For the past four years, I have tried to incorporate a digital or multi-modal project in every course I teach. Since not all students are English or History majors, my hope is that assigning such projects might make the class content more relevant and engaging to all students, both majors and non-majors.
First, they raise students’ awareness of how rhetoric is a part of any form of communication–not just texts. This can help them think more critically about the media they see every day and might better prepare them for real world experiences in their field by thinking through problems both critically and creatively. Secondly, I like to think students have more motivation to create a video, infographic, collage, or 3D model than they would an extensive research paper.
I’m continually surprised, however, by the large sections of students who are reluctant to engage in new platforms or in digital tools they use everyday for academic/artistic purposes. In the past few courses I’ve taught, it seems that student expectations of university courses are changing. For better and worse, there is a new seriousness that hovering in the seats around me. Grades (and GPAs) are always the primary focus for most. Attached to this is the very business-oriented idea of seeing results. And by results, students want to see something that works.
The problem with this is that they want to “play it safe” and research papers, for as much as they don’t want to write them, is the safe bet. Unlike multi-modal projects, there are models for these. Students want lectures instead of discussions; they want clear, direct answers, instead of conversations that highlight the complexity of a situation and that fails to give one meaning or solution. They often fail to see how play and work can coexist in a classroom, an office, or a dorm room.
Assigning multi-modal projects can be a messy business. Instructors can talk about the value of creativity, problem-solving, and experimentation until their blue in the face. But we can’t give what those hesitant students desire most (a simple answer) or what they might need most (curiosity or imagination).
We can give samples of what others have done, but there will always be a frustratingly vague effect embedded within the assignments. Here, we (instructors, students, practitioners) are inventors. Like the hard sciences, some projects will ultimately not work. But also like these disciplines, we must understand (and teach) that this doesn’t mean they are without value. And we must create a new way to assess (and access) these projects that are clear for our students (and administrators) and supportive to this learning style.
Starting with word clouds has proved to be a good place to start. While they are a bit simplistic and often static, they prove a number of points for students. First, they are recognizable. Students have seen these and maybe used them before. Second, there are now dozens of free websites that can generate these images. And third, they mix the textual and visual (and might be used as a good first step in talking about format, markup, text analysis.
This spring, I will work with students on digital projects in a Public History course on Early America, and I hope to periodically post our progress. Thinking about my own dissertation work this holiday break and simultaneously thinking about this upcoming course, I created a few clouds/visualizations of the texts on which I’m currently working.
Above, you’ll see visualizations of Thomas Jefferson’s View of the Rights of British America, John Adam’s The Novanglus Essays, The American Crisis essays by Thomas Paine, and, of course, the focus of my dissertation Francis Hopkinson’s pamphlet A Pretty Story. The silhouettes are each pulled from archives available online, minus Hopkinson’s, which I recreated from one of his self-portraits. Admittedly, comparison between these is limited, but together they do illustrate some conventions of revolutionary writing during this period, as well as some word choices and motifs within each set of writings. But overall, these visualizations might best be seen as a stepping stone–a starting point–to re-envision a work, to look at it from a different perspective.
In an upcoming post, I’ll provide a (linked) list of some online word cloud generators. More on the (mis)adventures of digital early America experiments soon . . .