Searching for Substance

NOTE: This is written specifically for Section 005.  Some content does not apply to all sections of our course.

We’re now at the close of week three of the course (time is a crazy thing…) and everyone is starting to hone where they’re headed with the Inquiry Project (hooray!)  This week also marked the beginning of journeying outward to find research useful to your inquiry projects to add to what we have already discovered with the New Media readings.  As I mentioned before, the activities throughout the class are designed to provide  you with the necessary skills for writing and researching, as well as pertinent content to use in your writing.  The New Media readings and nugget posts are meant to influence the way you think about your inquiry topics, where you can take your analyses of the nuggets and incorporate them in the larger Inquiry Project: pulling the claims and assertions the authors make–rather than just the mere data and descriptions they include–and applying them to your own arguments.  As Dr. Coats mentions,

Our expectation is that you will use as much of these five readings in your inquiry projects as possible; they’re not digressions or tangents from the main work of the course: they are the common content that allows the individuals in this course to become a learning community. Supplementing those new media readings will be some outside secondary sources that we will find and annotate (with the help of classmates in this and other sections, hopefully). We will then synthesize all of this material into a working theory that will be used to make sense of a primary digital text.

In addition to the outside research you find, will be asked to incorporate at least three of the New Media readings for your final Inquiry Project. (This is, in part, why the nugget posts have been tailored to get you thinking of how the ideas and arguments posited in the readings can apply to your primary texts given your specific topics.)  It may be the case that some of the concepts and assertions in the New Media readings do not directly  address your topic.  This is totally fine, natural, and often desirable.  The point here is not to try and find out only what has already been written directly about your topics, but to find key arguments to connect and apply to how YOU believe people should understand it.  (And they all can connect in some way.  Pinky swear.) Making ideas portable and stretching them for application is a skill, and one that ultimately helps you make novel and meaningful arguments.  

Additionally, the research you find beyond the New Media readings may also not directly address your inquiry topic.  Many topics in this course are new, which means that there may not be many sources directly addressing them (like scholarly articles, for instance).  This does not necessarily mean that you should switch topics.  Rather, it may mean that your interest in the topic is original and worthy of pursuit–a huge goal for many writers.  The trick is to find things that are related to your topic and apply them to the issue at hand.

When investigating beyond the New Media readings to see what’s out there and relevant to your inquiry project, it’s important to consider the kinds of sources that may and may not be useful.  Everything has virtues and limitations, and this is especially true given the specific kind of project you are developing.  Oftentimes this deals with the credibility of a source, particularly with its author, publisher, and intended audience.  Here is a useful breakdown of secondary sources:

  1. Scholarly sources: sources written by experts in a particular discipline. The intended audience are academics within the discipline, so the language is often dense and filled with discipline-specific concepts and terminology. Authors of scholarly sources don’t typically take the time to define particular terms (unless they are arguing to embrace new definitions) because it’s assumed that the audience already understands them. This is why they can be very difficult to read and digest.  However, they are (typically) very useful because they contain arguments meant to offer new perspectives within the field. They are found in scholarly journals and are only accepted after the article passes through a vetting process refereed by other scholars within the field.  “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework” is an example of a scholarly source.
  2. Substantive sources: sources that are perhaps not written by scholars in a particular field, but are nevertheless in-depth looks at an issue.  They are written for larger audiences than scholarly sources, though they (typically) include sophisticated writing (both in style and thought).  They often contain arguments, though not always. They are published in periodicals such as Harpers, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic Monthly.  “As We May Think” is a an example of a substantive source.
  3. Popular sources: sources typically written by staff writers, meant for a very large audience, and are typically written to either entertain or quickly inform.  They’re usually short and do not contain in-depth looks at an issue.  Articles ranging from Entertainment Weekly  to short news reports from The New York Times are popular sources.  These are useful to analyze, but not very useful for pulling together support for an argument.

Your Inquiry Project will include various kinds of sources–secondary and not–but it’s important to survey the first two of these kinds of sources as much and as thoroughly as possible; scholarly and substantive sources will provide the wonderful and necessary fodder for your Inquiry Project.  Remember, the point of your investigation is to discover the arguments and ideas you will apply to your own: pulling the meaningful assertions for support rather than just the facts for descriptions.  Data is important, but only insofar as to provide enough context for the reader to understand the issue at hand.  Consider Mirna’s nugget for “Augmenting Human Intellect”:

First any possibility for improving the effective utilization of the intellectual power of society’s problem solvers warrants the most serious consideration. This is because man’s problem-solving capability represents possibly the most important resource possessed by a society. The other contenders for first importance are all critically dependent for their development and use upon this resource. Any possibility for evolving an art or science that can couple directly and significantly to the continued development of that resource should warrant doubly serious consideration.

This is a valuable idea from Engelbart: an integral assertion for his work rather than a mere fact. It can be applied to other ideas and to help establish a methodological framework for an argument.  Definitions and terminology invoked by thinkers can also help with this.  Zahra does this in her post when including the definition of “augmenting human intellect” from Engelbart.  Much like this concept, it is often necessary to establish how one is thinking of certain terms and ideas for clear support (especially because people use terms differently).

A quick and dirty rule: sources are only as useful as the arguments that are being made.  Sources providing only swift accounts of things (news reports, short articles from Psychology Today etc.) won’t be very useful to build your bank of sources for your project because not much work is being done with them.  WebMD, for instance, covers a wide array of symptoms, diagnoses, and medical treatments for various ailments.  However!  It’s function for research is very limited: the pages aren’t thorough, information often goes without citations, and it isn’t always clear who wrote the article.  Most importantly, there aren’t any arguments being made. It can be a useful resource, but not for quality support.  A similar point can be made with Wikipedia.  You can find an incredible amount of information moving through it (I once spent three hours clicking on links through the Marvel Universe pages, starting here), though you can only find accounts of theories, criticisms, debates, and so on rather than the direct theories, criticisms, debates, and so on.  Wikipedia is a wonderful place to get curious and inquire (as tertiary sources tend to be), but it should always be used as a gateway to the direct sources being referenced and discussed.  So, whenever finding quality material on Wikipedia, be sure find the original source (often referenced at the bottom of the page).

As we move forward, keep trying to find the major points and premises of the arguments being made in the sources you pursue and keep applying them as robustly as possible to your topic. Additionally, continue to look to each other for what everyone is finding and how they are understanding and applying content.  Many connections in class so far have been stellar, and will be particularly valuable as we continue to build resources for information and ideas.  Helen put this beautifully:

Students are not only sharing their writings, but they are creating an opinion that they have passion for and by reading their blogs, I find people with beautiful souls.

We create meaning when we connect and engage mindfully.  Let’s continue doing so!

Analysis, Inquiry, and Week 2

 Note: This post is specifically for Team Zoetrope (Section 5).

Hi, team.  We’re about to start the second week of class and I wanted to say, again, how exciting the initial work has been.  A lot of this week was spent getting our feet wet (learning how to navigate the sites, what the assignments are like, etc.), so hopefully everything is working smoothly on your ends–it seems so from my end.  Though, if you have any problems with anything, please let me know.  I also encourage you all to lean on each other for assistance, and to use any platform at your disposal to do it (Twitter, blog posts, email, etc.).  In addition to the Twitter list (though still incomplete because not everyone has tweeted at me!) and our section blog list, there is a roster on Blackboard with everyone’s email.

Some things about this week:

As I’ve mentioned before, this is a process class, where the work each week for this course builds, in some way, to the final Inquiry Project–an argumentative research paper for the digital age (making up 35% of your final grade).  The nugget and concept experiences, for instance, are meant to help you establish conceptual frameworks for understanding phenomena that interest you and to provide a rich experience with applying what you find meaningful within the readings.  Eventually–and soon–your Inquiry Project will bring ideas from outside sources you discover to bear on digital media of some shape and form.  The activities that go along with the nugget and concept experiences (i.e. process category coursework) are designed to help you equip yourself with the necessary materials and skills to make the research/writing process and final project as robust as possible.

In order to begin this process, everyone must figure out what they specifically want to research for their projects given our New Media theme and how they will approach the phenomena, or primary text.  By “primary text,” I mean the first-hand relationship between the author of the text and the data that is being provided.  That means you must analyze the data before it will be useful to you.  These are objects, images, videos, websites, GIFs, legal documents, songs, poems, speeches, and many, many more things.  This is why I asked you all to consider and reconsider a particular primary text that resonates with you and how you’re thinking of our course content so far (particularly influenced by “As We May Think”), as well as populate the Groupthink wiki with your texts.  Your initial primary text from last week may not be the thing you’re specifically interested in forming a research question about. But if it isn’t, you should be thinking now what you wish to decide on for your developing project so we can start working on precisely framing a research question this week.

But for right now!  A bit more about primary texts and the rationale for why we spent last week figuring it all out:

It’s necessary to pick a precise primary text given our theme and think of a particular approach for analysis and research.  People view topics differently given who they are and their interests.  For example, philosophers and psychologists look at the topic of lying differently and ask different questions because of it.  Many psychologists are interested in lying, though they care about things like cognitive considerations (i.e. what’s going on in the brain when we lie???) and frequency (how often do we do lie, and why???); many philosophers are interested in lying, though they ask questions about the nature of lying (what is a lie???) or the ethical implications lying may have (when is it right to life, if ever???).  It’s not that the philosophers have it right and the psychologists don’t, but that different disciplines look at things differently than others given particular interests.

Will hits this nicely in his post about students’ varying approaches of analysis.  When looking at Google Glass (the primary text), he writes:

As someone who’s already somewhat uncomfortable around cameras, I’m concerned about what it would mean for everyone to have Glass on their face. As versatile and impactful as Glass stands to be, I think that it could be discusses in many different contexts. How does it stand to influence medicine?Or sports?What could Glass mean for artists?What could the military do with Glass? Tools like this have incredible amounts of potential, and are poised to affect change in many different spheres of professional and casual life.

The questions regarding sports, art, and the military get at disciplinary focuses (i.e. methodologies, perspectives, lenses) to consider Google Glass.  It’s not that we can only think about Google Glass is one way–there are many possible questions though various approaches.

Additionally, personal experience, or knowing more about the history and origins of a text, can also help bolster analyses.  Consider the top reddit post here of the image of the pug.  

Given this data–the image itself, how it is ranked on reddit, the picture’s subject line, etc–we can ask various questions about reddit itself and how it operates (e.g. what does it take to get popular on reddit if such an adorable picture only has four “likes” (or “karma”)?), or other questions about the picture itself (animal rights? people’s fascination with animal costumes for their pets?).  

Though, my experience with the image is distinct given that I know a lot more about the particular instance and animal—the pug is Emma, my loving companion.  Thus, I can discuss the text in a different way than anyone else: I am acquainted with the data in a unique way.  This is similar to Yusra’s discussion of her experiences with the Kindle:

The Kindle is a great “book;” it is light, thin, easy to read from, and easy to hold. More importantly, it contains an infinite number of volumes, books, magazines, etc. Why wouldn’t I absolutely love it?
I realized that after having the Kindle for a few months, I missed my paperbacks. I missed the intricate covers, the summaries on the back or inside flap, and I missed being able to leaf through the pages with my thumb and re-read my favorite passages. Of course all of these things are accessible/doable on the Kindle, but it’s a little more complicated and doesn’t seem as… personal.

Her personal experience and acquaintance with the data helps her make larger insights about them:

Humans need attention and love. If we’re given less than what we want, we’re not happy. Holding a single novel in my hands, being able to highlight and add tabs, all by hand, is something that I really enjoy, and I never knew how much I enjoyed that until I tried a Kindle.

Personal experience can be useful,  though remember that everyone can analyze any text if they have provided themselves with a suitable context for their interpretations.  The more precise you can get with primary text also adds to the richness of the analysis and discussion.  Also remember that  the creator of the primary text did not necessarily intend to create any particular argument, nor pinpoint exactly how you think the primary text should be understood.




Looking Back, Edging Forward

We are only one week through our summer course and already many students are demonstrating their dedication to learning through poignant posts, engaged conversations, and thoughtful self-reflections (there are many examples).   I agree with Gardner when he wrote earlier today:

I’ve seen some extraordinary work, much of it splendidly blurring the line between creativity and analysis in ways that should remind us that any such lines are provisional at best and damaging at worst. The work these students have contributed fascinates me and encourages me. I am grateful.

As am I.  By now it is no secret, both in theory and praxis, that the course requires a high level of engagement and willingness to reflect both on one’s own thought processes and creations while negotiating the thoughts, creations, and reflections of others.  It’s been invigorating to see many students embrace this commitment and explore the vast learning environment the course promotes, and I am very excited to see where the momentum takes us in the next seven weeks.

Though, exploring this vast learning environment comes with difficulties.  I don’t mean just difficulties with how to use various online tools.  It is true that it’s very frustrating when technology doesn’t seem like your friend, but it usually works out in the end.  **And if there are ever problems or questions with anything, please let them be known and we can figure them out together**  The idea here isn’t to get bogged down with mastering new technologies, but to understand how the tools function to utilize them in various interesting and helpful ways.

The more worrisome difficulties seem to come from the wide parameters of the course, and how these parameters are unlike traditional classes.  In many instances, it’s fairly easy for students to continue in a class, get the grade, and get out.  As I have mentioned before, a large part of this course is meant to privilege the process of research and writing: one that exists in connection with thinkers and can exist beyond turning in assignments, receiving grades, and moving on.  The shared activities and open nature of the course allows for us to easily and organically form clusters of information we can share and make portable: looking at how others understand content–our shared course readings as well as outside sources they reference–and applying these analyses to our own areas of inquiry.

Moreover, they allow for this without any necessary end date.  Of course, the last day of class is July 31st and the inquiry project will be due and class will end.  Though, this does not mean that the work on the project has to end–there is no end date for the digital presence students create and the connections students make.  Donald Murray always stressed the value of rewriting and rethinking, and believed that all writing is experimental.  This summer affords the opportunity for these ideas to manifest and meaningful work to persist beyond  the final day of class.

As a teacher, I worry about students worrying.  This is perhaps heightened in our attempts to further destabilize the role and authority of “instructor” to continue to build new learner-centered experiences for our students.   What is important is that everyone is on the same page as best as possible (a feat difficult to achieve sometimes in any class) and we are all working openly and together to move forward.


Thinking, man…

Here is a something that embodies a wonderful burden:

It takes a lot to get things right.  And when we do, it mostly goes unnoticed–or at least unquestioned–because it seems effortlessly integrated into common practices and conversations.  Getting to this point, though, is not effortless.  For me, it tends to look like this:

Formulating static thoughts–or at least, thoughts that would even come close to things I would actually embrace without much hedging–always involves a process of mutation and reframing, almost to the point of becoming totally circular until something breaks and sense starts to form.  It’s difficult for me to be satisfied with any one interpretation of data, and it takes some time for me to assert a belief when there are so many reasons to doubt!.  It’s also frustrating, at times, to make sense of things and apply ideas to any number of varying contexts.  Though, taking a step back to look at the shifting forms of one’s (or my) thought processes and trying to pay attention to where we (or I) can pause in any given thread of notion can help with this, where making connections to other ideas comes off as fluid rather than born from frustration.  Bottom line: it takes time to instantiate ideas and make them portable, even if it seems easy.  At least for me.