Spring New Media Perspectives and Other Thoughts on Teaching

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

It’s always interesting after a course has run to think back through and consider content, method, and production. New Media Perspectives has seen several versions and we’re really just hitting our stride in the course. We cover several issues:

1. An overview of new media principles and examples we think are generalized and reflect digital culture and history, such as the intrinsic dimensionality of digital objects (code, interface, culture)
2. An introduction to some basic observation, planning, and production techniques
3. Practice with a few tools that provide opportunity to work with media relationships, actions and events, abstraction, data manipulation and visualization
4. Survey of works and applications that reflect interdisciplinary ideas and states of the art

But the content, even though we don’t delve too deeply, is still difficult for students to keep up with. One observation we’ve (by we I mean me and John Timmons) been making is that students have difficulty using technology in a methodical fashion. They either want to leap to the good stuff or don’t pause long enough to think about even the most rudimentary “processes” as significant building blocks for complex analysis. (I’m teaching my self how to play guitar so I am very much sympathetic to this impulse). Another issue has to do with the relationship between concretion and abstraction. In a game, for example, students had difficulty understanding the nature of a walkthrough, even though they’ve probably encountered plenty of them. A walkthrough is, of course, a concrete and explicit representation of a physical but abstract system of rules and potential states of a system. Visualizing the walkthrough as a set of decisions for another player to follow was hard for most of our students to grasp.

Another example of abstraction has to do with spatial representation. Thinking about how an object can be constructed as “another kind of surface” is just plain difficult to do. A house for example can become an aggressive and strange monster if we’re asked to describe how we move through it in a descriptive essay when we don’t consciously think about how we move through that space, unless we’re lost, looking for the restroom, have just had our eyes poked out, or trying to find a location in Hartford. Coding that space in Inform is yet another challenge. “Mapping a space” in Tinderbox and Inform proved fairly difficult.

I don’t think any of this is new or controversial or even all that insightful, as many of my students in Composition courses really never leave with a strong sense of claim or thesis. I have some students who simply cannot understand, at least at this point in their careers, how to compose a coherent and purposeful paragraph and how to frame a position in the construct of an essay. An essay does have a structure but that structure can seem complicated to people who don’t really experience a lot of them or read many books or who who are not used to working with fundamental processes. It can get complicated. An essay, like a house, has a front door.

Another example of this “question of abstraction” is a particular work I received that used semi-colons incorrectly (but with gusto!) throughout the paper. The semi-colon would either tell me it wanted to be a comma, a colon, a dash, or some other punctuation mark meant to act as a strenuous signification of pause, signal into a quote, swift transition to a different argument or example, or perhaps even a mid-sentence paragraph shift. In the end, the semi-colon became like that strangely tall person you had in the third or fourth grade. The semi-colon is, indeed, not a difficult punctuation mark; it, for example, can be used thusly. They provide the opportunity to show clausal relationships between ideas, assuming one doesn’t enjoy the technique of coordination with words like “and.” They’re also quite unnecessary, and we can probably thank Ben Johnson for their occurrence in the language. We should probably get used to blaming him for everything language related.

A relationship exists between the purpose of punctuation in composition and color in mapping. I’ve been thinking a lot about the grammar of maps, thanks to Nathan Matias, who made me aware of this item.

A deeper problem is trying to understand how freshmen in college think Screen shot 2010-05-18 at 12.10.27 PM.pngabout punctuation and abstraction and why they think about such things as they do. If every room in a structure is painted the same color, it potentially performs the same purpose. This may or may not be true. Rooms, of course, have different attributes. The designed regions of Facebook screens are significant in considerations of spatial representation. The observer can make the code layer available to make inferences about those regions.

The student who misused the semi-colon is a valuable lesson, as is the student who forgot to use color to distinguish his map from his objects in Tinderbox. These students will help improve my approach in discussions about the logic of a variety of languages.

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