Thursday, May 18, 2017

First-Year Writing Syllabus: The Internet--Connection, Disconnection, and Control

With my semester done, I thought I'd share some of my teaching material. I'm always curious how other people put their classes together as well as the reasons behind their choices. Even though I've been teaching for nine years, I'm still worried that I'm getting things wrong and shortchanging my students. Also, I get very excited by process and transparency. If I can see how something was put together, I can apply that same logic to my own situation. So, with that in mind, I've decided to share my most recent syllabus--partly for other people looking for a model to construct their own courses, partly to finally put it behind me as I'm tired of teaching this material. I've been teaching variations of this material for 3 years. I'd like to talk about something else. Also, since the subject is the Internet and social media, the material ages out pretty quickly.

I've stripped the syllabus down to include only my own contributions. All the university and department-specific language such as course goals and necessary bureaucratic language such as accessibility and academic freedom policies has been removed. These things are important, essential even, but they're neither unique to my course nor composed by me so I've left them out. Likewise I've left out the day-by-day schedule that included paper due dates, conferences, and library days. Instead, the readings are sorted by unit in the order that they were assigned. If you want to adapt this for your own classes (please do), sort things as they'd best fit your schedule.

At the end I've included additional and alternate readings that had been part of earlier incarnations of this syllabus as well as why they were ultimately cut.

If you find this post useful, would like me to share more materials, or have any questions, please let me know.

Course Description:
The focus of this class is technology—specifically the Internet and social media—and our personal relationship to it. We will begin with an overview of how technology is discussed and a rejection of the Manichean good/bad framework and instead focus on a both/and means of interpretation and discussion. The second unit focuses on Lessig’s maxim, “code is law,” with discussions on the structure of technology and how it relates to issues of privacy, power, and control. The third and final unit uses Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together as a baseline for examining how we interact emotionally with technology and what questions we should be asking.

To be successful in this course, you do not need to have any prior knowledge about technology, code, or epistemology. All you need is to be curious and fully engaged in what we’re doing in class and in our required paper assignments.

[The course description that lays out not only what the class is going to be about, but hints at my own interests and hobbyhorses. I'm not interested in students giving me the "right" answer and certainly not interested in them agreeing with me. I want them to articulate their own position. With that goal in mind, I try to select topics that they, hopefully, will be able to find their own way into or already have an opinion on. The Internet, smartphones, and social media is an easy go-to, but carries with it the threat of simple moralizing and thought-destroying cliches. "We're all worse for using technology." "Things were better before the Internet." "Social media makes us all self-obsessed." Thus the initial push against the "good/bad framework." I wanted the students to ask why, how, and to push through simplistic interpretations.]

Course Texts:
Sherry Turkle—Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other
Institute of Network Cultures—Unlike Us Reader: Social Media Monopolies and Their Alternatives
Michael Mandiberg, Editor—The Social Media Reader

[Textbooks cost too much and are part of the Ponzi-scheme of higher ed. That's a whole long rant, but it's one of the things that led me to start looking for Creative Commons-licensed textbooks. I'd taught some first-year writing courses about copyright (another hobbyhorse that I'll detail later) and a lot of those books are distributed under a CC-license which made availability a non-issue. A few years later, all the textbooks I was reviewing for my community college research writing course provided useful structures, but not so useful as to justify the price. Then I found Stephen D. Krause's The Process of Research Writing. It hit all the key points and, best of all, was free. Even better, the school was willing to print up copies of the book for the students and I just passed them out on the first day. So when I was looking for collections dealing with social media, I was thrilled to find not one, but two books released under CC-licenses. In addition to making the readings available to students, the collections included many readings we didn't get to which served as additional research resources for the students' papers. With the materials from the books providing a structure, I was able to flesh out the course with further readings from various websites--readings, I should note, that I was exposed to in Jeff Osbourne's Reading Pop Culture, 2nd Edition. It's an excellent volume and I've had great success teaching it in several courses. It's just an unfortunate reality that a collection of contemporary readings is largely going to be pulled from the Internet making alternate copies very easy to find.]

(SMR)=Social Media Reader
(UUR)=Unlike Us Reader

Unit 1
Sherry Turkle-TED Talk
Neil Postman-"The Judgment of Thamus"
Nikal Saval-"Wall of Sound: The iPod Has Changed the Way We Listen to Music"
Clay Shirky-"Gin, Television, and Social Surplus" (SMR)
Chris Anderson-"The Long Tail" (SMR)
[The first unit looks at various ways we talk about technology, using the introduction to Postman's Technopoly as a starting point. He argues that technological change is neither good nor bad,
but ecological--one change changes everything. That allowed us to look at the writers and ask in which ways they were unduly optimistic or pessimistic. The readings include technophobes (Turkle and Saval) and technophiles (Shirky and Anderson) as well as different styles of writing which allowed for a variety of discussions around content and form.]

Unit 2
Chiara Atik-"Public Displays of Transaction"
Bruce Schneier-Alternative Radio: "The Internet, Privacy, and Power" (MP3 & Transcript available for purchase)
Felix Stalder-"Between Democracy and Spectacle" (SMR)
Jenny Kennedy-"Rhetorics of Sharing" (UUR)
Nathan Jurgenson and P.J. Rey-"The Fan Dance: How Privacy Thrives in an Age of Hyper-Publicity" (UUR)
[The second unit discussed how these technologies operate, how they work as structures, and what kinds of behavior they encourage or discourage. I used Schneier's talk as a baseline and shared the podcast episode I had of it as well as the transcript (in a response to a student asking about options for those with hearing issues. Having the transcript made things easier for all the students and was something I should have thought of myself beforehand. It's a priority in my course design now). This is the unit that gets closest to my particular interest in social media and big data--structures of control. So there are discussions about NSA surveillance, Google hoovering up all our data, and just what mass data aggregation means--good and bad.]

Unit 3
Sherry Turkle-Alone Together Part 2
Nathan Jurgenson-"The IRL Fetish"
Jacob Burak-"Escape From the Matrix"
Jennifer Bleyer-"Love the One You’re Near"
[The final unit starting with the second half of Sherry Turkle's book. The first half, while compelling, deals with robots and how much we're willing to imbue them with emotional qualities, and that's a topic too far removed from most of the discussions we were having in the class. Plus there's always the time constraints. I don't read Turkle as ardently anti-tech (the way Jurgenson does in his piece from the unit, which served as its own discussion point), but instead poking at the idea of all this connectivity. Why do we want it? What does it do? How have we changed? She interrogates things with a nervous ambivalence and, while she does fall on the critical side, I think models that both/and structure I want my students to pursue. The other pieces in the unit speak to some of the same issues, but take on a new context after the first and second unit. Where the pieces are unceasingly critical of technology and see it as removed from the world, the students have Postman and the Unit 1 readings to fall back on. Where the pieces talk about how the technology works and who benefits, the students have the Unit 2 readings to fall back on.]

Additional and alternate readings:
Willian Deresiewicz-"Solitude and Leadership" [I used to start my courses with this reading because I liked a lot of the points it made and the way I felt it articulated what I wanted my students to get out of not just my course, but their broader college experience. It was never intended to be used as a source in their papers, though, and I would constantly see it pop up. That coupled with time constraints ultimately made me drop it, although I still think it's a good piece and much better than the book that grew out it, Excellent Sheep.]
Vicessimus Knox-"On Novel Reading" [This had been part of the initial Unit 1 readings as an example of how people have always had moral panics over new mediums. Conceptually, it's hilarious now to think of people being critical of children reading novels--not what kind of novels, but novels in and of themselves--and it was interesting to highlight how the language of outrage hasn't changed despite the shifting centuries and technologies. Unfortunately, it works here as, at best, a curiosity, and the work it does as an example of criticism is done by Postman quoting Plato's fears of writing.]
Sonali Kohli-"Pop Culture’s Transgender Moment" [This was paired with Anderson's "The Long Tail" as an example of what the infinite space of the web allowed. Since its purpose was largely to compliment another piece, I cut it for time and recommended it to students writing about "The Long Tail" instead.]
danah boyd [No specific piece here, but boyd was someone I found myself returning to a lot throughout the semester, either by recommending specific pieces of hers to students or seeing her pop up independently in their work. She writes both excellently and accessibly about social media and many of her pieces could be swapped into this course in any unit. She's made much of her writing available on her website as well, which is always appreciated.]

Copyright: [My big hobbyhorse that was easier to discuss with my students six or seven years ago when mashups were still a thing and people still worried about getting sued by the RIAA. The intellectual property movement, as many others, seemed to lose steam with the election of President Obama, which I don't really understand. Anyway, these are the materials I used for those courses. The Vaidhyanathan and Lessig pieces from The Social Media Reader were initially in the second unit, but were cut as introducing copyright into that discussion, while appropriate in the context of "control," took the discussion too far afield. There was a whole lot of context I had to give so that the pieces would make sense and, compared to the other readings, they were pretty long. However, if you were interested in swapping a unit out for a discussion on Net Neutrality, these could be useful background readings or resources to offer to your students.]
Siva Vaidhyanathan-"Open Source as Culture/Culture as Open Source" (SMR)
Lawrence Lessig-"REMIX: How Creativity Is Being Strangled by the Law" (SMR)
Negativland-"Two Relationships to a Cultural Public Domain"
Lawrence Lessig-Free Culture
Kembre McLeod-Freedom of Expression: Overzealous Copyright Bozos and Other Enemies of Creativity
RIP!: A Remix Manifesto
Good Copy, Bad Copy

Negativland-Over the Edge Radio Archive [Copyright infringement is your best entertainment value. Just an additional bit of weirdness to throw in if you're considering a copyright unit. This is an archive of nearly every episode of Negativland's radio show Over the Edge. There's a lot there, but I'd recommend the episodes remixing Lessig's Free Culture or "All Art Radio: A History of Noise" for a rundown on collage (and also because it's the episode that made me a fan). Each episode is 3-5 hours long so, if you want to subject your students to it or use it in the classroom, you'll have to edit it down.]

This ended up a lot longer than I thought it would (I specifically chose not to post the paper prompts because I thought it would make this too long), but hopefully it's interesting if not useful. Again, if you have any questions or would like to see more material, feel free to comment.

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