Turning Your Class into a Game, Part 1: The Experience

Last week, I had the opportunity to evangelize about games-based learning and gamification in the classroom at the 2nd Annual CoRE Academy at my university. My audience was a wonderful mix of PK20 teachers and, from the nods of approval during the presentation and comments, questions, and requests for more information I received afterwards, I think I convinced some of them. Because my workshop was only an hour long, I had to cram a lot of complex information in. Really, each aspect of gamification that I discussed could have benefited from its own workshop. But since that was not possible, I’ve decided to create a series of blog posts that address each in a bit more detail. You can view the entire presentation to get a preview of all of the components I’ll be addressing and how they all fit together.

Games are, first and foremost, experiences. I’ve argued before that no matter how many fancy bells and whistles a game has or how robust the rewards system, a game that does not immerse the player in an experience that intrigues them and that they enjoy being part of will not be played for very long, if at all. My son, who is an avid gamer, gives a new game about an hour of gameplay; if he’s not hooked within an hour, he’s done with the game, no matter how many points he’s managed to earn. And a game that is not being played ceases to be a game. Just as a student who is not learning is no longer a student; they are a body taking up space. Just as game experiences need to be worthwhile and interesting, learning experiences need to be worthwhile and interesting.

Image
Assassin’s Creed is a game that has successfully created an engaging experience for players.

So the first step to turning your class into a game is to create the experience. Ask yourself what kind of experience would both engage your students and mesh with your discipline or lesson topic. And then begin brainstorming what roles your students might play within that experience, what the aesthetics of that experience might be, what environment(s) it might incorporate, and what kinds of interactions with that environment and with other players and non-player characters (NPCs) your students might have. I just finished reading Dave Burgess’s inspiring book Teach Like a Pirate (which I highly recommend to anyone who teaches), and he had an entire chapter on how to draw inspiration from the world around you to fire up your creativity and your classes. One of Burgess’s tips is to use your hobbies as a source of inspiration and it really works. I tend to get my inspiration for the experiences I design for my students from literature, movies, and video games. You can mix things up to make it even more fun. My second semester FYC class played a game I called “Murderers and Mad(wo)men,” which combined elements of Sherlock Holmes and Call of Cthulhu, and the game I’m working on now combines elements of The Hobbit and World of Warcraft.

As you draw on and combine various inspirations, you can make note of the aesthetics that you might incorporate. “Murderers and Mad(wo)men” had a steampunk aesthetic, for example. In The Multiplayer Classroom, Lee Sheldon recommends reinforcing the game lore (the story and aesthetic) whenever and wherever possible. This includes class environments (both physical and virtual), materials, and presentations. The syllabus is a good place to start since it is typically the first class-related item the students come into contact with. When you orient your students to the class on the first day, try to immediately immerse them in the game aesthetic to really drive home both the “this is a game” and the “this is not a game” (TINAG) dichotomy. By not presenting the class in a traditional way, you send a clear signal that your class is different and that students will have to adjust their thinking about what to expect and how to behave in the class. They know how to play games, so by mimicking the kinds of alternate realities that games create, they’ll quickly pick up the cue that this is a game-like environment and they need to play a certain role within that environment. At the same time that you want to clue students into the game-like nature of the class, you also want to, like games, create a sense of immersion. The best games are those that immerse the player so effectively within the game environment and their role within that environment that they almost forget that they’re playing a game. So, if you want your students to experience what it’s like to be scientists working to solve an epidemic, when they walk into the classroom on the first day they should walk into a science lab. And throughout that first meeting, they should receive clues that orient them to why they’re in a science lab (they’re scientists), what’s going on outside of that lab (there’s an epidemic), and what they’re role in this environment is (solving the epidemic). You can communicate these things via the syllabus (perhaps it could a memo or a brief on the epidemic), your introduction of yourself and the course (perhaps you’re the head of the CDC and you’re orienting them to the Center’s policies and procedures and what your role will be during the crisis), and activities that you have them do (I’ll leave that to your imagination). Now, I’m not a science teacher, but I very quickly came up with this example and the ideas for how to present it to students because I like zombies and almost every zombie movie/TV show involves scientists trying to figure out what’s causing zombieism and how to cure it. My love of zombies provides me will all kinds of ideas about aesthetics for a game like this. As Dave Burgess points out, inspiration is all around us; we just have to start paying attention and thinking outside of the box.

Once you’ve decided on the experience and the environments and aesthetics of that experience, you can begin outlining what role students will play. My students have taken on roles such as war correspondents (or at least armchair versions); cold case detectives; psychologists; attorneys, witnesses, and jury members for a cyberstalking trial; and members of an ancient Greek senate, just to name a few. For a more detailed discussion of how I’ve used role-play in my class, you can read my article “Alter Egos, Avatars, and Analytical Writing: Immersive Role-Playing in the Composition Classroom” in Virtual Education Journal. The goal is to have students play an integral part in driving the story the experience tells. They must become the main characters and it must be clear that without action on their part, the story does not get told. As I mentioned, I’m currently designing a game for my first-semester FYC loosely based on The Hobbit. The students are reading Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, so I decided to use the story of the hero’s journey as a basis for the game. It’s a story that they’re all familiar with since it’s an integral part of our culture, from comics to movies and novels to video games. I’ve re-contextualized the process of learning to write college-level essays into a journey that students must take through a perilous realm. They don’t know much about the journey or how they’ll reach their destination (college-level writing proficiency) when they first start out because, as their guide The Vagabond explains, their destiny is in their own hands. If they don’t complete each quest that they are presented with, they will go astray, lose time and perhaps their way, and risk never reaching their goal. Through the compositions that are the last part of each quest, they tell the story of the game–what they discovered during that quest. In the example of the epidemic outlined above, if the students don’t work to solve the riddle of the epidemic and figure out a way to stop it, then the epidemic continues and the story of how we defeated the zombies (or whatever the disease is) never gets told. We assume that everyone becomes a zombie, but we’ll never truly know. If students want to know the ending to the story, they’re more likely to take part in it. And the best way to make them want to know the ending is to have the experience centered around a conflict. Conflict is the driving force of games and overcoming the challenges that the conflict presents is what motivates people to play games. We can’t all be heroic in real life, but games give us an opportunity to defeat seemingly undefeatable foes and become virtual heroes (and the bragging rights of winning a difficult game makes us heroes in real life, too). In order to motivate your students to take on the challenge that the conflict presents, the conflict shouldn’t be too easy or too difficult. You can help to make sure that you’re creating a zone of proximal development in the experience you create by using experience systems, which I’ll address in my next blog post.

It’s also important to carefully consider what kinds of interactions student will have with each other and NPCs. There are two main kinds of interactions that drive gameplay: competition and cooperation. In terms of competition, there are three types: player versus player, player versus game, and player versus self. I prefer to focus students on competing with themselves, as this promotes goal-setting and self-assessment, two critical skills for 21st century learners. But some of our students truly thrive off of competition with others or with systems and you can address those kinds of players with things like leaderboards, character classes, and achievements. The best games actually incorporate all three types of competition so that all player types are being targeted. I’ll provide an example of how you could integrate all three into our zombie epidemic example in a bit.

But first, I need to address cooperation. Games use several different methods for encouraging cooperation among players. One method is by allowing or forcing players to work in guilds, which are small groups that must work cooperatively to complete quests or quest-related tasks. Another is by tying some achievements (which I’ll cover in my next post) to working cooperatively. And finally, some games allow players to trade/barter resources. All of these are excellent methods for promoting cooperation among students. I integrate guilds into all of my games, though I also allow for individual play, recognizing that, for some students, working cooperatively is a challenge and/or de-motivating. For example, in the game I’m currently designing, players will have a writing guild, which will meet for informal idea-design discussions during the pre-writing phase and to provide feedback on drafts during the drafting phase. The guild is a support system to help aid students on their journey, but it’s up to the student to do the work necessary to take part in that journey and their experience level is based solely on their level of gameplay, not their guild’s. I do plan to encourage quality guild work via achievements and uncertainty (which I’ll address in my third and final installment). But, I’ve found that the best way to motivate students to work together effectively is via cooperative competition; that is, having guilds compete against other guilds. I have found that this method increases intrinsic motivation and the quality of the cooperation among group members. When using cooperative competition, I would recommend rewarding the winners with achievements, rather than points, since achievements tend to be more intrinsically-oriented than points and you don’t want to risk decreasing the naturally-occurring desire to win with an extrinsic reward. For an example of how I’ve used cooperative competition and the amazing level of engagement it inspired, see my post “Using Power Cards to Encourage Power Reading: Gamifying Required Texts.” To give you an idea of how all of this might work on-the-ground, let’s use our zombie epidemic scenario. You’ll want to encourage students to compete with the game, of course (ending the epidemic before time runs out),  and with themselves (via experience systems), and perhaps even with other students (via a leaderboard). You could also have students work together in guilds to encourage cooperation. Perhaps each guild is responsible for a specific aspect of investigating and ending the epidemic and they must not only cooperate within their guild but with the other guilds, as well. Or perhaps each guild is trying to end the epidemic and the challenge is to either be the first to do so or the guild to come up with the most effective solution (if you want to present a challenge in which quality is more important than efficiency). There are various possibilities for how to structure both competition and cooperation and the best games involve as many of those possibilities as makes sense within the context of the experience.

Lastly, I want to address interactions with NPCs. NPCs are often part of games and I’ve been trying to integrate them more fully into the experiences that I create for my students. You are obviously an important NPC and you’ll need to decide what your role will be in the game and how you will interact with the players. Are you a boss, a guide, an enemy, a colleague, an unknown entity? You can also add fictional NPCs into your game via physical or virtual communications (text-based, audio, or video). So far, I have two virtual NPCs in the game I’m currently designing. Professor Percival is their teacher during the first two quests; he provides them with instruction in the writing process, sends them on virtual scavenger hunts to help test and hone their technical skills, teaches them how to be active readers, and provides feedback on their first writing assignment. Once they graduate from the professor’s apprenticeship, they meet The Vagabond, who is their guide on the journey through the perilous realm. Players in the “Murderers and Mad(wo)men” game received regular correspondence from an NPC who was a colleague who needed to consult with them on especially perplexing cases. If you’re teaching history, you could have historical figures become NPCs in your game. You can also have live NPCs in your game. Guest speakers and colleagues are two options. For example, in designing the zombie epidemic game, perhaps you could convince an epidemiologist to do a Skype interview with your class, only position it as part of the game: as director of the CDC, you’ve arranged for a conference call with an expert who has experience with a similar outbreak. If the expert/speaker/colleague is especially receptive, you might even be able to convince them to play the part and help reinforce game immersion.

The experience is the most important and motivating aspect of a game. Nothing else should take precedence. It’s vitally important to create an experience that hooks students immediately. Give careful consideration to where and how you’ll place the rabbit hole and the bait that you’ll use to lure them in. We often try to create these kinds of hooks for students: a thought-provoking question or intriguing bit of information to pique their curiosity and get them listening. But getting them interested is only a tiny portion of the challenge. Keeping them engaged and curious is equally important. If we follow that thought-provoking question or intriguing bit of information with a 45-minute lecture, we’ve lost an opportunity to truly engage students and motivate them to begin thinking about and acting on their interest. Following up that awesome first-day introduction to the zombie apocalypse with homework that includes reading 50 pages from a textbook sends a specific message: the orientation was just a superficial trick you used to get their attention. The icing might have been delicious, but the cake is going to be stale and tasteless. If you want students to stay interested, you’ve got to make the entire class an experience that is intellectually and aesthetically stimulating and in which they are the key ingredient.

Hopefully, you have a better understanding of how to create an immersive experience for your students. If you have any questions, please feel free to post them and I’ll try to answer them. And if you’re interested in all of the other ingredients necessary to make that experience rewarding and fun, the next two posts in the series will be appearing soon.

And if you’re interested in the CoRE program, I encourage you to watch this video.

 

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2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 11,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Get Your Awesome Class Here! Promoting New Course Offerings

Between a 5-course teaching load, presenting at a workshop for regional k12 teachers, committee work, and preparing for my upcoming summer course on the graphic novel, I haven’t had much time for blogging. But I find that it’s always good to stop and reflect on things, even when I don’t have an issue pressing my buttons or something I’ve read/watched/listened to itching for a response. I thought that this week, I’d reflect a little bit on something that I’m having to do for the first time–promote a class.

I have a distaste for selling myself or any of the goods that I regularly hawk as a college instructor, blogger, and tweeter. But, like it or not, sometimes it’s necessary to sell ourselves and/or our “goods.” I have a hard time convincing my oral communication students to sell themselves when they’re giving speeches and preparing for their public service campaign team pitches and interviews; they feel that doing so makes them seem self-important or overbearing. But sometimes, if you live in Rome . . . well, you know the rest.

If your university is like mine, proposals for new courses are not exactly encouraged. When someone in my English department does suggest a new course, that course is typically relegated to the May short-term (a 4 week, 2 1/2 hour four times a week bootcamp-style term) for a trial run. It takes a lot for that course, however successful it may be in the May term, to become a regular fixture during the Fall and Spring semesters. And, increasingly, it’s difficult to fill a May term course because so many students are now having to work and can’t fit such a time sucking course into their schedules and those who use their full financial aid during the regular terms cannot receive additional aid during the summer terms. Thus is born the need for your average, everyday college professor or instructor to become a kind of manipulative, smooth-talking ad man, trying to sell our innovative new class in the hopes that the demand will help us push it out to the masses as a regular offering.

And thus I find myself needing to sell my summer graphic novel class. Not because students won’t be interested in it. But because, even if they’re interested, that class is facing competition from their jobs, their bank accounts, and other classes that they need for their degree.

I’ve developed a three-pronged approach to advertising and creating hype about my class. In many ways, I’m taking my cue from John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s peace campaign–combining attention-grabbing visual ads with a lot of verbal noise.

First, I’ve let my English colleagues know about the course and asked that they let their students know about it. At the same time, I’ve told my own students, both past and present, and encouraged them to spread the word. Word of mouth, I’m hoping, will help raise awareness with any students who might miss the visual campaign that I am waging.

Secondly, I’ve created some flyers that I hope will attract both hard-core fans and those students who have never read or heard of graphic novels. In several of the flyers, I use widely recognizable images–Batman and The Walking Dead–in an attempt to draw in students who might not be familiar with the graphic novel, but who have been exposed to characters from graphic novels via pop culture. I am placing these flyers in high-traffic zones around campus that see a mixed population of students. The second set of flyers emphasize the insider culture of graphic novels, utilizing images–a Guy Fawke’s mask, a blood-spattered yellow smiley face–and phrases–“it begins” and “watch for it”– that only those “in the know” will recognize. These flyers are being placed throughout the buildings in which English, art, and computer classes are held.

batman

 

walking dead final

 

v for vendetta

 

watchmen

 

The next component of my campaign provides a point of contact for those students who are interested enough in the course to want more information and a way of knowing when it opens for registration. I’ve created a website with a teaser homepage (it simply has the course number and “coming to JSU May 2013”) with a list of texts we’ll be reading and a link to a course email list, where students can leave their contact information for updates. Once word of mouth began to circulate and my flyers were posted, I had several students come by my office when I was not in. So, my final step was to create a QR code that linked to the course website and post it outside of my office door (I used the free QR generating site GOQR.me).

create-qr-code

 

Ideally, my course would sell itself. But this is the real world, one filled with competing responsibilities and opportunities. And the average college student only has so much time and so much attention. Sometimes, they need a little nudge. So, I suppose you could say that I’m less of an ad-man and more of a carnival talker crafting a ballyhoo, enticing students to step inside and take a look.

A Crazy Thing Happened on the Way to the Globe Theatre: Some Initial Thoughts on Using Immersive Role-Play in the Composition Classroom

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I sometimes get the opportunity (let’s call it) to teach the second-semester iteration of my department’s two semester First-Year Composition course. This part of the course serves as an extension of the first, as well as an introduction to three literary genres–poetry, short fiction, and drama–with practice in reading, interpreting, and analyzing selected works from those genres. The course’s goal is to teach both close critical reading and analytical writing. It is a difficult class to teach, mainly because students tend to still need intense writing instruction and they generally have little to no background in close, analytical reading, so one of those two issues must become the focus of the course at the expense of the other (especially if you also try to include instruction in locating and identifying the various literary elements of the three genres and/or library research, which are both also listed as learning objectives for the course).

I often wish that there were more opportunities to incorporate creative reading and writing exercises into the class, one because the course can get a little dry (even with careful selection of more contemporary and highly-engaging texts) and secondly, because I believe that students can develop a better understanding of and appreciation for a poem, let’s say, if they actually have to write a poem themselves. Unfortunately, I’ve only ever taught the course in the summer short-term, which means I have even less time to teach several complex skills, so creative writing activities are never really an option.

Until now.

I now have thirteen glorious weeks of FYC II with which to play. And play is exactly what we are going to do!

Having a kid who’s a gamer, I know that gaming is a big part of many of my students’ lives. What I did not realize, until recently, was the extent to which role-playing is a part of both their gaming and non-gaming activities. For example, this semester I have a student who plays Magic the Gathering. In addition to this game, he also participates in creative role-play writing online. Another student is a furry. Several other students regularly interact virtually via games such as first-person shooters like Halo and MMORPGs. Hearing and reading about these students’ intense participation in highly immersive role play piqued my curiosity and I began to explore the role-play writing genre. I found that it is a genre that, like literary criticism and other forms of academic writing, is governed by strict community-imposed guidelines and practices, but also places a high premium on creativity, improvisation, and play (practices that are thought by many to be antithetical to academic writing), as well as cooperation and collaboration.

So I began to wonder: What if I could marry the critical and analytical aspects of literary criticism with the creative license of role-play writing? And what if I could do it in a highly immersive role-play environment? And how can I do it in a way that will still meet the learning objectives of the course (in other words, still introduce students to the literary genres and their respective elements; guide them towards close, analytical reading within those genres; teach them how to conduct and integrate research into their writing; and help them to continue to develop their formal writing skills)?

I’m still working out many of the answers to these questions, but I have too many ideas swimming around in my head right now to keep them all contained. I’ve got to do something with them (in order to do something with them). So here’s my initial (sketchy) thinking. There is some backstory to how some of these ideas led to each other and some research that initiated some of them, and I plan to detail those aspects of my development of the course (if it reaches fruition) later. This post simply serves as a brief overview of my thinking at this point in time.

Roles
If I want students to role-play, what roles would be available to them that will work for the poems, stories, and plays in our reader?

This has been the hardest question so far and I’m still developing ideas. I looked to the various theories of literary criticism to help get me started and immediately came up with a psychologist and a historian. Brainstorming from there, so far I’ve added cold-case detective, journalist, and celebrity gossip columnist (these are just off-the-cuff ideas).

How will the literature fit into the role-play?
Students will need to select a role to take on for the semester and, as we read selected texts, choose those that can be analyzed from their role’s perspective. So a cold-case detective might select Albee’s A Zoo Story to analyze with an eye towards solving the crime that takes place in the play or determining the motive behind it.

How can I make the roles as immersive as possible?
Obviously, students are going to need some help determining and developing the behaviors and habits of mind of their selected roles. I plan to flip the term, so to speak, by having them begin with their research project, which will be to figure out how to think like their persona. In addition to secondary research, I’m considering requiring that the students also interview someone in their role’s field (they have plenty of interviewees to select from on campus).

Secondly, I’ll have the students maintain a blog over the course of the semester as their persona. This will be where they post their writings about the texts they choose to work with (so their blog may be in the form of case files or newspaper articles or reports, etc.). They’ll also have to create a backstory for their persona, which they’ll post to the About page. In reading and commenting on their peers’ posts, I’ll ask that they maintain their role, so that they are responding as a cold-case detective, for example, even if they’re reading a journalistic piece or a psychological analysis.

Thirdly, I hope to be able to use Second Life to help reinforce the immersive experience. Students can create a physical manifestation of their persona via their SL avatar and can truly role-play with their peers in SL (they may be too self-conscious to do so IRL). In addition to giving their persona life, SL will also provide opportunities for virtual field-trips. I can, for instance, take the cold-case detectives on a field trip to the catacombs of Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” where we can virtually investigate the scene of the crime. Or I can take a group of psychologists for a walk though the forest where Young Goodman Brown strolled with the devil so that we can determine if his experience was a case of an over-wrought imagination under the influence of the sublime primitive New England landscape or if he did, indeed, face his demons. SL will also, I believe, afford us an opportunity to discuss writing issues without the fear and loathing that face-to-face in-class discussions of writing invariably engenders. I’m hoping that the virtual nature of SL will allow students to speak more openly about their struggles as writers (and readers).

This is a brief overview of how the course appears in my own over-wrought mind. It’s still fuzzy around the edges and details need to be refined and there’s still much research and planning to be done before it looks anything like a workable course. I plan to do a follow-up post soon that outlines the research behind my ideas with links to pertinent resources. Any ideas or resources that my readers can provide are much appreciated. And if you’ve integrated role-play writing (or participate in it yourself) or Second Life into your classes, I would love to hear about your experiences. And if I’m totally off my rocker, someone please let me know why and to what extent.

Avatars hanging out in Second Life
By John “Pathfinder” Lester

Defining Digital Writing

Some rights reserved by QualityFrog

It seems that Digital Writing Month is off to a roaring start for everyone involved. So far, there has been a collaboratively-written poem and a collaboratively-written novel is still in the works. Many participants are busy exploring new methods and forms of digital writing, while others are happily adding to their existing digital media sites. Despite the daunting goal of 50,000 words in thirty days, inspiration and collaboration are flowing freely and it’s a beautiful thing to see and be a part of.

But for some, the challenge of Digital Writing Month is not so much the word count as it is figuring out what exactly digital writing is (and is not). Do emails count? What about retweets? What about images and videos? How do you “count” those? What about all of the words we delete during the process of drafting and revising? Do those count even though they’re no longer “there”? How much does context/format matter? If you publish the same words in multiple contexts/formats, does your word count double or triple? Which digital “words” don’t count? Hashtags? Links? And what about those collaboratively-written digital texts? Do all of the words count for everyone who contributes or must you keep track of which words are yours alone? Where do ideas end and authorship begin?

While some of these questions may be addressed by the DigiWriMo founders and community, ultimately it’s up to the individual author to determine what they define as digital writing. But I think that the questions about what constitutes digital writing that have arisen over the past few days are interesting because of what they say about our attitudes toward and beliefs about digital writing. Digital writing, even for those who do it often, is a problematic experience. Partly, perhaps, because it is so new, but mostly, I suspect, because it defies categorization and definition. It is organic and, as such, is constantly evolving, expanding, adapting, evading, presenting, restructuring, dying, re-emerging. Fundamentally, our questions about digital writing reflect many of the same questions we have about ourselves: who is the real me? The private me or the public me? Where do I end and others begin? How much do my contributions to my community count? Am I simply a string of code? Who wrote the code and how much of my code is pre-written and how much do I have the power to (re)write? What parts of me, if any, are permanent? Which are disposable and forgettable?

Take the questions about email, for example. Email is obviously a digital form of writing. So why are some DigiWriMo participants questioning whether or not it should count toward their 50,000 word goal? I think that it has a lot to do with the idea of openness. Many of us consider the terms “digital writing” and “open” to be synonymous. For those who do so, digital writing is a political and social act. We see being open as a democratic principle and we value making our ideas accessible for anyone and everyone to consider and use as they wish or need to, and we are suspicious of those who refuse to share their ideas openly. Emails are private exchanges, seen only by those we choose to make privy to them. Access to the exchanges is only granted to those who can be trusted and for whom the exchanges are directly relevant. But many who advocate and participate in digital writing question ideas of limited trust and relevancy. We question whether or not emails “count” during DigiWriMo because other members of the DigiWriMo community cannot see them; by being exclusive, email challenges the community’s standards regarding openness.

Similarly, digital writers value collaboration because they see the openness of digital writing as both democratic and rhizomatic: ideas and media are freely shared, borrowed, referenced, adapted, remixed, mashed up, and revised. Digital compositional softwares such as Google Docs now support peer revision as opposed to peer review, allowing the author and editor(s) to synchronously negotiate changes to a piece of writing. Such software also provides a space for authorial collaboration, as has been demonstrated with DigiWriMo’s collaboratively-written poem and novel. But some have questioned the importance of individual authorship when considering word count, especially within such highly cooperative contexts. This question brings to light the issues with co-ownership. Ownership is problematic in digital writing because of its organic, open, rhizomatic nature. Established norms regarding citation no longer work and new norms have been slow to develop. But even with digitally-enabled citation methods being used, some question where one author’s word count ends and another’s begins and where, and if, they ever overlap. What if you retweet someone else’s tweet? Does the other author’s words count toward your goal? Does agency equal authorship, such that the act of sharing those words within a different context (your followers’ timelines) gives you co-ownership of the tweet (and thus, co-authorship)? What if you author a tweet that contains a quoted tweet? Should we differentiate between the words you wrote and those you’re quoting? Or is this a new composition, with the original tweet wholly absorbed and remade, the way mixed-media art absorbs and remakes found objects?

Speaking of mixed media, even more problematic for some participants in DigiWriMo is how to “count” images and videos. I was pondering this very question as I was considering the webcomic I plan to try my hand at this month. After all, the graphic aspect of comics is of equal importance as the text. And for me, the graphic aspect would be the most challenging to author. It was disconcerting to think my effort would not “count.” One DigiWriMo community member, Kevin Hodgson, came up with the answer: count the code. Kevin, also creating webcomics as part of the project, created a webcomic about how to “count the words” in a webcomic by counting the code. This solves the problem of images, as well, since most programs convert images to code once they’re embedded. Other forms of media are still problematic, though, and this, again, reflects the organic nature of digital writing. Some of us tend to write in still or moving images (or both); some of us combine images and text. What “counts” as writing and how do we convert still and moving images into a quantifiable measurement that’s equal to words? Some of us, especially bloggers, borrow images from others to help illustrate our writing. So, do we count the images we borrow as part of our word count? After all, we have essentially re-contextualized and re-interpreted the image–given it new life, if you will.

As important as renewal is to digital writers, death is just as concerning. We must constantly tend to our digital creations, monitoring pingbacks and shares and responding to new comments (new life!), as well as checking to make sure hyperlinks, embedded media, or blogroll listings have not disappeared (death). For some, if it does not digitally exist at this moment in time, it may as well have never existed (although it is still out there, for those who know how to locate digital ghosts). What about all of those words that get deleted during the process of digital composition? Some of them, like those created in Google Docs, still exist in perpetual stasis, awaiting rediscovery and reversion. But some (like those I am deleting as I draft this post) disappear forever. Do they count? They are, after all, the breath that nourishes those words that manage to survive the process of digital birth.

Aside from the content that will be created, Digital Writing Month has forced many of us to confront our beliefs and biases about digital writing (and non-digital writing, as well). While we may not be any closer to a definition of digital writing by the end of the month, we at least will have come closer to understanding what draws us to it and what challenges it presents for us. We will, I believe, have a better conception of the shared values and community practices inherent in the act of digital writing, as well as those values and practices that are intrinsically personal and, therefore, more ephemeral.

Practicing What I Preach: Digital Writing Month

Some rights reserved by Pink Sherbet Photography

For a while now I’ve been preaching to my students about the importance of learning how to create and develop a digital presence and the essential role that writing plays in doing so. I was one of the first in my department to adopt blogs as the main form of writing in my classes. Once my First-Year Composition classes became hybrid, I also began to require students to use Google+ to create digital profiles and communicate, network, curate, and share information. To be honest, I wasn’t exactly practicing what I was preaching. Oh, I was building my digital presence on Twitter, but that was about it. I didn’t blog (didn’t have time, I argued) and I didn’t actively and consistently participate in other kinds of digital writing (didn’t want to juggle too many social networks, I demurred). This past summer, I saw the error of my ways and began this blog. It has been a life- and career- altering experience in several ways that I won’t go into here and now. Suffice it to say that it has been the single best professional decision I have ever made and it has also provided me with much first-hand experience that I can now pass along to my students without feelings of hypocrisy.

But I’m a firm believer that complacency leads to stagnation. As teachers, as soon as we become too comfortable with what we’re doing, we’re in danger of becoming irrelevant. Just as we encourage our students to do more than the minimum requirements and to push themselves beyond what’s easily attainable, we should resist feelings of confidence and certainty. It’s only when we’re pushing the envelope and testing the waters that we’re resisting the temptations of “good enough.”

When I was first invited to participate in Digital Writing Month, my immediate instinct was to pass. I’m in the middle of a hectic semester: I’m teaching five classes (three of which are composition classes and all of which are in the throes of Challenge-Based Learning projects), maintaining my blog, serving on a very active committee (under whose auspices I am spearheading a summer technology camp for local K12 students), keeping ten hours of office hours each week, and helping my nine year-old to adjust to fourth grade. The last thing I need is one more thing to do. Yes, the project sounded exciting. But 50,000 words in one month? Bananas!

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized what an important project Digital Writing Month is. Many of the reasons why I think it is so important will become evident in the article that I’ve submitted as a featured contributor to the project. My reasoning has much to do with the political and artistic power that I see digital writing embodying. But some of my reasoning is more personal. Right now, I’m feeling a little too digitally complacent for my own good. I’m happy with a blog post every other week or so and an occasional smattering of tweets. I’m comfortable with what I can do digitally. I haven’t tried anything new in a while and I’m not sure that I’m feeding my networks as well as I should be in terms of promoting pedagogical disruption. It’s time I made myself a little uncomfortable.

Some of the things that I’m planning to do as part of the project are:

  • Blog at least once each week (potential post topics include: designing a blogging workshop for students, unplugging the classroom, teaching bento-style, hashtags as exquisite corpse, using Google+ as an LMS, using Stephen King’s On Writing to teach FYC, Challenge-Based learning in the introductory speech class, screen casting feedback on students’ blog writing)
  • Live-tweet my notes/thoughts on pedagogically-relevant books and articles that I read during the month
  • Create a webcomic (I’ll be giving students in my upcoming graphic novel class the option of doing this, so in the spirit of never asking students to do something that I haven’t tried to do myself, I’ll be giving it a go; however, I don’t expect a contract offer to come my way as a result of my efforts)
  • Comment on all of my students’ blog posts (normally, I only provide feedback to students privately via Word or screencast, but for the month of November I’ve decided to switch to only providing comments publicly on each of the students’ blog posts, shifting my focus from teacher-centered comments on organization, style, and grammar to reader-centered comments on content and ideas; I already require students to read and publicly respond to each others’ posts, so again, I’ll be walking the walk)

Since project participants are encouraged to curate their digital writing for the month in one place, I’ll be publishing, Storifying, and linking to my work here.

I’m hoping that if there are others who are feeling that the project is just not easily attainable for them right now, you’ll reconsider. If you’re not sure why you should, then I hope that you’ll at least follow the project on Twitter (@digiwrimo) and consider adding your voice when and as you can. You may end up inspired to push yourself beyond what’s comfortable.

It’s going to be a wild, unpredictable, organic, collaboratively-driven ride!

Summertime Blues

photo credit: Mr. Ducke via photo pin cc

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley. ~Robert Burns

[T]here ain’t no cure for the summertime blues. ~Eddie Cochran

The stack of books I planned to read this summer still sit on my coffee table, one moment taunting me, another accusing me. This was going to be my summer of books, when I read all of those fiction books I’ve been too busy to read and all of the pedagogy books I need to read.

The front porch is still in need of a fresh coat of paint. My study room is still a disorganized mess (I’m writing this blog at the kitchen table amid the chaos of dogs and cats and a kid and husband and dirty dishes).

That exercise plan has not been as successful as I had hoped. My determination to walk at least two miles a day has often succumbed to the temptation to sleep in and the Alabama heat.

And of the three Fall term classes (no, make that four since I just received a request to teach an overload) that I need to prep for, I have one down and two (no, make that three) still to go. I had planned to be through by the end of July so that I could enjoy the last few weeks of summer, care free.

But the summer is rapidly and unapologetically slipping away. August is almost here and with it will come the hectic back-to-school rush for first my son (who’ll be entering the fourth grade) and then myself. And I’m left wondering: Where did all of that time go? Not once did I lie in the hammock lazily sipping lemonade and reading the latest brain-candy bestseller. I still have not fulfilled my promise to take my son to the local swimming-hole for a day of swimming (I will make good on that promise this week). My list of home improvement projects will carry over for another year unless my husband gives up and does them himself.

I suspect that I’m not the only academic who has looked up and around to realize that those glorious, carefree, easy-living summers that many imagine that we indulge in are, like so many assumptions about a teacher’s life, fantasies.

But, this summer has not been a total waste. I have read a few great books, mostly notably Peter Carey’s The Chemistry of Tears, which, as typical of his books, was breathtakingly beautiful. And I’m almost through with Howard Rheingold’s Net Smart, which has given me much food for thought for my Fall classes (and is, in fact, on the required reading list for my FYC courses).

I have spent some much-needed and appreciated time with my son. We’ve begun reading The Hobbit together (although late-night summer shenanigans have slowed our progress to a snail’s pace), built Hogwarts out of Legos, and played lots of video games (which, by the way, is a great method for relieving the tension after spending the day at a laptop).

I taught two summer short-term courses in which I tried out some disruptive pedagogical practices and had some mind-blowing results. My American Literature students developed a powerful collaborative learning community, so much so that they spontaneously decided that the final exam should be taken as a class (you can read about my experiences in this class here). My second-semester FYC students explored literature as mashup and mashup as literature and produced some interesting analyses of both.

I also participated in some great professional development activities. I successfully completed my first MOOC (which I blogged about here) and virtually attended the Sloan Consortium’s “Emerging Technologies for Online Learning” conference (notes for which can be read at my Storify page). I started this blog and have been blown away by the positive feedback and encouragement I’ve received. I also submitted a post to the Hackin(ing) School(ing) “One Week, One Book” project (I’m still waiting to hear if it was accepted or not). And I had the opportunity to submit to and work with the editors of Hybrid Pedagogy. This was my first collaborative editing experience and I have to say that it was an eye-opening one for me. The give-and-take of the process of revising and editing in Google Docs was so superior to the traditional peer review process that I’ve experienced with paywalled journals that I cannot ever imagine submitting to a paper-based journal again. Most importantly, in participating in open-source environments such as Hybrid Pedagogy and Hack(ing) Schoo(ing), I feel like I’m helping to contribute to the free flow of pedagogical theory and praxis.

There’s not much time left to salvage what’s left of the summer. Those books are tempting me. And the swimming-hole is waiting expectantly. If I don’t post for a while, you’ll know why.

In the meantime, you can read my Hybrid Pedagogy article “Data Mining in the Trenches: Using Storify to Teach Research.”

Here’s hoping what’s left of your summer brings you everything you hoped it would.