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Christine Becker
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Form, Content, Method

Posted By Christine A. Becker, Thursday, March 22, 2012
Updated: Monday, March 26, 2012

I usually leave teaching workshops feeling both invigorated and intimidated. The dedication to student learning and the volume of great ideas is always inspiring. But I’m also nagged by the uncertainty of if I can accomplish any of the great things the speakers describe, and plus, after getting back to classes following the conference, the slog of the semester retakes my soul, and I usually end up making only modest changes (if any). And yet, it struck me after attending two workshops yesterday, even small changes can significantly impact a classroom experience.

I went to two teaching workshops yesterday, Teaching the Moving Target and The Undergraduate TV Paper. I had no idea what to expect from the former’s title (and I heard at least one person say she didn’t attend because of that, prompting another to call it the Terriers of workshop titles). But it offered a fascinating collection of ideas and projects in the end. The title’s concept referred to teaching content that is hard to get a handle on, that is constantly moving, and accordingly, the workshop offered such presentations as Sean O’Sullivan on teaching the TV serial, which is difficult to do justice to in a standard course structure, and Vicki Callahan on conducting a fascinating online multimedia course on local community engagement to students with no background in media making, which obviously poses myriad challenges. A number of the speakers displayed impressive online projects, such as Virginia Kuhn’s Speaking With Students, which presents videos of students reflecting on their creation of multimedia theses. And Craig Dietrich, also the workshop chair, discussed multiple digital assets for the classroom, such as thoughtmesh.net, which enables tagging and linking of scholarly papers by section, thus allowing for horizontal exploration of ideas. To wrap up the workshop, Anne Moore offered us good old-fashioned handouts (paper technology!), and got across an idea that ended up uniting all the papers for me. She spoke of teaching a composition class using cult television serials, because having students explore concepts of seriality and fandom enables them to interrogate the writerly construction of narratives and critical engagements with pleasure, which in effect forces them to think through their own writing processes and products. I loved the idea that you could use one form to interrogate another and have the reading of content reflect back on the creation of content. This meshing of method, form, and content was ultimately at the heart of each presentation, and whether we have students simply write papers or create complex multimedia projects, we must always reflect on how assignments can foster unique processes of learning engagement based on the interaction of form and content.

The other workshop, on the undergraduate TV paper and chaired by Ethan Thompson, similarly helped me realize that I need to deeply reflect on what my end goals for assignments are when I craft them. Suzanne Scott discussed an intriguing midterm assignment asking students to explore the motivations and implications of transmedia branding surrounding Castle, which gets them thinking about new concepts of flow and materiality. Daniel Marcus focused on how to push students, who are getting younger every year after all, to understand past TV shows in their historical contexts, such as by using Raymond Williams’ dominant/emergent/residual framework. Derek Kompare explained multiple assignments designed to lead the students to understand the importance of clear and engaging writing and the difference between description and analysis, with a viewing diary exercise and a TV memory paper allowing such reflections. And Ben Aslinger discussed the importance of introducing students to conflicting discourses from within and across disciplines, allowing them to see how language is used strategically in certain industrial and academic contexts.

Again, my takeaway was that examining the relationships among form, content, and method – in both assignments and objects of study – is crucial. Whether that’s something we implement in a substantial way, such as designing a whole class with it in mind, or a small way, such as augmenting an existing paper assignment, we can push students and ourselves further with such interrogative goals in mind.

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Brett K. Boessen says...
Posted Monday, March 26, 2012
This discussion of the relationship between syllabus and assignment design and intended outcomes for student learning reminds me an awful lot of the way game designers (especially those who think about design rhetorically, such as Ian Bogost) talk about how they make games. Which seems to be another point in the cloud of general chatter happening in learning education circles of late regarding the benefits of applying game design principles to education.

(Btw, though the process to actually participate in this blog and its discussions is not intuitive, I'm glad SCMS is sponsoring experiments of this kind, and hope we'll see more moves in this direction.)
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