Here’s an interesting addendum to the last post. A book that’s hit #8 on the LA Times bestseller list based largely on the author’s own promotion through MySpace.
In thinking about the class I might teach with tOFP, I’m also considering what the meaningful ties are between these new tools and fiction writing, and I keep coming back to the issue of the changing role of the author. In Who Owns Academic Work?, Corrine McSherry does a really brilliant job of tying the rise of the genius-author to the development of intellectual property. The arrangement has held up for centuries, largely because of the high costs of production.
The new web tools just entering into wide use are beginning to fulfill the web’s promise to make it possible for anyone to publish. It will be some time before anyone really knows how this shift will affect the world of fiction writers, I can guess at some of it: More fiction will be available, published on the web. No doubt the great mass of it will be badly written, but the total amount of really good writing available out there will increase as well, as there are significantly more good writers out there than old modes of production could support.
Like everything else, the question will be how to locate the good stuff. And in a world where great fiction is available for free, it’s going to be increasingly difficult to find economically viable models to to support yourself via fiction writing. At the same time, the opportunities for connecting to and finding meaningful support from communities of writers will increase tremendously. I was lucky enough as an undergraduate to be adopted by a group of graduate students who’d formed a writing group, and this provided me with my first sense of how writers might help one another improve their writing. While graduate school soured me on the writing workshops in general, I did make meaningful friendships with people who’ve greatly influenced my writing. I’m fascinated by how emerging web tools might support these kinds of connections.
How, then, to sort through all of this and fold it into a sensible class…?
Rural Americans are less likely to log on to the internet at home with high-speed internet connections than people living in other parts of the country. By the end of 2005, 24% of adult rural Americans went online at home with high-speed internet connections compared with 39% of adults in urban and suburban areas.
I would have thought the second figure to be higher…with all this thinking about Web 2.0 and the latest things in internet technology, it’s a well-timed reminder…
I’ve been involved in a number of “next generation” social software discussions recently, working toward real models of the conceptual idea I mentioned from Stephen Downes presentation—that we are moving from a centralized, LMS focused environment to a student-centered online learning arrangement. I’ve been trying in my mind to tie these discussions down to how the models might be used to teach the introductory fiction writing materials than have become the OpenFiction Project.
When I first taught with the materials as a distance learning course, they were framed inside an LMS (first BlackBoard and them WebCT), but the materials themselves were built into a stand-alone web site mostly because those systems were awful at managing large amounts of text content, and also because I didn’t want to build my content into a school-owned system. This happenstance made it relatively easy for me to reincarnate the materials as tOFP.
tOFP has now grown into something beyond simply course materials—it’s an embodiment in cyberspace of my professional and creative interests that includes not just course materials, but also my resume, my notebook (this blog) and spaces that invite (mostly unsuccessfully so far) participatory interaction from others with similar interests. It is a playspace that allows me to explore the new tools becoming available on the web in the contexts of OER sharing and creative writing.
I haven’t taught since coming to MIT in January 2003, and I find myself wondering more and more how I might wed this new open resource that is tOFP with actual teaching in a classroom environment. I don’t think I’d go back to teaching pure distance learning courses, as I really enjoy the classroom and live instruction, but I do think the course might well be taught in a hybrid fashion, with reduced seat time. I can see sort of the general outline—no LMS and as open an environment as is practical, allowing the learning to be transparent to unenrolled visitors, inviting some external participation; a process that leverages students’ existing digital lives rather than asking them to replicate them in a closed system.
Right now the direction I’m thinking is a mashup of tOFP with the tools that students already use—blogs sites, MySpace, etc—such as David and Stephen Downes are discussing. Some students obviously won’t be using these tools, so they’d have to start. But the question is, how these tools come together for a class? Do individual participants aggregate related materials via rss readers? Is there an intermediate open platform that draws together resources created and identified by participants? A carnival model? What are the opportunities and challenges in each?
Hard to say why, but page seven of the Realism section of tOFP courseware has been a popular page this month, with 229 views so far. It’s always been a favorite of mine, so I hope it’s not just a machine glitch:
The project of metafiction is more than just a subject of idle writerly fascination however, and it is so because of the second part of our definition of realism: a technique of fiction that presents a story as if it has some “natural” or objective relationship to reality. You’ll often hear people talk about fiction and the insight it provides into “human experience,” or how stories are a “slice of life.” These phrases would seem to indicate that there is a direct correspondence of realty to fiction and vice versa. Even the name realism would seem to indicate this as well.
I’ve leaned on Seymour Chatman’s work in many places throughout the course material, and he is a self-proclaimed structuralist, which is about as politically neutral a field of criticism as you’ll find out there, and even he acknowledges in many places throughout Story and Discourse that realism does not refer to the real world, but to the current socially accepted interpretations of the real world. His interests do not compel him to trace out the implications of this observation, but I believe it is ethically important for any practicing writer to understand the importance of this.
Because fiction relies on–in some cases reinforces, and in other cases disrupts–the current socially accepted understanding of what is “real,” it is a potent political tool. Fiction can effect tremendous social change, and because it also conceals its operation and the role of the author in shaping the work, it can do so without those it affects even being aware of the process. Conversely, it can reinforce damaging social understandings–stereotypes–without the reader and in some cases the author being aware.
Speaking of metrics, I owe the blog nearly three months of tOFP by the numbers, which I hope to get to soon.
Just discovered that this illustration from tOFP is the top image returned on a Google image search for “narrative arc”:
It’s great to be getting the high return, but I really have been meaning to redo these images…
Note: This is a craftbook entry from 2001 that was refered to in the original coursework that was to become tOFP. I realized while going through the site that it had been deleted during the conversion to tOFP, so I’m putting it up here to restore the example.
Many of the best descriptions I’ve come across depend in part on motion. The author takes what otherwise might have been a static moment and finds a way to animate it. For instance:
“We walked through a high hallway into a bright rosy-colored space, fragilely bound into the house by French windows at either end. The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.
The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dressed were rippling and fluttering as if they’d just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of the picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.”
–F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby
Here, Fitzgerald, takes an element of the scene–the wind–and allows his narrator’s imagination to play with it, to drive how he sees the scene, and creates this airy, swirling room.
And this example:
“Near the window, hidden by the dark, he felt the irritability of the day drain from him and he relished the effortless beauty of the women singing in the candlelight. Reba’s soft profile, Hagar’s hands moving, moving in her heavy hair, and Pilate. He knew her face better than he knew his own. Singing now, her face would be a mask; all emotion and passion would have left her features and entered her voice. But he knew that when she was neither singing nor talking, her face was animated by her constantly moving lips. She chewed things. As a baby, as a very young girl, she kept things in her mouth–straw from brooms, gristle, buttons, seeds, leaves, string, and her favorite, when he could find some for her, rubber bands and India rubber erasers. Her lips were alive with small movements. If you were close up to her, you wondered if she was about to smile or was she merely shifting a straw from the baseline of her gums to her tongue. Perhaps she was dislodging a curl of rubber band from inside her cheek, or was she really smiling? From a distance she appeared to be whispering to herself, when she was only nibbling or splitting tiny seeds with her front teeth. Her lips were darker than her skin, wine-stained, blueberry-dyed, so her face had a cosmetic look–as though she had applied a very dark lipstick neatly and blotted away its shine on a scrap of newspaper.”
Song of Solomon
So the recent back and forth with Stephen Downes reminded me that I’ve had a presentation of his from last fall sitting on my desktop. I’ve been meaning to listen to it for some time and simply haven’t had the chance, but I did finally get around to it. I’ve asked before what the impact of producer culture might be on education, and Stephen’s talk seems to be the first best answer I’ve heard.
Producer culture for me is a wider phenomenon than the purely digital. It of course includes the new tools that allow for the creation of digital content–blogs, digital cameras, the iLife suite–but these are more broadly connected to the increased ease of production for physical objects as well. A few quick examples: On-demand production sites such as CafePress which allow anyone to produce custom books, mugs, shirts, mouse pads and much more; Fab Labs; and the many examples of user-centered production documented by Eric von Hippel in his book Democratizing Innovation.
I’m sure there are and will continue to be non-digital examples of producer culture impact on education, so Stephen’s picture is half the answer, but it’s a very compelling half. Stephen paints a picture that turns the current LMS world on its head. Learning will be organized, he says, not by central, institutionally controlled systems, but by individually controlled virtual learning environments that draw together content via API’s from all across the web. He does a much better job of explaining the details than I could, so it’s well worth the listening time (though be warned, the audio is pretty rough).
I was really excited to discover last night that “democracy” is the second-leading topic-based search term used in accessing MIT OCW (just behind “economics”). I went on to Google to see how high up we ranked on a “democracy” search. I didn’t find OCW in the top few hundred, but eBay was kind enough to provide the following ad:
A weird experience, I must say. As a writer, I’m used to being able to see and edit my words, to test things out on the page and then disagree with them. In speaking situations, I can at least clarify remarks if I don’t quite get them right.
But the podcast makes me feel more exposed somehow, like the words are out there with less review, and I have less opportunity to clarify whatever might not have come out quite right. Plus it’s maybe the second time my spoken remarks have been recorded in some way.
Anyway, it gives me new appreciation for the intrusiveness of audio and video in the classroom. In teaching both fiction and essay writing, I’ve often discussed controversial and difficult subjects in class. I think the freedom to say something you might ultimately decide you disagree with is important to such teaching, and I wonder if I might have been more self-censoring if I knew my class activites were being recorded. Probably. I wonder if it might also discourage experimentation. Something to consider…