Technology Literacy Narrative: Part 1

This post is my response to an assignment I gave the graduate students in my Digital Rhetoric class: Technology Literacy Narratives. My goal was to finish the assignment before giving it to them, as a test run of the prompt, but (surprise surprise) I got carried away and ran out of time halfway through. My goal is to post part II by mid-semester, when students will begin remediating their narratives as multimodal objects.  

It’s probably too much to say that the drive to explore the link between the written and the digital is in my blood, but it does seem to run in the family. My father credits his love affair with the classic text adventure Zork as having steered him towards his career in computer engineering. And despite being as different as two siblings could be while we were growing up, my brother and I have both found our way to careers focused on writing and the digital. (Ben, being both more practical-minded and more charismatic than I am, now works as Community Manager for Gamepedia.com, over at Curse Inc.) It seems, in some form or another, we’ve always been a Computers and Writing household.

I grew up surrounded by computers. My Dad had a Sun Microsystems computer in his office going back as far as I can remember, but despite their ubiquity I was never even remotely interested in learning how they were build or controlled. I followed in my father’s footstep, singular: I was captured by the idea of computer games. I say “idea of” because for years, the best “game” available involved releasing crudely animated roaches onto the desktop; the goal was to “crush” them as they scurried from one hiding spot to another. I was beyond terrible at this game. I lacked the motor control (and, let’s be honest, the patience) to figure out how to track and trap them. As a result, my father often came back to a desktop positively swarming with e-roaches. (Watching him squish them effortlessly and handily, far from frustrating me, made me admiring and hopeful. Maybe I too would someday become a carefree exterminator of computer bugs.)

The Sun was the only machine in the house I could actually use, albeit in limited capacity – but it was far from the only hardware in the house. My father was a hardware hobbyist of the old school, always building and tinkering and, above all, collecting. Dad’s “Computer Junk,” we called it: metal shelving units stacked with monitors, peripherals, half-empty towers.  It was all so interesting, so exotic, and it made me feel special – then, and more and more as years passed and computers took on more and more significance outside my basement – that I was close to all this, and that my Dad knew what all these gemlike, inscrutable items could do once brought together.

But I never wanted to do that myself. This feels lame to admit now, looking back. I wish I’d felt more of a draw for that – but that’s just not how technology spoke to me. I was more creative, intuitive, bookish; and in those early years, there wasn’t a clear path for connecting my hobbies with my dad’s hardware.

My dad’s hobby kept us at the (relative) cutting edge of personal computing developments, but my dad was always very deliberate about teaching us to be critical and effective users of these systems, even if we didn’t understand the hardware behind them. I was 12 when my dad taught me the proper way to compose a support request – be specific, remember what you did right before the error, provide information on any error messages received, etc etc. He presented it as no different than learning proper phone manners, or how to open a bank account – just a skill you need to function efficiently in the world.

My father called these lessons “computer literacy.” Being computer literate didn’t mean knowing everything about computers (which at this point it was plain I never would), but knowing enough about their basic workings to troubleshoot basic issues yourself and, failing that, to know how to request help correctly. These lessons made a deep impression; I write every support request as if my dad is looking over my shoulder. This was arguably my first rhetorical lesson about writing with/about technology: consider your audience and purpose, and write so that those knowledgeable people have what they need to fix your shit. Decades later, this has evolved into a cornerstone of my teaching.

The cornerstone of my research, by contrast, came from something I discovered on my own: participatory media (or what passed for it in 2001). My first experience using a computer to interact with digital strangers was through a website called the Brunching Shuttlecocks. I don’t remember exactly how I found the site originally, but I remember loving it immediately. Very much a precursor to the web of today, Shuttlecocks featured a range of different recurring posts – analyses of movie reviews posted by a far-right religious website, simple comic animations starring cartoon versions of the site’s creators, comical “Ratings” of random stuff…boilerplate stuff now, but back then it felt novel – and, in those early days of the net, intimate. When things were published, there was the sense that they were *for* the regular readers like me – and the small scale of the digital world back then meant I could know those other regulars too. And thus I joined my first digital community.

This was a major moment in my technology literacy story, as it turns out. For one, it’s where I first engaged with the type of activity I’d go on to study for my PhD – that voluntary writing between putative strangers that’s driven only by shared interest and digital friendship. It’s where I found out about Kingdom of Loathing, a delightful stick-figure MMORPG that I played on and off for nearly 15 years and which also heavily influenced my eventual research (more on KoL later). It’s where I saw firsthand the power of digital interactions to create genuine bonds between people. I was young – well under 18 when I first joined – and that youth plus my natural shyness in new environments kept me at the margins. But even so, I was arguably more active with the Brunchmas than I have been in any participatory community since. I’ve never reflected on this before, but I really was so lucky with them, to stumble into such a good first experience. The value they placed on their relationships with each other was obvious; even though I never attended the yearly meet-ups or became personally close with anyone beyond the bounds of the forum and its games, it was obvious to be that a digital beginning had no bearing on a friendship’s potential. The Brunching Forum was also the first of many signs that participatory internet writing could be as rich (and even “correct”) as any other kind. Now, I have a name for what I was seeing in action: discourse expectations. Back then, I just thought everyone online wrote with mechanically perfect wit.

For a long time after this, my technology literacy developed mostly through gaming. We never had a system (anathema to my PCMasterRace father) but video games were a staple family activity in my house. Having cut his teeth playing Zork collaboratively with my mother in college, my Dad viewed all adventure games as potential family pursuits. And so my best gaming memories are not solo, as you might expect, but collective. My dad, my brother and I huddled around the PC in the upstairs office, making our way through the Great Stygian Abyss (Ultima Underworld) or the planes of the blackrock gem (Ultima Underworld 2) – this is when I first saw the power of games to make you learn them. The complexities of the skill trees, the casting systems, inventory management: these things were impossibly complicated to my 9-year-old self, but as we passed through the game’s world they snapped into place. When Ultima Underworld 2 rolled around, I entered already knowing those tropes, understanding what the game expected of me and how to work within that system.

And then, in 1993, there was Return to Zork. This game, more than any other, was special to my family. Zork was the game that brought my father towards his chosen field, and the first he played with my mother; unwrapping this new chapter was the highlight of our Christmas. In an unprecedented move, the adults set up the PC on the dining room table. All of us – kids, mom, dad, and my uncle – marveled at the then-stunning motion capture graphics and agonized over the puzzles. It’s a great game, even without the nostalgia factor, and one that still occupies a special place in our hearts. It’s right there in the inscription on the locket my parents gave me at my PhD graduation: “Here’s to us.”

To be continued…

Courses I’d be into Teaching

Coding and Conventions for Online Writing (200-300 level)

The rise of new media has had profound effect on how and what we write – and professional writing is no exception. A successful digital writer does a lot more than cut and paste – they use uniquely digital resources to power up written language, creating texts that can speak directly to their online situations. This course will give you a strong set of digital composing strategies and teach you how to use them effectively with the ones already in your writing toolbox. You’ll research the history, conventions, and trends of online writing within a field or genre that interests you, and explore how individuals and organizations construct and distribute knowledge within electronic spaces. You’ll practice composing effective digital texts in a range of genres and styles, and complete a collaborative online project suitable for inclusion in a professional portfolio.

This course is designed around the belief that all digital code, including markup languages like HTML, is rhetorical – and therefore it is an essential part of effectively critiquing and composing digital texts. As such, you’ll practice the basics of composing with markup languages throughout the semester, and learn how to use these simple techniques to boost the rhetorical impact of your written language. It doesn’t take a computer science degree to write with code – just a grasp of the general principles and a willingness to seek out and experiment with more complex ones as the need arises.

 

Video Games and Learning (Subtitle: Everyone I Know Works in Digital Learning)

Video games are a powerful way to engage and inspire learning. They can also be a powerful medium for storytelling – one that many digital literacy scholars believe helps to drive that unique learning engagement. What does the power of video games to engage and instruct us mean for society? How might that power be used to transform learning both inside and beyond the classroom?

This course is designed to explore these questions the same way video games do themselves: through interdisciplinary, multimodal learning. We’ll read work from prominent games+learning scholars, and play a wide range of games – mostly independent or openware ones, but a few more prominent titles as well. Thanks to the magic of Skype, we’ll be able to talk directly to the designers for some of these games, as well as with other digital learning professionals – creating a unique chance for open dialogue between students, educators, and industry professionals. In addition to writing about the course’s ideas, you’ll also collaborate to produce games of your own using open-source platforms like Twine.

 

Opening the Archives: Digital and Cultural Logics

“The digital is the realm of the open. Anything that attempts to close this space should be recognized for what it is: the enemy.” – The Digital Humanities Manifesto (UCLA 2009)

This common view of information access as a moral imperative has led to some valuable and exciting digital knowledge projects – including Google itself. But this view can also blind us to the political and cultural implications of this openness. The information within those open-access bytes was created in a local context – one that isn’t necessarily compatible with the universal access missions that characterize digital curation today. How can we use digital technologies to unite people through information while also respecting their differences?

This class explores this question in both theory and practice. You’ll learn about theories of digital curation and information design. We’ll examine both the history and the results of the universal access movement, and consider what these digital advancements mean for the groups whose knowledge may eventually become part of these projects. Then, in the second half of the course, we’ll work with a pair of [University X] digital archivists to create a digital archive for a local community partner – one designed to respect their stories as well as preserve them. Partners for similar projects in the past have included community literacy programs, housing and farming cooperatives, and the Southern Wisconsin Hmong Organization. [inspiration shoutout: Kimberly Christen Withey and her amazing C&W keynote this summer]

Image Credit: Kentucky Route Zero, Cardboard Computer

5 for Execution, 8 for Reflection: Casual Composing with Visual Rhetoric

Disclaimer/Statement of Self-Awareness: The image post I discuss in this entry is not, in immediate hindsight, as funny or clever as it seemed at the time. Don’t judge. We’ve all been there.


So I’m finishing up my final edit/proofread of my forthcoming College English piece. Since CE is a legitimate publication (unlike my advisor’s inbox or this blog), this job required me to break out the full MLA Handbook. Luckily as a newly minted MLA member – thanks Vancouver! – I owe one of these, both hard copy and online access. All I needed to view the guidelines onscreen as I edit was a code from the back of the hard copy.

This code, amusingly, is printed under a thin layer of foil scratch ticket-style – a-like so: photo 1

This gave me the unique and somehow appropriate feeling of winning a guide to a formatting style that I had already paid $80 for – yay! It was the opposite of ironic – exactly what I expected it to be in every way. But it was also funny (at least to me), and so I snapped a picture for my brother, the only person I know who buys scratch tickets unironically.

#stylewin
#stylewin

I’d been looking for an excuse to buy a multi-photo framing app for Instagram, so 99 cents later I was deeply engaged in 1) experimenting with ways to convey the humor and sarcasm through image sharing and 2) wasting a lotta time. What job talk? With PicFrame as my composing tool, the choices at hand were about content and quantity. Which pictures sell the joke best – and how many?

I started with just two – the front cover of the guide and the scratched-off code in the back – but it felt flat. What I wanted, I realized, what I was imagining in my head, was a type of photo post I often see on Tumblr: a series of three or more pictures where at least two are progressive zoom-ins of the same shot. (Sort of like in this meme.) Since I wanted a single post suitable for both Instagram and FB, though, that format didn’t quite fit. But it sent me checking out four-image frame layouts that created more of a “journey” through the MLA Scratch-Off Experience of 2015:

photo 4photo 3 I liked the “journey” built by the four image layouts, but without more zooming power it still fell flat. And even without going for zooming effects, four images was too many for Instagram – too busy and cramped, at least for what I wanted.  It also created a dull impression, since very similar images inevitably ended up side by side. Very “meh.”

photo 2

The image on the right is what I ultimately posted to Instagram (and Twitter?): the page that started things off, the hard copy I was instructed to find, and the scratched-off result (with quarter for added lottery ticket effect). Not a stuck landing, still not doing what I wanted it to – but there’s only so much procrastination one can justify. That said, this experience opened up a lot of in-action reflection on what (and how much) goes into even the most casual visual/digital composing.

Even though I try to complete the NM/MM assignments I give my students alongside them (if not beforehand), it really is different when you’re working towards your own specific goal – your own vision, even. Sure, “vision” is a dramatic way to refer to an Instagram post. But it’s also a better way of explaining what was going on in my head as I tried and rejected those various options. I was going for a specific effect, I had a rhetorical style (strategy?) in mind, and I kept working at it til I found something that matched. Or more accurately, until I ran out of time and forced myself to settle. Goldilocks I am not: I can’t always get it just right. Especially when I’m composing with non-native rhetoric.

I’ve got two main takeaways here:

1) I want to do more digital and MM composing of my own, both casual and professional. It’s fun for its own sake, it’s got the extra meta-fun layer, and it is so damn satisfying when you figure out how to achieve even a small part of that vision, whatever it may be. The blogging I did all summer scratched this itch pretty well for awhile, and getting back to it is a good first step – but I want to ultimately create some kind of professional artifact, and/or one that blends personal and professional (as the blog does), that lets me experience new and reflective composing processes like this one.

2) Using digital and/or visual rhetoric to achieve a goal is  different than using only(/primarily) language. And it doesn’t take a serious or large-scale goal to experience that – it’s visible in even the simplest, most casual acts of writing. Which brings into focus something I’ve been groping towards in my dissertation stuff recently – the value of casual online composing for writing instruction.

…brings it more into focus anyhow. I’m not quite finished processing what I want to say about new (“new”) rhetorics and casual writing. But it feels like a sign that working to bring that writing, that casual and often painfully superficial-looking (to both us and to them), into the classroom does have potential value. That starting small might be worth a look. That starting by showing students the rhetorical choices they’re already navigating on a daily basis, with barely a thought, might facilitate a unique opportunity for transfer and conscious composing.

To be continued in my dissertation conclusion!


 

Micro-Fretting about Hyperlinks

I’ve been thinking a lot about hyperlinks lately – very 90s of me, I know. It started with the blogging, actually – as I’ve written these posts, I’ve realized how much I like hyperlinks as composing resources. I can cite without an unsightly in-text spelling out of the piece in question. I can include pictures that enhance the writing in some small way (usually visual jokes, but sometimes more substantial) that don’t warrant in-page inclusion or would be too disruptive if displayed within the post itself. I can make it easy to find more info on things I’m discussing directly, or even that I mention tangentially but which might be of interest to specific readers.

That’s one of the biggest – or at least the most obvious – draws: it makes things easier. Easier for me – throwing in a hyperlink is almost effortless in the WordPress visual editor (though it would be even easier if it didn’t automatically copy text as it’s highlighted, meaning you must copy the link after highlighting the relevant text). And easy for readers – the post is unbroken, and additional materials are a simple command-click away. It feels elegant, both formally and rhetorically. It opens choices for me as I write that wouldn’t exist otherwise.

It’s the choices piece of that I’ve been thinking about lately. Chiefly: when linking to outside material, how do I decide which words should become hypertext? This is a small decision, but one I find myself consciously considering all the time without any real sense of what ought to be guiding an effective choice. I want the power hyperlinks bring – but what’s the best way to present them within my writing?

John Slatin put his finger on this payoff/problem combo nearly 25 years ago – hypertext is great for pulling in lots of stuff you couldn’t include otherwise, but it’s a very imprecise tool for conveying the relationship between the linked material and the ideas of the text. Now, he’s talking more about how hypertext works in the complex, multi-path works that enraptured early digital media scholars than my very direct and relatively linear blog links. It’s pretty obvious what the linked picture in my post refers to regardless of what the exact link text is. But the exact text matters. At least I can’t overcome the feeling that it does.

Here’s an example, from my recent screencasting post, of what I’m talking about: in the second paragraph, I wanted to link a picture of a typical script for my screencast responses. The sentence where I wanted to include the link reads, “After reading the draft a few times, I compose a little “script” on a Sticky note of the main points I’m going to make.” What’s the most rhetorically effective and/or elegant hypertext version of that sentence?

  1. “After reading the draft a few times, I compose a little “script” on a Sticky note of the main points I’m going to make.”
  2. “After reading the draft a few times, I compose a little “script” on a Sticky note of the main points I’m going to make.”
  3. “After reading the draft a few times, I compose a little “script” on a Sticky note of the main points I’m going to make.”
  4. “After reading the draft a few times, I compose a little “script” on a Sticky note of the main points I’m going to make.”

The third option feels obviously weak to me because the link is so small – harder to click, less noticeable. Repeatedly one-word linking feels almost “twee” to me; it also provides the reader with less information about what exactly is being linked, making it more effort to process the place of the hypertext relative to the surrounding context (though in this case that’s not so much a problem). The fourth option is the most complete description of the linked material – a script composed by me using the Sticky Notes program. But it’s so long – its length suggests an importance for the linked picture that’s out of proportion with my intentions.

In Goldilocks terms, #2’s visual length feels “just right” in proportion to how important the image is to my rhetorical goals for the sentence. But I chose #1 instead – and this is where my ability to articulate the rhetorical choices at work breaks down most. Why did I include “I compose?”

Slatin says that rhetorical hypertext guides the reader towards “the pattern which connects” – the organizing idea or value of the text as a while. Perhaps this is why “I compose a little script” felt like the best rhetorical choice – it emphasizes that both the linked picture and the text as a whole are making a point about the act of screencasting. Now, I make a lot of other points in the post about it too – it’s not my tightest piece of writing. But looking back at the notes I used to put the post together, taken during the week or so I when I was working most actively with the method, it’s clear that what I was most intrigued by was the effect the act of constructing a screencast had on my practices as a tutor. Is this the “pattern which connects” everything in the final post? Not really, no. But it was, semi-consciously, the foremost idea in my mind at the time of writing.

So maybe that’s a starting point for me in making these decisions: choose the text that best contributes to your most important idea, or an idea that you’re trying to push forward with both your main text and your link. I was excited about the tutor’s role and practices in this process when I made this link; including “I compose” added emphasis to that idea without also adding undue bulk. And so it felt like the best – the “right” – option.

And as it’s virtually certain someone(s)’ written insightfully about HT much more recently than Slatin, someday when the thick of the market is behind me I can flesh out my decision-making with those as well. And then I will be a linking powerhouse, an unstoppable rhetorically integrated digital force.

Digital Communities in Action: Reddit and the Unidan Ban

Recently, there was a major incident on Reddit – its most popular user, Unidan, was banned. If you’re a Redditor, you probably already know this – it was incredibly hard to miss.  If you’re not, here’s a very brief Reddit primer: Reddit is a large content aggregator and participatory digital space, composed of thousands of “subreddits” – forums devoted to a particular topic, interest or pursuit. Reddit uses a “karma”-based voting system to determine the ranking, and therefore visibility, of content throughout the site – an “upvote” earns a post and its author 1 karma point, and a downvote removes one. Karma has no value apart from status, but it is a huge deal within the community and drives participation and content production in all kinds of ways.

Here’s a bio of Unidan written before his banning. He was wildly popular, with a karma count through the roof, and arguably had more name recognition than any other user (with the possible exception of successful novelty accounts like shitty_watercolors and awildsketchappeared.) On July 28th 2014, he was banned permanently by the admins and his account deleted, sparking a flurry of posting and voting activity throughout the site.

There’s a bunch of cool things on display in the Unidan kerfluffle, lessons and qualities of the digital landscape and its communities – but I’m going to focus on just two here.

1) It’s evidence of Reddit as a unified community
Since it shows up a lot in the student interviews for my dissertation, I’ve done a lot of thinking about how to classify Reddit and its warren of subspaces. On the one hand, Reddit’s raison d’être is as a home for affinity spaces – a tool for helping people build spaces devoted to specific common interests and pursuits, with their own membership, character, content, and associated practices. One of the arguments I make in my intro (through an extended and serious close reading of r/AdviceAnimals that was not as fun to write as I expected) is that even subreddits with loosely defined goals and interests can – and should – be considered affinity spaces. Since on average a randomly selected handful of subreddits will have widely divergent topics, frequently leading to equally divergent discourse conventions and posting practices, Reddit as a whole begins to look less like an affinity space and more like a routing station for them – a one-stop shop for (almost) all your affinity needs.

But the aftermath of the Unidan banning makes it extremely clear that while it may not be an affinity space, Reddit  is a community. Not a community of practice; not an affinity space; and more than simply a participatory culture. It’s a straight-up community, bitches. Unidan, charming and/or notorious as he can be by turns, can’t really be termed a “common interest” as digital participation scholars like Gee and Halverson use the concept. His ban didn’t trigger a seismic posting event because all those people feel such a continuous and underlying affinity for the project of  critically recording and analyzing his activity. People tuned in and contributed to the Unidan debate in such numbers because it was an event of cultural importance. 

It’s certainly possible to detect this underlying cultural thread outside of  unusual/abnormal/major events like this one – by tracing the scope of the Redditquette’s influence, for example, or analyzing responses to “Good Guy Reddit” incidents, where Redditors’ real-life actions have a notably positive impact for others. But what’s great about the Unidan Ban is how starkly it shows that culture cutting across the divides that most obscure it at calmer moments. r/AdviceAnimals thinks he’s a martyr to another user’s oversensitivity;  r/subredditdrama thinks he’s high on his own drama; and r/TIFU is just having none of it. (And then r/adviceanimals abruptly changes sides bc of course they did.) But wherever you look, Redditors are showing – not just with the usual votes, but with an outpouring of words as well –  that this is a Community Matter, and that they are part of that community.

2)  Digital communities make the collective memory process highly traceable – and Reddit particularly so 
Reading through the various threads about Unidan’s banning, you can literally see public history in process. The AdviceAnimals side-switching is a great example of this: as the hours go on, the community’s version of the story switches from one where /u/Ecka6 (a user who got into a fight with Unidan shortly before his ban) is to blame, to one where Unidan himself is at fault. Because far more people on Reddit vote than contribute written comments, you can trace the influence of the story depicted in a given thread on the wider community by watching the voting activity it creates: we know /u/Ecka6’s guilt is a community narrative and not just the opinion of the voices in the one thread because the comments by those voices receive many upvotes, and because /u/Ecka6’s posts – not just to Unidan but all of the posts in their recent history – received a huge number of downvotes in the hours following the narrative’s creation.

By watching the voting tide shift in response to new comments/threads revising that narrative, you can see how the changes spread from individuals to the community as a whole. For awhile in the middle, both /u/Ecka6 and Unidan are being “brigaded” by the AA community, until the new (and more or less final) narrative spreads far enough to become the single accepted story. This same process, or some version of it, took place across Reddit as a whole – posts by individuals shifting subreddit communities, those communities using their voting power to influence the visibility of posts in other places, until over time what’s left is a (relatively) unified and widely accepted picture of events.

 


Unfortunately, the very thing that makes this process so uniquely visible on Reddit makes it hard to document it after the fact. Karma scores for comments and threads change constantly. And since the default settings display comments by score (making what’s currently popular most visible at a given time) this creates a snowball effect that’s hard to account for unless you saw it happen. Adding to this difficulty is the fact that comments, user accounts, and sometimes whole threads are frequently deleted entirely – sometimes by the author themselves, sometimes by moderators for violations of the Reddiquette. An interested academic party poking around after the fact can see that the deleted content was influential in some way, but not how or why. So unless you’re at ground zero for a major event and able to put some time into actively tracking it, you’re inevitably going to lose some of the story. Awhile back I had the idea of writing and article about Reddit’s “investigation” of the Boston Bomber and the effects of the detailed (and totally incorrect) theory they created. This could have made an awesome article – but I didn’t get past the idea stage because all the relevant threads had been locked or deleted by the time I got there. I was a bit faster on this Unidan post, but even so there’s a lot missing – the r/AA threads calling for downvotes against Unidan and r/Ecka6 are gone, and I had to rely on secondhand accounts of events like this one rather than my own observations, which works for a blog but wouldn’t fly as an article.

Reddit has long struck me as a rich site for academic study. (I’m not the first to notice this potential. This article by Kristy Roschke on vegan subreddit’s as affinity spaces is the latest example to roll across my path, but there’s lots more – to say nothing of the community’s own meta-efforts.) Watching Unidan’s ban play out helped me articulate some of the reasons for that – but it also highlighted some potential research challenges I hadn’t considered before. The addition of the karma system to the already fast-moving digital community environment makes reviewing threads after the fact an incomplete and potentially even unreliable technique. And since the scope of the space makes surveying everything impossible, you’d need to think carefully about how to match your collection method to your research goals. Embedded ethnography seems like a possible match for some research goals, since it would enable you to study voting patterns more closely and increase your ability to notice and track major events from early on – but being limited to one or just a handful of subreddits would limit the scope of your findings as well, and miss out on the scope and depth that make Reddit such a unique site of inquiry.

Tracing out Reddit research designs for hypothetical research objectives would be a good mental exercise for me – to say nothing of giving me some strong starting points for future work. It’s added to my list of topics for future posts; until then, I’ll set the back of my mind to work generating some possible Reddit-friendly RQs.

Screencasting the Human Element

My thanks to Mike Shapiro for allowing me to share my tutor’s response to his work, and to Anne Wheeler, whose thoughtful framing of writing center “humanity” informed many parts of this post.

A screencast is a video that combines a recording of activity on the tutor’s screen with an audio recording of their comments during that activity. Essentially, it’s a video conference in miniature where writing replaces the tutor’s face. I’ve been helping the UW writing center pilot-test them as a response method for student drafts this summer, and it’s been a pretty great experience. I find them to be a really promising tool, one that pushes me to focus on structuring my comments clearly while allowing me to keep my “human touch” as a tutor.

Here’s how my screencast process plays out: After reading the draft a few times, I compose a little “script” on a Sticky note of the main points I’m going to make (the first of which is usually of the “existing strengths” variety), each with a brief explanation to guide me when I record. Each explanation has to include at least one concrete anchor in the text, which I highlight in bold; this helps guide my action in the draft during the recording, making it easy for me to find the sentences/phrases I want to visually highlight. If I have smaller comments that don’t fit under those main points, I’ll make an “if there’s time” category at the bottom of the script. Since I pretty much never have time left after my main points, I revisit this section post-recording. If the comments still seem important, I’ll add them as margin notes and send the draft along with the video. (You can watch the result here, if you’re interested.)

At UW, we use Jing to record screencasts. It’s got two major things to recommend it: first, it’s incredibly easy to use; and second, it limits screencasts to a maximum length of 5 minutes. (And also it’s free. Three reasons!) I cannot emphasize enough how useful this time limit is. As outlined in this wonderful blog post by Mike Shapiro, co-director of the Writing Center’s summer session, targeting a few high-level concerns with concrete suggestions for addressing them has been shown to be the most effective form of distance feedback. This sounds easy in theory, but I think most instructors will agree that it can be difficult in execution. You get bogged down in details and never get to the larger issues. You let jargon replace concrete examples in your revision suggestions because you forget that what’s clear to you may be opaque to them. (“Use less awkward constructions;” “work on connecting your ideas”) Or you simply get carried away, forgetting that less is usually more. (I’ve been guilty of all three, but I’m especially prone to the last one. It can be bad – like full single-spaced page bad.)

But in a screencast, you go in knowing you have only five minutes. And that in those five minutes, you have only your voice and what’s on the screen to work with. This makes it very hard not to anchor feedback in concrete examples – because otherwise, you’re just talking over a screenshot. Likewise, there’s no time to get caught in tiny details or grand abstractions. To comment effectively on an entire draft in 5 minutes, you have to have a plan. You have to be clear and concise, and you have to choose the 3 points (at most) that will most improve the draft. Combined with the emphasis on concrete anchoring in the document, I’ve found this to be a recipe for just the kind of feedback research (and experience!) encourages.

Screencasting also makes my “best practices” list for its ability to bring a human element into asynchronous feedback. A big part of writing center ethos is, as Michael Pemberton puts it, “being with people…seeing their faces, hearing their voices, reading their body language, experiencing a strong sense of presence as we talk.” Anyone who’s worked in a writing center knows that this “being with people” about their writing powers up your ability to help them as writers. Building rapport, demonstrating engagement with a student’s individual situation and writing through body language and tone, being able to talk through ideas and suggestions until they work – these are key tools in the writing tutor’s toolbox.

Digitally expanding the writing center can be a fraught topic because at first glance, practices like synchronous chat and email feedback seem poised to drain writing centers of this essential togetherness. If the human element is what makes writing centers successful, this argument goes, practices without that element will necessarily be less effective. (And if they are effective, they challenge a heavily-invested-in piece of the writing center narrative.) Lee-Ann Kastman Breuch worried in 2005 that “online tutoring goes much against the idea of a writing center – the idea of Burkean Parlors, of ongoing conversation” (31). While we understand more about the benefits of digital tutoring than we did then, many still share Breuch’s concern: a 2006 survey by Stephen Neaderhiser and Joanna Wolfe looking at delivery locations across 500 writing centers characterized the response of many administrators to the idea of online chat instruction as neutral at best, a kind of “they can come to us” attitude.

I would argue (and I’m hardly the first) that rather than seeing the human element as something threatened by digital expansion, it should be something that guides that process: we should choose and deploy digital practices that preserve or even expand that ethos. (There are other important things to consider alongside this, some of which I’ll look at in future posts.) Based on my experiences so far, screencasting seems like a slam dunk in this area, especially over email feedback.

When I give email feedback, I don’t get to draw on my full arsenal as a tutor; written words are (at least for me) far less powerful tools than spoken ones. Mike Shapiro commented in a recent discussion about this project that one of the major resources writing centers draw on is the thousands of hours’ experience we have talking about writing – and only a few hundred (if that) writing about it. Screencasting allows a tutor to draw on both the humanizing and pedagogical benefits of the WC’s “talk history.” Even if students can’t talk back to me, my being able to speak to them feels like a big step up from doing everything through writing. I regain tone as a tool for signaling engagement, enthusiasm and inquiry; this in turn boosts my ability to structure and present my comments effectively.

The comments Mike and I have received on our screencasting suggests that students like it just as much as I do. Some of this is for the reasons I’ve discussed above – and also, students just really like videos. I forget that all the time because I hate them; if I see a video instead of a written article I’m closing the tab before it can even load. But students are at home with them. So while video comments may seem like a step down to us, students (for the most part) don’t see it that way. And reaching someone where they can go a long way towards making a human connection. (For more on how students feel about writing and videos, see every chapter in my dissertation.)

The future of screencasting at the UW Writing Center is still up in the air. But I know it will continue in at least one place: I’ll be using it to comment on the drafts of my Intermediate Composition students this fall. Because even if doesn’t prove  to be a best practice for writing instructors overall, it definitely seems to be for me. Hopefully my students’ revisions and feedback will prove me right – and if not, show me where and why I’m wrong.

 

Works Cited
Breuch, Lee-Ann Kastman. “The Idea(s) of an Online Writing Center: In Search of a Conceptual Model.” Writing Center Journal 25.2 (2005): 21-37

Neaderhiser, Stephen and Joanna Wolfe. “Between Technological Endorsement and Resistance: The State of Online Writing Centers.” Writing Center Journal 29.1 (2009): 49-77.

Pemberton, Michael. “Forward.” In Beth Hewitt’s The Online Writing Conference. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2010.

What Games Don’t Teach pt II: Controller Woes

When Matt and I first started talking about videogames and education, one of the things that came up most prominently on his side was the idea of instructor illiteracy. Even if you can sell an instructor on the value of videogames for their teaching, there’s still the pragmatic obstacle posed by how foreign the medium is to many. Yes, teaching is a learning process for both students and instructors, admitting novice status can be a learning moment, etc etc. At the end of the day, teaching something you aren’t comfortable with yourself is much harder, and much less appealing a use of personal resources, than something you are. Such lesson units are challenges we actively set out to overcome, rather than accessible entry points for busy instructors on the fence.

I proposed a panel recently about this topic – how to present videogames to instructors (specifically in composition) as an effective learning tool for their classrooms. In putting it together, I thought a lot about this question of what these obstacles to videogame pedagogy might be for these instructors.

Being new to videogames brings a lot of stuff to learn, some of which I discussed in my last post: inventory management, puzzle-solving strategies (try everything with everything!), conventions for moving the plot along (talk to everyone you know!). But I think some of these new skills pose higher barriers for bringing videogames into the classroom than others. Adapting to the ways games signal narrative significance, for example, is a learning process we’re used to; we’re practiced at picking conceptual patterns out of the noise. It’s the backbone of most of our training, both pedagogically and within our specific subjects. Not to suggest it’s a piece of cake picking up these tropes. But they are, I would argue, relatively easy for even a new-to-gaming instructor to recognize. And that recognition, when combined with a little faith that there’s something to this “games for education” stuff, can lower the access barrier enough to jump in.

But learning to deal with a modern controller? Oh hell no.

Physically mastering a controller has proven, for me, to be by far the most frustrating aspect of learning to game. Learning to drive an *actual* car feels like it was easier than learning to drive in LA Noire. It’s not intuitive at all! So many buttons! At this point, I’ve essentially given up.  This difficulty mastering (or even adequate-ing) something that literally millions of people can do effortlessly is frustrating and embarrassing. So I can’t solve this puzzle – big deal. That’s what puzzles are for. The fact that manual un-dexerity prevents me from solving this puzzle despite knowing what to do, on the other hand – that’s so frustrating it almost cancels out the pleasure of play.

This is pretty much how I feel about controllers.
This is pretty much how I feel about controllers.

Learning to use a controller is not part of the fun and engaged learning that makes videogames so appealing to scholars and educators. It’s more like being presented with chopsticks for the first time when you are very very hungry, and the meal in front of you looks so good: you just have to master this one little set of movements to start enjoying yourself, but the stakes for that learning are high – your shirtfront; your character’s life. (Now granted, I can’t really use chopsticks well either so, you know, make of that what you will.)

My point here, though, is to ask how the physical difficulty of learning to play videogames might affect their adoption by instructors, especially those who are newer to digital teaching practices overall. This isn’t one of the obstacles I considered when writing my proposal, and that oversight seems so glaring now. The first time you pick up a controller or set your hands on AWSD is inevitably awkward and distracting. That memory is very fresh for me, in a way I’d cautiously guess it is not for many of videogame pedagogy’s advocates. Fumbling to navigate a digital world obscures its potential for both enjoyment and learning; it replaces immersion with self-consciousness. If this is all you experience of videogames, their pedagogy is going to be a hard sell.

I watched this self-consciousness play out during #eng177’s lectures on Braid this spring. Jim brought the game up on the main screen a few times for live playthroughs of the sections we were discussing, by either himself or a volunteer student. While both he and the student who took over did an admirable job staying cool and navigating through the levels, it was obviously a bit nerve-wracking for both of them. Even for experienced players, controlling a game is a delicate process, one that’s quick to be thrown off by outside factors like the pressure of an audience or the need to narrate your actions as you go. Only two students were willing to step up at all, with one of them shouldering most of the playing throughout the unit. Doing anything in front of 120 peers/students is nerve-wracking, of course – but this experienced suggested this is particularly true of liveplaying.

Game controls have a steep learning curve: they’re  foreign and challenging at first, but you catch on quickly. The trouble with steep learning curves for those long past them is that because they happens so quickly, it’s easy to forget how hard the initial experience can be. This probably doesn’t matter so much for teaching your mom or your Amish buddy to play Assassin’s Creed –  but for the instructor testing out a potential teaching tool, that learning curve matters. The resemblance of digital tools like blogging to practices we’re already comfortable with gives them a relatively shallow learning curve by comparison. This isn’t a bad thing, but it is an obstacle to encouraging wider experimentation in composition with videogame pedagogy.

Those of us who believe in videogames’ potential for composition instruction need to keep this curve in mind when we evangelize. To remember to acknowledge, when we talk to curious newcomers, the initial awkwardness of the physical learning process as well as the great potential of the intellectual one. To let them know, if only in passing, that the frustration passes quickly, and when it does – that’s when things get cool. And maybe steer them away from consoles.

 

[In-post image: IncarnateFilms]

What Games Don’t Teach pt I: the Kelly Chambers Incident

Since Gee’s idea of Affinity Spaces is a major part of my dissertation’s conceptual frame, I’ve been reading a lot of stuff about the power of games as learning tools. (Also I date a Filament designer, which tends to bring with it a good dose of similarly themed conversations.) These arguments had been interesting in the abstract, but really came to life for me when I started playing myself. Because video games can be really complicated these days! Matt started me out relatively slow, with Knights of the Old Republic as my first fighting-style RPG, but even that felt dauntingly complex at the start. But the game made me want to play it despite the anxiety I felt about all this, and with a little help from Matt I learned the ropes before I was even off Taris. And now I’m playing Skyrim unassisted with only occasional anxiety about figuring out the skill trees.

Playing these games made me appreciate the conversation about games as uniquely powerful learning tools in a new and much more concrete way. Many of the games I played this past year are complicated by any definition, and yet make learning to harness and navigate those complications not only manageable but genuinely pleasurable. But in addition to teaching you the systems and rules specific to the particular game, video games also teach you how to navigate the rules of the genre overall. You learn how puzzle games work by playing a few of them, and then you have a leg up on the next one you come across. You learn that shotguns are for close range and rifles for long (or you’re supposed to – sometimes you’re an idiot and need your boyfriend to point it out to you); that sometimes you solve puzzles by trying every combination of action and object until something works; that levels and dungeons are usually one-way, and if you’re spending a lot of time backtracking through already-cleared environments you probably took a wrong turn. These conventions aren’t completely universal, of course – and expecting them to be sets you up to be caught by the inevitable moment when a game deliberately breaks them to mess with you (a practice that reached its purest and most meta form in The Stanley Parable).

But generally, by playing a bunch of games you learn not only how those games work, but what you can reasonably expect from other games like them.  This is both cool and useful, as it essentially gives you a headstart, even some shortcuts, for learning these new games in the future. It means that when you start a new game, you can, as Gee puts it in an account of playing real-time strategy games, “already know something, have a small foot up.”  Each game is “a precursor for later learning” as well as a learning experience in of itself. When you arrive at that later learning opportunity,  you’ll be able to make useful and cautiously dependable assumptions about new systems and situations even before you’ve finished learning the specifics.

Most of my game experiences (at least as measured in hours of play) are with RPGs, in a genre I’d describe as “combat/narrative blends” – they have a lot of fighting, but a decent chunk of story as well (sometimes very good ones). Over the last 18 months, I’ve experienced a lot of these “small foot up” moments Gee talks about, with the result that each new game I pick up is easier to learn – and, maybe even more important to my overall play experience, navigating their environments and situations is more and more intuitive. The best example I can think of deals with level conventions: I’ve learned that I can reasonable expect each dungeon/mission/whatever to have one relatively obvious route through it from start to finish, and how to recognize the conventional visual signals used to mark it. I used to get painfully disoriented in even simple level layouts, to the point that it was embarrassing; I’d be looking over my shoulder hoping no one was witness to my getting lost in the Presidium again. But now that I have a few more RPG notches in my belt, I have a much better instinct for the conventions and goals underlying level design, and (usually) have no trouble finding my way unless I’m supposed to. This, and a host of other accumulated lessons, suggest that by and large, combat/narrative RPGs are good at teaching about their genre as a whole as well as themselves.

Except there’s one convention that video games have completely failed to teach me – that of the time-sensitive mission.

In most RPGs, time-sensitive missions are the exception rather than the rule. Taking out the mafia kingpin, storming the lab on Virmire, starting up the water purifier, scoping out the dragon burial site for possible resurrecting dragons – no matter how high the narrative stakes for these tasks, or what your NPC companions are screaming in your ear, you’ve got all the time you need to take care of it. So check out that random hallway. Search every inch of the base. Heck, wander off on a side mission for a few days if you feel like it. It’ll be there when you get back, and no one will actually be any worse off than if you’d taken your sidekick at their word and raced through like this was all actually unfolding in real time. Unless there’s some kind of visible timer on the screen, or screamingly explicit narrative cue, there’s no rush.

This is pretty standard across the RPG genre (at least in my experience), and so presumably is something these games should be teaching players along with level conventions and appropriate small arms use. But if so, it’s in a way that my learning style doesn’t recognize, because I cannot seem to internalize it in any meaningful way. Like, at all.

My (admittedly limited) gaming lessons have consistently presented urgency as something explicitly signaled through visual markers (as in the very first Mass Effect mission, when the bombs must be disarmed before the timer reaches zero). Sometimes that marker isn’t precisely time – it might be shield strength, or a companion’s health – but it gives some visual cue that I can’t be screwing around. On the other hand, they’ve also taught me that narrative matters – that what people say and do around me has implications for what I will be able to say and do subsequently. Mass Effect and Fallout 3 taught me that the cues characters give about themselves and the stories around them are important for making decisions that build the narrative outcomes I want. Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite taught me that even seemingly insignificant background details in dialogue and story can turn out to be majorly important. These experiences have primed me to take narrative, including character dialogue, seriously. They have failed to teach me to ignore that dialogue when it’s rushing my character along – despite that being what I’d argue is a pretty necessary lesson.

Because this learning failure has a definite adverse affect on my play experience. I rush past gorgeously rendered vistas and valuable equipment upgrades. I miss entire side quests and quirky characters. I sometimes experience something akin to actual stress over reaching an objective I’ve been told is pressingly urgent when in reality I could wander off, clean my entire apartment, have a leisurely drink with friends, and then come back and finish the mission to exactly the same effect as my instinctive 15-minute bull rush. Just a few days ago I caught myself abandoning a Skyrim questline I was enjoying immensely because a character I’d just met told me I had to meet her at some random location right away. This didn’t have any negative effect on that original questline (of course). But it had an effect on my enjoyment of the game – I felt rushed and resentful. By the time I remembered that urgency is just a narrative trapping in RPG quests I was already at ground zero for the new quest’s first mission.

I’m not sure why I have so much difficulty resolving these conflicted learning objectives – why I can’t seem to learn that narrative tags about urgency are decorative and not declarative. I’m pretty sure it’s not a widespread problem; if it was, designers would already have switched up how they’re coding and scripting these moments to improve their games’ ability to teach both lessons effectively. I have a fairly conventional learning style – traditional school worked fine for me, I’m not unusually visual or tactile or anything like that. So the sensation of falling through a learning-styles crack (even one so laughably insignificant) is kind of a weird (and, because the stakes are so low, interesting) experience. It makes me wonder what a game would look like that did teach me this effectively. Additional tags about the importance of being thorough and exploring? A section in the tutorial mission that explicitly says “sometimes missions are timed; here’s what that looks like”? The latter seems clunky; the former could be too subtle. But then, even if such a game existed, there’s a chance I still wouldn’t learn. Because sometimes bad design reinforces the wrong lesson – and as Skinner taught us, inconsistent reinforcement is the most powerful kind. Which brings us to Mass Effect 2 and the Kelly Chambers Incident.

In its final stages, Mass Effect 2 breaks the rules that urgency gets exceptional markers: once the final mission becomes available a hidden clock starts, and the longer you wait before starting it, the more of your captured crewmates are killed by the enemy. This includes the peppy and, in Matt’s words, “really attractive” Kelly Chambers, a character who (if she survives) plays a role in the following game. A role I will probably never see, because my Shepard’s Kelly is Collector paste. I’d grown used to people telling me missions were urgent, vital, pressing; and nothing about the dialogue surrounding the final mission cued me to think it was any different in this regard, that this time it really was urgent.

So I dicked around and finished a few sidequests, and Kelly died, and I’m still super pissed about it. The ONE time my natural instinct to rush to the rescue would actually have been correct, I ignored it. Consciously. Because I remembered what the game(s) had taught me.

This seems like bad design to me. What good are stakes if you don’t know they’re there – and can’t reasonably be expected to have guessed it? By changing up a basic rule of the genre without warning, Mass Effect 2‘s final mission undercuts the lessons taught by the rest of the series, and other narrative-based RPGs as well. I would argue that this is an example of bad design on their part – of letting a narrative shock outweigh the game’s consistency as a learning tool of the genre. This is not to say games should never play with or flaunt our expectations – not at all. But that they need to do so in a way that’s consistent with the rules the game’s taught us govern its systems. In a good game, we shouldn’t be overly comfortable about what’s coming our way, but we shouldn’t feel cheated by it either.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I was told several days ago that I’m desperately needed at a dragon burial site, so I should probably look into that.

 

Tensions over Blogging

Blogs, amiright? They’re writing-based but multimodally flexible, they’ve got low entry barriers, and they’ve been around long enough that they’ve started to feel comfortable even for the less digitally-minded among us – like just another part of the written landscape. But lately, I’ve been noticing some strange tensions across attitudes towards the humble blog. One the one hand – so many pros! They’re everything we could want in a tool for teaching (and practicing) rhetoric and writing in this digital and participatory age. But on the other hand – are they really? or put another way – are they still?

This tension pokes through at a few points in Deborah Brandt’s thoughtful meta-post on the UW Writing Center blog this April.  Brandt opens by discussing her longtime resistance to blogs, despite the advantages typically attributed to them. “Aren’t blogs among the most appealing forms of expression?” she asks. “Breezy, easy, low stakes, anything goes—an embodiment of the best democratic potential of the Internet?” But she’s skeptical of the genre nonetheless. So much so, in fact, that she devotes the rest of the entry to interrogating the potential downfalls of such a perspective.

Brandt raises a number of important points in her post –  about the dangers presented by blogs’ informal and shifting formation of author identities; about whether blogging assignments violate students’ legal right to privacy; and about the slipperiness with which an individual’s voice can be appropriated to serve institutional or corporate agendas. But it’s this initial tension she presents that caught my interest for this post: between the “default” view of blogging as low-stakes and democratic, and the more complicated, even (somewhat) negative view that lies underneath it.  Brandt presents the first view as a voicing of a prevailing view, an “everyone knows”-assumption that blogs are democratic, lower-stakes, and therefore great tools for contemporary writers of all kinds. A view that, despite her clear and concrete reservations, she seems to still feel some attraction, even obligation towards – framing it as a rhetorical question for herself as well as her readers.

Lately, I notice this tension throughout conversations about blogging – academic and otherwise.  It’s rarely expressed as eloquently, and the concerns about the more negative edge of the blogging sword aren’t always in quite the same vein – but in 4Cs panels and student interviews, academic blogs and TA training, there’s an ongoing uncertainty about the value of blogging – and sometimes, more pointedly, whether or not it’s worth doing at all.

On the academic side, there are concerns like Brandt’s that the very qualities that make blogging attractive also give rise to its dangers. We already have so many ways to implicate ourselves forever through out online behavior, and for that behavior to be exploited by bureaucratic interests; blogging, these arguments worry, can too easily become a long-form and even more potentially destructive path towards the same. And there are arguments for blogging as just another path towards the echo chamber effect, encouraging writers to reify their existing opinions for an audience who already holds them. But to me, the most thought-provoking argument against giving blogging top attention among digital genres is that our students are already past it – “over” blogging (at least in the form we tend to consider it) and on to other things, to microblogging and Pinning and the visual-focused Instagram. And while there’s still plenty of blogging to be found among the Comp/Rhet set, it’s definitely not an area in which everyone’s practicing what the prevailing attitude preaches. Collin Brooke recently wrote a blog post of his own about the relative dearth of digital “stock” (of which blogging is a primary element) as compared to the more ephemeral “flow” of Tweets and Tumblings. For all the popularity of blogging in the classroom, it seems like not that many of us are interested in it ourselves.

All of these arguments were mirrored, in some form or another, in my interviews with students about digital writing. Some students had abandoned blogging because they’d come to see the writing they did there as too personal to continue so publicly; some never began at all for similar reasons, saying they didn’t feel comfortable putting the things they feel and think right now out there so permanently, or didn’t see the appeal of doing so. More than one  expressed skepticism or distain for blogging by others that “just made the same point everyone else makes;” speaking to an audience of your friends, one student said wryly, isn’t going to affect anything. And while no one said anything so direct as, say, “blogging is for old people,” there was lots of implicit support for the idea that students don’t blog because they’re expending that expressive energy in other forms. Students had Tumblrs, Pinterest boards, Instagram feeds, Vine accounts – but none of them had an active blog. A few had been active bloggers in the past, but for one reason or another – usually encompassing one of the three reasons above – they’d drifted out of the habit.

Yet despite all these concerns, students felt the same conflicted pull towards the genre as those of us over in Comp/Rhet. Students who kept active blogs in the past universally spoke of the experience positively, almost wistfully at times. Blogging helped them clarify and articulate otherwise confusing opinions and feelings; it was an outlet for frustration and self-expression (emotional and intellectual). That’s not something, the interviews suggest, that they’ve found so freely in these other forms of digital writing. And for almost a third of them, keeping a blog was an attractive future project. Some even had specific ideas about what these blogs would look like – a home for an ongoing graphic novel project, a silly collection of frisbee-related jokes; a place to informally muse about all things science. These students don’t have blogs now – but the idea of one is not without interest. All of this points to the same kind of disconnect visible in C/R’s conversation: there’s something about blogs that makes us reluctant to write them off – but often equally reluctant to actually write them.

My own experience follows this pattern to a T. I was a very prolific blogger throughout college, a direct offshoot of my years of “analog” journaling. This blog was sometimes public, sometimes private, and very much a product of College Becca’s worldview. Once I got to grad school, however, this kind of blogging no longer seemed like what I wanted to be putting out in public, so I began a new blog with vague ideas of being more “academic” but no specific idea what that would look like. Without that guidance the new blog drifted into a similar vein as the old, and I largely lost interest. Every year or so I’d resolve to begin blogging about my work for real, a few times even going so far as to create accounts with a post or two, but despite this underlying feeling that I really should be blogging, it never stuck. (Until now, that is – fingers crossed.) In retrospect, I think a big part of my blogging inertia in those years came from my confusion about what it meant to transform this activity and genre that until then had been primarily personal into one that was only semi-personal. I knew blogging could do a whole range of things, but now I needed it to be something pretty specific – and making that transition was harder than I expected, harder than I felt it was supposed to be for me as, you know, a student of these issues.

When blogging was the only public digital writing game around, it made sense to use it for a very broad range of purposes and posting style – and people did. But now we have a much wider range of platforms and genres available for expending that impulse to share, write, interact online. Social media updates have taken over as a way to keep social circles up to date on the minutia of daily life; Twitter has become the central platform for self-promotion. Before, it wasn’t as necessary – or even useful – to think to much about what a blog should be – its promise was located in all the things it could be. I think now, though, it’s become very much a question of “should.” Because what the picture above says to me is that we’re all aware that blogging fills a role that isn’t quite there in all these other available forms. As Robin Sloan says, and Brooke takes up, it’s a means of generating more permanent, complex “stock” – the material that underlies our online presence.

I’ve mention this idea of stock vs flow here before; I find it extremely useful. And I’d argue that the persistent concern over blogging – its (some would argue) disproportionate presence in our teaching and research, its distinct but distant appeal to contemporary students – is a result of blogging’s continued force as stock-builder. We sense, consciously or not, the truth of Sloan’s reminder that “we neglect stock at our own peril.” And we sense that blogs are a good solution for that problem. But stock is harder than flow. Not just because it’s longer-form and less woven into daily routine and  – but because it’s a longer game, and one whose success rests on the permanence and coherence of its whole. And that makes it a harder, more conscious effort to pinpoint what we want our stock to be – what it should be.

It’s not purely a question of the individual, either – for better or worse the majority of us going to end up part of some industry, field, organization, and there are some conventions and best practices that go along with that. Blogging is a great way to build our portfolios as both individuals and members of that larger (and often future) group as well. But that’s a specific purpose, with a particular kind of imagined audience. The work of formulating those is greater; the risks of miscalculating are larger; and it’s usually both easier and more immediately enjoyable to use our energy on one of those other forms. But at the same time – we’re glad blogging’s out there. Because we know we’ll likely need (or simply want) what it offers at some point down the line.

Which is to say, I don’t think we should write off blogging yet; I think it’s still a genre worth teaching, studying and engaging with. But part of doing those things effectively means being aware of its limits – including the limits of its authorship and appeal among our students (and ourselves). One of the arguments for teaching with blogs as opposed to more “traditional” academic genres is that students find it more recognizable and relatable. But there’s a lot of evidence out there that this isn’t necessarily the case, or not the way we might be assuming. But it seems like there’s also signs that students are interested in blogging in specific ways, in its potential for projects and writing outside the rest of their social media circles. The trick to resolving this tension, then, might be in considering blogs more specifically – as sites for a more particular purpose and kind of writing. Because graphic novels, extended frisbee jokes, and one-off academic musings need their digital genres too; and someday we’re all likely to need our names to turn up some rich stock when we’re Googled.

Transmedia Negotiation and #donald4spiderman

I’ve been playing around with the idea of “transmedia negotiation” lately. It’s a mashup term I coined and then discarded in the process of drafting Ch2 of the diss, combining two of the digital communication skills Jenkins et al outline in their sweet white paper about participatory media: transmedia navigation, and negotiation.

In the paper, these two skills are treated distinctly, with no suggestion that they’re any more related than any of the other nine skills on the paper’s list. But the very first time I read through the paper’s discussion of the two, they struck me as very closely linked – perhaps not so much that a distinction is unnecessary, but that there’s a lot to be gained by thinking about how they function together. And the reason, I think, that this connection jumped out at me, is because the paper uses Spiderman as an example to illustrate one of the concepts – an illustration that led my train of thought directly to another Spiderman-related example in which the two skills operate hand in hand.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, a quick rundown of the skills in question – starting with transmedia navigation. Jenkins et. al’s interpretation of transmedia navigation focuses on the media aspect – the ability to follow threads and information from text to image, video to interactive game, and so on. The paper illustrates this skill effectively with the example of the character Spiderman: Spiderman has a different look depending on whether he’s appearing in a printed comic, a video game, a live-action movie, and so forth. Transmedia navigation, in its most basic form, allows us to recognize all these manifestations as part of the same character. This ability to track particular subjects or interests across multiple media manifestations, the paper posits, gives students “multiple points of entry” for thinking about, discussing, and working with the subject, “enabl[ing] many different forms of participation” (87). Negotiation, the second skill, is “the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms” (97).  It’s the ability both to “negotiate between dissenting perspectives,” and to “negotiate through diverse communities.” Jenkins et al note that while the promise of social media and other highly participatory spaces is one of inclusion and diversity, “[they] also can be deployed as a weapon of exclusion and, as a consequence, as a tool for enforcing conformity to peer expectations” (99). Negotiation is the skill that allows people to recognize the value of new or conflicting viewpoints when they encounter them throughout their travels online.

In other words, I would argue, it’s the processing arm of transmedia navigation. Transmedia navigation is the skill that deals with recognition – with finding and following ideas and knowledge across the wide range of possible means and spaces for its expression. But once something is recognized as part of the conversation, it’s negotiation that makes sense of it, that evaluates and processes its place in the overall picture. There are definitely distinct steps involved here – first following the information to a particular space or manifestation, then processing its place in the whole. But I would argue that these two skills operate very closely, so closely that any productive consideration of one must take into account the other. The real skill to be watching is the mashup: transmedia negotiation.

To see this claim in action, let’s return to the white paper’s Spiderman example. The typical fan, as the example above shows, has enough transmedia savvy to recognize that the character they watched on Sunday morning cartoons is the same one they see in comic books – it’s arguably that act of navigation that feeds their fandom, allowing them to consume the outsized portions of mayhem and mythos that make one a bonafide superhero fan. But a Spidey-related dustup in 2010 shows that without a corresponding ability to negotiate diversity within that range of representation, this power breaks down – fans are prevented from recognizing representations of the character that don’t meet their existing expectations.

All you Spidermen fanatics out there already know what I’m talking about, no doubt. But since that crossover population is probably not large, an explanation for the rest of you:

In May of 2010, the handsome and talented Donald Glover was put forward on Twitter by a fan as a candidate for the role of Spiderman in the upcoming franchise reboot. The campaign quickly gained visibility on Twitter through use of the hashtag “#donald4spiderman,” which in turn made it a hot topic of discussion on entertainment media sites, fan forums, and other forms of social media. But while many were enthusiastically supportive of the idea – including series creator Stan Lee – many other voices were resoundingly negative. Here’s Donald Glover’s own summary of how things went down:

“They were talking about, on this geek blog, remaking Spiderman, you know they’re redoing it. So they said that maybe this new Spiderman, since they’re making it so, you know, quickly after making these other Spiderman’s, maybe they should make it real different. You know, make it kind of dark and edgy, like The Dark Night, and put it in modern day times. And maybe Spiderman doesn’t have to be white, maybe he can be Black, or Hispanic or something like that. And then somebody put a big picture of me in the comments, being like ‘Donald Glover can play Spirderman! He’s nerdy!’ And I was like ‘okay,’ and somebody sent that to me so I was like ‘oh yeah’ so I put that on my twitter. ‘Donald for Spiderman, let’s do this.’ You know kind of a joke, but also who doesn’t want to be Spiderman?”

And that’s when the world went crazy. Half the world was like ‘Donald for Spiderman. We’re only gonna watch the next Spiderman if Donald Glover is playing Peter Parker.’ And the other half was like ‘He’s black, kill him.”

Glover himself undoubtedly saw a wider range of responses from both sides, but there was plenty out there in the public sphere, on social media and entertainment news sites of all stripes, showing the breakdown of transmedia negotiation in action. While there were definitely some straight-up racist comments here and there, the overwhelming majority protested the idea on the basis of recognition: the representations they knew don’t show Spiderman as black, and so obviously he can’t be.

“I am not a racist, but I would like for Movies to match themes of the books, screenplays, or games they are based off of.”

“I dont wanna see famously white characters become Black, Nor do I wanna see Black characters become White! Stick to the god damn source material!”

“Look you can say this isnt a race issue, you can say why shouldnt he have a shot but spider man is a white character…ive read comics and watched the movies ad cartoons since i was a kid, [their] job is to match those characters as closely as possible. i hope this kid a great career but this isnt the role for him!” **

In other words – they could not recognize this representation of the character as a valid one because it ran counter to their own expectations. Their ability to navigate the array of spaces and media in which Spiderman appears was compromised by the limits of their capacity to negotiate the “dissenting perspectives” represented by Glover’s candidacy, and the “diverse communities” where that candidacy was supported.

Ultimately, Marvel passed over Glover in favor of the more traditional-looking Andrew Garfield. However, a subsequent comic bookissue, Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #160, unveiled Miles Morales as the new Spiderman in the wake of Peter Parker’s death – a half-black half-hispanic teenager who looks suspiciously familiar…

spider-miles

The activity surrounding #donald4spiderman serves as a strong illustration of how closely transmedia navigation and negotiation are bound together. It shows that recognition is a complicated act, and one that’s not just a matter of following ideas from comic page to movie screen. Critics of the hypothetical casting weren’t just dissenting opinions – they were unable to recognize a black Spiderman as part of the fandom they knew. Their dissent, and the community divisions that ensued, were products of both navigation and negotiation failures. Fanart and mock-ups of Glover as Spiderman circulated actively as part of the conversation, and many of the comments, for and against, feature visual language – being unable to “see” Glover in the role, or arguments that it “just wouldn’t look right.” But the same failures underlie more abstract, less visually motivated moments of disconnect as well. As the quotes above show, readers who objected “on principle” to the idea of a black Spiderman frequently make assertions that it’s not a question of race, that racism has nothing to do with the issue. But the idea that a traditionally white character cannot be represented otherwise without sacrificing its essence is absolutely about race. Claiming otherwise doesn’t make you a racist, but it does indicate a failure to recognize how one conversation relates to another. Just as objectors can’t see Donald Glover slinging webs as Spiderman, they can’t see the debate surrounding that failure as part of the larger one about race in America.

Recognizing the influence of racial issues in conversations about Spiderman, like recognizing a black actor in webbed spandex as Spiderman, is a function of transmedia negotiation – the ability to recognize and respect alternate perspectives across a wide array of networked representations. One without the other is no good. In order to encounter those moments of difference we need to know how to follow the conversation; but the conversation’s lost on us if we can’t negotiate its contradictions.

 

**Quotes taken from comment section here; lightly cleaned up in places for readability.