Monthly Archives: October 2012

8900: The false god of device convergence

I resonate with Henry Jenkins’ preoccupation with the black box effect, and I think the fourish plus years since the publication of Convergence Culture has only deepened the ongoing kludge of our relationship to media technology. Every feature integrated into a device, a new digital community, entertainment venue, or writing space beckons us to acquire more hardware. What we end up with at the current time is both convergence and divergence.

As an example of the divergent, I’ll fess up to some of my own embarrassing hardware missteps. Around 2007, I had thusfar resisted and in fact disdained the Blackberry trend, boggling at how difficult it was for some people to simply disconnect and acknowledge that their time just wasn’t that important. Then came the first iPhone. While my needs for mobile communication had not changed, I, as so many did, fetishized the device. I was lured by the promise of integration – of convergence. Here was a device that was both my phone and my music player, something I had actively been annoyed at carrying separately at this point. The fact that it also offered continuous access to interesting or fun or useful or illuminating content was not as important, but was easily rationalized in favor of its purchase.

I sat out the rush for the first model and came on board with the iPhone 3G. It was everything I wanted it to be, but it wasn’t perfect. I realized its limitations; it wasn’t a robust processor, it provided fenced-in content, and I realized that while it was great for short writing burst, its tiny touch screen came up short for lengthy writing. I never expected it to replace my laptop or desktop. I happily used it and enjoyed as its usability expanded through various updates, and moved on to the iPhone 4 two years later.

Concurrently, my interest in the iPad was increasing. I know this makes me sound like an Apple fanboy, but what I was drawn most to was the form factor. Plainly stated, it was just a big iPhone, but I hoped it would be the balance between the bulkiness of a laptop (the same laptop whose lightness, thinness, and relative power I marveled over only a couple years before) and the confines of the phone. Again I resisted for over a year, but again, I broke down and my wife and I bought one to share.

This is where the divergence begins to reappear despite all these seemingly convergent devices. Despite some buyer’s remorse over the iPad – for it really was just a big iPhone, so what did we expect? – the device has remained and inserted itself into a niche of use. My relationship with four very similar devices is thus: the phone I obviously carry with me everywhere (the irony of my former disdain for the Blackberry cult is not lost on me) and use so frequently for tasks both silly and serious, I cannot see having a “dumb” phone again. The iPad does what I don’t need the laptop’s serious power for, and also enables me to engage in longer and more comfortable screen reading than a laptop can, such as reading articles for classes and my own research. The laptop is there for when I need to seriously settle in to productive, high-intensity writing or research. Finally, a self-built PC desktop rounds out the onslaught as my access to the more processor- and graphics-intensive gaming world, something my laptop was incapable of doing for very long.

I have four devices that do extremely similar things, yet I’ve let them settle into precise and unique roles. This list can expand further, with my wife having a kindle for sustained digital reading, and our accumulation of 10 years worth of gaming consoles, an internet media streaming device, and a music and video serving device. Even one of the consoles has a fractured identity, having found new use recently in streaming downloaded video through the gaming PC. What galls me about this is that despite my wish to simplify, I have carved out so precise a niche for each of these items that I have difficulty considering how to let one go.

Thus, the divergence Jenkins foretells is realized, but in the name of convergence. I can’t deny the device fetishization at work, but each time I’ve acquired one of these devices, its cost relative to its offered service always seems a bargain. Before long, the device has carved out its niche and another golden calf appears on the horizon, promising to be the one device you need to restore balance to our fractious, fraught hardware existences. While I believe only the laptop holds the distinction of being truly required, I know I would sweat the loss of functionality the rest of the pack brings. I can only hope that true convergence happens in the near future, bringing a single (or hell, at this rate I could get by with only two or three) convergent messiah device to unify all these digital wants and needs, and that this is just the divergent storm before the convergent calm.

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8900: Emergent Aurality

Situated Aurality

One of the resources included in our reading/listening this week was the Soundmap from Rhode Island. After clicking through a dozen or so places around the tiny New England state, my first reaction was “Meh. So what’s the worth?” I appreciated the concept, and thought its interface within Google Maps was accessible, but I had difficulty articulating its worth. My next thought was, as close to verbatim as I recall, “I’m sure it matters to Rhode Islanders, but it’s not unique; Georgia/Atlanta has a similar project , and so did Michigan.”

I was immediately struck by a wave of homesickness for Michigan, went to its Sounds of the State page, and found the sound closest to where I lived, a lone blue dot in East Lansing titled “MSU Medley.” My ears drank in ducks on the babbling Red Cedar River, Beaumont Tower’s distant carillon bells, and the route announcement of a CATA bus. I was immediately resituated from my desk here in Smyrna to the riverside between the Hannah Administration building and Wells Hall, my feet dangling over the water and ducks pulling at my shoelaces because I was too slow in crumbling up the stale bread I’d taken from Brody Hall’s cafeteria earlier that morning.

That soundscape has become part of my experience, and will always be one of the places I can situate myself. I was there. That has meaning to me. I spent a few more minutes clicking around the sounds back in Michigan, smiling and nodding at a few that resonated, and shrugging at some that had no significance. And so it must be for people living in Rhode Island. Whether they’re down the road or across the world from Narragansett, sounds from its shores, piers, and streets situate them in their experienced places. These sound maps are worth more than their appeal to listeners outside the covered region, more than a digital drinking glass held up to a door for auditory voyeurs; these sounds are, for the residents, communication that carries something much more than the surface level detail. This is auditory composition, and it is a composition that is acutely aware of its authorship, its audience, and its message.

Crafted Auality

Somewhat briefer, I’d also like to acknowledge Jessica Barness’ Common Sounds project. Rather than letting the audience be just the audience, Barness invites them to take control of a handful of layerable soundtracks. I’m sure my progression through this was just like anyone else’s: try each sound individually, shrug and say okay. Then it was time to layer ALL the sounds! I, like everyone else who tried it did probably did, winced as the layers grew into an inarticulate cacophony. I resisted closing the window and I found that my auditory processing was up to the task, no matter how distasteful. My mind quickly organized the sounds into a unified piece that had rhythm and melody, even if a little too eccentric for my usual listening tastes. What occurred to me next was that I was listening to an entirely unique piece; each sound was playing in the order I layered it, which of course was situated differently in time to the sounds already playing and those yet to be added. Likely no one else (or at least very few others) chose the exact order and relative timing of the layers I did. I didn’t let it play long, but I enjoyed the tasks both of listening to the whole, and mentally isolating the individual layers while the rest continued to play.

I’d like to share a similar flash app with the class called The Chrome Project (although it should work well in any browser). I’ll leave it to you to figure out, but I think you’ll find the same sort of self-crafted aurality here, and the same challenges in contextualizing and isolating the different sounds. I hope you enjoy the process of tweaking and refining your compositions.

Pedagogical Aurality

With this week, we appear to be leaving behind the section of the course that has been the most enlightening to me so far. We’ve established that I’m now acutely aware of the fact that composition is a term much broader in scope and content than just writing. Not wanting to make the same mistake I did when we first began our talk of interface and the visual in composition, I kept my mind open regarding aural composition. What I’m left with now is the idea that perhaps composition is better (if somewhat muddily) defined as manipulable communication. Whether we’re engaging in verbal/written, a verbal/spoken, visual, or auditory communication, it is still communication we’re wholly in control of, both in form and content.

A few years ago, during my MA composition pedagogy course, we were asked to craft our teaching philosophies. Most of what I wrote now seems situated perfectly to where I was in my still very rudimentary thoughts on the teaching of composition, a plucky manifesto filled with vague affirmations of responsibility, open communication, and grammar vs. content. It wasn’t all together myopic, but it also wasn’t altogether well-informed. I’ve since discarded that statement, but have referred to it multiple times since, using it as a sort of mile marker in my pedagogical maturation. Most of what it contained is useless to me now, but as time progressed, one cogent, critical statement emerged from the detritus:

My specialty is my passion: writing. The written word is a pure form of discourse, no matter the writer or the audience. Writing provides the author the opportunity to present his or her most considered representation of their thoughts, their identities, and their beliefs. Each word, each thought can be chosen amidst a myriad of alternatives. Each such choice in expression gently shapes a writer’s voice, leaving a unique fingerprint on every work they undertake throughout time.

It’s been tweaked and remediated several times, but the core of what I wrote remains the same (and, oddly enough, its current form above appears on my LinkedIn page, of all places).

So, with my recent revelations in the visual and auditory realms of composition, now it’s time to consider revising it yet again. I come back to the thought of composition as manipulable communication. So long as the author/artist has control of a medium and a message to send, they’re composing. While I may personally have a particular passion for writing, I will do well to at least mentally swap in “composition” for “writing” in my teaching philosophy.

8900: Reflection

Thus far

Up to this point in the class, a simple thing has had the biggest impact on me professionally: expanding the definition of “composition.” I can’t begin to answer why it’s so, but I realize I have had a very restrained interpretation of that word when it came to first year composition courses. Even though I knew composition happens in many modes, I kept thinking writing, teaching writing, the writing process, and how writing is supported. Somewhat blithely, and despite many experiences and discussions that should have expanded my viewpoint, I kept focused on how I would be a writing instructor.

The past weeks of visual literacy work have had the biggest impact so far. Here again, understanding what is included in “composition” is key. When thinking about visual rhetoric, I recall that I’ve always been intrigued by the use of visual presentations in composition classes, but felt their inclusion risked missing the valuable development of writing. In this retrospect, I can’t fathom how I never made a stronger connection in my own mind. As discussed in an earlier blog post, I realized that when faced with the wide-open world of options on how to teach, I simplified things by retreating to a very analog format.

And so now I turn to reconciling this refined definition with my formative pedagogy. Already I’ve decided to get more visual than I might have without this insight. In the past few weeks, more of my in-class exercises have included visual elements, and I’ve already decided that digital and social writing will feature much more prominently the next time I lead a section of English 1101. A simple change to my current run was to reform the ongoing writing project I had planned (which I was reluctantly about to make a simple journal) into an ongoing discussion to prepare for the term’s final project, an open-topic research paper. A series of low-stakes uLearn discussion board posts have done far more to get my 1101 classes thinking about their writing processes than a simple open-ended free writing journal could. It’s not without its flaws and I’ve yet to see the final results of course, but I expect this simple use of digital writing in their composition processes has done a great deal of good. Perhaps a critical strength of this approach is my non-involvement with their discussion. I’ve divested myself, at least temporarily, of the be-all for how they approach their topic. The longer I can keep their perception of my perception off their minds, the more they can learn about how they compose.

For English 1102, which I assume I’ll have for at least one section next semester, I’m already planning to further open student writing to larger feedback by moving to a unified course blog. While it may be too late within my syllabus structure to effectively do so for Fall, my Spring classes will definitely feature a wholly visual project as one of the major grades. I look forward to convincing them the hallowed criteria for effective verbal writing are still relevant to effective visual writing.

Toward the end

Looking now at the end project, I’m going a slightly different direction. Back in my Graduate Resource Network presentation for Computers and Writing 2011, I began the process of looking into a thorny issue I faced several times at my writing center at University of Michigan-Flint. Inspired largely by a tutorial gone horribly wrong earlier that year (Wherein one slipped through a crack), I asked a vague question about how universities deal with the truly rare, truly technologically unaware/incapable – the people Prenksy must’ve had in mind as the worst of the Digital Immigrants. I’ve yet to experience this type of tutorial here at GSU, but I’m convinced this type of student can be found anywhere.

At the time I wrote that post, I was thinking of it from just the tutor perspective. That may endure as I take this project forward, seeing as writing center theory and practice continues as my main research interest. Regardless, it’s a question that all of composition theory must address, and that computers and composition researchers may be able to help me answer: since we must accept that in times of economic recession, non-traditional students enter college for the first time with little or no functional computer literacy, then must we develop a strategy to mitigate this disadvantage?

This recalls the earlier weeks of 8900 where, along with Selfe, we acknowledge that failing to expose students to computers denies them computer literacy. Now it has shifted. Functional literacy, if not proficiency, has become the standard assumption. Yet we will continue to have students who do not or cannot this expectation. How do we accommodate them? Is this illiteracy statistically present enough to even bother with? How should we address it if we decide we have this obligation?

Like during my feedback session at the GRN, I’m struggling with the feeling that I don’t know if I’ve refined a research question well enough to take this on, or if I should even consider the topic under my authority.

8900: Visual Literacy/Rhetoric

This week’s topic of visual literacy/rhetoric was a challenge for me to collect into handful of coherent takeaways. I purposely read Dr. Hocks’ Understanding Visual Rhetoric last in this group of four to forestall any bias I might take into the other readings; similar to Elbow’s awareness of the internal editor impinging on writing decisions (in Stroupe 613), I was concerned a familiarity with our instructor’s thoughts on the topic would naturally skew the conclusions I would draw from Arola, George, and Stroupe. That still happened, but because Hocks gives us a convenient way to organize our understanding of visual literacy and rhetoric in digital environments. While we certainly cannot ignore the non-digital in the composition classroom, I’d wager no one disagrees that digital comprises the vast majority of what our students engage with in visual composition.

From Hocks we can derive three statements about “how visual rhetoric operates in digital writing environments” (632): Authors define the audience stance, controlling interactivity for their audience; digital texts are degreed in their transparency, using established conventions of other media to reduce or eliminate audience awareness of the conveying medium or interface; and the merging of visual and verbal elements creates hybridity, a whole composition experience that may be greater than the sum of its parts.

I’m not sure if it was Dr. Hocks’ intention in selecting these pieces, but we can find something in each reading that lines up with audience stance, transparency, and hybridity.

Stroupe

I’ll turn first to Craig Stroupe’s Visualizing English. Stroupe argues in 2000 that the future for every instructor in every sub-discipline under the loose heading of English will necessarily entail coexistence with web or other digital authorship: “The discipline needs to decide not only whether to embrace the teaching of visual and information design in addition to verbal production … but, more fundamentally, whether to confront its customary cultural attitudes toward visual discourses and their insinuation into verbal texts” (608).

Stroupe hoped that if departments chose to engage with this challenge – to accept a hybridity of composition discourse, it would lead to an equalization of the marginalized and the privileged programs (609). This argument is pursued with a comparison between the expressivist theory of Peter Elbow and the function-minded theory behind a then current web design software guide. Stroupe finds unexpected unity between the two. Similar to Elbow’s belief that unencumbered espressivism leads to purer, stronger writing, Stroupe says of web design, “What distinguishes the truly powerful and effective Web author is the degree of control that he or she can have on the reader’s experience of visual layout and graphic display as mediated through the intervening tangle of technologies” (614).

George

In Diana George’s From Analysis to Design, we get a strong argument in favor of actively seeking to include more visual projects within the composition classroom. George draws the crux of her point early, referencing the effect of visual composition projects constructed by her own students. She relates the impact left by wholly visual presentations made by her students on the fate of post-colonial Africa; these presentations still carried the same goals of a traditional composition assignment, but George believes the visual’s capacity to effectively communicate is going unnoticed by composition instructors. “The work of these students and others like them has convinced me that current discussions of visual communications and writing instruction have only tapped the surface of possibilities for the role of visual communication in the composition class … our students have a much richer imagination for what we might accomplish with the visual than our journals have yet to address” (12). In this we see students understanding their power of controlling audience stance, and then using that agency to create a visual experience that in turn fosters a very carefully constructed message – just like the ideal of written or verbal composition.

George seeks to enhance understanding of the effects of visual communication and learning in the composition classroom, and makes a different call for instructors of composition than “a vague call for attention to ‘visual literacy’” (15). George instead wants composition instructors to understand that to students in the composition classrooms of today, the visual is what they have grown up with and know very well. Our students’ visual culture (an appraisal also certainly truer now than in the article’s publication year of 2003) prepares them to communicate in a more effectively visual way than we may be anticipating as their instructors.

George embarks on fostering this understanding by revisiting past run-ins between verbal composition traditionalism and emerging visual medias. This has happened repeatedly in the several decades past as composition instructors at first resisted, then accepted the encroachment of photography, film, comics, or television into their students’ extracurricular experiences. It seems, though, that despite this constant pressure, we have only recently begun to accept or actively promote the more visual forms of composition and expression.

Arola

Finally, in Kristin Arola, we have a more current appraisal of the effectiveness in web design, speaking directly to issues of transparency in web design – coincidentally a popular venue of visual composition. Starting first with her own progressive experience in web design, Arola sings the virtues of maintaining holistic composition through the ability to manipulate every single part of a web design. Recalling the first time she created a web page at the HTML code/Photoshop level, “I felt powerful creating my own designs, and for the first time ever I felt technologically literate” (4).

What concerns Arola is the effect of the “Web 2.0” shift on web authoring. After dismaying at her students’ seeming indifference to ownership of online content in the age of Facebook and other social media, Arola relays:

As one student smartly analogized to me, ‘Just because I can drive a car doesn’t mean I can fix one.” The more seamless and invisible the technology becomes, the less we tend to  know about how it works. As our students’ lives become more seamlessly enmeshed with the Internet, the less they know about web development. (5)

The rise of form-generated editing (such as Facebook and blog services like WordPress) removes a critical aspect of visual composition, according to Arola: no matter how much control one has over the content – the words – that appears in theses spaces, the removal of total control of its appearance and context has the potential to undo the liberation of expression brought about by the web explosion. When removed from the sandbox of open web development, Arola worries that students lose agency over design, and therefore message.

Response

So after turning the three prongs of audience stance, hybridity, and transparency on our other three authors of the week, I’ll attempt to sum up some response I personally had to this week’s reading.

My biggest takeaway was probably in response to Arola, and it’s probably in no small part because she writes much closer to our timeframe. The “Web 2.0” thing has been a source of mild befuddlement for me. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web protocols, sees this term as a meaningless jargon word. According to Berners-Lee, and I’m in total agreement, what we call Web 2.0 is just the natural progress of how the web was always going to turn out – a content-driven, user-centric share point of information. And it’s no surprise that something so writing-based would be catching the notice of composition theory. As we’ve said several times in class now, it’s a fallacy that social networks are destroy writing; students write for themselves more often now than at any time in modern education’s history.

Yet I see Arola’s point. I too felt powerful when I created my first crap website, a pathetic little thing in 1999 where I felt compelled to share my poetry with the masses (no, I will not be sharing any archives of the link). I manually coded every page of that site, and probably agonized far too much on the design decisions considering I probably only ever had three unique visitors beside myself. Yet still, it was wholly my creation. It was my choice of style.

Ultimately, I don’t think we can fret too much over the lack of open sandbox web design in our post-2.0 world. I don’t think the immutability of template-driven content delivery really threatens to reverbalize student writing. For those who find the paradigm just too restrictive, they’re still able to learn web design as they wish. For the many of us who fall in the middle of having significant digital content to deliver because its online publication has value to us, but who lack current web authoring skills, I doubt the web authoring landscape is so hostile as to keep us quiet. Besides that, web developers are constantly re-enabling us with more media-sharing and remediation options.

If I had wanted to manually code last week’s 8900 blog post, I would have written 77,410 characters across 1314 lines of HTML, and that’s completely apart from the graphic aspects of my design. If anything, services like WordPress are freeing by eliminating the bottleneck of design over content. Like Arola’s student, there will be a point where anything I can conceive my web design will need to do will be available transparently, and I won’t need to know how it works. That’s good enough for me, and I’d wager the vast majority of those who compose digitally.