Yesterday I returned from Austin and my whirlwind trip down to UT for the first regional THATCamp meeting. Schedule-wise, the THATCamp meeting coincided with the Society for American Archivists annual conference, which meant that the unconference drew a fair number of archivists interested in digital preservation, harnessing technology to increase accessibility to archival information, and a whole host of other, techier subjects that I really didn’t understand (which goes to say that I’ll omit an extensive recap of the Dork Shorts segment of the evening.)
My interest in attending stemmed from learning about the THATCamp meeting at George Mason University that took place earlier this summer. I had initially thought that I’d have to wait until Summer 2010 to attend this event, but once I learned that they’d start holding regional meet-ups, I jumped at the chance to attend and talk about a number of the issues I’ve been writing about here on this blog. Particularly in these last few weeks leading up to the start of school, I was excited to have the chance to float some of my thoughts about a social media-structured class by others and cull both their ideas and feedback.
After dinner and an informal chatting session, (where it became strikingly obvious that most people knew one another better by their Twitter handles than by their real names) we convened in the extremely well air conditioned main room to decide on session topics and locations. The predominance of archivists meant that the bulk of the sessions dealt with archival issues, but nevertheless, my proposal for a session idea was given the thumbs-up by 13 attendees and became a session in and of itself. Most of the attendees to the session (perhaps five of the ~11) were associated with the University of Texas’ Computer Writing and Research Lab, whose website and Learning Record page I’ve found really compelling.*
I was glad to have the chance to meet with the graduate students who work at the CWRL and instruct the freshman writing and rhetoric courses. Although my subject matter as a teacher is ostensibly “history,” I nevertheless think critical writing and argumentation is a much more vital skill than fact memorization and is hopefully one of the key skills students will leave high school possessing. Therefore, being able to talk with teachers who work with college freshman and have a clear sense of what they struggle with was helpful for me in terms of seeing overlapping challenges and areas for improvement.
Some of our discussion centered on strategies for incorporating social media into writing, although I must admit I didn’t take copious notes, didn’t Tweet too extensively, and haven’t yet perused the archive of others’ tweets from that session. However, John Jones at UT-Austin and the CWRL recorded the whole thing with his Mino HD Flip camera and will hopefully post it somewhere for posterity’s sake. (John, when you get the link up on Vimeo or wherever else, send out a tweet and let us know where to find it. Thanks!) I do remember though that we talked about the challenges of incorporating technology into writing and research and collaboration (or the lack thereof) in the humanities.
The session ended, however, on a semi-ominous tone when talking about student blogging and what legal hurdles might stand in the way of teachers wanting to incorporate blogs–particularly those that are publicly visible–into the classroom. One of the attendees brought up the issue of FERPA and whether it provides students with a legal shield that would enable them to avoid having to participate in a class blog or write their own blog given their privacy concerns. Dave Parry, (a fellow Metroplexer who I’ve followed on Twitter for a long time, was really glad to meet in person and chat with, and to whom I owe a special debt of gratitude for driving to Austin and back. Thanks, Dave!) a professor at UT-Dallas, argued that for his classes and for those students majoring in Emerging Media and Communications at UTD, it’d be impossible to pursue the necessary coursework, complete it satisfactorily, and avoid participating publicly on the internet. This issue was of interest to me given my hopes to structure student writing assignments around blogs and RSS feeds. However, my brief research about FERPA seemed to indicate that the law deals mainly with student grades. In any event, I think that the issue of technological and media literacy is a really vital one that students and parents are justifiably concerned about. However, it seems that a class where students are encouraged to pro-actively define themselves in a positive manner online through participation in social media — and the learn about the implications and dangers of those tools in the process — is providing a valuable learning experience. Certainly, it is far more effective to have students actively experience these social media tools in a learning context than have a sensationalist speaker come in and didactically talk at students about stranger danger online and the glut of sexual predators on MySpace.
After our first session we listened to the Dork Shorts presentations, but for my purposes I found the most applicability in Matt King’s presentation on the CWRL’s “Rhetorical Peaks” video game. I won’t try to explain it too in-depth as it’s worth checking out, but will say that I think its structure and manner of presentation is really clever and I’m hoping to integrate the game into my classes this year. The second session was on digital inequalities and the archive, which raised some interesting issues, but none which I had much knowledge of or investment in, making it thought-provoking, but not professionally useful.
Perhaps the best thing about the entire unconference, however, involved the networking and connections I forged with other scholars interested in issues of effective pedagogy through technology. In this regard, the post-conference hang-out at the Dog and Duck Pub proved a really valuable wrap-up to the evening. Our group from the first session reconvened and we chatted about various ideas for structuring assignments around social media to encourage more collaboration and student-to-student feedback.
Ben Brumfield, one of the organizers of the event, has already posted on some of the challenges that surfaced in the planning and execution of this initial foray into regional THATCamps. Nevertheless, I’m extremely glad to have gone, netted my free t-shirt, eaten delicious pizza (all of which was gratis thanks to the savvy budgeting of the organizers!), and connected with really impressive, smart, people whose thoughts and ideas about the digital humanities and incorporating technology into the classroom have been and will continue to be influential. I look forward to continuing the discussion and innovation!
*The CWRL’s concept and procedure for “minimal marking” is brilliant! If only I could rein myself in enough to not nitpick the whole thing I might begin to actually move through grading writing expeditiously. However, I’m determined to make a good faith effort this year to employ that strategy, which will no doubt save my more time than Don LaPre’s tips from “The Road to Self-Improvement.” Moreover, though this is a topic for a separate post on grading, I’m also quite compelled by the CWRL’s “small multiples” grading system; however, I’d need to find a way to make this system easily quantifiable given the frequency of assignments and grades that characterize the secondary versus the university classroom. However, if anyone has ideas about how to convert dots on a Cartesian coordinate system into fractions for the purpose of grading [or has already done so] please let me know.