I’ll be facilitating a workshop on “Designing Productive Blog Assignments” in the Georgia Tech Writing and Communication Program’s DevLab today. The workshop grows out of my mixed experience with blog assignments, which have been a key component of my courses since Spring 2013.
In the past, I’ve had my students use blogs in a variety of ways: as a place to construct an ad-hoc poetry anthology, as a place to stage writing in progress, as a low-stakes way to respond to readings, and as a place to showcase polished writing and presentations. I like blogs because they make readerships real and prompt students to think about writing as a sustained public activity, not a private task to be done once in a while. Blogs, moreover, promote a different kind of discussion and help constitute the classroom as a community of discussion that takes place both in person and in writing.
Of course, blogs come with their drawbacks. Mark Sample has written about the challenges of faithfully reading—and grading—coursework on blogs, and he has also written about how that exhaustion builds up over time. Now that I’ve taught with blogs four semesters in a row, and especially now that I’m teaching more students at once, I’m having some of the same trouble with maintaining motivation and integrating blogs well into my classes.
Today’s workshop hopes to think through some of the lessons my colleagues and I have learned about blogs in the classroom and to take up Sample’s call to design “A Better Blogging Assignment.” Some of the issues we’ll think about:
What kinds of blogs work best for what purposes? Should students host their own individual blogs, should they form small-group blog communities, or should the whole class post to a single blog?
How can blog discussions be better integrated into classroom discussions? Sample uses a model in which various students have various roles each week, and my most successful student-blogging semester involved “student leaders” organizing their thoughts and bringing blog discussion into the classroom.
What are comments sections for, and how can we use them to promote genuine discussion? This is one of the hardest aspects of blog assignments, in my experience. It’s hard to motivate students to comment productively, and even harder to figure out how to assess comments.
How do instructors manage the logistics of a course blog? This is, again, extremely difficult. There’s a lot of reading to do and a lot of different moving parts to manage. How do we keep up with course blogs, and how do we, in the end, grade them?
I hope we’ll all leave today’s workshop with a clearer sense of answers to some of these questions and some new ideas about how to make our blog assignments better. After the workshop, I’ll post some of our conclusions here and on TechStyle, a collaborative blog written by Brittain Fellows at Georgia Tech.
I’ve set up a simple web site that brings together the pecha-kuchas from my American Modernisms course this semester. My hope is that other students will be able to add to the videos posted on the site in semesters come and that eventually the compendium can become a resource for beginning students of modernism. The collection hosted at the site now has a few of the concepts, events, and isms that shaped modernism, but I hope that in time its coverage will be more widespread. The site is hosted here.
My-Anh Nguyen, a student in my modernisms course this semester, put together this terrific pecha-kucha on the Armory Show. Other students, who presented on impressionism, primitivism, surrealism, decadence, ragtime, and cubism, will be uploading their videos soon, and I’ll begin to incorporate them into a separate web site. For the time being, though, I’ll post them here.
My upper-level “American Modernisms” course is in the midst of an assignment that tries to use pecha-kucha presentations productively in a literature classroom, an idea I initially thought about last spring. Each student has selected a modernism-related term and will develop a pecha-kucha about that term and its relation to the course content.
Once all the students have presented, they’ll record them and add them to a compendium of pecha-kuchas about modernism-related terms. There are only seven students in my class this Fall, so it’s a small group, but I’m looking forward to their p-ks on impressionism, decadence, cubism, surrealism, primitivism, the Armory Show, and ragtime.
To show them how the assignment would work, I prepared this pecha kucha on Dada:
At THATCamp VA 2012, I proposed and then participated in a discussion about how digital tools could help us not just think about tidily marked plain-text files, but also the messier multimedia data of image files, sound files, movie files, etc. We ended up talking at length about commercial tools that search images with other images (for example, Google’s Search By Image) and that search sound with sound (for example, Shazam). A lot of our discussion revolved around the limitations of such tools–yes, we can use them to search images with other images, but, we asked, would a digital tool ever be able to tell that a certain satiric cartoon is meant to represent a certain artwork. For example, would a computer ever be able to tell that this cartoon represents this artwork?
Our conversation was largely speculative (and if anyone wanted to continue it, I’d be happy to have a similar session this time around).
Since then, however, I’ve become involved with a project that takes such thinking beyond speculation. As a participant in the HiPSTAS institute, I’ve been experimenting with ARLO, a tool originally designed to train supercomputers to recognize birdcalls. With it, we can, for example, try to teach the computer to recognize instances of laughter, and have it query all of PennSound, a large archive of poetry recordings, for similar sounds. We might be able, then, to track intentional and unintentional instances when audiences laugh at poetry readings.
The project involves both archivists and scholars–the archivists are interested in adding value to their collections (for example, by identifying instances of song in the StoryCorps archive), and the scholars are interested in how this new tool might help us better visualize and explore poetic sound and historical sound recordings.
My sound-related proposal, then, is this: to have a conversation about potential use cases for this and similar tools. Now that we know we can identify certain kinds of sounds in large sound collections, how should we use such a tool? Since Brandon’s already interested in developing sound collections using Audacity, I thought we might also add this big-data/machine-learning tool into the mix of the conversation.
This fall, in the midst of an ordinary writing-classroom presentation assignment, I gave my students the option of giving pecha-kucha presentations. The presentations were so successful that in my Spring courses, I asked all students to do p-k, and the results were again so excellent, even from some of my weakest students, that I expect I’ll be trying to incorporate a p-k assignment into most of my syllabi in the future.
My p-k assignment was inspired by a Profhacker post by Jason B. Jones, a blog post by Mark Sample, and an example p-k by Daniel Pink, The basic idea of a pecha-kucha is simple. Students make a Powerpoint made up of 20 image-heavy slides that display for 20 seconds each. As the slides display for 6 minutes and 40 seconds, the students make an argument that relates clearly to the visual content of the slides throughout.
If students follow them faithfully, the constraints of p-k solve some common problems I’ve encountered with student presentations:
Presentations that are too short that undercut assignment requirements and have too little content
Presentations that ramble on far too long, take up too much class time, bore students (and the instructor), and simply rehash an argument over and over
Powerpoint slides or videos disconnected from the content of a student’s oral presentation
Flashy, empty presentations full of Powerpoint transitions or Prezi whiz-bang zooming animation
A series of repetitive images all collected on a single slide
Students staring at the screen and reading off it instead of engaging the class
Repetitive introductions featuring stock questions (“Have you ever thought about the dangers of smoking?”)
Long, boring lists of bullet points (irony noted) that simply repeat visually what a student is saying verbally
Students getting bogged down in detail and missing the core components of an argument (which, in my writing classes, is the entire point of the course).
Now, Sample has noted that the 20 x 20 format of a p-k presentation does not ensure that students actually use their slides wisely. (He imposes the additional constraint of the 1/1/5 rule–students must have at least one image per slide, each individual image may be used only once, and each slide can contain 5 words maximum). I haven’t yet felt the need to impose such rules, though, because my students embraced the image-heavy, word-light, argument-heavy spirit of p-k so immediately.
In the Fall, my students produced excellent presentations in my course, themed “Giving and Taking Offense.” Topics included the question of when it’s “too soon” to joke about a tragedy, with special reference to 9/11; a comparison of controversial representations of Mohammad by South Park and Danish cartoonists; and the perceived offensiveness of Greek Life on University campuses. A few of these presentations truly represented the best student work I’ve seen as a teacher, and I was sad that I didn’t have a digital copy of them to show students in the future. And one of my colleagues noted that it’s hard to find solid examples of student p-ks on the web.
So this semester, I gave students the option of recording their p-ks and giving me permission to post them for a small amount of extra credit, and many obliged. One student recorded a p-k from the fall, on the choices companies face when taking on controversial topics with potential to offend in their advertising:
Most of my students, however, recorded their p-ks from this semester, in which my course theme was “College Culture.” Students took on a wide range of topics, and they again produced a strong batch of presentations, covering topics from University admissions practices, to the dual life of a student athlete, to the consequences of UVA students’ obsession with Thomas Jefferson. One student considered the problem of how art students can learn to depart from the styles of their instructors:
The p-k assignment also encouraged some students to experiment a bit. I appreciated, for example, the way this student took a playful approach that still made a clear argument by arguing for a restaurant as a microcosm of UVA life:
I’m consistently impressed with how well suited pecha-kucha can be to a wide variety of topics, including many which don’t initially seem to lend themselves to visuals. Students find inventive ways to use the visuals to illustrate, exemplify, and amplify their points.
I’ve been trying to figure out why the student work that emerges from these presentations strikes me as so good. Some part of it may be that the time constraint means students must spend a fair bit of time prepping their presentations, or that the risk of public embarrassment encourages them to excel. As much of the credit, however, is due to the pecha-kucha format, which helps students who think visually express their points visually, segments an argument into 20 straightforward chunks (and thereby encourages clear claims and evidence), and gets students excited about sharing their arguments with classmates. Whatever the reason for my students’ success with these presentations, the success has been widespread enough that I’m hoping to have students do these presentations in semesters ahead.
I haven’t tried it yet, but I also hope to explore how p-k could work in the literature classroom. I suspect, for example, that using pecha-kucha could help students make energetic but thoughtful close-readings of poetry. I think pecha-kucha would be a great way to have students introduce new authors and new concepts at the beginning of class (after I do the same a few times to give them a clear sense of how it works). Translating P-K to the literature classroom might well be a failed experiment, but if my student’s experience with p-k this year is any indication, I doubt it.
Documenting digital pedagogy and research about modernism, conceptualism, nonsense, seriousness, poetry, and digital culture