In my first year composition course, we are participating in UC Berkeley’s campus-wide On the Same Page project, using a facsimile edition of the book Fiat Lux, photographs by Ansel Adams and text by Nancy Newhall. We’ll be taking photographs of the Cal campus, just as Adams did and thinking about our visions of and for UC Berkeley. Here’s the one I took on the first day of class August 23, 2012.
A couple of weeks ago in our New Media Faculty Seminar I gave a short presentation on why I use Twitter in one of the writing classes I teach at UC Berkeley. The class is College Writing 105: Finding Your Voice with Others. It’s a hybrid intermediate composition class: we meet one day f-2-f and one day online. When I created the class, I wanted to integrate the use of Web 2.0 tools in an organic way. Web 2.0 is, after all, a writer’s paradise. (A friend once told me that MySpace was a musician’s dream come true, and that Twitter functions much the same way for writers.)
I’ve been tweeting for a couple of years and find the comments people continually make about Twitter a bit tiresome: Who cares what you had for breakfast! You can’t say anything meaningful in 140 characters! (I will confess, however, that before I started tweeting, I had a similar response.)
It seems that a number of people do care about what other people are eating. You can find twitpics of all sorts of delicious-looking food, links to recipes, links to articles by Michael Pollan, and yes, some mindless chatter. But these things fill our lives anyway. The difference is, I suppose, that we are generally talking to someone we know at least a little when we start describing our scrumptious meal. And unless we are email spammers, we probably don’t send links to strangers. But people who tweet know that if you can’t say something meaningful in 140-characters, you can always link to it. And while you might not have had a f-2-f encounter with your tweeps, you can get to know them. One community I belong to is the group who writes for the daily micro-essay competition judged by @cnfonline (Twitter handle of the print magazine Creative Nonfiction) using the #cnftweet hashtag. CNFonline gives us the opportunity to write something meaningful, to craft a small story, a bit of truth for others to read.
I thought it would be fun for the class to give the #cnftweet competition a try. So to demonstrate some of the features of micro-writing, I made a Prezi for the class, using some of my own micro-writing and some of the Favorites selected by @cnfonline, all of them written by my #cnftweet tweeps (who I wrote about here Keep it Short: Make it Elegant ). I used the same title for the Prezi (which I can’t embed–but here’s the link Keep it Short). I don’t know how persuaded the NMFS skeptics were that my micro writing or those of my #cnftweet buddies is meaningful, but my students were willing to give it a shot. About half of the 20 students had Twitter accounts, but only about five of them tweeted regularly. (Research shows that only 11% of Twitter users are between the ages of 12-17, and though my students are older than 17, they are not a much older.)
During the week of October 24th everyone in the class was required to tweet using the hashtags #cnftweet #amwriting or #cw105 (the one for our class). Two students won the competition that week (one of them had also won in the previous week). Their names and #cnftweets are in this short news article on the website of my department at UCB, College Writing Programs: Two CW 105 Students Win Micro-Essay Competition. If you teach writing, I don’t have to sell you on the benefits of a real and immediate audience for student writers. Like me, you probably spent years copying and stapling together pieces of paper so that your students would have a way of publishing their writing. These two students don’t have to make copies of anything but the link in order to send friends and family news of their writing. And their #cnftweets are now in the pool from which the editors of the print magazine will select several to publish in the Tiny Truths column that appears in every issue.
Up next for the class: Prezi. I’ll keep you posted.
I’ve been a bad student. Truth is, unlike (I’m assuming) most of my colleagues at UC Berkeley, I was never a great student. I was always an excited student, but I wasn’t very concerned about grades or where I might be ranked when I graduated. Now that I’m a teacher and taking this class, I’m just a guilty version of my old student self–(I was joyously free of guilt until I went to grad school)–still excited but a bit of a slacker when it comes to the assignments.
Another truth: I read Licklider and Engelbart dutifully but without much excitement. In the past two weeks, I’ve been reading McLuhan and Walter Ong with my hybrid intermediate writing class, and I was excited to see how interested they were in thinking about language and texts: the moves from oral culture to manuscript to print then to electronic, now digital and thinking about where their use of digital media–and digital media itself–fit in this history. They find texting more like talking than writing and digital media like a combination of electronic media and what Ong describes as manuscript culture (handwriting–pre printing press). We write on e-pages, and others can scribble in our margins, post comments at the end, and change our texts in collaboration if we choose. We watched these two videos: McLuhan on “the medium is the message” and MadMen on “the medium is the message.”
In their chat rooms after viewing the video students made great comments and quoted to each other bits of McLuhan they wanted to talk about: “if you change the media, man himself changes”; some argued with McLuhan’s assertion that the “‘Western man’ is no more prepared for electronic media than the ‘native from Ghana’ [quotation marks are the student's] and also questioned what McLuhan knew of natives from Ghana. Others were concerned about the “content” of the message. Can it be separated from its medium? What exactly does that mean: “the medium is the message”? Someone went back to McLuhan’s text and pulled this out: “Each medium, independent of the content it mediates, has its own intrinsic effects which are its unique message,” elaborating by asking if that didn’t really mean that the medium is two messages (the content and the ‘intrinsic effects’). One reported that a GSI for another course he is taking thinks McLuhan is “a nutcase.” It was hard for me not to jump into their conversation, but I really wanted to stay outside of it and just listen to what they had to say. One student commented on the irony of “the medium is the message” as pop culture lingo and wondered how many people knew its source (she had not).
And then Steve Jobs died . . .
and we began to think about McLuhan again “all media are extensions of some human faculty . . . the wheel is an extension of the foot” and students talked about how profoundly connected they were to their iPads, iPhones and other media.
Which brings me to 1975 Albuquerque, New Mexico and Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib/Dream Machines. This is the book my nerdy brother-in-law pored over. Trained in Vietnamese and other languages at the Department of Defense’s language school in Monterey, CA, he was fascinated by computers. He was also the Pres. of the local chapter of Vietnam Veterans against the war and wore his anger on his skin. He had a hard time finding jobs. But he and my sister loved to play with computers and languages, and somewhere down the road (literally) Bill Gates and some friends were playing around with what would become Micro-Soft; my brother-in-law got a job with Radio Shack; my sister pursued a degree in math; and they had a high old time with BASIC and computers. Me? I was slamming through a history degree, having switched my major from biology because I couldn’t pass organic chemistry. One of my major stumbling blocks? Being stuck alone in a gigantic room with an enormous computer and told to do something on it (I don’t remember what). When I asked for help, I was told to figure it out. To be honest, the computer was only one of the stumbling blocks to my bio future, but it was the biggest and most concrete, and it came to symbolize failure and things that were too hard for me.
Looking at Computer Lib/Dream Machines now, I see its interesting hybridity; I’m somewhat put off by its cynical view of teachers, though I also recognize some if its truths. (I don’t think I majored in History just because I failed Chemistry; life seems more complicated than that. I work very hard not to be a brick wall between students and their writing–which is what I teach.) I am no longer afraid of Dream Machines.
When the Internet helped them learn to love me back, I started to love computers. Now I’m a Twitter addict. I couldn’t live without my writing community on Fictionaut.com. I spend more time on Facebook than I should. I can make readable comments on my students’ essays and upload them to a drop box. And I’m eternally grateful for the many online literary magazines that give me places to publish my writing (spare me the discussion of how legit they are!). I no longer spend hours in front of a Xerox machine making copies to send to my mother.
She’d rather open a link than an envelope anyway.
On our second day of class, Amelia Barili from UC’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese, spoke to the connection between Borges and Bush, elaborating in an interesting way by following some of the links in “The Garden of Forking Paths.” On first read of Forking Paths by Borges and Bush’s classic essay As We May Think it’s clear that both men are thinking about a post-war world: Bush in concrete terms about things that need to be invented (things that resemble fax machines, digital cameras, etc.); Borges in a more abstract way about ethics and identity. What I did not know about Borges is that he was a pacifist, which makes thinking about the assassin in Forking Paths all the more interesting.
Our discussion of Borges focused on the way in which we could easily imagine reading Forking Paths like a hypertext story (or maybe it is a hypertext story?) following links to peel away the layers if we wanted to know more about Liddell Hart or Scheherazade, for example. After class I spoke with Amelia for a bit about how I’m using Twitter and other Web 2.0 tools in my class, which led to me mentioning an encounter I had with Borges when I was an undergraduate, which I’ve written about here in a tiny piece of creative nonfiction: Borges in the SUB.
I also wanted to mention the doodle Google made to honor Borges and his imagination on his birthday this year in class but forgot to.
On the Friday after class I was meeting with students in my intermediate writing class, a hybrid course offered in the classroom one day and online one day. The class has been reading Born Digital by Palfrey and Gasser, and writing a Digital Literacy essay. They have the choice of writing a narrative or a more traditional academic essay, or some blend of the two. Talking with them about their drafts, especially on the topic of identity, has been truly fascinating. Most have commented on the fact that they feel very much in control of this subject matter. One student commented that as she read Born Digital and excerpts from Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out, she felt as though she were “checking their research” against her own experience. In other words, she feels she has some authority when it comes to the topic of digital natives. From this authority, I believe, comes authenticity, and so these student writers are feeling a lot of “power” as another put it in writing this first essay.
One student, who is majoring in Portuguese, writes about being inspired by the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935)–who wrote with three different alter egos–to use different online identities in her posts when she was in high school. I was fascinated by her story (and thrilled to be introduced to Pessoa–what is more exciting than learning from our students!). This led me to mention Borges, who she hadn’t heard of, so I handed her a copy of The Garden of Forking Paths.
So here’s the thing: all of us have these layers, these links, in our lives and experience. Some people, like Borges, are far better than most of us at arranging them into meaningful texts. If we become more aware (hyperaware?) our lives become at once, I think, more concrete and more surreal, and without a doubt, richer.
I was sick! So I missed it. But I’m looking forward to this week’s class. The readings have been great, as have the tweets!
On the first day of class last Thursday, a student asked about the theme I had chosen for the first-year composition course, College Writing R1A. As I was explaining how I envisioned the theme, Landscapes of the Imagination, working, I realized that this is a really important theme in my life. I love to read and write about places and spaces. Real. Imaginary. Virtual. And more. So I thought I’d blog about the classes I teach and the one I’ll be taking in September as a way of reflecting on the intersection of reading, writing, teaching and learning.