Practicing Collaboration in Process and Product: A Response to “Digital Literary Pedagogy”

Kimon Keramidas and Amanda Licastro

Digital Literary Pedagogy: An Experiment in Process-Oriented Publishing

JITP, as well as the certificate program from which it sprang forth, has always focused on the principle that sound pedagogy is based on a praxis-based methodology of putting theories of teaching into practice. As such, we think a lot about process when considering the integration of technology into the classroom, and about the shifts, adaptations, and adjustments that occur during a class session, over the course of a semester and even throughout the duration of a pedagogue’s career. So, when Roger Whitson approached us with his innovative idea of integrating journal editors into his writing process in composing an article for our journal–as well as into the flow of his class–we were excited by the prospect of being able to engage with the project not only near its terminus point, but from its conception. It was even more exciting that the course he was teaching was about the role of technology in literature and that the class would be analyzing fundamental critiques that parallel those at the core of JITP’s mission.

The introduction of online writing spaces into the undergraduate classroom highlights two aspects of composition that have, in the age of print, been de-emphasized in academic writing: audience and design. When Roger invited us into his 19th Century Literature course at the University of Washington, it created an opportunity to experiment with pedagogical approaches to both of these challenges. On many levels this collaboration caused us–the editors, the professor, and the students–to consider how to formulate, support, and produce an assignment specifically designed for submission to an online academic journal. Typically, especially in lower-level literature courses, final projects are submitted to the professor alone, and are rarely manifested in fully digital environments. Similarly, as editors of an academic journal, we are seldom introduced at the beginning stages of a submission with input in the invention, implementation, and production of a piece. Nor do we, in our role as instructors, often find ourselves as deeply engaged in the course of a colleague, particularly one working at a different institution. Entering this project through a collaboration between three scholars from three different institutions, all at considerably different stages of our careers, brought a richness of diversity to the planning and execution of this experiment, making our conversations together, as with the students, dynamic and multidimensional. This was furthered by the fact that almost all of our interactions happened virtually–using Google Hangout–forcing us to negotiate different time zones, technical difficulties, and unanticipated disaster (hurricane Sandy devastated New York and New Jersey during this time). Within these sometimes challenging parameters, we worked as partners with a common goal: to shape a project that would break the boundaries of genre, medium, and authorship in journal publications, much as Roger was asking his students to analyze and challenge those same factors in their coursework.

Because the procedures and parameters that we followed over the course of the semester instilled a sense of collaborative construction, we decided that the work that would be done after the class ended should continue in that same spirit. So, just as Roger brought us into his class to expand upon the framework he designed and the students were executing, this piece provides an alternative explication of the process from our perspective and a focused response to some of the significant topics that Roger raises in “Digital Literary Pedagogy.” It is one of a number of instances in this project where we have tried to blur the traditional roles of authors and editors and expand that relationship beyond formal procedures to collaborative discursive interactions.

First Goal: Audience Awareness

In her report from the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) titled “Writing in the 21st Century,”  NCTE past president Kathleen Yancey writes, “With digital technology and, especially Web 2.0 is seems, writers are *everywhere*….In fact, in looking at all this composing, we might say that one of the biggest changes is the role of audience: writers are everywhere, yes, but so too are audiences” (2009, 4-5). Historically, technology has played an essential role in the dissemination of knowledge, and as Roger points out, with the availability of cheap paper in the 19th century this meant introducing published texts to the rising middle class. However, as Jay David Bolter (1991) and others have argued, forging a new readership is very difficult – the audience for a printed text is limited to those the publisher can successfully market toward – typically one that has disposable income and a high literacy level. In the 21st century, the ubiquity of the Internet allows anyone with access to “publish” written texts, but with this ease comes an obstructed understanding of audience. Who is reading what is published on blogs, social networking sites, and online periodicals?

The students in Roger’s class faced this quandary when composing their digital project. In the final class meeting we specifically asked the students how the introduction of a course blog changed the way the way they composed. As student Anne Boothman explains (see 13:00 in video of class conversation), as she wrote blog posts throughout the semester, she found that she altered her tone and form to address her audience. Boothman explains the change as driven by the desire to focus on clarity and brevity, so that her fellow classmates might find her writing more compelling. Anne, as an English major in a mixed discipline course, tactfully (albeit transparently) conveys the perceived need to “dumb-down” her writing, specifically saying she avoided technical terms when writing for her classmates.  This approach was successful for Anne; the class choose her work to feature on their final collaborative project that was designed as a submission to JITP.  Anne’s response strikes us as intuitive, yet problematic. As educators, we laud the use of online writing spaces, heralding the heightened awareness of audience they create, but what this example also highlights is the degree of inequality possible in these spaces. Ideally we want the work of bright, diligent students like Anne to raise the bar and as serve as a model for her peers, rather than diminish the quality of her work to appease a perceived culture of underachievement.  This leads us to wonder how an instructor could facilitate similar low-stakes public writing in a way that would acknowledge these inequities in order to learn from them.

While composition teachers have been utilizing peer review and workshops for decades, framing this work for submission to JITP enabled Roger to push this model further by enlisting students to play the roles essential to scholarly publishing.  This experience speaks directly to Yancey’s observations that students bring their familiarity with informal online spaces into the classroom: “In the case of the web, though, writers compose authentic texts in informal digitally networked contexts, but there isn’t a hierarchy of expert-apprentice, but rather a peer co-apprenticeship in which communicative knowledge is freely exchanged” (2009, 5). Roger supported the transfer of these skills by creating an environment where students evaluate, edit, and promote each other’s work, rather than surrendering directorial agency to the professor. The students functioned as an editorial collective, first selecting work as a group to analyze according to a system of their own design, then breaking out into four specialized roles: the authors of the selected pieces; those students who were assigned to edit individual submissions; the students who designed the digital space; and those who composed the introduction and section headings to aide in the user experience. Each of these groups were faced with the issue of audience in different and important ways within the context of the same assignment. For example, William Reed was able to meaningfully discuss design decisions such as the choice of WordPress theme and the multilayer image used in the header for their final project. Similarly, the group that composed the “About” page discussed their intentions to address a viewer who might come to the site without previous knowledge of this course, therefore contextualizing the project for an uninitiated audience. However, they had difficulty articulating who this audience could consist of, besides those of us present in the conversation. The students were clearly still writing primarily for their professor and did not readily envision a wider academic readership. As Roger says in the video, even if an assignment is designed so that students are writing for an outside audience, it can be difficult to integrate those goals into your pedagogy. This is an important moment of reflection for both the instructor and the students, one that we, as the audience for this piece, can learn from. We can teach students to design digital projects and compose multimodally, but what more can we do to support meaningful audience awareness?

Design and the Digital

As we’ve just mentioned, comprehensive digital projects such as the one Roger gave to his students aren’t solely written; they are also designed. In their book Digital_Humanities, Burdick, Baumann, Lunenfeld, Presner and Schnapp state that “contemporary Digital Humanities marks a move beyond a privileging of the textual, emphasizing graphical methods of knowledge production and organization, design as an integral component of research, transmedia crisscrossings, and an expanded concept of the sensorium of humanistic knowledge.”(2012, 122) As such, new modes of scholarship and literary practice must take into consideration not only what content is disseminated, but also how it will be viewed and what it looks like. User interface design, platform compatibility, screen sizes and mobile responsivensess are now integral to publication and have a profound impact on the delivery and accessibility of materials. So, when Roger had his students construct a web site for their final project and work together to not only populate a site with content, but also make design decisions about the look and behavior of their site, he was asking them to go beyond the conditions of a traditional term paper. Furthermore, he was asking them to deal with a more profound set of questions than many “digital” courses which have often only taken a single step forward, from the term paper to making posts within a predesigned content management system such as WordPress or Drupal (which he mentions in his paper).

The ramifications of this pedagogical decision are important to unpack fully in light of what it means to do digital literary studies or any work in the so-called “digital humanities.” Making students aware of the new impetus of design in digital writing is critical to understanding the implications of all media technologies, but it is particularly useful in defamiliarizing the design of the book. Because books are so deeply ingrained as a cultural mode, we often forget that they, too, are designed, and that the shape, layout, font and colors in a book are design decisions that while seemingly transparent, ultimately have an immense impact on the reader’s experience. Roger’s integration of the question of design in his course’s project work was particularly well- suited within the content base of the class, which was already considering the important role of changing printing technologies and the development of the book as a form in the nineteenth century. This common theme between content and project had the potential to provide a contextualizing foundation that could help overcome one of the biggest pedagogical problems teachers face when introducing experimental content and assignments: a lack of time.

The biggest balancing act that teachers such as Roger must contend with is how to integrate new modes of communication, composition, and collaboration and still cover the subject material that students are supposed to attain a mastery of. In this particular case, Roger rightly saw the potential of design issues to play an important role in the students’ experience of their project. He was even aware that, as was just mentioned above, the issues of designing a course site paralleled the conversations his students were already having in relation to the nineteenth century novel, lowering the barrier of entry into a conversation about contemporary media design. Nevertheless, finding the space to ask students to think about design in their project is a very different thing from carving out a class or two from a semester to incorporate sessions on specific web design practices and technologies. And that dedicated and focused time is what is necessary when incorporating these new technologies, because the ramifications of design in the digital realm are central and pervasive as well as complex enough to necessitate significant instruction and demonstration.

As Sharmila Pixy Ferris (2002) notes, in digital composition

the organization of the material must be visually appealing and must take advantage of the unique interactive features of the Web. … the cyber-writer often also must be editor and designer, considering issues of file structure, graphic design, and navigability. Writing becomes even more complex because the writer has little control over the paths readers will take through the hyperlinks.

When we visited the class the last time for the final presentation of the site, we both quickly noted a number of simple design enhancements that could have/should have been integrated into the site to take advantage of the multimediality and interactivity of the web as a publishing platform. In a post entitled “Are We All a Modern Prometheus?” (Goetz, 2012) there are numerous textual links to Wikipedia, but no visual cues to tell the story of the Prometheus myth, such as this image of the famous Peter Paul Rubens painting:

 Promethues Bound

Figure 1. Prometheus Bound, Peter Paul Rubens and Frans Snyders, 1618.

Similarly a post entitled “Modern Sherlock” (Stuckey, 2012) discussed scenes from the recent BBC series Sherlock and The Princess Bride but only provided a link to one, and in neither case embedded these easily accessible YouTube clips:

Figure 2. Vizzini death scene from The Princess Bride, 1987

Figure 3. A scene from “A Study in Pink”, Sherlock, BBC, 2012

The students also admitted to having selected a theme for their WordPress site that was responsive (meaning that it adapts to the screen size and platform of the browser it is being opened in) without having known that the theme had that characteristic. These are just a few simple design decisions that would have been easy to consider ahead of time or implement consciously in the construction of the site, and they fall into the complex set of design choices that Ferris sets out as mandatory considerations for a cyber-writer.

This all being said, this critique is not meant to denigrate the students’ work as subpar or not successful within the context of the many things that Roger had his class do during the semester. Rather, we wish to highlight how big a concern design is in digital composition and how important it is to frame design assignments with both conversation and practical instruction on the possibilities that the variety of platforms students use in projects like these have to offer. Even a template- and theme-driven tool such as WordPress can be greatly enhanced by a richer understanding of modular writing, non-linear reading as facilitated by hyperlinking and the integration of multimedia elements. To situate this squarely within Roger’s call for a new digital literary pedagogy, if we are to encourage new forms of publication as part of a historicization of literary forms, then that encouragement must be accompanied not only by a consideration of design and its implication on composition, but also by training students in design practice that they can implement critically within compositional frameworks. Where that fits within the already time-consuming demands of content mastery and class discussion is one of the biggest challenges in properly preparing students for the possibilities of digital media.

Conclusion

The questions considered here, mainly concerning audience and design awareness, address only two aspects of many that could be drawn out of this situated pedagogy. Thanks to Roger’s thoughtful course design, we are able to use this class as an example of digital pedagogy, teasing out elements which worked and those that beg further examination. JITP is dedicated to approaching teaching with the same careful critique we apply to traditional research, and this experiment gave us the opportunity to put this into practice.

This project also had a meta-awareness of audience and design. We hoped to target both the students in the course, as well as our readership in designing this experiment. One objective was to give these students a “real world” experience by expanding the boundaries of the classroom to include exposure to the processes involved in academic publishing as well as collaborative work that mirrors both academia and industry. Yet we also wanted to make this project transparent, encouraging students to reflect on their role in both the course and this publication venture. By constructing this project through the use of public facing sites and videos we are able to offer the entire process to you, the audience of this journal, for consideration as well. We think a great deal can be learned through sharing our teaching experiences in a holistic yet critical way, and hope the documentation of our discoveries help you share your digital pedagogical practices as well.

 

Bibliography

Bolter, J. David. 1991. Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing. Hillsdale, N.J: L. Erlbaum Associates. OCLC 22310251.

Burdick, Anne, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp. 2012. Digital_Humanities. The MIT Press. OCLC 793581385.

Ferris, Sharmila Pixy. 2002. “Writing Electronically: The Effects of Computers on Traditional Writing.” The Journal of Electronic Publishing 8 (1) (August). http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?    c=jep;view=text;rgn=main;idno=3336451.0008.104.

Goetz, Brian. 2012. “Are We All a Modern Prometheus?” The 19th Century British Novel. December 5. http://www.rogerwhitson.net/19thcenturyreading/are-we-all-a-modern-prometheus/.

Memorable Movie Death #3: Vizzini From Princess Bride. 2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U_eZmEiyTo0&feature=youtube_gdata_player.

Stuckey, Colleen. 2012. “Modern Sherlock.” The 19th Century British Novel. December 5. http://www.rogerwhitson.net/19thcenturyreading/modern-sherlock/.

Which Bottle? – Sherlock – BBC. 2012. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=huOwYyK5EHk&feature=youtube_gdata_player.

Yancey, Kathleen Blake. 2009. Writing in the 21st Century. National Council of Teachers of  English. http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Press/Yancey_final.pdf.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 




'Practicing Collaboration in Process and Product: A Response to “Digital Literary Pedagogy”' has 1 comment

  1. December 2, 2013 @ 2:05 pm Digital Literary Pedagogy: Teaching Technologies of Reading the Nineteenth-Century

    […] Practicing Collaboration in Process and Product: A Response to ‘Digital Literary Pedagogy’ […]

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