THATCamp Digital Writing, May 2-3, 2014

Sponsors for THATCamp Digital Writing
  Sponsors for THATCamp Digital Writing

From tweeting to multimodal research papers to Prezi, writing these days means more than just black text on a white background. Through workshops and discussions, THATCamp Digital Writing aims to deepen and advance our notions of all facets of writing. Participants in THATCamp Digital Writing will explore how to effectively write using different digital tools and platforms. This event will take place in New York City. We begin with a special lecture on Friday afternoon, May 2, 2014, at John Jay College, and continue all day Saturday, May 3, 2014 at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus with workshops, discussions, and a Maker Challenge.

At THATCamp Digital Writing, join a dynamic cast of participants to

  • Learn more about innovative ways to digitize your work and publish it online
  • Share pedagogical methods that use digital media for writing and research assignments
  • Explore how to evaluate online writing and give feedback
  • Question how tools, technology, and methods for publishing work shape the way we write
  • Take workshops on Scalar, Juxta, and collaborative writing
  • Make connections with others
  • Establish new collaborations.

TCDW is being organized by Amanda Licastro, a PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center, and Elizabeth Cornell, Post-Doctoral Teaching Fellow in English at Fordham University.

Interview with the Fordham University Newspaper, The Ram

Late Autumn Sun and Two Sun Dogs  (c) 2013 Robert Goldwitz
Late Autumn Sun and Two Sun Dogs
(c) 2013 Robert Goldwitz

The other day, Joseph Vitale, the opinion editor of Fordham University’s undergraduate newspaper, The Fordham Ram, interviewed me about using social media in the classroom. He emailed me the questions, and I responded in writing. Mr. Vitale incorporated some of my responses into his very good opinion piece about using social media in educational settings. Here’s my responses to his questions, in full:

First, I would ask if you could explain a couple of ways in which you find social media useful in the classroom, just to get a sense of how professors are using it at Fordham.

In my classroom, my students have occasionally used a private page on Facebook and a public Pinterest page to collaborate on collecting material for discussion and research on American literature. I find Facebook to be particularly useful because most students are comfortable with that medium. It’s easy for them to write original material and respond to other people’s posts. However, I change things just a bit by having students write rather long posts (for Facebook) about something they’ve researched and include a link to supporting material. Students are often surprised that they can add so much content to a single post. Pinterest is more challenging because not as many students use it. It’s also better for posting images, and since my courses are generally about writing and reading, Pinterest is less useful for my students.

In what way do the functions of social media transcend traditional teaching methods? Traditionally, the classroom has not been a social place. Students arrive to class, sit in a chair and, the teacher hopes, listen to a lecture and take notes. Many educators today see that model as outdated because it causes students to be passive learners. Social media can be a way to encourage students to be more active during class hours and outside of class.

For example, during class, some teachers allow students to tweet important material from the lecture to the rest of the class. While this is happening, students participate in a Twitter back channel, in which they add their own ideas and links related to the lecture. After the class is over, students can refer back to the Twitter stream, using it as a set of notes for the lecture and continue the conversation. This approach allows students to help teach the class because they are contributing their own knowledge and insights about the material.

Using Twitter in a directed way can help prepare students for careers that may involve using Twitter or other social media venues. That kind of job might include broadcasting information to clients or customers, or cultivating a personal learning network among colleagues.

What obstacles have you seen come up when using social media in the classroom? Are there limits to its functionality?

One major obstacle, obviously, is that when a teacher allows electronic devices in a classroom, some students are going to do things with them that have nothing to do with the class. Some students with devices may be tweeting the lecture, but others may be checking email, Facebook, or even doing work for another class. A way around that scenario is, for example, to only allow several students to tweet the class, but then the backchannel might lose some richness.

Teachers can turn this problem into a learning opportunity for students: Learn to use devices responsibly and make the most of your time in the classroom. In my experience, most students at Fordham are responsible and do want to use their time here in the best way possible. Moreover, it’s important to be conscious of how one uses social media. Students should cast a critical eye on their use of social media and how it uses them. A great book about mindful use of social media and technology is Howard Rheingold’s Net Smart: How to Thrive Online (2012).

Another obstacle is that not all students want to use social media. There are many good reasons for not wanting to join the digital herd, including not wanting to divulge personal information to companies such as Facebook. In my current class, one student does not use Facebook. She sends me her material, which I post for her on our private course page, and then she reviews the posts in my office with me using my account. Fortunately, this student is very accommodating. If that wasn’t the case, a workaround could be to have students collect their material in a shared GoogleDoc or in a wiki created by the teacher. But these solutions, as well as the use of social media, assume that all students have access to the internet. That’s not always the case—and another obstacle and limit to the usefulness of social media.

If you were a student, would this be something that would excite you? Why or why not?

Social media in the classroom would definitely excite me if I were student. However, I’d probably be looking for the next hot thing. I would be less interested in using the same platforms as my teachers or parents. Or, I would search for innovative ways to use the most popular forms of social media. That said, it’s very important that all students who use social media, whether for social or academic purposes, use it responsibly. As we’re constantly reminded by the news, reckless use of social media can haunt users at some point in the future.

According to one study, 41% of college professors use social media in the classroom? How do you think this number can grow within the next few years? 

This number may grow, especially as new (younger) teachers are hired and bring their experience using social media productively for academic purposes. But what will social media look like in the next few years? A recent New York Times article reported that Facebook has seen a decline in new users, particularly with teenagers. They’re already moving on to the next big social media thing. And that’s going to be a challenge for teachers who want to use Facebook or Twitter in their classrooms. Students who use newer forms of social media might resist signing up for the old ones on the grounds that they don’t want to give companies such as Facebook information about themselves. Teachers might not want to learn how to incorporate new social media venues into their course work.

Some teachers avoid social media. I think that’s a mistake. Social media is not going to go away; it will continue to develop and become more complex. It is important that students learn to use social media not just for entertainment, but in creative and productive ways, and that they use learn to use it safely and critically. What better place for that than a college classroom?

WordPress in the College Classroom: Five Sources

A Rothstein A Farmer LOC

Despite their membership in the digital tribe, few of my undergraduates have any experience with WordPress or any blogging platform. Using WordPress in my classroom gives students an opportunity to increase their digital literacy as they read and discuss works of literature.

Because to teach is to learn is one of my fundamental beliefs about teaching, I assign a small group of students to teach themselves how to use WordPress. They then teach their peers. Students also investigate the purpose and content of an academic blog, the pros and cons of student blogging, and then discuss their research with the class. My students use the blog to post short essays. They also use it to post abstracts of their final papers and links to online resources and projects they’ve created.

Here are five sources for using WordPress in the college classroom:

  1. WordPress for Teaching and Learning at Vassar College This slideshow was created for teachers by undergraduate seniors at Vassar. It contains examples of blogs in use at the college along with benefits and outcomes of using blogs in the college classroom. I especially like this piece of advice: “Emphasize WordPress as a discovery process.”
  2. Teaching WordPress: Building and Running Your Website on WordPress The pedagogical goal of this site, which is a resource for students at Portland Adult Education, is the same as the course’s title: “Create Your Own Web Site Using WordPress.” The site, created by a teacher named Frank, is well-organized and seems to have a little of everything you need to know to develop a site, from “Pages and Posts” to “CSS in 10 Minutes,” which can be helpful for tweaking themes.
  3. ScholarPress Courseware plugin should tempt anyone looking for a way to use WordPress as a learning management system. According to this Chronicle article by Ryan Cordell, the plugin can create assignments, schedules, and bibliographies inside of WordPress. ScholarPress recently received an NEH Digital Humanities Start-Up grant.
  4. Psychology in the News Nicholas de Leeuw, Dept. of Psychology, Vassar College, maintains this WordPress site. On the right-hand side of the screen,  you’ll find some pages offering guidelines for attribution, a checklist for blog post content, a discussion of comments versus posts, and other insights. De Leeuw emphasizes the importance of making original posts and comments, and offers advice on to how to create useful and original content.
  5. Using WordPress in Your Class for Student Writing and Websites is for teachers who have a WordPress site. Hosted by the College of William and Mary and created by Evan Cordulack, the site is a straightforward resource covering everything from adding students to a WordPress site to offering links to other instructors who’ve written about their experience using WordPress.

Image Info:
Arthur Rothstein. “A farmer listing his fields under the wind erosion control program. He receives twenty cents an acre for the work. Liberal, Kansas.” 1936. Library of Congress. Rights Advisory: No known restrictions. For information, see U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black & White Photographs Reproduction Number: LC-USF34-002493-E (b&w film nitrate neg.) Call Number: LC-USF34- 002493-E [P&P].Medium: 1 negative : nitrate ; 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 inches or smaller.





Student-Led Discussions

(c) 2012 Robert Goldwitz
(c) 2012 Robert Goldwitz

“21st c classroom needs to be about thinking, collaborating, and creating #pk20”
(Tanya Sasser)

In the “Tales of Gotham: NYC in Literature” course I taught this semester, I challenged my students to lead all the class discussions. The responsibility for leading rotated among small groups of 3 or 4 students who were encouraged to master Prezi to present their questions.

This ongoing assignment had several pedagogical goals:

  • To make my classroom student-centered
  • To use technology with purpose
  • To help students learn to ask great questions so they might discover excellent answers.

The idea of the student-centered classroom challenged many of my students. Initially, some resisted the idea of working in groups. Most students were unskilled at creating decent presentations. They are accustomed listening to a lecture and answering the instructor’s questions, and so they had trouble asking good questions. By “asking,” I mean both senses of the word: They could neither construct a good question nor did they know how to ask it well.

Overcoming Resistance to Group Work
Perhaps the most important factor in helping students overcome their resistance to group work was technology. Specifically, the presentation software they used allowed them to easily collaborate online. They did not have to find a time when they could all meet in the library, for example, to plan the discussion. This was a boon especially to commuter students and for students who work off campus. One student usually took charge of starting the Prezi (or GooglePresentation), and everyone added some questions to it. The end result was that students really enjoyed working in their groups: the technology connected them and the finished project was a group effort that they shared with the class. Learning how to use Prezi together also prepared them to use it in their individual projects, or to tackle other software that was new to them, such as TimeGlider and Vuvox.

Using Technology with a Purpose
As we all know, most students use technology with a purpose every day, all day long. In general, from Facebook to Microsoft Word, they use these familiar tools always for the same purposes. In their other classes, my students are not often asked to explore other digital tools for academic purposes. Out of 80 students in my three classes, only one or two had even heard of Prezi. Most of them loved the way it allowed them to insert background images and add multimedia for their discussions and other projects they did for the class.  It helped teach students how to create an argument through design.

One common problem in these presentations was that students placed too much text in a frame. When shown a frame with a few carefully chosen words and one that was loaded with wordy bullet points or long paragraphs of historical context, students could easily see which frame was the stronger one. By the end of the semester, most students demonstrated the ability to use only essential words in a frame. Needless to say, this exercise develops their critical thinking skills because they must decide which words best articulate their claims and which ones to leave out.

More challenging was the problem with the images they chose for illustrating their frames. The solution led students to become familiar with online image archives. For example, in a discussion on Joseph Mitchell’s 1930s essay “Drunks,” the group illustrated a question with a clip art image of a beer mug, circa 2012. We compared it to an image of a fancy hotel menu from the New York Public Library’s online collection that had been used to illustrate another group’s discussion on Edith Wharton’s short story, “After Holbein.” Though it seems rather obvious why the latter image was much better than the former, many students expressed puzzlement and/or indifference. Through class discussion, they came to understand why a cartoon beer mug sheds little light on New York’s early twentieth-century saloon culture. As a result, they became acquainted with the many fabulous digital archives of images, from the New York Public Library to the Library Congress, and their use of them helped make the course readings far more alive and vital to them than if they’d stuck to the first image to pop up on a Google image search.

Asking questions
Asking a good question was by far the most challenging part of the assignment. This, in fact, surprised me. But it quickly became to clear to me that my students are rarely asked to ask a question in class. They’re much better at answering them, particularly if they’re asked to give factual answers. Thus, many of the questions they asked were about facts: “Who is Peter Lick [a protagonist Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale]?” “What is the weather like in Winter’s Tale?” When these questions were posed, I sensed the rest of the class’s boredom setting in–though few students understood why these questions failed to stimulate them.

After the first discussion, we critiqued the questions themselves. Comparing the more successful questions with others that fell flat, students learned the difference between a simple question and a critical one. They discovered that making a critical question can be as simple as changing the wording. Instead of asking “what is the weather like,” ask “why is the winter important in Winter’s Tale?” or “what role does snow play in Winter’s Tale?” Questions that begin with “how” or “why,” questions that engage wider issues and themes, questions that hone in on the significance of a single word or image that reappears throughout the book, questions that engage context–such as comparing the state of New York City in the 1970s, when Helprin wrote his novel, with the New York portrayed in the book–helped us dig out textual meaning and create lively discussion.

Delivery of the question posed yet another challenge: Often, students would ask the question and then, without taking a breath, proceed to answer it. The best method I’ve found for addressing this is to interrupt the student in a friendly way and ask them to hold off giving their answer. Some students drowned the class with a lot of context before asking their question. Best method: interrupt in a friendly way and ask student to just ask the question and supply the context later, if necessary.


As a result of this assignment, my students brought to their final research projects strong skills at asking probing questions about their chosen subject, and I think this led them to finding better, deeper answers. Standing in front of the class within the safety of their group as they led a discussion, as well as other group presentations, gave them experience in public speaking and prepared them for individual presentations of their final projects at the end of the semester. They were confident, practiced, and provided some terrific answers to good questions they’d posed to themselves.