Recursive Writing

Pedagogy, Publishing, Polemic

Revising Writing in Public

This fall, I’m teaching the same first-year writing course that I taught last winter. That means I get to make changes with the benefit of recent experience, which is always a nice position to be in. Last time I taught the course (which was also the first time I taught this incarnation of the course), I threw absolutely everything at the wall to see what stuck. Some things very definitely did not stick, and I am at work enthusiastically jettisoning them from my syllabus. Others did work, and so I’m figuring out how to build on what was successful.

One thing that was, ultimately, successful, was the concept of the course itself. Students responded well to the idea that we were both reading and producing public writing. I got interesting and engaging final projects that were clearly made more engaging for both me and the students by the freedom built into the assignment to allow students to write about what interested them.

I worried about the dangers of asking students to write in public, and I continue to worry about that, although there were no problems with publicity/privacy last term. I’m making a few changes to further address these concerns in the coming term.

So, in no particular order, here are some of the ways I’m going to tweak the course:

  • Swap out David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster for Kameron Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution. Wallace’s essays are brilliant, and I think they speak to several major issues in first-year composition, but the students were kind of split on them, and I don’t want to spend my energy getting students to appreciate essays by an abuser (though this piece has some ideas about how to manage that work if you do want to try). Instead, I’m going to teach essays from Hurley’s collection which, while they aren’t the virtuosic experiments in stretching the limits of the form that Wallace’s are (and that level of virtuosity has its drawbacks in a first-year writing class), address topics including GamerGate, feminism in pop culture, how to write for different audiences, and the experiences of women in online discourse, all in an engaging tone that will serve well as a model for student writing. I expect Hurley’s essays to challenge my students and to frame the idea of writing in public in an explicitly feminist context.
  • Shift around some of the other readings from Unit II. I’m going to add essays about class, region and poverty by Sarah Smarsh, June Thunderstorm, and Elizabeth Catte. I’ll probably choose a few more new essays.
  • Get rid of the Twitter component of the course. Nobody wants to be forced to use Twitter, and I simply don’t have the boundless enthusiasm necessary to make being forced to use Twitter a fun experience for students.
  • Ditch The learning curve was too high, it didn’t work well for peer review, and it was one more tool to manage.
  • Completely overhaul the response post assignment. Last time, I gave students relatively detailed and specific instructions about what belongs in a response post, how long they should be, and how they should respond to the texts we read in class. Then I provided detailed feedback each week to help tweak student responses in line with what I was looking for. This was a terrible idea. There’s no fun in that sort of assignment. In my spring term course on literary transformation, I had students use Tumblr, and gave them a much more open assignment—just write 500 words about one of the texts (and, unless context dictates otherwise, use paragraphs and relatively standard grammar and style). That worked much better. This term, I’m relaxing the assignment even more: students will need to post one 500-word post each week. It can be about anything, using whatever style or structure students want. My hope is that this will encourage students to explore how they want to use their website, without worrying as much about what I expect.

I’m also making a (now public) commitment to writing alongside my students. I’m going to take my new, open and flexible weekly post assignment to heart and push myself to write 500 words of something, publicly, once a week. I haven’t decided yet whether I will post that writing to the demonstration blog I have set up for the class—a space for me to walk students through some technical stuff and to post interesting content—or whether I’ll post here, but I’m going to do a better job of practicing what I preach about the benefits of writing in public.

More updates to come as I continue to revise the syllabus and website. You can visit the course website, which is currently in a state of flux, to get a sense of what I did last time (or, as I make changes, what I’m doing this time around).

Web Design as Course Design

Although our four-week, intensive Spring term is still over five months away, those months will go by in a blur, especially since I’ll be teaching first-year writing. So I’ve been taking advantage my grading-free term by getting started on my course website for Spring. Truthfully, I wanted an excuse to experiment with Craft CMS, and my upcoming course seemed like a good opportunity.

The jury is out on Craft. It’s definitely way, way more than I need for a course website. And it’s way, way more work than just finding a WordPress site and tweaking the theme. It’s way more work than customizing a child theme. It might even be more work than developing a WordPress theme from scratch, to be honest. I’ve been futzing around with it for a bit and feel like I’m finally getting the hang of it, but it’s so patently overkill for a course website that I may end up scrapping what I’ve done and going with a static site generated with Hugo.

The cool thing about Craft, though, is that it’s so customizable that you can build exactly what you want, while still having the advantages of a content management system. This description is pretty apt: “Craft is like WordPress if it was stripped naked and then clothed in Advanced Custom Fields.” I can see how useful it would be for a wide range of projects, and how it would allow you to create sites with the administrative advantages of WordPress without all the unnecessary bloat.

Because using Craft means starting with a pretty blank slate, in terms of templates, structure and even functionality, the standard formats and layouts I tend to use for course websites weren’t necessarily required. My goal was to learn to use Craft, and to try out some of its most interesting features, like the Matrix fields, or the different ways of structuring content. So I started thinking about ways to re-imagine and re-structure my course content to take advantage of those features.

I’m not sure where I’ll end up with this particular course website. I might soldier on with Craft. I might go back to a familiar platform. I might find something entirely new I want to try. But whichever direction I head, the exercise in re-fitting my course material for a very different website design has been really productive. I’ve thought about the different ways I can present the content I make available to students, from the course policies to the schedule to the assignments. I’ve experimented with different ways of laying out all of that content in relation to the overall site (and, by extension, the course), as well as in relation to the other content.

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The Dangers of Writing in Public

I’ve already made it clear that I think academics should write publicly and politically. I also think students should write publicly, though for different reasons, ones I’ll gloss briefly and perhaps expand on at some later date:

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Public Writing for Literary Scholars

After my last post on scholarship and public writing, my colleague Greg Laski wondered over on Twitter what such writing should actually look like.

Greg argued that historians produce more public writing for popular audiences than literary scholars, perhaps because their discipline is better suited to that sort of engagement, or possibly because there’s a clear market for the general-interest history book, particularly biography (e.g., everything written by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton).

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Writing in Public in Our Political Moment

I’ve been reading the responses to my English department colleagues’ forceful statement on Washington and Lee’s insufficient reckoning with its history and what that history means to marginalized groups, and thinking about what it means to write in public as an academic these days. What are our obligations? What are the risks, and who should and shouldn’t take them?

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Linking to the Latest Post in Hugo

This is probably only of interest to a small subset of the limited group of people using Hugo, but if you’re one of those half dozen people, you’re in luck.

When I described some of my initial struggles with Hugo’s less than forthcoming documentation, I suggested that this might be a net benefit for me. Ask me again in a year, but right now I’m finding it instructive to find that there simply aren’t answers to some of my questions. I’m less charmed by the apparent tendency of people on the Hugo forum to answer well-meaning and not all that obvious questions with some variation of, “Read the docs.”

I am not the only person who has wanted to link to the most recent post on a Hugo site, but no one seems to have offered up a helpful public answer. Here’s mine:

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On Platforms

I’m documenting, as much for my own benefit as anyone’s, my process in setting up this blog and, going forward, the more general interest blog I’m planning on maintaining next semester. That blog will be on WordPress, for reasons I’ll document later, but that mainly have to do with being consistent with what I’m going to ask my students to use.

My main Recursive Writing blog, though, uses Hugo and a theme based on the Clean Blog theme at Start Bootstrap. I spent some time looking at different static site generators, and even though everyone and their mother in the DH community seem to be using Jekyll, I decided it wasn’t for me. Primarily, I didn’t want to deal with Ruby, and I didn’t want to deal with getting Ruby up and running on the Reclaim Hosting server that this site is on. Most of the Reclaim servers now come with an option to install Ruby (this post contains more on Ruby, Reclaim and Jekyll), but mine doesn’t for some reason, and I wasn’t sufficiently excited about Jekyll to follow up.

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Hello World

This is yet another return to blogging. I can no longer keep track of how many returns I have had over the years since my first stint as a marginally successful knitting blogger when I was in college in the early aughts. And really, it’s a wonder that the genre is still around so many years later; most Internet-specific forms are far more short-lived. Even the confessional personal essay that seemed to have conquered every publication from Deadspin to the New York Times has returned to the Livejournal ether it sprung from.

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