Multimodal Communication and Me

When I left the University of Connecticut to teach at Georgia Tech, it was a really bittersweet move. I was glad to be done with my PhD, thrilled to have a full time job, excited about living near friends in Atlanta, but also very sad to be leaving my friends and my program in CT. I’d invested a lot of time and energy in our writing program at UConn, and GT’s writing and communication program was visibly different. We describe the program as multimodal and driven by communication and rhetoric rather than inquiry. That’s not to say we can’t or don’t include inquiry, but just that it takes a slightly lower priority. But it was really the multimodal component that had me nervous (in a good way): writing was just one of five sets of communication skills I was supposed to teach students.  The other four had me in various states of disease; I knew I could probably teach electronic and oral communication easily (blogs! websites! twitter and facebook! speeches! podcasts!), but I was less certain about visual communication (film? art?) and downright nervous about non-verbal (uh… interpretive dance?).

When I got done with our first week of orientation, I had some ideas about what kinds of assignments people gave, but that had never been my concern; I knew what students could do (well, mostly), I just hadn’t quite figured out why they should do any individual one. How were the assignments we gave directly connected to course outcomes? What specific things about visual or electronic communication did I want students to learn, and more importantly, why did I want them to learn them?

At UConn, I had developed a solid sense of why I wanted student to engage in the kind of academic inquiry we taught. I wanted students to be able to create powerful arguments that could shape their fields of study, their professional lives no matter their job, and their lives as citizens. I wanted them to be able to think critically about any cultural material they found, to assess how the stuff they chose to consume tried to shape them, and then use writing to be able to speak back and reshape the very things they consumed. At Georgia Tech, I could see that was still possible, but I was less sure how to make individual assignments serve these goals once I got past the traditional essay into more multimodal forms of communication, especially since I now had 5 times as much material to cover in a 3 credit course rather than the 4 credit course I taught at UConn.

But now that I’ve done a couple of assignments, and graded them (this was the steepest learning curve for me: how DO you grade a film? or an infographic?) and I’m starting to see the specific ways these assignments can work for me and my goals. So, in the next few weeks I’m going to try and do a few posts about the assignments that my students have done so far, and specifically talk about how these assignments could be used at UConn if teachers wanted to — that is, how could multi-modal assignments that combine written, oral, visual, electronic, and/or non-verbal communication serve the goals of academic inquiry? How could they be incorporated into a traditional, writing-oriented classroom? What purpose would assigning an infographic have?

Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Recommendations

My apologies for not posting more regularly, it has been a crazy summer.  I got a post-doc, moved cross country, and am already in week two of teaching. Most of my social writing has been on Facebook rather than here.  In fact, Facebook is the impetus for this post.  But first, a little backstory.

I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy. As a grad student, I read “for fun” more than pretty much any other grad student I knew. Reading speculative fiction is one of my primary stress-relief mechanisms, and I read really fast, so I get through a fair bit given the quantity of stress I have to deal with. This means that when my advisor or friends in the department wanted recommendations for lighter, fun reading in the speculative fiction vein, they often came to me. I kept a bookcase in my apartment that was full just of books that I would recommend to people, selecting based on what I knew of their tastes.  When I moved, a lot of people said they would miss my recommendations, and could I maybe make a list of what they hadn’t gotten to borrow yet? I realized it might be more effective to create a list of the books that I most often recommend.  I posted the list on Facebook. I’ve now started getting requests for me to re-post those lists, because Facebook doesn’t let you keep permanent links to posts. Also, I’ve started getting requests from students for sci-fi/fantasy reading lists because I’m teaching a sci-fi and ethics course this fall. So I thought I had better post them somewhere where I don’t have to friend my (rather awesome) students on Facebook.

The rules: one list of twenty books each for Science Fiction and General Fantasy.  One half list of 10 books each for YA fantasy and Urban Fantasy. If I suspect everyone and their brother has heard of the books and/or is watching the TV show or movie based on them, they’re not on the list (Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, George RR Martin, etc.). I am not allowed to post more than one book by any author in the same generic category. Some of these titles are really stand alone recommendations; others you should think of as starter drugs, and if you like one, go find everything else the author has written. (If you want to know the difference, ask.) I only list first titles in a series, even if later books are better. Suggestions are in no particular order.

On to the lists!

Science Fiction

1. Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game
2. John Scalzi, Old Man’s War
3. Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash
4. Sharon Shinn, Archangel
5. Robert A. Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
6. Lois McMaster Bujold, Cordelia’s Honor
7. Connie Willis, To Say Nothing of the Dog
8. Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
9. Anne McCaffrey, Dragonflight
10. C.J. Cherryh, Foreigner
11. H. Beam Piper, Fuzzy Sapiens
12. David Weber, On Basilisk Station
13. Vernor Vinge, Rainbow’s End
14. Elizabeth Bear, Hammered
15. Cory Doctorow, Little Brother
16. Octavia Butler, Lilith’s Brood
17. Mira Grant, Feed
18. Julie Czerneda, Survival
19. Isaac Asimov, Caves of Steel
20. Joe Haldeman, The Forever War

General Fantasy

1. Sharon Shinn, Mystic and Rider
2. Jasper Fforde, The Eyre Affair
3. Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind
4. Cherie Priest, Boneshaker 
5. Naomi Novik, His Majesty’s Dragon
6. Gail Carriger, Soulless
7. Patricia McKillip, The Riddle-Master of Hed
8. Lois McMaster Bujold, Curse of Chalion
9. Anne Bishop, Daughter of the Blood
10. Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, Good Omens
11. Charles de Lint, Moonheart
12. Stephen Lawhead, Taleisin
13. Audrey Niffenegger, The Timetraveler’s Wife
14. Jo Walton, Among Others
15. Ilona Andrews, Fate’s Edge
16. Lev Grossman, The Magicians
17. Emma Bull, et. al., Shadow Unit (might actually be sci-fi…)
18. Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal (might not be fantasy, but I’m not sure what it is…)
19. Neil Gaiman, American Gods

20. N.K. Jemisin, One Hundred Thousand Kingdoms


YA/Children’s Fantasy 
1. Robin McKinley, Blue Sword
2. Tamora Pierce, Alanna: The First Adventure
3. Kristin Cashore, Graceling
4. Michael Chabon, Summerland
5. Madeline L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time
6. Garth Nix, Abhorsen
7. Scott Westerfeld, Leviathan
8. Patricia Wrede, A Matter of Magic
9. Mercedes Lackey, Arrows of the Queen
10. Shannon Hale, The Princess Academy

Urban Fantasy
1. Patricia Briggs, Moon Called
2. Robin McKinley, Sunshine
3. Kim Harrison, Dead Witch Walking
4. Jim Butcher, Storm Front
5. Kelley Armstrong, Bitten
6. Seanan McGuire, Rosemary and Rue
7. Jim C. Hines, Libriomancer
8. Justine Labalestier, Team Human
9. China Mieville, Perdido Street Station
10. Kat Richardson, Greywalker

A Conference Rant

I’m currently at the Western Region of the Conference of Christianity and Literature. Last night, the plenary speaker gave an anxiety-filled talk about the “future of literature” to a room full of literary scholars. Most of the talk focused on the potential death of the novel, and how our brains are being re-wired by the internet, how videogames are taking the place of novels in people’s lives, etc.

What bothered me most about the talk and the Q&A session afterward was a) the lack of historical perspective, and b) the clear sense that most of the audience was anxiety-ridden not over the death of the novel, but the death of the “literary” novel.

In terms of historical perspective, no one (except me) brought up that our anxieties over the internet and the corresponding “shallows” therein are remarkably similar to the anxieties held by people like Plato over the invention of writing in the first place. And, strikingly, the fact that our brains are being rewired by the internet is also parallel to what happened to our brains when writing was invented in the first place. In terms of historical perspective, few others last night were willing to talk about the fact that other literary forms have disappeared before, and we’ve gotten new ones in their place: no one is anxiety ridden that people are’t writing epic poems anymore, precisely because we got the novel instead. (I will say that 99% of the audience seemed to be people who focus on 19th, 20th, and 21st c. literature. The one medievalist and I had a great time kibbitzing over this problem with the discussion.) So, for me, I find it hard to be anxious over the development of the videogame into a literary form, even if the novel might decline in popularity. (though it does mean I’m finally going to have to learn to play videogames.)

So much of the anxiety seemed to be really over the fact that we’re going to have to change our own reading habits and what we study to take in and participate in these developments. This was clearly evident both in the discussion of videogames and when one Q&A participant asked why no one was writing 700 page novels anymore. Clearly, she had never looked beyond the literary fiction section of Barnes and Noble into the F/SF section, where authors regularly turn out series of 700 page novels. (The Game of Thrones series is really a 7000 page novel that is being published serially as we wait for Martin to finish writing it.)

Teaching Hamlet Adaptations

Today, I did three new things with my students that all worked much more effectively than I expected: I taught an article I wrote, we discussed seven different versions of the same scene from Hamlet, and we finished with William Sanders’ short story “The Undiscovered.”

I was hesitant about teaching my own article:  while it is about Shakespeare adaptation, my article is about an adaptation we’re not reading in class (Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series).  But since the particular course I’m teaching has the explicit goal of introducing undergraduates to the research performed by professors and graduate students at UConn, I felt it was important to actually show them my work.  I thought it would also have the added benefit of being an argument that I know inside and out, and I could also talk about what the drafts looked like (all 42 of them), the initial research questions that prompted the project, the scholarly conversations that I envisioned the project entering, etc. So for our actual discussion, I framed this as a writing exercise, rather than simply one more theoretical text.  We dissected it in terms of the moves that Joseph Harris discusses in his book Rewriting, which we’ve been using as our primary writing handbook.  We looked at moments where I “came to terms” with someone else’s argument, where I did forwarding, where I countered other arguments, and where I “took an approach” or used the driving questions from one project to interrogate another text.  My students did a great job figuring out how transitional moments are designed to cue the reader to these moves (especially countering).  Then I asked them to turn these issues on their head by coming to terms with my article, and then speculating about how they could forward, counter, or take an approach from my article.  As an exercise, it seemed to work really well, and I hope will help them when they start reviewing each other’s writing in a week.

The second activity for the day was a dissection of the “to be or not to be” playlist I had constructed on youtube for them.

We focused mostly on the “real” adaptations of the soliloquy, which go in chronological order after the “A Small Rewrite” sketch, starting with Olivier, followed by Burton, Gibson, Branagh, Hawke, and Tennant.  We also talked a little bit about the clip from Slings and Arrows, in which a director talks with his actor for Hamlet who isn’t sure about how to play the scene.  This clip is great because it gets students to think not just about the mis-en-scène, the shots, the acting, and the lines (which I had asked them all to focus on when they were watching the playlist before class) but also on the way actors/filmmakers bring awareness of other versions to their own adaptations, as well as the issues inherent in interpreting and setting up Hamlet’s speech with regard to whether he knows if Polonius, Claudius, and Ophelia are in the room, and whether or not Hamlet is aware of them, and how that can change the meaning of the scene.  My students did a fantastic job dissecting how the shots in each version worked, though they had a bit of a harder time interpreting the change in costuming and mis-en-scène in the Slings and Arrows clip.  At the end, students seemed to have universally liked Burton and Tennant’s versions the most, but for opposite reasons: Burton’s because it’s energetic, forceful, and thoughtful, all at the same time; Tennant’s because it was “spine-tingling” and causes the viewer to really feel how exhausted Hamlet is.  Branagh came in third because of the really fascinating over-the-shoulder shot into the mirror behind which Polonius and Claudius hide, but my students didn’t seem as enamored with his actual delivery.  I think they found Olivier’s version campy, Gibson’s bland in everything but setting, and didn’t quite know what to do with Hawke’s version out of context.

The final thing we discussed was William Sander’s short story “The Undiscovered,” which is an alternate history story in which Shakespeare accidentally gets shipped off to the New World, where he is captured by Native Americans and turned into a slave. He is then captured by another tribe, the Cherokees, which is where the short story starts, as narrated by a member of the Cherokee tribe.  Shakespeare learns their language(s), and he decides to translate Hamlet into a play for the Cherokee, but they all think Hamlet’s a comedy, and he swears off play-writing from then on. I was surprised by how much my students loved this story. It produced some of the most energetic discussion we’ve had all semester, and we’ve had some pretty energetic discussion. The story is great because it talks about the problems of cross-cultural translation, and also poses some challenges for the idea of the universality of Shakespeare’s genius.  My students did some “taking an approach” work on the fly, borrowing some of the critical moves I made in my article and thinking about whether they worked for this story, too (ultimate conclusion: yes, but with some caveats).



Research Scavenger Assignment for Shakespearean Adaptations class

The honors class I’m teaching this semester is technically “Literature through Reading and Research.”  I’ve already introduced them to the reading part, and next up is the first stage in teaching them how to do literary research. This will be an ongoing part of the semester, but next Thursday we have a whole day in the library, with no other reading or assignments due to the vagaries of needing to coordinate my class discussions with film viewings.

So, for the first day of discussing research methods, I’ve come up with a sort of digital scavenger hunt. Since the class is on Shakespeare, Adaptation, and Film, I decided I wanted them to explore some historic interpreters and adapters of Shakespeare’s plays.

  1. Richard Burbage
  2. William Davenant
  3. David Garrick
  4. Charles Lamb
  5. Thomas Bowdler
  6. Nicholas Rowe
  7. Nahum Tate
  8. Sarah Siddons

The students will pair up and draw one of these names from a hat.  I’ll give a brief lecture that includes an overview of the most effective ways to use Wikipedia/Google as a starting point for academic research, how to use our library’s databases, and the difference between primary and secondary sources. We’ll also briefly discuss the continuum of popular and scholarly sources. Then, I’m going to set them loose with the following set of questions, and an assignment to create a proper MLA Bibliography from the sources they find.

  1. What are the dates of this person’s life? (Indicate where you found this information)
  2. Are there any portraits of this person? If so, provide the bibliographic information for at least one.
  3. What is this person’s relationship to Shakespeare and/or Shakespeare’s plays? What plays is he or she most associated with? (Indicate how you determined this information)
  4. Did this person write any texts related to Shakespeare? If so, provide the bibliographic information for one.
  5. Are there any scholarly books focused on just this person?  If so, provide the bibliographic information for 1-2 of them.
  6. Are there any scholarly books focused primarily on the relationship between Shakespeare and this person (or between Shakespeare and some group this person was a part of)? If so, provide the bibliographic information for 1-2 of them.
  7. Use Google Books to do a search on this person and Shakespeare. Are there any results where the book title did not reveal that this might be a useful source? If so, provide the bibliographic information for 1-2 of them.
  8. Are any of the books from the previous three questions in our library?  If so, where would you find them on the shelves (give LC# and Physical Location, such as 4th Floor, North Side)?
  9. How many results appear for this person in the World Shakespeare Bibliography?
  10. Using the WSB, find the four most recent entries for scholarly publications related to this person, and provide bibliographic information for them.
  11. How could you locate/acquire these sources? (Are they widely available on the internet? Are they physically in our library? Available through UConn’s databases? Acquirable through Interlibrary Loan?)
  12. What is the most unusual or amusing search result that you found while researching this person?

I’m not sure I expect them to get through all of these questions in a single session, but I do want to push them.

First Day of Class

Today was the first day of the semester at UConn. I’m teaching a new class, English 2011: Literature through Reading and Research.  This is a relatively new class at UConn, too. It’s an honors course, meant to be a hybrid between the traditional first-year writing course and a more content-intensive literature course. These classes are usually taught in “pods,” with the pod led by a tenure-line faculty member and one or two graduate students, all sharing a common syllabus designed by the faculty member on a topic of his or her choice. However, the faculty member for our pod (one of my advisors) is on fellowship this year, and not teaching, so I was lucky enough to get to design the syllabus and schedule myself.

But this course is new for me in a couple of different ways: it’s my first honors course, it’s the first time I’m teaching an explicitly Shakespeare-and-pop-culture course, and it’s my first time teaching a theory-heavy course. The three of those together has me really exited but also filled with just a touch of trepidation. (It’s also my first time teaching Taming of the Shrew and Macbeth, but I am less inherently excited or trepidatious about teaching new plays.)

Since these were honors students, and they don’t have the option to switch between sections the way regular students do because of the limited number of classes, I was able to assign some advanced reading. This helps a lot in class with almost two hours of class time in each session (it’s a 4 credit class). I started with the first section of Julie Sanders’ Adaptation and Appropriation, which does a great job explaining the major critical issues in adaptation and appropriation studies, defining terms, and raising important issues.  I paired that with the Introduction of Douglas Lanier’s Shakespeare and Modern Popular Culture (which has the great title of “Where No Bard Has Gone Before”) and raises questions about the specific role of Shakespeare in culture.

And, wow, did my students rise the the challenge. The class blew me away.   I think I had the best first-day discussion (or even second-day discussion!) that I’ve ever had.  My students weren’t just getting the reading; they were thinking about where they needed to challenge the reading, drawing comparisons to things they are familiar with, and asking hard questions. I think all but one or two students spoke in class, but I’m also going to have to work to make sure the students who think well on their feet don’t overwhelm the students who need a bit more processing time.

The Prezi I designed for the class also went over really well.  (you can see it here:  That felt good.

Overall, I am *thrilled* with this class so far.  It’s early days, but I’m really looking forward to the rest of this semester with this batch of students.

Fan Fiction Syllabus

I originally posted about a potential syllabus on fan fiction back in 2008 on my old blog, and thought it might be time to bring it back given my last few posts have been about teaching and developing courses I may never get to teach. Here’s what I wrote then:

Over at Cranky Epistles, the Cranky Lit Prof has a post where she complains about the fact that someone in her school wants to create a three credit course on fan fiction:

I cursed out loud in a faculty meeting. Once again, the barbarians are rattling the gates of Rome!

The subject on the table: creating a for-credit, interdisciplinary seminar around fan fiction stemming from books and films — both reading it and writing it.

Without thinking (or engaging the filter that should exist between my brain and my mouth, but often does not), I uttered, “Are you fucking kidding me?!” Shocked glances followed this desecration of academia’s amour-propre.

Aside from the copyright issues that plague the entire genre…who makes the call as to what “fandom” the readings are plucked from? Who determines what is “canon?”

What the Hell?

I’ve read fan fiction — I can admit that. There are some stunningly good authors who will never publish in the “respectable” fields, but whose work is seen by hundreds on line. Creative writing is smething to be encouraged as an artisitc outlet. However, three credits for perusing and writing reaction papers to a Harry Potter/Ron Weasley love story, or writing your own take on the subtext of a Col. O’Neill/Daniel Jackson relationship from “SG-1″ seems a bit ridiculous. Even as a cross-departmental exercise.

I made a comment on the post that I would like to expand, for the academic exercise of it all (and to procrastinate on things like writing my papers and doing laundry and cleaning). Basically, the rest of this post is my first thoughts towards creating a syllabus on fan fiction. What Crazy Lit Prof describes is not an academic class, but it could easily become one with just a little tweaking and fleshing out.

Step One: Beef up the theory. There would need to be a lot of literary theory and sociological studies of fan communities. I’d probably start with some Jameson, as well as Benjamin and Adorno (you know,Frankfurt school of cultural criticism). I’d include some of the theoretical work that’s been done in Shakespeare and Popular Culture, which is where some of the heaviest debates about appropriation and adaptation happen. We’d read some Iser and some of the more phenomenological reader response critics, maybe even Lisa Zunshine’s Why We Read Fiction. Then we’d hit one or more of the academic books on fan communities: Henry Jenkin’s Textual Poachers is the classic text, but dated. A search on Amazon shows at least five books on fan fiction alone, not counting broader studies of fan communities, all published in the last three or four years. At least one of these would probably be worth using.

Step Two: Choose your fan fic carefully. Crazy Lit Prof wants to know what would be “canonical” in this class. Personally, I would probably start with fan fiction actually about canonical texts: Shakespeare, Jane Austen, The Brontes, maybe Milton. By dealing with a “real” canon of literary texts, all of which are out of copyright, you can actually require students to read fan fiction that is published: Mr. Darcy Takes a WifeThe Jane Austen Mysteries, etc. I’d probably include Jasper Fforde because while not strictly fan fiction, there are a lot of elements of fan fiction in his novels, he has a lot of commentary on appropriation and adaptation of texts, and he’s an author that seems to encourage fan fiction based on his books. Anyway, I’d pair the reading of these novels with the novels they are actually based on: with this particular list, students would have to read Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, and Hamlet. Not bad for a class that could be lacking canonical credibility.

As for TV/Film fandoms, Star Trek would be the most logical fandom to include because so much scholarly work has been done on it, and there are a substantial number of published fan novels by both professional and amateur novelists. Buffy the Vampire Slayer could also work because of all the scholarly work that has been done through Slayage. (And really: isn’t Slayage proof that there are academic fan communities? The two things do not have to be mutually exclusive!) I’d probably include an assignment that lets students choose any fandom they like and then do an analysis of it, but Crazy is right that deciding on fandoms to include could get really arbitrary.

Step Three: Spend some time talking about the problems with fan fiction. For example, Robin Hobb (major fantasy author) posted a while back on the problems she has with people writing fan fiction about her novels. Then there are the copy right issues with fan fiction. This is the section that might help make the class truly interdisciplinary. Bring in the legal debates and fights, discussions of how intellectual property work in our society, etc.

So, that’s a start on what I think a syllabus on Fan Fiction should look like. Teaching fan fiction could be a great way to talk about the relationships between texts and audiences, about reader response theory, intellectual property, communal stories, etc.

Obviously, there are some things about this syllabus I would want to update now.  I’d want to make sure Julie Sanders’ Adaptation and Appropriation was a framing text for the course.  I’d include more on intertextuality, probably in the form of Kristeva, as well as Michel de Certeau’s Practice of Everyday Life. I’d change some of the canonical fan fiction that we would read: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies on the one hand, and The Lizzie Bennet Diaries video blog on the other (just to be clear: PPZ is annoying, LBD is awesome). And so on.

But, why did I decide it was appropriate to repost this? I was at jury duty this morning, waiting to see if I would have to serve.  And because I cannot turn off my brain, I was contemplating what a class on urban fantasy might look like, and thinking especially about both the necessity and difficulty of justifying such a course to most departments (which is what made me think about the Cranky Lit Prof post). I think my justification for a course on urban fantasy would be similarly sociological and theoretical to the justification I was implicitly providing in my original defense of a truly academic class on fan fiction: we aren’t studying the texts (fan fiction or urban fantasy) for the sake of studying the texts because they are beautiful or–on some level at least–true, the way we might with Shakespeare, Milton, or other traditionally canonical texts. Instead, we are studying the texts in order to get at larger questions about our culture: why vampires and werewolves now, at this particular cultural moment? Why is this “urban” fantasy–what do space and place have to do with these stories, and why do they matter at this particular time? How do these texts fit into larger movements and issues?

I’m interested in book history for the same reasons I am interested in fan fiction and these sometimes oddly popular fantasy novels: I want to know how and why people respond to texts in the ways they do. Fan fiction, whether by writers like Milton who write canonically accepted Bible fan-fic or the writers on An Archive of Our Own, is the ultimate reader response, because it allows for much of the complexity (or lack thereof, I suppose) of a reader’s response to a text to become visible to those of us who are scholars, just the way commonplace books and marginal notes do for us who work on the sixteenth century. Purchasing histories are similarly important for understanding readers and culture, whether they are of Bibles and religious books (as in Ian Green’s Print and Protestantism in Early Modern England), or of Twilight, Sookie Stackhouse, and American Gods. This is the sociology of literature, the study of why we read what we read, and how we respond to it.