For College Writing Programs’ final faculty meeting of the 2012-2013 academic year, we are to prepare a 7-minute or so presentation on our recent professional development. As I was thinking about this, I realized that I could yack for much longer than seven minutes about the past year. Therefore, this blog.
Because for the past few years I’ve been very interested in digital pedagogy, having developed a hybrid composition course, while also being active in various forms of digital writing and publishing (as a member of Fictionaut.com, as someone who publishes in a number of online magazines, as a frequent user of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and as a less frequent blogger), my professional activities of late have been intimately intertwined with my writing life, which I think of, I guess, as more personal than my teaching life (note to self: think more about that).
Beginning last year with the Computers and Writing Conference at North Carolina State University, things began to gel for me. It wasn’t so much that I was interested in technology (as in the term educational technology), which is the way many teachers and colleagues frame discussions of whether they take advantage or not of media available to them and to their students (how many times have you heard this: “I’m not a techie”). I have always been interested in language, communication, publishing and the organization of my life among others, which is not to say only my social life (as in social media) but how and where I fit into this increasingly mediated world. At the conference, I was surrounded by people, most of them much younger than me, whose lives–as related to media, anyway–were more fully integrated with their pedagogy and practice than mine.
Only a few months before this conference a student in the hybrid composition course had asked, while writing his digital literacy narrative, if he could call himself “literate” if he couldn’t code. “Of course,” I answered too quickly. Who would expect everyone to know how to code?
I’d give a fuller response now and plan to add this question to readings and discussions for the class in Fall 2013. Because over and over, at this conference, people talked about coding and how important it was for all of us to understand the language of the tools we use (or be used by them). I’m not sure I’ll learn to code (I did buy a book on Ruby on Rails and got my Mac to say “Hello” to me). I struggled to learn BASIC back in the 70s (part of the struggle was being a “girl” in what continues to be a sexist field) and eventually gave up programming. But in a few weeks, I’m attending Ada Camp, sponsored by The Ada Initiative, and who knows, maybe I’ll wrestle with Python!
So those are the bookends of the last professional year: Computers and Writing Conference, Ada Camp. But a lot has happened in between. I was on a panel called Justice Stories, Resistance Stories and Just Good Stories for American Cultures at UC Berkeley, gave a presentation on Reading and Teaching Electronic Texts at the Conference on College Composition and Communication (aka 4Cs) in Las Vegas in March and attended a seminar given by Edward Tufte, just a few weeks ago. I have some things I’d like to say about the link between the 4Cs and the Storytelling panel, but I’ll save it for a different post.
Tufte I want to say a few things about here. I’ve been a fan ever since PowerPoint is Evil and will confess to using Tufte as a reason to not learn PowerPoint. I do think it’s ugly and I’ve seldom attended a presentation dominated by PowerPoint that I enjoyed (note to self: ref this in blog on 4Cs). This is not to say that I’ve never learned anything from those presentations, just that PowerPoint is generally unengaging.
Tufte did not dwell on his hatred for PowerPoint–we must all know it by now, yes?– but he did contrast PowerPoint with the web-page presentation, which he says is the 21st century presentation format. A couple of things (among zillions) I found really interesting was his description of PowerPoint “stacking” information in a way that gives the presenter total control and that out of, say, 25 slides, we usually want what is only on a few. And we are likely to forget a lot because what we need might very well be on slides 2, 14 and 21 and it is difficult to organize that during the presentation.
The web page, as he demonstrated by using some web sites that he finds particularly effective (the National Weather Service, ESPN and Google News), lets us access all of the information at once, focusing on what we need, as we are guided by the presenter to sections of the page as he refers to that content (Tufte uses a laser pointer). We are fully capable of scanning the web page and focusing on what we need; whereas the directive PowerPoint inhibits that ability. This rings true to me. I am persuaded.
But about making that web page . . . Tufte said, rather casually, that any good IT department should be able to make people 4-5 templates. This may be true for corporations and business, but I’m trying to imagine asking the IT folks at UC Berkeley to give me some templates. I’m not sure that’s a service they think is theirs to provide. But I haven’t inquired about it. So I’ll keep you posted on that.
I have more to say about Tufte (I realize as I write), but will end here with two points that I found immediately useful and also inspiring. Content is everything. The best design can never rescue bad content. His presentation is perhaps the ultimate demonstration of this principle.
He closed with some basic “how-to,” and I found his final point quite moving. He said that during “office hours,” which he held during the lunch break, many people had come up to him, rolling their eyes, and saying things like, “I have to give a presentation to the bean counters,” or “my bosses,” or “a committee” with a dismissive tone.
It is important to carry a good spirit into any presentation, says Tufte, making the point that a lot of filtering goes into the process of getting us into a room filled with colleagues, who we are, he says, perhaps more like than any other group than our families. This is a good reminder as I think about what I want to say at the upcoming faculty meeting.