Issue Thirteen

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Video Essays and Virtual Animals: An Approach to Teaching Multimodal Composition and Digital Literacy

Abstract

This article explores the pedagogical goals and student artifacts from a first-year composition course that provides students the opportunity to analyze interactive technologies—including video games—as rhetorical texts. As an approach to teaching digital literacy and multimodal composition, this course addresses the question of how to teach students to analyze not only the content of new media, but also how the design of social media platforms and video game mechanics persuade users to act and understand in circumscribed ways. More specifically, this article describes the process of assigning students a video essay project that requires them to articulate and defend a sustained argument about how a video game represents nonhuman animals. As a multimodal medium, video essays can provide a record of interaction between students and human-to-software interfaces, including video games. By analyzing how and why video games afford possibilities for interaction with virtual animals, the student artifacts examined here demonstrate students’ recognition that interfaces are constructed to achieve rhetorical ends. It is my intent that such recognition serves as a gateway for students to begin approaching everyday texts as rhetorical, that is, as working to incline them to persuasion and, by extension, certain patterns of thinking and behaving.

Introduction: Course Overview and Objectives

I teach a first-year, multimodal composition course at the Georgia Institute of Technology themed around interactions between animals and technology. I titled the course “Technocritters, or Animals and/as Technology.” Broadly, the course aims to develop students’ skills in multimodal communication (including written, visual, oral, nonverbal, and electronic communication) through an emphasis on process and rhetoric. As the second course in Georgia Tech’s two-semester first-year composition sequence, students should arrive in my course having been introduced to basic rhetorical concepts and strategies for effective communication. One of the “animals and/as technology” theme-related areas we study is the impact of new media on representations of animals. We ask questions such as: When and why does new media represent animals? How do the social media interfaces we use to access and share images of animals shape our understanding of them as food, pets, or pests?

For a STEM-focused institution like Georgia Tech, many of the first-year students I encounter plan to study in fields that will require that they utilize existing technologies and engineer new interactive computer systems for both specialized and public audiences. Consequentially, a course themed partially around a rhetorical analysis of computer-mediated communication helps increase engagement in a course students widely regard as “required” but not desired. Further, digital literacy skills are increasingly essential for all first-year college students, particularly given the near-ubiquity of interactive technologies in students’ academic, workplace, and recreational lives. Even writing programs and composition courses that prioritize traditional genres of academic writing must take notice of the rapidly growing rhetorical influence of new media on students learning to write, read, and think in the twenty-first century.

Digital Literacy… with Animals

At the beginning of each section of this course, I take an informal survey to learn a little about students’ personal histories, including their personal experiences with animals. As a group, we establish students’ prior knowledge about animals as a baseline for their exploration of animals in new media. Such a baseline enables us to raise questions such as: To what extent do animals in new media challenge or reinforce my previous assumptions about how animals look, move, think, and feel? How can and should humans interact with them? What are animals “for”? Almost all students enter my courses having had experiences with animals typical for young adults from non-rural areas of America. That is, few have first-hand experience with animals beyond their family dog or cat. Between two and three students may have experience riding horses, hunting deer or small game animals, or tending to farmed animals. Nearly all students have visited at least one zoo or amusement park that displays captive animals. Several students (between 4-5 each semester out of 75) have worked with or are currently working with animals in a laboratory setting: always mice. Finally, very few students—roughly three out of 75 every semester—identify as vegetarian or vegan. Therefore, most students are familiar with animals as products for consumption, even though, by students’ own admission, they do not readily make the association between the sliced meat on their lunch plates and animals.[1]

After students identify their personal history with animals, I prompt them to consider how varied media forms affect their understanding of animals, particularly nonhuman behavior and appearance. Students are quick to admit to consuming new media texts—including memes, Instagram profiles, and videos—as a source of “information” about animals. At the time of this writing, dogs and puppies (or, per the language of doggolingo, “doggos” and “puppers”) enjoy wide popularity across social media platforms. Cats and kittens (including Grumpy Cat, Maru, and the many Lolcat variants)—a variety of companion animal once nearly synonymous with digital image virality—persist in students’ vocabulary. That said, some students go so far as to claim that internet cats are “outdated.” Such recognition on their part—internet trends come and go rapidly—is an important insight: it helps students recognize that patterns of representation—such as the once-ubiquitous new media portrayal of house cats as playful, erratic, and cute—are neither fixed nor inevitable. As Sarah Warren-Riley and Elise Verzosa Hurley suggest, even when it comes to cat memes, “Liking, sharing, or reposting a cute cat meme does result in advocating specific values and ideologies (regardless of whether the individual agrees with those values) and results in something (in this case, the reinforcement of Western values that cats are cute house pets)” (Warren-Riley and Hurley 2017). By asking students to consider the frequency with which certain animal behaviors are visually depicted and shared through new media, I want to encourage them to consider how pervasive but undertheorized texts like cat memes advance ideologically-laden understandings about the subjects those texts represent, such as which nonhuman species should be treated variously as “pets,” “pests,” or “food.”

Developing students’ digital literacy additionally requires that students consider how computer interfaces facilitate and constrain the actions they perform in digital environments. My use of the term “interface” refers to the programs (such as applications and software) and hardware (including a mouse, keyboard, and display screen) that enable interaction between computers and people (rendered through said interaction as “users” or, for video games, as “players”). When it comes to a rhetorical study of new media, students must consider not only the content of new media (the memes themselves), but also the means through which such content is disseminated (interfaces that include but are not limited to those of social media). Because the interfaces of social media make sharing content easy, for example, students are likely to consider the act of “liking,” “retweeting,” or “upvoting” a piece of internet content “mundane and routine” and, by extension, inconsequential (Warren-Riley and Hurley 2017). To challenge the notion that the act of sharing content online is meaningless, we might ask students: what is the relationship between the popularity of animal images on the internet and the ease with which we share those images?

The pervasive tendency for humans to project meaning onto animals’ often inscrutable behaviors and expressions works in tandem with the seeming effortlessness involved in sharing content on social media platforms. Joseph Anderton (2016) advocates for such a contextual assessment of internet memes, writing that the meme’s “ability to pervade privy groups cements non/human animals in facetious material and renders them vacuous figureheads subsidiary to human meanings” (142). That is, the represented animal, rather than the meme itself, is rendered vacuous by the form’s popularity across web platforms. Memed animals become flexible signifiers for a range of human expressions and desires, a flexibility that advances an understanding of animals as a kind of bare material upon which human meanings can be inscribed. Here, the ease of sharing content online encourages the proliferation of texts and genres with highly malleable semiotic potential.

This image of “Chemistry Cat,” a popular meme, depicts an all-white cat, wearing black-rimmed glasses and a red bow tie, seated in a chemistry laboratory. The cat is surrounded by beakers and flasks filled with blue, green, yellow, and red fluids. The chalkboard in the background displays silly equations involving mice, milk, and cheese as the variables. The text on the image reads, in all caps, “I’d tell you a chemistry joke… But all the good ones Argon.”

This example of the “Chemistry Cat” meme demonstrates how cultural values and assumptions inform animal memes. For example, the cat’s white fur resembles a white lab coat, her glasses serve as a cultural signifier of intelligence, and her bow tie implies the traditional representation of men as scientists.

Teachers of digital literacy and rhetoric are therefore faced with a two-part challenge. First, students must learn to recognize how new media representations, such as the cat in the cat meme, reinforce variable—that is, both prevailing and niche—cultural values. Second, students must learn to recognize and consider how the interfaces that enable the circulation and popularization of certain representations are themselves built to encourage and facilitate a particular set of user actions. Asking students to consider how interfaces encourage, facilitate, or reward certain user actions and behaviors enables them to perceive interfaces as rhetorical. The range of social media platforms that students interact with every day can serve as a reliable starting place for students to begin this process of recognition. I have found, for example, that students are quick to recognize how social media platforms encourage users’ public affirmation of posted content (via the “like” function on Instagram) as well as the broader sharing of that content (such as “retweets” on Twitter).

Students’ examination of how they interact with computer interfaces should not and cannot end with a consideration of social media, however. Computer interfaces endeavor to conceal their function as rhetorical texts, that is, their own status as persuasive tools that influence user behavior. As Lori Emerson (2014) underscores, “interfaces themselves and therefore their constraints are becoming ever more difficult to perceive” as contemporary technology seduces us with feats that seem at once “wondrous” and magical (x). To be sure, the range of interfaces with which students interact on a daily basis are varied and quickly changing. Many college students own at least one if not multiple personal computers (including laptops, tablets, and smartphones) for both academic and recreational use, and their experience of those interfaces—except, perhaps, when they fail to work seamlessly—are likely to go largely without much or any critical inspection. Teena Carnegie (2009) argues that teachers and students of writing must learn to talk about the often invisible or “natural”-seeming work of interfaces (166). For Carnegie, as interfaces work continually to engage the audience through interaction, they create “higher levels of acceptance in the user,” acceptance that leads to the increased invisibility of the interface itself (171). In consequence, increasingly taken-for-granted interfaces make users more susceptible to persuasion and more likely to “accept the messages contained within the content, to continue to use a particular site, or to perform certain actions” (171-2). To my mind, that interfaces both render themselves invisible and dispose users to accept messages make the study of the rhetorical work of interfaces essential to developing students’ digital literacy.

Why Video Essays?

A video essay project like the one I assign in my multimodal composition courses presents not only an opportunity for students to practice strategies of analysis and argumentation, but also the opportunity to reflect on how software interfaces ask them to behave. Like written essays, video essays should make a clear argument. Additionally, video essay creators must consider how audible and visual registers reinforce, elaborate on, conflict with, or distract viewers from the essay’s argument. Therefore, successful video essays take seriously how the combination of moving images, still images, oral narration, and a revised, written script can work together to facilitate audience comprehension. Moreover, assigning students a video essay project provides one way for them to practice composing in all of the modes of communication.

As a form, video essays are particularly popular as an emergent form of film criticism. Rather than rely on written descriptions or even screenshots of filmic features, film critics increasingly turn to video essays for their ability to present for analysis the complex visual and nonverbal features in films, features that include lighting, shot design, sound, and costume. To show students the wide range of approaches to video essay design that critics take, I offer them writer Conor Bateman’s “The Video Essay as Art: 11 Ways to Make a Video Essay,” a brief, introductory text useful for its discussion of varied video essay forms as the vlog, scene breakdown, and desktop video. Then, to demonstrate how digital media critics have turned to the video essay for the purposes of making arguments supported by visual evidence and gameplay analysis, I refer to Anita Sarkeesian’s series “Tropes vs Women in Video Games” on the website Feminist Frequency.

Thanks to screen-capture software (including free tools such as Open Broadcaster Software), students can record particular moments of interaction between themselves and software interfaces for later use in video essay arguments. After recording, students can review their documented interactions and analyze them. To be clear, the aspect of the video essay project that requires students to record their interactions is, to my mind, essential. The process of recording footage for the video essay and then constructing an argument using that footage asks students to critically assess how software interfaces incline them to behave in particular (and variously circumscribed) ways. The process of recording, reviewing, and analyzing also has the effect of making students more interface-savvy. That is, after recording their actions in one interface, they may become more likely to reflect on how their actions in other systems could undergo similar analysis.

Why Video Games?

Video games as persuasive texts lend themselves well to student analysis of the often hidden rhetorical implications of software interfaces. More explicitly than the social media interfaces mentioned above, video games as software ask players to behave according to a set of rules or constraints in order to advance or “win.” Relevant to the “animals and/as technology” theme of my course, video games present strong arguments for how players should interact with and, by extension, regard the animals they encounter within game worlds. In response, I ask students to explore how players can interact with animals in games as a means to uncover the implicit or explicit arguments video games make about human-animal relationships. For example, students raise questions such as: what forms of interaction between humans and animals does the game afford me, the player? How easy does the game make it for the player to facilitate that interaction? Is the interaction sustained, or brief? What is that animal’s function in relationship to the player and/or to the game’s narrative? Is the player required to kill or otherwise manipulate the animal to proceed with the game? Can the player mount the animal and use it as a form of transportation or to enhance the player-character’s mobility? Can the player take the role of an animal by guiding it in the first person (as in simulator games)? When the player assumes the role of an animal, what abilities does the animal have? Do the rules of the game change when a player inhabits the role of an animal?

These questions encourage students to consider how the interactive possibilities between player and virtual animals reproduce or challenge pre-existing assumptions about animals in industrialized societies. As Adam Brown and Deb Waterhouse-Watson (2016) remind us, “To varying degrees (but always to some extent), human beings learn about other animals through the symbolic status attributed to them through cultural products, and this frequently involves the naturalization of anthropocentrism.” Anthropocentrism, or the human tendency to privilege the wants and needs of Homo sapiens above the wants and needs of all other forms of life, certainly informs the design of many video games. However, playing video games does not always necessitate that players passively accept anthropocentric interactions with animals as an inevitable requirement for play. With his concept of “procedural rhetoric,” Ian Bogost provides a precise term for how video games encourage (while often allowing for degrees of freedom to resist) a particular manner of interaction between player and game world. For Bogost, “video games can make claims about the world. But when they do so, they do it not with oral speech, nor in writing, nor even with images. Rather, video games make argument with processes. Procedural rhetoric is the practice of effective persuasion and expression using processes” (Bogost 2008, 125). Processes comprise the rule-based systems by which games as computer software unfold as well as the rules that constrain the actions of players. Asking about the “rules of the game” or how and why a game constrains and incentivizes player interactions with particular game features attunes students to the ways games-as-interfaces construct rhetorical arguments.

Scaffolding Game Analysis

Before we begin playing games and analyzing the arguments they make, I provide students with an illustrative model of academic video game criticism: Gary Walsh’s (2014) article “Taming the Monster: Violence, Spectacle, and the Virtual Animal.” By seeing video game criticism in action, students recognize that their video essay projects can contribute to a visible, existing conversation in humanities disciplines. Walsh argues that “videogames create a space in which virtually anyone can commit acts of violence without being registered as such,” that video games be read as opportunities for players to subject animals to violence and to read their own actions as strictly entertainment (22). Many students initially resist Walsh’s argument. Their inclination is to dismiss the implications of game processes that reward violent interactions with nonhuman animals, suggesting instead that games are unworthy of the careful scrutiny provided more transparently rhetorical texts. Indeed, the phrase “But it’s just a game” circulates during the session we consider Walsh’s work. Working through Walsh’s essay, I urge students to examine their reluctance to 1) read video games as argumentative, and 2) consider their actions as players as participating in an argument constructed by interface with a set of game rules. With students, I ask: why does the pleasure we take in video games’ fantasy spaces preclude a critical examination of the way games rely on existing ideologies and ways of interacting between humans and animals?

To give students practice formulating critical questions about games’ rhetorical choices while also thinking about how games ask them to behave as players, I require students to play a series of free-to-play games that involve animals. Asking students to play a set of preselected games prior to their in-depth interrogation of a single game for their video essays serves two important instructional purposes. First, these games help familiarize students with common video game genre conventions. One represents a “casual game”; another lets us explore the conventions of the “first-person shooter.” By introducing students to some of the basic video game genres, even students relatively unfamiliar with game genre conventions can draw on their experiences playing these free games as a foundation for the more sustained rhetorical analysis of game conventions and rules that they undertake soon afterward. Second, I select the initial games students play because of the illustrative way each game represents animals. Rather than offer complex representations, these games are simple both in terms of controls and argument, making them excellent starting points for a more in-depth interrogation of how games make claims about animals.

For example, one of the free games I ask students to play, Linksolutions’ Pets Fun House, represents a “casual” game in which players assume the role of a new pet shop manager. Pets Fun House asks players to feed, water, and clean up after an expanding collection of dogs and cats with the objective of selling those pets to impatient shop customers. As the game proceeds, players’ in-game profits can purchase increasingly larger shop facilities and a wider range of dog and cat breeds to exchange for additional profits. After playing Pets Fun House, I can reliably anticipate that students will respond eagerly to the question: “What argument does this game make about animals?” That is, after playing the game, students identify, at minimum, that 1) Pets Fun House reduces animals to commodities, and 2) Pets Fun House simplifies the needs of companion species, the player needing only to click once per creature to alleviate hunger, thirst, and waste (the three needs that must be satisfied to successfully prepare the animals for sale).

In another of the free games I require students play, DroidCool.com’s Deer Hunter 3D (2015), students become acquainted with the genre of the first-person hunting simulator. In this game, players must shoot an increasing number of deer before time runs out in order to proceed to the next level. Each deer in the game looks and behaves identically to every other deer: they pace across the screen and remain blissfully unaware of the player’s approach. The game’s simplified representation of deer appearance and behavior prompts students to identify that this game promotes the idea that animals are repetitive, instinctual machines. Further, since the player must slay as many deer as possible within a narrowing time frame in order to proceed to the next level, students quickly see how the game’s deer have a single purpose: to “die.” The game portrays its animals not only as machinic obstacles to overcome, but also as morally and physically simple to eradicate. Here, the simplicity of the game’s interface—point and click to shoot without the need to reload or take cover in features of the landscape—implies that the act of killing deer is both easy and straightforward and, consequently, does not require player reflection. As we saw with animal memes, the ease with which video games as interfaces can make an action possible—here, the ease with which Deer Hunter 3D makes it possible for a player to kill deer—is instructive for students as they consider the rhetorical work of interfaces in general.

Work and Play: The Video Essay Project

For the image-based version of the video essay project assignment sheet, please click here.

For a text-only version of the assignment sheet, please click here.

The student artifacts included below comprise a representative sample of the video essay projects students submitted during the past two semesters of this course. Briefly, this project requires students collaborate in groups of 4-5 members each and choose a Steam-based video game to analyze from a list of games I briefly pre-screen for cost and content. Assigning a game available through Steam, a game distribution platform for personal computers, streamlines the requirement that students record their gameplay. Additionally, I tell students that their video essays should not “review” their chosen game. Rather, their video essays should analyze the game’s rhetoric and make an argument about how the game represents animals.

Importantly, I require that students compose their video essay projects for a public audience: students must upload their completed video essays to YouTube and list them as “public.” This requirement has two important pedagogical benefits. First, composing for a public audience allows students to become active knowledge producers, not simply passive consumers. That is, public video essays enable students to contribute their voices, interests, and, by the end of the process of analysis, expertise to an existing network of positions and ideas. Second, I find that students not only produce better work when composing for outside-the-class audiences, but also make more connections between the work we do in the classroom and communication practices in the “real world” when required to produce public-facing work. They see how the work of rhetorical analysis, for example, can influence and inform others. Centrally, a public-facing project teaches students a fundamental concept like the rhetorical situation by providing them a “real” audience to persuade.[2]

Finally, this project requires students to draft and revise a rough script and storyboard for their essays. Their script organizes the scope and structure of students’ voice-over narrations; it also emphasizes the importance of clear, succinct writing in projects that seem at first glance to prioritize visual and electronic modes of communication. Indeed, assigning a multimodal project like a video essay does not alleviate or dismiss the need for students to consider how and why certain “moves” in their persuasive texts become rhetorically effective. For example, student-produced video essays like Essay I on Giant Squid Studios’ 2016 game Abzû present widely-recognized indicators of an effective argument, such as discussion of counterexamples. In addition to the students’ discussion of counterexamples, Essay I demonstrates students’ attention to how the game’s mechanics (or rule-based systems) affect how players think about the role of animals in the game. Against their primary argument that the game promotes a “genuine connection” between player and virtual animals, students analyzed how the inclusion of the mechanic of “riding” animals (see between 4:23 and 5:00 in Essay I) violates said connection. They explain:

By latching on to these creatures, you can take control of their actions and use their bodies to your own benefit…The animal gives up its autonomy…establishing a hierarchical relationship…By riding these creatures, you create temporary and superficial bonds that disappear once you let go.

This piece of analysis demonstrates the thoughtful associations that students developing digital literacy skills can establish between game interfaces and game arguments. Specifically, students here articulate their perception of a link between the interface-afforded opportunity to “ride” animals in the game and the “hierarchical relationship” between human character and nonhuman animal such a rule implies.

Essay I:

Mairead Gawryszewski, Carlos Gabriel Velazquez Sierra, and three anonymous students created Essay I.

 

In Clip I, students explain how Might and Delight’s 2013 game Shelter restricts player movement to incline players to think about the badger cubs placed in their care. This clip shows not only students’ rhetorical awareness (insofar as they address audience members directly by telling them which visual features of their gameplay footage to pay attention to), but also their astute attention to the relationship between the rules of the game and how those rules persuade players to feel a certain way: in this case, to invest emotionally in the badger cubs.

Clip I:
Dylan Pirro, James Forsmo, and three anonymous students created Clip I.

 

Many of the most effective multimodal arguments take seriously what a given medium affords in terms of opportunities for persuasion. Throughout Essay II, students use a combination of gameplay footage, video, and overlaid graphics to enhance their argument about how the visual and mechanical simplicity of Chris Chung’s 2013 game Catlateral Damage creates a fantasy of carefree nonhuman embodiment for the player. A particularly rich example takes place during 3:39 and 4:25 of Essay II. Here, students demonstrate their understanding that showing an image of a “cockroach” and “spider” followed by a series of clips of house cats provides a visceral visual reminder that we very often value the lives of (cute) animals over others. Such a difference in species’ implicit value, students claim, is central to the lack of a death mechanic in Catlateral Damage, a game they claim is largely about causing destruction with no fear of consequences.

Essay II:
Joo Won (Michael) Lee, Ryan Pickart, Matthew G. Weissel, and two anonymous students created Essay II.

 

As a final example, Essay III demonstrates students’ recognition that games can make culturally-specific arguments. Throughout Essay III, students analyzed how developer Upper One Games translated interactions between indigenous Iñupiaq culture and nonhuman animals into the game interface of Never Alone (2014). Students saw such translation occur through what they termed the “equal but different” representation of the game’s human and fox protagonists. From 5:35 to 6:59, Essay III provides a particularly astute analysis of how game mechanics can construct one argument while a game’s narrative can construct another, contradictory argument.

Essay III:
Maya Flores, So-Ying Ester Chang, Kia Clennon, and Elizabeth Stephens created Essay III.

 

Despite the success of many of the video essays I received, issues that teachers of persuasive writing will be familiar with still persisted in some cases. For example, some essays did not provide sufficient evidence to support students’ claims. In other essays, students failed to articulate a clear and straightforward argument. Moreover, it is worth pointing out the ample hardware and software resources available to students at Georgia Tech as they play their games, record their footage and narration, and edit their essays. I recognize that such resources are far from universally available. Even with these challenges in mind, I am encouraged by the work students have accomplished in these video essays, and I will continue to adapt this project to help students analyze other forms of interactive technology in the future.

Reflection and Conclusion

Looking back at the results of the informal survey I administer to assess students’ familiarity with animals, I am impressed by the wide range of interpretations students developed in their video essays, interpretations unlikely to have emerged from attempts to simply apply their prior knowledge of human-animal relationships. Richard Colby, Matthew S. S. Johnson, and Rebekah Shultz Colby (2013) suggest that video games constitute “exemplar multimodal texts, aligning word, image, and sound with rules and operations constrained by computer technologies but composed by teams of writers, designers, and artists to persuade and entertain” (4). Even so, after analyzing survey data of texts selected by writing teachers for use in writing courses, Johnson and Richard Colby (2013) found that “video games are…neglected as texts to be analyzed” despite statistics that show “the sheer number of gamers and the magnitude of the game industry” (87). By bringing video games into the first-year composition classroom, I witnessed students moving away from their initial impulse to regard everyday texts as innocent and undeserving of critical inspection. An overwhelming majority of essays showed students performing thoughtful, in-depth analyses of texts with rhetorical content that once seemed invisible. As regards nonhuman animals, too, an examination of video games may train students to consider their acts of “interfacing” with animals both virtual and actual as worthy of curiosity and reflection, especially if a particular form of interaction seems only natural.

Bibliography

Anderton, Joseph. 2016. “Cyberbeasts: Substitution and Trivialization of the Animal in Social Media, Memes and Video Games.” In Screening the Non/Human: Representations of Animal Others in the Media, edited by Joe Leeson-Schatz and Amber George. New York: Lexington.

Bogost, Ian. 2008. “The Rhetoric of Video Games.” In The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning, 117–40. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Brown, Adam, and Deb Waterhouse-Watson. 2016. “Playing with Other(ed) Species: Games, Representation, and Nonhuman Animals.” Ctrl-Z: New Media Philosophy, no. 6.

Colby, Richard, Matthew S. S. Johnson, and Rebekah Shultz Colby. 2013. “Introduction: Rhetoric/Composition/Play through Video Games.” In Rhetoric/Composition/Play through Video Games: Reshaping Theory and Practice of Writing, 1–8. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

DroidCool.com. (2015). Deer Hunter 3D.

Emerson, Lori. 2014. Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P.

Johnson, Matthew S. S., and Richard Colby. 2013. “Ludic Snags.” In Rhetoric/Composition/Play through Video Games: Reshaping Theory and Practice of Writing, edited by Richard Colby, Matthew S. S. Johnson, and Rebekah Shultz Colby, 83–98. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pets Fun House. Linksolutions.

Teena A. M., Carnegie. 2009. “Interface as Exordium: The Rhetoric of Interactivity.” Computers and Composition 28 (2):164–73.

Walsh, Gary. 2014. “Taming the Monster: Violence, Spectacle, and the Virtual Animal.” Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture, no. 30 (Winter): 21–34.

Warren-Riley, Sarah, and Elise Verzosa Hurley. 2017. “Multimodal Pedagogical Approaches to Public Writing: Digital Media Advocacy and Mundane Texts.” Composition Forum 36.

Notes

[1] The data referenced here represents survey results that I collected informally.

[2] I anticipate and address students’ potential privacy concerns and hesitation to share their work in three ways. First, within the first week of the course, I ask that students sign a “Statement of Understanding,” a brief form in which they disclose if they feel comfortable with me referencing their work in print or electronic publications and how they want to be credited (either by name or anonymously) if they do permit me to reference their work. A sample Statement of Understanding can be viewed by following this link to the course syllabus and scrolling to the bottom of the document. Second, the course syllabus includes a “Public Nature of the Course” clause that informs students that most of their work for the course—including drafts prepared for peer review, in-class presentations of their work, and digital sharing—should be composed with a larger audience (that is, an audience not exclusive to their professor and themselves) in mind. As part of this clause, I emphasize that students’ grades will never be made public. The syllabus linked above contains the “Public Nature of the Course” clause. Finally, I provide students a range of options for posting their work to YouTube. Even though their work remains visible and shareable on this platform, they can choose some combination of the following, privacy-assuring precautions: they can 1) remove all references to their names, 2) “unlist” their video, or make their video undiscoverable by in-site searches, and/or 3) disable comments in YouTube. Perhaps surprisingly, many students want to be credited by name for their work and are excited to share their work with others. Others take comfort in anonymity while still fulfilling the course objectives and seeing how others respond to their efforts via peer review and questions from their classmates.

About the Author

Christina M. Colvin is currently a Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology. There, she teaches courses in multimodal composition that emphasize digital rhetoric. Her research focuses on American literature, new media, animal studies, and ecocriticism.

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Teaching the Digital Caribbean: The Ethics of a Public Pedagogical Experiment

Abstract

In this essay, I discuss my methodology in choosing course content for a “Digital Caribbean” course at the CUNY Graduate Center and some of the challenges, expected and unexpected, that I encountered with my approach. In particular, I focus on some of the ethical and methodological questions I grappled with in melding the study of digital technologies with interdisciplinary study of the Caribbean. Formally a narrative assessment of the ways “not to” build a graduate humanities course that engages digital content, this essay primarily explores what it means to work publicly, in a digital format, with graduate-level research on the Caribbean in academia.

You have to be sure about a position in order to teach a class, but you have to be open-ended enough to know that you are going to change your mind by the time you teach it next week.
— Stuart Hall

In the spring of 2014, I taught a course entitled “The Digital Caribbean” at the CUNY Graduate Center. The course was run by the M.A. in Liberal Studies program (MALS) and cross-listed for the PhD certificates in American Studies and Africana Studies. As far as I could tell in doing my research for the course, it was the first of its kind to be taught at either the graduate or undergraduate level. As such, I found myself cobbling together materials for the course with no precedents or guidelines. This was somewhat easier when I taught the course a year later in the doctoral program in English (again at the CUNY Graduate Center) and then again in Spring 2017 as an undergraduate course at Williams College. In the patchwork essay that follows, I focus on that initial creation for the MALS course, discussing my methodology in choosing content and some of the challenges, expected and unexpected, that I encountered with my approach. In particular, I focus on some of the ethical and methodological questions I grappled with in melding the study of digital technologies with interdisciplinary study of the Caribbean. In part, this is a narrative assessment of the ways “not to” build a graduate humanities course that engages digital content. Mostly, however, it is an exploration of what it means to work publicly with graduate-level research on the Caribbean in academia, particularly with students who have set ideas about their own personal and intellectual relationships to digital technology and to the region.

There were several considerations in both setting up and running the course. Some were foreseeable at the outset, but others part of the learning process of working with living, variable (and often ephemeral) material. In building the initial version of the course, I worked from what at the time was the fifth chapter of a book in progress on Caribbean cosmology. That project has since changed, primarily I believe because of my experience creating and teaching the course. There was a symbiotic relationship such that what was once merely a chapter became pretty much the book. Nevertheless, the former project did shape my approach to the course in that the idea of cosmology (in the most general, universal, sense of the word) helped me to draw together material I was already comfortable teaching – on Caribbean literature and culture – with the Digital Humanities material that was either entirely new to me or new to me in a classroom setting.

Pedagogy: Teaching and Learning the Digital Caribbean

During the course proposal stage, I was not entirely sure what direction the syllabus would take, so, as many of us do at this stage, I left the course description relatively open. The following course description was part of that proposal and appears in slightly abbreviated form on the course website:

Text of course description for Digital Caribbean course

Figure One: Course Description for Digital Caribbean

Much like a presentation abstract months before a conference, the course description above sounded great ahead of time, but in reality I had no template ready for the course. I had not previously appreciated how much I rely on a literary tradition in my pedagogy. In teaching courses like “Caribbean Literature,” “Literary Theory,” and “Women Writers,” I had always had sample syllabi available to me either via the internet or departmental archives. I had also taken similar courses myself as a graduate student. With the digital component, I was charting new ground in Caribbean Studies; and I was teaching in an interdisciplinary program. Thankfully, there was a relatively established body of work on the intersection of race and digital culture by scholars such as Anna Everett and Lisa Nakamura, as well as a newer but also visible and growing body of work on global digital cultures by scholars such as Jennifer Brinkerhoff and Karim H. Karim. However, work that directly addressed digital technology and the Caribbean was much more difficult to find in 2013. Prior to teaching the class, I knew only of very few sources, most notably, Curwen Best’s 2008 monograph, The Politics of Caribbean Cyberculture, articles in the 2011 sx salon discussion “Caribbean Culture Online,” and Annie Paul’s essay in the 2011 Routledge Companion to Anglophone Caribbean Literature, “Log On: Toward Social and Digital Islands.”

Though few and limited to the Anglophone Caribbean, these texts spanned the disciplinary spectrum and so formed a good base from which to begin. My approach to interdisciplinarity has always been to begin with my strength – literature and close reading – and branch out from there. I was also guided by the description of the “second wave” of digital humanities posited in the “Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0”:

The first wave of digital humanities work was quantitative, mobilizing the search and retrieval powers of the database, automating corpus linguistics, stacking hypercards into critical arrays. The second wave is qualitative, interpretive, experiential, emotive, generative in character. It harnesses digital toolkits in the service of the Humanities’ core methodological strengths: attention to complexity, medium specificity, historical context, analytical depth, critique and interpretation.[1]

Though I am sure there are scholars who would argue with the portrayal of the “first wave,” the rest of the description resonated with me because it spoke so directly to what I wished to achieve in the classroom and in whatever scholarship I produced on the topic. This class, this project, was to be generative in nature, for my students, my colleagues, my field, and myself.

But how to pull these varied texts together in a coherent way for these varied audiences? I began with a provisional syllabus that covered only the first three weeks. This decision was motivated by two realities: 1) I simply was not sure what to put in the following weeks as I was still hoping to seamlessly meld Caribbean studies and digital humanities, 2) I wanted to be transparent with my students about the experimental nature of the course and the need for their active participation in generating course content. For various reasons – professional and personal – I was hesitant about this as a pedagogical strategy, but later in the semester some of the students expressed appreciation for this contingent beginning. My openness about the course as an experiment allowed them to feel part of the creation of the course. Throughout the semester the students were comfortable enough to suggest sites, though not readings, for us to analyze. It also helped that I left space in the syllabus for them to do so and designed some of the assignments to require that they find their own examples to illustrate connections between the readings.

At the time, I was unaware of the wealth of research, case studies, and practical advice regarding co-creating course syllabi with students already amassed by scholars steeped in learner-centered pedagogy. The experimental nature of the Digital Caribbean course was not entirely student-centered, but the openness of the syllabus did allow for a foregrounding of some of the students’ interests throughout the semester. In particular, in response to our first class discussion about topics, I scheduled weeks for us to focus on Caribbean tourism online and queer sexualities in Caribbean digital representation(s), topics I had not previously planned to cover. For these especially, but generally throughout the semester, I became a “co-learner” with my students as the course progressed. Much of what I learned from students in this first iteration of the course shaped the next two versions, which were not quite so experimental in syllabus creation.[2]

Our first day was organized around the traditional discussion of the syllabus, texts, and what students hoped to get out of the class; however, I left the second half of class for setting up the course website. We used the CUNY Academic Commons, which is a robust network that offers members not only WordPress-based websites, but also backend privacy for file-sharing and discussion; this helped to avoid the question of copyright with the readings for the course and gave students a space to communicate as a group.[3] We had a lively discussion about what the URL should be for the site as we tried to take into account our current needs, the potential needs of future scholars, and the ways the site might be accessed and for what reasons. The discussion extended to a consideration of what dependencies we had on such tools as search engines, link condensers, and social media. In the end, we decided that though it may be long (so much so that the Commons site creation tool warned us that we would be better off with something shorter), we would choose digitalcaribbean.commons.gc.cuny.edu. It was easy to remember and had a distinct clarity of purpose – two qualities important for both current and potential future users.[4]

Platforms and Privacy: The CUNY Academic Commons

The decision that seemed in those early days to be the easiest – that of which platform to use – became in time one of the most troubling. The CUNY Commons has been a model for several organizations’ digital platforms in the near-decade since launching in 2009. Though there are always improvements to be made, the platform is well-developed and the community is welcoming and supportive. I had no doubts about it being the proper home for our course site. However, as the semester wore on, many of the assumptions that led to my choice of this platform – some of them about the very topic we were studying – proved to be short-sighted.

First, there was my assumption about students’ (and by extension other professors’) usage of the CUNY Academic Commons. During that first class I realized that several of the students had not yet set up their Commons accounts, even though this was the Spring semester and so all but one of them had been enrolled at the Graduate Center for at least one semester of classes. This highlighted the assumption I had made about my students’ technological savvy. It would become more clear throughout the rest of the semester that I would need to set aside time for a “practicum” at the end of some classes to cover some of the technical details of using the WordPress-based Commons to complete assignments. Of the eight students, about half had never blogged, even more had never blogged using WordPress, and the CUNY Academic Commons was new to the majority.[5]

As scholars we are inundated with information (and in some cases exhortations) about digital pedagogy and digital scholarship. Regardless of our field and topic, our research is increasingly done via screens rather than via printed material. According to David M. Berry in Understanding Digital Humanities,

Across the university the way in which we pursue research is changing, and digital technology is playing a significant part in that change. Indeed, it is becoming more and more evident that research is increasingly being mediated through digital technology. Many argue that this mediation is slowly beginning to change what it means to undertake research, affecting both the epistemologies and ontologies that underlie a research programme […] it is rare to find an academic today who has had no access to digital technology as part of their research activity.[6]

As such, we can easily make assumptions about not only about our colleagues’ usage of digital technology, but also the digital readiness of our students; we know they use computers to write for us and we observe them (sometimes during class) utilizing their ever-smarter phones. Additionally, advertising and mass media in general would have us believe that everyone is accessing the internet to conduct business and pleasure. But in truth, access does not mean use, and use does not mean full engagement.

This question of engagement, my first hurdle beyond creating a syllabus, was a peculiar reflection of what we were to study in the class. Six of my eight students were of Caribbean descent and the ways in which they used the internet to enhance their understandings of Caribbean culture was repeatedly a topic of discussion across the semester. More relevant for my purposes here, however, is the way in which they did not use the internet. The students’ lack of engagement with the CUNY Academic Commons spoke to their concerns about privacy and the distinction they imagined (or ignored) between their professional and personal digital lives.

Because the field of Caribbean digital studies could, at best, be termed small, one of my objectives was to build a resource for future teachers, students and scholars of similar material, a group that was at that time, and still is, noticeably increasing in number and visibility. This envisioned resource included, in large part, my students’ blogging activity, depending on these posts to convey some of the content of our discussion and the nature of possible connections between the materials. I had once before, as an extra credit exercise, assigned public blogging as part of a course, but that was with undergraduates, and optional. For this course I had, without proper forethought, made public blogging a requirement for students who were more invested in academia than my undergraduates and still had further to go on the track (I had one PhD student and the others were Master’s students, most of whom were planning to apply to doctoral programs). One student was vocally hesitant about blogging publicly, especially since our use of the CUNY Academic Commons meant he could not write pseudonymously.[7] I encouraged him to continue to participate, but I offered the option to delete the blogs after the course, which made him much more comfortable. In later discussions with colleagues I found that many offered the opportunity to blog privately. I could have offered this option, but I wanted the “pressure” of public writing to shape the students’ responses. I also, selfishly, wanted to build the site with curated content.

Despite this choice to stick with my original plan, I was torn about the decision as the unevenness of my students’ writing and abilities became more apparent. Public writing is its own genre and the students approached it in different ways; some with previous blogging experience took to the writing requirement easily, as did others comfortable with writing and/or public performance. The distance between these students and those more hesitant about blogging grew as the course went on. Included in my original course description was the objective to “consider the pedagogical and professional aspects of working with not only digital texts, but specifically those produced to represent a minority culture, particularly given the increasing digitization of academic work.” Somehow, I had not envisioned the work produced in the class itself to be part of this objective, but learned quickly that I needed to treat my students’ work as part of these “digital texts” as well. As Trevor Owens writes of his course site in “The Public Course Blog: The Required Reading We Write Ourselves for the Course That Never Ends,” my students’ blogging “was not simply a supplement to the course; rather, it played a cognitive role in the distributed structure of the class, moving it from knowledge consumption to knowledge production.”[8] Their blog posts were producing knowledge not just for our little community in the course, but for a larger (albeit still largely imagined) community beyond the classroom.

On the first day of class we had been optimistic enough to choose a hashtag for sharing our course materials on social media but my concerns about my students’ right to relative privacy kept me from directly linking to their work until the final projects at the end of the semester. The question that repeatedly haunted me was: to what extent are we responsible for shielding our students in this manner? It seems a bit silly to think of myself as “shielding” my students when their work was available on the World Wide Web, but given the relative obscurity of some (even most) web content, it is easy to forget about the public nature of material created for a small group. Could I strike some balance between public encouragement of their work and the traditional private safe space of the classroom? A related concern was that all my students were students of color and I did not know which approach to public writing would most benefit them in an academic system and space ill-designed for their success.  As a compromise, I began to suggest revisions in my reading of their blogs. Though I occasionally commented on their blogs publicly, I also periodically “graded” the blogs privately with comments about each. This resulted in more work but sat well with me ethically as it gave my students the option of going back to revise the blog posts both before and after the “grading.”[9] In retrospect, this was the best approach possible given the varied rationales for the course site: a conversation between the course participants, a contemporary resource for interested readers, and an archive for potential future scholars.

Sooner than expected, I had cause to question the ways in which the course was framed on the site for this latter audience. That summer, after the course had closed, I was contacted by Elena Machado Sáez, who was doing research on Robert Antoni’s As Flies to Whatless Boys. Her project was on reader responses to the text and its accompanying website and in doing research she encountered my students’ posts on the Digital Caribbean site. Antoni was one of our class visitors and so there had been significant activity on the blog surrounding his novel and its experimental website. Because many reviewers were ignoring the website (possibly due to how unusual and “out there” it is), my students’ online conversation represented the largest resource of rigorous engagement with both the novel and its website that a scholar could access at the time. Machado Sáez contacted me about the posts and the site in general. Her email and her subsequent usage of material from the site brought me up short and made me realize the ways in which I had not been careful enough in my creation of the site and contextualization of the course.

The irony here is that our last class was on how search engine optimization (SEO) – via Google in particular – affects one’s exposure to information. Therefore, I should have been more cognizant of how the site appeared to an outsider. But I was, again, operating under myopic assumptions about internet usage. Unfortunately, I did not fully realize this until my students’ work had already made it into Machado Sáez’s book. Her reference to the students’ writings begin: “The digital marginalia accessible via CUNY Academic Commons and produced within a classroom setting indicates the discomfort of readerships with the (im)possible intimacy of Antoni’s online archive, as well as its appeal.”[10] This was footnoted with reference to our email exchange:

Kelly Josephs taught a Spring 2014 graduate course at the CUNY Graduate Center on the “Digital Caribbean,” which produced the blog postings on CUNY Academic Commons (“Introduction”). Since I accessed the blog commentary via Google and the classroom context was not directly acknowledged by the posts, I contacted Josephs via e-mail on June 2, 2014, to see if she knew who had generated the posts. Josephs was kind enough to provide me with her course syllabus and a description of the blog post assignment, but she was unaware that the posts could be disconnected from the course content, or rather, read without accessing the relevant online course description and materials. As she noted, “The CUNY Academic Commons is a large conglomerate and this is just one site within it” (“Re: CUNY Academic Commons,” 2 June 2014). Our academic exchange speaks to how classwork may circulate digitally in ways that we as teachers might not imagine, namely, decontextualized from the pedagogical frame that produced that work.[11]

I quote the note in full here because it speaks to the various ethical, archival, and pedagogical dilemmas I highlight above. Machado Sáez raises a salient point about the circulation of digital material. My disconcertion here is not that the student posts were accessed without context, but that the content of the course could then be “decontextualized from the pedagogical frame that produced that work.” This was in part due to my neglecting to properly “brand” the course and its proliferating content, relying too much on the assumption that readers would navigate their way to the syllabus and the course description. Indeed, we had the public in mind when creating the site – that was in large part the point of our first class discussion about what to name the site and how to frame it – however, the prominence of the “CUNY” branding vis-à-vis the name of the site itself had not been part of that initial discussion (nor had it occurred to me during the course). The potential divorcing of student work from the entirety of the course experience raises for me the following questions:

  • What assumptions do we make about the holistic nature of a course when building a public site to house student work? Do these assumptions really matter to future “use” of the work?
  • What does it do to add the public as an audience for coursework? How does that reflect on content choices? How does this additional component shape assignments and “performance” in the course?
  • How does the choice of platform affect reception of the work? If we rely on platforms provided by our academic institutions, how does the institution continue to own our intellectual labor in ways we did not envision – or ways we do not mean to occur?

Three iterations of the course later, I am still grappling with these questions.[12] Before teaching the course again in 2015, I made small revisions to the course site in an effort to more clearly signal the course context for public readers, but kept the general structure and all the previous student work as part of the archive. For the 2017 undergraduate course I decided to build a new site with a different theme and organization, partly to speak to the distinct needs of my undergraduate students but also in an effort at embracing the ephemerality of a site hosted by an institution within which I was contingent faculty.[13] Rather than answering the questions above, teaching the course again has simply nuanced them, foregrounding for me the ethics of scholarship vs pedagogy, particularly when the Caribbean as subject matter and identity politics in the classroom – engaging underrepresented peoples and places – underlie these questions of ethics and public distribution.

We learn as we teach. As I teach this course, I am learning to err on the side of impermanence whenever my drive to build a site as part of the “product” of the course seems to be in tension with the needs of my students to learn in a private, safe space. I am learning to incorporate space and time for opacity in such ventures; space and time for students to create, and revise, and perhaps even refuse work in ways ultimately invisible behind the screens of outsiders. Impermanence and opacity – these are not easy choices for a Caribbeanist in the age of livestreamed conferences, recorded lectures, and hashtagged events. In the digital age, we want access to everything, archives of everything. As a Caribbean scholar, I also desire to build evidence of the complexities, the very existence, of our cultures; evidence against, as Derek Walcott phrases it: “the way that the Caribbean is still looked at, illegitimate, rootless, mongrelized. ‘No people there,’ to quote Froude, ‘in the true sense of the word.’ No people. Fragments and echoes of real people, unoriginal and broken.”[14] The lure of digital archives is their potential to make such evidence of history, of humanity, accessible in all senses of the word. I am learning to weigh this drive toward visibility against my students’ needs for invisibility, reminding myself each time that impermanence and opacity, difficult as they may be for a digital humanist, are longstanding strategies of resistance in Caribbean cultures.

Notes

[1] Jeffrey Schnapp, Todd Presner, and Peter Lunenfeld, “Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0,” http://www.humanitiesblast.com/manifesto/Manifesto_V2.pdf. Emphasis in original. This citation is limited as according to Presner, “Parts of the manifesto were written by Jeffrey Schnapp, Peter Lunenfeld, and myself, while other parts were written (and critiqued) by commenters on the Commentpress blog and still other parts of the manifesto were written by authors who participated in the seminars. This document has the hand and words of about 100 people in it.” (Todd Presner, “Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0 Launched” 22 June 2009, http://www.toddpresner.com/?p=7, accessed 15 November 2017). Thus, while I note all three authors in the bibliographic record, I wish to also acknowledge that, in keeping with the gestalt of DH work, it is a collaborative document.

[2] For an illustrative discussion of the hows and whys of co-creating syllabi and course assignments with students, see Cathy Davidson’s 2015 HASTAC series “How Do I Get Started? A Step-by-Step Guide to Designing a Student-Centered Classroom,” https://www.hastac.org/blogs/cathy-davidson/2015/08/04/how-do-i-get-started-step-step-guide-designing-student-centered

[3] The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy is also part of the CUNY Academic Commons, though the site does not have a Commons URL or the Commons header.

[4] I was already using the simpler URL caribbean.commons.gc.cuny.edu for another site. It pays to be an early adopter in this field.

[5] The Commons team has since focused some of their resources on orienting new CUNY Graduate Center students to the platform and so both knowledge and usage of the Commons has increased in the past four years.

[6] David M. Berry, ed. Understanding Digital Humanities (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 1.

[7] I learned afterward that this is a possibility with the CUNY Academic Commons and have since offered the option to students, though none have yet chosen to blog under a pseudonym. In an unexpected turn of events, the student most hesitant about public blogging in this first version of the course later included his posts as part of his online resume of writings.

[8] Trevor Owens, “The Public Course Blog: The Required Reading We Write Ourselves for the Course That Never Ends.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew K. Gold (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012). http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/6

[9] The course site remains public and as of this writing – as far as I could tell from the dashboard – none of the students have erased their blogs. This may, of course, speak more to their forgetting to remove them than any considered decision about their academic portfolio.

[10] Elena Machado Sáez, Market Aesthetics: The Purchase of the Past in Caribbean Diasporic Fiction (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015), 207.

[11] Ibid, 228.

[12] The initial course ended with student digital projects (though I gave the option of a traditional paper, six of the eight students chose to build digital projects). The projects were extremely gratifying for me and I felt much more comfortable sharing these projects via social media because the students had “owned” them in a way they had not “owned” the blog posts for the course. What I found most interesting was that each of these projects was built “elsewhere.” That is, none of the students chose the CUNY Academic Commons to house their work. Perhaps they were much more aware of these questions of ownership and reception than I was at the time.

[13] This course was part of my teaching responsibilities as a visiting professor at Williams College. As of this writing, the site is still accessible, but my access to the administration of it will expire when my Williams College email account expires.

[14] Derek Walcott, “The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory” Nobel Lecture, December 7, 1992. https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1992/walcott-lecture.html

About the Author

Kelly Baker Josephs is Associate Professor of English at York College, CUNY. She is the author of Disturbers of the Peace: Representations of Insanity in Anglophone Caribbean Lit­erature (2013), editor of sx salon: a small axe literary platform, and manager of The Caribbean Commons website. Her current project, “Caribbean Articulations: Storytelling in a Digital Age,” explores the intersections between new technologies and Caribbean cultural production.

An image of a Google map of earth featuring pins at all the locations mentioned in Díaz’s novel.
2

Beyond the Borders of the Page: Mapping The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Abstract

This article concerns a student project designed for a 200-level literature course titled “American Migrations.” Students used ZeeMaps (an application that creates custom maps using Google Maps data) to write entries about the 200-plus geographic locations mentioned in Junot Díaz’s novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Here I inquire how this non-software-intensive digital humanities project helped students fulfill the diversity general education requirement attached to the course. To that end, I argue that digital humanities assignments organized around questions of diversity can improve students’ understanding of difference while also helping them acquire practical digital literacy skills.

 

Junot Díaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), explores the porousness of many borders: national, linguistic, stylistic, and generic. The book tells the story of how a Dominican-American teenager, Oscar de León, learns to cope with being more at home in science fiction and fantasy worlds than he is in his own skin. To give this personal drama more reach, the book also looks backward to chronicle the tragic events that forced the de León family to flee the Dominican Republic and the bloody Trujillo Regime. Surprisingly, Díaz refers to locations from over thirty countries on six continents to craft his multi-generational immigrant narrative. The book also alludes to dozens of imaginary places from alternate universes well loved by Oscar. By any measure, Oscar Wao is novel of epic proportions.The global ambitions of this book can be off-putting, though. I worried about this issue after deciding to assign the book in a 200-level literature class which I titled “American Migrations.” This course, which I taught during the Spring 2016 semester, explored narratives of immigration to the United States and people’s movement once there. To help make sense of Díaz’s geographical references, I asked my students to map them (see Figure 1, Live Map and Appendix). The course’s midterm assignment required students to plot Díaz’s 200-plus named locations using the ZeeMaps application, which allows users to create custom maps with data provided by Google Maps.

In this essay, I will argue that this process of creating a collaborative map encouraged my students to construct pathways into the lifeworld of the novel’s characters and also out to the real world in which they all live. Incorporating a relatively small-scale, non-software-intensive digital humanities project into this lower division undergraduate literature course allowed students from many different majors to approach novels and their digital lives differently. Ultimately, re-reading the novel with the aid of this map ultimately permitted these students to transcend the inescapable frontier of reading literature: the gap between the author and the reader.

An image of a Google map of earth featuring pins at all the locations mentioned in Díaz’s novel.

Figure 1. “Mapping The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” The references are color coordinated to match the character most closely related to each reference. The crossed sword and pencils in the South Pacific Ocean represent fictional locations from Science Fiction/Fantasy, Comics, and Role-Playing mentioned in the novel.

Essential Studies Requirements: Diversity and Information Literacy

Promoting diversity is an integral concern of contemporary university education. Many citizens, faculty, administrators, and even students themselves demand university populations that more accurately and fairly represent people from all backgrounds. Moreover, scholars and activists have concentrated on using required courses, particularly in the humanities, to introduce students to the stories, struggles, and perspectives of these groups. In the past fifty years, the concept “diversity” has evolved into a required learning outcome of many general education curricula (Chang 2002). In English departments, this means changing what books are taught, how they are taught, and who gets to teach them. That said, diversity is just one of many popular general education requirements. My university also expects students to complete classes that meet advanced communication and information literacy requirements, and rightly so. I responded by attempting to design an assignment that would help prepare students for the demands of information work in the global economy.

I chose to explore racial, national, and geographic diversity by teaching a novel about immigration written by a person of color, and then framing our interpretation of it using questions of distance, distance that can be easily mapped using digital applications. Google Maps tells me that the classroom in Grand Forks, North Dakota where I taught this novel is 1,498 miles from Oscar’s (and Díaz’s) hometown of Paterson, New Jersey; their birthplace, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, is 2,543 miles as the plane flies (see Figure 2). Suffice it to say, the majority of my students grew up in a very different world than Díaz and his characters. Few of my students came from urban centers, or even large towns, and the only immigrant of the group moved from Manitoba in Central Canada when he was very young. More importantly, none were born in Grand Forks.

I know all of this because the first assignment in the class was a short, written reflection on each student’s idea of home. I came up with this task as a way to encourage my students to take their own identity seriously within larger national and international contexts.[1] Because all of them had moved to Grand Forks, they too had migrated, albeit under different circumstances. I suspected that the drama of leaving home in the course’s narratives of immigration would resonate more clearly after students were allowed to describe how they visualize and construct their own sense of their origin. Their work over the course of the semester confirmed this suspicion. It is worth noting here that the racial make-up of the class was relatively homogenous. Most students appeared white with the exception of three students that appeared to be of Asian descent. There were about as many male-identified as female-identified students.

An image of a Google map of North and Central America. Solid lines representing the major migrations of the characters Oscar, Lola, and Beli connect the Dominican Republic and New Jersey, USA.

Figure 2. “Major Character Migrations.” The three main journeys made by the main characters are marked with solid lines. Notice the scarcity of references to the Midwestern and western US, from where many of my undergraduate students hail. The lone location in the upper Midwest is the University of North Dakota, which I placed on the map for the students’ reference. Our class-wide discussions afterward indicated that creating the map enriched students’ experience of the book.

The class was particularly diverse in disciplinary backgrounds. Its twenty-four students came from eleven different majors, unified chiefly by their desire to fulfill one of the two diversity requirements that they need to graduate. My course covered the “U” requirement, which is explained in the course catalog as a special emphasis in United States diversity. The class roster included more aviation majors than English majors. This disciplinary diversity added a level of complication in designing and implementing a digital humanities project in the course. Not only could I not presume these students would be confident interpreting literature and writing about it in the ways I would require them to, but I could also not expect them to have any experience with any software packages besides ones that are freely accessible and widely used. 56.4% of smartphone users rely on Google Maps to navigate through space (Statistica 2017). Anecdotal evidence suggests that my students’ usage was even higher. By filtering our reading of the novel through an interface that most of my students use regularly, I hoped that Díaz’s characters and their exploits could become more real and realistic to them. As this argument progresses, I hope to show how my understanding of how to best teach literature about diversity evolved alongside my strategies for implementing digital humanities assignments.

The Assignment and Student Work Process

Now, let me provide an overview of the goals and proposed learning outcomes of the assignment. In the most basic sense, maps help us make sense of the meaning of borders. Digital maps add functionality by modifying and filtering the data presented to individual users based on their specific needs and queries. A real-world example of this would be how Google Maps includes customer reviews and hours for restaurants as well as the time it takes to travel by car, foot, bike, or public transit from the user’s present location. For the purposes of this lower-level literature class, I wanted my students to seek out details that would flesh out the daily lives of characters living in the world of the novel. I asked pairs of students to research a set of locations, plot and describe each location, note which character was most important to this reference, explain the location’s relevance to the overall plot, and then check each other’s work.[2] I provided a step-by-step guide (see Appendix) to filling in the fields that I created using the ZeeMaps application. Nevertheless, a few students struggled to make the software work in ways they wanted it to, and thus I had to provide some training in fundamental digital literacy skills. This kind of support falls outside the purview of my explicit course and project objectives, but I consider it time well-spent nonetheless.

After looking through the various mapping application options, I chose ZeeMaps because it offers a straightforward, easy-to-use interface, and because it creates maps that look similar to Google Maps with which my students were already familiar. I decided against more complex applications (such as MapBox) for two central reasons: their steep learning curves threatened to intimidate students, and, more importantly, their flashy, fiddly maps might distract from a main goal of the assignment, to bridge “foreign” world of the novel to the “ordinary” digital lives of my students. As you can see in the assignment sheet (see Appendix), I structured the steps in straightforward as possible ways for students coming from many different educational backgrounds with varying degrees of digital literacy with software tools. Put another way, I tried to refocus the quotidian practice of on-the-fly smartphone research as a means to learn about the world of the novel’s characters, not the world of the students themselves.

A representative student location entry laid over an image of a Google map of the Northeast United States. The student entry includes a description of the location, its relevance to the plot, the page the reference appears, the characters involved, and additional notes.

Figure 3. “Franklin Diner (Somerset Diner).” A representative example of my student’s entries. Students’ names have been removed to preserve their anonymity.

The above entry (Figure 3) is representative of my students’ work. First, I will discuss some positive aspects of this example. When this student failed to find an obvious match for the diner mentioned by in the novel among his assigned locations, he returned to the text and used an interpretation of the character’s motivations to come up with a suitable substitute, reasoning that the diner should be “known to be a local hangout.” This phrasing demonstrates a clear identification with Oscar as college student like himself. In having to extrapolate in this way, it seems to me that student was compelled to compare his own motivations and experiences to the character’s. What’s more, this student returned to the text of the novel to ascertain the necessary context to address his hermeneutic challenge. Re-reading is a foundational analytical technique of all college English courses from Freshman composition onward but considering that most of my students were not English majors, I was heartened to see this student revisiting this passage to meet the expectations explained to him on the assignment sheet. Here, this student used his interpretation of a minor choice by Díaz to better explain Oscar’s decision-making.

Next, I will address what could be have been improved. I was disappointed to see that students’ writing in the project often came across as casual, even sloppy. This example highlights the class’ wider writing issues. Rutgers is misspelled, for instance. This particular student begins to analyze the choice of setting this scene in a local diner but fails to use the connection he makes to advance any claim about Oscar’s place in the narrative or directly connect it to his own experience. Overall, my students’ analysis was not nearly as rigorous as I had hoped given the complexity of the novel. Some locations are of more interest and import than others, of course, but I had anticipated that requiring them to investigate important and minor places alike, students could get a richer sense of the writer’s craft. Our class discussions afterward suggested that some students understood this idea better than their entries demonstrated, but I had wanted to see this more explicitly in their writing. As I will discuss below, I think that asking my students to write a bit more “around” the mapping assignment may have enriched their analysis and their textual engagement with the novel.

What often sets English department classes apart from other college courses is the attention paid to writing itself. This assignment (indeed, all assignments of this nature) threaten to distract students and instructors from attending to prose. At risk of oversimplifying an important debate for the benefit of a quick summary—more time spent with software means less time writing (Bosquet 2014; Schuman 2013). This is a valid concern, but one that I think this assignment and assignments like these can overcome through careful planning. That said, literature classes offer something more than writing and argumentation alone; they offer stories as compelling examples of lived experience. Getting students from a variety of majors to recognize this and develop a working understanding of the point of literature, if not a whole-hearted appreciation of it, must be an implicit goal of literature classes’ reading lists and assignment design. I planned this mapping assignment with that in mind, and I think, for the most part, it succeeded.

Student research methods suggested another possible shortcoming. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of my students conducted their research for their location entries with Google and Wikipedia even though I warned them that exclusively using these sources would undermine the accuracy of their work and, thus, my assessment of its quality. I accepted this trade-off because I predicted that this assignment would remind my students that these places mentioned by Díaz are inhabited by real people in the real the world. ZeeMaps’s close emulation of Google Maps directions interface likely pushed students towards repeating their regular “research” strategies. Rather than force them to behave like scholars, I tried to twist this possible danger into a moment of identification with the characters.

Literary scholars know better than to confuse quantity for quality, but students may not. With the completed map in front of us during our classroom discussion, students could begin to see how things mentioned only once, or even not at all, can impact the meaning of a text far more than things often repeated. Interpreting the motivations of characters, just like the motivations of real people, requires reading also what is not there. The hermeneutic method required to complete this mapping assignment therefore offers different ways to frame lessons that we already want to impart to our students. This project also reminds us of a lesson so obvious that it is too often forgotten: diversity comes in many different forms. The student-readers start off as distant from the lives and experiences of these characters, but once they have started to transcend that distance, they are able to be more receptive to the many other lessons about the difficulties of immigration, race, and authoritarian governments that Díaz builds his narrative upon.

By the time a contemporary student reaches university, she has undoubtedly been told about the importance of diversity; she may even be sick of the hearing versions of the same platitudes. I’d argue that the humanities are uniquely suited to succeed at overcoming this danger. Combining diversity education and technological literacy in many lower-level classes could offer ways to help students feel more connected, both in geographical and mediated terms. I do not claim to have produced a heightened sense of literary appreciation in all of my students, but I am confident that seeing these characters and places in this new way helped them develop a more cosmopolitan ethical outlook, putting them on the path toward what Viet Thanh Nguyen calls a “citizen of the imagination” (286). Reading literature alone does not make you into a good person, but it does force you to imagine the lives of others living on the other side of spatial, psychological, and cultural borders. Applying common digital applications to the study of any human problem offers more students the possibility of participating in this kind of community in ways they are already comfortable doing, namely navigating space with digital maps and looking up unknown references on the internet.

Supplementing Traditional Humanities Pedagogy

No matter how you decide to approach it, there is a lot going on in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Indeed, readers such as Kim Flournoy have created digital supplements like “The Annotated Oscar Wao” to help readers deal with the many untranslated Spanish words and the abundant geeky references. Rather than address this interpretative difficulty, the mapping assignment required students to come up with their own explanation for narrative details such as why Díaz might have his character apply to NYU knowing full-well that it was a “one-in-a-million shot” before choosing to attend Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey (33). Providing a rationale for the minor elements of the story seemed to help them grapple with central ones. Through this type of inquiry, Díaz’s characters stopped being just symbolic representations of something larger than themselves; they could start to become humans who the students could identify and sympathize with despite their clear biographical and geographical differences.

After we completed our group map, I asked the students to consult the artifact and compose a written reflection on how it affected their understanding of the novel they had already “finished” reading. One perceptive student concluded that the class was “forced to kind of abandon the stereotypes of where we pictured these locations or what we pictured them as, because we were searching for more information about these places.” By engaging Díaz’s fictional world using the same digital protocols they normally use for things as trivial as finding where to get a cup of coffee or some late-night Mexican food, my students could more easily identify with his characters, and, perhaps, start to see them as peers.

From reading student responses like this one, I came to appreciate a crucial oversight in my assignment design. By asking students to write a reflection about the novel only after completing the map, I may have neglected an opportunity to trace how their feelings about the novel changed in the process. Next time, I would try assigning an additional response to the novel before introducing the mapping project. Even a piece of writing as short and straightforward as a review modelled on a Goodreads post or Amazon customer review would have given students the chance to articulate their feelings of the novel at that point so they could later revise them. Indeed, perhaps this missing link is one reason why this student above hedges, using the phrase “to kind of abandon” stereotypes rather than critical thinking vocabulary such as “revise” or “complicate.” Of course, many of our classroom discussions gave students a preliminary chance to voice their responses to the novel, but a more comprehensive and formal opportunity may have made the discoveries and arguments explored in the final reflection that much more helpful.

Many college courses designed to meet diversity general education requirements surely state goals that sound similar to my student’s description above—particularly the part about challenging stereotypes. What this mapping project offers above and beyond that, however, is the process. The characters and the locations students explored with their map became situated in reality, thereby reinforcing the overall goal of asking students the recognize the shared aspects of the human experience. This humanizing of unfamiliar characters was additionally useful since Díaz’s style veers so widely from the traditional methods of literary realism. Mapping offers a supplementary reading strategy which fuses the power of Díaz’s linguistic experimentalism with realism’s concern for the motivations of living, breathing people, not too different from those who really do exist, in identifiable settings. There is great potential for incorporating digital tools, methods, and assignments to help accomplish the traditional goals of undergraduate literature classes that include non-majors and non-experts. Here I want to elaborate how digital humanities teaching methods can advance the goals of traditional pedagogy in the humanities and the liberal arts, and, what’s more, can help students better see the purposes of writing for digital environments.

For his part, Ryan Cordell stresses the creative and imaginative promise of skill-building as encouraging broader humanistic engagement. It “is one thing to be able to use a particular piece of hardware or software,” Cordell suggests, “and another thing altogether to imagine what it might do or mean if pushed beyond its typical use, or even more again to imagine what might be created in its stead.” I read Cordell’s argument as pushing instructors to think about innovation in the creative economy more broadly. We must remember that knowledge work, especially in the creative industries, is already software-based. Digital tools and software evolve rapidly, far more rapidly than any departmental curricula could, but this does not mean that English instructors should throw up their hands.

It is important to recall that undergraduates, even so-called digital natives, are primarily users of technology, not designers or programmers; there are thus technological and psychological barriers to the kind of “imagining” Cordell describes above. Employing these skillsets with tasks that students already have some fluency in, such as digital maps, may help erode some of their anxiety concerning digital assignments and computer-based knowledge work while also introducing them to stories and perspectives of people different than themselves. To my mind, moving digital humanities projects into lower-level literature classes offers students productive ways to develop their ethical and pragmatic digital selves at the same time.

Digital interpretation techniques have become increasingly powerful and popular in recent years. It should come as no surprise, then, that scholars have experimented with using this kind of method on Díaz’s important novel. Ed Finn, for one, scoured and compiled Amazon reviews of Oscar Wao to try and make sense of Díaz’s complex set of influences and references in order to better understand his place in the literary field. To that end, Finn used Amazon’s subsequent algorithmic recommendations to explain how Díaz’s network of authors and texts affect real reading habits of customers and fans. Finn contends that the novel is “ultimately a story about reconfiguring reading.” This claim makes good sense, given the vast array of literary and genre references within the text, but, I would add that mapping Díaz in the ways my class did permit us to take Finn’s argument one step further. Finn explains his method in spatial terms: “Like Díaz,” he seeks “to redefine reading by expanding the contested territory.” Here Finn speaks of territory only as a metaphor. He employs what we might call a “distant reading” of literary texts that, following Franco Moretti, allows him to “focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text: devices, themes, tropes––or genres and systems” (48–9). My mapping assignment, on the other hand, asked students to read distance, and thus, find ways to overcome the feeling that they share little with the characters in this novel.

At this moment, it is important to consider Lauren Klein’s revaluation of the technique after Moretti’s public accusation of sexual assault. She concludes that “it’s not a coincidence that distant reading does not deal well with gender, or with sexuality, or with race.” Here Klein reminds us that literary value is never neutral, and thus demands that digital humanities scholars continue to question the literary canon that is (re)produced by newly available research methods. Projects which examine the particular challenges that persons of color face in the contemporary literary marketplace such as Finn’s are a start, but digital humanities research needs to keep improving on this score. Incorporating mapping projects in classes “about” diversity could be a productive point of departure.

Finn’s claim that both his method and Díaz’s novel force us to read differently is obviously an exciting one for literary scholars; we read professionally. Students and other lay readers (many of the critics that Finn taps in his analysis of Amazon reviews for that matter) do not necessarily share the same imperatives for reading literature. Many students are familiar with digital product reviews; many have even tapped them for recommendations about all kinds of goods. However, extrapolating Amazon’s sense of the literary marketplace onto, say, Pierre Bourdieu’s conception of the literary field that Finn relies upon requires theoretical background that many undergraduate students, including English majors, lack.

This is a way of saying that many of the goals and objectives of humanities research, especially digital humanities research, remain opaque to even advanced humanities undergraduates. Furthermore, they surely remain hopelessly abstract to undergraduates outside the humanities who struggle to grasp the learning objectives of humanities education. The success of my students’ work in this context reinforces the argument that instructors can offer our students the benefits of the digital humanities research methods without having to explain them as such. Consider Mark Sample’s definition of creative analysis: “I don’t want my students to become miniature scholars. I want them to be aspiring Rauschenbergs, assembling mixed media combines” (405). In projects like this mapping assignment, instructors can offer techniques that offer new lines of creative inquiry for students interested in literature, art, and creative practice without alienating students from other disciplines who have enrolled in the course for the chance to read some good books. Put another way, digital assignments like this offer students from a wide variety of majors the chances to actively participate in the information economy as creators and designers, not just as passive users. At the same time, assignments like this reinforce the idea that creativity requires careful observation, research, and analysis, not just ego. Writing papers have long modelled this strategy for future workers and citizens within the safe confines of a classroom and with a receptive audience of one teacher. Mapping projects, on the other hand, enable students’ products to circulate and serve others in ways that real-world writing and maps already do. This is not to say that mapping should replace writing, but it does seem to offer an exciting supplement to students who may not have as much experience or interest in artistic products and process as humanities or arts majors.

Conclusion: New Avenues for Reading and Teaching

Undergraduates, especially non-English majors, will only read so many novels during their academic careers. Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao addresses many of the objectives of English department curricula and will hopefully continue to be a mainstay. The accusations of sexual assault and misogyny made against Díaz surely complicate this wish. To my mind, interpretive methods that prioritize culture, context, and the reader rather than the author, are designed to expose sexual, economic, racial, and imperial violence in ways that may foster the kinds of difficult discussions that will help eradicate these kinds of violence; Díaz’s text was already problematic, and these disturbing allegations reinforce just how important discussions of difference should be moving forward. What the creation of this mapping assignment taught me is that the novel’s planetary ambitions are as important as supplementing of the reader’s “mandatory two seconds of Dominican history,” which Díaz lampoons in the novel’s first footnote (2). Indeed, Oscar Wao would not be as canonical, that is, it would not appear on as many undergraduate syllabi, if its concern with space were not so robust. Mapping this novel by digital or cognitive methods reinforces a central takeaway of Díaz’s fiction—people and their cultures do not travel on one-way trips or in straight lines. My students got the chance to discover where the undergraduate reader, where each of them, fits into this landscape.

As productive as I found this assignment to be for my students, I think that in my desire to make it straightforward for a varied group of students may have undercut some of the project’s efficacy. For instance, I may have erred by creating the spreadsheet of locations for the students, so that they could simply plug in the locations using the ZeeMaps interface. I did this to make sure that students would not miss any locations, and to make sure that they would all get an even amount of work, but I fear that it may have been too easy for students to simply search for locations out of context. On a related note, if one wanted to adapt this assignment onto a different novel in a similar class, I would suggest having students map their own migrations from home as a way to cement the connections between their own lives and the lives of the characters. ZeeMaps makes it easy to group locations, so these locations could be easily unchecked, and thus made invisible, for the sake of class discussion about the novel itself. Since this assignment was designed around fostering student identification, reinforcing how far they had travelled (in terms of psychic and physical distance) may help expand the lessons of the class, the project, and the novel.

At their best, humanities courses help students see things in new ways. The digital humanities should share the same imperative. With assignments like the one I detail here, humanities instructors may defamiliarize the common and familiarize difference. By eclipsing the frontier between the singular experience of reading and the real-world novels attempt to represent, readers can begin to create a higher relief image of the things that should be all but borderless: our imagination and our empathy.

Notes

[1] I did not directly relate this reflection on students’ ideas of home to the midterm mapping project, but, as I elaborate upon below, I think the next time I assign a mapping project I will aim to frame the purpose of the project a bit differently.

[2] Perhaps the best part of using ZeeMaps is the ease of creating posts. All users need to do is find the “Addition” tab and enter a location and type it in, just as if they were searching for driving directions. ZeeMaps’ reliance on real-world maps via Google, however, made the addition of the dozen fantasy references difficult to chart (See Figure 1 or the South Pacific Ocean on the live map). This discrepancy required students to further consider the “reality” of Díaz’s references.

Bibliography

Bousquet, Marc. 2016. “Keep the ‘Research,’ Ditch the ‘Paper.’” Chronicle of Higher Education, February, 14 2014.

Chang, Mitchell J. 2002. “The Impact of Undergraduate Diversity Course Requirements on Students’ Racial Views and Attitudes.” JGE: The Journal of General Education. 51, no. 1. https://doi.org/10.1353/jge.2002.0002.

Cordell, Ryan. 2015. “How Not To Teach Digital Humanities.” http://ryancordell.org/teaching/how-not-to-teach-digital-humanities/.

Díaz, Junot. 2007. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York: Riverhead.

Finn, Ed. 2013. “Revenge of the Nerd: Junot Díaz and Networks of American Literary Imagination.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 7, no.1. http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/7/1/000148/000148.html

Hanna, Monica, Jennifer Harford Vargas, and José David Saldívar, eds. 2016. Junot Díaz and the Decolonial Imagination. Durham: Duke UP.

Klein, Lauren F. 2018. “Distant Reading After Moretti.”

http://lklein.com/2018/01/distant-reading-after-moretti/.

“Mobile Audience Reach of Leading Smartphone Apps in the United States as of June 2017.” Statista.com. https://www.statista.com/statistics/281605/reach-of-leading-us-smartphone-apps/.

Nguyen, Viet Thanh. 2016. Nothing Ever Dies. Cambridge: Harvard UP.

Phillips, Kristine. 2018. “Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz accused of sexual misconduct, misogynistic behavior.” Washington Post, May 6, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2018/05/05/pulitzer-prize-winning-author-junot-diaz-accused-of-sexual-misconduct-misogynistic-behavior/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.6b43cdd95ae0.

Sample, Mark. 2011. “What’s Wrong with Writing Essays.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. edited by Matthew Gold. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press: 404–405.

Schuman, Rebecca. 2013. “The End of the College Essay.” Slate, December 13, 2013. http://www.slate.com/articles/life/education/2013/12/college_papers_students_hate_writing_them_professors_hate_grading_them_let.html.

 

Appendix: Assignment Sheet

American Migrations: English 229

University of North Dakota

Dr. David Haeselin

Spring 2016

Midterm Project:

Mapping The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

This assignment asks you to think about Junot Díaz’s novel in a different way than we did My Ántonia. Rather than interpret the text of the novel itself, for this project we will create a visual representation of the Dominican diaspora by building a digital map. This map will try to represent the “mental geographies” of the novels’ characters by marking the 200 places referred to by Díaz over the course of the book. Once we have completed this collaborative assignment, we will use this object to help us better understand the scope and meaning of this impressive work of fiction.

Expectations

This assignment will be completed with a partner. I have already listed the 200 or so locations that Díaz refers to in the novel. I will divide them up and send you a spreadsheet with your set of locations. You are your partner will be responsible for inputting all of these locations on our map using the web application ZeeMaps (follow the link on the Blackboard Site under Tools).

Preparation

  • Create a username for posting material on the ZeeMaps web app. Please select a name that you don’t mind sharing publicly on the Internet. You can use your real name or a pseudonym, it’s entirely up to you. I’m going to use david.haeselin.
  • E-mail me your chosen name.
  • Go to ZeeMaps.com and sign-up. You can use your UND e-mail, if you like. Please select a password that you won’t have trouble remembering.
  • Follow the link to the editable Oscar Wao map I’ve posted on Blackboard under Tools.
  • Open ZeeMaps make sure that your browser can run the app.

Spreadsheet Completion Steps

  • Check your e-mail for your assigned list of locations in a spreadsheet document.
  • Divide the locations listed on the spreadsheet between you and your partner.
  • Look up an assigned location on the Internet.
  • Draft a sentence or two long description of the place in the spreadsheet file. Be sure to provide attribution for whatever source you decide to cite.
  • Include a sentence of two long description of the place’s relevance in the novel.
  • Find the passage and include a short citation from the text of the novel.
  • Fill out all other applicable columns in the spreadsheet (e.g. relevance, allusions, relationships to other places).
  • Figure out which characters participate in this section of the text and include it in the spreadsheet.
  • Select which character is most related to this reference.
  • Enter the proper MLA citation of the source you found in the Works Cited column in the spreadsheet.

NOTE: Before editing the map, I ask that you re-read the pages you were assigned and make sure that you have accounted for all of locations Díaz includes. Duplicates are fine, I want this map to be complete as possible. If you do find an extra location, add it to your spreadsheet and follow the above steps.

Editing the Map

  • Follow the link to the map included on the Blackboard site.
  • Select the additions tab, and then “Add Marker-Simple.”
  • Enter a location and let the app find it for you.
  • Add the appropriate entry name.
  • Add your description.
  • Select the appropriate color to match the character as explained on the Oscar Wao Codes Assignment sheet posted on the Blackboard Site.
  • Find your marker on the map and double-click it.
  • Select the “Details” tab and add the additional information contained on your spreadsheet.
  • Enter your username in the “written by” field.
  • Select next location and repeat for all locations assigned to you.
  • Once you have completed all of your locations, please inspect all of the locations entered by your partner. If something seems incorrect or incomplete, contact your partner and fix it. Once they look finished, add your username to the “checked by field.”

For an example, see my post for Santo Domingo de Guzman.

Please submit all of your locations to the class map by Friday, March 11. Please also submit your completed spreadsheet via the link on Blackboard.

You will be graded according to the accuracy and quality of the information about your submitted locations and spreadsheet. They should match and provide useful additional information to the reader.

Once completed, you will submit a short 2-page essay describing how the completed map confirms and/or complicates one thing you thought you knew by reading the novel. This will be due Wednesday, March 23 and will account for 25% of the total grade for the assignment. Each student will submit their own unique essay.  

About the Author

David Haeselin teaches in Writing, Editing, and Publishing program in the English department at the University of North Dakota. His writing has appeared in Hybrid Pedagogy, Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Tin House Online.

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