Make it New

I’m a little self-conscious about the title of this post, mostly because I don’t intend to talk Ezra Pound or Modernism here and in fact, I find both the poet and the movement a little tiresome. This is for a number of reasons, primary of which is the whiplash from reading dozens of Modernist texts for my preliminary exams.

That said, Ezra Pound’s famous expression “Make it New” is perfect in my mind. To me, “Making it New” is essential to surviving in graduate school.

Let me take a step back for a moment: like so many others, I’ve found my graduate school experience simultaneously gratifying, exhilarating, and disheartening. I’ve had moments of great confidence and empowerment and perhaps even more moments of self-doubt. I just recently erased the subtitle on my to-do list “Happenings of a Continued Adolescence.” Though it was initially written in jest, I realized I was re-enforcing my own self-loathing and insecurities and I just couldn’t have that.

Though I recognize that graduate school is necessary career training and apprenticing for a life in the academy (or, increasingly, in other kinds of professional institutions and research settings), I can’t help but shake the feeling much of the time that I’m doing college all over again, but with higher stakes and more responsibilities. It’s a lot like treading water, endlessly egg beating with only the potential outcome for the rescue ship to come in.

Yet I have to remind myself (frequently) that I’m very happy here, reading and writing, and though it may feel like I’m staying in one place much of the time, I am (very slowly and often imperceptibly) moving forward, building skills, and becoming a sharper thinker and communicator.

One way I remind myself of this is by reminding myself of what, indeed, makes me happy. In college, I kept a gratitude journal for a little while, trying to map what made me feel happy during a time where I felt very sad. So, even today, I look at what I’m grateful for: my flexible schedule, my time to read as many books (and whatever books) I want and reflect on those books, my ability to exercise on a regular basis, my proximity to a beautiful campus, and the opportunity to work with dynamic and motivated students. These reminders keep me pushing through.

That said, to really dig into and find joy in reading and writing, I’ve found that I truly also need novelty. Let me start by saying that, as a general rule, graduate students are rarely doing anything truly novel on their own. Rather, graduate students often (nervously) emulate advisers, hero theorists, and trendy trailblazers in the field.

Yet we need to feel like our work is new and discover what makes it new: that’s what builds scholarship.

For me, post-preliminary exam (and for those following at home: I passed), I’m revisiting a lot of old work and trying to make it new again. I’m not necessarily revising work or outputting much for others. Rather, I’m trying to make it new for myself. I’m trying to remind myself of why I’m in graduate school in the first place and why the topics I’m purportedly interested in (life writing, writing about technology, writing with technology) are even interesting to me at all. Then, I want to make my work new to others. But I’ve got to convince myself first.

Let me make one thing clear: I’ve never been unconvinced that my ideas are uninteresting. However, I’ve had many days recently when I’ve been reading books and have taken a pause to wonder: why am I interested in this? What is actually of interest here? What am I noticing that’s new? What am I noticing that’s exciting? I can usually think of something, come up with a million questions, and then never manage to reach one conclusion about them. Days often go from exhilaration about a new book or question to complete despair about whether there’s anything of value to say about anything. Do questions even matter anymore? Do books matter? AM I AN INTERESTING PERSON??

This spiral is not impossible to recover from, but it’s one that also leads to the larger, looming purpose of making work new again: writing a dissertation.

I mean, here’s the thing. I don’t know how to write a dissertation. If a dissertation walked up to me, looked me in the eyes, and said “Cheerio!”, I don’t think I’d recognize it.

This shouldn’t be news to me. But it is.

I hadn’t put it together until recently that I’m at the scary-exciting moment of figuring out how to interpret a new genre of writing. This is something I haven’t had to do in a long time and I’m now facing the questions I have to tell my own writing students to face all of the time: what’s the purpose of this writing? Who’s the audience? What are the constraints? What’s your exigence for writing?

So, what have I been doing to a.) make my ideas feel new again and b.) tackle an unfamiliar genre?

Well, in addition to reading, I’ve been revisiting writing I know how to do. I started penning a short story for the first time in forever, I’ve been drafting up some short articles that I can (hopefully) submit to GradHacker. In other words, I’ve been trying to rediscover what I like not just about reading, but also about writing in the first place. Why do I care so much about writing? Why is knowing how to write – and knowing how to write well – something that endlessly fascinates me? Perhaps more importantly, why do I still think I’m a “good” writer and how can I continue to validate and enjoy my own practice?

These are questions that scare me because they require deep introspection, an opportunity to consider my values and my everyday practices. At the same time, this is a rare opportunity, one that I know will be important to all of the choices I make in the future. I hope that making it new is a practice that will soon feel very practiced and very – well – old.

A Hazy Shade of Summer

In elementary school, I used to create binders for each class I took. I slipped hand-drawn covers into the plastic pockets at the front of each: “MATH!!” swirled in purple glitter or “HISTORY!!” emblazoned with heart stickers and rainbows. The start of the school year was always an occasion for promise, a moment where classes were nothing but organizational shells, binders for which the glittering hopes of learning could be tucked neatly into a backpack.

I maintain this desire to compartmentalize, to draw neatly the lines between the different “subjects” in my life. If I could, I think I still would create these binders, but I am not sure I would have any idea how to organize them.”UC Online Educational Project!!” I may have scrawled on one, but is that where I’d also place my readings on multimodal pedagogy? And what about my notes on new media theory and cybernetics and intellectual labor? Do these all go in the same place in my mind? Should they? And in what ways do I continue to divide them or link them into some larger project?

This is the question looming for me as I make my way into my second year of graduate school. I’m eager for a project, bouncing between early reading for my preliminary examinations (which I’m trying to view as membership into the biggest, baddest book club imaginable), tinkering away at my supplemental job of editing college personal statements (a task that, after reading and editing over 2,000 essays in three years feels relatively breezy and – dare I say it? – fun), and course planning for my teaching in the fall. This niggling desire to organize, to get everything in place, to build the pieces of something larger remains unfulfilled; in short, in this transition, I’m having trouble settling down.

And I think I’ve got to be OK with this unsettled feeling (perhaps a lesson for surviving my 20s, too?). The first stage of a project, after all, isn’t always pulling out the compartmentalized pieces; it’s about floating through big ideas, about seeing strands of things, noticing them, and simply setting them aside, not yet writing them in permanent marker (see how far I can take this extended metaphor – or is it a conceit?).

Besides, shouldn’t this noncommittal part be the fun part? The low pressure part? The part appropriate for a slow summer ending where I refuse to give up sundresses even when the need to shrug on a sweater becomes increasingly clear?

While I may not be able to anticipate the things I will learn this year in new, neat compartments, what I can anticipate (with great eagerness!) is the opportunity to simply experience, to practice mindfulness, and to keep figuring out where I want to be. This is a luxurious thing, indeed.

Three Months Later… And We’re Back!

I’m not used to waiting for things. I would wager to say that most of us who grew up in the digital age are not used to waiting for things either. Information is rapid, instant, and instantly gratifying.

Given this fact, it is easy to forget how much labor goes into the process of making the things that we hate waiting for. An example: I’m completely fed up with my smartphone at the moment. It takes a good several seconds for any information I input into the device to get processed. However, what I don’t see (beneath my frustrations with its pace, its cheap hardware, its inefficient and outdated software) is the programmer who spent hours writing the code for my phone, the manufacturers who put together the recycled plastic pieces that are its exterior.

This is a long and self-indulgent way of saying that I am sorry for your waiting on posts to this blog. Writing is a laborious process (just as most valuable things are) and I wrote so much about other things this year that… I’m sorry to say that I neglected the writing here. It’s a little disheartening that I set these great new quarter goals and ended up fulfilling not a one. Bummer.

So, here’s what happened:

I took on a significantly heavier course load this quarter than the last. Unlike last quarter, where I took a whole course devoted to Literacy and Technology, I took courses that were – well – unrelated and I got a little bit swamped.

However, the summer has officially begun and I am really excited for a few upcoming projects that I intend to blog about here:

  • In fall 2012, I will be teaching freshman composition in a computer lab classroom. Inevitably, there will be major challenges to working with freshmen planted behind rows of computer screens at fixed desks. I feel a little bit nervous about helping students to collaborate and engage in the kinds of friendly conversations they may have had in a more traditional classrooms (with movable desks, the “Socratic Circle” structure and all that). That said, working in a computer classroom will give me the fantastic opportunity to “test out” all sorts of online collaborative tools and help students apply their knowledge about writing to their engagement with computers. This summer, I’ll be working with Mary to adopt the UC Davis Writing Program’s “Standard Syllabus” (as we call it) for teaching freshman composition in the computer lab. Both of us have a HUGE challenge ahead of us, but it will provide great fodder for discussion!
  • For about five weeks this summer, I will be working as a technical writer at an electronic health records/health imaging company based in San Diego, California. One of my tasks as a temporary intern will be revising their help manuals and integrating more multimedia resources into their online help page. So, I imagine I will be thinking a lot about usability in industry and learning about what it means to write for professionals rather than academics. I’ve been entrenched in academia for so long that there’s a large part of me that is very excited to take on the challenge of writing for a different kind of audience and addressing issues that I am not familiar with. There is another part of me that is absolutely terrified about this experience; all of my professional experiences thus far have been in academia and education. Will I know how to interact with colleagues in an office? Will I go crazy working 8 A.M.-5 P.M. days behind a desk in a cubicle?
  • I know that this is turning into a bad joke at this point, but yes, the coding will begin again. I WILL make it past Lesson 2. Another great (?) part about going to San Diego is that I will have very few social distractions, so I should have plenty of time to do all of the ambitious coding work I set out to do earlier in the year…
  • I am still a part of what has now been dubbed “UC Online Education” (UCOE). Therefore, I will have some updates here, too, on our continued beta testing and how we’re adapting writing to the classroom. Nifty stuff!

So, impatient friends, I hope that I will keep you waiting for new writing no longer! Thanks for hanging in there. More thoughts soon!

New Quarter Technology Goals!

I had the enormous pleasure of spending the past week (i.e. my spring break) in San Diego and Los Angeles, taking plenty of time away from the computer and gazing at beaches (and even seals!)

Alas, a new quarter has begun and I’m back to reality and gazing instead at that familiar soft glow of the computer screen.

Each quarter, I like to take some time to reflect and consider what I could improve upon both as an instructor and as a student. To be honest, most of these goals have more to do with my personal development in the tech world than it does with my role as an instructor. This imbalance in goal-making is somewhat out of necessity; as a T.A., I don’t have a lot of flexibility about the use of learning management systems or implementing particular technological requirements. My role is primarily one of support. I don’t say this to devalue my role as a T.A.; rather, I have a feeling that I’ll be more interested in setting more pedagogically-based goals once I have full rein over my own classroom!

TL;DR? Mostly professional goals here, not pedagogical goals. Here we go:

1. Continue work with Code Year 

I know, I know. This blog was supposed to be a space to work through my programming lessons. It’s been about six weeks (!!) since I’ve even opened the page for Codeacademy. In order to make the coding work less onerous, I think I just need to set smaller goals for myself. Earlier this year, I intended to finish a lesson at a time and not take a break until I finished each lesson. Alas, each lesson probably takes anywhere between 3-4 hours to complete, which, as a graduate student, is a significant amount of time to be spending at the computer doing work that is not grading, reading, or writing. With that said, I need to assure myself that it’s OK if I only complete one activity in a lesson per day! As long as I’m DOING the work and maintaining the programming vocabulary, I’ll be in good shape. Besides, I’d like to take advantage of some of the social networking integration and share my progress on Facebook to receive some digital pats on the back. No shame.

2. Port this blog to my own domain 

For my UWP 270 class last quarter, our final assignment was to create a webtext. I purchased a domain name for that project, but would like to use it as my website for all of my professional work (including this blog!). I loved the flexibility of WordPress’s software (as opposed to what’s available for use as part of their free domain) and would appreciate the ability to edit the CSS on this blog and tweak the design more to my liking.

Therefore, I need to take the time to figure out how to move the content from my project to another space and link this blog to my own domain name. I’m sure I’ll just need to tinker around to figure this out, but if anyone has any advice on this, I’d greatly appreciate it!

3. Keep up with technology news 

Everyone has their regular rotation of web browsing, I believe. My “regular rotation” primarily includes e-mail, UC Davis’s learning management site, Facebook, Twitter, and a few choice blogs. I’d like to integrate more technology news sites into my rotation, however, to keep myself current on issues that may be relevant to my research and pedagogy later. My short list of sites to start browsing more regularly are the Huffington Post’s Technology page and TechCrunch. Any other suggestions?

4. Maintain theoretical/thematic connections between seemingly unrelated coursework and digital literacy concerns 

OK, this may sound like an obtuse goal, but hear me out. As an English student, it is occasionally difficult to explain the intersections between digital literacy education, educational technology, and the study of literature. The connections are clearly there; digital literacy is shaping the ways in which literature is read. How could it not? However, as much of my coursework will primarily include engagement in critical theory and – well – fiction, I’d like to work towards creating final projects that more closely link my interests, so that I continue to develop my interests in the lens that interests me. I feel pretty confident at this point that I want my research to be ultimately very engaged with digitality in some way; I just don’t know how exactly yet. This is my job as a student now!

5. Keep this blog current! 

Not to get super meta or anything, but I think it’s crucial that I maintain my presence here in order to continue engagement with current digital literacy concerns. I’m somewhat notorious for starting blogs and abandoning them, contributing to the Internet’s considerable amount of cyberjunk and noise. I’d rather not throw more garbage to the ether. It takes discipline to maintain a writing schedule every day, but I intend to post something at least once a week, even if it’s just a link to an article I find or a quick reflection on something I learned in class that’s relevant to the intersections between technology and the humanities.

Cheers! To a new quarter!

Early Reflections: Digital Media and Learning Conference 2012

Over the past two days at DML, I’ve come to realize just how perfect it is that we’re in San Francisco. A city committed to openness and liberal thinking with progressiveness at its ideological core, even its city streets reflect a kind of hybrid juxtaposition of old and new: curved and winding streets bleed into different neighborhoods seamlessly. Though I am new to this community, it seems as though digital media scholars, practitioners, and industry specialists are open to each other’s ideas, willing to collaborate, motivate, and inspire each other regardless of their differences.

As a graduate student, it sometimes feels as though academia is separated from the rest of the working world. However, here, communication flowed freely between educators at all levels as well as software designers, industry specialists, and project/program managers. Refreshing, indeed!

It’s overwhelming to know where to start. I have pages of notes (some of which are coherent, some of which are not). There’s a part of me that wants to do a blow-by-blow summary, but what perhaps may be most valuable (and interesting) is not a run-down of the proceedings (after all, you can always read through all of the Twitter feeds from the past few days (look up #dml2012) if you’re interested in the specifics), but rather a reflection on the most thought-provoking discussions for me and the kind of work I’m considering doing.

Sound fair? Let’s go!

Something that has really struck me about this conference is the emphasis on “play” as a guiding principle through which to engage students academically. There’s been a lot of talk of “gamification” and the potentials for creating lighthearted challenges of students via the creation of fantasy spaces and structured games. I went to a panel discussion today on “gaming experiences for the freshman experience” in which the designers for USC’s School of Cinematic Arts’ Reality Ends Here” (which I DESPERATELY want to play) game and Rochester Institute of Technology‘s “Just Press Play” presented the platforms they used to develop their games and the “results” of the gaming experiences. USC and RIT designed whole “gaming environments” for their students, in which students received “cards” or “badges” to show that they had completed certain “challenges.” I mean, just check out the “trailer” for RIT’s program This looks bomb, right?

But “gamification” in learning seems to go beyond the organization of a game.

“Gamification,” to me, seems to suggest a shift in a learning philosophy: school CAN be fun and educators can help school become even MORE fun if we use a different kind of rhetoric: a rhetoric of gaming.

What is the rhetoric of gaming? It’s a rhetoric committed to individual customization, to finding the best solutions for you to succeed. It’s a rhetoric committed to collaborating with others to customize in optimal ways, to form “guilds” and to work through struggles as though they were simply levels and challenges. In short, gamification encourages students to think of their schooling experiences not as chores to be completed or items to check off a list, but a series of “quests” that they, as noble heroes, must fulfill in order to gain… whatever it is they want to gain.

On some levels, this is controversial. Indeed, one of the conference’s biggest hot topics is “the badges system.” Developed by the non-profit Mozilla, badges were designed to help students earn “credit” for acquiring particular sets of skills that may not be acknowledged in any kind of institutionalized setting (like programming, designing, etc). I joined in on the “Occupy Badges” session a little bit late (led by Cathy Davidson and Erin Knight), but learned a lot about some of the questions and controversies. The “Occupy” group seemed to be more positively inclined towards badges than not, and from what I could gather, the guiding philosophy is that earning badges will motivate students to master the skills they already may be acquiring “for fun” and give them some credit that they could take to potential employers as “proof” of their hard work.

I bring this up in conjunction with gamification because I think the principles behind badge-earning and gamification are the same: student motivation can be driven not necessarily by a desire to MAKE AND DO. That’s what games are about after all, right? We play Minecraft in order to construct new spaces. We play LoL or WoW in order to become “better warriors.” We play tetris in order to break a puzzle.

Schools train students to meet criteria, not to create and innovate. Students are compelled to earn grades to get into a “good” college to get a “good” job. But what does getting into a “good” college mean? Do students have a conception of what a “good” job (aside from one that makes a lot of money)? The principles of achievement are abstract: good grades simply mean advancement for advancement’s sake. Good grades don’t mean contributions.

A caveat: gamification could be about simply earning points for the sake of earning points. But no one likes playing with someone who just wants to rack up a high score. That’s boring. The best players are those who want to approach the game in different ways, who want to find new ways to solve the same puzzles or find the most efficient ways to destroy the enemies. Sure, there may be one surefire way to “slay the dragon” each time you play a fighting game, but the game is no longer fight if one relies on the same solution repeatedly.

Applying this philosophy to education is powerful to me.

More than that, applying this philosophy to WRITING education is powerful to me.

Perhaps the one thing that has disappointed me at this conference is the seeming lack of attention to conjunctions between writing education and digital literacy. There’s a lot of talk about tinkering, hacking, programming, and designing, but where does writing fit into all of this?

Mary and I went to a panel this afternoon about “the multiplicities of composition,” but even there, we only really got to talk about how writing fits into digital literacy when Mary went up to a couple of the panelists at the end with Peter Kittle and Chad Sansing and asked them some pointed questions about teaching freshman composition.

This seems like a huge missing piece in the conversation: we can’t tinker if we don’t write. We can’t “remix” if we’re not writing. Why are we not talking about this?

Why are we not discussing the writing conventions emerging from blogs and wikis? Why are we not considering how the creation of these discourse communities affects literacy education? At this conference, we’ve all been tweeting away and yet there’s not been one “meta” conversation about the implications of this kind of written dialogue rippling beneath the tides of this conference.

To take this one step further, why are we not applying “gamification” to writing study? I’d say the process of writing an essay is a LOT like playing a game: you have to create a challenge, find evidence to help you “solve” the challenge, and then, like any master detective, put all of the pieces together to “unlock” the challenge (i.e. write a thesis statement, build that thesis statement, complete a coherent piece).

Wouldn’t writing be so much more FUN if we explored it through the lens of a game? If we see the essay as a product we can construct, that we can tinker, that we can “remix,” can’t we reinvigorate this writing education with some extra energy?

During the first night’s “Ignite Talks” (I’d describe them as “shotgun TED talks,” but they’re more formally described as five-minute “mini-presentations” to present a personal philosophy or project accompanied by twenty slides), there was a lot of exciting discussion of remixing and shifting pedagogy (I was especially interested in David Cooper Moore‘s challenges to help students assess “why they hate” certain kinds of art/pop culture, Tessa Joseph-Nicholas‘s re-imagining of cyberspace as a “zombie space,” and Rafi Santo‘s culture subversion via hacking). So, yes, we’re thinking a lot about web culture, but… I feel like we could think even more about writing. This doesn’t necessarily mean creating narratives; this means putting pen to papers and expressing ourselves verbally in an online space.

I hope these insights make some sense after a very long two days!

We have one more full day tomorrow and, by then, I’m sure there will be even more to talk about.

Techno Logic

Scroll it, click it, surf it…

Sounds a little bit like the process I was working through this weekend.

I made the leap and purchased my own domain to download the WordPress software for my webtext project. I can completely understand why “novice” bloggers (like me) are drawn to using the WordPress software: it’s not dramatically different than using the WordPress blogging platform AND you have a lot more flexibility for tinkering. There are hundreds of free themes from which to choose for your blog and – bam! – it looks professional.

Granted, I’m all about learning to code and customize a webpage, but it is liberating to know that there are some ways to ease into the process (a la templates) without looking like a complete newb. I know that I would eventually like to personalize the code on the templates I’m using (after all, how else do I make them uniquely mine?), but for now, I’ve been having some fun just testing out different templates and seeing what works well.

I’m debating between two right now (as my “starter” templates before I tweak) for my final webtext:

Brunelleschi WordPress Theme
Pico Light WordPress Theme

They’re more similar than different. All I knew going into this was that I wanted a kind of “light” minimalist theme for this was a quality that all of my interviewing subjects professed as something they desired in their own web design. It seemed appropriate to mirror their consciousness of what is attractive and, indeed, for an academic project, I think it only makes sense to keep the design simple (thereby drawing primary attention to the content and showing to the reader that, “Yes, this is serious!”). I’m not sure anyone would read my work seriously if I applied, say, this kind of template to it:

Monster WordPress Theme (Totally Adorable, Not Appropriate for Scholarly Research)

My foray into theme shopping aside, I’ve been tinkering around with the two to which I’ve narrowed down (and I really wish I had taken some screen captures of my attempts to make the font size on Brunelesschi larger; what a disaster! My page looked like a cluttered mess).

At this point, I’m really feeling the Pico Light template. I like that the way the header/subpages are all in one block (rather than in separated chunks). It somehow seems to mimic the appearance of a “cover page” more. It also seems to me like the Pico Light template highlights the banner image more, which I think looks rather stark, sophisticated, and serious. All good qualities for an academic webtext!

I could see myself tweaking the font a little bit; the modern sans serif may just be a little too “cold” for my tastes (what can I say? I’m a sucker for a serif) and perhaps I’d try to expand the font sizes on the pages bar so that each of the page titles don’t look so squashed together on the left-hand size. Of course my experiment with Brunlesschi has scared me away from doing that a little bit, but part of tweaking code is persistence; every pixel counts.

Any thoughts, blog readers? Which one do you prefer?

Offline File Sharing?

This is more of an artistic statement than anything else, but I love the idea of transplating USB ports into places “offline.’ The vision behind this project – dubbed Dead Drops – is perhaps a touch anarchistic. After all, it seems as though the prime motivation to share files in an “offline” setting is to make the sharing of pirated videos and music “safer.”

With that said, it amazes me that the artists (is that what we should call them?) behind this project seem to take for granted the way in which they see their digital lives as inextricably connected to their non-digital lives. Why shouldn’t we cement USB ports into walls? After all, if we’re carrying our laptops everywhere we go, what’s so strange about finding files in a wall, just as you might find a note left in the cracked cement of a bathroom stall?