Things I Didn’t Know that I Didn’t Know about Student Blogging

[Note: This post is a reblog of my post on the Research Group for Electronic Textuality and Theory blog.]

On 2 October, 2012, I had the enjoyable experience of leading a discussion on the subject of student blogging as part of a workshop run under the auspices of the Research Group for Electronic Textuality and Theory; my colleague from the Department of Philosophy, Samantha Brennan, led a parallel discussion on the subject of research blogging, upon which subject she has recently contributed a post. The workshop concluded with a walk-through and practicum on setting up a WordPress blog. The workshop as a whole was stimulating, instructive, and, really, just a great deal of fun. And I learned much myself from comments and questions contributed by participants.

What follows is a somewhat expanded version of that portion of the workshop devoted to instructional blogging.

Some Context

I decided that the most useful and efficient way to talk about student blogging was to focus at first upon the blogging assignment I have constructed for and assigned to a first-year English literature course that I teach, Eng1020E “Understanding Literature Today.” I have, in the past, attempted to integrate new teaching technology of various sorts into the course in order to make it more it more engaging; I have, for instance, used a Facebook group in conjunction with the course since I first began teaching it 5 years ago.  This year, however, I decided that I wanted to develop a better-focused and coherent approach to my pedagogy for the course, which I would facilitate through a more coordinated use of technology. My theme, I decided, was to be “social reading.”

“Social reading” has become something of a buzz term in some quarters.  (For some possible approaches to this term, see Bob Stein’s A Taxonomy of Social Reading: a proposal, developed for the “Institute for the Future of the Book.”)  It is generally treated as a pedagogical methodology, and associated with things like “peer instruction,” the theory that students learn best when they are actively collaborating together in the learning process, effectively teaching each other rather than merely passively absorbing information.

Samuel Richardson Reading

Samuel Richardson Reading. Image courtesy of themorgan.org

For me, though, “social reading” has a more historically-contingent resonance. After all, reading has historically had a “social” dimension that was somewhat lost in a post-Romantic view of textuality, and that, arguably, online textuality is now in the process of reviving. Social reading, in my view, is therefore not merely a pedagogical strategy for absorbing what has been read, but a window into a different kind of reading that transforms content, making texts multivoiced and multivalent in ways that are simply inaccessible through other more solitary forms of textual engagement.

There are a number of approaches that I have adopted to encourage this idea of social reading in ENG1020E; some of these, and a more detailed account of what I am trying to do in the course, I may discuss in a future blog post.  In the meantime, it is sufficient to note that student blogging is one of the more important elements of my overall strategy. The essential idea is this: students will write about their texts on public online blogs that were “linked” to each other through subscriptions and blogrolls. They would focus upon their more personal responses to these texts, and would be able to follow what their fellow students thought and said about these same texts in a way that would, hopefully, enlarge their thinking and perspective upon them. These networked blogs would, in this way, come to constitute another kind of online conversation about literature.

I have myself blogged for a number of years, and have read a fair amount about student blogging assignments. I have never before, however, attempted to integrate blogging in any way into my own teaching, so I did devote a substantial amount of time and thought  to the particular methodology I should adopt. The result was a brief but, I thought, adequately descriptive rubric for my students:

This assignment requires each student to create and maintain a “commonplace” blog (probably on WordPress, a free and open blogging site available online). Students will use this blog as a kind of “commonplace book,” a place to record particularly interesting, worthwhile, or important information gleaned from readings, lecture, and tutorial, as well as a few salient lines, phrases, or passages that you think might be useful to remember.

Students are expected to produce one blog entry every two weeks of the course, beginning the week of September 24 – September 28. For practical purposes, you will be writing at least 11 blog entries. You may, of course, write more if you wish. Each entry should be a minimum of 100 words, excluding quotes from texts. The blog posts need not be written in an “academic” style — blog writing is generally fairly informal — but they should at least be grammatically correct, and they should relate to a text we have recently read and discussed.

There are two main functions to these blogs:

1) To help the student identify salient, interesting, or important information discussed in the course.

2) To provide a handy “study guide” for the first term test and final exam.

In addition, students will be encouraged — and would be well advised — to “follow” the blogs of other students in your tutorial section, and even comment on them. You can learn a great deal from this kind of online “discussion.” Note, however, that the usual sanctions against plagiarism count: do not merely copy the blogs of others, although you may link to them..

On occasion, I will be visiting your blogs and commenting on them where useful.

I thought this sufficiently clear, detailed, and prescriptive.

1020E Blog Screen ShotOops.  Well, I was wrong. Shortly after sending out this rubric, I had a brief but informative discussion with Dr. Elan Paulson, who in her capacity as Digital Communications Specialist at the Faculty of Education here at Western knows a great deal about educational blogging, and has herself used blogs in courses before. Dr. Paulson’s comments made me all too aware of my failure to think through all of the implications of the assignment; her questions caught me frankly off-guard (although they shouldn’t have).  How, she asked, will these “commonplace blogs” differ from conventional class journals? How have you addressed the “public” nature of blogging? Will students be instructed in the value and importance of “tagging” posts, or blogrolls? What criteria will be used to evaluate these?

My attempts to formulate coherent responses to these questions coincided with an unexpected call to talk about instructional blogging in a workshop that I had organized for faculty and graduate students in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at Western. Suddenly, I had two compelling reasons to think, and write, a bit more cogently and comprehensively on the subject of student blogging.

What appears below, then, is my attempt to do just this. In addition to a more elaborate version of the slide presentation that I gave on student blogs, it includes the “criteria sheet” for the blogging assignment that I eventually produced for my students and teaching assistants: this last appears at the bottom of the post.

So, an important caveat: what follows here is not the advice of a seasoned veteran of instructional blogging. On the contrary, it represents the first stumbling attempts of a n00b in the field to systematize his thinking on that subject. It has been informed by some reasonably wide reading, some very helpful conversations, and a good deal of thought, but it has yet to face the trial by fire of actual classroom use. Treat it, accordingly, with some caution. In addition, those interested in this subject should check out Instructional Blogging: Links and Resources, a list of online and print discussions that I assembled in advance of the workshop a few weeks ago; to an important degree, that list can be treated as a supplement to the list of references here, as the resources and articles given there have greatly informed my understanding of this subject.

Some Questions

A good place to start is, perhaps, by asking oneself some basic questions about the intended function of the blogging exercise and the desired learning outcomes.

What is the function of the blogs?

This is obviously pretty fundamental. The first part of the answer should focus upon the ways in which blogs will enable learning. How will this exercise “teach” your students, and what will it teach them? The second half of the question should relate to the choice of medium.  Presumably, you are using blogs, rather than (for instance) course journals for a particular reason. What is it that blogs have to offer that other media, traditional or not, do not? Do those learning outcomes rely upon the kinds of features that blogs offer, or are they enhanced by them? A number of things attracted me to the idea of student blogging. Blogs provide students with their own secure textual “space” within which to express themselves, while simultaneously allowing others to comment and contribute. The exercise would also help train students to write in a more self-aware way for public online consumption, a skill that, in my capacity as a digital humanist, I also thought well worth their time to cultivate.

How do they relate to other course content?

This question relates most obviously, perhaps, to the issue of content. What will students be writing here, and how does it relate to what you are teaching? Will this be a place to focus on texts? Upon secondary source readings? Upon lecture or tutorial material? Upon their own responses to course content? Given that blogs have developed as a form well suited for “thinking out loud” (remember the etymology of the term “blog” comes from “web log”), they are probably not ideal as a place to keep lecture notes, but are rather better suited for the kind of intellectual explorations of texts and ideas that characterized the older notion of the informal personal “essay” as practised by Montaigne, Bacon, and others.

How will they be evaluated?

The issue of form is again important: to what degree is your evaluation going to focus upon the blog as a medium? In other words, is part of the mark for their blogs going to be based upon an evaluation of the degree to which the student has mastered blog-writing as a discrete genre, just as part of the grade (and usually a substantial part, at that) for an essay is likely to derive from a demonstrated competence in essay writing?

The exact criteria that you choose will, of course, depend greatly upon your answer to other questions here, as for example the relation to course content and the function of the blogs. What is particularly important, however, is that these criteria be reasonably clear to the students. Remember that while they will likely have written formal essays for grading before, and so will already have some sense of the types of criteria used to evaluate these, there is a good chance that they’ve never been evaluated for blog writing. Their sense of what constitutes a “good” blog post will be accordingly much fuzzier.

Are they public?

Blogging is almost by definition a public exercise, but most blogging apps (including WordPress) permit blog content to be kept hidden from the general public. The choice of “public” or “private” will depend, again, to a great degree upon what one sees as the function of the blog. Remember, too, that the content, tone, and style of the blog post may — indeed, should — vary according to the degree to which it is public. Writing for one’s peers, instructor, or teaching assistants is not the same thing as writing for a more general and diverse audience.

Are they networked?

To what degree are these blogs to be written by each student in isolation of the others? Or will you have them use the blogging tools available — reblogging, blogrolls, and “follow” buttons — so that they are writing within and for a larger community of their colleagues? Making a blog public does not, in and of itself, ensure that students are accessing, and gaining the benefit of, each other’s blogs. Of course, you may not want them to do this — but if not, then perhaps it is worth asking, again, whether blogging is really a worthwhile exercise in the first place.

How will feedback and comments be handled?

Are you planning to interact directly and publicly with the student blogs? If so, what sort of “voice” will you use, and how will you handle critical comments and suggestions? Will you “correct” a student when she or he gets something wrong? Receiving public criticism on a blog can be traumatic enough; it is doubly so when it is coming from your instructor or teaching assistant. There are also, of course, issues of “confidentiality,” as the blog will presumably be a graded assignment: how can you provide feedback and commentary in such a way as not to breach confidentiality?

How one answers these questions will, of course, go a long way to determining the sorts of blogs that your students produce, as well as your own evaluation of them. There are, however, additional aspects of blogs in general that need to be considered before finalizing a student blogging assignment.

Some Considerations

Many of these factors for consideration will relate in obvious ways to some of the questions I’ve asked above. I am certain that there are others I have not thought of or included here; doubtless some of these will occur to me as the year, and the students’ actual work at blogging, unfolds.

  • Take advantage of the online venue: if the blog makes use of none of the features that the online medium makes available, such as enabled comments, hyperlinks, or “follow” features, then there is perhaps little point in using it instead of, say, e-mail.
  • Bear in mind that blogs are not essays, and should likely be written in a very different (and probably more personal) voice.
  • Citation is (usually) handled differently on blogs, often just with links to online versions of the source. Actually, however, there is nothing really to prevent one from using MLA, Chicago, or APA citation style in a blog piece, and some blog writers (including myself) do so. If the blog posts are intended to be more essay-like, then employing conventional citation probably makes sense.
  • Blogs can employ “tags” to increase online visibility; if one of the points of the exercise is to not merely produce a blog, but actually to teach about blogging, then guiding students in the use of metadata such as tags is important.
  • Blogrolls and subscriptions can turn isolated blogs into networks. Again, an important function of the online medium is to turn a one-to-one conversation (between, say, student and instructor) into a multi-voiced online discussion. Having your students use blogrolls and install “Follow” widgets (which enable e-mail subscriptions to a blog) effectively “networks” the blogs in a way that permits students to learn from each other in an asynchronous manner that will not be unfamiliar to them from Facebook and other forms of social media.
  • Blogs are most usually and naturally a form of “public writing.” There are hazards to asking students to publish their thoughts online; perhaps the most important of these is that it exposes them to trolls and flaming. On the other hand, almost all students are producing writing that is more-or-less public already — on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter. Using a blogging exercise to talk about the differences between public discourse and private communication is probably a pretty useful thing.
  • IP and Reproduction Rights are generally not handled well in most social media, including blogs. This is perhaps a good opportunity to talk about what these things are, and why it may not be a great idea to simply paste that cool image from someone’s web page into your own blog without permission or acknowledgement.
  • Troll: All Your Students Are Belong to UsFlaming and Trolling are endemic online, and there is some chance, particularly if students are writing about a controversial or contentious issue, that their posts will show up in someone’s Google search, and they will find themselves the target of a bit of online nastiness. Students can, of course, be insulated from this possibility by changing blog privacy settings — but it can be argued that it is far more valuable to instruct them instead on how to deal with this not uncommon pitfall of online writing should it arise. Students are, as I’ve noted, already living online; they are already vulnerable to various forms of cyberbullying. Learning to deal with it is an important component of learning how to communicate online.

Some Criteria

Here, then, is the actual set of criteria that I sent out to the students and teaching assistants of Eng1020E, Section 002. My formulation of this document owes a great deal to a number of examples already existing online, which are available on the “Instructional Blogging” resource list, and below in “References.”

English 1020E – Section 002

Criteria for the Evaluation of Student Blogs

The criteria by which your blogs will be evaluated fall into three categories: Primary Criteria, Secondary Criteria, and Optional “Extras.” The latter category consists of features that are not absolutely required, but that will gain you some extra credit if included.

The grade percentages associated with each of these criteria are guidelines only, and represent the relative “weight” of each category that we’ll be using when evaluating your blogs. In an instance in which, for example, the “content” of the blog posts is exceptional, we may feel justified in boosting the mark for that above the 40% allowed for below.

Primary Criteria 

  • Content (40%) – “Content” in this context means the degree to which your posts focus upon one of our class texts, and the “quality” of your insights and thoughts about those texts. Remember that the point of the blog is not to regurgitate material from lectures and tutorials (although you may of course refer to these), but rather to add your own thoughts and impressions about these poems, novels, plays, and essays. A high quality post will engage with a text both critically (that is to say, will feature some original insights that come from a considered reading of it) and personally. You needn’t be afraid of being “wrong” in any of your discussions, but your impressions and ideas should be backed up with at least some “evidence” from the text. As well, your posts should be to some degree “original,” a requirement that is implied by the fact that they are also “personal” responses. Merely parroting the remarks or thoughts of other students will result in a loss of marks.
  • Style (30%) – Blogs are not, and should not, be written in the formal style of an academic paper or essay. Use a personal voice – the first person pronoun is not merely permitted, but encouraged – and make your writing casual, entertaining, and engaging. Your diction (word choice) can be more colloquial than would generally be permitted in an essay as well, but try to avoid a language that stoops too low: avoid vulgarity and “text-speak.”

Secondary Criteria 

  • Grammar and Spelling (10%) – As noted above, a blog is not a formal essay. That said, you are still writing to be understood, and for an audience (even if it is only your TA and instructor), and your writing should therefore be grammatically correct. Occasional liberties (for instance, the occasional sentence fragment for dramatic or rhetorical effect) are permissible, but posts littered with grammatical errors and spelling mistakes will be penalized.
  • Timeliness and Length (10%) – The rubric for the blogging assignment specifies that you are expected to write “one blog entry every two weeks of the course, beginning the week of September 24 – September 28.” It also requires that each entry be a minimum of 100 words, excluding quotes from texts. There will be some flexibility on the first requirement: we won’t be counting down to midnight on the last night of each two-week period to check that you have produced a blog post within that interval. But you are expected to “keep up,” and should post your bi-weekly entries no more than a day or two late. Do not wait until the end of the term or the course to post a backlog of entries: this would defeat one of the main points of the exercise, and will result in the deduction of marks.
  • Quotation of Primary Sources (5%) – One of the original functions of manuscript “commonplace books” was to store pithy quotes for future reference and use. In addition to quoting from the text where appropriate to back up any of your ideas and impressions, it’s a good idea to record particularly “important” sentences, phrases, or lines. You’ll find this very handy when studying for the first term test and final exam. You needn’t (and indeed shouldn’t) go overboard here: don’t cite giant blocks of text. But your posts should include a judicious sampling of brief important “bits.”
  • Citation (5%) – Most blogs “cite” sources by linking to them, if they are online, and otherwise provide no more than an author, title, and perhaps date integrated into the discussion itself. This approach is acceptable, but you can also, if you wish, provide more formal citations at the end of each post. Do be sure, however, to provide some citation for ideas and quotes taken from elsewhere, especially if they are from a fellow student.

Optional “Extras” 

  • Comments – You can earn some extra credit (up to 5%) by commenting on the blogs of other students within your tutorial group. These needn’t be lengthy or elaborate, but should be more than a wave: try to say something substantive about the post upon which you are commenting. And, of course, please be civil and respectful of the opinions and writing of others.
  • Multimedia, Images, and Links – You can additionally earn some additional credit (up to 5%) by integrating into your blog post some images, multimedia, and links. These must, of course, be relevant in some way to your post, although can certainly also be “humorous” or draw connections to popular culture (e.g., music videos and even the occasional pertinent “lolcat”). YouTube videos are usually viewed as being in the public domain, and so can be used without worry, but make sure that the images and other materials you use are also “public.” The easiest place to find images that are in the public domain is Wikimedia Commons; some electronic databases and sources also specify that you can use images so long as the original source is acknowledged and cited.

Some Conclusions

Actually, I don’t have any of these yet. My class is only now entering their third week of this assignment: most of the students have as yet produced only a single post. So far, I’m pretty pleased with these. Students have been using this opportunity to register their personal responses to texts, while also supporting these with at least some textual evidence.

The thing that has impressed me most, however, in these early stages of the assignments is how much more than the prescribed 100 words per post students have been writing. This is actually an unlooked-for benefit of the blogs: while the word count for the blogging assignment is included in the overall written requirement for the course, it had not occurred to me that students would actually write more — and in many cases, substantially more — than was required of them. If one of the points of humanities courses in general, and English courses in particular, is to give students practical experience in writing, then student blogging would seem, at least at this early showing, to be a powerful tool.

—————————

References

Brennan, Samantha. “Research Blogging: Notes from Our Workshop.” Electronic Textuality and Theory at Western. The Research Group for Electronic Textuality and Theory. 7 October, 2012. Accessed 12 October, 2012. <http://rgettatwestern.wordpress.com/2012/10/07/research-blogging-notes-from-our-workshop/>

Sample, Mark. “A Rubric for Evaluating Student Blogs.” ProfHacker. The Chronicle of Higher Education 27 September, 2010. Accessed 22 September, 2012. <http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/a-rubric-for-evaluating-student-blogs/27196>

Stein, Bob. A Taxonomy of Social Reading: A Proposal. The Institute for the Future of the Book. N.d.  Accessed 12 October, 2012. <http://futureofthebook.org/social-reading/>

University College, Falmouth. “Blogging Project Checklist for Academics.” Scribd. n.d. Accessed 22 September, 2012. <http://www.scribd.com/doc/97815658/Template-Student-Blogging-Checklist-Pedagogic-Preparations>

University of Wisconsin, Stout. “A Rubric for Evaluating Student Blogs.” A+ Rubric. University of Wisconsin, Stout. 17 January, 2012. Accessed 22 September, 2012. <http://www2.uwstout.edu/content/profdev/rubrics/blogrubric.html>

Williams, George H. “Blogging Assignment.” English 289: Introduction to British Literature. Beginnings to 1800. University of South Carolina Upstate. N.d. Accessed 8 October, 2012. <http://upstateenglish.org/289/assignments/blogging-assignment/>

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Are We There Yet? Touch Press’s “The Waste Land” for iPad.

Usability studies have demonstrated that reading on tablets is more enjoyable than reading on the screen of computers and, in some cases, more than reading print. But this is for general reading: does it also apply to highly sophisticated digital scholarly editions? Is the sophistication of such editions, as we have conceived them so far, the enemy of accessibility and user-friendliness? Are tablet apps a possible way to enhance the appeal of Digital Scholarly Editions?  (Elena Pierazzo)

A month or so ago, I posted a review of the British Library’s “Shakespeare’s ‘First Folio'” app for iPad, a digital “edition” that I found to be more than a tad disappointing.  At roughly the same time that I downloaded the British Library’s “First Folio” app, I also acquired, at the particular recommendation of a friend, a book app devoted to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.  I would like now to consider this digital edition within the larger context of thinking about what such electronic texts should look like and do. In particular, I want to use this “review” as a leaping-off point for a subsequent discussion on the subject of digital texts for a more “scholarly” audience, with a particular focus upon texts for teaching. As Elena Pierazzo’s comments above might suggest, there is a great deal of potential in apps such as this to bring digital scholarly editions — whether intended for researchers or students — to the mainstream.  But are we there yet?

I teach some Eliot in a first year course, but my acquaintance with him, while more than merely passing, is probably not a great deal deeper than that of most experienced students (“official” or otherwise) of English literature. The Waste Land is, after all, arguably the defining poem of the 20th century, and in that sense it is communal property in a way that most other poems are not.  When I was a teen, and first discovered the enormous angst-potential of poetry, Eliot was The Poet, and The Waste Land  unquestionably the vital touchstone of a certain kind of moral and aesthetic “seriousness” in literary taste, so I became reasonably familiar with it at a fairly early age. And while I am more aware now than ever of how much I do not know about it, the poem still “sounds” to me as a familiar voice: comfortable and, despite all its gloom, somehow comforting.  Indeed, perhaps too much so, as the poem is for me somewhat more resonant with personal significance than is really helpful to someone who teaches it.  I looked forward to exploring the iPad app, and angsting away again to the familiar cadences of Eliot’s masterwork.

The digital "front page" of Touch Press's impressive "The Waste Land" app

The Waste Land  for iPad is published by Touch Press LLP and Faber and Faber.  The commentary that can be read alongside the poem in this app (and about which more below) have been taken, we are told, from B. C. Southam’s A Student’s Guide to the Selected Poems of T. S. Eliot, first published in 1968. The involvement of Faber and Faber in this project is a very good sign in some respects: most of Eliot’s oeuvre was, of course, first published by that house, and Eliot himself was, from 1925 onwards, an employee (and eventually director) of the company.

Screen capture of a text page of the poem with marginal notes. Some of the latter are quite extensive, and expand when touched.

How happy am I to report that my high hopes for this app were fulfilled?  Well, very happy.  In almost every regard, this is a very capable and worthwhile treatment of Eliot’s poem.  It is not, it must be said, a “scholarly” edition of The Waste Land, but as a resource for general readers it exemplifies some of the really exciting things that can be done with digital texts.  The app, which is aesthetically very well designed and attractive, includes not merely the complete text of The Waste Land, but also a complete photo facsimile of Eliot’s annotated typescript of the poem, with the handwritten comments, suggestions, and criticisms that were added by Eliot, his first wife Vivien, and Ezra Pound. The typescript (the app calls it a “manuscript,” but hey, whatever) is lightly but informatively annotated. The poem itself can be read as a “clean” text, or with extensive (and often lengthy) explanatory annotations that appear to the left of the screen:  these address everything from the specifics of the allusions that the poem makes to aspects of the poem’s composition and reception.

Audio recordings of the poem being recited are also available, and can be listened to in conjunction with a view of the text (each line is highlighted as it is read): readers include Eliot himself (in two versions, from 1933 and 1947), Alec Guinness, Ted Hughes, Viggo Mortensen (huh?), and Fiona Shaw.  Shaw’s reading is taken from a dramatic “performance” of the poem that is also included with the app as a full-length video: it is a compelling and arresting performance (if also perhaps a little problematic in some respects, as an “interpretation” of the poem).

A still from Fiona Shaw's (very) dramatic reading of the poem.

One of the more interesting and innovative facets of the app is its surprisingly generous selection of video commentaries on the poem, found in a section of the programme entitled “Perspectives,” from a variety of writers and performers that includes the poet Seamus Heaney, editor Paul Keegan, critic and editor Jim McCue, poet Craig Raine, actor and director Fiona Shaw, punk musician Frank Turner, and the novelist Jeanette Winterson. The commentaries are fascinating precisely because they provide such a diversity of perspective on the poem; as each commentator speaks, the apposite section of the poem is displayed to the right, along with an occasional image relating to the commentary. In some ways, as someone who is already reasonably familiar with the poem and its history, I found this feature of the app most appealing, as it exposed me to some rather new, interesting, and diverse perspectives on Eliot’s piece.

A final feature of the book app is a modest gallery of images relating to the poem. The appropriateness of most of these is self-evident: they include, for instance, a couple of photographic portraits of Ezra Pound, and one of Vivien Eliot, as well a photo of the opening of the poem as it appeared in The Dial, where it was first published. Others seem a little odd: there are no less than two pictures of Bob Dylan who, we are told, was much influenced by Eliot’s poetry. This struck me as the least satisfactory element of the app, as the pictures seem a little miscellaneous and somewhat disconnected from the rest of the digital edition.

The publishers of the app have produced a video highlighting many of the facets of this edition:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=rlhosnfP-Jw

Much of the context, background, and interpretation that this app provides for the poem will seem immediately familiar – the comfortable voice(s) of which I spoke – to anyone with more than a passing acquaintance of the poem.  The notes contain the expected expansions upon Eliot’s allusiveness, and upon his use of the myth of the Fisher King in the poem; there is also much on his relationship with Pound and the influence of Vivien Eliot. In this sense, the app provides little that is new.

For me, the heart of this digital edition, however, lies in the “Perspectives” section, which (as I have noted) includes the more personal reflections and comments upon the poem by people as diverse as Frank Turner and Seamus Heaney. These provide what the commentary to the poem really does not: fresh views and understandings of The Waste Land.  This I found also to be a function of audio recordings of readings of the poem: to listen to Alec Guinness’s rendition of The Waste Land  is to hear a very “different” poem, in some respects, than we get hearing Eliot, Hughes, or Shaw, reading it.  Indeed, there are instructive, if subtle, differences between Eliot’s 1933 and 1947 readings of the poem of which I had been unaware.  (I was also personally heartened by Mortensen’s reading, which I am pretty sure is not much better than my own.)  The app really does, quite literally, give us The Waste Land  in different voices.

I do have some cavils.  Eliot’s notes appear at the conclusion of the poem, which is as it should be, but some facility to leap back and forth between these and the text to which they refer would have been helpful. Ironically, consulting the notes in conjunction with the text is a relatively simple task with a printed codex; one need only flip back and forth between pages.  Doing so with this app is somewhat more laborious, and it isn’t possible to have both the text of the poem and Eliot’s own notes on the screen at the same time, although one can read the critical commentary alongside the verse text.

One might wish as well that the notes for the poem had been written afresh, rather than recycled from a now fairly ancient student guide to Eliot, even an updated one.  A awful lot has happened in Eliot scholarship in the past few decades, and it would have been nice to have had better access to such new scholarship than Southam’s book provides.  In this context, too, it’s a shame that the app does not include a brief biographical note on Eliot himself, and one in particular that glances at some of the darker aspects of his life, character, and poetry. Unsurprisingly, this app tends to be a “celebration” of the poem, and generally eschews a more probing critique of its somewhat recidivist aesthetics and ideology.

Screen shot of a page from the "manuscript" of the poem, with annotation in a panel to the lower left.

One might also have wished for a bibliography or list of books and articles for “Further Reading.”  The edition’s notes occasionally cite particular critics by name, but do not, unfortunately, reference the particular papers or monographs being cited. Finally, a minimal textual apparatus would have been helpful. There are references to textual issues in the notes and annotations, but it would have been nice to have had these details assembled in a conventional form in one place.

These issues notwithstanding, I would not hesitate to recommend this app to anyone interested in knowing this poem better, or, for that matter, to my own students. In fact, I would be delighted to assign it as a course text in my first-year English course (in which I do teach The Waste Land), and would probably devote a couple of weeks to exploring it with them, were it cheaply and easily available to all of my students.

But there, alas, lies the rub. While the app itself is quite inexpensive, the hardware required to use it is, of course, not. Sadly, too, this app is available only for the iPad, a particularly pricey little digital toy that is undoubtedly well beyond the means of the majority of my students.

I’ll conclude with a final thought on this kind of app. Touch Press’s The Waste Land and other apps of its kind are self-contained mini-programmes that “live,” for the most part, on your iPad, in isolation from the larger world of the Web.  This fact makes them more stable than online resources, and it also means that they can generally run more quickly, because they are not reliant upon information being streamed to them from an external server. But while much is to be gained by this approach, something else is lost, namely, the connectivity to a (much) larger metaverse of information and resources already existing online. This kind of connectivity is often problematic: web sites disappear, links become “dead,” and, of course, one has to continually exercise one’s judgement to determine what is “worthwhile” and trustworthy from the great mass of dross that is also to be found online. This said, that connectivity is what makes online scholarship truly dynamic, a “work in progress” rather than a neatly packaged but ultimately static book-in-a-box. Additionally, it would be good to see resources like this enable connectivity between “users,” be they students or otherwise.  Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s comments on the iBook Authors app by Apple are relevant in this context:

The textbooks that can be produced with iBooks Author and read in iBooks 2 are interactive, in the sense of an individual reader being able to work with an individual text in a hands-on fashion. They do not, however, provide for interaction amongst readers of the text, or for responses from a reader to reach the author, or, as far as I can tell so far, for connections across texts. The “book,” though multimediated, manipulable, and disembodied, is still a discrete, fairly closed object.

It is at least mildly disturbing that these new apps are happy to eschew the admittedly problematic fecundity of existence within a larger world of the Web for a safer, but ultimately more sterile existence locked within the hard drive of a tablet computer.

The Wasteland for iPad is probably just about the most attractive, sophisticated, and information-packed app for a digital book now available. But does it herald the arrival of truly scholarly works to the mainstream eBook medium?  Are we, in fact, there yet?  The answer, as I’ll discuss in my next post, is, I think, no.  But, as a major step in the right direction, this app is worthy of some study by digital editors.
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References

T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land  for iPad, ed.  Justin Badger and Charles Chabot, Touch Press LLP, and Faber and Faber, 2011. http://touchpress.com/titles/thewasteland/

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, “Reflections on the Apple Education Event,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 19 January, 2012.  http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/reflections-on-the-apple-education-event/37998 Accessed 24 February, 2012.

Elena Pierazzo, “Tablets Apps, or the future of the Scholarly Editons?” Elena Pierazzo’s Blog: Random Thoughts of a Digital Humanist with a Passion for Cookery, 27 November, 2011.  http://epierazzo.blogspot.com/2011/11/tablets-apps-or-future-of-scholarly.html Accessed 24 February, 2012.

Brian C.  Southam, A Student’s Guide to the Selected Poems of T. S. Eliot, London: Faber and Faber, 1968; 1994.

Is this Textbook Really Smarter than Your Prof?

I read this morning Lawrence Summer’s editorial in the New York Times with a mixture of fascination and horror.  Entitled “What You (Really) Need to Know,” the piece contains some motherhood-and-apple-pie truisms — the world is changing rapidly, students need to be “engaged” through “dynamic” educational practices, collaboration is a Good Thing, etc., etc., etc.  But I was stopped short by these two paragraphs:

New technologies will profoundly alter the way knowledge is conveyed. Electronic readers allow textbooks to be constantly revised, and to incorporate audio and visual effects. Think of a music text in which you can hear pieces of music as you read, or a history text in which you can see film clips about what you are reading. But there are more profound changes set in train. There was a time when professors had to prepare materials for their students. Then it became clear that it would be a better system if textbooks were written by just a few of the most able: faculty members would be freed up and materials would be improved, as competition drove up textbook quality.

Similarly, it makes sense for students to watch video of the clearest calculus teacher or the most lucid analyst of the Revolutionary War rather than having thousands of separate efforts. Professors will have more time for direct discussion with students — not to mention the cost savings — and material will be better presented. In a 2008 survey of first- and second-year medical students at Harvard, those who used accelerated video lectures reported being more focused and learning more material faster than when they attended lectures in person.

To begin first with Summer’s last point here:  do we really believe that “accelerated video lectures” are superior to attending lectures in person?  Or could it be, just maybe, that the other activities in which students engaged alongside the video lecture (small group discussions, for instance) were what actually made this a better learning experience, and that these were sufficiently effective to make up for the stultifyingly dull experience of watching a video lecture?

The irony of advocating passive video lecturing (and thank goodness he doesn’t “mention the cost savings,” because that of course has no bearing on his argument, right?) in the same editorial in which “Active learning classrooms” are lauded seems lost on Summers.  I can well imagine how a digital lecture, fully integrated with interactive and dynamic elements and features, might produce an excellent learning experience, but that’s not quite the same thing as plunking students down in front of a video of a talking head (however brilliant a head it may be) discussing the causes of the American Revolution.

However, I primarily want to address Summers’ first point about textbooks, which he suggests have been “written by just a few of the most able” pedagogues and scholars.  To begin with, I’m far from sure that this is really an accurate characterization of the way in which textbooks have been produced, but for the moment I’ll accept the premise that current practice is to rely upon the “excellence” of our textbook authors and editors so as to free ourselves up for other “more important” things.

Summers is clearly thinking about, even if he doesn’t directly mention, the new iBooks Author application from Apple;  a link within the paragraph refers readers to an index of NYT stories on that tool.  As is suggested by his segue to video lectures, Summers believes that the “old model” of textbook production is a good thing:  let’s have the “most able” in our disciplines produce the texts, just as we should leave our lecturing to the best lecturers.  Now, however, the “most able” can create these textbooks in iBooks Author, and thereby produce more engaging and interactive texts for our students.

This approach, this acquiescence to the notion that we should let the “most able” build our textbooks for us, seems to me to miss out on an important element of the potential power of iBooks Author, or at least of what that tool represents.

How many of us are truly happy with our textbooks?  I take some care to choose anthologies for my course that are the best available (bearing in mind, however, cost to the student as well), but I still find myself in the not-infrequent position of apologizing to the class for the text.  An error here, an omission there, and on occasion a glaringly awful misprint — I’ve had to direct students’ attention to all of these.  On one memorable occasion, my students were thrown into confusion because a very popular textbook we were using had managed to run parts of two Seamus Heaney poems together, producing a sort of inadvertent monstrous poetic pastiche.

And of course there is the question of availability: I often have to drop from a syllabus a literary text that I’d love to teach simply because it is not available in a cheap modern edition.

Surely part of the appeal of easy-to-use tools like iBooks Author is that they can, in theory, allow us to create our own customized teaching texts?

By this, I don’t mean to suggest that we need to reinvent the wheel every time we teach a course:  I am, by and large, still pretty happy with the Broadview Anthology of Restoration and 18th-Century Literature as the core text for my survey course covering that period, despite some serious cavils here and there.  But what would be really great is an easy way to build on such core textbooks with custom-built texts that allow me to teach literary works or contextual materials not otherwise easily available.  It would be wonderful to enable a more engaging, complete, and dynamic contextualization of the ones that are already in the prefabricated textbook.  So, if I want to teach Daniel Defoe’s The Shortest Way with Dissenters (and I do), or John Dryden’s “Preface” to Fables, Ancient and Modern, neither of which are in the Broadview Anthology, I can do so by creating my own eText versions of these, complete with any media or contextual materials that I think might be worthwhile. Increasingly, textbooks are being offered to us in “modular” form by publishers; what I am suggesting is that we can build some of these modules ourselves.

Such an approach to course texts would, of course, demand a fair amount of work from instructors, and would, as things currently stand, disadvantage those who lack the technical skills to produce their own digital texts. But what I think that iBooks Author potentially represents is a significant move towards a day when there are cheap and easy-to-use tools available to build just such custom modules.  Imagine, for instance, a web site into which someone with the most basic technological knowledge could simply input text and multimedia content, click “Submit,” and receive an ePub-compliant HTML5-encoded text (and maybe XML too) as output?

We’re not there yet, but surely iBooks Author gives us glimpses of a future in which we can all become as smart as our textbooks, because our textbooks are built by us.

The 10 Reasons Why I Will Not Be Creating Textbooks with Apple’s iBook Author

I’m going to admit that I am as intrigued as anyone about the new iBook Author app announced by Apple today.  It sounds as though it is an enormously powerful tool with which to build exciting and dynamic textbook content.  Apple being Apple, I expect that it will be beautifully designed, intuitive, and fun to use.  I look forward to playing with it — in one of my university’s computer labs.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s remarks in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Reflections on the Apple Education Event,” seem to  me reasonable, carefully considered, and thoughtful.  I particularly liked her point about the lack of interconnectivity between users (i.e., students) built into the iTextbook format.

I’d like now to  explain why I won’t be rushing to use this tool myself to create new textbooks, despite the fact that it will assuredly do a fine job of just that, and will likely produce a much “better” product in some regards than I am capable of creating on my own.

1. Because, while I do have an iPad, I don’t own a Mac desktop, and have no intention of buying one just to run this app on it.

2. Because I have no desire to become an unpaid marketer for Apple Inc.  Nor will I effectively require that my students shell out hundreds of dollars, not merely for a tablet computer, but for a particular make of tablet.

3. Because Apple has been known to censor, rather unapologetically, apps containing content that it deems “inappropriate.” I teach, at both grad and undergrad levels, a course in 17th-century libertine literature that contains much material that is jaw-droppingly obscene. I don’t want Apple telling me, in effect, that I shouldn’t be teaching such things. And, in general, I just plain don’t like censorship.

4. Because I agreed with Stephen Ramsay when he tweeted that “We are so deeply and sincerely screwed if we allow an American mega-corporation to ‘help us reinvent the curriculum.'”

5. Because the new format for these iTextbooks does not support the ePub 3 open standard, and so is not only restricted to a proprietary platform, but is actively working to undermine open standards for digital texts.

6. Because I am already paid (by my university) to research and publish, and don’t want to commercialize what I produce more than is absolutely necessary.

7. Because I don’t want to become a chesspiece in Apple’s game of imperial domination. While I have no particular sentimental attachment to the current publishers of textbooks (and in some case, quite the opposite), I have no interest whatsoever in serving as a weapon in the late Steve Job’s proposed campaign to “digitally destroy” the textbook industry.

8. Because I want what I produce to be freely available to anyone, and usable on as wide a variety of platforms as possible, and not just on an iPad.

9. Because I dislike closed-source tools, and want to know what’s under the hood of such tools as I do use, and also what may be getting quietly embedded within such content as I produce by means of said tools.

10. Because, while I am quite happy to use tools to make the process of creation easier, I also enjoy coding and designing resources myself, and don’t necessarily want to have it all done for me.

The Gamification of Textbooks?

The word from Ars Technica that Apple plans to release a “GarageBand for Textbooks” tool has, understandably, begun to produce something of a buzz.

Apple is slated to announce the fruits of its labor on improving the use of technology in education at its special media event on Thursday, January 19. While speculation has so far centered on digital textbooks, sources close to the matter have confirmed to Ars that Apple will announce tools to help create interactive e-books—the “GarageBand for e-books,” so to speak—and expand its current platform to distribute them to iPhone and iPad users.

Most of the discussion has been so far focused upon the advantages, in terms of cost and media-enhanced educational resources, that moving textbooks onto tablet computers would entail, or upon the likelihood of Apple succeeding in its attempt to break the back of the multi-billion dollar textbook publishing industry.  (Steve Jobs apparently thought the textbook publishing trade an “$8 billion a year industry ripe for digital destruction.”)

My own sense of this, which I’ve already articulated here, is that, even with a vast increase in available content for educational purposes (and most of the talk at this point seems to have centred around the K-12 market, rather than postsecondary education), the sheer cost of moving textbooks to iPads in a consistent and broad way is going to severely limit the degree to which this will impact upon teaching. Even were the entire textbook content for all of a postsecondary student’s required texts moved onto iPad apps, the price of the device remains prohibitive for most students.  (Arguably, a textbook app might work for iPhones as well, but there is something about the idea of reading Paradise Lost or Moby Dick on an iPhone that I find hilariously implausible.)

Apparently many K-12 schools have vast stores of under-used iPads available for classroom use . . . or so some are saying.  Perhaps some do, but I would imagine that a great many do not, especially among those schools that service economically-disadvantaged neighbourhoods.  Will a move to iPad educational applications widen the gap in an already two-tiered educational system?

And then, of course, there is another issue: do we really want Apple cornering the market on digital content for teaching?  I sure don’t.

But I am particularly intrigued by the analogy being employed for this putative new textbook-creation tool:  “GarageBand for Textbooks.”  While I do know musicians who have employed GarageBand as a serious composition and/or recording tool, it is, of course, really a game.  It’s powerful, easy to use, and, most importantly, oodles of fun.

How well will the analogy hold?  Will the new textbook creation tool be oodles of fun too?

Cards on the table.  I am interested in digital textuality and eTexts for all sorts of reasons — pedagogical, ideological, and academic.  But one of the salient reasons that I produce eTexts is that it is fun to do so.  Creating a beautiful and usable interface, playing with code, and, finally, seeing one’s productions come to life on the screen — well, it’s simply a whole lot more enjoyable that producing a manuscript on Word, isn’t it?  Building digital resources permits me to employ both my scholarly skills, and my creative bent.

Are footnotes in the key of C, or G?

One of the things that a textbook creation tool may do, I think, is make that same “fun” available to a much broader audience than is currently the case.  And that is a very good thing, because it will empower that enormous pool of talented and brilliant scholars out there who are currently locked out of the digital world because they don’t have the necessary technical skills to engage with it.  It means that all of those brilliant pedagogues, writers, editors, and thinkers who haven’t had the time or inclination to learn coding will now be able to make their presence felt in our world, the world of digital learning and knowledge. And, if it is fun as well as easy to do so . . . many of them will do just that.

Interestingly, I have been giving much thought of late to precisely this problem: how can we make it easier for those lacking technical skills to engage in what we in the digital humanities are already doing?  I confess, the idea that we might make it “fun” to do so had not occurred to me . . . until now.

I’m not sure that I would characterize this potential phenomenon as a “democratization” of digital humanities, but I do know that one of the things that has most troubled me about our field (or whatever you want to call it) is that it has been, by its very nature, “exclusive.”  Listening to an absolutely wonderful talk by Tim Sherratt the other day, as he spoke about the ease with which one can script extensions to more effectively data mine online archives and resources, I found myself a mite troubled by the suggestion that producing these kinds of tools was “easy.”  For those in the room listening to the paper, yes, this was probably the case.  But then this was, for the most part, a self-selecting audience of digital humanists who are already likely to possess such basic skills.  What of those who don’t?  Does the free availability of such tools online fully address the degree to which certain skill sets have produced a “digital elite”?

Of course, the “exclusivity” of the digital humanities cuts both ways:  it is undoubtedly one of the reasons why there has been so much resistance to digital scholarship in mainstream academia, and why, despite some assistance from the MLA in providing tools for evaluation, it is still so difficult and perilous to attempt to build a scholarly reputation in the humanities via this route.  Could it be that the gamification of building eTextbooks will have the effect of making the digital humanities more “understandable” to non-techie academics, and so also more “acceptable”?

Well, this would also be a good thing, would it not?

One last dimension of this gamification of textbooks is also worth mentioning.  Quoting a white paper by Dr. William Rankin and others, the Ars Technica article goes on to imagine a brave new world of interactivity that might well arise from these new textbook apps:

Such digital texts would let students interact with information in visual ways, such as 3D models, graphs, and videos. They would also allow students to create links to additional texts, audio, and other supporting materials. Furthermore, students could share those connections with classmates and colleagues.

“What we really believe is important is the role of social networking in a converged learning environment,” Rankin told Ars. “We’re already seeing that in Inkling’s platform, and Kno’s journaling feature. Future digital texts should allow students to layer all kind of other data, such as pictures, and notes, and then share that with the class or, ideally, anyone.”

Here, we are of course in more familiar territory: the use of game-like features to enhance pedagogy. This vision of interactive, interconnected digital textbooks really represents a turn to the social media model of learning: interconnectivity, direct participation, and “remix” are all part of this imagined future for the classroom.  Will making textbooks “fun” for students in this way increase their engagement with them?

Perhaps . . .

Is such a goal viable now, and worth the price of handing the keys to the textbook cupboard over to Apple?

Well . . .

But Mum, I NEED a New iPad for School!

In an interesting short post on Mashable, Erik Loehfelm predicts that, among the “5 Digital Publishing App Trends to Watch in 2012” will be an increase in (or, indeed, the advent of?) the use of textbook apps for education.

Should students be carrying four or five textbooks to school each day? Could students purchase only certain chapters of books? Could books include text that is updated by authors in real-time? Could the concept of a “textbook” be a compilation of Wikipedia entries, content queried from Wolfram|Alpha, a professor’s thoughts and musings and social network contributions?

I’ll confess that the idea of using a “compilation of Wikipedia entries” as classroom texts leaves me feeling slightly nauseous — would any postsecondary instructor even consider doing such a thing?  However, I think the general principle here is sound.

What I don’t think likely is that this is going to happen next year . . . or even the year after.  Perhaps there will be an explosion in content suited for teaching and available for tablets in the near future, but there’s precious little that I’d want to use available right now.

More to the point, the sheer cost  involved in obtaining a tablet computer makes this idea, for the time being, impractical.  The cost of textbooks has soared, but while apps are admittedly cheaper, replacing that $150 satchel of printed texts with a $600+ tablet is not something that is going to be happening anytime soon. Yes, these are going to become much cheaper soon, but not quickly enough to meet Loehfelm’s immediate expectations.

That said, I think that this will happen, eventually, once more and better content is available, and the devices themselves become more accessible.

What should a textbook app feature?  Well, in my field (i.e., literature), it should minimally include:

  •  Reliable texts
  • Decent metadata and a basic scholarly apparatus (at the least)
  • Commentary and annotation
  • Lists of resources and further reading
  • Media-rich features that set the eTextbook apart from print versions of the same
  • A reasonably aesthetically-pleasing and effective interface

As further desiderata, I might add as well greater connectivity with other devices, and the ability to “mark up” and annotate texts oneself.

I think one of the challenges in the next few years for apps creators and eBook publishers will be — or should be — the setting of a minimum standard for this kind of digital textbook.  Without such inducements, there won’t be the necessary justification to offset what will surely still be an increased hit to the pocketbook for students.

I’d be most interested to know if anyone out there is already using tablet apps for teaching.  Anyone?