Get Your Head Out Of Your Asana & Look Around: An Introduction

“Asana is a simple way to stay on top of your classes, assignments, and student club activities. Before you get started, it’s important to understand how to set up Asana.” – Asana.

The Digital Communitas project, Student Voices, is actively soliciting blog posts, vlogs, and mp3 audio from post-secondary students at Canada’s universities to share their experiences in the classroom with digital media. Sara Humphreys, our fearless leader, has challenged both my colleague Shannon Haslett and I to come up with a blog post which meets the precipitous of the guidelines of the call for posts. I have come up with the idea for a series of posts under the title “Get Your Head Out Of Your Asana.”

One of the tools we use to communicate with each other and control workflow for Student Voices is through an app called Asana. Asana is project management software intended to replace the need for email by making work more “social.” In learning to use Asana, I visited its “Getting Started” page, and immediately noticed the language they used to sell you on their product especially its big-headed and “new-agey” marketing rhetoric. Looking at Asana critically, I thought it would be fun to pick on it to create a series of posts which comment to what level digital technology provides a source of assisting in our education and to what level they provide us with a distraction from learning. How much attention is the twenty-first student paying to Wikipedia and YouTube in the classroom as opposed to well-trained instructors? Or engaging with projected PowerPoint presentations instead of with their peers for in-class discussion? Or looking down at their various digital devices instead of observing the world around them? Where platforms such as Asana or Blackboard provide excellent tools for managing and synthesizing information, to what extent are they becoming a priority for institutional investment at the expense of learning resources whether digital or physical? Is ease of access and coded interactivity truly more important than the information we engage with? Could Marshal McLuhan have been right? Has the media, or the tool, really become the message?

Cool app or Kool-Aid?

Asana was started up by Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and ex-Facebook engineer Justin Rosenstein in 2008. Their goal is to revolutionize the way we communicate with each other by basically ridding the need to communicate needlessly via email and other, presumably, face-to face means (no more virtual water cooler chit chat), so more actual work can be produced. It professes to replace perceived idleness with efficiency yet it is a bit oxymoronic; replacing traditional digital communications with social communications so you can communicate less.

Ironically, Asana also refers to a yoga position which literally translates to the art or “mastery of sitting still.”  There is no real ‘sitting still’ embedded in the Asana software despite its name, unless they are referring to the ideas that are stagnating. It claims “[y]ou’ll spend less time reading and writing emails and more time getting work done.” Less time reading and writing… hmm. In actuality, it replaces not idleness with efficiency but creativity with efficiency, for out of boredom and dialogue, ideas are born. In the humanities, the work being done is about people and their interaction with (fill in your specialization here).

So, is Asana a good tool for education? What Asana proposes is digital Fordism or Taylorism, where we work with parts never being able to conceive of the whole. And isn’t trying to understand the big picture what a good education is really about?

In their own words,“Asana is the single source of information for your team.  Add projects, tasks, and comments as you go, and you’ll instantly build a team archive that’s easily accessible whenever you need context or information.”  Unfortunately, Asana is about Asana.  It’s mission to keep our heads in our Asana and out of other digital and physical spaces.  However, the truth behind the rhetoric is that Asana can only provide limited information and context, obvious to anyone who takes the time to logout and look around.

 

 

 

 

Utilize Online Tools for a Better Teaching Environment

Throughout my post-secondary career, only one professor has used any kind of online media within their classes. Sure, the others used Blackboard or Desire to Learn, or some other form of Learning Management Systems (LMS), but most in a not so effective way. Most LMS are used to simply drop course documents (slides, syllabus, essay topics etc.) and not create an online collaborative classroom. In my case, I want an accessible online classroom where I can log in from anywhere in the world (learning should know no bounds) to: check in to what the weekly plan for the class is, visit some discussion boards to have a meaningful and interesting discussion with fellow classmates and my professor, check my grades and see my work marked online and maybe, if the professor is really advanced, to check out a blog or some element of gamification incorporated into the class. I enjoy my in-class sessions (mostly), but for many of my classes, there is nothing about the in-class experience that could not be replicated to an online classroom, except the personal face-to-face element. For some, that is very important, it just isn’t for me. I enjoy lectures (when the professor is passionate and interested), but I enjoy lectures a lot more when they are recorded online and I can pause, rewind (do we still say rewind?) and go back and re-listen to them as I need to understand the point being made. I want accessible learning.individualized learning

Learning for me is an on-going venture; one I never plan to stop, and it does not make any sense why the way in  which we learn seems to have taken a stand still approach. The world has changed leaps and bounds from when I first stepped into a post-secondary classroom ten years ago. We have watches that can send text messages, TVs that bring 3-D graphics into the home, and social networks that allow you to instantly share information with someone across the world. With these advancements, why can’t instructors still not utilize online systems to allow a more universal learning environment? Not only will it allow the typical student to access the information anywhere and participate at a time and location convenient for them, but it also allows alternative learners (those who don’t learn via lecture and tests) to learn in a way that fosters their learning style. Having content online allows anyone to alter it to suit their needs in a way that makes sense to them. We have an understanding that each of us is different, and each of us learns in a different way- so why do we not utilize great tools that can help each person learn their way?

We students pay a lot of money to attend post-secondary education in Canada and yet we do not get a lot of say in how we learn. It’s time we get to make an impact on our own learning experience, use tools we find helpful and have professors who have a knowledge of these tools. I want to see a more universal online approach to learning, with the same caliber of education I can get during an in-class experience.

 

 

 

Blackboard 9 or Taylorism in the 21st Century

Fasten your seatbelts: I am critically analyzing aspects of Blackboard 9. I tried to think through the positives as I use Blackboard 9 as my digital classroom. I am not convinced that universities should implement platforms like this without student and faculty collaboration prior to implementation. Overall, Blackboard 9 is not as collaborative or as pedagogically friendly as it could be but there are useful and important features. So far, the one feature I like is the wiki option, but guess what? Only one person can be on it at a time, apparently, and it’s very glitchy. Often the Java does not function well in ANY browser and so the buttons do not work or say what they should say (e.g. “submit” reads as “????wiki????” or some such nonsense). But why does the “submit” button say “submit” anyways? Why doesn’t it say what it really does, which is “save” or “save changes.” -Blackboard, I am sorry to say, has mediocre design; the functionality is clunky and glitchy; and the pedagogical choices are fair to suspect.  But this isn’t a rant without proof – read on!

In  Norman Fairclough’s Language and Power he writes that institutions are ideologically constructed by social relationships that are realized through particular discourses. In other words, social hierarchies and structures are constructed by overarching concepts, such as capitalism, that prescribe ways of behaving and thinking. In turn, these overarching concepts are the structuring principles of institutions, including educational institutions. Through this kind of analysis, we can envision the university as a workplace that places certain ideological demands on its workers, including faculty. How do these demands translate into digital spaces and what effect do such demands have on pedagogical practice?

Admittedly, Fairclough’s work seems rather out of date, with the bulk of his research published on the cusp of the digital age. Despite this fact, Fairclough’s theories are enormously important to understanding the networks of power that underpin the digital tools and user interfaces (the point of contact between human and machine) we engage with on a daily basis. Fairclough’s formulation of critical discourse analysis (CDA) is all about tracing and tracking the social relations of power that determine our social positioning. Further, Fairclough’s main purpose in using CDA is to make people conscious of the way power operates in their everyday lives, because such consciousness “is the first step toward emancipation” (Language and Power 1).

By using the loaded word “emancipation,” I mean to say that in order to use this platform and its associated tools effectively, we need to be aware of how this system is presented to teachers and students. Not to mention that through such knowledge, teachers and students can make requests of the Blackboard developers and their own institutions to improve the user’s experience.

What follows is not an exhaustive analysis, but offers a way to read the user interfaces in academic spaces that are becoming more common and institutionalized.  I know that I tend to use an interface as quickly as possible to tell the program what I want it to do. But what if we slow this process down and think about the content and form of the narrative voice that tells us how to use the interface? What rhetorical acts does this voice use and what kind of actions are we being guided towards? What are we being steered away from? These are some of the questions I am going to tackle in this post on Blackboard 9, the latest iteration of the enormously popular Blackboard learning platform. If you are a post-secondary student or teacher, dimes for dollars you have used or know someone who has used Blackboard. The latest iteration is much more 2.0 friendly, encouraging social interaction and more extensive use of popular social media tools (for more on the 2.0 functions and possibilities of Blackboard 9, please see the interview with M.J. Pilgrim). The user is invited to spend much more time within the digital space of Blackboard – so what does this mean for post-secondary education?

• Is this push toward collaborative, interactive communication inclusive or are certain users marginalized?
• What beliefs and values are narrated via Blackboard 9?

We will find that Blackboard narrates a digital form of Taylorism. However, if the user is savvy enough, this strict, almost frightening model of clock-time efficiency can be by-passed for a more friendly experience for teacher and student.

Please don’t get me wrong – I like to be organized as much as the next person, but there are so many calendars, reminders, bells, whistles, pokes, and shoves toward academic efficiency in Blackboard 9 that the effect, I argue, is overwhelming and feeds into  concept of efficiency first brought into being in the early 20th century. In 1911, Frederick Taylor published Principles of Scientific Management in which he claimed that worker efficiency could be increased by measuring production, locating inefficiencies, and then allocating tools to improve the speed of production. Charlie Chaplin satirized what came to be known as Taylorism in his 1936 masterpiece Modern Times. In the scene depicted below, the main character is subjected to a feeding machine that will lessen the time that he takes to eat lunch.

I bet someone took this machine seriously.

This principle of using tools to increase efficiency over and above pedagogy is at the heart of Blackboard’s design. There are calendars, reminders, and alerts that inform both students and instructors that they have work to do – so get to it! What Blackboard offers is a means to make sure everyone is efficient over and above collaborative communication, pedagogical innovation and communal learning spaces. Welcome to Taylorism in the 21st century.

The Sandbox:

I am going to use the sandbox area of Blackboard as a case study for the whole platform since it is the space in which instructors can let their pedagogical creativity loose and design test courses. As an aside, I really doubt that many instructors outside of software development actually know what a sandbox is. When I attempted to see if this information is readily available for instructors to look up, I was met with no results in Blackboard help – oh dear. The sandbox is meant to be a space of play and experiment and this one does allow instructors to build test courses, but there are some serious issues with this area. Case in point, I was excited when I saw the link to the “course module” link (see below) where I thought I’d find some really exciting content, perhaps linked with library resources at Trent….

No such luck: imagine my dismay when I was taken to a list of modules that included content by NBC? Yes, the U.S. network provides content from their NBCLearning.com enterprise. I am flabbergasted. If you don’t believe me, check it out:

Even if this is K-12 content, it’s pretty shocking that this stuff is in a Canadian post-secondary institution. Click on the image for a surprise.

Believe me, I wanted to like Blackboard 9 and I looked forward to its release since the previous version was, for want of a better term, clunky. Unfortunately, there is little for post-secondary instructors to use in the Sandbox, unless they want to use McGraw-Hill content or material from NBC. If we consider that social interactions and structures are formed via the conventions associated with certain social institutions, then what does this sandbox offer instructors? There are no less than five different organizational tools on the homepage: Alerts, To Do, My Calendar, Needs Attention, and What’s New. Even though these tools can be removed,  because they are located on the homepage, they are given importance by default. Fairclough states that we are constructed via the order of discourses that tell us how to behave and react. When faced with an overwhelming number of Taylor-esque modes of time organization, I can only assume that time measurement and not pedagogy is the main ideological thrust of Blackboard 9. Should these tools be given primacy? Why can’t instructors be given a list of digital tools and options on the homepage?

For another approach to online course management, check out Moodle, where instructors are invited to create collaborative communities that share knowledge. While these kinds of functions are available in Blackboard 9, the impetus is, again, on time management and organization, which is not collaborative or community building.

Public Feeling and Iconic Images: Mass Cultural Exhibitionism?

Co-authored by Sara Humphreys

 

“Kent State Murder”

Type it into Google and a number of images, websites, and blogs will come up, along with the Neil Young song above.   The historical moment is repeated, consistently, through images and through the circulation of these images on the internet and through other mediums.  Digital culture has canonized this moment of grief and loss.  It has canonized the moment of turmoil and fear that shook America when the Kent State tragedy was publicized in newspapers and broadcast on the news days after former President Nixon announced that American troops would be invading Cambodia, as a side mission to help “success” in Vietnam.  When students protested Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia, Nixon ordered the National Guard to restore order on Kent State campus and the result was that four student were shot and killed and many more were injured (Hariman and Lucaites in No Caption Needed:Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy).  The iconic image of a young woman wailing over the dead body of her friend, who lies flat on the sidewalk, has become one of the most circulated images of the 1960s and is symbolic of this historical period.

Iconic images are felt individually, but often have a social function as well.  I was wondering how images circulated through digital media affect users differently, since digital media users are exposed to a plethora of images on the internet.  Whether advertisements (which often plague the internet), video, film, memes, GIFs, etc, images are everywhere.  I am using Kent State as an example.  In education, especially in history and historical research, photos are primary evidence that can be used to better understand a particular time.  Historical moments like Kent State resound through historical, literary, and sociological research.  Kent State is the epitome of student subjugation and the image is still circulated widely in universities.  What is more, the image also serves as an excellent example of cultural exhibitionism – something that the digital generation is very practiced at.  Since it is so circulated, does it affect us anymore?  Rather, should it affect us anymore?  ?  Sometimes the line between the real and the digital gets blurred.

The technology we use surrounds us like a fishbowl, surrounding us with a false sense of agency and knowledge.  The internet is another world, one of which, according to Geoffrey Nunberg in his article “Farewell to the Information Age,” “promises to disrupt this process [between sender and receiver]“.  It is a mediation ground that sharply increases the proportion of writers to readers.  There is far more content being produced than actually read, since it has become so easy to produce content on blogs, youtube, and elsewhere (518).  Images like “Kent State” become memes and, through this hyper-reproductive process, I wonder if they lose their meaning.  I weave Nunberg’s article in here because he talks about how the internet affects how readers use information:

“On the Web, that is, you can never have the kind of experience that you can have with the informational genres of print, the experience of interpreting a text simply as a newspaper or encyclopedia article without attending to its author, it publisher, or the reliability of its recommender.  We read Web documents [including images] not as information but as intelligence, which requires an explicit warrant of one form or another” (519-520).

So, we read the Kent State murder differently on the net than we read it in another medium (such as in the book I am reading now).  Since information on the net comes from a dynamic set of sources (some good, some bad) readers have to pry through information to find good sources.  The internet makes information casual, including something as iconic as Kent State.  I use Nunberg’s article in this post because Nunberg’s article disagrees that the internet will overtake print as the key source of information.  Although he acknowledges that we are in the digital age, he states that the information age still holds a strong influence on how we gather, share, and learn information through a variety of mediums.  In fact, without the groundwork that this age, the digital age would simply not be.  It is clear that humans cannot exist without sharing information using all sorts of language.  Digital technology simply presents a new means of sharing, one that interweaves a multitude of languages and mediums.  Digital technology shows the evolution of language technologies.   Kent State becomes a narrative that is accessible through a variety of these technologies.  We can access it through video, music, scholarly articles, and journalistic accounts.  The single event becomes accessible through the medium of choice and the reader can see how social this event actually was.

This brings me to a key point in this post.  I noticed that in No Caption Needed, Hariman and Lucaites write about iconic photographs from the early-to-middle twentieth century.  What makes a photo “iconic” seems to be linked to this age, when photos were circulated only through certain networks.  The general public was at the whim of journalists and news corporations, who presented certain images that would attract readers to a story.  In the introduction of their book, Hariman and Lucaites provide an extensive definition of what they mean by “iconic.”  I include part of this definition below:

Iconic photographs provide an accessible and centrally positioned set of images for exploring how political action (and inaction) can be constituted and controlled though visual media . . . . These images were obviously highly specific objects of memory and admiration, yet also somehow abstract representations whose value was far more symbolic than referential, and more a public art form than objects for connoisseurship (5-6).

Photojournalism played a major role in chronicling the twentieth century, the age of information.  However, we are now in the digital age.  Information is no longer as sacred, or rare, as it used to be.  We no longer share only through specific ways (i.e. phone; photograph) or through specific cultural practices (i.e. story-telling; conversation).  We now share through all these ways in a very abstract fashion.  Information is everywhere and the internet has made society a network (or networks) of information.  We are on a constant, continuous search for it.

How does this effect what it means to be “iconic”?  Is anything “iconic” anymore?  9/11 puts the concept of “iconic” into question, since 9/11 was a recent moment in history that transformed the world in countless ways.  While reading No Caption Needed, I kept thinking of the “Falling Man” image (below).  I have always had a difficult time looking at the image.  In fact, the immediate emotional response is that of nausea and vertigo.  The image captures a moment of complete loss.  An inescapable fall into nothingness.  No Hollywood ending.  The jumper could not escape the fire in the tower and was forced to make a terrible decision.  The “Falling Man”  invokes terror and pathos in those who view it or perhaps macabre glee, but in any case, affect is generated and will do so because this photo is digitally rendered – available for all to view at will.  Perhaps authenticity comes into question when something is seen so many times that the viewer is desensitized to its effect.

Yet, the “Falling Man” seems to still have an effect.   The image also functions as a symbol of national loss; therefore, it functions for nationalistic purposes.  This, according to Hariman and Lucaites, is crucial in the definition of “iconic”: its function for political gain (18).

So, is it “iconic”?  Somewhat.  The digital age, especially the advances in digital technology that were to follow 9/11, has allowed for mass circulation of images and video.  The “Falling Man” has become an iconic image, perhaps the first and last one, of the digital age.  Yet, it also remains among the company of many digitally circulated images and video which have been diluted of their meaning.  They are viewed by so many that it eventually becomes difficult to tell where and when this photo was taken.   Perhaps the image represents the subversion of political meaning.  The photo/video of the “Falling Man” transcends beyond a political purpose nowadays.  It cannot function to support a particular party, nation, or ideology.  The image transcends its iconic potential, since it deals with complete loss.  It deals with death.  In this way it is similar to the Kent State image.  Both situations show tragedy.  In the Kent State photograph, this tragedy functioned to ignite opposition to the Nixon government, the war in Vietnam, and the invasion of Cambodia.  The “Falling Man” was used to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2001; however, in 2012, the image is reluctant to show the support of any violence.  It is a still frame of potential devastation.  What happened to the “Falling Man” is not known.  The “Falling Man” does not bestow a nationalistic identity, even though it brings together a nation in trauma.  Due to its mass circulation – a symptom alone of how fascinating, yet ubiquitous, the image is – the “Falling Man” is an image of an uncertain fate, which America faced at the time and still faces.  Perhaps an uncertain identity is the new identity of the digital age.

Don Tapscott on Post-Secondary Possibilities and the Net Gen

Co-authored by Sara Humphreys

When we began the this site and the project, our group was uncertain where to really begin.  There were so many questions.  How do we define what we are doing?  What are we doing?  The research my colleagues and I have done has provided as many questions as answers.  Work by author, consultant, and technology expert, Don Tapscott’s has influenced my contributions to this site, in particular his focus on the Net Generation (NetGen) and digital (digitized?) education.  Therefore, the decision to ask Don to contribute to the site was as necessary as it was easy. Don very kindly provided insightful comments on how education is evolving to better instruct and teach the Net Gen and why this evolution must happen. Feel free to check out Don’s full answers in a prezi located on the main page or check out the highlights in this post (or do both!):

To start, here is an insightful and perhaps incendiary comment from Don:

“One of the biggest reasons student abandon classrooms in secondary and post-secondary education is that they’re bored”

Whoa. I can hear feathers ruffling…or perhaps sabers rattling? It’s an easy equation: students +classroom = boredom.  Students yawning, drooling, chatting, texting are all common images and the student is often cast as the bad guy in this scenario.  However, Tapscott makes a crucial point in the above quotation.  Students are bored – not because they dislike the material, but because the classroom environment does not suit the way they learn.  The Net Gen grows up surrounded by technology of a variety of mediums.  What is more, students are attracted to using new technology that offers knowledge at a rapid rate and in exciting forms. Students sit with their tablets, laptops, and superphones watching video, listening to music, reading text, and performing their networked selves. All of this multimodality opens up a whole new world of learning for these students. How can a classroom with a teacher lecturing at the front of the classroom with slides and maybe one or two videos measure up?

Tapscott’s main argument is that students grow up in a multi-networked environment, where background noise from technology is normal.  The Net Gen is cognitively different from previous generations.  They are used to distraction, but are not always distracted from the task at hand – they just process it differently.  Tapscott argues that it is the criteria of what is considered distraction that needs to change, not so much the student.  The student is a product of an environment enriched by digital media and once they enter into a classroom, which often functions using the traditional “Industrial Model,” they are at a loss (for a short video on the deficiencies of the Industrial model of education by Sir Ken Robinson, click here).

“[T]he evidence shows that giving students laptops, for example, can free the teacher to introduce a new way of learning that’s more natural for kids who have grown up digital at home”

Laptops in the class give the student freedom to explore and record (through typing and actual recording) the information provided..  Social media use is another thing: students will often flip from facebook to twitter and then look up what an instructor is discussing – all in a matter of seconds. Are students learning or are they distracted? Don says students are learning, but in a new way: students are taking the information they receive in class and expanding on it, which brings into question the efficiency and efficacy of traditional teaching methods. What if students can learn to teach themselves?  The role of the teacher/instructor/professor could change since they no longer would be the centre of all knowledge, but a distributor of knowledge that can be explored further using technology.  Educators have to become guides to a network of information rather than gatekeepers to one way of knowing.  Don states that the educator is similar to TV (a legacy medium – how about that folks?): both are forms of one-way communication.

“Youth today are abandoning one-way TV for the higher stimulus of interactive communication they find on the Internet. Sitting mutely in front of a TV set–or a professor –doesn’t appeal to or work for this generation. They learn best through non-sequential, interactive, asynchronous, multi-tasked and collaborative activities. Digital immersion at a formative stage of life has affected their brain development and consequently the way they think and learn.”

It is simple: we teach how we learn.  Therefore, the student and educator divide will be present until the educator is capable of learning the way their students do. This divide is also apparent in the private sector:

“If companies don’t respond appropriately, Net Geners will start their own corporations”

Don further states that this generation is a “Global Generation,” which have five main qualities: “norms for freedom, customization, collaboration, integrity and innovation.” Further, the “Global Generation” (or Net Gen) is a generation who wants to know why, not just how.  The knowledge of why is the power that they harness when they are creating the next world for both past and future generations.  Net Gen is a generation that will bring profound change, but it will be in bytes.  Gradually, the world will look back to the world these digital natives have created and realize that enormity of change that has occurred in several decades, not several centuries.

And digital technologies are the tools for this change. It’s clear that if academia wants to “train” youth for the future, then academia needs to respond appropriately or NetGeners may bypass university entirely or, more likely, educate themselves.

Thank you to Don Tapscott and Kejina Robinson of the Tapscott Group.  Both provided us with truly useful information.

Twitter Me Impressed or Why We Are Not the “Dumbest Generation”

One of the most intriguing faculties in the realm of the Digital Humanities I’ve discovered is that this loose and baggy discipline seems to span an innumerable number of disciplines. Today in Toronto’s Public Reference Library, I sat in a cubby with a stack of no less than ten books, spanning New Media Studies, Literature, Philosophy, and even pithy dentist-office-sensational-titled nonfiction studies like The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Why you shouldn’t trust anyone under 30), by Mark Baurlain. But I’ll get to that piece of…”writing” later.

Coalescing between these multiple disciplines is the differentiation between the cultures of reading & critiquing (consuming) more situated in the 20th century, and the building & making (producing) of the 21st. It is not my attempt to set up a dichotomy, rather acknowledge a difference social participation congruent throughout many texts and theorists speaking to the Digital Age.

In his introduction to a digital humanities reader, Debates in the Digital Humanities, Matthew K. Gold references three-minute plenary speech by Stephen Ramsay at the Modern Languages Association Conference in 2011, that would go on to spur controversy.

Ramsay stated that those who are truly involved in the Digital Humanities (DH) needed to construct and therefore had to know some sort of coding or programming language. I am not sure how in-depth he meant (how about rudimentary HTML, Steve?), but the point was that digital literacy in the humanities means more than knowing how to use MS Office. But Ramsay’s speech (what is it with people named “Ramsay” and controversy?) brings up an interesting questions for the directions DH research needs to take.

Gold goes on to provide an introduction with plenty of probing questions for DH scholarship. Has what was formerly New Media Studies become the Digital Humanities? Does the Digital Humanities need theory? Does the Digital Humanities have politics? Is it accessible to all members of the profession? Do social media platforms like Twitter trivialize the Digital Humanities professional discourse?

I’m going to pause and address this one, because I have seen it surface again and again, as a quipping newspaper headline quivering in its ad revenue boots from the threat that ‘print is over’, to thinly veiled patronizing head pat-ernalism from a clumsy radio commentator, to all varieties of dress up dress down entry points to discussion ‘this young generation’.

As a literature major, and someone not quite 30, it irked me to hear a CBC program discussing the nomination of the graphic novel Essex County in Canada Reads 2011, wherein a participant in the broadcast chuckling reflected on the genre of the graphic novel as something of the ‘Tweet of literature.’ Turning two emergent genres and platforms for narrative and theorizing against each other in such a belittling, unintelligible fashion, is an increasingly common grating of gears meddling with the media presented to our younger generations.

But where exactly is all this coming from? In a body of worked entitled “Technoromanticism‘, (a term coined by Stephen Barron) Richard Coyne explores the pragmatics of cyberspace by discussing the ways in which narratives derived from the Enlightenment and Romantic periods speak situationally; how “every attempt is being made to consign the Enlightenment to the realms of the other, to render it strange and unfamiliar” (180).

In Bauerlein’s sensationalizing study, he balks at a hypothetical ‘Susie’ and her proud parents, beaming with her ability to navigate a multiplicity of media concurrently, but failure to exact the knowledge of what the Soviet Union was. He examines with a quick brush and silver hair ‘the minds of youth’ as negatively influenced by the fleet of digital media that clutter our bedrooms, with the presence of books themselves merely being bookends. Our intellects (assuming we have any) and our physical spaces are a set up of distraction. He attempts to explain in his interview with reason.tv, his distrust of the younger generation as something of a failure on our part, to utilize ‘technology,’ to return to these ideas of mastery, connected in former assemblies of knowledge. However, in his explanation, he demonstrates in himself instead a lack of understanding of the technological objects he (at times improperly) names. At 1:05 seconds he begins to explain that these tools are not used to ‘progress’ ourselves, to go to museums, to learn, to engage. He explains Facebook as something of a Lyceum, where we’d all rather smoke pot and compare hairstyles. But what about our education in school – are we directed to the Smithsonian Institution website? Or has he actually been to Buzzfeed? There’s smart stuff on there, Mark, mixed in with news about “catz.” In other words, maybe this is a failure of the classroom and not so much the user?

Through my apparently feeble-minded Facebooking fingertips, I  turn your attention to the Twitter account of Kim Kierkegaardashian, and reflect on what we’ve already introduced here on the work of Don Tapscott.

There is a fear that is permeating, not strictly located in older generations, but among common publics discouraged by technology and digital media, and that is a fissure, or “trauma” as Coyne posits, from this shift in the comfort of understanding time through a past and future. A ‘networked self’, Papacharissi explains, is always all the time negotiating sites of production and construction of self, and the suggestion of Facebook as a ‘distraction’ is a myth.

Digression: Dr. Strangeblog – Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Social Media

Have no fear, Dave is here

I have been a fan of the films of Stanley Kubrick since I was a teenager.  I loved how Kubrick seemed to be a mystic of sorts.  He relied on the susceptibility of the audience to be entertained while also being convinced that what they were seeing was reality.  Kubrick constructed a fourth wall using meta-film.  To a critical viewer, his films showed the process of film making and showed how films were central to our understanding of what it means to be human in modern times.  2001: A Space Odyssey has always been a personal favourite of mine because I love to question the film’s symbolism and how it pertained to the Kubrick’s world and how it pertains to mine.

I think Kubrick and I thought similarly.  Would humans become so reliant upon technology that they would forfeit trusting their own instincts?  The black obelisk: it is terrifying, yet powerful.  It symbolism transcends its physical usage and prompts early humans to act on instinct.  Are we controlled by these instincts?  Or does something else – our technology – control these instincts?

The film brings up many questions, some of which I would like to apply to my first digression on this blog (there will not be many of these, since it is quite, ahem, unprofessional (;D).  Yet, it sheds light on an issue that is important: my initial fear of writing about technology.  To be honest, when I started out on my posts, I needed to update myself with the tech knowledge that comes natural to many of my peers.  My innocence, or perhaps it was ignorance, did come in handy.  My lack of knowledge on the subject made me seek it as much as I could this past summer.  Libraries, academic journals, scientific studies, and, most importantly, communicating with my peers, provided me with some excellent background information.  The posts have gradually become more creative and innovative.  I enjoy writing them now since I feel like I can finally swim through this knowledge; my grasp is getting stronger.

What did I have before?  Technophobia.  Perhaps.  Only a technophobe would take Kubrick, yet another tech skeptic, so seriously, right?  A motif has cropped up.  A very interesting one at that: how much the medium truly is the message.  Technology is the word; it is the language.  When we use it we are learning how to use that language.  We can look foolish.  We can use it incorrectly.  However, we also can shape it.  The blog allows for sculpting.  It becomes an art when you do not feel like you are working but creating.  I love to write creatively, so, my best pieces usually seem to come out of thin air.  They are seamless and, since I write poetry, the only source of their origin I attribute to a muse, or an inspiration.  Ideas for the posts have started to come from these inspirations; these muses.  One has been my concern for marginalized groups, another for the digital divide that I have personally witnessed in class.  Yet another post was developing on these ideas and proposing solution.  There will be more posts on these themes, however, I believe that the post will now explore the very essence of the medium: innovation.

Fear of anything is provoked my lack of knowledge of its essence [Aside: did that sound like Yoda?  Or perhaps Lao Tzu? Well read, I am ;)].

[Another Aside: Hal wasn't actually evil.  It was merely Dave's understanding of evil and, thus, his displacement of his irrational, human fears on Hal.  Dave was fearful of the unknown, so he made an irrational judgement - completely human].

The innovation will come from recent interviews with some very interesting, wonderful academics and digital media experts.  The research that I have done so far is very human focused.  The technology these people are using becomes a means for them to express their ideas; to express their humanity.  To follow their lead, I would also like to delve into my ideas for this technology.  Digital media has made me ponder how and why technology can help people communicate in ways they have never done before.  I tend to look at horizons: I like the future day that is coming.  The horizon begins to light up a world that will be more communicative.  It will share more – maybe even care more.  Not in a mushy way, but in an imperative way.  With digital technology in education students are able to progress much faster and easier than in previous generations.  The actual structure of education is changing.  Curriculum is changing.

Structure is changing.  Through language.  The semiotics that structure our online world are affecting our real one in ways never expected.  With this knowledge students can go into a world and build upon the logistics of communication.  A more communicative world is, hopefully, a less violent one.  With more communication, there is less misunderstandings and a desire to connect on deeper levels.

7 billion in this world.  Near 2 billion live in poverty.  Another several billion do not have fair access to technology and the internet.  It seems like we have a problem, Dave.

Really, we have a resource.  Infinite resources.  One medium: digital technology.  Before becoming afraid of this technology – and I am sure there are many of my peers who still will be – we need to see its benefits as they apply to our greatest needs and desires.

Ciao for now, Sara

Digital Media and Transformation of the Essay

Digital Technology and Hybrid Essay Format

One of the purposes of this site is to show that there are other ways of learning over and above standardized methods (like an instructor reading from slides or, worse, a textbook. if you do this: stop – stop it now).  The essay format has been a stand-by in the humanities and social sciences.  Professors swear by it and it has been institutionalized as a trustworthy way of accessing writing skills and critical thinking.  From high school on, students write essays every year and continue these habits as they enter into post-secondary school, regardless of the discipline they enter.  This post will focus on how and why the essay format is changing to accommodate the different modes of presenting a thesis and the arguments that support it. Digital communication is changing the way we interpret and argue, not just the way we learn.

The Law of Identity: Challenging Strict Structure

Active Vs. Passive Voice: There is an emoticon for that.

A thesis is a thesis is a thesis.  A thesis argues a point, like this “essay” is currently attempting.  Students are encouraged to support these points with arguments and conclude them very neatly our essays.  Essays are not simple, but they have a simplified format that instructs students to present information in a structured, logical way: topic, thesis, body, conclusion.  The essay structure has been institutionalized – or shall I say, burned into students’ minds – since high school.  It does have many benefits, including the following:

  •  the essay teaches students to make an interpretation of the texts studied
  •  the essay teaches students how to research and present research in a logical manner
  •  by making a solid claim, the student is learning to have a voice and opinion on what they study.
  • grammar and literacy improves

What else?  Actually, the criteria of essays is pretty straightforward.  It can also be very narrow.  The essay does not always encourage students to explore a topic fully because of the strictures placed by format and structure.  Also, due dates force students to adhere to a structure and essay plan.  After completing essay after essay, the structure is bound to weaken.  However, digital media is changing this.  First, let’s brain-storm how:

  •  the essay format is adapting to incorporate digital media into its structure.  For example, online scholarly databases and journals provide excellent sources of information that is both factual and theoretical.
  • the essay format is being presented on different mediums other than print: online essays, including those on blogs, are providing an innovative new way of presenting information
  • the essay format is changing its traditional structure to include different ways of expressing a central argument (example: images, hyperlinks, podcasts, etc)

The essay format is becoming a product of the digital culture.  With more research online nowadays, students are encouraged to include multimedia in their essays.  This allows for a hybrid presentation of knowledge with the addition of web content for extra information and a more in-depth analysis of a particular topic.  The pros of this are many, one of which is that the transformation of the essay has resulted in a far more interesting product.  Scholarly sources become conversations, not merely one-way, or one-dimensional, presentations.  The essay format is becoming multi-mediated from so many sources – the sources of which most people, whether in higher education or not, are familiar with.

So, am I suggesting that the scholarly essay may be available to the many individuals – a widespread allowance into the information of scholarly institutions?  Although the internet enables students access to previously inaccessible content, copyright laws maintain a stronghold over the rights of academic material.  In “An Empirically Grounded Framework To Guide Blogging In Higher Education,” G. Conole, et al. includes an earnest assessment of some of the drawbacks of blogging, such as the difficulty in getting students completing them.  The article looks at how blogs are often stereotyped as a leisure activity. Conole specifically notes that students are more concerned about the purpose of doing a blog: “the ideals of educators can be difficult to put into practice.  From the student’s perspective there are two fundamental questions they ask themselves about blogs: “why would I want one?” . . . “what’s in it for me?” . . students need to develop a purpose for blogging that is clear to benefit them” (Conole An Empirically Grounded Framework To Guide Blogging In Higher Education).  So, unlike essays, which carry an academic authority due to a long-standing tradition within academia, blogs still struggle with legitimacy.  Conole makes an interesting point, when he states that the blog presents a blurring of the private and public.  The blogger is autonomous over their blog and can network with who they wish; however, it also puts them on a public platform.  The student interacts with a more public stage during their assignment, including their peers.  Blogging allows them to construct knowledge for themselves and not just adhere to a format and strict set of requirements.  Conole does recognize that when students do complete blogs, they find that they have gained many skills that writing an essay does not allow them to gain.  The study also admits to some negatives with blogging, including the finding that 7 out of 9 bloggers eventually use a routine format after blogging.

So is a blog just a blog just a blog?  Or is there uniqueness to each one?  Simply put, blogs allow for the exploration of content that does not exclude other forms of communication, including other types of media.

PhD candidate Melonie Fullick of York University states her article, entitled “Becoming Prof 2.0“:

meritocracy, the notion that achievements are determined by individual merit rather than by a complex of factors (some of which are beyond our personal control), is a concept that is crucial to academic culture and the operational logic of academe itself.  Because students internalize the idea that their success is dependent on this narrow notion of merit, they often blame themselves if they “fail” to perform adequately during the PhD.  They might be reluctant to speak out about problems, since usually no one else is doing so, and they might feel they are revealing personal inadequacies, rather than bringing to light systemic flaw.

Fullick upgrades this essay’s argument.  What about graduate-level education and the transformation of the essay format and the use of digital media as a means to transform of the curriculum?  Fullick admits that narrow definitions of success are plaguing the university curriculum and giving students at all levels a false estimation of success.  Estimating success based on merit, which itself is dependent on arbitrary factors determined by individuals or a committee, can often cost students a great deal, not only in terms of the financial implications, but also affect them in more personal ways.  Faculty who wish to change how they learn and how their students learn often hit a brick wall that has been constructed by those outside of the classroom.  So, challenging curriculum and methodology can be dangerous to some extent.

However, how does an institution evolve?  How does anything evolve, really.

The issue of digital media in the classroom cannot be ignored.  Digital media is changing the way we learn and why we learn.  Its implications on the basic learning styles, including the academic essay, are open to interpretation and opinion, but cannot be ignored.

Re-Booting the Humanities: Digitizing the Humanities for the Classroom 2.0

^Not Quite

The incremental changes in technology has left literature a little dusty.  Libraries and the books they house maintain a dignified and necessary position in society, but it is not unusual to hear that a library has closed down, perhaps because of the lack of use from the public or lack of funding.

However, when a new gadget is released by Apple, the public goes into a frenzy.  Rarely do we hear of an Apple store closing or any store that sells (for a hefty price) new and edgy technology.  Plus, e-readers and Kobos are the new hotcakes – and they are delicious.

Technology is central to our everyday lives.  It is also central to education.  The humanities, especially the example above, English Literature, has always had to fight its way to a status of importance in the university setting.  The humanities are often seen as something the undecided undergrad foolishly explores without the slightest inclination as to why.  What is truly in it for them? For their future?  Will there be a job at the end of a degree in the humanities?  All humanities majors must face this question from parents and friends at one point or another.  Employers still boast the need for a skilled candidate and they make a classification between the “soft” and “hard” skills students learn.  Students who take up engineering, medicine, or get trained in a trade, specific job, or profession have an edge, no doubt, over the student who made it their priority to study the humanities through university.  Besides, bridges cannot be built or cancer cured by abstract artists and literature aficionados can they?

Or can they?

Here is where digital technology comes in and it takes a little edge and imagination on your part to see how the digital humanities is potentially one of the brightest horizons in higher education.

Humanities’ Pedagogy does a Quantum Leap to the 21st Century:

Note: For the following explanation, I intend to use English Literature as an example of education in the humanities.  I will tie other disciplines in as I go along.

So far, I have made a point of acknowledging that the structure of the classroom needs to change.  The traditional structure of classrooms for humanities majors is relatively simple: the instructor lectures then the group discusses the lecture and their readings in a “tutorial” or “discussion.”  Sometimes, the group participates in a workshop or participates in a roundtable.  Regardless, the is still little active interaction with learning, aside from testing an interpretation of a text.  One way to change this is to engage students using technology.  The digital humanities opens new doors in regards not only how to learn, but why we should learn the humanities.

I was once given a lecture in a course taught by Dr. Sara Humphreys entitled “Modern American Fiction” that used Prezi.com to explain the theme of time in relation to modernity in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.  The presentation was insightful and provided a new perspective using digital media to visualize time.  Similar to most English students, I love words.  Words, reading, and writing are the tools of our trade.  However, much of our trade is theoretical learning.  Writing essays and exams take up most of the course.  Hard skills, such as learning new technology, researching and presenting information, are still lacking in the humanities, especially in English.  Like most humanities’ students, I worry about how I will apply what I have learned to a job.  However, having students work with technology and media throughout the year may help them engage in seamless ways.  Blogging – another tool of learning used in Dr. Humphreys class – allows students to explore content in many new ways.  The blog takes a multimedia approach to a topic, whether in literature or another discipline, that also ties in a fundamental engagement and use of technology.  Many of my classmates have confirmed that blogs are an excellent and preferred way of learning and presenting material.

I have always been a writer (well, at least since I could write fluently).  A wordsmith that loves to work on an essay; however, my peers vow to the blog.  Some of their reasons include, for one, the visual aspect of a blog.  Secondly, the ability to use less formal, but no less effective, diction.  Finally, the fact that a blog is online and students today are online regularly.  Their online time is well spent with research and blogging.

The above is an example of how digital media is working to change the humanities.  We can even get more proactive if we look into the technology that can be used and the content that can be explored.  The digital humanities is an answer to how and why the humanities should be revved up to a new age.

Digital Pedagogy:  Digital Humanities or Computing for the Humanities? 

Prezi.com is a good example of the potential for digital technology in the classroom.  Since the humanities tends to be writing-and reading-intensive, the focus on hands-on learning is be minimized.  Why is this?  Let’s not look too hard for a very obvious reason: the lack of trained instructors.  In his article, “What is the Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?” Matthew G. Kirschenbaum points out that the digital humanities is more “akin to a common methodological outlook than an investment in any one specific set of texts or even technologies” (Kirschenbaum 56).  It is the method, not just medium, that is the message.  A methodical approach to literature analyzes it for its quantitative and qualitative factors (some of which are outlined below in Kirschenbaum’s passage).  It does not simply discuss a text (or a work of art, historical document, period in history, or philosophical school), it pries it for bits of information and re-structures that information into, often visual, representations.  So, classrooms are a little like board meetings, with students and the instructor presenting an interpretation using new methods of research and teaching.  This gives the students time to work with (using a hands-on approach) the material, not to simply ingest it and write an essay later.

The digital humanities upgrades what it means to have a humanities education. Despite being a new frontier, this is a problem for so many instructors who are not trained in new digital teaching methodologies.  Also, many are not eager to learn new methods, either.  Yet, eagerness can be encouraged by those who already consider themselves to be “digital humanists.”  Kirschenbaum, a self-proclaimed digital humanist, makes some excellent arguments for his field as it relates to literature:

After numeric data, text has been by far the most tractable data type for computers to manipulate.  Unlike images, audio, video, and so on, there is a long tradition of text-based processing that was within the capabilities of even some of the earliest computer systems and that has for decades fed research in fields like stylistics, linguistics, and author attribution studies, all heavily-associated with English Departments.  Second . . . there is a long association between computers and composition . . . Third is the pitch-perfect convergence between the intense conversation around editorial theory and method in the 1980s and the widespread means to implement electronic archives and edition very soon after (Kirschenbaum 57).

Perhaps what is so challenging to grasp for outsiders of this scholarship is that it is not just the text that counts.  The material in the text is one thing.  In other words, the “why” is one question answered for during a traditional lecture.  Meaning is accessed through the words on the page.  Any medium can present this.  However, in teaching meaning there are many ways to present and explore the information gathered from the text.  Aside from just teaching, the digital humanities instructor places emphasis on the importance of learning how to present data and information.  An instructor using new methodologies would be concerned for how students can connect, for instance, scholarship to business, to law, to medicine, or to a future position in a company.  How-to lessons are offered alongside meaning analysis.

The digital humanities classroom would use e-texts, for instance.  So, while the student is engaging with meaning, they are also engaging with new media.  Social media would help in regards to conversation and discussion in class.  Digital archives allow students and instructors immediate and easy access to prolific databases of poetry, art, historical documents, film, and scholarship.  Audio files, podcasts, and online video all allow a multimedia presentation of lessons.  Data is collected and digital tools such as Prezi.com, etc, are used to learn and shape new ideas.  All of this is combined in a classroom that functions as an interactive space; a place where technology effortlessly leads to knowledge and allows work to be completed with the array of resources offered through the technology.

The Discursive Shift:

A Discursive Shift

In the article “Humanities Computing as Digital Humanities,” Patrik Svensson presents the oft-cited scholarly frustration of what to label the this new field.  Is it a humanities or a computer science?  Is it software engineering or media and design?  The inter-disciplinary nature of the field is often what confuses and frustrates outsiders.  Svensson makes an important observation: that humanities computing is the predecessor for digital humanities.  The two separate entities are tied only by the humanities disciplines they focus on.  They do this assessment in different ways.  Such a “discursive shift” relates to the cultural, social, economic shifts that have occurred over the past few decades, principally since the 1980s, and beginning with the institutionalization of humanities computing.  This institutionalization made it plausible to discuss this new field in academic journals and at conferences openly.  The underlying concerns and issues were naturally brought up and a communal identity was formed.  Humanities computing was driven to study the science of the text: linguistical analysis.  The presentation of this analysis followed suit to the presentation of any data.  Meaning was extracted from the data and the results were not theoretical or abstract.  Theory can be applied as a context for meaning analysis.  In comparison to the humanities computing, the digital humanities focuses more on meaning from the data.  Linguistic analysis come into play, but the art of extracting and discussing meaning still applies.  In the classroom, this may mean simply using data gathered by students and instructors to discuss the material, incorporate theory, and/or develop new means of teaching.  Humanities computing shifted into the digital humanities as soon as the abstract became fundamental to student learning material.  Since most people are not equipped with the scientific knowledge and tools to create tools and methods for learning, they rely on previous developments and current digital tools to allow them to explore content.

The tools are there.  The knowledge now can be extracted and re-structured.  Svenensson quotes a passage from the inaugeral issue of the online Digital Humanities Quarterly:

Digital humanities is by its nature a hybrid domain, crossing disciplinary boundaries and also traditional barriers between theory and practice, technological implementation and scholarly reflection. But over time this field has developed its own orthodoxies, its internal lines of affiliation and collaboration that have become intellectual paths of least resistance. In a world — perhaps scarcely imagined two decades ago — where digital issues and questions are connected with nearly every area of endeavor, we cannot take for granted a position of centrality. On the contrary, we have to work hard even to remain aware of, let alone to master, the numerous relevant domains that might affect our work and ideas. And at the same time, we need to work hard to explain our work and ideas and to make them visible to those outside our community who may find them useful (Svenesson).

Svenesson makes a crucial point in the last few lines: that the digital humanities must reach an audience outside its circle.  There are many scholars, students within the humanities who could benefit from the knowledge of the digital humanities.  It is this discursive shift that has created this divide.  Whereas some scholars have been exposed to digital culture and development and have witnessed its gradual incorporation into society, many have not.

The next discursive shift that must occur is the incorporation of the digital humanities within the traditional humanities.  What changes that result from this will be responsive to the changes of how education is structured in Classroom 2.0 and to Student 2.0. Perhaps this discursive change will help build the knowledge and skill to help construct bridges and cure cancer, one click at a time.

Works Cited

Kirschenbaum, Matthew G.  “What is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English

Departments.  ADC Bulletin.  150 (2010).  24 July 2012.

<http://mkirschenbaum.files.wordpress.com/2011/03/ade-final.pdf&gt;

Svensson, Patirk.  “Humanities Computing as Digital Humanities.” Digital Humanities   

     Quarterly. 3.3 (2009). 20 July, 2012.

<http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/3/3/000065/000065.html&gt;