically the network’s randomizing capacity that makes accidental associations possible. Central to these habits of mind is a receptivity to the ways we encounter information in a networked setting as well as how information encounters us. We believe that our assignment sequence cultivates these habits of mind, however unpredictably and by whichever detour.

The “Wikipedia Challenge,” which opens our sequence, aims to build contexts between disparate ideas, challenging students to construct the connections they need by way of establishing alternative routes. As it inevitably happens, the best laid plans and predictions often go awry in charting a route from pairings such as “supernova” and “cake.” Students quickly learn to be adaptive and to tactically use the links Wikipedia provides them. They learn through trial and error that establishing a map beforehand almost always fails because of Wikipedia’s dynamic structure. We may establish an easy connection between “Bruno Latour” and “James Bond”—they are both, for instance, European—but unless Wikipedia provides that particular link, the established connection is useless. Instead, students must observe and think strategically about the random set of links provided to them and make their leaps from there. Chance, in this activity, ends up determining and shaping choice. And we see this element of chance in all aspects of research for whatever purpose. For example, developing a research outline can chart a general direction for a researcher, but that direction is constrained by the type of research one encounters in an institutional database. Thus, initial conceptions get revised when one is in the thick of research, a revision that resembles the adaptive navigating highlighted in this activity. Thus, the “Wikipedia Challenge,” while using an open access database—one that has become the veritable straw-person of crowd-sourced information—cultivates a certain adaptive habit of mind that we see as transferable to other, more institutionally recognized information environments such as an academic database or library catalogue. This assignment would—as mentioned earlier—be followed up with a discussion and/or activity in which students discuss their experience in productively wandering in connection to conducting research in an academic database.

“How to StumbleUpon Research” is an activity that introduces students to inquiring into potential research topics without intention or any degree of determination. That is, StumbleUpon, as a networked platform, introduces an element of complexity into the invention process. As we have experienced, when confronted with the task of researching, students often cling to safe topics, or ones that have an immense amount of sources immediately available. StumbleUpon complicates this by juxtaposing related ideas through the site’s randomizing algorithm. The goal is to have students use StumbleUpon as it was intended to be used, as an intuitive way of aimlessly searching and thinking about which resources emerge. This algorithmic platform produces surprise connections, ideas, topics, or issues that can be explored further, in both a deliberate or aleatory fashion. This activity can lead students to develop keywords, concepts, and terms, as well as introduce them to unknown people, events, or activities. This research material can be accumulated for future searches or discarded. Either way, StumbleUpon operates as a randomizing environment that remains tethered to the student’s interests.

In the final step of our sequence, we use Tumblr and Radiolab to further explore the idea of alternative models of research. However, in our attempt to avoid linearity and emphasize accidental discovery and association, this assignment adheres more closely to Sirc’s box-logic or what Rice has termed “useless archives,” than to the typical product of a research project (Rice 2012). We chose Tumblr and Radiolab because they both afford students an opportunity to experiment with medium and genre while also using their existing information gathering skills. Because both are examples of what we have dubbed “research in the wild,” replicating their respective processes, methods, and conventions in the classroom allows us and our students to place both alternative and traditional models of information gathering under more intense scrutiny.

For this assignment Tumblr offers a multimedia application of Sirc’s box-logic in the form of a micro-blog, while a replication of the popular Radiolab podcast places an emphasis on inquiry over truth-seeking and requires a more free-form method of presenting research and answering questions. Again, our purpose isn’t to declare these new models as more or less effective than the old models, but rather to push our students to examine the qualities and attributes of both and arrive at their own informed conclusions.

In our aim to move past the traditional research paper while also blending in more realistic views of how people access information online, we find it productive to turn to popular forms of media, including podcasts or TED talks, as new models for how research can be done. Building an assignment around a podcast asks our students to rethink how they view research, but it also requires us, as composition instructors, to part ways with our own limiting and restrictive views about what a product of research looks like. For instance, podcasts are often not clean or polished—and thus resist rubric-based assessment in favor of a more rhetorical assessment of how students performed a particular genre.

The conventions of such a genre may, for all intents and purposes, be conventions that are just as unfamiliar to some instructors as they are to most students. We understand and accept the potential for this project to fail fantastically, but like all inventive models the goal isn’t to replicate the original 1:1, but rather to learn something through the act of re-creation and reproduction.

Unpredictable Trajectories

Much like the informational environments we envision students working and playing in, our assignment sequence is crafted to be open-ended and alterable based on the context of its application. In addition, we acknowledge the precarious line we walk in advocating for aleatory techniques in the new media classroom. Indeed, we are left with a multitude of unanswered questions that beg for productive consideration. What might this mean for institutionally recognized modes of research? That is, how might this way of acknowledging the aleatory dimension of research alter the types of practices enacted by both professional scholars and students alike? What might aleatory procedures do to our traditional views of ethos or credibility?

Unintended consequences are a natural part of our approach. If the goal is to include more chance and randomness in the new media and writing classroom, then some measure of control must be sacrificed on the part of both students and instructors. Chaos will inevitably ensue, but the classroom is a pedagogue’s laboratory and not all experiments are safe (or sensible). Ultimately, if we want our students to take risks and remain open to the accidents that inevitably emerge from inquiry, we need to likewise take risks as designers of effective pedagogy and remain open to the myriad of unpredictable results that follow.

Embracing Accidents: A Tentative Conclusion

We seek in our students a cultivation of a specific habit of mind that is open to the accidents and the random occurrences that emerge from interaction with networked technologies. That is, the overall purpose of the assignment sequence is to bring to the forefront the already emplaced and implicit role associative cognition plays in research and writing. In advocating aleatory procedures in new media research methodology, we do not intend to displace the importance of deliberate and choice-based inquiry. Rather, in a more expansive sense, we hope to resituate and re-characterize research as not only a predictive practice—the seeking out of source materials to support a pre-established claim—but also one that may be propelled by accidental encounters and chance-based associations. As we have gestured toward in the above assignment sequence, we propose pointing students to the readily available infrastructures and architectures that make for more creative environments. Specifically, we hold that established websites such as Wikipedia, StumbleUpon, and Tumblr—although often critiqued from the research standpoint as lacking a certain and veritable ethos—provide students with open-ended environments to gather and house ideas, to cultivate cognitive associations, and, ultimately, to invent through and with chance encounters. Indeed, as Sirc notes in English Composition as a Happening, “designing spaces…is what it’s all about. It’s a matter of basic architecture…the spaces of our classrooms [and perhaps spaces of our compositions] should offer compelling environments in which to inhabit situations of writing instruction” (Sirc 2002, 1-2). Likewise, Steven Johnson suggests that the most innovative spaces and systems are often the ones closest to the “edge of chaos” (Johnson 2010, 52). Chance encounters with unfamiliar ideas, perspectives, and arguments can shape and reshape our own in unpredictable ways. The goal of a pedagogy that is inclusive of aleatory techniques, then, is to facilitate and cultivate these associations while, at the disciplinary and institutional levels, to move toward valuing compositions that emerge from an encounter with the unpredictable.


“The Accidental Innovator.” 2007. Economist 385 (8560): 110-11.

Bay, Jennifer and Thomas Rickert. 2008. “New Media and the Fourfold.” JAC: A Journal of Rhetoric, Culture, and Politics 28: 209-44. ISSN: 0731-6755.

Blakesley, David and Thomas Rickert. 2004. “An Interview with Mark C. Taylor.” JAC: A Journal of Rhetoric, Culture, and Politics 24: 805-19. ISSN: 0731-6755.

Davis, Robert, and Mark Shadle. 2000. “’Building a Mystery’: Alternative Research Writing and the Academic Act of Seeking.” College Composition and Communication 51: 417-46. ISSN: 0010-096X.

De Bono, Edward. 1967. New Think. New York: Avon Books. ISBN: 978-0380014262.

De Bono, Edward. 1969. The Mechanism of Mind. New York: Penguin. ISBN: 978-0140137873.

Johnson, Steven. 2010. Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. New York: Riverhead Books. ISBN: 978-1594487712.

Purdy, James P. and Joyce R. Walker. 2007. “Digital Breadcrumbs: Case Studies of Online Research.” KAIROS: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy. 11 (2). ISSN: 1521-2300.

Rice, Jeff. 2007. “Networked Boxes: The Logic of Too Much.” College Composition and Communication 59: 299-311. ISSN: 0010-096X.

Rice, Jeff. 2012. “Useless Archives.” Presentation at the Annual Convention of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, St. Louis, MO, March 21-24, 2012.

Rickert, Thomas. 2004. “In the House of Doing: Rhetoric and the Kairos of Ambience.” JAC: A Journal of Rhetoric, Culture, and Politics 24: 901-27. ISSN: 0731-6755.

Sirc, Geoffrey. 2002. English Composition as a Happening. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press. ISBN: 978-087421435.

Sirc, Geoffrey. “Box-Logic.” 2004. Writing New Media: Theory and Applications for Expanding and Teaching Composition. Anne Frances Wysocki, Johndan Johnson-Eilola, Cynthia Selfe, and Geoffrey Sirc. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press. ISBN: 978-0874215755.

Ulmer, Gregory. 1995. Heuretics: The Logic of Invention. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN: 978-0801847189.

Ulmer, Gregory. 2002. Internet Invention: From Literacy to Electracy. New York: Longman Publishing. ISBN: 978-0321126924.

Vitanza, Victor. 2000. “From Heuristics to Aleatory Procedures; Or, Towards ‘Writing the Accident.’” Inventing a Discipline: Rhetoric Scholarship in Honor of Richard E. Young. Maureen Daly Goggin, ed. Urbana, IL: National Council for the Teaching of English. ISBN: 978-0814123751.

Appendix A: Wikipedia as a Credible Resource


It has become commonplace in the university setting to distrust Wikipedia. That is, we often suggest that Wikipedia does not have the ethos required for research projects. This is because Wikipedia can be edited by anyone with Internet access. However, as recent work has shown, Wikipedia is more often than not more dependable because of how frequently it is edited. Because it is a networked and open-sourced site, both amateurs and experts can shape the knowledge present there. Knowledge, in this sense, is constructed by connections and collaborative contributions.

As an introduction to both open-source innovation and the rhetorical concept of ethos, please watch and read the below materials and then reflect on the 4 discussion questions.

Watch: Charles Leadbeater’s TED presentation entitled “The Era of Open Innovation” (2005).

Read: Stacy Schiff’s “Know It All: Can Wikipedia Conquer Expertise?” from The New Yorker (July 2006).

Read: The Wikipedia article on how reliable Wikipedia is as an online information resource.

Discussion Questions

As a small group, collaborate on answering these questions and developing some ideas to share with the rest of the class. In the same style as a Wikipedia article, be mindful and open to divergent opinions and seek to synthesize opposing points of view into something that is collaboratively agreed upon.

  • What do you think about the claim that Wikipedia is a reliable resource? According to “The Reliability of Wikipedia,” “an early study conducted by IBM researchers in 2003—two years following Wikipedia’s establishment—found that ‘vandalism is usually repaired extremely quickly — so quickly that most users will never see its effects and concluded that Wikipedia had ‘surprisingly effective self-healing capabilities.’” In many ways, Wikipedia is a “self-editing” network that distributes its editing to all users. Does the sheer number of people contributing, editing, and re-editing Wikipedia evoke confidence in you? That is, in light of our discussion of ethos in class as the cultivation of trust between a rhetor and an audience, does Wikipedia seem trustable and accurate in the information it provides?
  • Even in light of the affirmative light the readings cast on Wikipedia, do you think there should be any control over who writes or edits Wikipedia? If no, why not? If yes, why? Again, if yes, who would control and shape this knowledge? Indeed, do you find it striking that knowledge is something that can be shaped or controlled? In what ways, then, might knowledge and information be rhetorical (rhetorical in the senses we have discussed in class)?
  • Think of a time when your knowledge alone was not enough to solve a problem or develop an effective idea. How did you go about collaborating with others? What was it like to collaborate? Did anything unexpected emerge from this cooperative process? Was it frustrating? Liberating? Easy? Overly difficult?
  • If Wikipedia operates effectively and accurately through an open-source, collaborative method, then how might this influence other ways of writing and information gathering? What might this mean, let’s say, for textbooks or news programming?

Appendix B: Setting Up and Developing Your Tumblr

Here you will find step-by-step instructions on setting up your own personal Tumblr. Because Tumblr has become a popular micro-blogging platform, you will also be able to find a lot of “how-to” resources online and through the “Help” feature on the actual site.

  1. Visit Tumblr. Click on “Sign Up” in the right hand corner.
  2. Tumblr will ask you to provide a working email address, a password, and a username. This username is alterable. You will then need to confirm your age and agree to their terms of use. From there you will have to successfully complete a CAPTCHA, a challenge-response test that confirms that the Tumblr is being made by a human and not an automated spam bot. After completing the CAPTCHA, you have successfully signed up for a Tumblr blog.
  3. Tumblr will then ask you to choose specific interests you may have while using your Tumblr blog. Some of the options are: architecture, beauty, books, comics, culture, curators, design, entertainment, film, gaming, LGBTQ, photography, science, sustainability, technology, typography, and writers. After picking some general categories, Tumblr suggests some of its top bloggers who blog within these areas of interest for you to follow. For this assignment, choose “all 40” so that you have a baseline network from which to work and make connections. Throughout the research process you should keep expanding your network to increase the number of “nodes” on your network and thus increase the chances for accidental associations.
  4. You will then be instructed to give your blog a title. As this is an alterable component, you may want to name it something commonplace or provide a specific, topic-relevant title. Click “Okay all done!”
  5. To start blogging, use the multimedia “toolbar” at the top of your dashboard. There you will see seven options of blogging mediums: Text, Photo, Quote, Link, Chat, Audio, and Video.1
  6. Click the “Explore Tumblr” button or go to . There you will be able to find blogs with posts, photos, and videos that might interest you. You can use the “Explore” tab to wander through Tumblr and “reblog” as you go. Reblogging is the process by which you post someone else’s contribution to your own Tumblr blog. Reblogging automatically cites the user you reblogged from, thus giving credit where credit is due. In addition to reblogging, you will want to start “following” other users so that your network grows.
  7. You may want to customize the appearance of your blog prior to using it. Tumblr provides a wide variety of complementary “themes” that you can use. Notice how each theme arranges and juxtaposes your posts and reblogs in different ways. Try to choose a theme that affords close proximity for your posts so that you can make associative connections easier.
  8. Tumblr is a micro-blogging platform that is best learned by doing. The interface and the blogging options will become intuitive over time.

Appendix C: Exploring the Conventions of Radiolab

Go to to listen to Radiolab episodes for free. Choose any episode that sounds interesting to you. I only ask that you listen to full, hour-long episodes and not one of the Radiolab shorts.

As you listen, takes notes and then reflect on the questions below in a 600-750 word blog post:

  • How does Radiolab compare to the research you’ve done before?
  • What types of sources do the creators use? Be specific.
  • What can you tell about the research process for an episode of Radiolab?
  • Do the hosts or reporters provide any clues as to why they chose the topic they did or how they came across the ideas for each segment?
  • What is the purpose of the episode you listened to? Explain as best as you can.
  • In what ways did the creators expand upon their initial topic/question? How?
  • Is radio/podcast an effective medium for this message? Why or why not?
  • What strategies are used to connect the different segments into one cohesive episode?
  • Who is the audience for this show? How can you tell?

Appendix D: Instructor Resources for Podcasts

We decided to make the third part of our assignment sequence a podcast for a few reasons. As avid fans of the podcast Radiolab, we believe that it has a lot to offer composition instructors as a contemporary model for presenting research materials. But in a sense, our assignment sequence treats Radiolab as two separate entities: Radiolab as a model of research, and Radiolab as an example of the potential of podcasts. As our project progressed, we became aware that we had focused on the former while neglecting the latter. While it could be possible to present Radiolab as a model for information gathering without also teaching the podcast as a genre, we feel that podcasts work very well within the aleatory framework we have developed.

As a result, we felt it necessary to supplement our assignment sequence with some resources that are critical for understanding and teaching podcasts. Each of the sources listed below takes a different perspective on podcasts and should provide most instructors with the materials necessary for designing an approach to podcasts that fits with their course and pedagogical philosophy.

“Podcasting in a Writing Class? Considering the Possibilities” by Jennifer Bowie

In “Podcasting in a Writing Class?” Jennifer Bowie presents an in-depth and accessible introduction to integrating podcasts into the composition classroom. In a series of six podcasts, Bowie provides a background and introduction to podcasts, an overview of different methods of incorporating podcasts into the classroom, several assignment ideas, and advice for instructors. In addition, she also includes an excellent resource page that includes examples of various external podcasts, tutorials, links for music and sound clips, and recommended texts.

“How to Create Your Own Podcast” from

The Discovery Corporation’s How Stuff Works website has an instructional page about how to create podcasts that provides a very basic overview of podcasts that could be a great starting point for instructors (or students) who have never listened to podcasts before. In particular, this resource is valuable because it sets up the cultural context for podcasts, explains how podcasts fit in with other existing media, and examines the podcasting business, from goals and purposes to technology and software.

iTunes Podcasting Resource: Making a Podcast

As one of the primary sources for finding and listening to podcasts, iTunes’ Podcast Resource page provides a great resource for creating and posting podcasts. Obviously, the company is invested in the medium, but their resource page is more than simply self-promotion. It does have a more technological focus and is meant primarily as a tutorial for people interested in actually publishing podcasts; however, some of the pages—such as the FAQ for Podcast Fans and FAQ for Podcast Makers seem as though they could be very valuable for our purposes.

Podcasting by the People

While we advocate Radiolab as a model for research, the truth is that Radiolab and other podcasts like it are highly polished, professional, and sophisticated productions. But not all podcast have to be—or indeed should be—based on this model. There are many examples of podcasts produced independently by scholars, community members, journalists, and others who—like our students—are pursuing podcasts as a method of inquiry, discussion, and community-building rather than as professional products. Below are several examples from a range of genres.

Appendix E: Audacity Tutorial

Audacity is a free and relatively easy-to-use audio editing software program. This basic tutorial demonstrates how to perform the most fundamental actions in Audacity. For a much more comprehensive guide to Audacity go to

  1. Download (for free at, install, and open Audacity.
  2. To import an audio file, click 2> Import > Audio, and select your file.
  3. To record your own file using Audacity (and a computer with a microphone), select the record 3 button in the top left corner. Other buttons in this menu allow you to pause 4, play 5, and stop 6 your current audio track.
  4. To select a section of audio, click on the audio track 7 and drag your cursor 8 to select the section you want; the section you selected will then become highlighted 9 a darker shade of blue.
  5. The primary menu for editing is on the right side of the window and contains the basic actions for cutting 10, copying 11, and pasting 12.
  6. Once you have selected the section you want to edit (step 5), click on the action you want to take (step 6) and the audio track will update to reflect your changes.
  7. To delete all of the audio track except for the section you currently have selected with your cursor, use the trim 13 tool.
  8. To insert a section of silence, follow Step 4 and click the silence 14 tool.
  9. If you make a mistake, you can easily undo 15 or redo 16.
  10. If you want to save your work but have not completely finished yet, click 2> Save Project As to save your project as an Audacity Project (.AUP) file. To open a saved .AUP file, click 2> Open, and select your file.
  11. If you are finished with your project and would like to save it (as an MP3 or other audio file format), click 2> Export, and select a file type from the drop menu.
  12. There are a number of more advanced effects that you can use in Audacity. To view a drop-down menu with these options, click 17 in the top menu bar.
  1. See Appendix A: “Wikipedia as a Credible Resource”
  2. See Appendix B: “Setting Up and Developing Your Tumblr”
  3. See Appendix C: “Exploring the Conventions of Radiolab
  4. See Appendix D: Instructor Resources for Podcasts”
  5. See Appendix E: “Audacity Tutorial”
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  1. @cbdharmon says:

    #dmac13 importance of designing accidents:

  2. Veronica Tefft says:

    Annie forwarded this work to me and I am so impressed! What a wonderful and amazing job you did. I am ashamed to say I don’t understand most of it, but you must (and should be) so proud! Most fondly, Ronnie Tefft

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