Twitter, Commonplace Books, and the Vorkosigan Saga

One of my favorite low-stakes assignments in my lit classroom is the commonplace book. Sometimes I give a really formal commonplace book project–I give them the common heads, and ask them to keep track of passages and themes that correspond to them. Other times, I just ask students to record the passages they are interested in, without requiring them to have them correspond to categories (since we do this on blogs, they still have to tag them with potential categories, but they tend to be less consistent). They usually, by the end, have at least a few categories that have become recurrent, but getting them to realize those patterns at the end of the semester usually takes a project of its own, where they are required to (and some students who have been doing the commonplace project perfunctorily rather than in the true spirit of the thing, find they don’t have many interesting patterns at all, and end up having to re-read and do the work they avoided at the beginning!).

For the past week or so, I’ve been using my Twitter account as a kind of commonplace book as I’ve been re-reading a few select pieces (read: novels) from the Vorkosigan Saga. I’ve done two novels so far, The Vor Game and Memory (the latter being my favorite of the entire series). I’ve done this kind of common-placing before, but only on Facebook, posting my favorite quotations as they strike me, often in ways that are personal or powerful or that just seem true.  Doing it on Twitter, however, produced a distinctly different result for me. First, my followers on Twitter are clearly not as engaged with the Vorkosigan Saga as I am, at least as evidenced by fewer “favorites” compared to “likes,” fewer retweets and replies compared to comments and additional quotations. That might be a result of being fairly new to Twitter, versus established on Facebook, and having far fewer followers than friends–which is not a problem at all, but it did make the tweeting feel more solitary.

The other thing I observed is that the 140 character limit pushed me to really narrow my focus. I was choosing soundbites, not the larger, more emotionally dramatic moments of whole paragraphs or even series of paragraphs from Bujold’s prose that I usually posted on Facebook. (I will admit, I gave in and posted a few on Facebook because they are so brilliant.) But those soundbites proved crucial; I paid more attention to sounds and words, and the way those words were repeated over and over again. This was especially the case as I came upon my favorite passages, and was forced to choose just a single sentence to represent the whole passage. Suddenly, I became much more attuned to the recurrence of the questions of freedom and choice, games and winning that permeates Memory and evolves over time.

I had been suspicious of using Twitter in the classroom; my own prejudices are for longer engagement, not shorter. Not being able to post more than 140 characters (and needing to hashtag “#vorkosiganreread” at the end of each tweet!) twisted my heart. But this has convinced me, at least in part, to try tweeting in the classroom. I’m not entirely sure what form it will take, whether supplement/complement to the commonplace book, or something else. This might–or might not–work for a writer like Milton, whose sentences and even phrases sometimes go beyond the length of what Twitter can handle. But for other writers, while Twitter might not have much room for the depth of analysis that I want from students, it does possess power that might help students see different patterns than what they can see in the commonplace assignments I usually give.


Visual Design in the Writing Classroom

Okay, let’s see if I can get back into blogging! I want to start with the post I promised way back in… November? December? on teaching visual design in a writing class.

The “Visual” component of the WOVEN philosophy of composition is probably my favorite addition to my teaching. I love teaching writing, and I think I’m good at it, but I really, really like the fact that part of my job is now teaching students to make not just their words but their documents pretty. Of course, that’s an oversimplification of what I’m doing. After having done it for two semesters now, I really do think that the way I teach visual design helps make students better writers, not just better communicators.

My own experience with visual design and documents started pretty young; I was on the newspaper staff in high school, and I remember spending hours using Adobe InDesign (though I think it might have been called something different way back in the 1990s) to put together our “paste-up”—there were a couple occasions where I was in the Newspaper office at midnight, making sure my center spread looked great. I didn’t really have much of an education in this, though—I wasn’t in the official journalism class because it conflicted with my schedule; I was just given assignments and expected to complete them during a free period on my own.


Graduate Study For a Galaxy Far, Far Away

“Project Thank You Greg”: A spoof on Graduate Study for the Twenty-First Century, 2nd Edition.

But I loved doing that kind of design, making words and pictures work together to tell a story. It wasn’t long after that that I taught myself HTML and started coding websites by hand. Mostly I made fan sites for X-files on Geocities, because I was 14 years old and just discovering fandom (thank goodness everything that was ever on geocities is gone now, however). Since high school, I’ve played a lot with photoshop, been involved in a few major website re-designs, and designed some posters and book covers–including a Star Wars spoof cover of my advisor’s book that we gave him when he stepped down as graduate director.

My initial difficulty in moving from these experiences to teaching was that I’m almost entirely self-taught. I didn’t have a lot of vocabulary to describe the things I know how to do instinctively. (You could have watched me butt my head against Photoshop and InDesign for hours, knowing there’s a tool to do what I want to do, but having no clue what the technique was called, so I couldn’t even Google it.) But I’ve read a lot in the last year, and worked with amazing colleagues that pointed me in the right direction. Now I’ve developed a better, more nuanced vocabulary, and I’m starting to get better at teaching visual design as a result. Also, my own skills are improving, after long disuse.

My second difficulty is that I don’t have time to teach them more than the bare basics, and I have students who have come in with radically different backgrounds in visual design. Some of my students have their own versions of the experiences I did—some of them have created hand-coded websites just like I did, some worked on yearbook in high school, and some of them are bonafide artists. One of my students made me an amazing miniature of Michaelangelo’s image of the fall of Adam and Eve from Sistene Chapel as part of her Paradise Lost remix project last semester:

But other students don’t have any real experience creating visually appealing work. They often don’t think of themselves as artistic and creative, and while they know what looks good when they see it—at least some of the time—they don’t know how to manage color, contrast, balance, or movement.

As a result, when I teach visual design, I tend to focus on the most basic principles. A few colleagues introduced me to Robin Williams’ book The Non-Designer’s Design Book, which gives four principles that are a great place to start: Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, and Proximity. I’m not going to go over what those are here (there’s a great summary in this LifeHacker article), but suffice to say they are some of the most important features of design, especially for students who don’t have a lot of experience or talent with design, because they are all things any student can do. And, even better, together they make a great acronym that helps students remember the principles: CRAP. (As I tell my students: don’t MAKE crap, use C.R.A.P!)

CRAP principles work particularly well when paired with writing. In fact, they’re very useful in simple document design, such as writing reports. But I usually introduce students to the concepts when we are doing a slightly more ambitious project, such as creating a poster or infographic. I like teaching posters and infographics because the visual design requires students to have very tightly structured arguments in order to actually enact the CRAP principles. I already have students create logical outlines when they write papers. I make them do the same for posters, but with an added step. Once they create a logical outline—which, by design, is linear—they have to create a series of visual outlines that transform those logical relationships into several different visual layouts. They have to think about the multiple ways that information is linked. This is crucial, because proximity and alignment (and, to a lesser extent, contrast and repetition) only work when you know which ideas belong together, and can organize them in 2D, and sometimes 3D, space. In this way, teaching writing and teaching design can go hand in hand. Visual organization and hierarchies become visible as the equivalent of verbal transitions, and seeing how disorganized information becomes without those cues helps them take back the importance of transitions to their next project.

Student Poster on Milton and 17th Century Science

Student Poster on Milton and 17th Century Science

Additionally, in the course of creating the visual design, students literally begin to see connections between pieces of information that they didn’t see when they were just writing them down in a traditional, linear format. For example, last semester, I asked students to create a poster or infographic that made an argument about Milton’s Paradise Lost in relationship to its historical context. I gave them a list of broad potential topics (English Civil Wars, The Restoration, Milton and Religion, Milton and Science, Gender in Paradise Lost, etc.), and then asked them to narrow a topic down into a research question of their own choice. They conducted research, wrote an annotated bibliography, and then transformed their research into a visually organized argument. One poster I got was from a student who worked on Milton’s relationship to ideas about science in the early modern period. His poster, in its initial draft, read almost exactly like a paper. However, he included three images, one from each of the three primary sources he was working on (Thomas Willis’Cerebri Anatome, William Harvey’s De Motu Cordis, and Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium). In being forced to include images, and putting these images side by side, he realized that the images each proposed a slightly different view of the relationship between science and God. He was then able to rewrite and restructure the poster around those three images.

Teaching the poster and infographic in a writing and communication class that is also a literature class really proved valuable. The poster takes a lot more work on the students’ part, and a lot more work in terms of teaching than the traditional paper. But that work is not just in learning the technologies of creating posters, or figuring out how to get the boxes to all line up the right way. Rather, it’s the work we want our students to be doing all the time: thinking about arguments, about connections between texts and ideas, thinking about audiences and how they’re going to process the information the author gives them.

Long time, no see

Well, it’s been a lot longer since I posted than I meant it to be. The biggest reason for this was that not only was I teaching two courses, I also started a new job as the Assessment Coordinator for the Writing and Communication Program. That was (and will probably continue to be) a lot of work. But now that the semester is over, I’m hoping to have a bit more time for blogging, using that to kickstart both some research and teaching projects (and maybe reflect on what I got out of the assessment process a bit too).

But first, I’m going to Kalamazoo for the International Congress on Medieval Studies. Next week, I’ll be presenting my paper “Rewriting Richard III: Shakespeare in the Vorkosigan Saga,” which is part of a forthcoming article (“‘This is Not the Play’: Shakespeare and Space Opera in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga”) that will be in the collection Shakespearean Echoes, edited by Adam Weston and Kevin J. Wetmore, Jr., which should be coming out in late 2014 or early 2015 from Palgrave Macmillan. I’m pretty excited to be sharing this work; I fell in love with Bujold’s novels a few years ago, and when I was teaching Shakespeare adaptations, it was a big part of how I was making my research and teaching work together. 

But Kalamazoo is always about more than just the presentation (though I’m pretty excited about that). It’s about seeing old friends–my very first year at Kalamazoo, I got to see my old advisor from undergrad. While he doesn’t attend much anymore, this year I’m going to be seeing one of my favorite people from undergrad, who I haven’t seen in a decade. She has a husband and a baby (I haven’t met either), and she’s doing her PhD at Notre Dame. I’m sure I’ll see a lot of UConn people (if you’re reading this, write a comment or send me an e-mail if you want to catch up!) and maybe even participate in a blogger meet-up if there is one like there was a few years ago.

And then there are the panels. One of the best things about being a Renaissance scholar at Kalamazoo is that it’s almost like there’s a mini-conference for us within the larger conference. There’s a day of Shakespeare events, a day (well, a bit more than a day) of Spenser events, and a day of Sidney events. And the scholars who tend to be involved in the Renaissance sessions are, if the last time I was there was any indication, brilliant, generous, and kind. 

So, that’s the next week or so for me. When I get back, I’ve got my assessment report to finish up, and then I hope to be back to blogging. If I don’t, feel free to pester me.