How the NYT Sunday Magazine and Students Presenting Multi-Media Web Work Are Getting Me Thinking about a Couple of Conferences

Today’s New York Times Sunday Magazine section is filled with thought-provoking articles about the Big Apple, in large part focusing on the city’s relationship with its art, artists and patrons. James Traub’s “The Stuff of City Life” struck me in particular, I think, because of conversations I have been having with close colleagues recently and because of a presentation of my students’ multi-media web-based work yesterday.
Traub attended the new Alexander Hamilton exhibition at the once venerable and now-gone-techno New York Historical Society, and wrote about how the experience of walking through the Beaux Arts mansion bedecked with important original documents on one wall and huge video screens on the opposite wall was intensely disorienting, especially since the exhibition was apparently poorly labeled and the video screens were filled with the obvious if not the downright ridiculous (the best part of the show was, according to Traub, the Acoustiguide). He goes on to write:

And these companionable places are about things; they are shrines to the particular and irreproducible object. And just as rootedness is a diminishing category now that practically anything can move practically anywhere, so an orientation toward things feels increasingly obsolete in our age of rampant etherealization. The object world has been disembodied and uploaded so that we may access it without standing in its presence.

(I would disagree–yes, indeed this has been done to the object world, but in so doing we have been forced to reconsider the object and our relationship to it, and thus we have taken new notice of the object world, sometimes rejecting it, sometimes embracing it, have we not? Choices are not inherently bad.)

And then at the end, he makes the following point:

There is something deeply meretricious about the notion that we have to choose between a market-oriented museum culture of the video screen and an elitist, pettifogging culture dedicated to the silent contemplation of dusty Eskimos or dusty paraphemalia of the founding fathers. It need not be so.

Yes! Traub is pointing at a troubling polarization–the worst of two ends of the spectrum that co-exist in academia as well. When people use new technologies and media poorly, those of us trying to use them well find ourselves having to explain and defend, explain and defend. But we are also forced to be at our best, to do exemplary work because we have such a long way to go to show how integrating technology into the very core of our pedagogy does not mean undermining the Socratic ideals underlying the liberal arts education but can enhance and extend those very ideals and goals while educating our youth in the new literacies of the world. Sure, some people will insist on throwing video and computer screens into museum exhibitions and classrooms just because someone thinks it will attract the crowd. But there are likewise people putting the big blockbuster paintings on the walls and the big deal classics in the syllabi to do much the same. It’s far too easy to be the gatekeepers against the evil of the new, the seductive, the reductive computer-produced endeavor.

I’m beginning to put together presentations for two upcoming conferences: November’s NITLE Annual Conference: Voyage to Ithaka:Technology, Collaboration, and the Future of Liberal Arts Colleges” in Chicago, where with colleagues Bryan Alexander and Bret Olson from Middlebury College’s Center for Educational Technology and Mauricio Trippfrom Wabash College, I’ll be presenting on integrating multi-media technology into the liberal arts classroom;
and January’s NCII conference in New Orleans, where with Héctor Vila I’ll offer a workshop on integrating blogging into the higher ed classroom. Watching five of my students present their web-based multi-media work to an audience of parents yesterday (being Fall Family Weekend and all), had me thinking about those presentations well before the Traub article landed on my breakfast table:

In introducing the students, I discussed the range of projects, from the personal to the artistic to the scholarly, and how each student had taken the tools and used them in ways I hadn’t anticipated, pushing past simple multimedia narratives to scholarly, image-rich hypertext and visual slam poetry. Apart from a couple of technical stutters, the hour-long showcase went splendidly, with the five describing their projects clearly and enthusiastically, placing them within the context of their greater Middlebury education. They did themselves proud…

Two things really stood out for me during the event–as the teacher and as the blogger and as the researcher: hearing the students describe their work months and even years after completion, and hearing the responses of the audience–mostly though not exclusively a non-blogging/multi-media crowd. The students reflected back quite thoughtfully on the processes and outcomes of the work.

The sophmores remembered the frustrations, the time-consuming nature of working with video editing tools and having to think laterally, associatively about the appearance of their work and how it would be “read.” They described how writing hypertext changes everything about the academic paper in that the reader can read the work laterally rather than linearly, even moving outside the paper altogether to the scholary sources linked within the research. They found this linking, and the use of images and sound to be both liberating and challenging–they found themselves getting a little “lazy” with the writing when it was complemented by accompanying images or sound files, counting on the additional media to do some of the work that words would have to accomplish alone in a traditional essay. A couple of parents had questions about that point, about whether multi-media projects actually watered down the depth of the analysis and the sharpness of the prose. Excellent questions! The pair responded by saying that it made the writing “easier,” but that the project as a whole offered more than the written texts ever could–to them and to their readers– and so it was a matter of learning how to balance the liveliness of prose written for the web and the deep scholarly insights expected in such research.

I talked about audience and how until the students ventured onto our weblog, none of them had, in school, written anything of consequence for anyone other than a teacher. By adding the notion of REAL AUDIENCE, the students had to take into account a whole new grammar and syntax–using more than one media and posting openly to the Web requires a whole new way of thinking about writing, what it is and how to do it well. Interesting to note about these two students is that both of them are very accomplished writers–in their other classes following traditional rubrics of academic writing–and that their writing did indeed get a little wild and even a little general on the Web, something the parents clearly keyed into.

But I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all at this level–the students were challenged by the Web and had to adjust to it, and in so doing learned a great deal about academic writing off the Internet as well as on. They had a fresh view of choices and of voices and of modes of discourse. They weren’t just following rules someone else made up–they were searching for the rules of the piece they were writing. What this brings up for me and the conferences is the need to stress the importance of allowing our students time to learn how to write for the Web so that they take advantage of all it offers while not losing the depth and perhaps polish of the kind of writing endeavors they were doing offline. They need to actively compare, analyze and evaluate different modes of discourse for different purposes and different audiences. And we need to keep providing students with the opportunity to innovate and to integrate various means of expression and to publish this work. Of course.

The senior talked about how the work she had done in the class had led to her art history major and to her growing interest in multimedia work in her scholarship and artistic endeavors, how opening up her project on Sophie Calle with links and images and a creative exploration of being Sophie Callle helped her to create an entire world within her project, one that well-suited her material. A parent asked about whether the students had written their pieces in linear fashion and then had broken them up for web reading–they had said, no, that writing hypertext had asked for an entirely different writing process altogether.

Are those parents being turned off by the inappropriateness of technology poorly integrated into such settings as exhibitions at the New York Historical Society? Are they used to seeing presentations where the technology leads the subject rather than the subject leading the technology? Listening and taking part in the discussion with parents who understood and embraced the use of technology in the classroom and those who didn’t necessarily understand its value shows me how essential it is that we advocates of technology in the classroom articulate the pedagogical underpinnings as clearly as possible. We need more data, more research. Yes.

I am feeling a bit the way I did when I was one of five girls in the freshman class at Exeter which meant that I had to do twice as well as the boys in my class to achieve any sort of credibility with the teachers and the rest of the class…

And so we’ll continue to push ourselves to question our work, to improve our use of technology and to aspire to finding a balance between the object f2f world and the virtual e2e world.

So keep the questions coming and the thoughtful criticisms–

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