close view of clay roof segments connected by concrete
02
Aug
2015

Perspectives from the #GenLit Classroom: A Professor and Student Converse

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Written by and
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Reviewed by Chris Friend and Robin Wharton
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Roofs in perspective” by Francisco Antunes; CC BY 2.0

Hybrid Pedagogy Publishing is our experiment in longer-form work related to critical, digital pedagogy. For the past year and a half, Hybrid Pedagogy Publishing has been providing editorial and technical support to the Generative Literature Project, which is producing a crowdsourced, gamified digital novel about a murder. Once a week for the next several weeks, Hybrid Pedagogy will publish updates and reflections about the project collaboratively authored by several of the student and instructor participants. In this third installment, Mia Zamora and Matthew Jacobi reflect on how they learned about, reacted to, and grew from this project.

Photo from Mia Zamora

How did you first hear about the #GenLit Project? What impressions did you have about joining this experiment?

Mia Zamora:   In August 2014, I was preparing for my Fall 2014 Writing Electronic Literature course at Kean University. While doing a bit of my regular reading at Hybrid Pedagogy, I came across the initial CFP for The Generative Literature Project. I immediately knew it would be a special undertaking to incorporate this innovative experiment into my #elitclass.  Writing Electronic Literature is a cross-listed undergraduate (ENG 4081) & graduate (ENG 5081) course in our School of English Studies.  Throughout the course of the semester my students receive an overview of established and emerging forms of Electronic Literature including hypertext fiction, network fiction, interactive works, and digital poetry.  I was aware right away that the prospect of contributing to a transmodal generative novel would at once thrill and overwhelm my students.  This presented a significant pedagogical challenge that excited me.  As I am constantly considering the transformative potential of co-learning, I sensed that this unique experience would offer each and every one of us a chance to grow in a multitude of ways. I answered the call with enthusiasm.

The first challenge was to figure out out how to drop this relatively large project down into a course that was already designed.  I had taught the course in earlier semesters with success, and didn’t want to break that “success mold” that many of us as teachers know well.  Once a course has been established and taught with a track record of clear, positive results and notable learning outcomes, why mess with success?  In short, I was taking a risk.  Nonetheless, in order to participate in the #GenLit project, I recognized I must veer from the established map and chart new territory in terms of course design. In my former iterations of the Writing Electronic Literature class, students read, analyzed, and composed a variety of emerging genres of electronic literature.  Electronic literature refers to works with important literary aspects that are digitally born and take advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by a computer.  In preserving the original integrity of this electronic literature course, it was imperative to me that my students learn both the affordances and constraints of these contexts.  I determined that my students would learn the scope of the field of electronic literature by presenting reviews of self-selected texts featured in the Electronic Literature Collection. Simultaneously, they would also experience the affordances and constraints of the medium first-hand by writing their own electronic literature.  Their writing assignments were thus designed within the context of the transmodal networked gamified murder mystery that is the basis of the #GenLit project.  They would ultimately write a series of digitized artifacts that would serve as part of the generative content for the #GenLit project.

Matt Jacobi: When Dr. Zamora first explained that we would spend our semester in Writing Electronic Literature both learning about what electronic literature was, and creating our own pieces of electronic literature as part of The Generative Literature Project, perhaps counterintuitively, the task seemed manageable. The proposal sounded like one with which I was well familiar from school- to investigate a literary form and imitate it. But as we learned more about the field of electronic literature, and then delved a little more deeply into what would be asked of us as part of The Generative Literature Project, the picture of what lay ahead of us became much more complicated. Once we knew a bit more about what it would entail, the Generative Literature Project became somewhat intimidating. Trained as students typically are in doing original and independent work, the notion of making something individual that fit seamlessly into and indeed contributed to the quality of this vast narrative was daunting at the outset. Combined with the student’s instinctive dread of group projects, it was enough to give me pause. Once I began to understand the larger picture, what the work on the project seemed to boil down to was to create digital artifacts in conjunction with dozens of unknown collaborators, and arrive at a unified and coherent end. It felt akin to being asked to perform a play without being able to rehearse, or even read the script. That is to say, to pull it off would be a miracle. We each set out to creating supporting characters in the life of Dr. Rachel Behar, the Theopolis College alumna who would become one of a small number of suspects in the murder mystery at the center of the Generative Literature Project. From that point we had a number of decisions to make concerning the extent to which our individual characters would impact the life of our main character, Dr. Behar, for whom we were collectively responsible. How would each of us decide what moves we would make, and what we would do if conflict arose? The level of cooperation and cohesion required for the work we were to do that semester, at the beginning seemed unprecedented — the Platonic ideal of co-authorship. The struggle ahead was as much to unlearn this apprehension as it was to execute the assignments in the syllabus.

Where did students find conflict?

Matt Jacobi: Whenever an instructor gives a group assignment to a class, better than ninety percent of those listening will have an adverse physical reaction, e.g., a slacking of posture, a troubled sigh, an imperceptible tensing of the muscles, etc.. Working with a group is like going out to dinner with a group of people you don’t know very well. You want to go to dinner with people who are responsible and well-mannered, tasteful without being picky, fun without being distracting, focused without being rigid, and generous with their time and resources. Unfortunately, this dream combination is just hard to find in a random assortment of people.

At Kean, many students have jobs, sometimes several, or children, or both, and myriad other responsibilities. Gone are the days in which a professor could assign group work and rest assured that the students could meet in the dorm lounge and work all weekend. There is a lot to be said about the ethics and pedagogy of group projects in 2015, but for the moment, suffice it to say that the issue boils down to control. When working in a group, in school or out, we sacrifice control. We either lose agency by submitting to the direction of someone else, or lose ownership by delegating work elsewhere. We’re forced to rely on others, people not usually of our own choosing, and in that way give up a degree of control over our lives, and in school, over not just our grades, but our standing, and our reputation.

This kind of longview, macro way of thinking was just the trouble with my approach to The Generative Literature Project.  As students, we are accustomed to assessing things by asking questions like, “How am I going to complete this? How am I going to finish this out so that I am positioned well, or graded favorably?” In our preoccupation, we often overlook the actual doing, and doing well. Even as a student who likes school, pursuing my second degree, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that when faced with a deadline, really learning the subject at hand and engaging with the material, even if I am really, really interested in it, has sometimes come second to making the assignment “work” well enough to get me the grade that I want. I can’t imagine that this comes as news to professors anywhere, but I point it out to highlight the shift in perspective required to participate in the Generative Literature Project.

With the #GenLit project, it was impossible to manage the whole narrative, or even one element of the narrative, from start to finish, so immediately there was a disconnect between the task ahead and what was familiar. No matter what I did to my work on the project I never got any closer to squeezing it into a form that I thought would get me an A, because no such form existed. It required that I focus on the tools I had gathered to bring to life a concept to the best of my ability. The Generative Literature Project then offered almost a Zen exercise in creating one good thing, without becoming preoccupied by its correctness. Other assignments in other classes of course ask students to think this way, but the reality is that when a student understands the form of the assignment, and knows the rhetorical moves to make to achieve “correctness,” there is little motivation to take an assignment beyond that. Even those of us like myself who take pride in the quality of our work are typically not inclined try to revolutionize the approach to the assignment when we can already see a clear, established path to success. This is probably an indictment of the nature and practices of grading more than anything, but the usual method of grading based on accuracy becomes procedural and would not have worked in this generative project. The allowance that our projects might lack a certain refinement, and the absence of a known route to success, encouraged us to explore and play as we created our pieces, and kept us from cleaving too closely to a familiar path.

When the realization dawned that no individual piece would become the focus of the larger project, a great weight was lifted, and the work became easy, even fun. We were allowed, even encouraged, to take our new skills and tools, and play. Our task was to take events and people born of our imagination and native to a fictional world, bring them to life in a digital environment, and make them seem real. More than that, we had no endgame. For once, we weren’t being graded on what we turned in as much as how we got there. For a little while Writing Electronic Literature became kind of like Inventing 101, where our job was to try and make things and see how they turned out. This segment of the semester was almost pure creativity in action, and immensely rewarding.

Mia Zamora:  As I anticipated, many of my students balked on the first day of class when I shared with them my ambitions for their semester.  Several students had come to class with trepidation regarding the title of the course alone, but decided to sign up because the class fit in their schedule and they had studied with me before.  The majority walked into this experience without much understanding of electronic literature or what was really going to happen.  No student had any previous knowledge of the genre of electronic literature called “generative literature” or for that matter, the #GenLit Project.  They were especially concerned when they heard about how they would write digitized “artifacts”.  That terminology seem to daunt them, and they were not sure where to begin.  I was confronted with the myth of the “digital native” first hand.  Some were just settling into the notion of blogging and were setting up Twitter accounts for the first time.  Several students admitted to me later that they were planning to drop the course after our first meeting.  But for some intuitive reason, they decided to give it another week before making the drop decision.  Some students admitted they stayed despite genuine anxiety simply because I seemed convincing in my reassurance that they could do this.  (I never doubted for a second that each of them could participate in this project in productive and creative ways.)  They said they decided to trust me.  In the end, their sincere desire to do something innovative and unchartered trumped any fear of technology.

What surprised you?

Mia Zamora:  One surprise for me was in regards to student reading practices.  It surprised me how little students were willing to rely on their own instincts when reading elit for the first time.  They often doubted their own ability to interpret elit effectively.  E-Lit certainly disrupts our typical associations with the act of reading.  My students readily admitted that electronic forms of literature “unsettle” the reader.  Many electronic texts are interactive — or connected to the network or the physical world — in ways that print texts are not. The reader’s interactions may simply determine the organization of the text — or they may operate in some ways to create the text by limiting or changing the possibilities for further interactions.

Students in my class often read E-Lit with apprehension.  They collectively discovered that “navigation” is a central characteristic of a digital literary aesthetic, and that, ultimately, “navigation” serves as a primary source of E-Lit’s signification.  Still, I was surprised that they were so bound to a traditional/confined notion of the act of reading, and they often expressed that they didn’t know if they read “correctly”.  The interactive form of reading seemed to invoke in them a true sense of being “lost”, as conventional connotations of reading undermined their confidence in analyzing elit.  The challenge then for me was to create a learning environment wherein they might feel safe enough to “admit” their initial instincts regarding a text.  They needed to hear that their own opening explorations and questions were valid.  If they could express some initial ideas about their own reactions to a text, then students could establish a solid entry point for a meaningful interpretation of the text. It surprised me how much students really needed to be reassured that their own intuitive reading experience was a valid starting point for understanding E-Lit.

Matt Jacobi: It’s surprising to me that Dr. Zamora was concerned about student self-efficacy, because from my point of view the feeling of “How on Earth am I going to pull this off?” is so fundamental to the student experience as to be somewhat taken for granted. Once I felt that I had my feet firmly on the ground, I found that the most challenging and frequent question that came up while writing for #GenLit was, “how real do we want to make this?” Some of the class seemed divided on the question, while others were too focused on the creative process to worry about it. The strategy of subtlety, the pursuit of verisimilitude in the Twitter-scape, was a goal for some, while others drew magnificent characters in sharp lines with bright colors. The differences in how students approached creating these characters (see brainstorming diagram, below) really exemplified the boundary between the “digital” and the “novel” in our digital novel. In a traditional work of fiction, bold characters would at the very least raise a reader’s awareness, limiting their usefulness as parts of a larger work of which they were not the focus. But on Twitter, where everyone is outspoken and understatement only serves the already massively famous, these characters are extremely commonplace. In this way, some of our more “boring” characters might have been the ones that stood out and raised suspicion, while the very conspicuous ones blended into the digital environment more naturally.

Adapted from a GenLit planning document

After these questions of truth and conception, the technical hurdles in the class  felt manageable. These were tangible obstacles, which it was up to each of us to assess and overcome in order to create our pieces of the #GenLit puzzle. The difficulty that remained really had to do with collaboration and peer learning. While it was our task to create artifacts for the project, the class was also learning, most for the first time, about the tools and platforms we would use to give life to our creations online. Many of us took to this task like writing an essay, shutting ourselves away and making attempts at writing code or manipulating unfamiliar web tools to serve our ends. Many of our projects had at their center a kernel of a good idea, but their execution was lacking. Only when one classmate suggested to another to abandon the one insufficient tool and try another which had been successful for someone else did the work begin to take shape, and reflect the nuance and refinement native to its source material. At first, using a tool because a classmate had found success with it felt like cheating, as if the work itself was unoriginal. The instinct was to find an unknown tool, an untapped resource, and create something new with it- to be impressive. But in a connected learning environment such as ours, it is a significantly more challenging task, and a more impressive accomplishment, to use a known resource in an individual and expressive way than to use a search engine to find a novel platform for one’s work.

What role did peer learning play? What was the greatest takeaway?

Matt Jacobi: This spirit of peer learning, of standing on one another’s shoulders and sharing the view over the course of the semester, was perhaps the most significant takeaway of the semester. It came as a surprise, which in retrospect is a strong indicator of just how valuable a discovery it was. Ironically, although we were working on what essentially amounts to a massive coauthorship of the digital novel we call The Generative Literature Project, it did not occur to many of us, at least not initially, that we not only could but should help each other along on our projects, sharing what we had learned with each other, to what would eventually be the ultimate enrichment of our overall product. The Boogeyman of plagiarism so haunts the student’s nightmares, especially in graduate studies, that we naturally and scrupulously rejected each other’s involvement in our work because it felt too close to an ethical grey area, and that makes us very uncomfortable. But in truth, without the cooperation of our classmates, many of our contributions to the #GenLit project would have been of a significantly reduced quality, if they existed at all.

Photo from Mia Zamora

Mia Zamora:  I think Matt’s comments on the potential of peer collaboration to broaden and deepen our learning is such a crucial point.  So much of learning is about knowing how to ask the right questions, and knowing who one can trust to support our efforts as we try to push an idea or conception forward.  Learning is most definitely about being connected to a community of co-learners who are generous and collaborative.  But I also think that learning at it’s heart is about gaining certain instincts and self-confidence.  I mentioned trust, which I believe is a key foundation for connected learning, and I would like to extend that idea of trust a bit further.  Not only do we need to trust in each other in order to push ourselves further, but we also need to learn to trust in our own individual instincts.  Sometimes we just need to take time to tinker, to google it, to figure it out for ourselves, as we let go of any fear of failure.  Trust should be fostered in learning communities, but it must also be nurtured within ourselves.  I find that when my students are reassured and then given the freedom to trust in their own instincts, that is when the magic happens in a classroom.

The assessment of this new kind of work is a topic that calls for more extensive reflection, but I would like to quickly add here that the #GenLit writing/making assignments were recursive in nature.  Each student had three projects wherein they honed and edited their own evolving digital artifacts, sometimes using different tools in order to realize their concepts.  At the close of the course, they submitted a digital portfolio along with a self-assessment narrative.  These narratives were very thoughtful, and students were able to identify impactful moments that lead to their own learning outcomes.  I find that the self-assessment narrative empowers students to reflect more deeply regarding their learning take-aways.  They are invited to think beyond prescribed outcomes and dig into more personalized ones.

The #GenLit project was fun.  We laughed a lot.  We surprised each other, and we have plenty of great memories of our shared learning experience. As we wrapped up the semester, my students designed a showcase of their own work that was housed in the University Library.  They shared their work with the broader University community with pride and enthusiasm.  The culminating showcase — our celebration of our work — was a perfect testament to the success of this experiment in reading/writing/learning.

Matt Jacobi: The beauty of our showcase was that it didn’t tout our conclusions or celebrate our results…not exactly. It was a place for us to share our creations, and talk about our processes, with guests and with each other. This event was the true culmination of our semester, more so even than the portfolios we compiled for our final presentations. It embodied the values we strove to realize in the preceding weeks. We designed the layout of the room, chose where to place which projects, and positioned students to guide our guests through various components of the evening. We brought snacks- some of us even cooked. Everything that went into our symposium, from planning to execution, was centered around the value of making, rather than an evaluation of what was made.

Photo from Mia Zamora

And when the President of the university arrived, we didn’t have to sweat as we showed him how the findings of our research justified university funding. Rather, we could offer him a brownie and introduce him to the characters that we brought to life, just to show how cool it was that we were able to do it. This is the ideal that is often promised in college brochures but too seldom realized on campuses and in classrooms. Writing Electronic Literature was not a class of learning by rote and absorption of a great number of facts. I was never asked to memorize my professor’s lecture and repeat what she said on a test. But what I learned during that semester was as meaningful to me as any class I’ve taken in recent memory- and much more importantly, I was engaged in the work that I was doing continually as I was doing it, rather than looking toward the end, trying to beat a test or make a deadline. As learning spaces continue to evolve with technology and teaching practices, a move toward this kind of learning experience could well result in graduates who are less afraid of risk and preoccupied by bottom lines, and more mindful, inquisitive, and willing to try different approaches to complete assignments. My class experience, for me, returned classroom learning to an immersive and focused way of thinking that has been too rare in my scholastic education, and I’ll venture to guess is too rare in general.


This article is the third in a series of reports on the Generative Literature Project, sponsored by Hybrid Pedagogy Publishing.

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