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?


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.

Reflective Writing Projects

Apparently I am temporarily ready to get back in the blogging groove.  We’ll see if I can keep this up for any extended period of time.  It’s the week after finals, and I just finished my first semester back teaching after a year off for a dissertation fellowship.  I was teaching a composition course (Seminar in Academic Writing through Literature) for the Women in Math, Science, and Engineering (WiMSE) Learning Community–and it was only the second semester of composition I had taught since having two years off while working as the assistant director of our first-year composition program. Our program has changed quite a bit in the eight years since I started teaching, and I’ve had to do a bit of adjusting, even accounting for the fact that I was working on many of the various teams that were designing the changes and making decisions about how they would be implemented. One such change was the formalization of a Reflective Writing Project as the last assignment of the semester, and I’ve been thinking quite a bit about it’s use to students (and to me as a teacher) ever since I finished grading them last week.

The reflective writing project was meant to fulfill one of the course goals that, for many years, had appeared in our courses in implicit rather than explicit ways: students were to achieve “self understanding as an academic writer.” Some instructors incorporate lots of short reflective writing pieces over the course of the semester, sometimes with every draft, asking students to write a little bit about their process, revisions, areas the students think need work, etc.  This culminates in what is the standard form of reflective writing, I think, which is a full essay that asks students to look over the body of their written work from the semester (originally the project was envisioned as a formal portfolio, but I don’t think many instructors actually implement this), and reflect on what they have learned and what they are still struggling with. Some instructors have the reflective project go through the whole standard revision process, which at UConn includes either a small group tutorial or an individual conference, but this is optional, depending on how many other pages of revised writing students have done over the semester.

I will admit to a bit of skepticism when we first introduced the reflective writing project, especially the idea of a culminating essay.  I had often done an in-class reflective essay in place of a final exam back when we were required by the university to give a final exam, even when they did not make much sense given the type of writing and thinking our classes taught.  These in-class final exam essays I usually found to be trite, unduly flattering or insulting to me as a teacher (and sometimes, quite accidentally, both), and rarely did I see students actually learning something about themselves as writers. Rather, students regurgitated what they thought they should have learned by the end of the semester, based on what they had been taught but perhaps had not yet mastered.  It demonstrated to me that something I was teaching had gotten through to the students as a general concept, but not that students had actually achieved “self understanding as an academic writer.” This was most obvious when students would say that they had really learned how to write a focused paragraph that advanced the central ideas of their papers… but then proceeded to meander all over the blue-book page without ever making a point.

My first attempt at a reflective writing project two years ago didn’t go much better.  I had many of the same problems, despite having a statement that said, very clearly, that this was not a paper in which they were supposed to convince me how good or bad a teacher I was, or how good or bad a student they were, and that they did need to back up their claims about what they had learned with evidence, both from the other papers they had written, and in the form of the paper they were writing. The students didn’t seem to buy into the assignment, either. That semester had been a bit of a disaster from the very beginning, however, and it’s hard for me to tell if what went wrong was the assignment, or if what went wrong was the class itself.

So, I walked into this semester’s reflective writing project with a lot of pessimism and trepidation. I scaled down the assignment quite a bit, however, removing the research component and asking student to just reflect on their own writing. (I know, some of you are thinking, this is a scaled down assignment?) Here’s what it looked like:

Step 1: Re-read all your work, including short responses, rough drafts, and final drafts.

Step 2: Write a paper in which you reflect on the process of writing this semester. Your final paper should be at least 4 full pages (1400 words, roughly) but can go longer.

The emphasis here should be on reflection.  I want to see you thinking carefully about the purpose of academic writing, and how it is connected to the material we read and wrote about. Here are some questions to help you brainstorm possible avenues for reflection:

  1. What is the purpose of academic writing?  How did this class and the papers you wrote fit or challenge your expectations? (You may want to go back to Joseph Harris, and think about what he says the purpose of writing is, and how your papers and learning fit with the definitions of academic writing that we talked about at the beginning of the semester.)
  2. What was hard for you, and why?  What was easy, and why?  What started hard, but became easier?  What do you think will always be hard?
  3. What did you learn or figure out about writing that you didn’t know before?  What did you learn or figure out about the topics we wrote on that you wouldn’t have if you hadn’t written the papers?
  4. What parts of writing are still a mystery to you?  What do you think you could or should continue to improve on?

You won’t (and shouldn’t try to) answer all of these questions in your paper.  You may want to choose just one set of questions, or even piece together bits from several of these. Also, don’t spend time trying to impress me. If you haven’t perfected some aspect of writing, that’s fine.  I’m much more interested in an honest reflection.

As with your other papers, you need to be sure to:

  1. Make an Argument.  It doesn’t have to be as complex as in your other papers, but you should have a central, controlling idea that guides what you choose to include in your paper. It should be evident to me from the introduction what that controlling idea is.
  2. Provide Evidence!  If you say that you really improved at figuring out a “so-what” factor, then you should walk me through the process of discovering your “so-what” factor in one or more of your papers.  If you got better at using ideas from other writers while giving them credit, quote a part of your paper where you do that, and explain why you did what you did with that quotation. If you discovered something about power or surveillance or spectacle that you wouldn’t have learned without writing your papers, quote a part of your paper as you explain what you learned. If one of your classmate’s comments on a rough draft really helped you see something in your paper that you didn’t see before, quote the comment.
  3. Have a So-What Factor.  Draw some conclusions about what you’ve learned over the course of the semester and where you still need to go.
  4. Revise, Edit, and Proofread.  Just as you know that your papers have all improved when you had the chance to revise once or more than once, you should give yourself the time to revise, edit, and proofread.  You may want to exchange papers with another student in the class, and give each other feedback and editing help, or visit the Writing Center.

I was really very pleased with most of the reflective papers I got this time, in a way that redeemed the reflective writing project for me.  In the case of one student who had struggled all semester, by reflecting on what she had been struggling with, she actually managed to do it in her reflective paper for the first time. This made the difference between failing the course, and passing. Another student realized that her fear of making her papers worse was actually preventing her from doing her best possible work, because she wasn’t able to bring herself to truly revise. There was a consistent pattern of students identifying something that they had worked hard on all semester, and honestly reflecting on whether or not they had actually *learned* to do it.  A lot of my students said that they had improved in a particular area, but also were able to tease out what still wasn’t working, and often times why it wasn’t working (and, most gratifyingly, all of their ideas about why a particular aspect wasn’t working were their own and not just parroting my comments, and they made sense). That kind of reflection, to my mind, is the most important step in figuring out how to fix a problem, even if it takes time well beyond the confines of a single semester.

Orientation: Day 1 (mostly thinking about assignments)

I apologize for not posting regularly the last few weeks. I got distracted by the amazingness of my NEH seminar and working on my dissertation (it’s done, except for proofreading a final two chapters), and once I was home in the states, my grandfather died and I went home to be with my family.  Now I’m back, and just about to head into a new semester.

This week, though, is the official prelude: New TA Orientation week for Freshman English. (I apologize in advance for the somewhat rambly nature of this post–I’m mostly reflecting on what I was thinking about today.) This is my 7th Orientation since starting grad school.  The first I attended as a New TA myself.  The second I attended because I felt I had already forgotten a lot from that first time through, but now had a practical context for understanding what they were actually talking about.  I’ve been on staff with Orientation five times since. For a few years, I served as co-chair of the oversight committee that plans the orientation, but this year I’m back to just being an oversight staff member.

I really love both the planning for orientation and orientation itself, even though both are an incredible amount of work.  The planning for orientation is a collaborative effort that really makes me (and everyone else, I assume) think through our pedagogy in really complex ways.  How do we explain to brand new teachers what it is we do, and why we do it? It’s hard, but very useful because it prevents me from becoming complacent about doing things just because it’s what we do; I have to be able to articulate why we do it. Because it’s a collaborative planning process, we’re forced to really refine down what we say to core principles, because there are so many different ways to achieve what we’re trying to do. I also get exposed to some of those different approaches and learn a lot from my fellow orienters.

This year, we took a slightly different approach than we have in the past. We identified three “through-lines” or guiding principles, and made these explicit from the beginning of orientation (why we never did this before, I have no idea):

  1. We want to teach writing as a form of dialogic inquiry.
  2. We want what we teach to be transferable as possible to other contexts.
  3. We want to be self-reflexive in our teaching, and we want students to be self-reflexive about their writing.

We had our first day of orientation today, and we spent our time introducing the new TAs to these principles. We also talked about the element that has become the core of our pedagogy: assignment creation.  We did an assessment a few years ago that showed that stronger assignments–those that emphasized inquiry, textual engagement, and the students’ development of their own argumentative “projects”–resulted in much stronger, well-written papers. As a result, we spend a lot more time talking about how to create strong assignments.

What struck me most about the assignments we looked at was how much more complex the projects they encourage students to develop are from what I was asked to do as a Freshman myself. These assignments would probably have terrified me, in the best possible way: it would have been the terror of finally confronting an assignment that wasn’t firmly in my comfort zone. But I suspect that these assignments would have also energized me because they would have allowed me to bring in my own interests and expertise.

I have to perpetually keep this in mind when I write my own assignments for students: I need to provide them with assignments that will really challenge them, that will move even the strongest students out of their comfort zones while providing the weakest students with the room to feel that they can accomplish something. It’s not an easy balance to strike, but one I want to really work on.