Nobody said it was easy (copperbadge) wrote,
Nobody said it was easy

Okay, let's see if we can get through Saturday with as much aplomb and braininess as Friday!

While the food at the conference was good, the breakfasts left something to be desired -- I mean, it was a decent spread, fruit and cereal and muffins and such, but there was no real comfortable place to sit down and eat it, and it was in the same room as the vendors which made me feel rather shy of going in and being watched while I picked out a muffin. Plus I was craving a hot breakfast on Saturday, so I left my room early and walked down to, yes, the TRIPLE XXX FAMILY RESTAURANT and had pancakes and sausage. Their burgers are better, but the pancakes are nothing to be ashamed of.

And then I went to the first panel!

First Session: E4.1, Games And Memes

The first presenter of the day for me was Richard Parent, who was giving a talk on Writing Games: The Playful Rhetoric of World-Building. I should point out that while I was at this conference with a shit-ton of rhetoricians, I actually have only a very loose grasp on the modern concept of rhetoric. I still often have to fight off the idea that it's something predominantly to do with political speeches.

Parent was talking about the relationship between reality, play, and "playfulness", which is where the two come together. Some of the stuff he had to say was really interesting, but I'm not sure it cohered well. Then again, his abstract wasn't really that associated with the final presentation, at least as I recall it: Because functioning within a virtual world is qualitatively different than constructing a virtual world and requires different skills, knowledge, and expertise, I present a pedagogical approach to rhetorically understanding, and to the devilishly complex cognitive and compositional task of constructing, virtual worlds.

Parent talked a lot about writing games (ie, games involving writing) and world building as a way to challenge and engage students, and to do that he needed to go into what play is and what worldbuilding really consists of. At one point I wrote down "Fantasy is not reality manipulated; reality is just fantasy that works" which is a paraphrase of something he said and pretty smart, but it didn't get a ton of follow-up.

He was interested, in part, in how games are structured so that classes can be structured the same way to get students into what he called "Flow", something coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (which he actually pronounced, and probably correctly, props where it's due). Flow is the perfect point between anxiety and boredom, "when something is really hard but you're really good at it" or "Matching skill to challenge", much like Turk's discussion of Edge of Ability the previous day.

I think the upshot of his talk was that games allow us to integrate knowledge and practical application; they "unseparate knowing from doing". When we play, we step outside of reality and into a "magic circle" with arbitrary but binding rules, and Parent's goal is to investigate ways to bring the circle into reality via "playfulness".

One of his projects with his students was to have them create characters and then set up blogs as that character; he was genuinely proud of his students' blogs and how they told a story, and I think he certainly should be. It was obviously impressive to him and to the rest of the audience that these kids had designed the colours for their blogs, taken photos, written entries, designed things like business cards. To us it's reasonably commonplace; within fandom the work I did with ask_aboutcoffee, the manips and worldbuilding, wasn't particularly exceptional. Outside of fandom it's a reasonably significant project. Which is interesting in and of itself. (If you want to see his students' blogs, they are handily located here.)

Mary Karcher followed Parent with Secrets, Snakes and Timelords: The Pedagogy of Spreadable Media which was about understanding memes and, to some extent, viral media from an academic standpoint.

Viral media and spreadable media aren't quite the same thing, though I think the distinction is possibly artificial, especially since "viral" is not all that well-defined within cyberspace. Again, however, Karcher was looking at how to engage students using the techniques that make viral/spreadable media (and reality TV, which she mentioned briefly) so fascinating. She states that Internet memes capture the attention and creativity of virtual community dwellers. If we could establish criteria for these memes, we would have a powerful tool for engaging our students in creative, rhetorically effective compositions. I combine the theories of Henry Jenkins and Joyce Walker to outline pedagogy of spreadable media.

Karcher identifies Viral Media as an internet phenomenon, spread person to person, in which a copy of the original is passed onwards -- a link to a vid from a friend, or a forwarded LOLcat from your cousin. Marketing departments are fascinated by viral media because it's a powerful way to pass information. She breaks down the factors for "successful" viral media into two separate elements: the inspiration of a strong emotion plus the element of surprise or shock.

Spreadable media is differentiated from viral media in that as the image or concept progresses, it changes; people modify or remix the original, acting on the image when they see it. Her example, which is legitimately brilliant, is the meme that went around a while back right after Doctor Who's The Unicorn And The Wasp aired. Someone thought that one of the portraits on the staircase looked a bit like one of the Doctors, and the internet ran with it, shopping different images into the portrait to try and top one another.

Another example she used was Snakes On A Plane, and I think she went a bit overboard with it, to be honest. I said yesterday that there's a difference between owning a fandom and being unprofessionally fannish; as interesting as the talk was, there was way more information on this meme than there needed to be. Hearing the origin and history of it was interesting, as was the fact that fan activity literally influenced the production of the film (fan-written dialogue was added, and the logo was inspired by fanart), but too much time was spent on all the Snakes On A Plane fanart, with the result that she was signaled for time with a significant amount of her talk still to go, and she had to rush through the rest of it.

Second Session: F4.2, LOLCATS PWN ALL

I wasn't originally going to attend this panel. I was headed to the Deliverator speech, but with a combination of some reasonable apathy about the subject and having met someone who was going to the F4.2 panel, I decided to change plans. I'm actually really glad I did because, despite knowing relatively little about video game theory and next to nothing about MMORGs, I learned a ton of really good stuff from this panel.

There were three separate presentations, but they were grouped under the single heading Games & Writing: An Ecology of Literate Activity. It opened with Rik Hunter and a foundation-building lecture outlining the structure of video game activity as "ecologies", which in this case are simply the study of relationships in an enclosed environment: a review of a four-part ecological framework for situating the rhetorical production within and surrounding digital games. Hunter is speaking specifically of an "information ecology", a system of people, practices, and values whose interrelationship can be studied. He wasn't interested in reading video games like texts so much as he was studying their structure for, say it with me, application in the classroom.

Incidentally, in my notes I wrote down that his name was Dan, not Rik, so if there was indeed a Dan standing in for Rik, my apologies, Dan. If not, Rik, sorry I got your name wrong...

Anyway, Presumably-Rik-Hunter breaks down games into five elements:

Action (what happens in the game)
Interface (the textual and visual presentation of the game)
Documentation (information gathered about the game, usually by players)
Design (game infrastructure)
Research (what we in fandom would call "meta": critical commentary and academic study of the game)

He also identifies different ways of writing in relationship to games: Writing about (analysis), around (fanfic, websites, character design), inside (in-game documents and communication) and writing the game itself (narrative and technical design).

This isn't necessarily content that he analysed in a "come to a conclusion" sense, just information he was providing as a knowledge base. I'm not sure that quite worked since the presenters who followed him and presumably were meant to build on his structures...kind of didn't, but it's interesting within itself, and I think the visuals and examples he shared did build my context a little. He also brought up the term Machinema, which I had never heard but which I have occasionally encountered; machinema is like vidding, only using choreographed moves by video-game characters instead of clips from films. The most famous, of course, is WoW: The Internet Is For Porn.

Doug Eyman was next, and was supposedly building on Hunter's talk with a focus on writing around and about games. While there was a literal element of that in his talk on WoW Wiki, it seemed to be less about games than it was about how Wikis function. I suspect this could have been done using the original Wikipedia, but on the other hand that may not have taken into account the mutual worldbuilding going on in a gaming wiki. And I'd hate to seem negative about any of this, because "how wikis function" is an AWESOME thing to be talking about and I really enjoyed it.

Eyman said something that really popped a lot of the conference into focus for me: "Collaborative writing practices are entering a single-author world." Wiki redefines audiences and how we interact with them; he quoted a study in 1984 that defined "invoked" versus "addressed" audiences (which I have to admit I didn't quite follow) and pointed out that pre-internet, the success of audience interaction was mostly dependent on the writer.

The change, which Eyman quotes Robert Johnson as talking about in 1997, is that audiences began to be made of users who could challenge the power of writers -- both Users, who work with the creator providing feedback or who as a conglomerate compose a piece of documentation, and End Users, who have no impact on the process of creation but for whom the work is eventually intended. He used a great term for this: WIKIMEDIATED WRITING.

The final presentation was supposed to "examine two games developed around the digital literacy practice of 'backchanneling'" but was actually about LOLCATS. I know!

Alice Robison, who was giving the talk, was focusing less on gaming than on the culture of people who play games, which she likened to studying learning rather than teaching, which she thinks (and I agree) there isn't really enough of.

Robison is interested in "discourse culture", where the cultural setting consists of unwritten rules and participants really can only learn by doing -- to be a part of the culture you have to engage actively with it. To make a LOLcat you have to actually know either where to go or how to synthesise the font, and you have to understand LOLspeak, which is codifying more and more each day.

I am going to admit that I did not take as many notes as I should, because I was too wrapped up in the lecture, but also that her presentation was cut a little bit short, I think, by time constraints. So this is one of those moments when I wish I could give you more content but you're just going to have to take my word that it was brilliant.

After F-session was Saturday's lunch, where Eric Faden presented Writing in the 21st Century: Remix and the Video Essay. I don't have any notes on this, because I was busy nomming, but his presentation was far more coherent than the previous day's. I had some issues with some of his assertions; he conducts all his English classes by having the students make films instead of writing essays. This can be engaging, and he acknowledges it is much more difficult and time-consuming, but he also says that film is more accessible, which is not always true. I kind of felt like he had taken a really good idea and just gone wholesale overboard with it.

Third Session: G Roundtable, Early Exit

By the time we got to the first afternoon panel I was starting on a really tremendous migraine, so I was a little distracted. I did find the roundtable extremely interesting; the subject was Online Publishing and Malleable Texts: When Do Digital Texts Become “Permanent”? My notes don't say who kicked it off, but I know that he was dicussing online journals and how they should publish "errata". The immediate logical response to a published contributor asking to change an inaccurate attribution is to say "sure, let's just go in and fix it" but he expressed concerns about whether that was historical revisionism. In a sense I'm not really sure how important this is since it can get nitpicky really fast, but on the other hand if there's precedent in scholarly journals for correcting errors, that sets an example for work outside of scholarship as well.

So, what are digital journals to do? Ignore the error and publish errata in later issues, as paper journals do? Append a note to the error? Change the error and append a note to the change? It comes back to what the responsibility of journals is to the field and to researchers, which is a much bigger question that is perhaps more important to address. There were also questions raised about how revisions change original documents and how new versions of papers should be cited, since I guess the MLA is still as slow as ever to adopt new forms of citation.

An interesting suggestion was put forth by one of the other speakers -- again, I didn't take down the name -- that students be asked to subscribe to an electronic text rather than buy a textbook, and that the text would change and update and revise over the course of, say, a four-year subscription. This links into the concept of Generator from Brunton's talk on Friday, though I don't think they crossed over consciously; a modifiable, acceptably-updating book that doesn't require repurchase for each change to the text.

I don't think the textbook companies will like this. It's a nasty habit of theirs to release new books each year with tiny, minor changes, so that students can't buy last year's second-hand book.

Fourth Session: Deliverator Speech, This Is Web 2.0 On Drugs

Having ditched out early and doped myself up with probably unhealthy amounts of OTC medication, I took myself off to my first "Deliverator" encounter. These are speeches based on the TEDTalks, and named after a character in a novel, apparently. This Deliverator was Bill Wolff, speaking on When Understanding Hypertext Isn’t Enough: Thoughts on Writing in the Age of Web 2.0. (The drugs in the title were all me. :D)

Wolff talked really fast (they're on a time limit in the Deliverators) and didn't really provide a lot of definitions, so it took me a while to catch up with him. He's working with how information, networking sites, apps, and users all inter-relate, with specific emphasis on Web 2.0 apps and sites: Web 2.0 applications complicate traditional understandings of how users interact with the Web by requiring a sophisticated, reflective, elastic, semiotic, eco-spatial, evolving information literacy. This talk will consider how an evolving information literacy challenges our understanding of writing and the potential impact it could have on teaching writing.

The first issue, of course, is to define Web 2.0, which in some sense will always be an arbitrary definition because there are tons of different segments of internet culture that think they know what it is, and we're about 25 years too early to be defining it within a historical context.

Still, Wolff gives it a fair shot, creating a semantic definition based on terms that surround Web 2.0. From this he created a master list of Web 2.0 "apps" (which in this case I think included websites? I really wish he had defined what he meant by "apps") and generated a sample population. He ended up with thirty-one top-used Web 2.0 sites. I'm pretty sure LJ was among them but I'd have to check the slides to be positive. Supposedly these were filmed and will be made available, but a significant flaw in the online structure of Computers & Writing is that there's no post-conference site for news/films/links/commentary, or if there is it's not linked from the main CW2010 site.

Anyway, Wolff struggled to analyse something that was constantly changing -- as we all know, sites can alter speedily and the way they're used can too. He developed a reflexive methodology that studied the thirty-one websites over the course of a year, and identified sixty nine unique functions of Web 2.0 applications. Again, while interesting, this does seem to be a somewhat artificial construct, since he was defining Web 2.0 in a specific and possibly arbitrary way in the first place.

Wolff looked at what could be considered "writing" in these website spaces, using a definition of writing from Dorothy Winsor, and by that definition 48 of the 69 functions of these sites could count as writing. At this point it would indeed be helpful to have access to his slides, or at least his functions list...

However, I did really enjoy the second half of his discussion, which was about the interrelation between websites over the course of the last ten or fifteen years. Wolff posits that historically, websites have been "silos"; isolated locations that don't overlap with or link to other sites, where all the content remains in a single space owned by a single site. With Web 2.0, there is significant functional overlap and evolving complexity -- apps adopt useful functionality of other apps, link to each other, and share content. He drew an analogy to comics -- when you see two panels of a comic, you automatically envision the action occurring between the panels. Likewise, with the non-silo model of Web 2.0, you envision a connection between two sites simply because they're interrelated, and that allows for invisible links to be drawn, which is a part of information composition. When we interact with a website or a series of websites, we have what Wolff calls "A Series of Cognitive Occurrences":

Reading signs (icons, buttons that cause certain functions, etc)
Knowing the meaning of prior signs
Knowing when to use specific sites or apps
Understanding what mode of composition to use (music, vid, text)
Recognising changes in applications and adapting
Understanding the functions of apps

He ends by posing a pretty interesting question: If we were to place a website into three-dimensional virtual reality, what would it look like, and how would we interact with it on a physical level? Pondering this seems to be a way of expanding his thoughts above. It was a definitely interesting talk, though the scholar in me has a lot of questions about his research methodology.

Fifth Session: Featured Deliverator, Twitter and Doctor Who

Technically there were two Featured Deliverators, but I only stuck around for Sarah Robbins, who was presenting Tweckling the Status Quo: How the Back Channel Shakes Up the Classroom and Conference Session. Incidentally, I mentioned "tweckling" to a few people and got a lot of lulz, but also some acknowledgement that "backchannel" communication really can be problematic.

I don't know that Robbins was quite presenting on her abstract, which was about "the ups and downs of back channels and [...] subverting the typical monologic presentation." But it was a very engaging talk nonetheless, and she did definitely address issues with communication around academia.

Robbins did not herself deliver a typical presentation; she caught some flack on twitter for "masking" the issues she was discussing with analogies to a frivolous TV show, but since that frivolous TV show was Doctor Who, fuck the haters. :D It is possible that the involvement of fannishness in the presentation wasn't necessary, but it was certainly engaging.

She asserts that Twitter, and tools like it, let you "bend space and time" -- you can not only interact with people outside the immediate physical learning area (as you are doing by reading my notes), but outside the immediate time in which the learning took place. Twitter is an "always present" community, and reading back is always an option.

However, as she points out, and as I have good reason to know, once you invite others into a conversation you are no longer in control of it. Her major issue with Twitter is that as a "backchannel" it can be disruptive; it can invite oversharing and inappropriate discourse, not to mention making private conversations public.

Robbins suggests that in the crossover between "bending time" and "bending space" there is a third "power" to this tool known as Radical Transparency. When you operate on a backchannel like Twitter, you expose the relationship between your thoughts and actions -- what you say online and what you do in reality. This is predicated on the idea of having realtime interaction with people who know your twitter, of course (I don't, and I know others who don't) but in an academic setting it's valid.

Essentially: on a public platform like Twitter, or Livejournal, you are on a stage performing all of the time, unless you are locking your entries. We say it pretty frequently during wanks: if you say something in public, you have to accept that the public may notice it.

This is linked to some themes I was playing with in Your Face Is Turned, in a minor way: the idea that the concept of "privacy" is different in different temporal cultures. The right to privacy wasn't really identified as an idea until the Renaissance (at least according to my extremely patchy memory of Renaissance history) and there's no guarantee that the future will continue to support this right. I'm not talking about a Big Brother situation so much as I am about a Culture Of Overshare.

We can choose to consciously share information, like when I post stories about BossBoss, but we can also choose to automate information-sharing. I have a account and I didn't realise for like a week that it scrobbles everything, but I honestly don't care who knows what I listen to. So if you guys ever want to know what my regular "going to/from work" playlist is, dig it. Am I a little concerned that someone could use this to track when I'm listening to music? Perhaps. But I'm a face on the internet; it's not like y'all know where I live. The way we treat public information seems to be shifting from an acceptance of address and phone number sharing -- it was considered unusual when I was a child to be unlisted in the phone book -- to an acceptance of personal-taste, personal-opinion sharing with a preventive shroud drawn over the contact information.

There's nothing to say that three thousand years in the future people will consider privacy to encompass the same things we do -- I delibrately included passages about the things that teachers made public to their students (like playlists) and a lack of body-modesty.

ANYWAY, that was a side-trip, back to Robbins. She knows that as a teacher she can't actually forbid a backchannel. Students will create it anyway and if it's not a channel integrated into the classroom, it's much harder to monitor. She presented us with some good tips for using a backchannel to become "confidently transparent":

1. Create a course tag: when teaching, have a tag for each course, so that students already have a unified concept of what to tag their tweets with.
2. Register your tag on twubs -- I didn't follow this too closely but you can apparently "register" hashtags and that does something.
3. Use twistory to archive those hashtagged tweets, and study what kind of tweets you get, and why
4. Set up a shared Hootsuite account, where you can make the most of twitter (apparently you can schedule posts to happen later)
5. Create an account for the course and have people follow that account for news and info

Some of these are more software-patch than sociology, but I think the point is not so much to control information (that won't really happen) as it is to be conscious of the fact that students are using tools and if you don't keep up with them and understand them, you may lose out not only on valuable teaching opportunities but on your students' attention and engagement.

And that pretty much concludes my notes on Computers & Writing 2010. I had to take off early on Sunday morning, so I missed the Sunday sessions, and I have posted about my lolarious encounters at the Hogroast elsewhere.

I'm glad I went, and I think it was money well-spent. If I attend next year there will be some things I change, I think, based on where it is (I didn't realise it moves around from year to year) but the annoyances were minor compared to the payoff. I have a lot to chew over, and I hope you guys have enjoyed my notes. :)
Tags: academia, extribulum
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