Powering Up: Social Media and the New Classroom

Just a few years ago, when kids began having their own phones in large numbers, schools freaked out. At my daughter’s junior high, phones had to be hidden away in backpacks or lockers. Any teacher who observed a student with a phone was required to seize it. The phone was then taken to the office, and there was a $15 fine to get it out of hock.

Two years later, my son is now in the same junior high. Phones and other electronic devices are no longer pariahs; in fact, students are encouraged to bring their personal phones or iPads. Teachers can request that their students use them during all kinds of lessons, from geography to science, even English, to look up quotes or biographical information. Students can also use their phones during “passing periods” and at lunch. (I suspect there will be a lot more fund raisers this year, seeing as how the cash cow of phone seizing is no longer being milked. )

Of course, it isn’t just the fact that teachers and administrators are tired of fighting the ubiquitous phones and their larger cousins. Slowly, educators are realizing the benefits of social media. And, as those in charge learn more about the remarkable versatility of the internet, the applications are becoming an integral part of the students’ learning experience, arguably making them more engaged and interactive than ever before. Sites like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and even one of the relatively new social media sites, Pinterest, are giving education a much-needed boost.

Here are a few of the ways educators are employing the power and persuasion of social media:

Twitter:  “Teachers have been setting up subject or class Twitter accounts that students can follow. The teacher then tweets information related to their class. Some even set homework via Twitter,” reports The Guardian, in their article “Social media for schools: A guide to Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest.” Twitter, as many have discovered, is also often the fastest way to find out about breaking news.

Facebook:  I have often asked my own students to post a specific status and have their friends respond. Then, the following class period, we discuss those responses. For example, I recently had them read Hal Niedzviecki’s New York Times article, “Facebook in a Crowd.” Niedzviecki wonders what would happen if he invited many of his “virtual” friends to a real life cocktail party. Of the several hundred invitations, twenty people accepted; one actually showed up. I asked my students to post as their status, “Is a virtual friend a “real” friend?” We had a lively discussion that could not have happened otherwise.

Pinterest:  Not just a place to “pin” your favorite recipes or cute cat photos. Many teachers have found great success, especially for their highly visual learners, using Pinterest’s “Tutorials.” Here, among other things, you can learn, step-by-step, how to create QR codes, or become more proficient in Photoshop, or learn how a touchscreen works.

Tumblr:  Again, a great site for students and educators. More and more companies have begun to “tumbl,” as it is a great way to find archival materials as well as current news and discussions. Some of my favorites, which I often use to prepare lectures, are the tumblrs of “The Paris Review,” Life Magazine, the New York Public Library,  NPR’s Fresh Airand, of course, eNotes

How do YOU use social media in the classroom? Whether you are a teacher or a student, we’d love to know.

Yale Makes Its Vast Collection of Images Available FREE

“A True Description of the Naval Expeditions of Sir Frances Drake” ca. 1587

Looking for the perfect image for your paper, study, blog, or article but just not finding what you need on Google? Help is here. Yale University recently made over 250,000 of its images available for free. Even better, Yale is allowing  unlimited and licensing-free usage.  Eventually, the entire catalog will be available to users but it will take several years to digitize the millions of items in its collection.

Yale is the first Ivy League institution to allow such uninhibited access. In a statement to the New York Times, Mariët Westermann, vice president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, applauded Yale’s decision and hopes Yale will only be the first of many universities to make their collections available to the public.  In the past, she argued, the “(h)igh costs of reproduction rights have traditionally limited the ability of scholars, especially ones early in their careers, to publish richly illustrated books and articles in the history of art, architecture, and material and visual culture.”   Now, much of that has changed.

What can you find among the quarter-of-a-million images? Everything from paintings, to sculptures, to musical scores, to artifacts, and fossils. Click on the link below and enjoy a 90 second slideshow which samples fifteen of the accessible works, set to the music of Haydn. What will you do with this treasure trove of images?

Yale Image Slideshow

Sincerely, Will: Has a Seventh Shakespeare Signature Been Found?

This week, the Folger Shakespeare Library announced that it may have located an authentic signature by William Shakespeare in their collection.  You might wonder how such a thing might have gone overlooked for so long….until you know that the Folger houses some 256,000 volumes of Renaissance works. There are millions of pages in these thousands of books, and in one of them is the faint but legible signature of “Wm Shakespeare.”

If the signature is proven genuine, it will be priceless. Only six verified signatures are known to exist. This, therefore, would be the seventh.

The Folger’s excitement at the find might best be described as “cautiously optimistic.” There have been many signatures in the past that have been declared frauds.  Fortunately, technological advances are making determining the authenticity of the signature easier.

A group known as the Lazarus Project is using an advanced technique called multispectral imaging. The researchers take very high-resolution photographs of old text, art or objects using twelve different wavelengths of light, ranging from ultraviolet to infrared, beyond the boundaries of the human eye. Next, they use software to combine these images into the clearest possible picture of the text.” Multispectral imaging can reconstruct writing that has suffered all kinds of damage, from erasure to water damage.

Shakespeare scholars are eagerly awaiting word from the Lazarus Project, particularly due to the type of book in which the signature appears. Archaionomia is a collection of Elizabethan laws. If this volume did indeed belong to the playwright, it may mean that he knew more about law than was previously understood and this knowledge may have informed many of his plays. “One of the interesting questions for Shakespeare scholars is what Shakespeare read,” says George Heyworth, a professor of English at the University of Mississippi.  “If we know what he read, then we know what he was thinking when he wrote his plays.”

R.I.P. Encylopedia Brittanica: 1768-2012

My grandparents had them. They lined the den in their modest Indiana home. In the garage, outdated sets were stacked neatly in boxes. Every year, salesmen came to the doors of homes and schools peddling their wares. But all that is over.  Encyclopedia Brittanica has announced that they will no longer offer their product in print.

It’s rather a sad passage for some of us older folk.  There aren’t many businesses that can claim they were viable for over two hundred years. In 1768,  Encyclopedia Brittanica published its first set of volumes in Edinburgh, Scotland and has been in continuous publication until this year.

It’s not difficult to understand what finally put the venerable company under. Two words: Wikipedia and Google.  Publicly, the company claims that their online competition was not a deciding factor in killing their printed volumes but that seems difficult to believe. Not only is it much easier to access needed information quickly, it’s difficult to compete with “free.” A complete set of Encyclopedia Brittanicas runs some $1,395.

Space, too, is a consideration. A full set consists of thirty-two volumes and weights upwards of 129 pounds. A good flashdrive, by contrast, could conceivably contain every entry in Wikipedia (26,603,553 pages) and fit comfortably in your pocket, with room to spare.

While some champions of the old school encyclopedias decry Wikipedia for having factual errors, a study comparing errors in a sampling of Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Brittanica articles found that there were three errors in Brittanica entries and four in Wikipedia selections. And of course, factual errors are much easier to correct online than in print.

Encyclopedia Brittanica prides itself on having experts write their entries. For example, Arnold Palmer penned the article about the Master’s tournament. If you truly care about this sort of thing, you can still have access to Encyclopedia Brittanica online. But it will cost you $70 for an annual subscription.

Free the Research! Make Academic Journals Accessible to All

Recently, Laura McKenna, reporter for the Atlantic, wrote about her frustrations in trying to find scholarly articles without the access afforded to people with university affiliations. If you do not possess a college identification card, the hundreds of thousands of full-text articles from databases like JSTOR are either very expensive or inaccessible (McKenna shelled out $38 for a single twelve-page article, but also found that a great many articles were not available, period, to non-academics.)

Why is this so and why does it cost so much? As McKenna points out, “the researcher receives no royalties.” (As an academic myself, I find that particularly disgruntling.)

In her investigation, the reporter found that the answer lies within “the antiquated system of academic publishing.”

Here is how that very old, very slow, ball rolls:

  • Research takes several years. The academic (usually) receives grants and time off.  The article is then submitted to a journal.
  • The actual journals are published in-house, on the campuses. They stay there because it brings the university acclaim.
  • Journals are edited by faculty members, who often get a small stipend and a little time off to do this extra work.
  • The article then goes to an editor, who then passes it on to other faculty with experience in the article’s subject matter.
  • The reviewers put in their two-cents. Article is then returned to the author for revisions.
  • Editor submits that article, with a bunch of others, to a “for-profit publisher.”
  • That publisher “sells the rights to an academic search engine, like JSTOR.”
  • The publisher pays nothing to either the writer or editor.
  • JSTOR “digitizes the material and sells the content back to the university libraries.”
  • The publisher needs to get its money back. It charges a LOT to university libraries to subscribe to its service. It costs some libraries 65% of their total budget. 

McKenna succinctly points out the insanity of this system:

Step back and think about this picture. Universities that created this academic content for free must pay to read it. Step back even further. The public–which has indirectly funded this research with federal and state taxes that support our higher education system–has virtually no access to this material, since neighborhood libraries cannot afford to pay those subscription costs. Newspapers and think tanks, which could help extend research into the public sphere, are denied free access to the material. Faculty members are rightly bitter that their years of work reaches an audience of a handful, while every year, 150 million attempts to read JSTOR content are denied every year.

It seems to me (and to McKenna) that the requirement for “print” versions of articles is nonsensical. Without the print requirement, there is NO NEED for a third party. Upload the scholarship yourselves, universities. Free the research!!

Searching for Symbols: A Young Writer’s Quest

The masterful short story author Flannery O’Connor once gave a lecture at Wesleyan College. Afterwards, during a question and answer session, O’Connor recalls that one of the

young teachers there…an earnest type, started asking the questions. “Miss O’Connor,” he said, “why was the Misfit’s hat black?” I said most countrymen in Georgia wore black hats. He looked pretty disappointed. Then he said, “Miss O’Connor, the Misfit represents Christ, does he not?”  “He does not,” I said. He looked crushed. “Well, Miss O’Connor,” he said, “What is the significance of the Misfit’s hat?” I said it was to cover his head; and after that he left me alone. Anyway, that’s what’s happening to the teaching of literature.

While O’Connor may poo-poo the use of symbols, other writers deliberately employ them. It is a delicate thing to do however. It can easily become heavy handed.  “Symbolism exists to adorn and enrich, not to create an artificial sense of profundity,” warns Stephen King in his wonderful guide, On Writing.

In 1963, a young, brash writer named Bruce McAllister had his first story accepted by If, the science fiction magazine. McAllister sided more with the Flannery O’Connor point of view when it came to symbolism in literature. That is, he believed that what many critics, teachers, and students “saw” in a work was completely fabricated. In an attempt prove his point, McAllister created a a mimeographed, survey asking one hundred and fifty writers, everyone from Jack Kerouac to Ayn Rand, questions:

  1. Did they consciously plant symbols in their work?
  2. Who noticed symbols appearing from their subconscious, and who saw them arrive in their text, unbidden, created in the minds of their readers?
  3. When this happened, did the authors mind?

Remember, this is 1963 so this project was labor-intensive. Each of the surveys had to be copied, addressed, and mailed individually. McAllister found contact information for the writers in his library’s Twentieth-Century American Literature series which listed the addresses of authors and agents.  Surprisingly, seventy-five authors responded, most of them seriously, and sixty-five of those responses have been preserved.

Norman Mailer, while declining to answer in detail, offers McAllister this bit of advice: “Generally, the best symbols in a novel are those you become aware of only after you finish a work.”

Ralph Ellison observes that “symbolism arises out of action and functions best when it does so. Once a writer is conscious of the implicit symbolism which arises in the course of a narrative, he may take advantage of them and manipulate them consciously as a further resource of his art. Symbols which are imposed upon fiction from the outside tend to leave the reader dissatisfied by making him aware that something extraneous has been added.”

To the question, “Do you feel you sub-consciously place symbolism in your writing?” Ray Bradbury had this to say:

No, I never consciously place symbolism in my writing. That would be a self-conscious exercise and self-consciousness is defeating to any creative act.  Better to let the subconscious do the work for you, and get out of the way. The best symbolism is always unsuspected and natural. During a lifetime, one saves up information which collects itself around centers in the mind…I trust my subconscious implicitly.

You can read many of the responses McAllister received in the Paris Review article on this topic. Several of the letters have been reproduced. Some of the authors answers all of the questions, some pick and chose. Some scrawl their answers by hand, others type. Whatever the method, each one offers a little bit of insight into the writing process.

Goodbye to a Modern Pioneer: Michael S. Hart, Project Gutenberg

“Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people.” ~ George Bernard Shaw.

On September 6, the literary world lost a true pioneer. Michael S. Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg, died of a heart attack in his home in Urbana, Illinois. He was 64.

Hart was the inventor of the now nearly-ubiquitous electronic books, or eReaders, which he conceived in 1971. The idea for eReaders came to him after he received a free copy of the Declaration of Independence.  At the time, Hart was a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and had access to their (then powerful) computers. He typed up the Declaration and sent it through the computer network to other users.

This free transmittal of literature became Hart’s life’s work for the next forty years via his “Project Gutenberg.” As of today, there are 100,000 works available to anyone who cares to download them, all free of charge.

Dr. Gregory Newby penned the obituary for his friend and colleague.  It reads, in part:

Michael prided himself on being unreasonable, and only in the later years of life did he mellow sufficiently to occasionally refrain from debate. Yet, his passion for life, and all the things in it, never abated.

Frugal to a fault, Michael glided through life with many possessions and friends, but very few expenses. He used home remedies rather than seeing doctors. He fixed his own house and car. He built many computers, stereos, and other gear, often from discarded components.

Michael S. Hart left a major mark on the world. The invention of eBooks was not simply a technological innovation or precursor to the modern information environment. A more correct understanding is that eBooks are an efficient and effective way of unlimited free distribution of literature. Access to eBooks can thus provide opportunity for increased literacy. Literacy, and the ideas contained in literature, creates opportunity.

In July 2011, Michael wrote these words, which summarize his goals and his lasting legacy: “One thing about eBooks that most people haven’t thought much is that eBooks are the very first thing that we’re all able to have as much as we want other than air. Think about that for a moment and you realize we are in the right job.” He had this advice for those seeking to make literature available to all people, especially children: “Learning is its own reward. Nothing I can say is better than that.”