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!


The House Hunters Decision-Making Model

Ennui cat expresses ennui

Sartre famously commented on how awful free will and choice can be (“I am condemned to be free” – so melodramatic, dude).

But it’s really true – having all the options open to you can be paralyzing, just as having none can be frustrating. And this is why I think something like House Hunter’s (the HGTV show where people select a house from three options) is kind of genius, and definitely appealing.  The show is rigged. But, frankly, I think that’s part of the charm. The people on that show (which I often watch in order to mock – seriously, people, you can change paint. It’s not a deal breaker.) only have three choices. Only three! And while they do the requisite agonizing over which to pick at the end, while dramatic countdown music plays, and one member of the couple sagely notes “we, like, have to make a decision,” it’s only between three things (and not even that given that the show is rigged).

Can you imagine going through life and only having to pick among three options instead of like, the 800 cars on the Carfax website, or the 10 pairs of ambiguously named jeans at the Gap, or the innumerable life decisions that are rarely divided neatly into three distinct options?

House Hunters is like a baby pool of decision-making. And I think that’s something that can actually be highly beneficial to students learning a new skill, like researching. Educators who do things like teach essay writing to younger students have figured this one out – it’s why we give the kids templates and outlines to use. We provide baby steps along the way to writing a full-fledged essay. We limit the number of decisions for students to make as they start writing. For some reason, college students are often expected to leap right in to research, from picking their own topic to finding their own sources. What I’d like to do is promote everything but the research paper assignments (see the example from the UT Libraries) or at least closed circuit activities, so to speak.

For instance, in introductory research classes, I often give students articles on a contemporary topic (I used the Keystone Pipeline debate recently) to use in an evaluation activity. The articles I select all cover distinct political views and, like the houses on House Hunters which are always neatly categorized as “fixer upper” or “great kitchen”, the articles I pre-select fit a variety of distinct needs and provide an opportunity to test out evaluation and decision-making skills without overwhelming my students with options.

As much as I like students to think and discover and experiment for themselves, I think that sometimes you need to take more of a House Hunters approach, particularly with things like early research skills, and set up scenarios for students to work within before unleashing them into the wide world of unlimited choice.

Visualize This

Eddie Izzard does a hilarious routine about JFK’s (in)famous Ich bin ein Berliner spiel by saying that the gaffe was actually totally fine because it’s really “70% how you look, 20% how you sound, and 10% what you say.”

With these words of wisdom in mind I decided to set out to teach students how to create data visualizations so that their research can at least look snazzy.

Mean Girls – a movie about image (among other things) that has become a key visual communication tool via GIFs and remixes on the internet. So meta!

Just kidding. I do, however, teach a data visualization class and it’s a subject area that I’ve gotten increasingly interested in. I think that visuals can be a great way to hook students into experimenting with technology and new ways to communicate ideas. So, everything information literacy instruction should be.

But data visualization is more than just a hook – teaching students how to create visualizations, how to differentiate between and evaluate visualization types, and how to understand representations of data, is a really vital skill, particularly for anyone who is participating in life on the internet (so, pretty much everyone if the folks at Pew are to be believed).

I don’t expect my kids to become the next Nate Silver, but having some visual literacy can be helpful in terms of both coursework and daily life. My students (generally teens) are on sites like Instagram and Tumblr all the time – there’s an entire language of GIFs (see #whatshouldwecallme and its derivatives) that has sprung up online and entire conversations can be held with emojis.

And aside from social interactions, Infographics are completely ubiquitous (Flowing Data exists for a reason). Data visuals and infographics are the go-to form for representing ideas and data sets, just as visuals like GIFs are rapidly becoming a go-to form for expressing emotions and ideas online. We live in a society laden with images and being able to both produce and critically assess visuals is a valuable skill to have.  Plus, data visualization is just fun to do in the classroom. I just enjoy having an excuse to take a coloring/drawing break from time to time.

For more on the ins and outs of data visualizations, infographics, and how they can be powerful tools, check out this Ted Talk by David MacCandless.

Lesson ideas with Data Visualization:

  • Give students a data set (you can get free sets from a variety of places, including government websites, Google’s Public Data Provider, or Overthinking It for pop culture data sets, like their awesome Star Trek Red Alert one.) and have them design a data visualization on their own using a tool like PowerPoint or even just good old-fashioned pen and paper. Then put them in pairs or groups and have them work together to merge their ideas.
  • Show students a bad data visualization (they are plentiful online) and have them apply best practices to fix it.
  • Have students represent one data set in different ways. Check out this Lifehacker post about choosing the best way to represent your data, for inspiration.