teaching matter

This post over at Matthew Kirschenbaum’s weblog got me thinking about the choices people make about teaching matter. John, Bill, and I have talked at length about materials for new media and what we and students should experience as we work through the new media core over the course of two years.

New Media 1: Perspectives is, in my view, a forum for exposing models, a course that introduces students to what people are doing and have done with media to tell stories, store information, build community, exchange goods, communicate ideas, and much more. Our concern is how these activities “can” come together in digital form and how this synthesis changes the way we think about community and so forth. So we want to give students a lot to think about. We want to give them a lot of things to read, manipulate, and play with. We’ll watch a film and consider how it was made. We’ll read a comic book and consider how a film and a comic are similar and different. We’ll read a story and consider how it’s held together then consider how a piece of IF is held together.

For me it’s an interesting question to ask: what do you need to read a book vs what do you need to read an example of Interactive Fiction? The book? The writer? The publisher? The illuminated manuscript? A computer network? Light? Physics? How does the thing shape ideas, action, experience, perception, the market place, the future, the past?

It could be argued that the book is invisible. That is, we’re so used to it, it lacks weight. In Contemporary Fiction I threw a few nails in the reading list by including Photopia and Watchmen, going against the trade as I was taught it: in school, prior to public network space, we were total print people: we didn’t really have cause to question. There was a time when I believed that computers would destroy western culture. I don’t now. I began teaching an online writing course because I wanted to prove to myself and others that this method just wouldn’t work. Talk about a radical shift in personal thinking. I understand now that what I had once demonized as destructive and false had been based on a generalization or conflation of the meaning of difference, “distance,” and “designed space” in learning environments.

When people walk into a sophomore lit course, they think “book.” Thus the comment: how can it be a story, it’s on the computer? A person who claims this will not think that they are saying something false or inaccurate; they’ll be concluding based on their circle of knowledge. Next year in CF it’s going to be a hypertext: either afternoon, a story or Victory Garden. I don’t know which yet. Maybe something else.

The choice doesn’t necessarily have to do with age or critical authority. These things matter, of course. A student who is reading Hawthorne for the first time encounters something new to them (indeed, I’ve had this story in me now going on three decades, or thereabouts, and I’m still not done with it). My students in brit lit are reading Paradise Lost and wow is the newness of this work hitting them like hail (this one I will never be done with). For some reason I keep going back to Anywhere because I’m not done with it. Students came away from Photopia with lots of ideas and reactions. Some have explored other examples of the form, which is what I hope comes of exposure. Some even want to download TADS and get to work.

In CF we think about form and meaning; we’ve also been thinking and speaking and writing a lot about relationships and where story shows up and the forms that people use to tell it. In a way in new media story is always asserting itself. I think afternoon, a story is a good story with loads of craft. I’m reading a hypertext now that is a better hypertext than a story. So I probably won’t be assigning that one.

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