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.

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]

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.

Membership Anxiety in Digital Communities

In the run-up to Computers and Writing, the DRC fellows have been engaged in an interesting conversation about the communities we belong to – mostly digital, but face-to-face as well. The discussion started as ostensible planning for the panel/workshop we’ll be leading on our work with the DRC wiki this past year, and its ongoing attempt to build a history of digital rhetoric and writing through community efforts. We got to talking about how being a contributing member of any community – but particularly professional ones – is a commitment, something that takes investments of both time and effort. To help us think about how we ourselves make decisions about distributing our efforts, and about community membership in general, we started an email conversation by all answering these 4 seemingly simple questions:

  1. In what digital communities do you participate?
  2. In what f2f communities do you participate?
  3. As follow-ups to the two questions above… What do those communities do/accomplish — what is their shared purpose? Who facilitates the operation of those communities? What are the discourses and genres of those communities?
  4. How do you choose which communities to participate in? Why those communities over others? What “pressures” or demands do these communities place on your “attention,” and how do you negotiate those demands?

Answering these questions was surprisingly tough! I’m already thinking a lot about digital communities and participation these days, so any additional thinking about those topics inevitably pulls on a huge network of mental strings, making things instantly complicated. For example, the term “digital community” – what should I be defining as a community, and what’s more of a participatory or affinity-based space? Should I include those? Am I even really an active member in any of the digital communities I visit these days? And on and on.

I wasn’t the only one who struggled with defining community involvement and what should be included. It became clear from the first wave of the discussion that when we think of our community membership, what comes to mind is professional affiliations, or groups where our involvement has definite links to our professional interests. These lines weren’t always hard and fast, however; for example, one Fellow struggled to identify whether her activity on Wikipedia fell into “personal” or “professional.”

Of course, one of the great things about the rise of all these digital spaces is that it’s encouraged a more permeable boundary between professional and personal – allowing the different discourses, personas and spaces we inhabit to blend more easily, and without seeming out of place. This is something that comes up in The Florida School’s discussions about electracy. In their quest to “jump right in and shape the electronic apparatus” by “inventing new modes of discourse that take both critical theory and digital media for granted” (6), they advocate embracing a much more fluid approach to hat-wearing. When we create theories for understanding our hypermediate world, we need to be drawing from all four sectors of experience: family, entertainment, school (community history) and career (disciplinary field).

This idea fascinated me when I encountered it during my reading for prelims. The idea that successful scholarship not only could but should draw on the discourses and experiences of my life outside academia felt very strange, and at the same time very right. In the years since then, I’ve come to see this idea operating throughout the disciplinary activity around me. It seems bound up, though perhaps only implicitly, with the growing acceptance that all reading and writing is multimodal, and therefore invention today requires us to draw from a wide range of available modes and genres. (Is this still a “growing acceptance?” Or is this an accepted thing in Comp/Rhet now? It can be so hard to tell from inside this comfortable subtower of computers and writing.) As we extend the range of media and material from which we can (and arguably must) draw to do our best work, that range seems to be accommodating more of the sector-crossing that Ulmer and the other Electrates advocate.

It’s also possible, of course, that I see things this way because I’ve become more comfortable in my skin as an academic in the past few years. But the fact that these boundaries proved so hard to define for my fellow…Fellows supports the idea that we’re still adjusting to the idea that our experience sectors can’t be kept entirely separate anymore if we’re to be most successful within them, even if we might be more comfortable that way. In addition to struggling to define whether a particular community should be coded as “work” or “personal,” one fellow also commented that she’d initially left a community off her list because it seemed so directly personal – related to her interest in running. But she was able to see several clear ways in which her experiences in that community had enabled and shaped her participation in other more decidedly professional digital spaces. Moments like these suggest to me that the Electracy folks are right, at least for those of us in digital studies: the best work comes when we’re able to draw on all our available experiences. Just as I can’t make my best contributions to the digital projects of the DRC without drawing on my experiences with personal blogging or editing gaming-based wikis, I can’t make my best scholarly contribution to conversations about digital literacy and theories thereof without pulling on my experiences growing up in a house full of computers in various stages of assembly, or my own struggles to just get my damn website organized the way I want it. (The latter situation is still ongoing as of press time.)

This is one of the reasons I find it so useful to think in terms of affinity spaces, rather than – or I guess in addition to – communities. (It’s worth noting, if only in hopes of shaming myself to action, that despite being aggravated every time I visit by the shortcomings of this entry, I have not yet taken the step of editing it.) The whole idea of affinity spaces is that they let us think of groups of people in terms of their shared interest or purpose, rather than a shared set of traits or practices for interacting within the space. Members of affinity spaces might be active contributors – or they might just be active lurkers. They might be involved in the space because they have a strong personal curiosity about its central topic, or because the topic relates in some way to their professional activities. Or both. The idea of affinity spaces allows for that kind of diversity, and gives participants a way to think of themselves in relationship to the space that doesn’t bring with it a fixed set of requirements. Freed from the anxiety that comes with asking “am I really a member?”, it’s easier to step back and see the full network of spaces, groups and – yes – communities in which we participate.

The Art of Trolling, Pt 1

One of the things I’d like to do with this blog is address some of the interesting results from my dissertation research that, for whatever reason, don’t seem likely to make it into the dissertation itself. When I think of such elements, there’s one that clearly rises to the top, that I’ve been itching to talk about for awhile now: trolling.

For those who aren’t familiar with the term, online trolls are users who post in digital spaces with the intent of provoking others into emotional and intense responses. Well, really any online behavior intended to provoke a strong response is trolling – it doesn’t have to be written. Trap your Minecraft friend in an inescapable all-obsidian cube while they’re preoccupied with crafting? You’re a troll. Profess that Obamacare is responsible for a 25% raise in healthcare costs for 70% of Americans on a left-leaning social news site? You’re a troll.

There’s an easy reason why trolling isn’t going to make an appearance (or much of one) in my final project: I barely collected any data on it. Of all the students I interviewed, only one said they’d engaged in trolling online. And though a number of others alluded to trolling behavior as a reason they don’t engage in certain kinds of spaces, this took a massive backseat to general perceptions that online discourse among strangers is low-quality. Trolls, while not a positive, didn’t rate highly as a negative either.

This is in line with what we know about trolls from existing studies. (Apparently I’m not the only academic who finds this interesting.) A recent University of Manitoba study estimates that trolls make up less than 5% of internet users – pretty slim. And from one angle – and it’s a fair one, I’ll be the first to admit – it’s not that interesting. People have been saying inflammatory things just to get a rise out of others for like, ever. I think there’s a cave drawing to that effect in Lascaux. What made my interviewee’s comments stick in my mind, however, is the way that they paint trolling as a practice that resists some of the growing critiques of digital communication – and how they show it to be an activity that actively seeks to break down the reticence I saw from so many students to get into the fray and speak back.

This student – let’s call him Joel – said he actively enjoys both reading trolled conversations and indulging in some trolly behavior of his own. “I like reading comments from trolls just because they’re just – I laugh pretty hard at them,” he told me. “Especially at the people who actually respond to the trolls and think they’re being serious. People get pulled in, and it’s kind of a fun thing to watch.” Joel also said he did some trolling himself – specifically, that if he was going to write at all in a public setting, it was going to be as a troll. Joel clearly wasn’t interested in spending time engaging strangers in deep discussion of major issues (though, notably, he did say he’ll have such arguments with friends via social media) – but he did want to elicit responses from them. He liked writing to strangers in a way that made them want to write back – just not in a particularly noble way.

Joel did specify that he has limits – “I’d never take it to the level of mocking kids with cancer, that’s a little too far for me.” Joel’s trolling activity is writing-based, focused on people with strong views taking place in persuasive exchanges; he’s not interested in mocking suicide victims or posting home addresses of pro-Tibet Chinese nationals. Joel engages in trolling as a form of intellectual and emotional release, “a form of expression I guess, to think about it. Not profoundly but abstractly…it’s kind of counterculture to that whole fact checking practice, to people who are the internet police.” Joel’s trolling is highly engaged, argument-centered, (pseudo)fact-based literate online activity, taking place on comment threads for political issues, scientific articles, social news debates.

This is pretty interesting. Because by and large, from what I found in my research, students don’t like commenting on things – but when they do, it’s on the same kinds of issues and arguments that Joel enjoys trolling. Fewer than half of them said they regularly (or even infrequently) write in online spaces beyond the sphere of social media. For this reason,Joel’s comments about being motivated to write because of the rewards trolling brings with it really stuck in my mind. And the more I think about it, the more there does seem to be something about trolling that bucks some of the drawbacks being bandied about concerning online writing.

For example, I’ve been reading up on Jodi Dean’s notion of “communicative capitalism” recently, having come across it in Mark Pepper’s awesome piece in Kairos. Basically, the upshot of Dean’s argument is that online writing, while prolific and seemingly democratic, does very little to create actual discourse or engagement between parties. Instead, it results in a cycle where people are tossing thoughts out there in writing just for the sake of having created that bit of communication, rather than with the intention of getting others to engage with those ideas in any way. “The exchange value of messages overtakes their use value,” says Dean. “Uncoupled from contexts of action and application…[the message’s] particular content is irrelevant. Who sent it is irrelevant. Who receives it is irrelevant. That is need be responded to is irrelevant. The only thing that is relevant is circulation, the addition to the pool.” The goal is to hear yourself talk so you can feel good about having done so – not so others will talk back to you.

When you troll, though, interaction is the whole point. A trolling comment that elicits no response is a total failure. Trolling is a form of online participation with a very specific rhetorical goal – evoke response. This sets it up in the face of Dean’s theory, which posits self-satisfaction and individual expression as the driving motivation for online writing. A troll has to pay attention to their audience – if you don’t know what kind of bait to leave them, you won’t have much success in getting them to take it. And at higher levels of the “art,” you need to have some knowledge of the issue you’re trolling about. For example, Joel told me that his favorite places to troll are those where the other commenters are (or fancy themselves to be) very knowledgeable and fact-focused about the matter at hand, because such audiences can’t let weak or untrue fact-based claims slide. So Joel will link to unscientific or low-credibility sources in his posts, knowing that others in the conversation will feel the need to jump in and roundly demonstrate with their own sources why his claims are wrong.

Can this kind of exchange be termed, as Pepper puts it, “a sparking of in-depth discourse?” Probably not. No one’s mind is being changed, and emotions are probably running higher than reason on both sides. But both the trollee and the troll are drawing on rhetorical skills to meet their respective goals. The troll is feeling out the audience and choosing their words and tools accordingly; the trollee is looking to what’s been said and drawing on their own arsenal to respond to its argument. Not in every case – a lot of trolling devolves pretty quickly into name-calling and exasperation. But Joel says he’s in it for the ones that don’t – that he gets the most pleasure from making people bend over backwards trying to show him why he’s wrong, when all the time he feels it should be clear he *can’t* be shown that, because it should be obvious he’s just a troll. So I’d argue that there’s engagement here, on both sides – that for Joel (and presumably therefore at least some subset of the trolls out there) the content is *not*, as Dean says of online communication, irrelevant; it is in fact essential to creating engagement. This makes trolling, at least in my view, very interesting. It is a form of online writing whose sole and central purpose is engaging in conversation (loosely defined) with others. In a landscape where more than half of students never get around to leaving any comment, and where barriers to writing online are arguably much higher than we are aware of, this seems like not such a bad goal to me – problematic though it may be.

Trolling has a lot going against it, and I don’t want it to seem as if I’m arguing in its favor. There’s evidence, in fact, that the presence of trolls in online debates has a decidedly negative effect on dialectic, causing people to “double down” on their preexisting views rather than opening them up to any actual facts or alternate perspectives being presented. And my own research suggests that trolling may play a role in discouraging writing activity online in a wide variety of contexts – not only comment threads for political or scientific articles, but in more strongly affinity-based spaces as well. What I’m saying, rather, is that examining trolling practices and motivations more closely might tell us some useful things about how written engagement works online. About what pushes people to engage in written conversation with strangers, and what makes them want to do so in the first place.

(Image credit: Mike Puncekar)