I continue to think a great deal about how new media has grown the possibilities of our collective academic work. As the director of a Masters in Writing Studies Program at Kean University, I often reckon with how our traditional forms of scholarship are merely one reference point when considering how to produce and create new knowledge. As a result, I have for some time been a proponent of a more expansive sense of what writing might entail in the 21st century, and I have often spoken about “Writing-as-Making.”
The digitized and computational environments of our new mediascape have inherently expanded our understanding of what it means to compose. In many cases, my students have come up with innovative ways to harness the affordances of a digitized environment to envision the work that will matter to them. They are working with new media tools, and that work leads them to new and important questions about the nature of writing itself. Thesis work can indeed exemplify innovative, experimental formats — including video, websites and other multimedia interactivity. Most of my students yearn to complete a final project that might make sense in the broader context of “the real world,” and new media tools provide for them the means to reach that goal. They often aspire to produce work that can be shared and distributed beyond the confines of a small academic readership. As a firm believer that scholarship should be connected, I offer here a few models for inventive, digital and experimental new forms of academic thesis work.
The following three MA projects, which I directed this Spring 2015, exemplify what is possible when a student is given the freedom to think of the his or her work from a “making” perspective:
“Ravenous” is a creative/literary MA thesis project, written by Kristi Kulcsar, that explores the opportunities that Twitter and other social media platforms afford to generate plot, setting and character development in the act of storytelling. An interesting spin on “twitterature” by using tweets and conversation posts on social networks to tell a story, Kristi playfully remediates the literary classic “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe. Kristi’s project incorporates multiple writing genres. Her work is part reference guide, part reflection, part creative remediated fiction. The project offers useful resources for digital storytelling enthusiasts as it highlights many practical current tools, research on Poe and his context, as well as extensive assessment of ongoing writing methods/processes with her embedded “Ravenous” blog.
The spark for Gina Jorge’s MA thesis was found while participating in the Kean University Writing Project’s Invitational Summer Institute, which lead to further research on Connected Learning. In her MA project entitled “Engaged Learning: Digital Practices for Writing Instruction,” Gina explores digital practices for teaching writing and rhetoric to undergraduate students, merging theory and the best practices for writing instruction. As she was researching, she decided to build a resource for educators that focuses on pedagogy for interactive learning. With the digital teaching resource, she examines which digital practices and current trends are most effective for student engagement. Hightlighting connected learning theory and her own case studies, her work uses technology as an intuitive tool to introduce new forms of literacy while meeting pedagogical goals.
As a player of MMORPGs and other roleplaying games, Nicole Dreste learned not only to write but to code and compose digitally in creative, original ways, both collaboratively and independently. She decided to consider this further with an authoethnographical perspective for her MA project, “Play, Code, Compose, Write: An Autoethnography.” Probing the relationship between writing and gaming practices, her autoethnography studies her own perspective in roleplaying and writing discourse within the context of fan-based content from the MMORPGs “World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn.” From turning chat-text into narrative through the use of third-party apps to attempting to produce video narrative as a “gamer-author” (Johnson 278), Nikki has transitioned back and forth between successes and failures, highlighting her journey through play and learning.
Each of these special projects has at its heart a theoretical inquiry, but each student chose to foreground their exploration from different writing stances (whether creative, professional or pedagogical). My students have effectively shared their own recursive writing methods through a record of reflection on their own shifting processes/methods. Simultaneously, they also forged new territory in thinking about a final “product” in an academic context. The result highlights that it is not simply the outcome that should be prioritized. Rather, the journey in getting there is stressed as equally significant and meaningful.
Anyone interested in adding their voice to the discussion about new media and the changing nature of academic scholarship, use Twitter hashtag #remixthediss. Another great resource is the ongoing/lively forum about this topic explored by HASTAC Scholars.
First four images from projects by Kristi Kulcsar, Gina Jorge and Nicole Dreste. Last image, from left, are Kulcsar, Jorge, Dreste and Mia C. Zamora at Kean University Graduate School commencement in May.
The BioSim team spent four days with the kids at the Club. They closely examined how the kids reacted to each part of the exercise. Over the four days the kids learned about how honey bees feed themselves by collecting nectar and making it into honey. The kids then simulated this process with electronic bee puppets. They took turns searching for flowers with the most nectar. At first their nectar searching was random. Each kid spent a lot of time searching through each flower to find the ones that had more nectar. Many times the kids searched so long that their bees ran out of energy and died before they could make it back to the hive. We began to teach them that bees communicate the location of nectar with each other. At first we let the kids tell each other where to find the most nectar. This time they collected more nectar and none of the bees ran out of energy.
Honey bees communicate by dancing. The do a sort of waggle up the middle then either turn right or left and loop back. By doing this they communicate to other honey bees the distance and direction of flower with a lot of nectar.
The waggle dance: By doing their dance, honey bees communicate to each other the location of flowers with lots of nectar based on the angle between the sun, hive and flower.
We challenged the kids to create their own dances to tell each other where the flowers with the most nectar were. At first the kids had trouble gathering their thoughts. Some kids tried to make up dances as they went along and others didn’t know what dance their hive was doing from the beginning. As time went on they learned that without a descriptive dance that everyone could understand, they weren’t effective at collecting nectar.
On the final day of our visit one girl took her bee dance to the next level. She took it upon herself to teach the rest of her hive a dance that mimicked the one that the actual honeybees do. She wiggled up the middle then looped back either on the left or right to signify the direction and distance of the flower with the most nectar. As a result of her creative thinking her hive collected more nectar and won the competition.
By the end of our time with the kids it seemed like they had grasped a strong understanding of the complex system of honey bees. The world is made up of complex systems, which makes it imperative that students learn to understand them. Young kids are continually underestimated in their cognitive abilities yet they are able to understand the complex system of honey bees.
We were pleased with how our preliminary testing went last week but we also discovered multiple things for us to improve upon. Thanks to the Boys and Girls Club of Ellettsville, we are one step closer to a successful implementation.
As I look in the rear view mirror at this past semester, I marvel at the grand experiment of my #WritingRace class at Kean University that I blogged about as we embarked on our journey. I decided to take co-learning one step further. When I first met my fantastic group of graduate and undergraduate students for this course, I announced that they were in charge of their own learning outcomes. I also mentioned that there was no prescribed syllabus for the course. Rather, they would design their own syllabus as they considered their collective goals. Along with planning their own learning outcomes, my students would also determine their course materials, select their readings, and design their own class projects. I took a deep breath as I listened, watched, reassured, and guided my students. I often tried to step out of the way, and it was not easy. Eventually, they formulated an inspired vision of authentic learning. And, with time, perseverance, and collaboration, they realized that vision, despite the fact that there was no path marked for them to get there.
I must mention that I have successfully taught this “Writing Race & Ethnicity” class in the past. These earlier iterations have followed a more traditional design. I have distributed a well-honed syllabus which included significant readings in the fields of both race theory and literature. I have provided a clear break down of course expectations, including learning outcomes and class assignments. By all accounts, my earlier versions of this course have had clear favorable outcomes. The work submitted by students has been significant, the discussions have been memorable and engaging, and the class chemistry has led to a true feeling of meaningful community. Some of my favorite teaching memories are attached to this particular class in its earliest form. But, despite this successful track record, this time around, I stepped back, and really thought about the point of this class.
Why would anyone take a university course entitled “Writing Race & Ethnicity?” Inherent in the title of the course itself is an urgency about matters of the real world. Why does race matter? How has it been written and rewritten in our society? What conversations can we have to improve our understanding of each other? How can we include new voices in such conversations? Considering our headlines and the real challenges regarding race that we face together, I knew deep down that the course needed to connect to the world as we know it in more explicit ways. A prescribed series of academic readings and writings on theories of race seemed to fall short of that urgency.
So, I summoned the courage to cast the purpose of this learning experience first and foremost in the context of the real world rather than a familiar academic exercise. As I considered new ways to design this class, I found I was seeking an experience of learning that would matter more to my students. But, how does one design for unplanned experience without falling back on the overdetermined perspective of one’s own authority on the issues at hand?
I let the students decide for themselves what they wanted to learn, and I gave them the space to figure out how to make their learning matter in the world beyond our four literal walls. The conversation began with certain questions. Their personalized answers brought forth diverse perspectives that revealed authentic forms of knowledge within our own ranks. (Knowledge rooted not necessarily in theoretical engagement, but knowledge direct from my student’s lives). Students were stressed, struck by the notion that they would have to step up and claim their own forms of learning. They were taken aback by the amount of control they were given to learn on their own terms. They hesitated, they waited for signals and structures. It was a delicate dance in supporting without commandeering process. I had to practice a certain kind of discipline in mirroring back to them their own inquiries as I reminded them that vulnerability is the seed of true learning. All the while, I felt vulnerable myself as I continued to push back the fear that my “experiment” would go awry, that it might turn out a complete class “disaster.” I learned that they needed time “to steep in it” as they found their way to their own goals.
Early on, they identified a collective goal of creating a “digital omnibus” — a website of resources that they would curate and aggregate in order to share their understanding online in the hopes it would help others. Soon, students identified their particular concerns regarding why race matters. They organized themselves into five small groups around five central concerns: Race and Identity; Race and Popular Culture (especially the role of humor); Race in the Classroom; Race in the International Context; and Race and the Politics of Language. They were self-reflective as they blogged steadily about their emerging interests while researching and reading on their chosen topics. In due course, there was a remarkable turn of course. As Baltimore burned, they decided that the “digital omnibus” design was too static a design for them. They wanted to reach out to others more explicitly. They created a mini-MOOC — a course experience that they planned and implemented with the express intention of sharing and conversing with others.
In final self assessments for the class, students wrote extensively about how surprised they were at how much they learned from their own classmates. They wrote eloquently about their increased sense of empathy. They also marvelled at how they were able to gain new digital confidence, as their instinct for self directed learning (i.e. just google it!) became a newfound form of self-reliance. My students also wrote about how much they thought about this class outside of class. They wrote about how they realized they were talking with many other people in their lives about the issues we grappled with in class.
When students readily admitted that the learning experience seeped over to shape their real lives, that is when I knew the experiment was truly working. They spoke about the course opening up difficult conversations in their personal lives — conversations that they would not have the courage to engage in before. Several students wrote that their “biggest takeaway” was that they had more clarity about themselves — that they knew better who they were in this complex world. A refined and nuanced sense of self was an unforeseen outcome, and I couldn’t be more pleased that this outcome emerged. Perhaps the most telling comment was when one student wrote, “This is the most important work I have done for any class in my entire education.”
I have learned that if you give freedom and trust to students, they will find their own way to the learning that matters the most. Thinking about this course as a re-design has been a means of speculating about how things might be — to imagine possible futures. This kind of classroom experiment opens up space — the space for emergence. What emerged was the inherent knowledge within our own ranks, and the need to connect to a world outside in ways that matter.
It is no coincidence that this year’s DML Conference is a “Call for Equity in Design.” Designing for emergence is always intrinsically a risk. Which leads me to my final reflections on risk taking: Playing it safe is not going to yield the opportunities that will make a difference. Off-script is when you don’t quite know where you are going, but you have the courage to commit to the journey knowing that it is the process itself that will hold the worth. Breaking outside of conventional form is where excitement lies. Being an effective educator cannot remain a quest to be a master with a masterful product. Rather, it is dynamic performance and a practice.
There are people in the world who think that their world vision is better than yours. People allow their cultural and societal norms to dictate what kind of face they put on, and everything about their behavior. Some people are a certain way online, and a different way offline. They are one way in groups of people, and another in private. This identity thing is a passion of mine. The whole who am I? What’s wrong with me? Am I ok? The associated stress and anxiety associated with my being comes from years of being alive. Or maybe it’s because my brain has been considering it since I started reading.
Lately, I’ve been trying to pull myself together again after a string of identity shaking occurrences that started happening a couple years ago. It doesn’t matter the specifics, but there have been people who said “You are not allowed” and attached it to some commentary about my personality that resulted in my brain understanding “You are not allowed to be who you are.” Others have made me feel like I’ve been shut out because of who I am. Still others have tried to build me up, and I’ve felt guilty when I wonder about true motives. I have spent time trying to understand why I am how I am, and I have spent time trying to forgive myself for it.
It’s a struggle to reflect on your being. It is a struggle to strive towards being a better person by reflecting on your individual traits and becoming mindful of how you affect the world and people in it. It’s a struggle to hear someone say
“You aren’t allowed to be who you are”
and stand up and say
“Oh, yes I am. You are in every way my equal, flailing human who also doesn’t know what the fuck is going on.”
I can’t look back and say “Oh, I’m being stubborn right now because of my seventh grade character card.”
Humans absorb a thousand different lessons through a thousand different experiences that lead to the development of character. I am confident that character grows and shifts and changes based on those experiences. Predetermining desired character traits (who the hell are you to say what makes up a good person?) and then pretending like you can teach them is…god it’s so crazy.
Anyway, just needed to rant on that for a minute. I might start using #SoWhatIfIam to talk about social and cultural norms. It was a joke when I was tweeting yesterday, but this keeps coming up. Bucking social and cultural norms has something to do with leadership development. I’m quite sure of it.
This summer, Creativity Labs members Verily Tan, Naomi Thompson, Tony Phonethibsavads, Anna Keune, and Sophia Bender have offered two sewing-related workshops at the new teen space known as the Ground Floor at Bloomington, IN's public library. As part of the library's Summer Maker Days, we facilitated a Sew Your Own Bookmark Book-Light e-textile workshop on June 1 and an Intro to Sewing puppet-making workshop on July 6.
The Ground Floor is a very open-ended space where teens between the ages of 12 and 19 can come and hang out with their friends, mess around with craft supplies and digital tools, and geek out around their favorite stories, video games, or creative projects. The nature of the space is such that our workshops were open to anyone who wanted to drop in and make something.
At the e-textile workshop, we saw a range of skill levels, from those who had never sewn before to those who had attended our LilyPad workshops before. They were all highly engaged in sewing a LilyPad LED to a battery holder with conductive thread, and then decorating their felt bookmark. Some made light-up bows rather than bookmarks, and some took on the challenge of sewing two LEDs instead of just one!
At the Intro to Sewing workshop, we set up four sewing machines in the space and helped several teens to both hand-sew and machine-sew hand puppets. Most of the teens drew on their favorite media for inspiration on what kind of puppet to make. Everyone ended up using a sewing machine at least a little bit, and even those who had never used one before caught on quickly and ended up with highly successful and creative puppets!
Verily and Tony hard at work helping teen sewers with their puppets.
A teen works on sewing her corgi puppet.
A Swamp Monster-Frankenstein hybrid puppet
A shark puppet inspired by the monster Zamtrios from the Monster Hunter video game series
The Joker from Batman
A Dobby puppet (from Harry Potter) in progress
A puppet of the Pokémon Pikachu, waiting for his ears to be attached
As always, we were blown away by the great hands-on learning and creativity we saw at these workshops!
Thank you to teen librarians Kevin MacDowell and Becky Fyolek at the Ground Floor for inviting us and making this wonderful outpouring of teen creativity possible!
I am blessed to wear two special “hats”. I am simultaneously both an educator and a Mom. And I often marvel at how these two roles are truly integrated. I find that many of the reflections that emerge from my educator self are mirrored by the experience of my parental self, and vice-versa. As an educator, I am always looking for “in-roads” to enhance the peer learning experiences in my classrooms. I ponder the ways that I might harness the power of connecting in order to revitalize learning. And as a parent of two young children, I often wonder how such habits of empowered social learning take hold, and in what spaces and experiences do these instincts take flight? One particular opportunity has shed powerful light on these questions.
Enter the virtual Minecraft Camp.[x_video_embed type=”5:3″ no_container=”true”][/x_video_embed]
Launched last summer in “beta” form by Pursuitery, and this summer being offered by Connected Camps in collaboration with Institute of Play, this special opportunity for my own kids has offered a enlighted lens into the power of learning beyond the traditional classroom context. Â I have grasped so much by simply observing my own two young sons’ enthusiasm for Minecraft, especially as they have become avid members of this special Minecraft Camp community. Â The Summer 2015 camp consists of a complete 4-week camp experience on moderated camp servers from July 6th – August 2nd, 2015. The Minecraft camp can be accessed in the comfort of your own home and at your convenience. Kids have the opportunity to learn with expert peer counselors in a safe, moderated, multiplayer environment.
Like so many other parents of young kids, there has been concern regarding the amount of “screen time” our sons experience and we have strived for a healthy balance. Â We have also been big advocates of good old fashioned “go outside and play” time. Still, the Minecraft bug has bitten both my boys. And God knows, they are not alone in this phenomenon. Parents everywhere are adjusting to minecraft obsession. Minecraft is a sandbox video game that has most certainly taken the world by storm. The creative and building aspects of Minecraft enable players to build constructions out of textured cubes in a 3Dprocedurally generated world. Think digitized legos, with activities including exploration, resource gathering, crafting, and combat. Minecraft is an open world game that has no specific goals for the player to accomplish, allowing players a large amount of freedom in choosing how to play the game. When a child becomes a Minecraft enthusiast, an early step along the way is an interest in joining a community server in order to play this open game with other players. This social and participatory element of the Minecraft experience is at once an exciting growth opportunity but also presents a daunting risk. Parents are understandably concerned with keeping their children safe in an online environment. This monitored and safe Minecraft Camp has provided the chance for my own sons to experience participatory game play, while also learning problem solving and design, advanced building techniques, online web literacy, collaboration and community organizing, and ultimately, digital citizenship.
When they joined the first iteration of the camp last summer, they quickly acquired new skills. The most obvious acquisition was a myriad of new building techniques, some of which required more explicit computational thinking in order to execute. They also made new friends, and they learned how to communicate and plan with others while co-designing the world around them. They negotiated, built teams, designated roles, and worked with others to realize shared purpose. I was surprised how quickly they both improved their keyboarding skills. I guess when you want to communicate something quickly in real time (like texting), your fingers learn quickly to keep up with the pace of play. Each time they logged on, they were excited to see who was on the server. It reminded me of the real world experience of swinging by your local coffee shop or library. You wonder what friends or colleagues might be there when you decide to drop by. You delight in the serendipity of meeting new friends. There is no doubt that their virtual environment has mirrored the experiences of community building in the real world.
This summer I expect to see them “level up” around certain skill sets. They express the ambition of learning how to develop “let’s play” videos that capture their adventures as they build in the Connected Camp server. These short homemade videos are narrated by the individual players themselves as they explore and discover the virtual world that they are building. My sons are also especially excited to engage in “challenges” like adventure games with maps, and time based design jams. They have expressed interest in blogging about their in-game adventures. And they will also be participating in a coding week of the Minecraft Camp where they will learn to code in-game using the Lua programming language.
There is no doubt that there is considerable learning involved when kids play this game in a safe and productive environment. And their learning is often fueled by the social engagements which open up new possibilities for their creativity. My colleague Mimi Ito has written eloquently about her own son’s involvement as he gears up to take on the role of camp counselor this summer. Once an enthusiastic younger player, he is now a teen able to take on an advisory role as he guides the little kids-a great example of peer learning by design.
The “Mom” in me has been wary lately of the effect that traditional forms of classroom learning has had on the vital spirit of my children. I have observed the necessary transition from their early childhood exploration and play to the much more “hemmed-in” expectations of their elementary school curriculum. I have felt a sense of loss for them as they have experienced the gradual shift from open discovery through play, to an educational system ridden with worksheets and assessments. From kindergarten to the fourth grade, the fun factor has certainly waned. But in the summertime they feel free again for a myriad of reasons. In many ways that freedom mirrors the wisdom originally realized on the toddler’s playground. For deep and lasting learning is also about freedom. Make no mistake, the summertime is most certainly a time for powerful forms of learning. And in an open virtual game like Minecraft, kids can discover their own self-driven interests a new. They are free to learn in powerful intuitive ways from their friends. They can create on their own terms, and in the process they have room to discover what makes them tick.
The World Children's Festival is an annual celebration of creativity, diversity and unity, with participants from all over the world. The theme on Jul 1 was Creativity and Imagination, and Creativity Labs hosted a LED Light-Up Bookmark activity at one of the tents between 2-4pm. Sophia Bender, Anthony Phonethibsavads and Verily Tan helped close to 70 participants sew the Light-Up Bookmark on felt material. This consisted of an LED, and a battery holder. When the positive and negative lines have been sewn with conductive thread, putting a 3V battery into the battery holder causes the LED to light up. Children were fascinated, and excitedly sewed the lines for their LED to light up! Some children decorated their bookmarks with beads, sequins and fabric markers. The event was indeed an international encounter for the facilitators - we had participants from Poland, Germany, China, and Korea. There were also Americans from across the country. Many children came with their parents, or mentors - and they made bookmarks together. It was a lovely sight to see mothers guiding their children with the sewing, following the instruction sheet or receiving help from the facilitators. We invited parents to create their own bookmark, and in many cases, both parent and child left with Light Up Bookmarks! The children who participated were between 5-15 years of age, and it was interesting working with them. There was a group of girls from Texas who were performing at the Festival. One by one, they brought their friends and guided each other in the sewing. We were inspired by some of the very young children who were determined to sew and complete the Bookmark - we supported them, sometimes holding the felt material for them as they manipulated the needle and thread. Reflecting on the two hour activity, we love the creativity and diversity of the children, and the inter-generational making. This really was a celebration of creativity, diversity and unity!
One of the well-decorated bookmarks!
Mother and daughter from California: Smiling with success!
Siblings from South Korea: Happy with their bookmark!
Winners of the Art Olympiad (from Poland) sewing with their teacher
Students from Texas who participated and guided each other through the process