In addition to the University of Maryland, I have also taught at the University of Rochester, the Eastman School of Music, and in the InterArts Division of the Art and Visual Technology program at George Mason University. Collectively these programs attract a wide variety of students, from engineers and jazz players to animators and photographers; from library scientists and opera singers to digital artists and aspiring biologists. My pedagogical style, with its emphasis on not only reading and writing, but also playing and making, has been shaped by this diversity of experience. In my upper-level Writing for Artists class (2004), for example, we didn’t just write words–we cut-and-pasted them; painted them; collaged them; deformed, blogged, computed, and coded them; even ate them (edible books have a venerable history). Last fall, my undergraduates and I spent one night a week building a MakerBot Thing-O-Matic 3D printer (Figures 1 and 2). Having purchased it as a DIY kit online, we soldered, wired, and somewhat chaotically assembled the homebrew machine, which uses CAD designs, plastic, and a heated build platform to print three-dimensional objects. Part of the impetus for turning the Digital Cultures and Creativity multi-purpose room into a sandbox every week was to re-imagine learning “as a social experience more akin to play,” as authors Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown have expressed it. Their point is that a rapidly changing world requires moving beyond more conventional, mechanistic models of teaching. “Play provides the opportunity to leap, experiment, fail, and continue to play with different outcomes,” they write, “in other words, to riddle one’s way through a mystery.”
But play, I would contend, does even more than this. It also helps us discover fault lines in the concepts, artifacts, ideas, policies, or systems being explored—and in so doing allows us to imagine them otherwise: to see them as alterable rather than immutable; as possibility spaces rather than rigid, inherited structures. It is this dimension of play that I draw on to help students begin to envision themselves as creative agents of change.
A signature aspect of my teaching is that it foregrounds the interactions between the offline and online worlds and makes those interactions objects of study in their own right. Cathy’s Book, for example, is a fictional diary of a young woman–published in print–that requires readers to follow clues and gather information across multiple media to piece together an incomplete narrative. An accompanying website and online forum provide a space where readers can pool their knowledge and collectively fill in the missing details of the story. When I’ve taught this novel in the literature classroom, I’ve approached it from a literary and artistic angle (how does the author prompt the reader to move from page to screen? By what aesthetic criteria do we judge a novel that in many ways aspires to be a game?); when I’ve taught it in the Library and Information Science classroom, it has been from a preservation and access angle (how do we cross-reference the individual nodes in a compound story? How do we assign them unique identifiers? Or determine which properties are significant enough to migrate across platforms and which are more or less incidental?) Because of the highly experimental nature of electronic art and literature–including the hybrid analog-digital literature described here, as well as 3D virtual worlds–I believe they can provide a particularly rich and challenging case set for both arts & humanities and information studies curricula.
A governing assumption of mine, implicit in these examples, is that what we might call extreme content can have significant pedagogical value. By “extreme” I mean content that disrupts students’ expectations about what art or literature or culture is; that cannot be easily accommodated by existing preservation paradigms; that invites new ways of thinking about library and information services; and that foreshadows information problems which, although currently relatively novel in nature, will soon be utterly mundane.
These remarks are intended, among other things, to frame my conviction that the choice of content is itself an embodiment of pedagogical method and philosophy. By the same token, my day-to-day practices as a teacher also instantiate that philosophy, albeit different aspects of it. I try, for example–with admittedly mixed success–to consistently apply a handful of techniques, which, though small and to some extent unremarkable on their own, have cumulatively important effects. For example, I learn students’ names quickly so that during class discussion I am able to inter-relate their comments. If one student makes a compelling remark about a text we’re reading and fifteen minutes later another student says something that extends or revises it in some way, then I want to make those connections explicit. I also use this technique to highlight themes and ideas that recur throughout the semester, allowing me to refer back to something that was said two or three classes ago. When it works, this practice allows students to see that although the syllabus is divided into individual units or modules, there is a narrative arc that draws them together into a coherent whole.
These practices have added import in the undergraduate classroom, where I use them to model the art of participation. Although institutions of higher learning have developed sophisticated curricular machinery to instruct students how to write about academic subjects, they frequently ignore the process of teaching them how to speak about them. We seem to assume that knowing how to talk about assigned texts is instinctive (the often unelaborated “participation grade” being a case in point), while knowing how to write about them requires the cultivation of a specialized skill set. What I try to do is demonstrate the way literacy and orality can mutually inform and reinforce each other in an academic and ultimately professional context. When students participate in class, they are ideally identifying patterns, cross-referencing ideas, reconfiguring them in new ways, and interacting with other thinkers. These are exactly the same proficiencies I expect to see on display in their written and design work.
Communicating to students that there is intellectual scaffolding that supports everything we do, no matter how strictly technical or utilitarian it may first appear, is also a priority for me. In Fall 2009, for example, I taught interested students enrolled in my LBSC 752: Information Access in the Arts course how to create a disk image of a copy of Mystery House, a public domain vintage computer game that is currently stored on an old 3 ½ inch floppy disk. A disk image is a digital file that clones all the contents of a given storage medium, right down to the slack space at the end of a file. Although it takes only moments to complete with the appropriate software and hardware, disk imaging serves the larger purpose of introducing students to the consequences of media obsolescence for the study of what C. T. Funkhouser calls “prehistoric digital poetry”: electronic art, interactive fiction, and computer adventure games produced between 1959 and 1995 before the advent of the World Wide Web. After students have managed to replicate the disk so that the contents may be stored on a modern computer, they run the image in an emulator—a software program that impersonates a retro hardware environment. Working through this process allows them to experience firsthand the challenges of accessing born-digital creative content in a cultural milieu characterized by unprecedented technological change. Students also played a version of Mystery House that had been reprogrammed in a modern computing language, giving them the opportunity to modify the source code, recompile it, and run it in an interpreter, i.e., a special player or reader for the game. Encountering Mystery House in more than one version added a comparative dimension to the exercise that paved the way for topical questions about identity conditions for digital objects and the application of existing library classification and cataloguing systems to new media artifacts.
In Spring 2010, I created and taught an undergraduate Honors course entitled Book 2.0: The History of the Book and the Future of Reading. As part of the course, I had the opportunity to team up with Nick Chen, a doctoral candidate in Computer Science, to provide the students with prototype electronic reading devices that Chen designed and built himself (Figure 3). The deployment was part of a longitudinal study to understand how ebooks are used in an academic setting. Because the class frequently looked at literary creations that challenge the traditional conception of the book, Chen was inspired to create custom features for the devices that could be leveraged toward their study. These included an application for reading and writing altered books (books produced through the modification of other books) and a viewer for studying B. S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, a 20th-century avant-garde novel originally published in unbound sheaves that the reader is encouraged to assemble in any order. Our collaboration resulted in two presentations: one at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, the other at the annual Human Computer Interaction symposium.
Going forward, one of my goals as an educator is to better understand the relationship between learning outcomes we might label as instrumental in nature and those more aptly described as playful. Although these outcomes are often seen as wildly divergent, my own conviction is that the two are fundamentally intertwined: that public humanities—deeply engaged with the world and intent on transforming it—must cultivate in its students and practitioners an exploratory mindset whose output is by turns creative and speculative on the one hand and practical and functional on the other. As I discuss in my book proposal, I see this dynamic at work in the communities of practice I study: gamers, hobbyists, and hackers, whose contributions to the science of digital preservation are nothing short of pioneering. In the face of negligence from the game industry, fans of “Super Mario Bros.” and “Pac-Man” have been creating homegrown solutions to collecting, documenting, and rendering games, creating an evolving archive of game history. They build emulators, invent innovative hardware devices that allow users to move bits off of old magnetic media, and reverse engineer classic systems like the Commodore 64. But they also create weird computer architectures and counterfactual machines, like game consoles reimagined as laptops or PC cases modded from shipping boxes. The point, though, is that however disparate these projects seem, they spring from a common set of learning strategies; they combine what Donald Norman would call “behavioral design” with “reflective design”: an applied perspective welded to a more playful one. My long-term objective is to foster a learning environment that is conducive and deeply responsive to both.
- ENGL428Y: The History of the Book and the Future of Reading
- LBSC773: Classification Theory
- HDCC 208A: Creative Futures
Sample assignments and labs:
 A New Culture of Learning (CreateSpace, 2011) 5.