Moving On

I’ve moved on to a position at the School of Literature, Communication, and Culture at Georgia Tech. While I will no longer continue to update this site, it will remain up as a document of my instructional technology work while at Macaulay.

If you’re interested in some of the more current projects happening at Macaulay, I recommend checking out the eportfolios of the current Instructional Technology Fellows, linked to from their bio pages on the main Macaulay site: The Macaulay Eportfolio Gateway may also be of interest.

Thank you for visiting!

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How We Know What We Know: Thomas Jefferson, James Hemings, and the Task of the Scholar (and Teacher) in the Digital Age

The following remarks (here slightly condensed and reformatted) were prepared for a talk about the role of digital humanities scholarship in the classroom, although you’ve got to get to the very end before you see some of the pedagogical scenarios I propose. I’m posting these remarks here, also, because I haven’t yet blogged about some of the social network analysis and visualization techniques I’ve been exploring of late, and I’m eager to hear others’ comments and questions– and suggestions– about the project.

At the outset, I should also thank David Sewell, with the University of Virginia Press’s Rotunda imprint, for granting me access to the XML files of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition. The textual analysis that I describe in this talk would have been virtually impossible without the support of the UVA Press.

How We Know What We Know: Thomas Jefferson, James Hemings, and the Task of the Scholar (and Teacher) in the Digital Age

In preparing these remarks, I found myself returning to a line from the introduction to SpecLab, Johanna Drucker’s 2009 meditation on the digital humanities center that she helped to create at the University of Virginia nearly ten years earlier. In attempting to define the digital humanities for her readers, she explains that the field does not simply entail the creation of “new electronic environments for access to traditional or born-digital materials. It is the study of ways of thinking differently about how we know what we know and how the interpretive task of the humanist is redefined in these changed conditions” (xii).

What continues to resonate with me about Drucker’s definition is how she conceives of the digital humanities both in terms of its epistemological function—about “how we know what we know”—and in terms of its function for us as critics—and I will add here, as teachers as well. It’s my hope that with the example I’ll provide today, I will demonstrate how the question of “how we know what we know” has guided me from my dissertation research to my own digital humanities scholarship, and how, over the course of that investigation, it has prompted me to inquire about my role as a literary critic, working in the archive of American culture today. I also hope that with this example, I will illustrate how I encourage my students—as well as the faculty members I work with in my capacity as an Instructional Technology Fellow—to question the function of their scholarship, and to examine their roles as humanists in what Drucker would call the “changed conditions” of the digital age.

My dissertation demonstrates how a shared cultural language of food– or, more accurately, eating– emerged out of the transition from colonial rule to the early republic, and how that language transformed, over the generations that followed, into a national consensus about the interdependence of the cultivation of the American palate and the cultivation of virtuous citizenship. I argue for a conception of a distinctly American sense of taste, one that is both gustatory and aesthetic. I show how this composite sense of taste expresses the ideals associated with the nation’s founding, and at the same time, incorporates its enduring contradictions of race, gender, and class. One of my dissertation chapters is about Thomas Jefferson, who was one of America’s first great gastronomes, as well as one of its founding fathers. And of course, as is widely known, he was also a slaveholder.

In fact, when Jefferson was appointed Ambassador to France, in 1785, he took an enslaved man, James Hemings, with him to Paris, and enrolled him in culinary school. James Hemings was the older brother of Sally Hemings, recognized now as the woman with whom, whether consensually or not, Jefferson maintained a lifelong relationship, and who bore six of his children. Because of the outstanding archival work of Annette Gordon-Reed, whose biography of the Hemings family was published in 2007, we also know that, for instance, while in Paris, Hemings employed a personal tutor in order to learn to speak fluent French. And another thing Hemings learned in Paris was what it might mean to be free.

During Jefferson’s tenure as Ambassador, France adhered to what was called the “Freedom Principle,” which held that any enslaved person who set foot on French soil would be, from then on, considered free. Hemings could have invoked this principle of freedom, and liberated himself from bondage, but he chose not to. Instead, he continued to hone his gastronomical skill, and eventually became the head chef in Jefferson’s Parisian residence. Gordon-Reed suggests that Hemings most likely made a verbal agreement with Jefferson to return to America, whereupon he would receive his freedom. The only written evidence for this, however, is a document from four years after their return, a formal, although not legally-binding agreement that establishes the conditions for Hemings’s eventual emancipation.

The agreement notes the “great expense” of “having James Hemings taught the art of cookery.” It expresses Jefferson’s desire to “befriend him, and to require from him as little in return as possible,” before stipulating that Hemings must instruct a replacement cook before he can be freed. In essence, the agreement proposes that Hemings ensure the legacy of his culinary knowledge in exchange for his personal liberty. Jefferson’s conditional proposition—to which Hemings had no choice but to consent—exemplifies the form of barbarism that Saidiya Hartman identifies, in Scenes of Subjection, as evident not only in the “constitution of slave as object but also in the forms of subjectivity and circumscribed humanity imputed to the enslaved” (6). Indeed, Jefferson’s measured tone and offer of friendship illustrate, in stark relief, the incontrovertible authority of Jefferson as master, and the resultant subjection of Hemings as slave. Jefferson characterizes himself as a benevolent force of liberty, but his concern with the practical implications of Hemings’s release reveals the ways in which his heightened valuation of the “art of cookery” takes precedence over the foundational rights of the republic. In regard to the argument I make in my dissertation, about the contradictions enforced through the cultivation of American taste, this document exemplifies—to the highest degree—how the daily, lived experience of slavery enters into—and ultimately disrupts—the more polished narrative that Jefferson seeks to promote about the values and ideals inherent in American taste.

But what I want to focus on, today, is not the shadow cast by slavery on Jefferson’s conception of American taste. Rather, I want to discuss how the shadow cast by James Hemings, as I first encountered it in the Jefferson Digital Archive, prompted me to explore “how I knew what I knew” about Hemings’s life, and how I might employ a set of digital tools and methods—in particular, natural language processing software and social network visualization techniques—in order to know more.  I’ll then address the second aspect of Drucker’s definition of digital scholarship, about how the “interpretive task of the humanist” is redefined in the digital age, by way of my students’ response to my project, and I’ll suggest how a related set of digital tools might be employed in the classroom in order to further expand the bounds of humanistic inquiry.

When you search for “James Hemings” in the Jefferson Digital Archive, you get no results. In the screencap on the left, you see a vivid instantiation of what Michel-Rolph Trouillot, the eminent historian, has called the “silence” of the archive. More recently, though, scholars from across the humanities, such as the literary critics Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, the sociologist Avery Gordon, and the archivist Jeannette Bastian, have each shifted their focus from identifying and recovering these silences, to a new focus, instead, on animating the mysteries of the past. Best and Marcus, for instance, tell us we must learn to see shadows in the archive, shadows such as Hemings, as “presences, not absences, and let ghosts be ghosts, instead of saying what they are ghosts of” (13). Their point, which is an important one, is that we must find a way to acknowledge the silences of history without reinforcing the damaging notion that African American voices from before emancipation—not just in the archival record, but the voices themselves—are silent, and irretrievably lost.

Best and Marcus propose a theoretical solution to archival silence—one that I find quite compelling—but I would like to propose a practical solution that might complement their aims: let’s visualize these absences, let’s animate these ghosts of the past. If few documents exist that were written by or to James Hemings, what about those—like the emancipation agreement—that were written about him.

Using Protovis, a javascript-based toolkit from Stanford, that allows users to present textual data in various visual forms, I was able to create the visualization to the left (click to enlarge). What I have created is called an arc diagram. It visualizes the people with whom Jefferson corresponded about James Hemings and his family. This is what sociologists call a social network–a concept that predates our current understanding of social networking websites, like Facebook, but in fact works in a similar way. I compiled my social network data by performing a series of searches in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition, a newer, more complete site, launched in 2009 by the University of Virginia Press’s Rotunda imprint, based on the thirty-six volume (and counting) Princeton University Press print edition. Because the Digital Edition allows users to search the Papers’ editorial notes, as well as its content, I was able to identify some—but not all—of the correspondence that mentioned members of the Hemings family.

I discovered that Hemings’s last name was spelled at times with two Ms and at other times with one. What was more troubling, and also technically problematic, was that because of Hemings’s status as a slave, he was more often referred to by his first name only. Not only are there many Jameses mentioned in the Jefferson archive, but James Hemings was also called Jamie, Jimmy, and even Gimmé while in France. Although in my search, I was able to discover a range of documents that referred to Hemings, I was reliant on the editors of the Papers to have reviewed each letter, one by one, in order to identify any references to Hemings, and then for them to have recorded the reference– with first and last name– in the accompanying editorial note. As one might imagine, this process is an intensive one, and the papers’ editors have been working on the project since 1950. One volume of letters is published in print and online every few years. My last inquiry revealed that the digital Papers currently includes material through 1801. In that year, Jefferson was fifty-eight. Jefferson lived to be eighty-three. And his papers’ editors still have approximately twenty-five additional volumes of his correspondence to annotate.

Which is all to say that while this visualization may be incomplete, it is still quite significant. You’ll notice that I’ve arranged the correspondents in groups—indicated by the different colors—from left to right, Jefferson and his family, Jefferson’s political correspondents, his hometown friends, his correspondents in France and abroad, his enslaved staff, his plantation overseers and free plantation staff, and on the end, people about whom I could find very little (or in some cases, no) biographical information. An arc connecting two names indicates that they corresponded. I have not distinguished between the author and recipient of each letter, since this is a preliminary rendering, but the width of the arc indicates the frequency with which they corresponded. So because these are the Jefferson Papers, all arcs connect to him. You’ll notice that darker, wider arcs connect to Nicholas Lewis, Jefferson’s neighbor in Virginia; George Jefferson– Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia agent, although apparently not a close family relation; and then to Richard Richardson, who worked as a plantation overseer at Monticello. Presumably, Jefferson corresponded with each of these men about the services that Hemings provided on the plantation. And this visualization points to the record of the labor—the difficult, daily labor—that Hemings was required to perform.

The fourth wide arc, though, the one that connects to William Evans, is—socially speaking—an outlier. Evans ran an inn outside Baltimore, and he wasn’t even a close friend to Jefferson. When you search for Evans in the Digital Edition, you turn up a single, sparse chain of correspondence from 1801, which was eight years after Jefferson recorded his agreement with James Hemings, and five years after Heming’s legal emancipation. In the first of these letters, Jefferson writes to Evans: “You mentioned to me in conversation here that you sometimes saw my former servant James.” Jefferson asks that Evans “send for him & tell him I shall be glad to receive him,” before shifting the focus of his inquiry to another man, Francis Sayes. According to the letter, Sayes also “lived with [Jefferson] formerly,” but little else about Sayes– including whether he was another slave, or a free man– is currently known. Sayes “had begun to drink a little before he left me, & I fear he continues it,” Jefferson reports to Evans. But more problematically, at least as far as the eternally financially-preoccupied President was concerned, Sayes had expressed repeated interest in seeking work at Jefferson’s new Washington residence. “He was an affectionate & honest servant to me, which makes me unwilling to reject him absolutely; and yet the fear of his drinking and of his getting his family into distress by removing them, induces me to wish rather that he would decline the thought.” Jefferson explains this to Evans, and then he makes a direct request: “Should he be with you, or fall into your way, I would thank you to discourage him.”

The multiple forms of communication mentioned to in this letter, alone, underscore just how small a section of the past is preserved in even the largest, and most exhaustive archive. At the start of the letter, Jefferson makes reference to a prior “conversation.” He then asks his innkeeper friend to “tell” Hemings a message, which emphasizes the complex trail of communication between men with permanent residences and those who were more itinerant, as well as between men and women who regularly sent letters, and those who, because of any number of cultural and political strictures, were unable or unequipped to write. In the letter to Evans, Jefferson also refers to the fact that his other former employee, Sayes, “says that his wife has good custom in Baltimore as a washer,” information that was either communicated orally, during a prior meeting, or quite possibly in another letter that was not simply preserved [emphasis added]. And in contrast to the specific message that Jefferson begins the letter by asking Evans to convey, at the end of the letter, Jefferson asks Evans to use his own words to “discourage” Sayes from seeking future employment at the President’s house.

As a result of this convoluted exchange, neither Hemings nor Sayes ever arrived in Washington. Evans was successful in convincing Sayes not to contact Jefferson, and according to Gordon-Reed, Hemings most likely took offense that Jefferson had not attempted to communicate with him directly, and never spoke to Jefferson again. In fact, Hemings’s response to Jefferson, conveyed in another letter from Evans, would be his last recorded sentiment. An eight month gap in the correspondence between Jefferson and Evans ensues. The subsequent—and final—exchange between Jefferson and Evans, from November 1801, confirms the “melancholy circumstance” of Hemings’s suicide.

We need not make the ghost of James Hemings stand for something, as Best and Marcus caution. To be quite certain, the ghost of James Hemings means enough. But what we can do is examine the contours that his shadow casts on the Jefferson archive, and ask ourselves what is illuminated, and what remains concealed. In the case of the life—and death—of James Hemings, even as we consider the information disclosed to us through Jefferson’s correspondence, and the conversations they record—we realize just how little about the life of James Hemings we will ever truly know. Was there some way I could animate this mystery, I then asked myself?

In view of not only the multiple modes of communication, but also the multiple voices that are recorded in the Jefferson archive, I decided to try to visualize the men and women who were mentioned in the content of the letters (left; click to enlarge). Technically, this was a much more challenging task. I contacted David Sewell, at The University of Virginia Press’s Rotunda imprint, who sent me the digitized versions of the Jefferson Papers in XML form. I then extracted the text of the letters from those files, and ran it through what’s called a named entity recognizer—software that derives from the field of computational linguistics that is able to identify, or “recognize,” sequences of words in a larger text that represent so-called “named entities,” mostly people and places, and some things. The names that you see on the bottom of this visualization are people who are mentioned by name in the letters, as determined by the named entity recognizer. I went through the results afterwards by hand, in order to eliminate the errors and duplicates that I could recognize—such as the variations in James Hemings’s name mentioned earlier, or changes in name that occur during a person’s life, such as in the case of Martha Jefferson, Jefferson’s oldest daughter, who was referred to as Patsy as a child, and became Martha Randolph after marriage. In preparing this visualization for today, I also eliminated about a hundred names of people who were mentioned in the set of letters only once, so that the diagram could fit on one screen. I then wrote my own co-appearance analysis script, in Python, in order to determine which people were mentioned in the same letter as each other, and how many times those people appeared together. And then I formatted the data to be displayed using Protovis, as before. So the arcs shown here are generated from the same set of letters as in the previous diagram, but the relations among the people mentioned are much more complex.

Significantly, the arcs that link Jefferson to his slaves are much wider than those that link him to many of his correspondents, suggesting the degree to which he relied on his enslaved staff to implement his various directives—buying things, selling things, even telling them things—in fact, it would appear, to an extent greater than the people with whom he directly corresponded. The visualization I’ve created brings these dependencies to the surface, but it still does not provide answers to the questions of what these people said in their conversations, where they went in order to conduct their transactions, or how they truly experienced their everyday lives.

When I showed this visualization to some of the students I work with at CUNY, their suggestions for how I might improve the project proved this point. “What if you made it draw the arcs over time,” one student offered. “Then you could see which people were more important to Jefferson, and when,” she said. “What about if you could do this for all of the letters in the archive,” another one suggested. And in fact, that’s a direction I’ve also considered, and one that I’d like to begin to implement. “Could you put it on a map?” another asked. “These letters were sent to places, right?” Or, my favorite: “Why don’t you make those lines link back to the letters,” this one student said. “Then you could find out what the letters said.”

All of the suggestions my students offered—framed pragmatically, and offered as friendly advice—confirmed for me the ways in which digital tools and methods—and not just the advanced techniques I’ve employed here, but also blogs, wikis, podcasts, maps, what have you—bring the process of humanistic inquiry to the surface. My students quickly recognized the information presented by my visualization, but they almost immediately began to ask how they could learn more.

This is the process I aim to bring to the classroom, with the way in which I incorporate digital methods and tools. These tools allow us, as Johanna Drucker explains, not only to create digital versions of prior research, or digital frames for presenting scholarly analysis; they also open up to us—and to our students—the possibilities of humanistic inquiry. I’d be happy to discuss some of the projects I’ve worked on with students—and faculty—in the past, that have ranged from timeline projects to travel blogs, video documentaries to wikis. But I want to end, briefly, by showing how some easy-to-use, web-based text-analysis tools, might allow students to participate in—or even to initiate—work similar to that which I’ve shown today.

Here’s the text of all the Hemings letters cut-and-pasted into Wordle (left). Wordle lets you make word clouds like the one to the left, with the size of the word corresponding to the number of times it appears. (It selected the “olde” font automatically, based on the archaic language that my pasted text contained). But you can see even here, larger words like “time,” “money,” and “work.” I’d love to show this to students who’d read a bit about James Hemings, and ask them what they thought it implied.

Here’s another example, using the Google Ngram Viewer (left). This is a comparison of the relative frequency of occurrence of the names “Jefferson” and “Hemings” in the period of time from Thomas Jefferson’s birth to the present. It’s mostly as you would expect, for a comparison between a US President and an man he enslaved, but what about those small bumps, clustered around a few distinct time periods? The most recent one, I would guess, was in response to the DNA testing that confirmed that Jefferson had, in fact, fathered children by Sally Hemings. But wouldn’t it be wonderful to send students on a historical quest, in order to determine what the earlier bumps in frequency corresponded to.

Or, finally, here’s another cut-and-paste tool, IBM’s Many Eyes, that allows you to produce what’s called a word tree. A word tree is a map of what words and phases follow from a particular word that you’ve selected. So here I started by searching for James, and just by reading down the resultant connecting phrases, you can see how James Hemings was referred to sometimes as “James,” and sometimes as “James Hemings.” Then you can also see in what contexts he was mentioned—“shall go with me to Monticello,” “is now of the age of thirty.” From this, you get as clear a sense as any of the life James Hemings lived.

In an essay, “In Praise of Pattern,” Stephen Ramsay, one of the pioneers in visualizations of literary texts, whose own digital scholarship centers on the statistical analysis of scene structure in Shakespeare’s plays, underscores the importance of aligning digital tools and methods with what he calls the “imperatives of humanistic inquiry.” What I hope I’ve demonstrated, today, is an example of how digital tools, when aligned with interpretive questions, can open up our eyes as scholars, and as teachers, to the possibilities of humanistic inquiry. I hope I’ve shown how digital tools challenge us to articulate—in the full range of media, and the cultural forms that we encounter in our everyday lives–how we know what we know, and also what else we might learn. So I’ll end there, and with that, I invite your questions, and your ideas.

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The Macaulay Eportfolio Collection: A Case Study in the Uses of Social Networking for Learning

By popular request, here’s (most of) the text of my talk from the Social Networking panel at the 2011 MLA. I’ve condensed the first part, since it described the social network we set up for our incoming freshmen, and it’s not available for public view. But in all other cases I’ve inserted links to and/or screencaps of the various sites and features that I discussed.

Many thanks go to Barbara Lafford for her efforts in organizing the panel, and to the other panel participants, Sean McCarthy and Steven Thorne, for their stimulating remarks.

The Macaulay Eportfolio Collection: A Case Study in the Uses of Social Networking for Learning

I’d like to begin my talk with an introduction to the Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York. And I’m going to try to do so in a way that mimics the way in which our incoming students are introduced to the program. So here we go. You’re all students again, and it’s the summer before your freshman year. (Please don’t panic). This is what you know so far:

You’ve been admitted to this competitive program within the CUNY system. You’ve selected one of the seven participating campuses, either because you’re drawn to the strengths of that particular campus, or because you’re planning to continue to live with your parents and you want to continue to learn within the community that has supported you for the first eighteen years of your life. You’re probably also the first person in your family to have gone to college, and you like the idea that MHC students have a dedicated advising team that will support you for the next four years, in both your scholarly and your professional pursuits. Oh also, you’ll be given a free laptop. You know that you’ll put that laptop to use during a series of required honors seminars during your first two years of coursework. But that’s pretty much all you know so far.

Then you get an email inviting you to join a social network for entering Macaulay freshmen. You click the link in the message and you see the site to the left. (For privacy reasons, it’s just a screencap, but you can click the image to make it larger). The site has information about orientation, some links on the right side for getting started on the site—you can edit your profile, create a group, post in a forum, or find a friend. Below that, you see the profile pictures of classmates who have already begun to explore the site. And over on the left side, you see something about Macaulay ambassadors, current Macaulay students who can answer your questions. Hm, you think. Who are they?

You click on one ambassador’s profile. You see that he’s a student at Hunter College, and that his major is Communications Design. You also notice that he’s sent someone a message, using a syntax that looks sort of like Twitter. You note his favorite movie and musician, and that he likes something called “guerilla marketing.” He could be a useful resource, or a maybe even a friend. You continue exploring.

You click the link to see the ambassador’s activity on the site. You see that he’s answered a technical question about Photoshop, and another one about the best free image-hosting websites. You also notice some funny posts that he’s made. Something about a trivia night?

You hover over the “Community” tab and then click “Forums.” From the forums, you get some tips about how to find off–campus housing, the technical specs for your new laptop, as well as information about a possible Creative Writing Major. You also notice some groups on the right hand side, including one for writers…

I could go on exploring the freshman social network—there’s really so much interesting material on the site—but I want to pause for a moment to give you a little technical information. The site is built entirely with off-the-shelf (or in this case, downloadable) tools. We used WordPress, which is a free and open source web publishing platform, used primarily for blogging. One of the advantages of WordPress is that it offers over a thousand of what are called “themes,” that can be installed and activated by the administrator of a site. They allow for a significant amount of customization in terms of layout and design, without requiring almost any technical knowledge at all.

The theme we used for the social network is called BuddyPress, and it’s a little bit of a special case, in that it not only offers a layout that is modeled after a social networking site, but also includes additional social networking-type features as part of the theme. Usually, with WordPress, you add functionality to the site by activating various plugins. We like to tell our students that if themes are like wallpaper, then plugins are like the furniture you put in the room.

That’s as far into the technical aspects of the site as I want to go during this talk, although I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have later. What I’m more interested in, today, is how the aspects of social networking that are foregrounded by this site—the ability to forge relationships between individuals and within communities, the ability to communicate, collaborate, and share ideas within these communities, and the organic, egalitarian nature of the ideas themselves, carry over into—and as I will argue, enhance—the students’ scholarly work.

At Macaulay, the carryover between the freshman social network and the students’ scholarly work is by design. We believe in creating a learning experience that is immersive and experiential. In fact, the curriculum at Macaulay, which is centered around New York City, is designed to encourage students to conceive of college—and the city itself—as a set of linked and mutually-informing learning experiences. We use the same WordPress platform as the basis for our college-wide blogging system, so that all student work, both scholarly and personal, is united in a single, online location. All students register for the system during orientation week. And once registered, any member—student or faculty—can create a new blog or project site within the system.

We call our blogging system the Macaulay Eportfolio Collection, and you can view it here. (You can how it looks to registered users in the screencap on the left). While the layout is similar to the freshman social network, the Macaulay Eportfolio Collection is designed with a slightly different focus. With this system, our primary aim is to encourage active student blogging and critical multimedia reflection. For this reason, we’ve foregrounded certain information across that reddish-orange navigation bar: what we mean by “eportfolio,” how to get started, and basic technical support. But you’ll also notice that up at the top right of the page are the same links to “activity,” “members,” “groups,” and “forums,” as were featured on the freshman social network. In fact, clicking these links takes you to member profile pages of the same format as the freshman social network. (Sorry! Can’t link to member profile pages in this online version of my talk!). But you’ll notice that instead of the 150 or so freshmen who signed up for the social network, we have 1656 active members on the Eportfolio site, representing three years of increasing use.

Because of the more scholarly focus of this site, when you click on a member’s activity, you see a record of their coursework, comments, and personal blogging all in one place. You can see a screencap of my recent activity on the left.

We know that students appreciate the ability to track each others’ work through the social network, because they tell us. The groups that you see that I’ve created are, admittedly, under-utilized. But what are the uses of these social networking features for learning? How does a sense of community contribute to student learning? What is gained with informal, comment-based communication? What happens when students collaborate with each other, and share their ideas? And what results when students are empowered to present their ideas on their own terms?

Consider this example, a multi-part multimedia assignment designed by Professor Roz Bernstein, working with one of my colleagues, Lynn Horridge. Together, Bernstein and Horridge conceived of a project in which students were asked to interview a person who either represented—or had experienced—a “cultural encounter” (the theme of the course). Students then edited their interviews into podcast format, and then uploaded the audio file, along with a companion essay, to the course blog that you see. Some of the essays, such as this student’s account of the origins of his parents’ relationship in Guyana, are direct transcriptions of carefully-crafted podcasts. They demonstrate precisely the form of critical multimedia literacy that Jay Lemke and Jamie Bianco, among others, advocate for the 21st-century classroom.

More specifically, the student’s podcast, taken with his accompanying essay, touch deeply and poignantly on the social, economic, and religious forces that mediate most encounters between cultures. The student frames his podcast as an example of how “social classes and religious affiliation are strong determining factors with [respect to] whom you hang out [with] and especially whom you could marry.” In the comments posted below his essay, his classmates comment in equal parts on the critical perspective that he offers, the narrative structure that he employs, and the emotional impact of the essay on the students themselves. In the social context of the Macaulay Eportfolio collection, students are able to express their appreciation of each others’ scholarly work in a range of registers. In so doing, they create their own pathways from the learning that takes place in the classroom to the learning that takes place in their everyday lives.

Another student’s project, an interview with a woman from Honduras, working as a housekeeper in Brooklyn, illuminates the critical function that informal, comment-based communication can serve. In this case, the student’s interview and essay’s placement within the social context of the eportfolio site encourages her classmates to help her to tease out the implications of her own cultural encounter. Unlike the first student, this student does not edit her audio interview. Instead, she complements the full interview with commentary about the interviewing process. As you can hear, the student and her interview subject, Toya, communicate in a mixture of English and Spanish. The tapping noise that you hear in the background, as I later discovered, was the student typing her questions into Google Translate when she couldn’t formulate the questions in Spanish on her own. As evidenced in the recording, even with the student’s limited Spanish and the interview subject’s basic English, the two communicate in a warm and compelling manner.

In her essay, however, the student remains concerned with the “simplistic” answers that she recorded, attributing the perceived lack of substance to a language barrier. Through her classmates comments, a different impression of the interview emerges. One classmate writes that the interview makes him imagine what it would be like to interview his own grandmother. “It would have gone very much the same way,” he explains. Several other students comment on the interviewer’s Spanish. “I laughed when I listened to your Google translations of certain questions because they did not make sense grammatically,” one writes. But another offers reassurance: “I promise I didn’t laugh at your Spanish, I hear [and] speak Spanglish all the time at home… it’s a great mixture of languages!” Through her classmates’ personal reactions, the student-interviewer discovers that she has glimpsed a world of linguistic interplay and cultural exchange in which many of her classmates permanently reside. Her classmates’ comments alert her to evidence of her own cultural encounter, a learning experience that will resonate long after the final course meeting.

In the previous two examples, I’ve shown how open communication and community formation each extend from the social features embedded in course blogs, overseen by faculty members and instructional technology fellows such as myself. In my remaining time, I want to offer a few brief examples of how the social framework of the overarching eportfolio site also, at times, encourages the reverse: critical multimedia literacy and scholarly analysis that emerges organically from within students’ personal blogs and project sites. These examples all come from “Away and Abroad,” a site that employs a WordPress plugin to aggregate the content posted on the personal blogs of students studying abroad in a single, online location. When a student writes a post on or uploads a photo to his or her individual blog, the content becomes (almost) immediately viewable on the “Away and Abroad” site.

A recent visit to the site reveals one student’s photos of graffiti near La Boca in Buenos Aires, another student’s written reflection entitled “An American in China,” a third student’s link to a New York Times article about international urban planning, and a fourth student’s blog post about hamburgers. Clicking through to each of the students’ individual blogs reveals a range of formats and topics. The photographer’s site foregrounds her images, with frequent short updates about life in Buenos Aires. The student in China, along with a detailed personal profile, has charted his semester-long itinerary to the day. His blog posts, each a carefully composed meditation on life abroad, are tagged and cross-referenced so that they can be viewed by topic, location, or medium of composition. The post about the hamburger? A student who had traveled abroad and returned—but who had continued to update her site with her thoughts about reentry to the United States.

The study abroad blogs are noteworthy for their diversity of structure, content, and tone. With the flexible WordPress platform, students can decide for themselves—and crucially, at any point in time—about the primary use and the intended audience of each blog. In the case of the study-abroad blogs, some students, like the student in Buenos Aires, opted for a more informal, record-of-the-moment style blog. The student in China conceived of his site as showcase for both personal experience and scholarly growth. Common to both sites—and to the study-abroad blogs as a whole—is the knowledge (or perception) of an audience, and the rightly-held conviction that the experience of traveling abroad is worthy of documentation. Without prompting from a professor or a classroom assignment, the students studying abroad engage in substantial analysis about the differences between life at home and abroad. And through their written reflections, digital photos, and in some cases—short films—they demonstrate the critical multimedia literacy that is a significant learning objective of the Macaulay seminars as well.

I want to close with an example of a travel blog that exemplifies this form of critical multimedia literacy, as well as the ability to reflect upon and analyze a range of media and other cultural forms—all in the student’s own voice. “I’m still experimenting on the format for this blog, but I doubt I’m going to keep it for only study abroad stuff. Although I might. Who knows? I’m probably also going to change the color scheme. I like this format better than the old one–the text is larger, and the format seems cleaner to me, but I tend to favor more color,” the student writes, before explaining her choice for the blog’s new header image and title. She goes on to talk about the function her blog will play: “I was planning to begin properly working on this site in September, to start playing around with the blogging options on WordPress and see if this blog can fill a niche in my life…. Of course, then I had to keep three blogs for different classes for the Fall 2010 semester, and it just didn’t happen,” she explains. In these first few blog posts, however, is already evidence of her analytical ability—both with respect to textual content, and with respect to issues of function and form. In addition, her reference to her three different course blogs underscores how she, and her fellow students, have embraced the idea that all learning is connected, and that the same tools might—and in fact should—be used for both scholarly work and personal expression.

With the Macaulay Eportfolio Collection, we aim to present a framework that situates student work within the social context of the web, and within which opportunities for connection, communication, and collaboration, can each play themselves out. It is my hope that with these examples, I’ve demonstrated the potential of social networking for learning. And I also hope that I’ve demonstrated how much more that can be done. So that’s where I’ll end today. I invite your comments, your questions, and your ideas. Thank you.

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Building a Course Website for Future Use

I had two main objectives when I set out to design the companion website for my MA-level methods course. The first was pedagogical: I wanted to take advantage of the informality associated with blogging in order to approach assignments that might otherwise be perceived as daunting– like explicating Derrida, for example, or doing a close reading of a poem. (I write more about using blogging to scaffold writing assignments here).

The second objective for the site was more conceptual: I wanted to create a lasting resource for my students. The methods course was required of all students preparing to take the MA in English comprehensive exam. But since the exam wasn’t offered until the following spring, there would be several months between taking my course and sitting for the exam. I knew that my students would have to return to the materials in order to study for the exam. So I wanted to create a site that they could refer back to at a later date.

I say here that I wanted to create this site, but taking a page from the constructionist camp, what I really wanted to do was create a framework within which my students could create their own site for future use. To that end, I designed each assignment to include a structured, online component. Instead of asking students to write out definitions for the set of literary terms that they were required to learn for the exam, I directed them to the course website. I asked them to tag specific texts with any relevant terms, and then explain why they’d applied those particular terms to the text. (Ex: Li-Young Lee’s “Eating Alone”). In this way, the students would end up with examples, as well as definitions, of the terms they’d need to know for the exam. The tagging also resulted in this great tag cloud (left) which could be used as an alternate form of navigation.

I also designed several assignments around applications of literary theory, since that was another skill they’d be required to demonstrate on their exam. I began each formal assignment with an informal, online complement. For an assignment in which students were required to apply certain critical lenses to examine a scene from The Turn of the Screw, I had them begin by posting a close reading of their chosen scene online. Then, I asked them to assign categories to their post, reflecting the authors of the theories they intended to apply in their essays. (Ex: Marx, Freud, and The Turn of the Screw). Navigating the site by critic, at a later date, would reveal several passages from several texts on which that particular theory could be applied.

I wasn’t sure how my students would respond to being exposed to the nitty-gritty of WordPress– tagging, categorizing, navigating, etc. But as it turned out, the students found the assignments– and the website– useful. When it came time for the exam, traffic to the website spiked. And I, for one, continue to refer to certain student postings in order to gather ideas for future classroom discussion.

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The Food Doc Project

Since my dissertation research is also about the cultural significance of food, I’ve often thought about how I might teach a course on the subject. When Professor Cho asked if I had any other ideas for her Food, Self, and Society seminar, I mentioned that I’d always thought about including a video element. Between recent documentaries like Super Size Me and Food Inc., both of which she had on her syllabus, not to mention the deep history of TV cooking shows, it’s become pretty clear that there’s a real affinity between the kitchen and the screen. Professor Cho agreed, so we set out to design a food documentary project.

The goal of the project was for the students to adapt the content of their research papers into a new, visual form. Since the class size was small, and each student had focused on a related– but not overlapping– issue related to food, they decided to work together to produce the documentary. At home, each student story-boarded his or her segment. Then, we sat around a desktop with a very big screen, and began to put the pieces together.

To be continued…

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