Introduction to Literary Research

The database anthology I’m on the editorial board of is going into a second edition, of sorts — we’re adding a fair number of new texts and cleaning up some issues with the old ones. For this second edition, I’ve produced a very brief essay introducing students to some of the methods used in basic literary research. The draft is below the fold. Bearing in mind a couple of things — first, that the audience for this essay is generally first- or second-year college students in a class called something like “Introduction to Literature”; second, that there are other such essays taking on issues like textual analysis and so forth — what are your responses? I’ve primarily aimed the essay at my own pet peeves about the ways that my students do (or don’t do) research, but no doubt you’ve got your own. What else should I include here?

Continue reading “Introduction to Literary Research”

On the Ethics of Class Blogs

Grrr. I’m having an utterly infuriating time with air-l, one of the listservs that I’m subscribed to, because my subscription was apparently set up from my actual technical email address (which has a login id composed of a seemingly random collection of letters and numbers) but my email client uses one of my more sensible aliases (the eminently reasonable kfitzpatrick) in the “from” field, which makes the listserv think that there’s a message coming from someone who’s unsubscribed. Easy-peasy, I thought; unsubscribe from the random collection of letters and numbers, resubscribe from kfitzpatrick, and resend the message! Except: my subscription for some reason now requires moderator approval, and the moderator keeps on not approving.

What’s aggravating about this is that the conversation taking place, the one I wanted to throw my two cents into, is one that I really, really care about: using blogs as an instructional tool. And I’ve been feeling all squelched and stymied, and thinking, boy, I wish I had a way to get these thoughts Out There, into circulation.

Hey, wait! I have a blog!

So here’s the thoughts. The conversation begins with a post by a senior-type scholar of internet studies who raises the following question about class blogs:

I have Google Alert set to identify anything online that mentions my name. (I want to know who is talking about me and perhaps learn from their comments.)

Recently, I have been disturbed because Google Alert keeps popping up Blogspot entries that clearly come from class blog entries.

While I am happy that folks are reading my stuff, I am aghast that their entries are on the web for all to read. (Altho I smile that they say nice things.)

I know that I don’t post my students’ term papers on the web [I only give ‘em to Turnitin;-)], but this strikes me as an even greater invasion of the students’ privacy. Shouldn’t such within-class stuff be password protected?

Something about this message really got under my skin; it seemed to me a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of a class blog. There’ve been a number of good responses to this message that have come across the list (which I’ve had to go read from the air-l archives page, because I’m still not subscribed), but I really wanted my response out there. So here it is:

While there’s definitely something here that demands to be considered, I’m not sure that it falls within the realm of ethics. For the last several years, I’ve had almost all of my classes blogging, in public venues that are purposefully not password-protected. I do, however, have a series of frank conversations with my students about the value and the consequences of doing intellectual work in public, and I think such conversations are necessary.

For instance, I have my students use screen names under which they blog, and we spend some time talking about why — talking about the durability of data on the internet, and the ways that Google and the Internet Archive can make things they’ve written publicly available long after they’ve forgotten them. And I tell them that I want them to be free to take risks in my classes without having to worry that some future employer will google them in the process of a job search and discover some boneheaded thing that they wrote in my class. For some of them, this conversation causes the light bulb to go on over their heads, and they head out and google themselves, to see what can already be found.

But we also discuss the value of doing this kind of intellectual work in public, of writing for an audience that is larger than just ourselves, of genuinely engaging with a broader field of folks working on the same issues. And everytime something like this happens — a student posts a question about Scott Rettberg’s “Kind of Blue,” for instance, and Scott Rettberg himself pops by to respond — it absolutely electrifies the class, conveying in ways that no amount of talk from me will that they really are engaged in a conversation among scholars.

So yes, I think students’ privacy concerns need to be a subject of conversation, and I think that students need to be given some reasonable means of protecting themselves. But I think the benefits of such public course blogs far outweigh the risks, and I think the discussions of those privacy concerns are themselves really productive for students to engage in.

Take Two

So, we were able to get out and take a bit of a walk and have a little lunch, and the walk and the lunch seem to have gone well, not least because I was able to put my finger on exactly what’s had me feeling so stifled and on the cusp of depressed. R.’s illness hasn’t exactly been either of our idea of a grand vacation, but he’s been an excellent patient to take care of, and he really is recovering, and we’ve actually had a fairly good time through the midst of it, tracking down ginger ale and watching TV in bed. Plus, we’ve got an amazing hotel room, on the corner of the hotel, with not one but two balconies overlooking the Pacific. And, as folks who know me reasonably well know, there’s nothing I like better than holing up in a hotel room, away from my regular life, and getting some work done. So what’s the problem?

In a word: grading. I brought two batches of midterm papers with me, and they’ve proven somewhat demoralizing. Not just in the level of problems that they evidence (though that would be bad enough), but in the amount of time that it’s taking for me to comment adequately on them, in order to explain both what the problems are and why they must be taken seriously. I’ve been working fairly studiously on them (inbetween ginger ale runs) since our arrival on Friday, and I’m still less than halfway through batch two.

Which is hugely depressing because I’ve got so many things that I want to be working on–the outline for my current project; the syllabi for next year’s classes; MediaCommons-related stuff; general blogging. I want to write! I want to read! And instead I’m completely bogged down in the one part of my job that I genuinely dislike.

So whininess ensues. The only way out, however, is through, so I’m gritting my teeth and ducking my head and getting back to it. Wish me luck.

The Big Novel (Redux)

I’m teaching my Big Novel class for the second time this semester, having struggled a bit while teaching it the first time during Spring 2004, and the class is proving to me daily what a difference a blog can make. Three years ago, my students wrote weekly reading responses; this year, instead, they’re blogging their reading, and because they’re constantly in dialogue with one another about the books, and not just with me, they’re asking really good questions about the reading, they’re making really interesting connections, and they’re helping one another out with ideas. Discussion flows brilliantly, both in and out of the classroom, and it just makes me happy.

Midterm papers arrive today; I’m really looking forward to seeing what kinds of effects the blog has had there.

Teach Thyself

Thanksgiving was lovely, if much too fast. I spent a fair percentage of it just clearing my head and attempting to improve my attitude.

And I’ve been moderately successful. Though I’ve had my moments of extreme grouchitude of late, I’m not quite dumb enough not to recognize all the ways that things remain pretty good. Amazing friends. Supportive family (for the most part, and always when it counts). Fantastic students.

But alongside my recognition of all this fabulousness, I’ve got some regrets. Mostly about my low energy. Or what feels like my low energy, at any rate. Or the ways that that energy has been severely attenuated. Of course, there’s only so much you can stretch a piece of metal before it’s worthlessly thin. And when I get stretched in too many directions, the first thing to go is either exercise or writing, and the second is whichever I managed to hold onto a little while longer. But if that’s still not enough, if I still don’t have enough hours in the day to get everything done, the next thing to go is my teaching.

It’s probably not as bad as I make it sound. But I feel like I’ve been forced to shortchange my classes this semester, in ways that I’m not happy with. This was the semester I really wanted to reconnect with myself as a teacher, to get super-invested in what was happening in the classroom, to attempt to turn what I still think are two exciting course designs into something really dynamic, something that can continue to develop into the future.

There’s tons of evidence to suggest that something’s working this semester, but I worry that it’s in spite of me, rather than because of me. I prepare for my classes as much as I can, but I’m having to improvise way too often, and I worry that I’m not making — or facilitating the making of — all the connections that I could.

And that’s the down side of the gifts that I really have been given here — no matter how much I’ve managed to do, I always feel like I should have done more.

So I’m trying to give myself a bit of a pep talk this evening. There are two full weeks of classes left, and five weeks until December 31, after which point some of this should begin to improve. And in the meantime, I need to teach myself, at long last, that there are real limits to what I can do, limits to how much time and energy I can expend on things in the office. And that there are other things that deserve prioritizing, things that, in the long run, will produce far greater rewards.

U.S. Copyright Office Announces New Exemptions

(crossposted from making MediaCommons: )

Via Jeremy Butler and the SCMS-TV list comes news that the U.S. Copyright Office announced Wednesday six new exemptions to copyright restrictions. Numbered among these exemptions is one of particular interest:

The exemption granted to film professors authorizes the breaking of the CSS copy-protection technology found in most DVDs. Programs to do so circulate widely on the Internet, though it has been illegal to use or distribute them.

The professors said they need the ability to create compilations of DVD snippets to teach their classes — for example, taking portions of old and new cartoons to study how animation has evolved. Such compilations are generally permitted under “fair use” provisions of copyright law, but breaking the locks to make the compilations has been illegal.

Hollywood studios have argued that educators could turn to videotapes and other versions without the copy protections, but the professors argued that DVDs are of higher quality and may preserve the original colors or dimensions that videotapes lack.

“The record did not reveal any alternative means to meet the pedagogical needs of the professors,” Billington wrote.

This is a significant change, allowing for legal circumvention of DRM technologies for pedagogical purposes. If those pedagogical purposes can be extended beyond the classroom to include the texts written by professors, a significant milestone in the protection of fair use will have been reached.

Open and Closed

This morning’s first talk, by John Appley and Albert Borroni of Oberlin College, raises a very interesting problem: as the LMS becomes increasingly popular, its functionality will be increasingly desired by groups and organizations (such as departments, administrative offices, etc.) — but putting content from such groups and organizations into the LMS places that content behind a password. There’s thus a tension highlighted here between the LMS’s closed structure and the need for certain kinds of college communications — particularly, in their analysis, public relations type information — to be open. (And thus their talk focuses on ways that information from the LMS might be fed into open websites.)

For my purposes, though, this also highlights another question about openness and the LMS: there’s certain kinds of student writing and interaction that really benefits from openness as well. It’s been useful for me, in my teaching, to have my students writing in public spaces, such that they have a wider readership for their thinking than just me, and even than just themselves. When students’ work can potentially draw responses from other interested readers, they wind up thinking more seriously about the relationship between writing and audience, and about the ways that their thought fits into a wider realm of discourse than just the protected space of the classroom.

On the other hand, it’s necessary for them to be safe as they’re learning, to be free to make certain kinds of mistakes and missteps without fear that every little foible will be instantly discoverable by every future employer’s googlings. So while I want to use open social software tools to run my classes, I want my students to use screennames within those tools. I distribute to the class a “super-secret guide to screennames” such that we all know who’s who, and are required to be responsible to one another in our discussions. In the end, I think this is a pretty good balance between ensuring that the classroom remains a safe space and fully situating it within a wider network of discussion and exploration.

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On the CMS

JD asked me the other day about my experiences using Sakai, and how I liked it as compared with something like Moodle. This is something I’ve been thinking a fair bit about, not only because Sakai marks my school’s third primary course management system in perhaps four years, but also because I’m speaking at a NITLE symposium on such systems in mid-October.

The reasons my institution has changed CMSs so many times of late make sense, though they don’t ameliorate the difficulty for most faculty in having to learn a whole new system. (Me, on the other hand–I’m always happy to tinker with new software, so changing systems isn’t automatically a bad thing.) We began using one of the large commercial CMSs a couple of years ago when one of our consortial partners got a big grant from a major foundation designed to get the thing set up and help get faculty up and running on it. This school offered all of the faculty in our system training and access to the CMS, hoping that as many folks as possible would get on board. I, frankly, refused, because I find that particular commercial system to be unwieldy and overloaded with features, not to mention generally unattractive and clunky. Instead, I became part of a pilot program through my own IT department, which recruited a small number of faculty (call me “guinea pig”) to test out an installation of Moodle. For a couple of years, I ran most of my courses through Moodle, which I found to be lightweight and flexible. You answer a couple of basic questions– for instance, do you want your course site to be organized by week or by topic?–and Moodle then lays in a basic template that you can fill with various resources. The main Moodle page for each class can thus become a multimediated, hypertextual form of the syllabus, with all of the readings, assignments, quizzes, discussion questions, and so forth laid directly into the schedule. Moodle also comes with a host of modules and plugins and extensions and the like, such that any given instructor can add threaded discussion forums, wikis, synchronous chat, etc., to the class site. Best of all, Moodle is open-source, with an active development community, and I felt strongly about supporting my institution’s impulse to move away from commercial educational software and toward the communally developed and supported open-source model.

So my experience of Moodle was great, and it really began to gain purchase on campus, particularly after our consortial partner informed the faculty that their grant had run out, and that those faculty who were not employed directly by the original grant-getting college would no longer be supported in their use of the commercial CMS. It’s expensive, after all. So the faculty at my school who’d been using that system migrated to Moodle last year. But in the course of the year, the council of deans at our institution finally decided that the consortium should have one common CMS, and that the CMS should integrate with our student information systems, both for populating classes and for LDAP purposes, and so forth. One of the institutions was heavily invested in Sakai, another open-source package, and one that promised better integration with our other systems. So while Moodle is still supported around here this year, there’s a big push on to begin moving people to Sakai.

My experience of Sakai has thus far been much like my experience of Drupal, which I’m using to support the interactive side of both my classes this semester. That is to say, they’re both an interesting combination of lightweight and powerful, which I found utterly perplexing at first. As I described my initial experiences of mucking about in Sakai to our director of instructional technologies here, where Moodle gives you a recognizable framework to begin building from (this weekly structure reminds me of my syllabus!), Sakai basically hands you a big empty box, and a bunch of tools. And then says, make whatever you want! And perhaps it’s just because I’d already put so much effort late this summer into learning Drupal in order to support those class sites, but when I was faced with the big open box of Sakai, I kinda froze, and just wasn’t sure what to put where or how to structure things, or frankly even what the possibilities were. I suggested to our IT folks that they bring someone in who’s been using Sakai for a while, to show some examples of how it’s actually being used, and to demonstrate the more innovative and exciting possibilities that I’m pretty sure are there, but that I just can’t quite imagine yet.

I’ve also got another reaction, though, to the entire CMS question, which is what I’m going to be talking about at that symposium in October. I feel pretty strongly that most CMSs are designed for faculty to be able to manage their courses–and thus the emphasis on things like automated quizzes and gradebooks and the like. What I want the CMS to do is to leverage (sorry) the technologies of the web to get my students involved and invested in active learning–not content delivery, but interaction. Which is why I’m running the Drupal experiments with my classes this semester; I want to argue that the CMS needs to become not a means for faculty to organize their end of courses, but instead a form of social software that gets students interacting, thinking, and writing collaboratively.

But that’s a whole other rant, about which I’ll no doubt be writing more later. Once I’ve finished the BlogTalk talk.

Linky Update

You might not have noticed without my pointing it out, but several of the links at right have changed. I now have my very own subdomain for networked teaching projects, machines.pomona.edu, and so I’ve migrated my old projects (including the MarxWiki) to the new space. If you’ve linked to or bookmarked any of those projects, please update the URLs; the older versions will go away shortly.

Bleh.

Someday I will discover the secret to making the first day of class not desperately dull. Alas, I haven’t figured it out yet. The dullness has in part to do with the emphasis on policy-download during that first session, which is simply tedious, any way you slice it. But it also has to do with my first-day nervousness, which makes me unfocused and a bit blathery.

This is far from an ideal combination.

That said, I’m very excited by both of my classes, both by the material I’ve laid out for us to work on this semester and by the students who’ve signed up. (Assuming I haven’t bored them all away yet.) It promises to be a great, if busy, fall.

My classes, both of which will be blogging this semester:

— ENGL 170L, Special Topics in Contemporary Fiction: Writing Machines.

— MS 190, Senior Seminar in Media Studies: Authorship.