Reflections on Computers & Writing 2013, or, Why C&W Rules

I am home after a busy weekend in Frostburg, MD for the Computers and Writing conference.  I come away energized by the work of others in the field, excited to continue to share my own research, and grateful for such a wonderful community of friendly and accepting scholars which I get to be a part of!  Here are some highlights from the weekend:

Thursday: Thanks to Shelley Rodrigo and Kyle Stedman who volunteered their time to facilitate my table’s discussion at the Graduate Research Network.  While 20ish minutes isn’t much to share your research or to explain your entire project to a table of (mostly) strangers, I always find it a useful and relatively low stakes space to ask questions and learn to talk about what you’re doing in a concise and understandable way.  In the afternoon, I enjoyed the job workshop and gleaned some information from bouncing from table to table and listening to faculty talk about various topics: campus visits, job talks, publishing, negotiating a job offer.  My favorite piece of advice from the afternoon was this:  if you get a question you don’t know in a Q & A session after a job talk, it’s ok to say “wow, that’s a great question.  I need to think some more about that,” and then you can talk about something that the question reminds you of – “that reminds me of so-and-so’s work on…”  Then you have bought yourself some time to think through a further answer, or the questioner can pick up from there and talk about their work, which apparently is what some questioners want to do when something in your talk reminds them of their work!  I will definitely be using this advice.  Thank you to Janice Walker, Angela Haas, Quinn Warnick, and Patrick Berry as well for helping to organize the GRN for all of us grad students.

Friday:  Gee’s keynote blew me away.  He used a metaphor that’s stayed with me for the typical work that we are asking students to do in schools: it’s like reading a videogame manual without actually playing the game.  We need to work toward getting students to “play the game”; that is, they need to write for purposes and audiences that are important to them and that have meaning.   I also had a great time presenting on Friday with Anne Ruggles Gere and Liz Homan about research methods.  For more on our pres, check out my conference presentations page.

Saturday:  Sessions, sessions, sessions!  I went to sessions all day!  The highlights included listening to Jody Shipka and Mary Hocks talk about sound and the ways they use it in their own scholarship and teaching, being persuaded (again) by Karl Stolley that I need to learn to build more things, and thinking about some topics that I don’t often consider in relation to computers and writing, such as e-waste and preservation or opening up questions of gender and the computer more explicitly in the classroom.  It was also my birthday on Saturday, so I celebrated in style with some friends that evening for dinner.

Sunday:  I attended the accessibility panel on Sunday morning before heading home.  The panelists pointed to the complexities of making texts accessible when we deal with the multimodal, and also how software and interfaces can screen attention away from accessibility if we’re not careful how we use them.  Good, important lessons and reminders.

All in all, I had a wonderful conference!  Fueled by all these ideas, I now return to diss writing.  As I spend mornings and afternoons typing away in my office, it sometimes seems like I’m writing in a vacuum, but conferences like C&W remind me that the work matters, and there are many others who think it matters too, and collectively, we are doing great things!

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Video Composing the Diss

I’ve been composing a video as part of my dissertation work over the past few weeks, in part as a final project for the Computers and Writing graduate course that I’m auditing with Dr. Melanie Yergeau, and in part because I’ve always wanted to make videos as part of my dissertation.  So this one is an experiment, to see if what I make really adds anything that I need to the written prose.  A few reflections here about what I’m learning along the way!

I see this video composition as part of my methodology for the dissertation – a new way to interact with and analyze my data.  The main way I’ve been interacting with my data as I’ve been writing up chapters has been by way of more traditional “qualitative analysis” – that is, I interviewed students and instructors, observed class lessons, and collected documents.  Then I transcribed the interviews and observations and went through and coded the written representations of the data, or, I put labels on everything!  Well, it’s a little more complicated than that.  But basically, I’ve been working a lot with the written text, and adding more written text (codes) to that written text to help me think it through.

So the video editing has brought me back (closer anyway) to the original data sources, which (obviously) aren’t just written text.  I’ve been looking at video footage from my classroom observations and from the interviews.  I’ve been listening to the voices of my participants again, and I’ve been seeing their faces, their bodies, their clothing, their hair.  I’ve been interacting a whole lot more with the digital products that the students in my study created, and weaving pieces of these products together with interview and classroom footage (this aspect of this kind of video composing project is SO COOL.  I can watch a student’s video, and then superimpose the student herself talking about the choices she made over the top, so you can watch/listen to both at once).

The video composing has also made me pull back from individual pieces of data a bit more.  In the write up when I’m working with written transcripts and quotations, I find myself writing about a certain quotation or classroom incident for a good chunk of time, for hours, for days.  But in the video composition, I see the whole picture in my mind’s eye more often, and I don’t fixate as much on smaller moments.  Maybe it has to do with the fact that the video is so much faster: I can see and hear multiple pieces of data quickly in the video, whereas it takes much longer to read an account of the same moments and analyze them.  In the video, I also see and hear the learning happen in the students.  I see them in different outfits as time passes, and suddenly, they’re talking differently, too – they use a term like juxtaposition in a class discussion, or they talk about how thinking about their imagined audience helped them to make a compositional choice, and then I can see evidence of that in their product.  Their learning overall seems more apparent to me as I create, watch, and listen.

And then, well, there are the cool parts of making a video.  I get to use music, and organize sections of my composition according to the musical breaks or the melody.  I get to use text movements and choose fonts, to play with animated transitions and backgrounds.  I get to watch tutorials on youtube, and learn new software platforms, and learn to edit with a brightly colored keyboard made specifically for Final Cut Pro.  There are some lame aspects, too: I have to video edit on campus, and the booth I’ve been working in gets ridiculously hot.  I had to buy an expensive external hard drive that was compatible with both Mac and PC and spend about 3 days figuring out how to partition the drive on a campus machine (thanks to Melanie for helping me figure it out eventually!).  And video editing, well, it’s slow!  Hours upon hours upon hours to work on one small section.  I’m much faster (and probably more skilled) at writing paragraphs, I tell you.

In the end, I’m glad that I’m doing both for my dissertation, even if both video and written paragraphs don’t end up in the diss itself.  Composing in multiple ways is valuable to me as a researcher, and it is helping me to think about my data from various angles.  I wish I could post the video I’m making here, but you’ll just have to wait until the diss is out in full effect.  For now, it’s back to the editing booth.

Back to (someone else’s) Classroom – with cameras!

This week, I get to do two very cool things in other people’s writing classrooms.  First, I’m bringing video cameras and microphones to four different sections of first-year writing and letting the students play and make and do with the equipment.  This is both exciting and terrifying.  Exciting: students (lots of students!) will be composing and creating with cameras, discovering new possibilities for communication and expression.  Terrifying: somehow, I am the “expert” on this stuff, on these cameras – the classroom visitor bringing in the cool tools and toys.  This is mildly terrifying because I wouldn’t (until recently, perhaps) describe myself as expert in these technical matters – perhaps I’d call myself “willing and open”.  And look where this kind of openness gets you!

The second cool thing I get to do this week is start my official classroom observations for my dissertation research.  I’ll be observing with cameras in tow – this time for my own data collection and documentation.  And I’m going to observe with the help of several cameras, one of which will be in my hand.  I’m most excited for this new challenge – to see and listen and look with my body, as usual, of course, but also to see and listen and look with the composing tool (yes, that’s the camera) in my hand.  This, I expect, will be a very cool thing.

So here I go, back to (someone else’s) classroom – with cameras!