¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 As Wheaton College explores the potential for blended learning in the liberal arts context, we’ve found that technologies our students use for learning are fruitful objects of critical engagement in their own right. This has led us to frame the design of technology-related assignments that aim for critical engagement into a useful alliteration: building and breaking.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 10 As a particular example, blog writing offers a platform for a form of reflexive writing that can be harnessed to teach the art of publicly engaged social commentary. Drawing on the experience of working with over four hundred students writing blogs at Wheaton College in an introductory course in anthropology, this paper uses specific excerpts of student writing to explore curation as a mode of online writing that is simultaneously “makes” and “breaks” the online space. Blogs as a writing strategy that is creative and encourages students to curate knowledge about culture through reflection on key issues in the social sciences: the politics and ethics of representation, power imbalance and the circulation of knowledge, and social responsibility.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 1 Blogging can also harness reflexive writing that critically uses online blogging platforms to define and stretch our understanding of “curation” and its audience and, as such, can be understand as an example of a larger pedagogy: Building and Breaking.
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Building and Breaking
By building knowledge in digital tools that visualize, organize, contextualize or otherwise curate our course content, our students engage with potential audiences in new ways that can be channeled into reflective writing. When we critically analyze, test, and attempt to “break” digital tools that curate course-related content and then reflect on that act together and as individual writers, we become more critical users of digital technology. The “nutshell” learning outcomes for each type of assignment are listed below:
Learning Outcomes for Assignments that Build
Make and reflect on choices to:
- Find digital content
- Group digital content
- Present digital content
- Put together digital content with traditional print sources or data collected offline
Learning Outcomes for Assignments that Break
Identify and critique the content and design choices implicit in an existing digital object.
- Critique choices about where the content came from
- Critique choices about how the content is grouped
- Critique choices about how the content is presented
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 1 Assignments that use “building” curate existing digital content in order to define and gather a new collection of digital items that has a signature logic and coherence. The choices students make about what to include, why to include it in their collection and how organize/provide access to it can prompt critical reflection for the makers in addition to whatever value the tool might offer to potential users.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 2 Assignments that use breaking make students critical users of existing digital objects. Using critical and inferential engagement with the object(s), these assignments tease out the decisions made by designers. Students develop a critique of the designer’s purpose and execution of that purpose. The focus of that critique can hinge on the discipline being taught, the tool itself, and/or student initiative.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 In both sorts of assignments, writing output, as process-oriented reflection but also a product itself, is great for driving home the information fluency and content outcomes in a convergent way.
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Everyone’s a Curator
Both “building” and “breaking” work from the same core assumption: everyone using and sharing digital content is a curator, whether they mean to be one or not. Curation, like a lot of things, is best done deliberately and with care and involves skills we can cultivate in our students.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 1 Because the scale of digital content and data now accessible is sublimely massive, none of us can engage with it at all without first making choices about which discrete segments of it we will engage. The need to make choices about the content we engage and share with others is unavoidable and merits critical reflection.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 More, as curation becomes a greater factor in commerce and culture we increasingly find ourselves at the mercy of curators. The stakes can be high. Some will curate irresponsibly or for reasons that might be obscure, intentionally or otherwise. Whether we’re discussing how Reddit users voted conspiracy theories that accused innocents of the Boston Marathon bombings to the “frontpage of the internet,” or the provenance of an ad in a given user’s Facebook newsfeed, curation is an act with human, ethical, and technical dimensions that can be explored in any classroom that engages with digital objects.
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Curation is a matter of such broad consequence that it can be considered meaningfully across discipline. A humanities classroom might ask whether a collection fairly or fully represents the human record and relevant experiences of a topic; social science courses can consider how and why people curate as they do; natural science courses can explore the vagaries of algorithmic function or as an example, at scale, of emergence.
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 3 Whatever the questions we ask about curation, they can be framed by an approach of “building” and “breaking.” But the fundamental question is universal: “Why does this thing go with this other thing and not that one?” The space for subjectivity and judgment in any curator’s answer to that question makes it a solid foundation for a writing assignment.
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Designing an Assignment that Builds
There are countless platforms students can use to gather a collection of digital content and publish reflections about the process behind it. Each option has its pros, cons, and is subject to local factors.
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 But really, digital objects can be gathered into a collection on pretty much any website you and your students could build via three basic features of html: hyperlinks, embed codes, and hosted image files. WordPress; Blogger; Tumblr; Drupal; Google Sites; Pinterest; Omeka; these and other platforms are simple to set up and to use, and all suffice for a wide range of “building” assignments.
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 2 Other platforms make certain kinds of visualization and arrangements of collection objects easier to construct or can serve specialized needs. Prezi and other tools like Poplet allow you and your students to visually arrange collection items in a way the demonstrates their interconnections at both micro and macro scales. Google Earth plots collection items to geographic location and TimelineJS plots them chronologically. Whatever your need, consider consulting with your educational technology department or teaching and learning center. Sample “building” assignment concepts are shown below.
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- In a course on American folk music, students choose from a list of songs that each have a rich and varied recording tradition. Students create playlists in Spotify that show this change for one song and embed these playlists into blog posts that explain their choices and process.
- In a literary theory course, students use MLA International Bibliography to find citations for scholarly works that together demonstrate how the critical response to a canonical novel has changed over time. Using TimelineJS, they create a timeline that includes particularly illustrative examples of that change. On the course message boards, students write about the citations they were closest to selecting but ultimately decided against.
- In a course on the history of Boston, students use Google Forms to nominate and choose a neighborhood of the city to visually annotate in Google Earth. They then use the Boston Public Library’s collection of archival photographs to find images that they can plot to Google Earth.
- In a writing course, students use WordPress and Digress.it to annotate course readings for technique and structure.
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- Will students curate collaboratively or individually? What would be the trade-offs in each case?
- Will students need instruction on the tools they need to complete the assignment? If so, will that be provided by you or by a guest presenter?
- Will students somehow use the final product of the assignment in-class, accompanying a presentation?
- What platforms will the class use to gather and display the final product(s)?
- Will the final products have a life beyond the classroom or the present semester? How will you plan for that?
- To what extent do you want your assignment to have tools-based outcomes? Do you want your students to learn how to use WordPress? HTML? Metadata?
- How much content will students be curating? How will students be prompted to reflect on curation? Will their reflections be apart of the content presentation or be pushed to another platform (a blog, a paper, a presentation, etc)?
¶ 24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 2 It might be counter-intuitive, but using the assignment prompt to limit where students look for content can teach them more than leaving them to figure it out on their own. For one, it allows you to develop in advance a good sense of what sorts of content students will find and whether that truly fits with your goals. Your students, in turn, can explore with a productive focus. Consider consulting with your liaison librarian for help with choosing a good collection to start your assignment from.
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Designing an Assignment that Breaks
Assignments that break begin with certain questions: How can students learn about a digital object’s purpose and function by investigating its presentation or output? What can the limits of its design tell us about the model of user (human!) behavior that it assumes? What choices–and, hence, values–went into the construction of this digital object? What learning outcomes related to course content can be deepened, challenged, or complicated by a critical understanding of the given digital object?
¶ 26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 1 Assignments that break can be logistically simpler than those that build, but not all digital objects “break” equally well. Some will get to rich questions like the above more directly than others. Assignment design is crucial, as is advance testing on your part. Your students will not use most digital objects in the way you do. The variables that students introduce need to be anticipated to ensure that they see the phenomena your learning outcomes depend on them to see.
¶ 27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 At the same time, breaking assignments can and perhaps should be messy. Students won’t all have the same experience breaking a digital object and that’s okay. Sharing their experiences with each other via face-to-face or online discussion–as well as having you or a visiting expert on-hand to explain the variations of experience–is key and gives the fullest sense of the object being explored.
¶ 28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 1 Consider an example of an assignment that we’ve used and revised over the years. To prompt students to consider the fundamental differences between using Google and a scholarly database, we designed an activity that asked them to search “Batman” in both systems and then compare and discuss the results. This worked well because Batman, a true cultural icon, is considered in a lot of different and interesting ways in both scholarly and popular contexts. Still, the activity had a canned quality. We knew that there were plenty of searches students would do, especially for their own writing, that wouldn’t show this contrast with such clarity. That opacity is a part of using these tools even if it is useful to keep certain categorical distinctions in mind.
¶ 29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 Since we expanded the activity to allow students their own choice of superhero, more of them have had, at least in the moment, a more bemused experience. “I didn’t really find anything on the PowerPuff Girls in the college library database,” a student might complain. We’re not surprised when this happens, but the students are. So together, we ask: why not? Whither the scholarly consideration of a formerly trendy but ultimately short-lived cartoon show? There are a few possible answers, and going through them with students–particularly as a group–can help them down the road with seemingly unrelated tasks, like choosing a manageable topic for their big research paper. There’s nothing quite like seeing one student tell another their topic is impossibly narrow.
¶ 30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 2 One way to think about “breaking” is to think of it as reverse-engineering: given this output, what can we deduce about the design of this system? As a pedagogy, it puts students in a critical frame from the start. This is particularly important for assignments that leverage technologies that students use already for uncritical and goal-oriented purposes (like Google Search).
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Depending on your focus, “breaking” can get to important learning outcomes about the cultural role that information systems play in the human experience. More pragmatically, however, “Breaking” teaches information literacy. A student who has critically considered a search engine–the sorts of content it will return, the way it matches queries to results, how it ranks results and why– is a more able user of that tool in the future. For the instructor of our case study below, assignments that “break” have made for much more interesting grading and allowed the instructor to learn about the ways that culture comes to be understood. Sample “breaking” assignment concepts are illustrated below.
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- Students examine a Wikipedia page with a high number of edits and consider the changes that were made to the page over time–and why.
- Students look at Google Poetics and use it to consider questions about authorship (who is the author of a “google poem”?) and the definition of literature (Is a Google Poem literature?) while also exploring Google’s design choices in its autocomplete search function.
- Students use a large image collection using a tagging folksonomy (Flickr) and compare its treatment of a particularly thorny or contested terminology to its treatment in a collection that uses controlled vocabulary (a library catalog).
- Students compare the first five results for a single search term in three different searchboxes, including at least one that exists primarily in a commercial context (ie, Google, Bing, etc) and one that is used for scholarly materials (a library database).
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Curating Culture Online: A Case Study of a Cross-Cultural Blogging Project
Using the learning experience of working with blogs with more than four hundred students from 2007-2013 in an Introduction to Anthropology course, it is clear that blogs guide students into “making” and “breaking” the online space as an extension of the classroom.
¶ 35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 The assignment requires each student to document the process of learning about culture in a public blog that curates the individual’s encounter with unfamiliar cultural practice. Learning anthropology in blogs, students learn to assume that culture is everywhere and that understanding that requires engaging with communities, and, crucially, a challenge their own and each other’s misunderstandings.
¶ 36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 To learn cultural relativism, a basic concept of social anthropology, students are charged to make and break cultural knowledge online and they agree to do so in public either using their own names or pseudonyms. Curating self reflection together with web-based information and data collected in interviews or participant observation, the assignment challenges students to reframe both their conceptions of culture and writing:
¶ 37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 1 A cross-cultural encounter puts us in a situation where our understanding or our belief in how things “are” or how things “should be” is severely challenged. Cross-cultural encounters provide an excellent opportunity for understanding the discipline and practice of anthropology because they force us rethink ourselves and the worlds in which we live.
¶ 38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 Your professor and your peers will read your writing and it will be available to the public at large. Anyone may comment on your writing (you colleagues will) and part of your job will be to rethink your encounter with other’s commentaries in mind.
¶ 40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 1 In our experience student-authored blogs became a reflexive curatorial exercise that both creates and questions knowledge in public. The public nature of this process encouraged rethinking of writing strategies and forced collaboration on the process of learning about culture. In practice, students actively engage with web communities and with each other to begin their journey into understanding how culture works. In a liberal arts curriculum that focuses on developing writing skills as well as multidisciplinary and global learning, writing in collaborative online spaces opens a unique space to make and break culture. In blogging our students begin to understand the politics of representation and the complexity of culture and public scholarship both key learning goals of more advanced anthropological research.
¶ 41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 Blog’s inherently interactive format in particular challenge students to write and re-write culture by moving beyond their comfort zone. The public writing facilitated a dialogue between student and informants. Students regularly reported online interactions as transformative of their ideas and perspectives. The opportunity and space to rethink, rewrite and reflect on their work was often a frustrating experience for students used to handing in research papers for a single audience. Crafting their narratives they engaged with the questions: “Why does this thing go with this other thing and not that one?” and “How will my audience react?” In their narratives and responses to commentary, student-bloggers typically were compelled to make their taxonomies, hierarchies and breadth of cross-cultural experience explicit.
¶ 42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 Curating the knowledge of informants with their own, student-authored blogs challenged the usual approach to undergraduate paper writing. Kyla Baxter (below) used this insight from her informants via online messaging or direct conversation to reflect in April 2008. What emerged is a complex process of thinking and writing that enables students to curate already circulating information in sophisticated ways:
¶ 43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 I was reading through my comments and someone posted a very insightful and interesting comment on the blog I wrote about the man who was an ex-Baha’i turned Christian. They said how it was true about the Baha’i faith as seeking individual exploration but it wasn’t only about that. I think this is true, there is a social aspect to the Baha’i community, but I think the important thing about the individual exploration of faith is that you are able to explore those parts of faith that you most connect with and you can explore other faiths and in that way link the faiths up together. — An Unfamiliar Culture Blog, http://kybblogger.blogspot.com/.
¶ 44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 Kyla’s example is one of many that shows that students can develop, strengthen, and sustain a voice and space of one’s own as it relates to the work and practice of other writers or knowledge producers.
¶ 45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 Blogs that elicited engaged audience commentary in particular demonstrate the potential of web writing to develop curatorial skills that encourage reflection and public engagement. Students acted as audiences for their peers but their writing was also offered up to an infinite public community. One example of this is found through the exchange that occurred after a comment was posted on Laura Starr’s blog on Ugandan child soldiers. In a thorough and charged comment, Laura Starr’s reader concluded the following reaction to her blog.
¶ 47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 I just stumbled across your blog, so first things first, welcome to Uganda (when you get here …) Secondly, I don’t know who the source of your information on Uganda is, but most of it is outrageously incorrect.
¶ 48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 1 After reading this comment, Laura reached out to the audience member and began an offline conversation that became key to her cross-cultural encounter. The learning experience is eloquently represented in the concluding entry to her blog. She writes:
¶ 49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 This experience was the closest I have had to an actual cultural encounter and this encounter, while only communicating online, was what helped me most in writing my blog. I had my first flash of recognition after receiving the comment from Tumwijuke in Uganda. I realized the power that words have, especially when you are writing or talking about something that you are unfamiliar with. I now understand how important it is to dismiss my own beliefs and thoughts before engaging in something I am unfamiliar with and become open to learning about something new. People are not all so different when it comes to war and trauma. Writing this blog has been one of the most eye opening experiences because it allowed me to learn about another culture through my own mistakes, which I believe are inevitable, and expanded by encounters with others outside of my life circle. — Culture of War Blog, http://www.cultureofwar.blogspot.com/.
¶ 50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 2 Comments allowed student authors curate their own voice with a collective sense of shared knowledge that resides in a public sphere. Blogging culture required an understanding of the author’s culture, and it required the search for a collaboratively-inclined ethnographic voice through which we can speak respectfully about others and ourselves. The collaboration in this practice of web writing extends beyond the students own experience and forces students to simultaneously make and break their own cultural knowledge.
¶ 51 Leave a comment on paragraph 51 0 Writing on an encounter with West Point Military Academy, Caroline Letourneay curates information from the course on language with information on West Point Military Academy in print and information from informants to make and break knowledge about the workings of language and culture:
¶ 52 Leave a comment on paragraph 52 0 Within the first dozen pages of Absolutely American, David Lipsky brings up “The Theory and Practice of Huah” (11). Huah? Right. In addition to basing everyday speech on acronyms, apparently the military has its own vocabulary. Lipsky writes “There’s a word you hear a lot at West Point: huah. […] Huah is an all-purpose word” (11). It seems that huah is something that you can say to anyone at any time. It can be attached to the end of a question signifying “right?”, it can be used as an adjective to describe someone who is ready for action, or it can be used as a response to most questions (“How are you doing today?” “HUAH!”). I guess that huah is the military’s version of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” something to say when there’s nothing else to say.
¶ 53 Leave a comment on paragraph 53 0 I decided to bring up the idea of “huah” with my ever-patient acquaintances at West Point. I received an instant response when I uttered the word, but it was not quite the response I had anticipated. I was immediately told that I was spelling it wrong. Apparently the spelling has changed since the publishing of Absolutely American in 2003. Nowadays it seems that this magic word is spelled H-O-O-A-H. Once we moved away from the technicalities of the word, I asked the cadets what hooah meant. I received an absolutely brilliant response: “hooah is everything and anything, but ‘no’” (Anonymous). The cadets then went on to describe how hooah is the Army version of “good,” except if you’re good then you’re alright, but if you’re hooah then you’re motivated, physically and mentally prepared, and ready to perform. It seems that hooah carries more baggage than one would originally think.
¶ 54 Leave a comment on paragraph 54 0 Tying this word into the anthropological study of culture, I think that it serves to create identity. According to the dictionary, hooah/huah is not a word, yet it is quite obvious that at the United States Military Academy it is a word, and a very important one at that.” — Understanding the United States Military Academy Blog, http://whywestpoint.blogspot.com/.
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Curation of cultural knowledge discussed in our case study of blog writing demonstrates that online curation is an art that requires students to foreground audience, sequence and stage the presentation of information. Most importantly, however curatorial writing that makes and breaks culture online requires a self-conscious understanding of student author as culture-maker.
¶ 56 Leave a comment on paragraph 56 0 “Making” and “breaking” work especially well in tandem. Putting students on both sides of the sorts of decisions that content curators make for the sake of their users makes easy answers less satisfying. The point, in our experience with blog writing and beyond, is never that designers and curators are ‘wrong’ to make the decisions they make, but that those decisions involve trade-offs and are too easily obscured for users. As a practice of reflexive writing, curation is not simply an administrative task in information sorting.
¶ 57 Leave a comment on paragraph 57 0 About the authors: Pete Coco (@pfcoco) is the digital learning strategist at Wheaton College in Norton, MA. M. Gabriela Torres (@MGabrielaTorres) is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Wheaton College, MA. She is a teacher/scholar whose innovative work with technology in the teaching of anthropology has been featured through the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education, the American Association of Colleges and Universities, and Bryn Mawr’s Blended Learning in the Liberal Arts Conference.