MLA Seattle 2012

I have just returned from the Modern Language Association conference in Seattle, WA. This was my third time attending MLA, but my first time presenting. To my surprise our panel (abstracts found here: Conference Program) had a huge audience, in which every seat  was filled and many people were standing in the back. The audience was also extremely receptive and asked pertinent, thoughtful questions after our roundtable presentations. I must say that I strongly encourage you to contact Steven Alvarez if you are interested in digital pedagogy; his presentation was impressive to say the least.

Before I get to my presentation, I would be remiss not to mention that I had an wonderful experience at this conference. I met several senior scholars whose work influences my own, and not only were they not dismissive (as the myth of MLA goes), they took the time to speak with me at length, and offered valuable insight to me in our discussions.  I am especially grateful to Stacey Lee DonohueAlex Reid, Liz Losh, Andrew Stauffer, and Bethany Nowviskie for their guidance. I also attended some excellent panels on the digital humanities, the future of publishing, alt-ac (alternative academic careers), and digital pedagogy including electronic roundtables which proved that a traditional academic conference can be interactive and engaging.

As one final note, congratulations to all of the Graduate Center students and alumni who both presented and interviewed at the MLA 2012. I believe we had a powerful and positive presence.

Now, without further ado, here is the text and accompanying media of my presentation:

Revolutionary Methods: Effectively Integrating Web 2.0 Technologies in the Composition Classroom

 In their collaborative text The Future of Thinking, Cathy Davidson and David Theo Goldberg argue that “many of the current conventional institutions of learning (both K–12 and higher education) do not fully, creatively, or completely address their students’ needs and interests. We continue to push old, uniform, and increasingly outdated educational products on young learners at their—and, by implication, society’s—peril” (24). When I hear faculty members admonishing students for using Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, and blogs in the classroom, I am concerned about the long-term effects of these policies in higher education, especially in writing-based classrooms. I am not alone in this concern, James Purdy and others have argued that by dissuading or forbidding students from using Web 2.0 technologies we are missing an opportunity to capitalize on student’s experiences (1). Many college students use these sites both as sources of information and as places to compose. Often, because these sites provide a discourse community the student has come to recognize as familiar, students develop important literacy skills through their use of Web 2.0 technologies. Recently, research on digital or media literacies has shown that expert opinions vary as to what aspects of digital literacy are actually valuable to students; ranging from a critical consumption to being able to use the tools of production (Hobbs 2004, Livingstone 2004). In my experience, students who regularly participate in social networking have a working knowledge of audience awareness, contextualization, persuasion, and attribution.

Davidson and Goldberg rightly ask what the implications will be if we do not address the way our students learn and interact in a Web 2.0 world, but more importantly I wonder what the consequences are when we forbid, ostracize, or worse, punish, our students for using Web 2.0 technologies for academic purposes. Frankly, the rise in plagiarism, especially the frequent occurrence of Frankenstein papers cut and pasted from various online sources without citation, seems to me a clear result of these closed-minded policies. These results stem from not only the “outdated education products” we ask our students to produce – the traditional research paper for example – but also the outdated methods we ask them to employ when creating those products. Scholarly research (and writing) in our Internet-enabled age is unmistakably different; from inception to completion, from the undergraduate level to the professional level. If we are no longer conducting our own research as academics in the same way, why are we insisting our students do so? This question is not unique to this panel, but I am hoping that my response in the form of reimagining the research process in my undergraduate composition course will provide an example of how we can address our student’s needs in the Web 2.0 world by inviting rather than forbidding the use of social networking sites in the classroom.

Literacy is the primary goal in my composition classroom. Manipulated, appropriated, and redefined, this term no longer holds an agreed upon meaning within academia or in our culture at large. I would like to move beyond Steven Mailloux’s rhetorical hermeneutics, “a version of cultural rhetoric studies that focuses on the tropes, arguments, and narratives constituting the interpretations of texts at specific times and places” (41), to Scribner and Cole’s notion of a “literacy practice,” as the situated use of a “combination of technology, knowledge, and skills” and the application of this knowledge “for specific purposes in specific contexts of use” (235). I particularly like this language because I believe students benefit from a multimodal literacy practice in which they analyze both traditional and non-traditional texts for the purpose of forming a multivalent understanding of the event, conflict, or problem they are exploring. This conception of literacy as a practice then trains students to analyze both verbal and visual rhetoric and then compose a response through synthesis; this is an interdisciplinary approach that strives to develop sustainable, life-long skills.

Understanding and negotiating the balance between my student’s cultural awareness and their limited experience analyzing those cultural influences seems of particular importance during this time of world-wide political unrest. When teaching in Northeast Pennsylvania, my students were isolated and therefore separated from centers of political unrest both geographically and ideologically, while my students in New York City are immersed in demonstrations physically and mentally without escape. In my experience, neither urban nor rural composition students are equipped to analyze the cultural influences that control their rapidly changing worlds, and therefore are reluctant to participate in these critical conversations. To empower my students, I designed a composition course that exposes my students to the riots and revolutions that have drastically altered our world, culturally and politically, throughout the last fifty years, and invites students to analyze the rhetoric and situation surrounding these events as conveyed through the use of both traditional and new media sources.

<Here I distributed OWS posters, played the videos, etc>

This assignment sequence works to scaffold the learning process by integrating the skills many students practice outside of the classroom into a critical literacy practice that can be used to produce focused, sophisticated, and well-developed research projects. By focusing my composition course on radical political movements, I am able to direct attention to the ways in which cultures produce and consume these materials.  My students – particularly those isolated geographically – have trouble identifying major political movements of the last 50 years, so as you can see, I have distributed material produced by the Occupy Wall Street, specifically the Occupy CUNY movement in order to demonstrate this exercise.  Consider the riots and revolutions that have occurred world-wide in your lifetime, and perhaps make note of your answers to these questions:

○        Who was involved in the protests? Was a specific demographic in terms of age, race, or sexuality dominant or absent from these protests?

○        What language stands out to you as representative of these protests (such as catch phrases, headlines, song lyrics)? Through what mediums were these messaged conveyed?

○        Did these riots or revolutions have a lasting cultural or political effect in the country in which they occurred?

Through examining these cultural artifacts, students begin to identify the ways in which they are influenced by texts that convey a situated rhetoric.

In this course I model this work with Anna Deavere Smith’s one-women play Twilight Los Angeles,1992; a play that highlights questions of dialect, authenticity, and representation due to its complexity of its formal elements. In this book, Smith strives to present a more complete, accurate, and unmediated account of the riots following the Rodney King trial in 1992 through a sampling of interviews which showcase a range of perspectives on this historic event. The play juxtaposes the highly publicized statements of politicians and Hollywood celebrities with the underrepresented and marginalized voices of the gang members and store owners, which appear verbatim in colloquial language with phonetic spellings to preserve their authenticity. By weighing  the book and documentary against outside sources such as news coverage found on YouTube, and accounts of the riots found through scholarly databases (for example the critical responses of scholars such as Cornel West) and online searches, this first assignment provides an alternate methodology that works to create a histographic account. The students must assess the reliability and bias of each source when constructing their response, a skill that becomes essential as they begin to create their own historiographies.

The next phase of this assignment sequence asks students to enact similar methods to those used to compose Twilight Los Angeles, 1992 in order to examine the 2009 Iran elections. However, instead of personal interviews, the students use social media outlets as their primary research material. Called the “Twitter Revolution” in the mass media, this particular social upheaval lends itself to integrating social media into the composition classroom. As a class we discuss the conventions used on social media sites like Twitter, such as the identity formation evident in a user profile, the creation of categories through hashtags, the integration of outside sources through hyperlinks, and the system of attribution found in standard form of retweets. We also explore similar conventions on sites such as YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, and Myspace.  Studying social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook  helps students draw on the “tacit skills of rhetorical analysis” which has been proven in studies such as those done by Jane Mathison Fife (561). In addition, it helps them to develop a more critical stance toward a popular literacy they participate in regularly and to appreciate its complexity.

Through this investigation students are able to identify the major points of conflict and the leaders of the movement, while establishing a timeline of events associated with the revolution by noting patterns in what information disseminated rapidly across platforms. By comparing the conflicting sources the students evaluate the authenticity of the information. Most of this work happens when students follow links from social media post to the blogs, news channels, and government sponsored sites from which they originate.  Essentially they are employing the tools of traditional rhetorical analysis by evaluating information based on the logos, ethos, and pathos of these non-traditional sources. The hope is that students will see how critical it is to investigate the information they encounter outside the classroom – be it generated by the media, their peers, their community, or their government. It also demonstrates how powerful these modes of communication can be in our current political climate. After exploring a wide swath of sources, the student must narrow their focus to a particular perspective: an individual “Tweeter” or blogger, a specific reporter or photographer, an American or Iranian politician, etc. and examine the motivations and desired outcomes from this point of view. The essay assignment asks them to employ Smith’s methods by articulating the role this individual played in the revolution, exposing the assumptions and reliability behind their rhetoric, as well as focusing on how the individual used technology to influence the riots.

Ultimately, students create final projects by investigating a riot or revolution of their choice, using both traditional and digital research methods to create annotated bibliographies, research papers, and multimedia presentations. While I choose the subjects of the first two series of assignments purposely to expose the students to controversies that are foreign to them, this final series allows them to investigate a conflict they are personally invested in. I scaffold this narrative relationship to the events by assigning reflective work throughout the course which asks students to apply the questions of social and institutional injustice raised by the revolutions to their experiences. Due to this personal connection to their research,  not only does the project lead to discoveries about the nature of freedom in our current political climate and the power of social media, it also enhances the student’s ability to use persuasive rhetoric – both written and visual. For example, one student presented on the genocide in Darfur as preparation for applying to volunteer in Africa, another student presented on the White Night Riots because he had been persecuted for being gay in his community and wanted a future in politics, and yet another student who was in ROTC facing deployment to Afghanistan presented on the Kent State riots to defend the actions of the students.

Even more amazing are the discoveries students made when researching and composing their multimedia presentations. One student discovered that the logo of the Weatherman is an exact match to the iconography of the Obama campaign, and another discovered that their family was present when the Berlin Wall was torn down (and brought in a piece to show the class).

The process helps them develop critical skills that enhances their academic and professional practices as they move forward in their careers; many student take acquire enhanced reading and writing skills as well as new technological skills. The value in teaching these multiple literacy is not only evident in the course evaluations in which students explicitly express gratitude, but also through the responses of their professors in other courses who have invited me to hold workshops for students and faculty after witnessing the abilities of my students in their classrooms.

Graduate Conference Acceptance!

I am excited to announce that my paper has been accepted to Food! The Conference! at the CUNY Graduate Center.  Here is the abstract for those of you who are interested:

Recipe for Restoration

Ben Jonson’s plays Volpone and Epicoene are both peppered with puns pertaining to the preparation and consumption of food. Both prologues humbly claim to be pandering to the palates of the audience. The first lines of the prologue of Volpone state “Now, luck yet sends us, and a little wit / Will serve to make our play hit; / (According to the palates of the season).” Similarly, the prologue of Epicoene claims “Our wishes, like to those make public feasts, / Are not to please the cook’s taste, but the guests’.” However, as is evident from his plays like Sejanus, which are artfully crafted yet failed to generate praise in public productions, Jonson’s works are not composed solely for the purpose of pleasing the audience. He does not employ the sweet temptations of violence and bawd to entice the public to his table, “For, to present all custard, or all tart, / And have no other meats, to bear a part. / Or to want bread, and salt, were but course art” (Epicoene Prologue). I believe Jonson is challenging the palates of both theatergoers and his fellow playwrights to revert back to the classic recipe for drama in which adherence to the ingredients and measurements, in this case the rules of time, place, action, and decorum, is equally as important as tempting the senses of the consumer. In this paper I explore the origins and significance of Jonson’s consumption motif and its various manifestations in his most popular comedies, as well as raise questions about Jonson’s role as a recipe writer for Restoration drama.
I would love to hear your feedback and ideas as I edit this paper for the conference in March!


This past weekend, November 12th-14th, I attended THATcamp New England . THATcamp is a humanities and technology unconference attempting to subvert the traditional academic conference model in remarkably rebellious ways. THATcamp is free. Free of keynote speakers, free of formal sessions, free of hierarchal labels, and free to attend. THATcamps take place in many cities all over the world, with the expectation that those interested in attending may do so with minimal travel and lodging costs.  THATcamp is extremely participant driven. Every participant is expected to propose a topic to tackle during their particular THATcamp. Some camps have a set schedule and some have a narrow focus, and yet others are extremely free form.  The 2010 THATcamp New England set up a blog where participants posted their session proposals in advance, and those proposals were then printed and voted on during breakfast the first morning.  The schedule was then created in a Google Doc that everyone accessed via their laptops, tablets, or cell phones, and edits were made until everyone was content.  This is another way THATcamp is able to keep overhead costs low; everyone brings their own technology, and they do not print out snazzy pamphlets or paper abstracts. However, participants do still get a nametag and t-shirt, along with breakfast, lunch, and snacks. These perks are orchestrated by the local organizers, who are usually students such as Lincoln Mullen and Stephanie Cheney, and are funded through grants from the Mellon Foundation and NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities). THATcamp New England took place at the Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, but the THATcamp headquarters is The Center for New Media at George Mason University  (the fine folks who brought us Zotero) and Amanda French is the coordinator (and my THATcampNE roomie).

The only pre-scheduled events at THATcampNE were the BootCamps.  BootCamps are essentially training seminars for humanists interested in learning technological tools. Fortunately, I received a $500 micro-fellowship to participate in these BootCamps (THANK YOU). This allowed me to attend a THATcamp outside my region, which was very rewarding because I was able to reconnect with people I met at dh09, as well as meeting new scholars who represent some of the most prestigious schools in the country (after all, this is Boston).  Also, I was able to hitch a ride with Lauren Klein, a student at the dissertation level of my program at CUNY. Our conversations in the car were extremely enlightening for me, and I thank Lauren for her guidance. One disappointing aspect of THATcampNE that was pointed out over Vietnamese food Sunday afternoon, was the lack of prominent senior faculty members from the Boston area. However, the participants did represent faculty, graduate students, archivists, librarians, instructional technologists, administrations, and many other alternative academic careers. The BootCamp instructors were extremely knowledgeable and well known in the digital humanities community. CUNY’s own Boone Gorges lead a BootCamp on Anthologize , his one-week, one-tool WordPress application. I attended a BootCamp session on “Introduction to Programming” led by Dr. Julie Meloni, a post-doc at the University of Victoria, who I know from the dh09 conference, and because of her prolific presence on twitter. I own @jcmeloni’s book on html and css , because I was one of the first five followers to tweet her one day.  Although reading papers or presenting PowerPoints is completely forbidden at THATcamp, Julie did use a slideshow to keep the pace of her 75 minute class.  The true genius of Julie’s BootCamp was her ability to approach programming from the perspective of a humanist. As Julie said in her session, “Humanities scholars are uniquely poised to ask the right questions on technology.” She explained the need for programming as a way of creating tools that “do things that take a long time or are difficult for humans to do,” and the need to learn programming language as a way to communicate with programmers who can help us create the tools we “need and desire.” Even as someone who has done some basic programming, understanding programming language in terms of semantics and syntax gave me a new vocabulary in which to present my ideas. Julie said to “ask the computer to act in a call and response way,” which for a professor of Harlem Renaissance literature was crystal clear. I also learned that in the ever changing world of programming, PHP and Ruby are currently the languages preferred in the digital humanities community. Julie’s concluding remarks: “What do we want to do? Figure it out, ask a programmer, then ask NEH for funding and chocolate.”

The next BootCamp session was Text Encoding led by Dr. Vika Zafrin, aka @veek, who happened to be my roommate at dh09.  As Vika clarified at the beginning, XML is not a language, it is a framework. The most important concept conveyed by Vika is that you can communicate any information you want through text encoding. Previously, I imagined the primary function of text encoding, such as OCR or TEI, to be searchability. If you have the word “madness” in a text, encoding that word would allow a user to find every text in a database or archive that contains that word. However, encoding text with empirical information opens up a world of theoretical possibilities. My example was to encode Jerome McGann’s A Rationale for Hypertext and code the name Tannselle with terms such as “author,” “male,” “textual scholar,” but also as “opposition” which would infer I as the encoder align myself with McGann’s side of this theoretical debate. This would enable a literary scholar to not only create critical editions of texts that are easily accessible and affordable, but also are annotated in a new space. There is quite literally a new layer to the text.

The Semantic Web was a thread that ran through all of my THATcamp sessions. As Wikipedia explains “Tim Berners-Lee defined the Semantic Web as ‘a web of data that can be processed directly and indirectly by machines.’ The key element is that the application in context will try to determine the meaning of the text or other data and then create connections for the user.” For me this holds the potential of connecting human-directed semantic tags, with image recognizing, and machine-driven tools. As scholars, this capability holds the possibility for real collaboration across barriers of geography, discipline, and profession. For example, in the first session of my THATcamp experience, we explored how best to support DH research. This session was driven by archivists hoping to crowdsource ideas on how to make their collections not only accessible to the scholars who need them, but also to connect their information to other archives and databases so that archivists and researchers do not unnecessarily duplicate the same work. The discussion turned to RDF, or the Research Descriptive Framework as well as OWL, or Web Ontology Language . Two campers took the stage, plugged a personal MacBook into the projector and began explaining how RDF works and possible applications for this technology in terms of archives and academic research. This is the perfect example of why the THATcamp model works so well. When a term or tool needs to be explained, someone steps in to demonstrate without insulting the audience or a presenter. However, significant questions were raised about programmatically discovering connections versus taxonomies and ontologies created by humans. What is trustworthy? How we do assess authenticity?  For instance, academic databases that have relevancy ranks and “find articles like these” buttons, create “fuzzy” connections between material, but novice academic researchers trust these connections. These results can lead the researcher to certain conclusions. However, as one camper pointed out, this is not just a technical problem; historians always have to question the authenticity of a source, examining its bias, trustworthiness, etc. This group then began to break into smaller groups interested in different aspects of this debate, another positive aspect of the unconference model.

THATcamp Sessions tend to follow a pattern:  first participants present ideas, then questions are raised about the role of technology or the limitations of technological tools and the access users have to the technology, which is followed by brainstorming solutions or sharing anecdotal success and failure stories relevant to the topic. I attended sessions on “The Book and Monograph Re-mixed,” “The Paperless Professor,” and “Information Overload.” You can follow the entire conversation on twitter here: . Twitter is an essential part of THATcamp. Most participants tweet key ideas and questions throughout every session so that those who are attending other sessions can stay informed, and so that the greater twitterverse can participate in THATcamp. As I am writing this blog post I am contributing to a conversation on composition and computation generating from the twitterstream of THATcamp Chicago.

I would like to wrap up by posting some of the questions raised in the session I attended at THATcampNE:

What can E-books do for us in the classroom?

Is having a paperless class punitive in institutions where students do not have equal access to technology?

How can we assess digital literacy in our students? How can we best address the needs of students who have never had access to information technology?

How do we address the needs of transfer students, continuing education students, and older faculty who do not have experience working with the digital tools that are increasingly becoming an integral part of higher education?

Do hypertext or multimedia research papers take away from writing and academic research skills?

What are the best tools for peer review?

How do we get other faculty members to accept and implement educational technology?

What is the future of the monograph? Will the monograph change in response to online scholarly journals and the creation of new digital tools? How will this affect the dissertation and tenure application process?

These are not new questions, nor are they easy to answer. However, I have a new perspective on these topics after participating in THATcamp. Thank you to everyone who was involved in making my first THATcamp experience a memorable one.