Notes from Next/Text Rhetoric

What follows are my notes on the Next/Text meeting for Rhetoric and Composition. At first I was really vigilant about preceding people's comments with their names or initials, you know, so they'd get credit for what they said. But then things got so rapid-fire that I got lazy about it. These notes represent what we, as a group, said, and each of us made contributions: myself, Cheryl Ball, Cindy Selfe, Daniel Andersen, David Blakesley, David Goodwin, Geoffrey Sirc, Janice Walker, Jeff Rice, Johndan Johnson-Eilola, Karl Stolley, Kim White, Michael Day, Victor Vitanza, and Virginia Kuhn. To give a little background, Next/Text is one of the projects of the Institute for the Future of the Book, which is part of the Annenberg Center at the University of Southern California. Next/Text is focused on classroom textbooks in particular. Our meeting was devoted to imagining how we in rhetoric and composition would go about creating a completely new electronic textbook -- new, as opposed to CD-ROM companions to print textbooks: your basic linear, text-with-images, PDF-esque, "take a book from the tradition of print, digitize it, and smack it up on the Web."

As we started out, we briefly discussed institutional constraints and realities -- the old hiring, promotion, and tenure. In any discussion of online/technological work, we can't put those aside or dismiss them. Although this part was kind of bracketed after the initial comment, I suppose it was always in the background. For a while, we talked about generalities: basic needs, realities of textbook publishing, realities of online projects which someone starts (a faculty member) and others work on and contribute to (e.g., graduate students/T.A.s, non-tenure-track instructors, etc.). There was a stated need for what we, for lack of a better term, called a datacloud with portals and axes that help to organize content (which I'm going to call tags here, because that's basically how they'd function). I kept smiling and thinking of a conversation I had once with (the brilliant) Geoffrey Sauer, who emphasized the need for me really to connect scholarship with what it is I do online. I was trying to offer ideas of what I thought he was driving at, and he kept saying, "no, it can't be just another archive!" I relayed Sauer's call for some new online endeavor that wasn't just another archive to the Next/Text group, who agreed vigorously.

More basics about textbooks and online projects: With textbooks, the process is that you send a proposal to a publisher. They respond by saying "You're pitching it too high." You have to dumb it down for the teachers (not the students!), so that the teachers won't be intimidated and afraid to take it into the classroom. With online projects, a grave and common mistake faculty and graduate students make is that they expect to get everyone on board on day one. Instead, we shouldn't expect to hit a home run the first time. Another problem is having a lack of direction. One example that comes to my mind immediately would be a blank wiki. Suppose you don't know anything about wikis -- the philosophy about text and collaboration, the structure, the markup language -- and someone just creates a blank wiki for you and says, "Look here, you're going to create a wiki. Start putting stuff up there!" You wouldn't have any kind of model to follow and would be not only lost but fairly irritated and frustrated. Needless to say, your motivation level wouldn't be at its pinnacle. So the consensus reached was that a "big empty pot" works for some people, but not for others. Others need a few first principles -- directions and paths to take (or not). New TAs, especially, need some scaffolding.

Other good points: We need to produce the kind of work we're asking our students to produce. We don't have a lot of great examples. Those examples we do have become dated very quickly, especially if they're specific to particular software applications. Our project, this datacloud, needs a group function to it. If a user thinks, "I want to have my students do sound essays"-- s/he'd go to the Audacity (or sound essays) group. Contributing to and taking resources from the datacloud would, to some extent, follow the spirit of communism: "each according to his talents, each according to his needs." [Except for any peer review functioning, in which we batted around the idea that users would have to review others' work before getting feedback on their own work. I would argue that something like that shouldn't be built into the architecture, but instead it would be based more loosely on a whuffie-style reputation economy.]

We would also need to depend on the open source developers. Pointers to resources on the web for various open source software tools would always be toward places where open source developers are tending that garden, so the resources wouldn't suffer from linkrot.

Learning About Sophie

These ideas occupied us for much of the morning, then we were treated to a presentation by Bob Stein about Sophie (PDF), which, in case you don't already know, is an open source software tool for creating books, but not just digitize-the-print-version books, but books that can have sound and video files embedded, plus lots of other creative effects. The difference, Bob said, between Sophie and TK3 is threefold:

1. Sophie really is open source (I was a little confused about the licensing here; Bob said that Sophie has a dual license -- a commercial version can be created and used (and sold). It can have DRM in it and everything. But it will still be open source (?). So I guess they're not using the GPL, unless I've misunderstood the GPL this whole time.)
2. Sophie understands time-based events (You can get files to appear in a specific sequence. When you create a new project, you have a timeline, which means, for example, that you can arrange it so that on a screen, the user first sees a block of text, then a movie below it, then an image to the right side of the movie.)
3 Unlike TK3, Sophie understands that it's part of a network. You can embed remote objects on a Sophie page. Sophie files are readable in a browser like PDFs

Here are my quick notes on the demonstration, which are probably pretty meaningless if you didn't see it, but here they are anyway:

  • To create a new project, you go to File-->new book. You can then drag a file to the Sophie workspace from your desktop or from the web. There are not a lot of toolbars for formatting. Formatting info is contained in a halo that's connected to each piece of text. It's a lovely intuitive way to deal with things. You can also drag images and movies. In newer versions of Sophie, the text will automatically wrap around images or movies you place in the text.
  • You can import files en masse into Sophie.
  • You can explore spatial relationships with what you're doing. Layers
  • An important feature of Sophie is how it functions in the network. Nothing should prevent people from implementing great ideas. Network-icity is one of the fundamental features of Sophie.
  • Sophie has its own plugin, but once installed, you'll be able to embed Sophie files on your website.
  • What could be metaphors suitable for the Sophie program: print, page metaphor? Canvas? Criticisms of Voyager were about linearity, metaphors. Metaphors for Sophie -- portals, repositories?
  • In the future, authors won't be constrained by pages. Can incorporate audio, video with text
  • The network model allows small increments of progress

Bob then told us about a couple of things the Institute has going on. Mitchell Stephens is doing an experiment with the relationship between author and reader. He's basically writing his book in public. McKenzie Wark's book, which will launch May 8, is very modular, like a deck of cards. The comments are displayed beside the text to demonstrate that they're equivalent in value to the text (I know someone who beat them to that, heh -- he's since redesigned it, but Alex's blog used to have comments beside the posts.). There are also forums for discussion in Wark's book that go beyond the comment function. Both of these are part of the "Thinking Out Loud" series. Another project involves a documentary filmmaker (sorry, don't know the name) who is doing a documentary that consists of Iraqi women talking about the effect of the war on their lives. S/he's going to think out loud about the process of editing it into a documentary. The raw footage will be available for others to edit into alternate, remix documentaries. This loops back to Storyspace, but is much more complex.

What are the implications of these kinds of books for a networked environment? We talked about where distance ed is going and the need to pay attention to the economics and politics of distance learning. The scary scenario is one in which economically privileged students pay extra (small, private, liberal arts colleges) for f2f time with professors. We're witnessing the disintermediation of education. As computers start to grade papers, this will exacerbate the problem. TAs make a lot of money for individual departments teaching online; departments are saving money on paper/toner for handouts, utilities (space, electricity), and probably many other costs I'm not thinking of now. Writing program administrators are complicit in the problems with adjunct labor. We don't want to reproduce all those problems with multimedia composition.

Especially in this context, the role of the teacher should be central, to some extent. Rhet-comp scholars can't imagine creating a textbook that obviates the need for a teacher. To take it to first principle, the role of the teacher in education is something that we see as important, and the textbook isn't meant to get around that in any way whatsoever -- if anything, to reinforce it.

After establishing an idea of what it is that we don't want, we tried to think about what we DO want:

  • Modularity is critical; it's important that the textbook can be taken apart and reassembled. Repurposed.
  • Students must be coauthors of the modules that go into the datacloud. We want a hybrid of student work and faculty work, pedagogical materials (classroom activities, etc.) and scholarly materials
  • Metadata that shows how the data is accessed and used. Recommendations, like "Teachers who taught this text also taught this other one." "This is what [Big Name] uses." "These are the resources that were used most by students." But we also need layers of privacy, anonymity in case users don't want others to know what they use.
  • Rating system, peer review. But how would that work? Would we assign each work a certain number of stars? Would users be allowed to leave comments? We don't have to be limited by one kind of rating system
  • We want a modular connection of resources, but it's not just the collection of objects. It's the social stuff that goes on that's crucial [and here, I think, is the difference between this and "just another archive."]. For people who are new to the rhetoric and composition community, there has to be a way to get to know people in the community-- a constellation of it. User profiles with photographs and other information -- FOAF capability?
  • Different metaphors -- a textbook that is CURATED by [insert name here].
  • Vetting, editorial effort -- that's what a publisher does. What we want to do needs to go through that editorial filter. And that editorial filter needs to be visible.
  • While what we're proposing isn't another clearinghouse, the clearinghouse model would be valuable at the lesson plan level
  • User must be able to moderate comments on his/her work
  • Distributed peer review, like Slashdot. The Writing Instructor is starting to do this. The problem is, some people are not willing to review anything, but want to write articles for tenure/promotion. Kairos is changing their model too.

There's also the financial problem: With textbooks, you can sell them back and get half your money. But with ebooks, you can't get your money back! BUT, if the students had a hand in writing the book, they wouldn't want to sell it back. (use value, exchange value!). [Open access textbooks also get around this. What if the student never paid any money for the book in the first place? There'd be no financial investment students would want to recoup.]

So what we want, in a nutshell, is MySpace, Flickr, Technorati,, wikis, podcasting, YouTube, a clearinghouse/archive, electronic portfolios, electronic books, and electronic journals, all in one.

And then we had lunch...

When we got back from lunch, we discussed in more detail the all-in-one datacloud.

We want any user to be able to create a textbook that consists of the 15 best teaching modules he/she knows of. A lot of the discussion is focused on the glue -- improving the modules over time, and the "if you like this one, you'll like that one" folksonomy.

The Economic Context of Textbooks: Money money money money. MONEY!

We talked about the need to talk about money and a transition to a gift economy and symbolic capital. Many rhetoric and composition scholars make a good portion of their money from textbooks; there are definite financial incentives and stakes involved in maintaining the status quo. Let's say we're getting together to form a publishing entity. How would we pay for it? How would we structure payments? In this particular discipline, we have to talk about money; the market is big for FYC textbooks. Janice Walker offered a useful counterexample, though, with her Columbia Guide to Online Style. She wouldn't have gotten the book deal if she hadn't given the information away for free first.

What is the role of name recognition? If I get a raise because of reputation, do I still need money from a publisher? I guess that depends...

But where do we want to compete; where do we want this to play out? Do we need to jump into the ring of the FYC handbook behemoth? Who's the audience? Which part of the discipline are we talking about? Again, we need a hybrid of scholarly resource/pedagogical textbook, like Writing New Media. In the hybrid lies more opportunity for reward.

Back to the Proposed Project Itself

Peer review is going to be a problem. We need a filter that says "I want my scholarly work reviewed" and you can pick people you want to review it. If you want to be reviewed, you have to review other people. Like frequent flyer miles.

We also need some kind of direction. For example, with Matt's wikibook idea (background here, here, and here, and here, and textbook here), people were reluctant to commit because they didn't know if it was going to be a reader, a rhetoric, a handbook, didn't know what the pedagogical/theoretical perspective was, etc. If it's too piecemeal, it's not going to help people that much.

So what about the content of what will go in the book, then? We have the traditional print model:

  • Research essay
  • moments of discourse
  • personal narrative
  • (The modes) -- Description, narration, exposition, persuasion

But then there's what we want instead:

  • Playlist
  • collage
  • photo essay
  • podcast (sound essay)
  • Repository of digital assets, links to open source software and tutorials, scholarly theorizing, teaching materials (syllabuses, handouts)

What we want is a coherent infrastucture to invent the things we don't know about yet. Textbook as portal, world. All conceivable social software tools.

But a virtual world, like Second Life? Virtual worlds tend to map out the inequities of the real world.

What is it that everybody could contribute (students included) that wouldn't be based on money? We need to make sure students aren't infantilized in this model. We have to make the work meaningful. Students need to want to invest in it. Professional Writing Online: Even when offered incentives, students didn't want to submit material.

Also, there's the scale problem. We don't want 200 classes' worth of stuff dumped in. We want some elements of a contest in there. We want some kind of peer review that is multidimensional -- many different ways to do peer review.

Other things we want:

  • Quid pro quo -- you have to review in order to get reviewed
  • Multiple portals/entry points -- "decoder ring" -- filters/lenses
  • Syllabus/Assignment/Course creation
  • Microeconomy --> rewards for sharing (public/private options)
  • Some way to plug in ebooks
  • Course builders: syllabus where you can drag modules in. Grab stuff from over here, over there
  • RSS for EVERYTHING: authors' names, tags
  • Concept mapping, like [LINK]ThinkMap -- 3D concept maps that you can drag around!
  • Permission/rights management
  • Synced up with JSTOR, other scholarly databases, etc. (the scholarly material)

Organizing principles for books (spine, page numbers, etc.) are necessary. What we're hammering out are the new organizing principles for new books. Book as database

We want an archive of copyright-free material for students. The idea would be that they would take something out and put something in. What they really want to do is play. Kids see the digital world as a big playground: not push/play, but opportunities to change stuff around, make a game or movie out of it, share it with their friends. They have things to say, they want to share, but they need access to production materials. They love doing postproduction, to have stuff and manipulate it into new things. What the ebook does best is rich media. But where do you get the media? Very practical, low-level, but important issue.

Bob then posed the question: What would be the small core--handful of elements that HAD to be there?

  • Scholarly and pedagogical hybrid (for informed practice)
  • Peer review
  • Hybridity with students (student collaboration)

The Many, Many Challenges

  • Who maintains it?
  • How much time will it take?
  • Who are the gatekeepers?
  • How do we integrate it with Sakai? Or should we?
  • Can we make it flexible enough to accommodate new web apps? New ideas?
  • We need to build the shelf, but if it doesn't challenge the practices, it isn't valuable. If it just replicates what's already in the textbooks (traditional pedagogies), it's not going to help us.

And then, another big challenge, one that deserves a few paragraphs: What leads, the content or the infrastructure? Content does inspire infrastructure, true, but can the reverse be the case too? We need to situate this in a historical context -- does the infrastructure follow the content or vice versa? Do we need the infrastructure first, so that it will inspire people to create new kinds of content ("if you build it, they will come")? Or do we need new content that makes it (textbooks, teaching, writing, the web) strange and inspires us to envision new kinds of infrastructure ("if you seek out experimentation in the form of art, etc., the breakthrough will come")?

What's at stake here is the logic of the cut. We can take a chicken and cut it at the joints, but other people may not cut it that way; they may cut it right in the middle of the bone. Social software is a different type of cut. Not a matter of taste -- it's something that's happened. People are making linkages that are different from what we've been teaching for the last twenty years. Leading with the infrastructure is like reinventing the wheel. Like doing early television -- it's still like radio, but on TV. Status quo, but online. For example: audio essay. What does that even mean? And what about assessment: criteria? Peer review/rating? Experimentation? This datacloud doesn't invite us to think that way.

When did "syllabus" begin? When did "assignment" begin? Are we just doing a delivery system?

And what about tagging? Why is it this way -- tagging things with words? Ideally, we'd be able to tag an image with another image (or a movie, or an audio file, etc.)

Another problem: the apathy level is high with user participation in previous online projects (e.g., archives). As a founder of some of these, I can attest. It gets less disappointing as I lower my expectations and become more cynical, but it's still a bummer. Creativity and invention are the most important things. Motivation: "I can't do what I want to do until I learn Flash." As opposed to "you have to learn Flash as a course requirement; here are some tutorials."

Outcomes, Assessment, and Textbook Production

Also, as a WPA, a lot of what you do is firefighting. You have TAs who don't want to be teaching in the program, and you have to keep them focused on the class. You have to be consistent with how the course is advertised in the catalog. We'd have to respect that and remember it in the creation of this text (would we? Or would that just be reinforcing how we've always done things without challenging anything?).

How does one casuistically stretch a genre to form a new genre? (This is a question of assessment.) What is the place of nonacademic art in all this? The outcome is experimentation. Experimentation is its own skill set, and it's transferable to other contexts: any situation a student would find himself or herself in.

We need to redefine assessment. Students need to have a hand in it. Could reflection replace assessment?

Multimedia projects and assessment: First off, we need to question who the "experts" are. We need to have both students and teachers finding examples of multimedia projects and discussing why they are or are not good. But beware of models -- sometimes the five examples you give to students become the whole universe for that project. Models can box in thinking.

Curious, I searched for multimedia project assessment rubrics: I found the following: The Multimedia Project's scoring rubric, Multimedia Mania 2003 - Judges’ Rubric, Multimedia Project Rubric, and Multimedia Rubric.

Theoretical Underpinnings

Are there principles of cultural studies informing this textbook? Textbooks usually have an angle. Why are we asking students to do these multimedia projects? To bring about some kind of political or ethical change? In their own lives? In society? Wouldn't a pedagogy [or anything else] with a cultural studies bent get appropriated (co-opted) and used to make a buck?

Final Thoughts

Follow-up from the Institute's perspective: This is seriously doable. Some subset of us could be authors, then we could get money from a foundation to put it together. A summer institute? Also, we reiterated the point of not trying to hit a home run. If we could just do one module, it would be great. At any rate, we need to get some projects started and not just talk about them.

Cross-posted to the Next/Text Rhetoric blog, Kairosnews, and The Valve.


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license clarification

Great post, Clancy. You give a comprehensive overview of the conversation of the day. I have a note on your question on the licensing of Sophie. We are not using the GPL license. Instead, we are releasing Sophie under the BSD license, which is much closer to putting something in the public domain. Under that license, you are free to make changes as well as sell the software as a proprietary commercial product. Therefore, a commercial venture is legally allowed to build DRM into Sophie and sell it. Wikipedia has a nice article explaining the license as well as the differences and incompatibilities between the GPL and BSD licenses. First posted on the next\text rhetoric site.

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