For more links to useful comics-ed sites, visit here.
Yesterday, Chris Malmberg sat down in the audio room to interview Nick Sousanis for the iTeach Podcast. I got to sit in, and I talked a bit, too. (I’m not going to talk here about the meat of the conversation because that should be saved for the actual podcast, which is scheduled to air on December 24th.)
We talked a lot about the power of using images to expand the way we think. For more background on Nick, listen to the first iTeach Podcast and, more importantly, look at Nick’s blog, Spin, Weave, and Cut. We talked and talked, and we had time to cover about 5% of the things I’d been thinking about. I left the audio room after the interview thinking, “Wow, I have a lot to write about in my blog now.” And I realized I wasn’t committing fully to this idea of using image as inquiry, and I decided to create a comic in response to the interview. (And a healthy amount of text.)
The comic is above, my own version of one of the assignments Nick Sousanis gives to his graduate students, the “Shape of my Day” assignment. I decided to reflect on the day of the podcast interview as a whole. I realized the day began and ended with a persimmon, and that the shape of my day changed halfway through when I sat down to start drawing it. My thinking changed, my sense of reflection changed, and therefore the way I knew the day changed. That was most evident to me in thinking about the persimmon. Sitting down with pencil and paper, I made the decision to start the drawing with a persimmon. I did a Google image search so I could draw a fair representation of the fruit, so of course I saw the Wikipedia entry and learned all kinds of things about persimmons. They ring so exotic and old-fashioned to me. Allan, our IT guy, was eating one like an apple that morning, holding it in one hand while setting up the podcast equipment with the other. He said it was his favorite fruit, and I didn’t think about that comment again until I sat down to draw. I thought about my favorite fruit, apples, and the image that comes to my mind every time I think of apples as my favorite – I think of fall in rural Pennsylvania, driving to the sprawling orchard with my parents, back when apple trees were still big and tall and we had to get ladders. Other stuff that I won’t go into here. I ended up thinking about how persimmons became Allan’s favorite – did he get an image in his head of a time or place when he told me that?
The act of communicating through drawings brings up such a different kind of thinking and reflecting. The night before the interview, I had the Botany of Desire documentary playing in the background while I did other things. I looked up occasionally, mostly during the bits about apples and potatoes, and for one portion during the discussion of marijuana. The narrator mentions the value of the human mind to forget, or at least filter, the visual information with which we’re bombarded every day. What if we remembered every single face we saw on the subway this morning? (Or every hair on the moose that blocked my way out the driveway this morning) We’d be overwhelmed with information that, at the moment, is useless. We don’t forget it all, though – when we recreate a moment by attempting to draw it, in either an abstract or representational style, our brain draws forth some of those images that were defocused in the moment. The bent branch on the diamond willow had finally fallen off completely, my neighbors strung Christmas lights on their porch, the moose had a scar on her muzzle – those are all elements I could call forth when I attempted to recall the moment visually. They all mean another way of knowing that moment.
I’m going to talk more about this as it relates to education, particularly the class I’m designing for the Spring, next week.
One final thought I want to add: one page of drawing takes so much longer than one page of text, for me. And I didn’t even edit or revise this one page: I know the layout could be more sensible, the writing is weird and uneven, there’s an absolute non sequiter between the first 2/3 of the page and final 1/3 of the page, I gave too much space to elements that weren’t that important to the page, Nick Sousanis doesn’t actually look like a 14 year old boy, etc. And it still took me a few hours.
I’m becoming a mad, frothing opponent to humanities instructors that allow only text-based scholarship, the term paper being the prime example of enforced mediocrity. I had a few professors who allowed us to incorporate images into our projects, a few who encouraged it, and a few whose parameters for our final projects were “do whatever you want.” A lot of students balk at such broad assignments, and they should – they should balk and bridle and bristle and rear up and freak out a little bit. The loose parameters don’t alarm them, for the most part, because they can’t think of anything to do. It’s because they don’t know if what they’re doing will get them the grade they want.
That’s the part that makes instructors hesitant, too. How to assess work with parameters outside the rubric? I don’t have an answer for that here. What I’ve been thinking about are the projects that can push students out of their comfort zones and into generating something beyond what they thought they could do, extend their thinking, and maybe even make something new.
Comics are one of many types of scholarship in which we can encourage students to engage, and I’ve been scouting around for the best tools to offer students who may not want or be able to draw a comic. I made the following comic using Pixton, a flexible comic -generating tool with an account option specifically for education. Instructors can create assignments in Pixton and share with students, who then may use the account to create their own comics in response to the assignment. Most of the samples I’ve seen so far have been from high school courses, but Pixton is flexible enough that, given the proper instruction and assignment guidelines, students in higher education could make good use of the tool. Barbara Weaver, from Clemson University, used Pixton in her sophomore literature course, with promising results.
Instructors and students may both have to get over the associated superficiality of the word “comics,” which often conjures first the image of grade school boys reading Superman on the stoop, or maybe the bland, blunted offerings of the newspaper funnies. They may also need to contend with the assumption that “comics” have to be funny, or that the medium is meant to make complicated ideas more palatable for less ambitious minds, like in the “Classics Illustrated” series. The best evidence against these assumptions, right now, is PhD candidate Nick Sousanis’s dissertation in comic form, which he discusses in his blog, and which I discuss with fellow designer Chris Malmberg in the inaugural edition of his podcast.
The goal of incorporating sequential art as a form of critical inquiry is to create complications between word and image, and from complications come questions, and from these questions arises the possibility of fulfilling the potential of academia, which is the creation of new knowledge. “Funny pages” indeed.
Comic by me, using Pixton.
This is an ad I made for the UAF eLearning Innovation Grant, which you can learn more about by going here, using Pixton. Pixton is my favorite thing in the world right now, and I’ll talk more soon about its possibilities as a teaching and learning tool.
I have both personal and professional Twitter accounts, Pinterest boards, Scoop.it!, Learni.st, and Facebook pages, blogs, and probably some other accounts I occasionally remember and post something to. It’s a maelstrom of sharing and curating, and I know there are people who use these tools way more than I do.
I’ve been trying out the RebelMouse social/publishing aggregator to corral these far-flung bits of interestingness, and I like that everything I’m noting and writing online is now visible in one place.
In a Pinterest-like board of posts, users can see their latest Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook, or any other updates, follow other RebelMouse users, and edit and reorganize their page at any time. The “add post” feature allows users to post photos, videos, or blog entries directly to their RebelMouse page, and the page refreshes constantly and automatically keeps up with all feeds: post on Twitter, it shows up on RebelMouse instantly. “Users can share from their own or the RebelMouse pages of others, and can also reply to Tweets directly from RebelMouse, without having to move to Twitter.
And, like the “Pin It” and “Scoop It!” features of those sites, there’s a “Stick” bookmarklet to allow users to post to their RebelMouse pages from anywhere on the Web. (Although I think not calling it “Stick It!” is a missed opportunity.)
RebelMouse, founded by former Huffington Post CTO Paul Berry, is still in Beta, but since its inception in June of 2012, the site has already broadened its options for personal and commercial users and is gaining momentum (there were 12K+ early adopters within the first week). There are no mobile options right now, and that’s definitely a drawback. There is also a homogeneity to the pages – while everyone has, of course, a different set of curated materials on their page, they’re all still visually, essentially, the same. Those limitations don’t worry me too much since they’re surely temporary.
Just one week after RebelMouse went public, this blog post sparked an interesting discussion on fragmentation and social media, as well as the diminishing returns of our social media efforts. There are paid options for commercial users, but for normies like me, it’s free. I like that I can keep my professional and personal content separate but still curated.
The greatest value of RebelMouse right now is that it allows other people to visit your page and get a broader sampling of how you want to be known online without having to swim through your social media site by site, and vice versa. I can see the RebelMouse icon replacing that list of social media links we all maintain in our blogs and bios. “Just check my RebelMouse,” we’ll say. Check my RebelMouse.
Though the description on the job posting was pretty clear, the first thing I did when I found out I got an interview for this instructional designer position was get on YouTube and search “instructional design.” I happened to choose the “Introduction to Instructional Design” options made for business people, and got a little concerned because be-suited professional-types were sitting under fluorescent lights using corporate buzzwords/phrases like “synergy” and “maximizing productivity” and so forth. Wikipedia offered a nebulous description of the field, making it sound more like the undertaking of philosophers stretched out on fainting couches, chain-smoking and pondering the nature of “learn.”
Then I actually arrived in the office and spoke with the real-life ID team. They each have specialties and strengths and can speak expertly about pedagogies, programming languages, user interfaces, and apps that, yes, maximize productivity. It has not been a linear learning experience for me – the starting point is clear (“I know nothing”) but there is no end point, only my ever-increasing awareness that adaptability, flexibility, ingenuity, and a love for things with screens are essential.
I was initially frustrated that there was no now-you’re-an-instructional-designer checklist, and by the fear that I would feel forever behind because I don’t, in fact, speak any programming languages and I have a hard time remembering acronyms. (There are a lot of acronyms. I was in the army for a few years and they had a lot of acronyms. I didn’t like it very much there and I’m thinking my brain is pretending not to notice, looking away and whistling, when I encounter any more.) Then I realized I was missing the point entirely about the ingredients for a successful instructional designer. The point is that there can’t be a checklist. If there were a checklist, than anybody could be a good instructional designer, and I don’t think just anybody could be a good instructional designer.
My teaching background is primarily teaching college composition to freshmen. One of the more useful resources I encountered when formulating my own pedagogy was Ann Berthoff’s “Learning the Uses of Chaos.” Berthoff discusses the composing process of writing, pointing out that it “is not like cooking a particular dish…it is not sequential or ‘linear’; it is not measurement, followed by amalgamation and transformation.” It is the chaos, the nebulousness of the uncertain, that actually forms the “hinges of thought” that help us rediscover “the power of language to generate the sources of meaning.”
The analogy for me, looking at Berthoff’s sense of the value of chaos in the composition process and my own poking around in the cupboards of instructional design, the cupboards full of unlabeled jars and weird artisanal chutneys, is that in the realm of innovation and meaning-making, sometimes it’s more helpful not to know exactly what’s going on.