Jared Bendis (Case Western Reserve University)
This article is intended to be an in-depth description of the New Media Literacy course I designed and instructed for 2009 spring semester at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU). Teaching this course was a real adventure. Even though I had carefully pre-planned the course I still tweaked and modified things from week to week. In fact, writing this article proved to be a challenge, as I wanted it to accurately reflect what the students actually read and did. The course has been renewed for the 2010 spring semester and this article will address some of the planned changes.
Several years ago CWRU implemented SAGES – the Seminar Approach to General Education and Scholarship. This program is designed to give 1st and 2nd year students seminar-based courses on a variety of topics. Seminars are limited to 16 students and have a strong emphasis on writing – as the SAGES program replaced the Freshman English Composition requirement.
Students are required to take 3 SAGES courses and with only 16 students per class the University requires that each academic department offer a certain number of SAGES courses. The SAGES program also awards fellowships that allow community members to propose and instruct a SAGES course. My primary affiliation at the university is as Creative Director of New Media for the Freedman Center, though I also hold an adjunct appointment teaching Multimedia and Digital Color Photography for the Department of Art Education/Art Studio Department. While I am also working on a Ph.D. in Museum Studies, it is considered independent to my course offerings at the university.
During the pilot phase of the SAGES program I co-instructed a seminar entitled “Widsom: An Introduction” with Peter Whitehouse and contributed to “Visualizing Information in a Digital Age” co-instructed with Lev Gonick, Wendy Shapiro, and Roger Bielefeld.
I proposed a course called “The Halls of Time” based on the “Millennium Time Tapestry” Project. The idea of the course would be to take an iconic approach to the telling of history, bringing together a timeline that was created exclusively by the students. The course would very direct. Each week the course would cover a century of history and each student would be responsible to discover, research, and share a single topic from a checklist of possible categories. Only those topics would be discovered and added to our own timeline of history. The overarching concept was to take an iconic or bite-size approach to a topic and learn about the ways we gather and disseminate information in a modern new-media age. The intention was that each semester the timeline would build on that of the previous semester.
While the format was well received by the SAGES program, especially the idea that the students drove the content and the instructor served more as a moderator of the ideas, we did run into one problem. There was some concern as to why I would be teaching a history course without working with a faculty member from the History Department. While I was focusing on the method, the topic was indeed history and in the History Department’s domain.
So I asked myself: “What topic could I teach, that if someone else would propose the topic, that they would be stepping on MY toes?” And the answer was clear – New Media Literacy. For many years I have been giving talks at NMC conferences on the need for New Media Literacy (and Design Literacy and Media Ethics) and I figured a course might be an opportunity to incorporate these types of discussions at the undergraduate level. I based the course on a talk I gave at The NMC Symposium on the Impact of Digital Media called “The Unexpected Artist & Critic.” The course was formally titled “The Unexpected Artist & Critic: 21st Century New Media Literacy,” which the registrar found a little long, and which we informally called “New Media Literacy”.
The fun part about designing a course from scratch is that you pretty much can do anything. The core requirement for a SAGES course is that it be held as a seminar, favoring critical reading and writing over lectures. While some SAGES courses have included production such as PowerPoint or filmmaking, I decided to focus soley on reading and writing because I didn’t want to suffer through mediocre but well-intentioned projects. This is not to say that I don’t respect student work or enjoy teaching, but too often media projects require more attention, time, and revision than students are allowed to do. For more on this see my talk “Your Video Projects Suck, but That’s OK ’Cause So Do Your Papers: Moderating Student Expectations When Teaching New Media” from The NMC Symposium on New Media & Learning:
For topics and readings, I went to my personal bookshelf and reviewed past NMC conferences and Horizon Reports. I wanted to create a survey that was fun and exciting but that could also show the students that much of what we do is much older than they realize. I do not subscribe to the notion of digital natives and digital immigrants and wanted the students to connect their personal experiences with topics and readings that ranged over 100 years.
I want to reiterate that the course was not designed to be definitive. Instead I wanted this to be a fun survey course that would open the minds of the students who participated.
From the Syllabus:
To navigate the ocean of media that is the modern world we have created many tools. These tools help us choose ‘where’ and ‘what’ we watch but not always ‘how’ or’ why.’ Everyday we add to this ocean of media. To survive we need a vocabulary of criticism and authorship, a “new media literacy,” so we may effectively and efficiently embrace our roles as both artist and critic. This course will explore a wide variety of new media themes in both contemporary and historic contexts. Students in the course will analyze their ever-evolving relationship as both viewer and creator.
- Research, analyze, and question new-media issues
- Develop writing skills with an emphasis on critical and personal reflection
- Develop a voice with a focus on moving form writing to authoring
- Express ideas through icons and images
Writing in the Seminar
This course will explore complex themes of today’s new-nedia issues within a cultural and historic context. Each week we will explore a different aspect of new media in which students will be required to read, research, write, experience, and share. Essays will be 2-3 pages and will include researched information as well as personal reflections on how new media impacts your world. The final paper will be 10-12 pages in length and should develop a thesis that combines several topics explored in the class.
I am a big fan of a regular schedule in a course. I think nothing is more crucial to know from day to day than what is expected of you, and so I put together a regular schedule of activity.
The course was offered on Mondays and Wednesdays from 12:30-1:15pm (as it was lunch time students were encouraged to bring their food to class).
Each week students were given a series of readings, which I assigned on Wednesday. For each reading the students were required to write a series of talking points that were due on the following Monday. Talking points were used to seed discussions and to make sure that students were doing the reading. The talking points for each reading included two ideas that the student likes or agrees with and two ideas that the student dislikes or disagrees with. They could be handwritten or typed and each point was simply a bullet or a sentence. On Mondays we discussed the readings, using the talking points as necessary. On Mondays there was often a short assignment or task that was due on Wednesday. On Wednesdays we had an in-class activity based on the Monday assignment and continued the Monday discussion. On Wednesdays the students were assigned the weekly 2-3 page writing assignment, due the following Monday, as well as the readings for the following week.
While it seems like a lot, the readings were often light in nature and the idea was to encourage a rhythm that would discourage cramming or skipping.
Talking Points Due, Paper Due, In-Class Discussion, Short Assignment for Wednesday
In-Class Activity, Short Assignment Due, Readings Assigned, Paper Assigned for Monday
Essays ___ % (Due Mondays) Talking Points ___ % (Due Mondays) Short Assignment ___ % (Due Wednesdays) Participation ___ % (Daily) Final Paper ___ % (Due Finals Week)
Attendance was mandatory and part of the In-Class Participation grade.
The Director of the University Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education, Mano Singham, often talks about ways of engaging the students in their education, and one of his strategies is to allow the students to have a hand in creating the class syllabus. Following his advice, we spend the first 30 minutes of the first day of class negotiating the points breakdown for the various assignments. It is a fascinating exercise that in the end gives ownership and responsibility partly to the students for the way they are graded.
In 2009 my students chose 25% for class participation, which they felt was the public side of their education, and 25% for their papers, which they felt was the private side of their education. They assigned 15% for both the Talking Points and the Short Assignments, leaving 20% for their term paper. They liked the idea that while the term paper was big, it didn’t fully dominate their grade. This was vastly different from the numbers I would have chosen myself but their logic was sound and in the end it worked out just fine.
The semester is 15 weeks but I use a 14-week schedule to allow for missed classes for holidays and other reasons.
- Week 1: Unexpected Artist & Critic
- Week 2: Interactivity
- Week 3: New Media & Art
- Week 4: Ethics, Copyright, Piracy & Privacy
- Week 5: People Morphology
- Week 6: Story Morphology
- Week 7: Video Games
- Week 8: Zork/Choose Your Own Adventure
- Week 9: Social Networking, Viral Video, & Mashups
- Week 10: Lies & Hoaxes
- Week 11: Virtual Reality
- Week 12: Virtual Worlds
- Week 13: Artificial Intelligence
- Week 14: Luddite & Corporeal
Students are required to write a 2-3 page paper each week. The premise is that they will become better writers if they cram 2 pages every week than if they crammed 8 pages every 4 weeks. As most students admit that they wait until the last minute to do assignments, the structure of this course is designed to discipline them in both reading and writing. The goal of the assignments is to give students a variety of writing situations (personal, critical, research) as well as to let them experience the new media topics first hand.
Using the vocabulary and critical voice found in the week’s readings, write a software review of an application, operating system, or game (but not a web application).
Names of the artists/people mentioned in the readings are placed in a hat and chosen at random – students then write a brief biography of the person selected.
Privacy or Piracy
This is a personal essay and students are asked to discuss issues of privacy and/or piracy – things that affect them as well as their opinions and attitudes.
Students are asked to be introspective – and try to create their own personal morphology. They are asked: What is your Learning Style and why? What is your Player Type? And in the article on Meyers Briggs – talk about the dichotomies: Extrovert vs. Introvert, Sensing vs. Intuition, Thinking vs. Feeling, Judging vs. Perceiving. They are asked to write on how they see themselves – how their actions and processes define them. It is a first person paper (but not informal) with no citations required.
Paralleling the in-class activity, students choose a movie and in a list format break it down into its core elements using Propp’s morphology notation.
Paralleling the in-class activity, students play Zork and turn in their log file. I use the original (pre-commercial) version of Zork, which doesn’t match the walkthroughs that are readily found on the web. When asked how long they were to play, I told them to spend the same amount of time that they read and wrote for previous weeks. In 2009 some log files were over 100 pages in length.
Choose Your Own Adventure Book Report
Students are asked to write a book report that summarizes the events that happened and their experiences while reading a Choose Your Own Adventure novel. They are to read the book only one time. They are instructed as follows:
Throughout the book you will encounter choices. Your task is to write the following:
- What happened before the choice?
- What was the choice that you were offered? Include page numbers.
- What was your decision and how did you make it?
- What was the immediate result of the choice?
- How do you feel about the choice you made?
Repeat these steps until you complete the book and Don’t Cheat!
Students are asked to create their “desert island” lists of popular culture, including their top ten books, movies, TV shows, games, albums, songs, celebrities, and fictional characters.
Students are asked to create a list similar to their personal Top Ten but instead as a Time Capsule for future generations. This includes a 2-3 page letter justifying and explaining their choices.
Students are instructed to describe in narrative form, a fake website that they might design for a person, a product, a company, etc. This is a creative writing exercise in which they discuss the content of the fake site.
During VR day students are given a pair of red/blue anaglyph 3D glasses and instructed to explore the web to find an image, series, or video that uses the technology. Students then write a short essay documenting what they find and what the stereoscopic effect means to their experience.
The last two papers of the semester use a tool I developed called TweetMyPaper at http://www.TweetMyPaper.com. The website is free and open to the public and others are welcome to incorporate it into their curriculum.
The premise of the application is word processing meets text messaging. Students have to write their papers ‘one tweet at a time’ without the possibility of deleting or editing.
Students have to face the contradiction that in school they are taught to edit and revise and be very careful to craft the perfect paper, while real-life interpersonal communication has told them that it’s okay to just shout out their ideas line by line.
Not being able to edit forces the students to pay more attention to their words, and they find themselves proofing their composition line by line in a way that they normally tend not to do when word processing — the general idea being that they will go back and edit (even though they often don’t). As a teacher, I found their typos and missing periods endearing and a sign that they weren’t cheating.
The linearity of the tool also causes students to tell their papers more like stories – weaving them as they go (they are not allowed to outline or write them first in another program).
Lastly they are told that the work is going to be public and to remember that they are not writing, but authoring, so to keep in mind that anyone can see the paper.
TweetMyPaper: Virtual World
Using at least 30 tweets, students are instructed to describe their ideal virtual world. The essay should address the following questions: Who would you be? i.e. What role (if any) would you play? Where would you be? What would you be doing?
TweetMyPaper: Teddy Bear
Using at least 35 tweets, students are instructed to describe how they would integrate an AI teddy bear into their life. How would you use it? How would you train it? What would you call it? What gender might it be?
The term paper is a 10-12 page research paper and developed in 6 stages. Each stage represents a submitted item and a deadline.
- Pick two of the course topics to investigate (paper can be one or both).
- Develop a short bibliography of sources – this must include print materials.
- Develop a thesis statement.
- Revise thesis statement and bibliography after in-class workshop.
- Submit rough draft of paper – at least 5 pages.
- Submit final paper.
Workshop / In-Class Activities
The workshops and in-class activities are designed to help the students apply the reading and discussions to their personal lives, and also serve to help unite the class and get them to know each other. Many of the activities also serve as a foundation to help the students write their weekly essay, which are often directly related.
Terms of visual design are pulled from a hat and each student has to find an image that best demonstrates it. The images are put into a single presentation and each student explains their design element in turn.
Run Lola Run
The 75-minute movie Run Lola Run is shown in class in order to facilitate a discussion of interactive media. Afterwards, students write a 1-page reflection on how the film is related to the course.
As a prelude to their self-reflection paper, students physically group and regroup themselves into the categories that are defined in the text. During one of the grouping sessions in 2009, a funny moment occurred when the introverts went to one side of the room and the extroverts to the other – it was almost as if the extroverts were staring down the introverts.
5 Card Nancy
As a whole the class plays 5 Card Nancy. The cards are selected by the vote of the entire class; then, after a 5-card story is assembled, the students are divided into two teams, each of which has to present a single narrative. Those interested in repeating this exercise with their own classes might caution against the motifs of: sex, drugs, or dream sequences.
Using the Propp morphology as a guide, the class breaks down a movie from popular culture that they all share in common. Finding a common movie is a challenge unto itself and The Dark Night is a not a movie you want to do this exercise with (the themes are too complex). Disney (and Michael Bay) movies are highly recommended as they are easy to break down and the students know them well.
Zork in Class
As a prelude to the Zork homework assignment we play Zork in class with the instructor serving as a docent. This helps give the students an idea of what game play is like.
Using each of the student’s book reports of a single path journey through a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, we reconstruct the entire navigational framework of the book.
In 2009 not all endings were discovered so we completed the map in class. We also categorized the nature of the outcomes.
Students are instructed to email links to their three favorite viral videos, a fun Google Map Mashup, and to create an account and complete Twenty-five Random Things, an exercise that I designed to allow students to participate in a social networking task without forcing them to become my friends on FaceBook. The website is free and open to the public and others are welcome to incorporate it into their curriculum. During the class period, we watch many of their favorite viral videos. In 2009, some submissions were too long or too adult-themed to be shown in class. Those interested in repeating this might also focus on YouTube as the only source of videos, using it to create a playlist that can be accessed in class.
Students were told to go to Snopes and to find and print out their favorite Internet hoax to discuss in class. In 2009 there was confusion on the nature of the assignment and some students printed out entire categories or articles about things that were actually true. The idea is to prepare them for their Fake Website assignment. While I will repeat the Favorite Lies assignment, in the future I will make the instructions clearer.
I setup the classroom with many different types of VR equipment including stereoscopic projection technologies, head-mounted displays, and all sorts of 3D glasses. We finish the activity by playing with the haptic arm located in The Freedman Center. Everyone then gets to take home a pair of anaglyph glasses for their Anaglyph paper.
Virtual World: Who, What, Where?
Students are asked to imagine their perfect virtual world: Who would you be? i.e. What role (if any) would you play? Where would you be? What would you be doing? For each question they are told to write a sentence and to be prepared to share with the class. The in-class discussion explores the nature of these fictional worlds.
Students are instructed to come to class with a list of known products, tools, or devices and a separate list of generic add-on features. During class the students are divided into teams to come up with a variety of mashed-up inventions. In 2009 the highlights included: a bazooka that also made ice-cream, a self retracting hoodie, and pants that alert you when your fly is down.
Zero Sum Dodge-Ball & 5 Dot Drawing
In order to prevent the problem or solution from being published online, I am not describing the task or citation for these activities.
On the last day of class I asked the students to score each of the readings, activities, and paper assignments with a value of up to 10 points. In the readings rankings, there was some — but not much — variation. For activities, it was not surprising that they liked Viral Video, 5 Card Nancy, and Mashup Invention activities the best as they were the most fun and rowdy classes of the semester.
|Social Networking, Viral Video, & Mashups||7.21|
|Luddite & Corporeal||7.18|
|New Media & Art||7.07|
|Lies & Hoaxes||6.93|
|Ethics, Copyright, Piracy & Privacy||6.79|
|Unexpected Artist & Critic||6.43|
|Zork in Class||7.29|
|Zero Sum Dodge-Ball||7.21|
|Virtual World: Who What Where||7.14|
|Run Lola Run||7.00|
|Privacy or Piracy||7.00|
|TweetMyPaper: Virtual World||6.07|
After I gave my talk about the course at the NMC summer conference, I had many requests to offer this as a graduate-level course for NMC members. I sat down and asked myself what I would change if I were to offer this at a higher level – and to be honest the answer is: nothing. The reading, writing, and activity assignments are just as valid for freshmen as they are for graduate students. The only difference would be the expectations of a higher level of writing and the nature of the discussions to reflect more maturity and experience. Unfortunately, Case Western Reserve University does not offer distance-learning courses, nor does it have a department from which I could teach it. I am talking to colleagues at another school to see if we can make the offering and we will let the NMC know via the mailing list if this happens.
While I realize the course is a heavy workload I feel that it made an impact. I hear from a lot of students, some whom I employ and others that I know through courses and workshops, and I found out that the students in my New Media Literacy course were talking to their friends about classroom activities as well as the course topics. If they are taking it out of the classroom then you know you are doing a good job.
There are three changes that I plan to make for the Spring 2010 semester.
- I have been a big fan of A.K. Dewdney, who for a time wrote Scientific American’s recreational mathematics column, and include three of his readings in my course. Recently, however, I found out that he is also the author of Operation Pearl, a 2003 report purporting an alternate theory to the events of 9/11. That and his extensive work on the 9/11 conspiracy website create a conundrum for me. Should these works affect my use of his earlier writings in my course? If I decide to continue to use them, do my students deserve to know who the author is and why I still chose to use him?
- I originally selected the Choose Your Own Adventure Terror on The Titanic for analysis because I felt its historic nature would appeal to a wider demographic of student and also because it had fewer endings so it could be more easily reconstructed. However, because the students knew what was going to happen, they too soon attempted to direct their choices in order to stay alive and I felt this unfairly motivated their actions. Also the book contained 4 different errors of navigation (turn to page 10 instead of 20) and while this has been fixed in future printings (we contacted the publisher) students might purchase older copies and I would rather not take the risk. I contacted the publisher, who suggested the book Chinese Dragons because it has fewer endings and the choices are more ethical and moral.
- The one complaint I had from students was that I failed to return their papers in a timely fashion. This was a 100% valid complaint and while I would love to simply warn the students that not all papers will come back in a timely fashion, it really does fall on me to discipline myself with their grading. The hardest part is not to over-grade and to balance correcting every mistake with providing just enough feedback for them to learn and grow.
I conclude this article with a complete list of the readings broken down week by week and with links and page numbers as necessary. Enjoy.