Teaching with Micro-Content

Many eons ago, when I was an undergrad studying history, I became a big fan of micro-history which is, according to the fountain of knowledge that is Wikipedia, a history of something small, like a specific place or event. See The Cheese and the Worm by Carlo Ginzburg or The Great Cat Massacre by Robert Darnton, yes that Robert Darnton, for a good example.

For someone who appreciates micro approaches, the Internet is of course a goldmine. And it seems like the more hyper-specific and kooky and parodic the content on Tumblr and Twitter, the better. Mean Mad Men. Arrested Downton. United Airlanes. TNG Season 8. The Texts from Last Night craze. The list goes on and on (to infinity).  Funny as it is, I think that the digestible style of micro-blogging can lend itself to use in a classroom, regardless of how you feel about things like social media and attention spans.

Hyper-specific and relatively small content is something that students can create during an in-class activity, after all and focusing on content in the micro can give students the chance to be creative, focus on a very specific element in theme in a broader area of study, and practice skills, like writing in digital environments.

Two things I love about micro-content, and associated memes for that matter, are the ways in which they often engage in genre mash-ups and the ways in which they can have fun with anachronisms.  The pairing of humorous dialog, typically from the eminently quotable Mean Girls and Arrested Development, with more serious fare, like the aforementioned Mad Men, Downton Abbey (serious might need to be put in quotation marks here), Sherlock (again with the quotes), Game of Thrones, etc. can be an entrée to exploring genres and writing styles and content presentation to students. How can a few tweaks change a tragedy into a comedy and vice versa?

The other thing I enjoy, the anachronisms, can be found in dialog mash-ups – no one in a period piece being mocked would speak like the cast of Mean Girls, for example. But I also enjoy the myriad attempts to explore and re-imagine older media in modern settings, like Modern Seinfeld. As funny as it is, the premise of Modern Seinfeld really does fascinate me. Just how different would Seinfeld have been with modern technology? Half the episodes of the show wouldn’t have happened. That hilarious lost in the parking garage one? Solved immediately with a cell phone. Various dating crises? Fixed with the stalking power of social media.

I was thinking that it would be a really neat assignment to have students either add, or remove, a piece of technology to, or from, a story as a sort remix exercise and a way to think critically about the role technology plays in our daily lives and interactions. This is something that could be done in a book club group, an after school program, as part of an English class, a library session, etc.

There are a lot of examples already where people modernize an old story or add in technology – see all the Facebook accounts for things like Hamlet or the entire show of Sherlock (which is predicated on Sherlock Holmes having access to modern technology). It’s a rich thought experiment that can be applied to a huge number of works (Holden Caulfield with a cell phone, go). But I think the reverse would be fascinating too – how would Gossip Girl work in the pre-internet and cell phone era? What would Abed on Community do without his extensive DVD collection? Or even in a fictional dystopia (which, as I started trying to compile a list, I realized nearly every cool YA book is – but that’s a discussion for another day), what if the Hunger Games were a live theatrical event and not televised?

Can you think of any other works where you could take technology away or add it to facilitate projects on thinking critically about technology? Add your ideas below!