Magnificent Failure

William Faulkner considered The Sound and the Fury (1929) a failure, albeit a “splendid” failure. As he said in a 1957 interview:
I tried first to tell it with one brother, and that wasn’t enough. That was Section One. I tried with another brother, and that wasn’t enough. That was Section Two. I tried the third brother, because Caddy was still to me too beautiful and too moving to reduce her to telling what was going on, that it would be more passionate to see her through somebody else’s eyes, I thought. And that failed and I tried myself — the fourth section — to tell what happened, and I still failed. (seehttp://people.virginia.edu/~sfr/enam312/wfhp.html)
I thought of this statement when I read “Next Time, Fail Better” by Paula Krebs in a Chronicle of Higher Education commentary (http://chronicle.com/article/Next-Time-Fail-Better/131790/). In it, Krebs—then a professor of English at Wheaton college—recounts her experience of sitting in on a colleague’s computer science classes and being amazed, and then impressed, with the degree to which students in those classes expected to fail at many or even most of their attempts:
A computer program that doesn’t run is a failure. A program that produces no usable data about the text it was set up to analyze is a failure. Why don’t those failures devastate the developers? Because each time their efforts fail, the developers learn something they can use to get closer to success the next time.
Krebs goes on to think about her own students in the humanities: they fear and shun failure, she writes, they “aren’t used to failure” and want to get everything right the first time. So Krebs thinks we should take a page from the sciences and teach students to learn from failure:
That’s what we should be teaching humanities students—to look at what went wrong and figure out how to learn from it. OK, that didn’t work. But my next try isn’t then going to be a complete ground-zero beginning. I’ll be starting with the knowledge that my last try didn’t work. Maybe it worked up to a particular point, and I can start over from there. Maybe it didn’t work because I took on too much, so now I will start smaller. Maybe it can’t work at all, and I need a new text from which to begin—a text in a different genre or a text in combination with something else.
What Krebs is describing, of course, is the way most writing teaches approach the production of texts—as a laborious process that encounters many roadblocks and wrong turns and re-starts. Yet I think we can still learn from Krebs and her computer science colleagues, for far too many students come into our classes with the expectation that if they can’t do well right away they will never do well. It’s up to us to get that attitude out on the table for discussion on day one, and to keep returning to it throughout the term: success can and often does lie at the end of a string of failures.
When I started teaching at the University of British Columbia in 1977, I found that over half of the students in my classes were what they called “ESL” students, even though for most of them English was not a “second” language but perhaps a third or fourth. These were terrific students—bright, eager to learn, extremely hard working. And they made great progress. But if they knew one thing, it was that their successful path toward fluent academic English would be strewn with failure. In a conference with one of my students (first-generation Canadian who spoke Mandarin at home and just about everywhere but in college), he said “it’s just that the alphabet doesn’t go down low enough for me.” “What?” I asked. “Well,” he said, “it only goes down to F: I wish it went at least to M: then when I got to “F” I could see that I’d made a lot of progress, not that I was a FAILURE.”
Those words have always stayed with me, and when we’re teaching student writers, we need to remember them: the “failures” this student experienced were in fact important steps on his way to fluency. Not to be experienced with shame or fear and loathing but with the confidence that they would lead to success. If only the alphabet had gone down just a little bit farther.

Bread Loaf International Work

A little over a year ago I wrote about having the great pleasure of funding a small college scholarship for a student attending Interlachen High School in Florida, where my sister Liz has taught for many years. It’s called the Liz Middleton “You Can Do It!” Scholarship and is awarded every year to a student who shows good promise of doing college work but who needs support to get there.
Last year, the award went to Skylar Midkiff, who matriculated this last fall and has been on the Dean’s list both terms since beginning her college career. This year has been even more exciting because there were TWO recipients of the award: Richard Midler, who will attend the University of Florida in the fall; and Keely Brown, who will go to Santa Fe Community College before transferring to a four-year university. Both these students were in Liz’s 10th grade world history class and she has had an opportunity to watch them both develop (and struggle) and be admitted to the National Honor Society, which she sponsors. Richard wants to major in computer science and minor in theater (hooray!); Keely has so many interests she’s not sure what she will major in (she has been taking an online course in Latin, “just for fun.”)
Here’s a picture of Keely and Richard along with their teacher, Liz Middleton. When I’m feeling a bit down in the dumps about the state of learning in this country, I like to think about these students (and their teacher) and reflect on the fact that there are thousands and thousands and thousands of young people across the country who are as energetic and bright and ambitious as Richard and Keely. My hope is that they are finding support from members of their communities as well. Sometimes it doesn’t really take a village: just a dedicated teacher and another teacher ready to come up with the financial support to help make a few dreams come true.
So hooray for these Interlachen High students and for their teachers—and for teachers everywhere who are making good things happen for young people.

Liz Middleton You Can Do It Award

A little over a year ago I wrote about having the great pleasure of funding a small college scholarship for a student attending Interlachen High School in Florida, where my sister Liz has taught for many years. It’s called the Liz Middleton “You Can Do It!” Scholarship and is awarded every year to a student who shows good promise of doing college work but who needs support to get there.
Last year, the award went to Skylar Midkiff, who matriculated this last fall and has been on the Dean’s list both terms since beginning her college career. This year has been even more exciting because there were TWO recipients of the award: Richard Midler, who will attend the University of Florida in the fall; and Keely Brown, who will go to Santa Fe Community College before transferring to a four-year university. Both these students were in Liz’s 10th grade world history class and she has had an opportunity to watch them both develop (and struggle) and be admitted to the National Honor Society, which she sponsors. Richard wants to major in computer science and minor in theater (hooray!); Keely has so many interests she’s not sure what she will major in (she has been taking an online course in Latin, “just for fun.”)
Here’s a picture of Keely and Richard along with their teacher, Liz Middleton. When I’m feeling a bit down in the dumps about the state of learning in this country, I like to think about these students (and their teacher) and reflect on the fact that there are thousands and thousands and thousands of young people across the country who are as energetic and bright and ambitious as Richard and Keely. My hope is that they are finding support from members of their communities as well. Sometimes it doesn’t really take a village: just a dedicated teacher and another teacher ready to come up with the financial support to help make a few dreams come true.
So hooray for these Interlachen High students and for their teachers—and for teachers everywhere who are making good things happen for young people.

It’s, like, a big question about “like”

I wonder how many teachers of writing have been tracking student use of “like” as a kind of punctuation mark. I certainly have been—and I counted 48 uses of the word in ONE 15-minute oral presentation just a few years ago. In this student’s case, “like” seemed to be a verbal tic, akin to “um” or “ok” or “you know.” I remember working with this student and asking her to tape record herself in casual conversation and in other presentations to see if she could analyze how and when she was using “like.” She even took to wearing an elastic band around her wrist and snapping it every time she said “like.” By the end of the year, she had pretty much broken this habit and dropped by to tell me she viewed this as a signal accomplishment.
But “like” isn’t always so egregious or so distracting as this verbal tic was. It can sometimes mark a statement as important, saying in essence, “listen up”: “He’s, like, always mixed up.” In a Times opinion piece, Professor John McWhorter takes up for at least some uses of “like,” noting that
We associate [like] with ingrained hesitation, a fear of venturing a definite statement. Yet the hesitation can be seen less as a matter of confidence than one of consideration.” “Like” often functions to acknowledge objection while underlining one’s own point. To say, “This is, like, the only way to make it work,” is to implicitly recognize that this news may be unwelcome to the hearer, and to soften the blow by offering one’s suggestion discreetly swathed in the garb of hypothetical-ness. . . . What’s actually happening is that casual American speech is, in its “like” fetish, more polite than it was before.
(http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/06/opinion/sunday/like-degrading-the-language-no-way.html?_r=0)

Of course, many will disagree with McWhorter—as did Val Swisher in a blog posting entitled “It’s Like Totally. . . huh? How the New York Times Got It Wrong.” In her view, what I have always called “filler” words (like “like” or “ok” or “you know”) are distractions—the very opposite of the politeness and consideration McWhorter wants to ascribe to “like.” As Swisher says,
I find it quite surprising that The Times would print this type of nonsense. Our language does not advance because people toss in words that break up their thoughts and our listening. . . . I do understand that public speaking is something that can be foreboding and that people are riddled with anxiety at the mere thought of speaking to a group. And, for those people, saying “like” or “ya know” is not done on purpose. Those slips are just nerves speaking. But to say that nonsense syllables spoken in the middle of actual information is a cause for rejoicing is, like, ya know, wrong. (http://www.contentrules.com/blog/like-totally-huh/)
My own sense is that the use of “like” peaked several years ago and is now on the wane, at least in northern California. I still hear it, but not to the fetishized degree I did a few years ago. At my school, this shift may be due to the emphasis we are putting on oral/multimedia presentations: students know that they need to learn to stand and deliver, and to do so in the most professional ways possible. They increasingly do not want to show up on Facebook or You Tube “sounding like a broken record” as one student put it to me.
Any thoughts out there about the “like” question??

Visit to North Carolina A&T College

Recently I had a rare opportunity to visit with colleagues and students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities and to participate in a Writing Symposium for HBCUs sponsored by North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University, with support from Bedford/St. Martin’s Press.
I’ll admit to being tired and out of sorts when I arrived in Greensboro: my flight got in late, around 11:00 that night, and when I got to the hotel they told me that, yes, I did indeed have a guaranteed reservation—but they had no room for me. So at 12:30 a.m. I found myself at another hotel on the other end of town and standing in line with other people who had similarly been bumped: not a happy crowd. On top of everything, I’d been flying all day and hadn’t eaten. So at 1:00 a.m., just as they were about to close the bar, I sat with a glass of wine and a . . . banana. So much for dinner.
Not an auspicious evening by any means. But all the hassles faded the next morning when I got to campus. “Aggie pride” and hospitality were everywhere, and I had time for a quick tour of the lovely campus, with its futuristic buildings and rolling lawns. I also learned just a little about the history of A&T (founded in 1890) and still later I got to stand outside the Woolworth’s store, my nose literally pressed to the glass, to get a look inside the place where four young A&T students held a sit-in at the lunch counter on February 1, 1960. Aggie pride indeed.
Back at the symposium, we were welcomed by Faye Spencer Maor, the dynamic chair of the English Department, who introduced me to Jason DePolo, director of composition and to Robert Randolph, director of the writing center. I spent a fascinating hour in the writing center with Robert and four of his tutors, and the next day attended a panel on writing centers where I met the directors of seven other HBCU centers. The big event of the afternoon was a talk and question and answer session with University of Kentucky Professor Vershawn Young, author of Your Average Nigga: Performing Race, Literacy, and Masculinity, and Other People’s English: Code-Meshing, Code-Switching, and African American Literacy. This was a talk for students, and the large lecture hall was packed, row upon row of students eager to engage. Vershawn laid out his argument—that African American English is a powerful, legitimate form of language that students 9all students) should be able to use when and how they wish. Dr. Vay, as he is called, talked for about half an hour, offering lots of examples to back up his claims, and then said he’d take questions. The hall was fairly vibrating with energy, and hands shot up all around. The Q&A—the best and most spirited one I’ve ever seen—went on for another 90 minutes, without a pause. And the questions the students asked were HARD. These students weren’t necessarily buying Vershawn’s argument (and they had plenty of counter examples to offer), and they pressed him, peppering him with two- and three-part questions and following up with more. At one point, Vershawn held up a hand and pointed out that the students sere employing African American style—straightforward, direct, in-your-face-honest, so they then spent some time talking about that style and about its rich history. At the end of this two-hour session, Vershawn still had a line of a dozen or more students waiting to ask “one last question.” These students were so sharp, so articulate, so highly engaged that I felt worn out—even though I’d just been listening.
The next ay I gave a talk about digital literacies and how they allow for expanded notions of what good writing is and can be, with lots of examples drawn from students of color performing such writing. We followed with a sumptuous lunch and several other workshops (though I missed the last one, with Gesa Kirsch on feminist practices—to my regret). All too soon I found myself back on an airplane. Not that I noticed, however: I was still aglow with all I had learned and with inspiration from the students and teachers from these HBCUs. My two days at NC A&T have been a highlight of my year so far. Maybe if I’m very lucky, I’ll get to visit again!

Have You Seen “The First Grader”?

I don’t know how I missed this film, which came out in 2011, but I am forever grateful that I have finally gotten to see it—and I hope you have too. It tells the story of Kimani Maruge, an 84-year-old former Mao Mao freedom fighter against the British who had never had an education. When “free education for everyone” is announced in Kenya, Maruge determines to take advantage of the opportunity: he wants to learn to read. Early in the film, we see Maruge (played brilliantly by Oliver Litundo) holding a letter, which he unfolds. We see, through very blurry vision, that is from The President . . . . That is all we know, but it helps provide motivation for Maruge’s insistence on becoming literate. “Power,” he says, “is in the pen” and being able to read is part and parcel of that power.
Maruge is turned away from the brand new elementary school, which has at least five children for every available seat; education is for the young, he hears. But he returns to the school, first with a sharpened pencil and notebook and then, when he’s turned away again, with a “school uniform” they say all students must have. Teacher Jane, the second hero of this film, decides to admit him, and thereby hangs quite a tail as resistance mounts on all sides to Maruge taking his place with the elementary children.
The film progresses through flashbacks to Maruge’s early life, his marriage to a hauntingly beautiful woman and the arrival of two children. The shimmering scenes of his wife moving slowly toward him are interspersed with shots of horrific torture (more than once I had to turn away) and the murder of his family. Through it all, Maruge refuses to renounce his oath to fight for freedom. But the torture and war took a terrible toll, and when we meet Maruge he is slightly bent, using a stick to help him walk (they cut off his toes, he tells us), and cultivating a tiny garden. And determining to learn to read and write. In that effort, he is helped—heroically—by Teacher Jane, who is eventually transferred away from the school for disobeying orders to eject Maruge but who returns when the students rebel, locking out the new teacher and changing “We want teacher Jane!” I came away from the film thinking that the whole world wants—and needs—teacher Jane.
Kimani Marugi holds the Guinness Book of Records for the oldest person to begin elementary school, in 2004, when he was 84. He lost his small property in the violence following the 2007-08 election and was temporarily moved from elementary school to a home for old people. But he continued to re-enroll in elementary school, where he eventually became “head boy.” He died in 2009, but his spirit clearly lives on in the stories and films about him.
Reading about his history and seeing The First Grader reminded me of how much we take for granted about literacy and its acquisition. Children coming to us today most often don’t know the struggle for literacy that earlier generations went through—they don’t know that learning to read and write was a criminal offense in the time of slavery, for example. Writing teachers need to be at the forefront of keeping this history alive, of letting students know about “the power of the pen,” about how much they are able to do just because they can read and write.
Elspeth Stuckey has written brilliantly about The Violence of Literacy. I take her point: literacy instruction has often involved violence. But it has also involved just the opposite, the ability to take control of at least part of one’s life and to make sense of it. That’s what drove Maruge: he wants to read, for himself, that letter. And when he finally does read it, with the help of a teacher (since the text is, as he says, still “too hard” for him) and learns that it is a letter of apology and restitution, he gains a new sense of himself.
So here’s to Kimani Maruge and to every teacher Jane in every country in the world. And here’s to the good powers of literacy.

Is Struggle Good for Us?

Recently, I heard (on NPR, where else?!) a story about the differences in how U.S. and Chinese and Japanese cultures think about struggle with schoolwork. (You can listen to the story at http://www.npr.org/2013/09/02/218067142/why-eastern-and-western-cultures-tackle-learning-differentlyward struggle.) During the broadcast, psychologist Jim Stigler remarked on some of what he had learned about such differences:
From very early ages, we see struggle as an indicator that you’re just not very smart. It’s a sign of low ability. People who are smart don’t struggle, they just naturally get it. It’s our folk theory, whereas in Asian cultures they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity. In Eastern cultures, it’s just assumed that struggle is a predictable part of the learning process. Everyone is expected to struggle. And, in a way, struggling is a chance to show that you have what it takes emotionally to overcome the problem by having the strength to persist through that struggle.
Along the way, he tells about visiting a fourth grade math class in Japan, where the teacher was teaching students to draw three-dimensional cubes. The teacher chose to ask the student who was having the greatest difficulty drawing the cube to come to the front of the room and put his on the board. Stigler recalls feeling more and more uncomfortable as the student makes one inaccurate attempt after another, while the teacher asks the other students whether he has it right yet. He has not. So he struggles. In the end, though, as Stigler is sweating in his seat, the student figures out how to draw it—and gets a big round applause from his classmates.
Thinking about this fourth grader’s struggles and about the teacher’s approach to and attitudes toward that struggle reminded me of Lev Vygotsky’s concept of the “zone of proximal development.” Vygotsky has not fully developed his thinking on this concept at the time of his death, but it has been influential nonetheless and is often related to another important concept in learning theory, that of “scaffolding.”
I think of the zone of proximal development, however, as an embodiment of Browning’s line from “Andrea del Sarto”: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for.” Of course, I’d say “person” instead of “man,” but the point to me is an important one: we should aim higher than we can jump or reach, knowing that in time and with a little help, we can achieve that goal. And we should encourage our students to do so as well. The zone of proximal development denotes the space a person occupies when the learning goal is just a little out in front, a little too difficult. This is a zone into which a peer or a teacher can step to give just a little guidance. And it’s the zone where the learner struggles to take advantage of the guidance and progress ever closer to the goal.
This little meditation on Vygotsky’s concept takes me back to thinking about my own students and their relationship to struggle. I can’t say that they embrace the notion of struggling or that they actually enjoy it—but they certainly engage in it. In fact, undergraduates at my school talk about “getting on the struggle bus” when they are working really hard at some academic task. They also seem to value success in proportion to the struggle it has entailed: that is, they seem to value what they have had to work hard for. After hearing about Stigler’s research, I’m anxious to talk to my students about how they view struggle, to see if they associate it with being not very smart—or whether they see it as an inevitable and even valuable part of learning.

Notes on Visual Literacy

Browsing in a bookstore in Middlebury, Vermont (love those independent bookstores!), I spotted a book in the “media” section with a title that grabbed my attention: The Age of the Image: Redefining Literacy in a World of Screens, by Stephen Apkon (and in small caps next to the author’s name these words: foreword by Martin Scorsese. I’ve mentioned this book in an earlier posting, when I had just bought the book.
The text is hardback, with a half slipcover in paper with a black and white photo of a lovely flower blossom. Underneath the slipcover, on the hard cover, this black and white photo is replaced with a color photo of evergreen trees surrounding a yellow satellite dish. The move back and forth between the two images is mesmerizing: I kept flipping back and forth until the flower blossom an the dish seemed somehow to merge into one. I knew I was fascinated by these images but couldn’t exactly put my finger on why that was so.
Apkon’s book addresses the problem I faced in trying to articulate my engagement with these images. In it, he argues that most ordinary folks today are “not properly cognizant of or conversant with the grammar of visual communication, the coded messages of its style, and the practical components of its production. We are largely, in a word, illiterate.” Apkon’s charge—which he is at pains to illustrate with dozens of rich examples—strikes me not only as accurate but as one reason for the focus within rhetoric and writing studies on visual rhetoric and the many articles and books our field has produced on this subject over the last ten years or so (such as Carolyn Handa’s Visual Rhetoric in a Digital World). In this sense, our field has risen to the challenge Apkon lays down more thoroughly and resourcefully than many others.
Yet most teachers of writing today have had little or no education in visual rhetoric or visual literacy and are having to teach ourselves how to engage and analyze the grammar Apkon speaks of—and then figure out how to help our students be more critically aware of the screen culture we all now inhabit.
As Scorsese puts it in his foreword,
For someone of my generation, the most astonishing aspect of this development [of moving images everywhere around us] is that many of these images were created by nonprofessionals, shot with smartphones and cameras of all shapes, sizes, and levels of expense. The need for visual literacy has only become more urgent In fact, it has become necessary. This wonderful book, written from the unique perspective of someone who loves cinema and who is passionate about education, helps put this need in perspective. Steve Apkon starts with the cave paintings and takes us all the way to YouTube and beyond, by way of Gutenberg and Edison and Hitchcock, and in so doing he helps us to clearly understand the continuity between word and image, as opposed to the divide. In the process he redefines the word literacy to include all the means by which we communicate today.
Apkon’s book makes a cogent case for our need to be literate in the primary communicative modes of our society—and today that means being literate in moving images, film, video, and other digital tools. At a minimum, Apkon argues, every high school student today should be a master of five key abilities:
• Producing a short video script
• Shooting a film narrative with the “correct literate elements of expression”
• Editing a raw video footage into a cogent argument
• Accessing available channels of information distribution
• Understanding and analyzing and interpreting visual media (p. 219)
Apkon cites some work by National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association on visual literacy, but his focus is not on telling teachers of writing and reading how to achieve these goals. Rather, he seems intent on alerting us to the urgency that we take up the goals, recognize their importance, and then figure out how to accomplish them. Along the way he gives examples of teachers who have done so, but again, with little concrete, nitty-gritty advice. Luckily for those of us who want to heed Apkon’s call, many in our field are providing that guidance. I will post soon on some of these efforts, but in the meantime I would be very grateful to hear from others about how you are responding to the challenges of teaching writing and reading when, as Apkon puts it in one chapter, “All the world’s a screen.”

Latest Pew Research Report

In mid-July, the Pew Research Center, in collaboration with the National Writing Project, published its latest report, The Impact of Digital Tools on Student Writing and How Writing is Taught in Schools.  (You can read the full report at www.pewinternet.org/~/media//Files//Reports/2013/PIP_NWP%20Writing%20and%20Tech.pdf)

And I do recommend reading this report, which follows from several other recent reports, “Search Engine Use 2012,” “Smartphone Ownership 2013,” “Teens, Social Media and Privacy,” “Teens, Smartphones and Texting,” “See How Teens Do Research in the Digital World,” and “Teachers are Using Technology at Home and in their Classrooms.”  Teachers of writing are clearly indebted to the Pew Research Center for their consistent and persistent surveys related to student writing and use of technology.

This particular survey targeted nearly 2500 AP and NWP teachers of middle and high school (weighted toward high school and toward English, though teachers came from across all disciplines), and the finding that first leapt out at me was that these teachers “see today’s digital tools having tangible, beneficial impacts on student writing.”  Since that’s what I’ve been arguing based on my own research for about five years now, I was very happy to see this result.  More specifically, the report finds that the Internet and digital technologies (such as texting, smart phones, and social media sites) facilitate “teens’ personal expression and creativity, broadening the audience for their written material, and encouraging teens to write more often in more formats than may have been the case in prior generations.”  Almost all (96%) of those surveyed agreed that digital technologies let students share their work with a broader audience, while 79% agreed that such tools aid an encourage collaboration and 78% agreed that they encouraged “student creativity and personal expression.”  These are remarkable findings that stand in contrast to those who have been arguing, vociferously, that digital tools and the Internet are producing a nation of dummies. So good work, Pew and NWP!

The surveyed teachers are not sanguine, however, about everything.  They are resolute in valuing research-based writing, longer sustained writing, and formal discourse and worry that they see a “creep” of informal language and style into formal school writing along with favoring shorter pieces of writing.  When they were asked to rank student ability on specific writing skills, they gave highest marks to effective organization and to understanding multiple perspectives, medium ratings for synthesizing material into a coherent argument, and using appropriate style, and lowest ratings to “navigating issues of fair use and copyright” and “reading and digesting long or complicated texts.”

These teachers reflect the tension I’ve been seeing among college teachers of writing as well:  a desire to hold on to what they perceive to be the best of the old literacy (such as synthesizing difficult material and reading and producing lengthy sustained texts) while at the same time engaging students in the best of the new literacies (such as collaborative projects and using technology to publish their work and take on the agency of authorship).  I don’t think we’ll resolve this tension any time soon, though I’m encouraged at the number of teachers who are bringing new literacies into their classrooms (78% assigned students multimedia writing to their students).

Most troubling to me in this new report is how teachers and students define “writing.”  A 2008 Pew Internet Survey revealed that teenagers think that only formal school writing is actual
writing.”  The new survey confirms that this view still prevails, and not only among students but also among teachers, the majority of whom said “formal writing” and “creative writing” counted as writing, with fewer classifying blogging as actual writing and “very few” saying that texting was writing.  This finding surprised me because it seemed, at least implicitly, in tension with what teachers said about digital tools enhancing student writing and their ability to teach writing.  I hope that future surveys will dig deeper into this issue, since it seems to me that there’s a connection between learning to attend carefully and effectively to an audience in social networking and learning to do the same in school writing. 

In the meantime, I have sent out a request for teachers of college writing to answer a few key questions about how they use multimedia writing in their classes and how their students respond to such assignments.  In addition, I’ve asked teachers to send me examples of such assignments.  I’d very much appreciate your taking a moment to respond to this brief survey, which you can find at http://www.surveygizmo.com/s3/1287161/Multiodal-Survey

Many thanks!

 

On Cognitive Surplus

When I read Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations (2009), I practically did handstands of delight.  After thirty plus years of arguing for the power (and necessity, and ubiquity) of collaboration, Shirky’s book seemed to me to—at long last—tip the balance or create a critical mass that would create a Kuhnian paradigm shift.  And indeed, “collaboration” seems to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue these days, as corporations embrace crowd-sourcing, social media users band together for action, and fans produce prequels, sequels, and even substitutes for their favorite fictions or films. 

While colleges and universities—and the classes within them—are still slow to change, by nature and definition, I do see pockets of resistance to the traditional valorization of individually-created messages and texts:  the joint or group project, the collaboratively researched and written assignment, even the occasional collaboratively produced thesis. 

Such change is supported by a host of research, including Shirky’s new book, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.  I recommend this book—and you can also take a look at a good review in The Guardian at http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/jun/27/cognitive-surplus-clay-shirky-book-review.

Shirky’s argument is ingenious:  with the help of some fancy number crunching, he calculates that as a human species we are losing trillions of hours of productive time to television watching: apparently, Americans alone watch something over 200 billion hours of television—every single year.  What would happen, Shirky asks, if we used some of those billions of hours spent in relatively passive absorption to engage, collaboratively, in knowledge production, problem solving, etc.  Figuring that Wikipedia is the product of some 100 million human work hours, Shirky answers his own question:  if we devoted the time spent passively watching TV to productive collaboration, we could create the equivalent of 2000 wikipedias a year, and just in the USA.

Reading about the collaborative projects Shirky profiles in this book was great fun, and inspirational as well.  I particularly liked the chapter on how South Korean fans of boyband DBSK created a hugely successful protest against American beef imports, but each of the ten chapters is chock-a-block full of fascinating examples that support Shirky’s main contention.  Most impressive is the fact that what he is calling for may indeed be possible.  By several measures, people, and especially young people, are beginning to turn off the TV in favor of more interactive, productive pursuits:  and even when they do watch television, they do so socially, with others. 
I have charted similar trends in students’ resistance to traditional modes of learning (via the lecture, e.g.) and their distinct preference to make things happen themselves through research and action.  So I am cautiously hopeful that we are on the cusp of a new way of looking at learning in general, and reading and writing and viewing in particular.  I think it would be tremendously exciting to be a student today!  And I think it’s equally exciting to be a teacher of communicative abilities as well:  we have a chance to introduce our students to concepts like Shirky’s cognitive surplus and to engage them in trying their hands at collaborations large and small.

So thank you Clay Shirky!