It’s Not That Far of a Jump from Labor Theory to Research Papers, Is it?

My notes on Chapter Six of Writing New Media, “The Database and the Essay: Understanding Composition as Articuluation” by Johndan Johnson-Eilola eventually gave way to me trying to re-conceptualize research and the research paper.  It’s been very much on my mind lately, not only because I’ve got to figure one out myself not too long from now, but I’m having a sort of existential crisis in my own classroom.

Let me explain.  The suits that run my workplace really, really want us to be doing Things. Lots of Things.  Like “Project-Based Learning.” Like “instilling 21st-Century Skills.”  Like “The Four Cs.” Like “professional learning communities.” And trying to get ourselves out of Federal Program Improvement, which entails doing a lot of practice for bubble tests like these and these.  All at the same time.  Reasonable people can agree that the ingredients list on this recipe is ridiculous and needs paring down. I spent a week at a PBL conference over the summer and, after crafting a rather decent skeleton for an entire unit on Latin American globalization, completely on my own (after my co-writer bailed on the whole conference after a day), and all of this after completing a project for an SFSU class (on blogging in secondary classrooms), I realized that if there was anyone on the faculty who could be expected to experiment with these competing ideas, who might be even marginally successful at it, it was probably going to be me.

I’ve already run into my own hurdles, like trying to teach my seniors why it’s not OK to rip off photos, because it’s like plagiarism.  I instructed them on where to get fair-and-acceptable-use photos, and not to use anything else, and they still use stuff in their blogs I’m not even sure about.  I just have to sit here and pray that they took my advice, made the effort, and that if they didn’t, that their use of said photos are going to be just fine because they are not commercial enterprises – they are teenagers blogging because Mrs. G. told them to or they will flunk.

Anyway, I have always done research papers with my classes, tenth graders and seniors, and while I don’t see my senior paper changing a whole lot anytime soon (even last month I got another email from a former student thanking me for making them write the damned thing, because they were just assigned a new one and are now responsible for getting their entire dorm floor of freshmen through it, because evidently, nobody else learned it before landing at Stanford).  But as research becomes in some ways easier because Internet, it’s also harder because, well, Internet (is that 9 billion hits?).

Teaching these “digital natives,” some of whom know a lot but most of whom know little more than my 73-year-old father (who just figured out how to make his laptop connect to wifi systems other than the one he has at home…hooray! Dad?  DAD?!?!) is daunting. There’s so much – I’ve had twenty years to figure it out, and as it grew, I learned – they are learning as it’s already here.  There are things out there that help me narrow it a bit.

And so I come to Johnson-Eilola’s two underlying concepts, borrowed from theorists in other disciplines, of understanding writing itself.  First, as “symbolic-analytic work” (201), where the author controls various ways to manipulate information and makes those available to the end user.  I wrote in my notes that this sounds to me like “knowing the user,” whoever’s going to re-use those data sets, and that maybe knowing who’s going to use your product is a lot like a writer knowing his or her audience, the people who are going to read and reinterpret what has been written.  Second, as “articulation” (201), as texts mean things only socially, and break down and are re-formed as a matter of course – meaning isn’t static.

It all reminded me of the thing with which I always open my units on research and writing research papers: “You are not necessarily saying anything new. Many people have written, in some cases astonishingly well and astonishingly voluminously, about your topic. What you are doing is bringing it together in a new way according to these rules I am about to show you.”  And I think that is still true. To some extent.  But now we need to consider the very rules, like MLA format.  The Johnson-Eilola paper covers that territory, discussing the various ways that InfoWorld and NPR tried to control who linked to their content (209), all of which were failures by themselves.  But, like the very nature of writing in a postmodern world, the ground is always shifting under our feet.  But even if we are theoretically comfortable with that, practically?  We are far from it, most of us.  I mean, for God’s sake, we’re not even really turning in a traditional paper for this class; we’re presenting our research findings in some way that is commensurate with a class that pushes the envelope of our conception of writing in the digital age.  Now, I’ll tell you what I’m very likely going to be doing: Writing an eight-page research paper and then figuring out a way to make it digitally pretty in order to present it to all of you.  I guess I still, at the very root, think and construct ideas for myself, and navigate my world, in a linear fashion (Jordan’s post discussed Johnson-Eilola’s take on this idea).

But what if I could take off the training wheels? What if I were comfortable foregoing that and producing a great digital essay without that intermediate step?  I’m not even there in my own work.  Getting myself to the place where I would be comfortable teaching it is quite another matter.  And if I have already identified myself as the most able and willing person in my workplace to do that, then we as a profession have a long period of introspection, learning, and practice.  Some of that might come in a group like the aforementioned PLC, but I can say from two decades of experience that a lot of that is a profoundly individual endeavor.

As a parent and a secondary educator, I have other concerns about the commercialization and marketing of text chunks and the “prescriptive nature” of school writing, but I think Jordan’s post captured all of that pretty well.

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Direct Teacher/Student interactions in the digital classroom

Between Clark and Warnock’s advocacy for the digital classroom and my own experiences, counting iLearn, Elluminate, etc., I must say that I’m totally convinced of the utilitarian benefits and think we should all switch immediately. There’s just one problem: that last clause was sarcastic. Here, let’s try it again: “I must say that I’m TOTALLY convinced of the utilitarian benefits, and think we should ALL switch IMMEDIATELY.” Catch the sarcasm that time? It’s ok if you didn’t; you’re not alone.

Embodied in that sarcasm is my overall issue with the digital classroom; while it offers many obvious benefits in both education and cost, it also has significant problems in terms of direct human interaction. First and foremost is the communication problem inherent in text-only conversation. Many studies have purported to tell how much of our communication occurs through non-verbal channels. One which said that only 7% of the message is carried by words is exaggerated by most who reference it, but even follow-up studies with more robust methodologies still state that nonverbal cues are somewhere between 20% and 80% of the message when we talk to each other.

While that’s a pretty big range, it is still helpful in that it’s very clearly not zero. The above sarcasm demonstration is just one small example in a very big problem. Even the perennially sarcastic RFC guidelines warn that sarcasm in text form “doesn’t travel well.” It’s taken us nearly 50 years of AI research to teach a computer to understand sarcasm sometimes, and if we can’t even expect a computer to always understand the intent of a message in text, how can we expect students to do better?

This simple problem has knock-on effects: studies have shown that if the primary mode of communication is text-only, authority figures appear more intimidating. For teachers and students alike, dealing with another human through text alone dehumanizes them. With students already in a position where they must appeal to an authority figure – say they’re behind on homework, or not understanding a key concept – might this additional hurdle of having to do so through a digital-only medium with all the potential for misunderstanding that brings be the straw the breaks the student’s back?

One final example: a longitudinal study once showed that after you normalize everything else about students, including their socioeconomic class, race, family history, literacy, grades in high school, and so on, after correcting for all those factors, the biggest single difference between college freshmen who graduated and college freshmen who dropped out was a single interaction with a teacher, usually outside of class. It could be office hours, or a brief chat before or after class, or even a chance meeting on campus between classes. If we remove the teacher and the student from sharing a campus – or even sharing a zip code – how will they have these interactions that save college careers? And if they don’t have them, is the digital classroom with all the benefits and savings worth all the students who might have had a degree if we hadn’t economized?

Technology and Moral Panic

Technology is making us dumb. Or at least that’s the premise of a recent NYT story about “Your Brain on Computers.”  Apparently, all of this exposure to computers and gadgets is “rewiring” our brains, making us less able to focus and engage in discreet tasks. According to the article, there’s all sorts of research to back this up.

There are two things worth keeping in mind, though. First, in his op-ed, “Mind Over Mass Media,” Steven Pinker does a nice job picking apart this idea that the brain can be “re-wired.” I’m not a neurologist, but it sound like it comes down to this: yes, the brain is dynamic, but there are limits to its plasticity. Instead of saying that Twitter, for instance, is “re-wiring” the brain to react to short bursts of information (as opposed to sustained engagement), it might be more proper to say that such emerging media technologies simply connect with other ways in which the brain has always operated. That is, maybe the brain is both a fast-twitch and slow-burn muscle, but there’s just more fast-twitch stuff for it to do these days. (For those of you who were in 708 last spring, this reminds me of Mark Kelly’s presentation on attention.)

The second point Pinker also alludes to, which is the moral panic underlying all this. The NYT story anecdotally blames technology for all sorts of ills — a potential lost contract, declining school grades, general disconnectedness. Nowhere is it acknowledged that these might have other causes, nor is there any questioning of the values lurking behind them.

I guess I’m just losing patience with deterministic arguments about technology, of both the “gadgets ate my brain” and “computers will save mankind” varieties. Yes, we’re changing, and technology is part of that. But we should be careful making claims about what causes what, and more clearheaded about what is being lost and gained in the process.

The impulse of teachers shouldn’t be to try to put the genie back in the bottle, but instead to prepare our students for the kind of world we’re creating.

Better Spaces, Better Thinkers

I don’t know how I missed this the last few weeks (or maybe I did notice but did not pay much attention to it), but I think it’s funny that after each blog post here, there is a list of “Possibly related posts: (automatically generated).” Who generates these posts? How do they determine what are related to the blog posts? Much like MS Word’s grammar check, these automatic posts seem arbitrary and make one wonder how much of what we do here on these digital media platforms are structured and determined by these “unseen” forces. McGee and Ericsson’s article starts out with a quote from Mark Weiser that warns us of the “most profound technologies” that “disappear… and weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.” This is the age that we now live in, where the ubiquity of digital technologies directly impacts how we communicate and perform literacy practices in ways that we don’t necessarily think twice about.

The connections that I was able to gather from the readings this week and which struck me as salient are Continue reading