New Methods, New Data: Manovich and Hayles on today’s research and writing

On Monday and Tuesday, I attended the keynote addresses at the Digital Cultures in the Age of Big Data institute at Bowling Green State University.  Lev Manovich skyped in on Monday morning for a talk on methods for studying contemporary interactive media, and N. Katherine Hayles spoke this morning, sharing with the audience her digital companion repository that pairs with her book How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis.  A few words here about my take-aways and the questions that arose as I listened to each talk.

Manovich made an extended argument that research in the digital humanities needs to turn away from digitizing and analyzing documents alone, but instead that researchers need to be looking toward cultural activities as data, meaning the processes and performances that occur when a user interacts with software.  Practically, he was advocating for more attention to users and what’s going on with them when they use a technology and less attention to the technologies themselves.  While I agree that these methods could be a useful line of inquiry for humanities scholars, I have been mulling over some of the claims and assumptions that Manovich made with respect to “old” and “new” media: old media as non-interactive or less interactive, new media as fundamentally different, and thus more interactive. It is true that users do interact with newer forms of media in shifted ways, but users also interacted with older forms of media–the scroll, the book, the pencil–but perhaps in ways not as visible as mouse clicks are today.  Perhaps research methods of old could also have been shifted to pay more attention to interaction, then, too.  I’m also left with questions about how to put Manovich’s ideas to practical use: how can we even begin to record and analyze user experiences on a big data level?  Maybe the starting place is to begin small, working up to the big data inquiry that Manovich argued we need.

Hayles spent her talk describing and showing her own digital humanities project, the digital companion to her book, How We Think.  Hayles created this companion site in part to make the data she used when composing her book available to more scholars.  Using the repository, other users can come to their own conclusions and the data can generate new and different questions.  I’d be interested to hear if Hayles has any information about if the site is being used, and if so, by whom.  Also interesting was that the repository gave access to full recordings of interviews that Hayles conducted with prominent scholars in digital humanities as part of her book research.  The recordings are tagged with key themes, so that a user can go directly to the portion of the data that is of interest.  While the audio quality of the interviews isn’t superb, and navigating through the material isn’t the easiest with the controls provided, the raw data is available to others and visible in a way that research data usually is not.

Overall, both talks got me thinking about methods, research, data, and how the digital offers different opportunities for developing, asking, and answering questions about texts and users of texts.  As Hayles mentioned, these concerns are becoming more and more relevant to the academy, and soon, they will be the concerns.

I have a plan of attack!…and Jarrett et al on transfer

I’m calling it a day, and proud that I actually worked today.  Here’s what I got done and a few musings and questions on what I learned.

I went through the comments I received from my co-chair and my professor on the first draft of my prospectus that I wrote a few weeks ago.  I made a Word doc and summarized all the important themes throughout the comments.  Then I made a plan of attack for revising the draft, which includes revamping the research questions pretty much completely, adding to the lit. review section but at the same time cutting it down so I don’t lit review on and on for 20+ pages, backgrounding literature and foregrounding my terms, my voice, and my arguments in the conceptual framework section, adding a section about the unit I want to design, and developing the methods section in depth (it is bare bones if that right now). 

I also made a timeline / syllabus / schedule for this semester that I will discuss with my co-chairs next week.  I put a tentative defense date for the week of March 12, the week before Cs, so we’ll see what my advisors think about that.  I also confirmed a co-chair meeting via email for next Wednesday where we will discuss my timeline and other members of my committee. 

In the afternoon, I spent a few hours reading Jarrett et al’s 2009 essay “Pedagogical Memory.”  They offer what they call pedagogical memory as a framework that writing instructors and researchers can use to approach questions of transfer from first year comp.  They interviewed almost 100 college juniors and seniors about their first year writing course and their upper level writing course, looking for what students remembered from their first year course and how they charted a path to their upper level course.  They organize their data according to four categories: students that had difficulty remembering or explaining what they learned in FYC, students who talked about writing as a process, students who saw writing as technical correctness and grammar, and students who constructed learning about writing in the moment during the interview. 

Jarrett et al then conclude that based on their data, transfer is difficult to chart and that it might be the wrong question.  Instead, they suggest our energies be spent in helping students to translate discourses about writing from site to site.  They call this “pedagogical memory work” which involves reflective writing as a tool to map pasts and imagine writing futures. 

I found the article fascinating, as many of the pieces of data that Jarrett et al cite are similar to the data I collected from my former students for the small study I put together for Qualitative Methods last term.  I also think that the way the authors frame this issue in terms of “memory” is intriguing – they avoid using the term “meta-awareness” all together. 

A major note: they do not mention technologies whatsoever, or a definition of writing for the 21st century that may be expanding beyond print and traditional genres/formats.  This is where my work can add to this conversation, I think.  Does new media writing help students to move from writing site to writing site more fluidly?  Does reflection over new media composition serve the same purposes as reflection over print writing? 

I will definitely use the Jarrett et al article in my meta-awareness section of the lit. review.  I also culled their works cited for more articles on transfer which I will look at tomorrow.