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July 7, 2006

New Media Studies and Freshman Composition

Inspired by a conversation with George, I've decided to use a "new media studies" theme in my freshman composition class this fall. I had originally planned to put together a course similar to my Fall 2004 "Rhetoric and Democracy" course, which focused on the various kinds of argument used during the presidential election, but because there is no central national election, such a course doesn't seem feasible in 2006. I'm still thinking about what such a course would look like and how it might serve Fayetteville State's student population, but given the number of important questions raised by new media, I think students could benefit from such a course.

I'm still debating about whether to require students to maintain blogs this time around for a variety of reasons. I do think it's important that students produce new media texts in a new media studies course, and blogs are becoming one of the more accessible versions of that kind of "democratized" new media production. When I taught the "Rhetoric and Democracy" course, blogs also made it easier for students to generate content for class discussion by linking to news articles or op-ed pieces on their blogs, a practice I found especially useful and informative when I taught the election-based course. But I've also found that when I don't have actual paper assignments to return to my students that I find it much more difficult to remember their names (and I'll have a lot of students this fall). I'm also becoming less patient with the role of being a default blog administrator for seventy-five or so students and am somewhat unsure about what kind of technological access students will have. I have obviously had good success with using blogs in the classroom in the past, but I'm also ready to try something different.

Also, because the course is the composition course focused on teaching the research paper, it may make more sense to look at significant debates about new media to provide contexts where students can write argumentative essays. Here, I'm thinking about the debates about the place of copyrighted material on YouTube, whether it's the "Lazy Sunday" clip from Saturday Night Live or fans filming themselves dancing to their favorite songs, to name one example. But I'd also like students to think about issues such as YouTube's popularity rankings and comments features and how those functions might affect how and what we watch, as well as pointing students to writers who are performing interesting interpretations of amatuer media, such as Henry Jenkins. And, of course, amateur media raises all sorts of questions about public and private boundaries that students need to consider, especially with many of them maintaining Facebook and MySpace pages, which often feature their names and contact information.

This is sort of a brainstorming post, and I'd be happy to hear your suggestions, but there seems to be at least some enthusiasm among my colleagues for this kind of composition course. I'm planning to keep some aspects of the course flexible under the assumption that as new media practices continue to evolve, so I'm a little cautious about imposing too many required readings at the beginning of the semester. Plus, I think that this flexibility may, in fact, provide one way of modelling some of the challenges of doing new media research.

Oh, while I'm thinking about it, I've been invited to join the group blog, Dr. Mabuse's Kaleido-Scope, and so from now on, some of my posts may be cross-posted over there.

Update: Via Planned Obsolescence, Alan Liu's draft policy statement on student use of Wikipedia. Like him, I've seen students increasingly rely on Wikipedia as a source, and I think it's worth discussing that practice with my students. I'm probably less inclined than most English or composition instructors to expect my students to spend time in the library stacks, but I do think it's important that students gain some self-consciousness about how they research and how they come to conclusions about what's reliable and what isn't.

Posted by chuck at July 7, 2006 2:06 PM

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A drama professor of mine required us to keep response journals for our reading; we wrote 3-5 quick paragraphs (no major emphasis on perfect grammar, etc.) about most of our reading assignments, turning them in either on paper or as a blog address that he could check. I think the choice works well when you're uncertain what access students will have or what they'll be comfortable with using technology wise. And of course, the regular writing was invaluable; little is better for developing writing ability than reading and writing every day.

If you're going the new media route, though, I think a way to approach new media communication is to blend writing with other forms; allow students to turn in videos or audio mash ups or podcasts or something else other than typed out words. As you're well aware, it won't be too long before the ability to communicate with moving images and music is nearly as valuable as with text.

Posted by: Peter Suderman at July 7, 2006 4:39 PM

Like you, I've been using blogs in my classes for a few years, but never with groups larger than 20-25. Generally speaking I use blogging as a substitute for paper journals or "informal writing," and will also use the class blog as the location to "turn in" certain other assignments such as formal film criticism or updates on research projects. There are always other writing assignments. When I first started using blogs, I experimented with individual and group sites, but now I almost always have one blog per class that students author collectively. This might be easier to manage than individual blogs, but I have no experience with the kinds of numbers you're dealing with.

This past Spring I had students in my first year Social Science learning communities course use the blog as a collective research journal - the intent was to have them report on problems, progress, inspiration, ideas and dialogue about all of it. The results were mixed, mainly because they were too much in the process of learning how to research to really reflect on it meaningfully with each other. However, I think that the blog contributed to everyone in the class becoming somewhat invested in everyone else's projects, and not just their own.

Posted by: Shaun Huston at July 7, 2006 7:11 PM

Thank you for the link to Liu's statement. Mainly i feel relieved that someone like him is facing the same issues. In principle what he suggests seems very sound but I am not sure that people who would see no problem with writing a whole essay on continental philosophy based on wikipedia entries would be able to abide by the conditions and qualifications Liu sketches out.

My unsatisfactory and hopefully temporary solution is to ban wikipedia references altogether.

Posted by: laura [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 7, 2006 10:35 PM

Thanks for the Wikipedia link. I get so tired of faculty who tell students not to consult it at all. I consult it almost daily! It can work well, when it's taught well. And that link is going to help me a lot.

Posted by: Nels at July 7, 2006 10:57 PM

Peter, I'm planning to require journals in some form (whether blogs or typed), but with so many students, I'm also trying to think of better strategies for learning names, and returning paperwork is usually where I've learned names in the past.

I do want to incorporate some form of new media (whether videos or mashups), but I'm not sure what kind of equipment my new institution has and what access my students will have (including time constraints), so that may have to wait.

Shaun, I like the "collective" aspects of blogging, too. My small student group blogs worked well in helping students to become more invested in each others' and the course's work. I could possibly have one blog for each section of my freshman composition classes and cross-post whenever I add anything to the blog.

Nels and Laura, I liked the Wikipedia discussion, too. I'm not yet ready to write it off completely, and for the topics we'll be treating (new media, popular culture), the entries tend to be a little stronger (the last time I checked, I'm even cited in Wikipedia, so I can't totally dismiss it). Perhaps one answer would be to teach Wikipedia as a "controversy," which would (hopefully) require them to take a meta-level approach to the material posted there.

Posted by: Chuck at July 7, 2006 11:39 PM

Adding to the reading list: EFF's policy on file sharing.

Posted by: Chuck at August 21, 2006 3:50 PM

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