Assignments and Architecture: Pedagogy in the Digital Age


Title slide that reads 'Assignments and Architecture' with a hand-corrected print-out on one side of the screen and a upward-facing shot of a building on the right half. The link on this image is for the assignment as the photograph of the building is one that I took.

tl;dr: I gave a talk about digital pedagogy.

Today I want to share a talk. That’s not all that unusual, as I’ve been in the habit of posting such presentations since I began blogging here in 2009. What’s unusual about this one—at least for me—is that it’s a talk that evolved as I gave it as a keynote at three different universities.

Although it’s taken me longer to post this talk than I would have liked, I want to share my framework for theorizing digital pedagogy. This is the rubric I use when working with faculty here at Brown to design new classroom research projects. We can create new and exciting, team-based research projects for our students. Once you’ve tried this, it’s really hard to go back.

I first spoke about “pedagogy in the digital age” at Fordham University in November 2013. I was invited by Glenn Hendler, who is chair of the English Department, to give this talk as well as a more practical workshop on teaching with technology in the classroom. It was one of the first times I had been given the opportunity to tackle either subject in such a broad way, and the setting of Fordham in NYC definitely inspired the direction that the talk took—that, and an episode of 99% Invisible that I had just listened to. I very much enjoyed the conversations at Fordham and was glad of the chance to put together my thoughts about digital pedagogy into a more coherent argument.

When I was asked a few months later to give the keynote at the September 2014 Liberal Arts Scholarship and Technology Summit (LASTS) at Penn State, I took the chance to further refine the talk and its argument. I was invited by Christopher P. Long, who was at the time Associate Dean for Graduate and Undergraduate Education at Penn State and who has since moved to Michigan State as Dean of the College of Arts & Letters. I’ve always admired Chris for the genuine excitement and positive energy he brings to conversations, so I was flattered and happy to spend the time with him and the Penn State community. (Also, land-grant schools tend to have the best ice cream.) My visit for LASTS was combined with a talk at the Center for American Literary Studies’s Symposium on #Alt-Ac, which I wrote about previously. My keynote was recorded, if you want to see the high kick at the end.

Shortly after the presentation at Penn State, I was thrilled to be invited to speak at both St. Olaf and Carleton Colleges in Northfield, Minnesota (home of Malt-o-Meal; the whole town smelled like Marshmallow Mateys!). The two colleges have received a Mellon Foundation grant for collaboration between the two schools, which sit opposite one another across the Cannon River. One of the outcomes for the grant was the Bridge Crossings Events, which focus on integrating and supporting digital technologies into teaching, learning, and research. I made some more changes to the presentation, as well as did some research on the architecture on both campuses, and joined faculty, librarians, and IT staff at both schools in February 2015 for a discussion of Digital Humanities on the Hill. I really enjoyed my visit, thanks to the great library and IT staff at both schools, although I was shocked at how little winter gear people in Minnesota needed compared to a guy from Georgia. If you’re into comparative media experiences, you can also watch the video of this version of the talk. No high kick, I’m afraid.

Again, my thanks to Fordham, Penn State, and St. Olaf and Carleton Colleges for inviting me and giving me the chance to pull together years of praxis into three performances.

N.B. It’s worth saying that there are two images in this slide deck that are potentially NSFW: artistic photographs of nude sex workers, circa 1912.

Assignments and Architecture

Thanks very much for the kind introduction. And an even bigger thank you for the invitation to speak here. I’m glad to have the chance to talk with you about digital pedagogy this evening.

A rocket ride at Disney World shot at night and from behind

It’s a topic that fascinates me endlessly. I can’t promise that I’ll be entertaining.

A LEGO minifig of a mime holding a smiling face and a sad face

And I certainly won’t promise to be brief—I’m an academic for goodness sake!

A brken LCD alarm clock that reads 'L:OL'

But I can promise you some pretty pictures along the way.

A picture of a large-scale ceramic/plastic dinosaur against a blue sky.

As you’ve heard and seen, my talk is titled “Assignments and Architecture.” But for purely rhetorical reasons, I’d like to reverse these two nouns for the moment.

The title slide with the text and images reversed so it now reads 'Architecture and Assignments'

Let’s start by considering architecture. St. Olaf and Carleton Colleges are two great campuses for thinking about architecture.

There’s the Second Empire dormers of Willis Hall at Carleton…

Willis Hall at Carleton College

…and Old Main at St. Olaf.

Old Main at St. Olaf's College

The classical revival of Laird Hall (Carleton)…

Laird Hall at Carleton College

…and Steensland Library (St. Olaf).

Aa012

The Romanesque arches of Goodwill Observatory (Carleton)…

Goodsell Observatory at Carleton College

…which are rivaled by the Gothic arches of Carleton’s Skinner Chapel…

Skinner Chapel at Carleton College

…and the Norwegian Gothic of Boe Memorial Chapel at St. Olaf.

The interior of Boe Memorial Chapel at St. Olaf's College

There’s the mid-century modernism of Olin Hall at Carleton.

Olin Hall at Carleton College

The contemporary architecture of Buntrock Commons at St. Olaf…

Buntrock Commons at St Olaf's College

…and the Weitz Center at Carleton.

The Weitz Center at Carleton College

And of course, the neoprimitivist grandeur of the Goat Trophy.

The Goat Trophy next to lettermen's jackets from St. Olaf's and Carleton Colleges

I’ve enjoyed walking around campus a bit today, taking it all in and taking pictures. I’ve found that I really enjoy taking photos of architecture. I take pictures whenever I travel. One of the places that I’ve taken the most is New York City, where I’ve gone regularly for the last several years in connection with my work with the MLA.

The New York City skyline, with the Empire State Building and Chrysler Building at either end.

Some of the most iconic buildings in the world are in New York: The Empire State Building…

The Empire State Building shot from below.

…the Chrysler Building…

The spire of the Chrysler Building shot against a cloudless blue sky.

…the Flatiron Building…

The Flatiron Building, shot from below at its most narrow end.

…the Manhattan Trust Building, now known as 40 Wall Street…

The Manhattan Trust Building, now known as 40 Wall Street, shot from below.

…and, of course, the Freedom Tower.

One World Trade Center, or the Freedom Tower, photographer from across the Hudson River.

What these buildings are known for, primarily, is their size. At various times in their lives they have been among—if not the—tallest buildings in the world. That’s fortunate since, for some of them, the purpose for their being built was in fact to secure this title. At the end of the Roaring ‘20s, there was a three-way race for the title of “world’s tallest building.” The Chrysler Building was begun first, in 1928 with a planned height of 838 feet.

The same photo of the Chrysler Building's spire with the words '838 feet!' against the sky.

One year later, the building on 40 Wall Street was begun.

The same photograph of 40 Wall Street.

In what might be called the equivalent of saying “nyahh, nyahh!” The 40 Wall Street building was planned to be 840 feet. Just two feet taller than the Chrysler Building.

A cat sticking out its tongue, with the words '840 feet!' added to the image.

Despite starting second, 40 Wall Street was the first finished of the two skyscrapers and became the world’s tallest. But Chrysler wasn’t to be outdone. The now-iconic spire was assembled in secret in the top of the building and then hoisted to the top of the building.

The photograph of the Chrylser Building with the '838' in '838 feet!' crossed out and with an arrow pointing at the spire with the word 'Psych!' labeling it.

Game, set, match!

Roger Federer on his back in the court grass with his hands covering his face after winning Wimbledon.

And then, one year later, the Empire State Building showed up and beat them both at their own game, rising to 1,250 feet.

A bronze relief of the Empire State Building from its inside lobby with the words '1,250 feet!' on it.

It only took 410 days to build because it relied on the talents and hard work of a team of more than 3,400 people.

A photograph of a man sitting on a girder building a skyscraper in the 1930s.

Even though the Great Depression had begun by this point, there was sufficient excitement about the completion of the Empire State Building that US President Herbert Hoover opened the building in 1931. Tremendous amounts of time, effort, work, and excitement went into these buildings.

A shot of red, white, and blue confetti from a tickertape parade.

Now let’s compare this architecture to what happened when your students turned in their most recent assignments.

A wooden modeling figure building the words 'assignment' and 'construct' against a Scrabble board.

Did they expend tremendous amounts of time and effort?

Miniature workmen figures set against a large backdrop of strawberries so it looks like they are mining the fruits.

Possible. (Possibly not.)

Did they experience great excitement? Probably not.

A very excited dog jumping up toward the photographer.

Indeed, there’s a very good chance that both your students and you felt more or less the same way when they did the work and you were faced with grading it.

A man with his hands to his temples and his teeth gritted in an expression of pain or frustration.

This is clearly not the sort of event where the President of anything…

An image of a smiling Barack Obama at a 2008 campaign rally in South Carolina.

…will be showing up to congratulate you.

Photographs of the presidents of Carleton and St. Olaf's Colleges, Steven G. Poskanser and David R. Anderson, respectively, next to the seals fo their schools. The link to the image of the president of St. Olaf College is http://northfield.org/files/Anderson2.jpg.

Let alone the Queen.

The Queen of Norway attending a Norwegian class at St. Olaf's College, with the students standing in respect.

So what’s the difference between assignments and architecture? Why the excitement and racing over these buildings and the absolute lack thereof for most of what we ask our students to do for our classes?

This is not as crazy a question as it might appear at first blush. After all, it’s important to remember that both architecture and assignments all start with drafting of one kind of another.

A drafting table, with a hand using a ruler and a triangle to sketch a line.

Yes. That’s a terrible pun. But not nearly as terrible as the building or essay that is completed without any drafting whatsoever. (More groans.)

But I’ve got more than just puns on my side! I’ve also got quotations from famous people!

The French architect Le Corbusier summarized his craft in this way, “To create architecture is to put in order. Put what in order? Function and objects.”

A quotation from Le Corbusier that reads, 'To create architecture is to put in order. Put what in order? Function and objects.'

This description could more or less be applied to rhetoric.

The word 'Rhetoric?' written on a sidewalk in pale blue chalk.

In the liberal arts, we are almost always asking our students to respond to a text or experience by making an argument about it. Students learn to argue or hypothesize more effectively as they learn the optimum way to order claims in relation to one another.

But we don’t have to take an architect at his word. Instead, let’s trust another famous person in a totally unrelated field: Ernest Hemingway.

A rough faceted metallic bust of Ernest Hemingway.

In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway wrote the following , “Prose is architecture, not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over.”

A quotation from Ernest Hemingway that reads, 'Prose is architecture, not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over.'

Many people have pointed to this statement as evidence of Hemingway’s preference for telegraphic sentences. But it also points, as Matthew Stewart puts it, to “his interest in constructed forms.”

While we will be talking about the finer points of Hemingway’s prose in a bit, it’s not where I want to go just yet. For the moment, then, can you just allow me the license to go ahead and pretend that assignments and architecture do indeed share something to be related?

A GIF of the 'Old Spice Guy,' Isaiah Mustafa nodding in approval.

So if we’ve established the relationship, at least for the moment, it bears returning to the question: what’s the difference between assignments and architecture?

A photograph of a big line of buildings taken in New York City.

How might we end up getting our students—and ourselves—a bit more excited and doing better work?

An old slide rule.

I’d like to suggest that there are four lessons that our assignments might learn from successful architecture. Coinciding with each of these lessons, I’ll highlight an assignment that attempts to put the lesson into practice.

A printed document with handwritten corrections next to the edge of a coffee cup.

Since I’ve taught mostly in an English department, the examples will come from that field, but I think that the lessons transcend their examples.

What’s more, as you’ll see, each of these assignments draws on what could be loosely termed “digital pedagogy.” While the digital isn’t a necessary component for improving our assignments along the lines suggested by architecture, I do think that the digital makes their application feasible.

I think digital pedagogy is something distinct from—if related to—digital humanities. Defining digital humanities is another talk in and of itself. Let’s just let it suffice to say that digital humanities is about applying a computational method to a particular research question. Digital pedagogy is—predictably—is simpler; it’s using the digital within your teaching.

A slide that defines 'Digital Humanities' as 'applying a copmutation method o a particular research question' and 'Digital Pedagogy' as 'using the digital within your teaching.'

Lesson #1

The first of these lessons is “Build for the public.

A photo of a glass wall inside the Seattle Public Library's lobby, which is filled with people, with the caption 'I. Build for the Public'

Whether large or small, buildings are ultimately built for the people who will work in or around them. For this reason, Constantin Brancusi suggested that “Architecture is inhabited sculpture.”

A quotation from Constantin Brancusi that reads, 'Architecture is inhabited sculpture.'

When designing a building, architects have to consider multiple audiences. Of course, the client is important, as after all she or he is providing the funds for its construction.

A picture of a small figure under an architectural pile of wood.

But the architect must also consider how visitors to the structure will navigate the space.

A photograph of the interior of the Seattle Public Library, with large crowds moving through the building.

In many ways, it’s more important to design for that public than for the client, as the client’s long-term solvency depends upon those guests. Finally, the architect must consider those who will be the neighbors of the structure as well as any who might pass it. What message will the home, office, or skyscraper send to them?

On the other hand, when a student completes an assignment she almost always has a single audience in mind: her professor.

A metal medallion (probably on the base of a statue) of a Edwardian bearded man with the mien of a professor.

A writing assignment is too often conceived as an exercise in extended private reading.

A person who appears to be homeless reading from a battered paperback.

An individual student writes what he has concluded after protracted and careful reading on his own. The faculty member then privately reads the assignment and creates a private response to the student in the form of a few sentences written directly to the student.

A close-up of a document that has been corrected with red pen.

The student will read these comments privately.

Small wonder that there’s no celebration or enthusiasm, when the exchange is so limited in its scope. A student doesn’t have to do his or her best because, well, the only person that will ever see it is some faculty member. And then it will be carted off to the equivalent of an Indiana Jones warehouse (pace William Pannapacker), never to see the light of day again.

A large warehouse with three loading dock doors.

So, how do we invite the public into our reading, into our assignments? This, it turns out, is really rather easy: put your students’ work online.

The way that I’ve implemented this over the last seven years is to have students make almost all of their work visible in a public forum. Sometimes this takes the form of wikis that the students create. Sometimes it takes the form of hosting and designing their own websites. And sometimes it takes the form of blog posts. It doesn’t really matter what your students put out there, as long the assignment creates a chance that the world can take notice.

It’s important to explain why you’re asking students to share their work. Here is one way that I’ve explained blogging to my students.

Text from one of my course websites that explains why I assign blogging to students. It reads, 'Why Blog? You might very well be asking yourself, why should I be blogging for an English class? And I think it’s a fair question, so let me give you the best answer that I can.</p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p> <p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p>In the first place, you should expect that a class in the English department will help you refine your ability to write. From my own experience, I have found that the best way to improve one’s writing is to practice. Thus, this blog is a place for you to practice your writing. And not just any writing, but careful and thoughtful writing that seeks to answer the two questions of literary study: 'what?' and 'how?'</p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p> <p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p>But why a blog? Why can’t you just write assignments, print them out, and hand them in? While literary studies might seem to be a very solitary task–a single author responding on her own to a single-authored text–it is in fact a conversation. Of course, one is always in 'conversation' with the text being examined, but a good writer is also in conversation with others writing about the same text. You’ve done this in the past when writing research papers. When blogging you broaden your audience: suddenly your classmates can be in conversation with you…even when we’re not in the classroom.</p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p> <p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p>Okay, so we want to practice writing and to engage one another in our understanding of the texts at hand. But why do this on a public blog (i.e., not Blackboard) where *gulp* someone might find what I have to say? Quite simply: the more the merrier in a conversation. If we draw attention from the outside world, it will help us remember that college is not simply preparation for 'the real world' but that it is in fact a vital part of the 'real' world.'

First and foremost, blogging helps students practice and improve their writing, which is always a learning outcome in my classes. Second, blogging invokes the dialog in which all good writing functions and from which students believe, all too sadly, academic writing should be divorced. Third, blogging publicly helps students overcome the Indiana Jones / private reading and writing circuit that we’ve already talked about.

Here’s a case of where this played out in a Fall 2011 “Introduction to Digital Humanities” class that I taught. My students had been reading Stephen Ramsay’s important and almost always misunderstood “Who’s In and Who’s Out” which discusses the importance of building in the digital humanities—and only sometimes building with code. Peter Marcinkowski blogged a response to Ramsay’s essay.

Picture of student's blog post responding to an essay written by Stephen Ramsay.

But rather than being on a sheet of paper that he turned in to me, to be awarded something like 10 points or a check-plus, he posted it on the course blog which was build for a public.

The result? He suddenly found himself in dialog with Ramsay.

A comment on the previous student's blog post from Stephen Ramsay.

Steve took the time to read Peter’s thoughts and to write a lengthy comment that welcomed his feedback but also pushed back in other places.

This was an electric moment; it changed the class. Suddenly, we weren’t just talking about abstract people with ideas about an abstract field the students had never heard of before starting my class. Instead, these were real people who were clearly still thinking through what it meant to be members of a field.

Now, it’s worth saying that in 2016, we are past the moment in time where it could be considered unusual for a class to be blogging. Back in 2003 or 2004, the world really did tune it to what students were saying. The amount of writing that shows up on the Web in its third decade, however, means that the wide world isn’t necessarily inclined to take notice of your class or mine.

I’ll let you in on a little secret: when my students were blogging about Steve Ramsay, I wrote him. I told him that we were reading one of his essays and pointed him to some of the stronger posts by my students. And then he started commenting.

You might accuse me of shenanigans, but I don’t care.

A deserted bar named 'Shenanigans'

What matters is that my students were suddenly that much more engaged because they realized that people really could come from outside our class and see what they’d been writing.

I also tweeted regularly about what the class was reading and thinking about on any given day and it turned out that other people felt like chiming in on our conversations, even without direct invitations.

An invitation to a party with happy animal faces on it.

Another colleague, who just saw my tweets, jumped on the blog several times. In another case, the publisher of an e-lit novel we were reading left comments about the difficulty he himself had experienced when he first encountered branching hypertext narratives. No shenanigans there.

We are all connected to professional networks; draw on those networks to create the wider audience for your students.

When your students understand not simply that the world might look at what they’re doing, it suddenly has new stakes. It’s suddenly a competition to see whose work might draw attention. And as we know from our 3-way skyscraper battle, competitions lead to people working exceptionally hard.

A rowing crew on the water.

Even if no one comments on your students’ work, you’ll still be ahead because the students will have become the public audience for one another. Cathy Davidson’s recent book, Now You See It, makes it plain that students perform better when they know their peers will read their work than when they are writing to a professor. That’s right: they care more about their peers than they do about you.

Twenty years ago one of the scarcest resources on the planet was publication space. Those times are over. Let’s take advantage of that and have our students do their work for a public.

Lesson #2

I mentioned earlier that the Empire State Building was built in 410 days. All it took was 3,400 people.

A group of men sitting on a skyscraper girder.

If we work that out, we find that it took more than 3,819 human years to finish the Building.

It turns out that if architects always build for a public, there is one thing that they never do: work alone. It’s just not practical to have a single person tackle design of the building, the structural engineering, procurement of supplies and the actual labor. Not only would it take forever, but it’d be a rare person indeed who possessed all the skills. The second lesson our assignments can learn from architects, then, is “build with a team.”

A group of teenagers in red sweatshirts jumping in the air in sync. The caption reads '2. Build with a Team.'

There’s nothing that is much more difficult than facing the tyranny of the blank page on an assignment.

A diary open to blank, lined pages.

But if you’ve ever co-written something—even if it’s the schedule for an upcoming event, you know how much easier it can feel to work with someone else. If you step away from the document for a bit and come back, it’s like elves have been working!

An 'Elf on the Shelf' plastic elf in a red and white suit.

What’s more, when you’re working as a team, it’s impossible to end up focused on private readings.

So how can we transform our assignments into something that requires a team? It’s easy! Just require something on the scale of the Empire State Building: something that is too big for one person to actually accomplish.

• Here’s one way that I’ve tried to do this. In spring 2014, I taught “Introduction to Digital Humanities.”

The home page to my 2014 'Introduction to Digital Humanities' class.

In that class we tried to read Mark Z. Danielwski’s House of Leaves.

A photograph of the cover of *House of Leaves*.

Published in 2000, House of Leaves is the story of a piece of architecture, a house, that is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. Or more properly, it is the story of the discovery by a 20-something LA club kid and aspiring tattoo artist—Johnny Truant—of the manuscript of an academic treatise—copious footnotes, appendices, Derrida references, and all that that would entail—written by a blind man—Zampanó—about a documentary about how a house that is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside threatens the integrity of the Navidson family who come to live in it. Truant reassembles the manuscript, adding in his own narrative about familial loss into the footnotes, which are in turn commented on by anonymous editors.

And if that’s not complicated enough for you…

The dedicatory page of *House of Leaves*, which reads 'This is not for you.'

just wait until you start looking at the pages.

Two pages of *House of Leaves* that show the confusing typography in the novel.

House of Leavesis quite literally a text that is too difficult to read on your own. Which means it’s the perfect book to read as a team. This need for conversations about the book is one of the reasons that it works so well in a classroom. But as I was planning the class for 2014, I found myself wondering if more might be gained if my class read it even more expansively than we had in the past.

I asked some friends and colleagues if they’d be willing to try an experiment and have their classes read it at the same time as mine and do a collective assignment. Eventually five people were playing along: Zach Whalen at the University of Mary Washington; Mary Holland at SUNY New Paltz; Chuck Rybak at University of Wisconsin Green Bay; Jeremy Douglass at UC Santa Barbara; and myself.

Since the book is in many ways an attempt to condense all forms of media into the print volume, we wanted to explode it back outwards into its constituent media. The idea for how we might approach this came from Zak Smith’s project, Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel Gravity’s Rainbow, which is exactly what you think it is.

An image from Zak Smith's *Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon's Novel Gravity's Rainbow*.

We decided to build a platform for remediating every page of House of Leaves. We called it A Million Blue Pages (AMBP), thanks to a clever suggestion from Mark Sample who ended up teaching with the project later.

A screenshot of the first page of *A Million Blue Pages*.

AMBP collected the media responses of our students to individual pages of the novel. All they had to do was post to one of four social media platforms—Tumblr, Twitter, Vine, or Instagram—and include two hashtags: one for the project (#ambp) and one for the page number.

Two hashtags: #ambp and #p???.

The platform trawled the different services regularly and when it found new posts that met this criteria, they got pulled into our platform.

A screenshot of the 'Browse' page of *A Million Blue Pages*, which shows the media created for each page of *House of Leaves*.

After a while, the different responses started populating the system. And then they began pouring in.

“A million blue pages” is a phrase taken from the book, and while it might feel like it’s a million pages long given the difficulty of reading it, it turns out that House of Leaves is only 736 pages long. Still, that’s a lot of pages that we were hoping to create media for.

What Zach and I each ended up doing was assigning our students to work in groups and create one object for every chapter in the book. They would have to not only create an interesting object but also write about why that page had seemed important to the overall narrative. Working together—in groups within a class and as a team across institutions—we have made significant progress toward making something for every page in the book.

And what’s more the students’ work was exceptional. Trees and ash are important themes in the book, so two of my students made a sketch of the former with the latter.

A student-made sketch of an ash tree, made with the ash from a burnt match.

Chuck Rybak’s students met with a book artist during their time with House of Leaves. One result was this amazing cut-up for the sixth chapter of the novel, which focuses on the two pets that belong to the Navidsons.

A student-created book-art project from the pages of *House of Leaves* that show cutouts of a cat and dog running away from a house.

Another was this sculptural representation of the attempt to rescue the Holloway team during their fourth exploration of the house.

A student-created book-art project showing a page of *House of Leaves* cut up and folded to show one man casting a rope to another down in a pit.

One of my students created a Vine to show off the ostentation and physical discomfort of reading House of Leaves in public.

A screenshot from a student-created Vine video for page 289 of *House of Leaves*.

Frequently our students are resistant to group assignments because of the difficulties of working within groups. But the collaborative authoring tools of the Internet have solved a lot of these difficulties. In the absence of those difficulties, it’s up to us, the teachers to provide more for our students! Let’s make sure they’ve got tasks that are complicated enough to require teamwork.

Lesson #3

As a book about a building, House of Leavesis obsessed with its own form. But it turns out that this is not all that uncommon for architectural objects. Louis H. Sullivan, who is often thought of as the “father of skyscrapers,” famously suggested that architects should realize that “Form ever follows function.”

A quotation from Louis H. Sullivan: 'Form ever follows function.'

While many understood Sullivan’s pronouncement to mean that a modern building need not have any unnecessary ornamentation, Sullivan’s own work points to a slightly different understanding. Continuing to ornament his buildings with Art Nouveau elements or geometric designs…

An art nouveau window treatment from a Louis H. Sullivan building.

…the building’s Sullivan instead appears to have meant that (1) buildings may serve any number of different functions and that (2) a building’s form should simply fit its need, decoration or not.

The lesson our assignments can learn from architecture in this case is to “Build different forms when necessary.

A wavy, curvy room designed architect Zaha Hadid with the caption, '3. Build Different Forms When Necessary.'

Unfortunately, many of our assignments have very predictable forms. You will probably all know what I mean when I say a “5-paragraph essay,” which is the staple of many first-year writing prompts. I’d suggest that using the same form of assignment again and again only works if we want our students to learn the same thing over and over again. As architect Zaha Hadid puts it, “There are 360 degrees, so why stick to one?”

A quotation from architect Zaha Hadid, 'There are 360 degrees, so why stick to one?'

What sort of assignments could we give our students to help them build with different forms? In Fall 2012 I taught a course on “Literature and Technology.”

A screenshot from the course website for my 2012 class, 'Literature and Technology'.

One of the books that we read was Belloc’s Ophelia

Natasha Trethewey's book, *Bellocq's Ophelia* sitting on top of a MacBook Air.

…a 2002 collection of poems by Natasha Trethewey…

Poet Natasha Trethewey speaking at a podium.

…who teaches at Emory and who had just begun her two-year post as US Poet Laureate. The book of poems was inspired by photographs taken by New Orleans photographer, E.J. Bellocq.

An image of early photographer Ernest J. Bellocq.

When Bellocq died in 1949, 89 glass plate negatives were found in his desk. The photos had all been taken around 1912 of female sex workers in the Storyville red light district.

One of Bellocq's photographs, a nude woman reclining on a wicker divan. The photographic plate was cracked and damaged.

The negatives were purchased and developer—using historical processes—by Lee Friedlander and exhibited in MOMA and other venues. Trethewey came across a book of Friedlander’s prints and fell under the spell of the photographs. Her book, Bellocq’s Ophelia, is series of letters and diary entries by a mixed-race girl who comes to New Orleans looking for work. The only work Ophelia can secure is in the house of “Countess P—,” a madame. The poems recount the work of the brothel…

An image of the Storyville red light district in New Orleans.

…and how fair-skinned women like Ophelia were prized (and marketed) for their exocticism.

Eventually Ophelia becomes acquainted with Bellocq, who comes regularly to the brothel to photograph women. She is conscious that his gaze is as problematic as his touch and requires just as much performance on her part. But she becomes intrigued by his work and saves some of her money and buys a camera.

An antique Vredeborch camera.

Becoming not just the object of the camera, but its controlling subject helps Ophelia eventually see herself differently, and she ends the book departing for places West. It’s a wonderful book. My students read Trethewey’s poems. They wrote about them, producing a paper of some length.

After that we read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein because, well, it was a class on literature and technology.

The oil painting *Wanderer above the Sea of Fog* by Caspar David Friedrich, which depicts a man in a suit coat with a walking stick standing on a rocky outcopping looking out over a landscape covered in part by fog.

But then we read a recent adaptation of Frankenstein by Dave Morris, for the iPad. A richly illustrated app, Morris modernizes the text and creates a choose-your-own-adventure component for the novel.

A screenshot from Dave Morris and Inkle Studios iOS app, Frankenstein.

As a reader, you occupy the perspective of not just Victor and the monster, but also Clerval, Elizabeth, and more. You most often act as an interlocutor for one of the other characters who asks you questions. You are given two or more choices for how you respond to these questions, which come as often as every five or so paragraphs. As soon as you’ve given an answer, the text is literally stitched to the text that came before. So while it is a choose-your-own-adventure structure, it doesn’t work like the books of my childhood, where I could endless explore the forking paths. Once a choice has been made in Morris’s work, the choice is made permanently. It is possible to reset the app, but then you must start over reading from the beginning and given the number of choices to make, it’s hard to know if you’d ever recover the same narrative.

And the narrative really does diverge. We spent a good deal of time talking about the different versions of Frankenstein we read. In my reading of the app, Victor was in a romantic relationship with Justine Moritz, the servant who is accused of the death of Victor’s younger brother William. Victor’s marriage to Elizabeth was, in my reading, a sham that was done only for propriety’s sake. Needless to say, this radically changes how one reads the novel. And none of my students had encountered this same narrative tangent.

Since the class was about “literature and technology,” we talked not only about the technology described in Frankenstein (and there’s precious little) but also what it meant to read the novel in a different medium. To help the students appreciate the process adaptation and think about what choices have to be made when creating one, we decided to Frankenstein something else: Bellocq’s Ophelia.

For a final project, the students had to design an iPad app for Trethewey’s work.

An iPad and a flexi-ring notebook.

It’s worth saying that they didn’t have to build a functional piece of code in Objective C; instead, they had to create a storyboard that highlighted how the app would function. Their assignment was to pay particular attention to the specificities of the medium on which they were working. How could they bring out the themes of Trethewey’s book in new and different ways using a touch-based interface?

One thing that they all immediately knew was that they wanted to create a way for the reader of the app to see the photographs that Trethewey had based her poems on. Apart from the book’s cover, none of Bellocq’s images appear in Bellocq’s Ophelia. But a careful examination of them makes it clear that Trethewey wrote some of her poems while looking closely at particular images; they are clear examples of ekphrasis.

Working in groups, the students produced four different visions of what Trethewey’s book might look like.

A iPad screenshot with a student designed 'app' for Bellocq's Ophelia.

One group, for example, imagined that the app would put the user in possession of Ophelia’s diary and presented the user with a key to drag and unlock it.

An image of Ophelia's diary from a student-designed app.

Upon unlocking the journal, you were immediately confronted with the camera interface of the iPad and a request to take your picture.

A screenshot of a student designed app showing the iPad camera interface and the prompt, 'Hello Ophelia, please take your picture.' For humor, the students used my picture on the app.

It was impossible to progress in the app until you had submitted to being photographed, which played up the problematic subject position Ophelia finds herself in throughout the book: the object of the (photographic) gaze which tries to capture her. In this moment, the students took one of the affordances of the iOS device they were told to work with to accomplish something thematically related to Trethewey’s poems that could not be replicated with the codex.

This group of students imagined other ways that the reader’s picture would be used throughout the app, including superimposing it on some of Belloc’s photographs, accompanied by the ekphrastic poems that Trethewey had written. They got great laughs by doing this with my headshot, but also forced a discussion about the appropriateness of this sort of appropriation.

Made in PowerPoint, this group tried to show as much as possible what the interactions in the app would be, if the user were Ophelia, and accompanied it with beautiful, black and white images from turn-of-the-century New Orleans.

An old black and white photograph of a train station with people boarding the train. A thought bubble with a piece of Ophelia's journal appears on the page, as well as a button to continue the narrative.

Another group took a different route. They made a very spartan presentation.

A different student-designed app for Bellocq's Ophelia. The page has the heading 'Main Page' and three links ('Read the Story,' 'Extras,' and 'Settings') and one archival photo of New Orleans.

But using the linking function of PowerPoint they made a functional hypertext. Instead of describing how you could navigate their app, you could actually do it. A third group wanted to make an edition of Trethewey’s poems that was easily annotated and their proposed interface in Prezi foregrounded the experience of the reader rather than that of Ophelia and her in-text experiences.

A student-designed app for Bellocq's Ophelia that makes liberal use of annotation tools, including stickies, underlining, erasers, audio, highlighting, and more.

Now in all of these cases, it’s true that the students didn’t make a functioning app. But they did build something, and they were engaged in thinking about the specificity of the form and its interface. For example, one suggestion that was made was for a user to be able to browse a gallery of Bellocq’s images.

A Bellocq photograph of a nude sitting in a window frame with an iron bed in the background.

But if the user pinched-zoomed—an interaction that anyone who has used a touch device in the post-iPhone era expects to use—the iPad would play sexual moans. This confronts the user squarely with the politics of not just looking but of the touching that these sex workers had to endure. It also forces a reader to realize that consuming the poetry or the photographs are potentially as complicated as anything Bellocq himself did.

By building something the students learned things about Trethewey’s work that they never would have by simply reading and writing. And it came from asking them to build a new form.

The side of a building with round, porthole-like windows set in concrete in regular intervals.

Lesson #4

If we look back to the skyscraper race between 40 Wall Street, the Chrysler Building, and the Empire State Building…

A photograph of three skyscrapers from the perspective of someone standing on the ground and looking up at them.

…what we find is that architects were building for the public; in teams; and with different forms, as new structural engineering techniques were needed for buildings of such tremendous size.

But what really got the city excited was the fact that it was an attempt to build something new. And this is the fourth lesson our assignments can learn from architecture: build something that hasn’t been built before.

A vacuum tube cock, where the numbers are alight within the vacuum tubes. The caption reads, '4. Build something that hasn't been built before.'

So often the assignments we give our students are the ones that we have given before. While I love Emily Dickinson’s poetry, I find it hard to think that a student writing privately is going to come up with anything about “My life has stood – a Loaded Gun” that I haven’t seen in a previous semester.

A woman pointing a shotgun's muzzle at the camera.

Doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result is insanity, right? So why are we so crazy when we create assignments?

One of the reasons undergraduate students get excited about work in the sciences is because they are often doing real research in laboratories.

A collection of beakers, flasks, and graduated cylinders filled with colored liquids.

To follow this fourth rule of architecture, all of our students need questions to which we don’t already know the answers.

Now, let’s finally turn back to Hemingway.

A building with street art of Ernest Hemingway's face painted on it in oranges and purples.

The last thing that we did in my “Intro to Digital Humanities” class last year was to ask what would happen if we could read everything that Hemingway had ever written. That’s an impractical question, of course. His Complete Short Stories is over 650 pages, and he published seven novels and two non-fiction works. Three other novels and three non-fiction books have been published since his death. It would be all but impossible to read all of Hemingway in a whole semester dedicated to him, let alone what we had: the last two weeks of the semester.

A stack of old books piled on top of each other.

Fortunately for us, the project was called “How to NOT read Hemingway.” No matter how much someone has written, you’ve always got time to not read it. (If this sounds familiar, the credits to the assignment make my debt to both Jason B. Jones and Paul Fyfe clear.)

A clock on a metal stand, against a sunset.

Now, before any of you either get angry or start cheering, we did read some short stories. I picked a couple of classics (“Big Two-Hearted River,” “Hills like White Elephants”) and some that don’t seem to have subjects as “Hemingway” as students expect (“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” which is about genital mutilation or “The Sea Change” which is about a man being left by his female paramour for another woman). And I let them choose some stories randomly as a class, based on title. Naturally, they picked “A Very Short Story” among them. Students are, it turns out, predictable.

But all told, we read less than 50 pages of short stories. What came next was our attempt to answer that question that hadn’t been asked before: what about all the rest? To do this I got a copy of each of Hemingway’s novels, as well as the complete stories. And then we did something simultaneously terrible and terribly exciting.

A screenshot of a Vine of Hemingway books being put through a book guillotine to have their bindings removed.

It was reminiscent of the French Revolution.

A photograph of the spines of several Hemingway books that have been through a book guillotine.

Each student was given approximately 200 pages of Hemingway. Their next task was to turn it into a piece of text that we could transform. That meant that each of them had to scan all of the pages, front and back. We used a high-speed office copier to get this done. They then took the outputted PDF and used an OCR tool called Prizmo.

A screenshot of the Prizmo OCR software processing a page of Hemingway's 'The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.'

Prizmo scanned each page and grabbed as much text as possible. The students then had an easy interface for quickly scanning for any possible errors and fixing them. They still had 200 pages to get through, but it was a lot easier than trying to type up several hundred pages of Hemingway.

A photograph of an antique Royal typewriter.

When they had emailed me their work, we could compile complete text files of almost everything Hemingway had written. Then we got to work on analyzing what we had found.

We collectively didn’t read Hemingway for the final exam of the class. Working in groups, the students began processing the text files using Voyant, a web-based text analysis tool.

The logo of the Voyant text analysis suite.

So what did we find? It depends, of course, on what we were asking. Since the students had some familiarity with Hemingway’s themes and preoccupations, they had an informed place to start from. One group noticed Hemingway’s simple language and the fact that it meant he uses the word “said” over and over for dialog. So they graphed that relative to other words that can be used to introduce dialog, such as “exclaimed,” “screamed,” “whispered,” and “answered.”

A screenshot of the Bubblelines tool in Voyant, with students' analysis of words that Hemingway uses to introduce dialog in his texts.

Interestingly, they discovered that while the incidence of said keeps an almost perfect relative frequency across his novels published while alive, the frequency drops by half in a late novel—The Old Man and the Sea—and the posthumously published pieces.

A graph of the relative frequency of the word 'said' across five texts in Hemingway's corpus.

Is this evidence of a stylistic change? Or a case of bad editing? It’s hard to know from just this graph, but this is precisely the sort of question this exercise is supposed to highlight. This is a question that I’m confident has never been asked in Hemingway studies. My students found something new. They made a discovery!

Another group thought about key tropes from “Big Two-Hearted River” and wondered whether they appeared across all the short stories.

The Bubblelines visualization tool from Voyant with students' investigation of words related to hunting and camping in Hemingway's short stories.

While they found that “camping” and “fish” show up often enough in the stories, there is a fascination with “water” across all of the stories. Now, water can be more than one thing in a story, while a fish seldom is. But this gave them a way to understand all of the short stories that they didn’t otherwise have.

And another group examined the use of generic gendered nouns, since Hemingway loves to avoid names in his stories.

A graph showing the relative frequencies of the words 'man,' 'woman,' 'boy,' and 'girl' in Hemingway's novels and short stories.

And they confirmed what perhaps no one needed to be told: when it comes down to the focus of his writing, Hemingway loved “men” and “girls.” “Boys” and “women” don’t fare nearly as well.

Now, it’s worth saying that our data-driven examination of the patterns…

A photograph of the side of a building which has a series of repeating windows and overhangs.

… in Hemingway’s fiction isn’t the last word on the subject. Indeed, it might not even be the “best” word on it. But the class was energized as we worked together to build something that hadn’t been built before. Asking a new question got them excited in a way that even the House of Leaves assignment had not accomplished.

We need to be more willing to call for our students to do assignments where we don’t know the outcome ahead of time. The risk-taking should fall as much on our shoulders as on that of our students. As Australian architect Glenn Murcutt has written, “We do not create the work. I believe we, in fact, are discoverers.”

A quotation from architect Glenn Murcutt, 'We do not create the work. I believe we, in fact, are discoveres.'

Conclusion

Now, you’ll remember that I didn’t promise to be brief. And, sadly, it turns out I wasn’t lying.

A photograph of a construction sign that reads 'END' against a nighttime backdrop.

But hopefully I’ve been able to establish that there might in fact be a relationship between our assignments and architecture.

We’ll have a better chance of keeping our students engaged and producing their best work as think about implementing these four lessons:

  • Build for the public
  • Build with a team
  • Build different forms when necessary
  • Build something that hasn’t been built before

A summary of the four rules for designing better assignments, against a backdrop of a building shot from below: '1. Build for the public. 2. Build with a team.3. Build different forms when necessary. 4. Build something that hasn't been built before.

And I hope that I’ve shown how digital pedagogy can help implement these particular approaches. It’s our digital tools that make it possible for us to do so much, so differently from the past. It’s really exciting.

As you’re building assignments, however, it’s important to remember the words of Frank Gehry: “I don’t know why people hire architects and then tell them what to do.”

A quotation from architect Frank Gehry, 'I don't know why people hire architects and then tell them what to do.'

You’re all architects in your own right. You don’t need me or my ideas. Go make something amazing.

Thanks.

A photograph of Kevin Barnes from Of Montreal, covered in shaving cream and signing as feathers explode behind him from the Skeletal Lamping tour. The word 'THANKS.' appears on the slide along with my contact information.

N.B. Any photographs that don’t link to an different, original location where taken by me or are clearly in the public domain, as is the case with the Bellocq photographs, the image of Storyville, or the Caspar David Friedrich painting.

Video of the performance at Penn State

Video of the performance at St. Olaf’s and Carleton Colleges

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.