Special Session Accepted! “Classroom As Interface” comes to MLA13

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Coming to the Modern Languages Association’s annual Convention, Jan. 3-6, 2013 in Boston, MA: “The Classroom As Interface.” It will feature presentations by Elizabeth Losh (UCSD), Jason Farman (U.Maryland/College Park), LeeAnn Hunter (Washington State Pullman) and me (USC Annenberg).

Here’s the proposal. I invite anybody out there — particularly teachers (K-12, college, community college, univ., online or f2f) to reach out and comment.

A “Media-Specific Analysis” is “a mode of critical interrogation alert to the ways in which the medium constructs the work and the work constructs the medium” (9). Although N. Katherine Hayles‘ subject in Writing Machines is the material construction of electronic literature, it is now appropriate — even necessary — to perform a “media-specific analysis” of the “classroom.” The classroom has always been an interface, a point of interaction between the physical and the virtual. Now that the classroom is no longer the de facto site of learning, the unique parameters of the synchronous, networked classroom may be seen, altered and tested. For the first time, learners with intellectual disabilities or even just personal predilections might use software to customize their mode of classroom engagement. Whether an ADD learner hacks virtual classroom software to eliminate distracting video feeds, or a shy learner anonymously participates in a lecture’s Twitter backchannel, ubiquitous computing is permitting a rapid proliferation of learning interfaces. This profusion merits scrutiny and interpretation.

We propose an interactive, participatory Special Session in which each presenter talks for ten minutes and the remaining thirty-five minutes are reserved for 1) twenty minutes of question-and-answers and 2) fifteen minutes of hands-on engagement with key elements of the presentations. That is, each presenter will be prepared not only to present a “talk” but also to show exemplary assignments, demonstrations of software, or clusters of data. This blend of theoretical and experiential presentation is meant to provide attendees the necessary theoretical and applicative close readings to appreciate the specific interstices of the classroom as interface. Our panel is designed to present four unique but telescoping vantages on the classroom as interface: the institution, the classroom, the software and the learner’s body.

Elizabeth Losh notes that mass distributions of handheld digital devices to first-year students on college campuses offer new ways for undergraduates to “read” the university and its interfaces and to be instructed in new modes of digital reading by campuses interested in promoting electronic rites of initiation. How should we look back on a decade of large-scale distribution efforts aimed at giving mobile computing to first-year college students? Four cases studies – the 2002 distribution of HP Jordana Pocket PCs at UC San Diego, the 2004 distribution of iPods at Duke, and the 2010 and 2011 distributions of iPads at Seton Hill and the University of Maryland – tell us about institutional attitudes about how students should decipher the messages encoded in higher education. With mobile technologies students are encouraged to read textbooks, read buildings, and even read each other. The institutions’ tacit promotion of passive and active surveillance activates competing anxieties: traditionalist fears about post-literacy and distraction, and progressives’ misgivings about usurpation of private space.

Jason Farman’s paper focuses on recent debates around the effects of digital technologies on practices of distraction and disconnection in the college classroom. Examining the lives of American college students as a lens through which to read the broader culture’s responses, Dr. Farman looks at the heated discussions about the ways that multitasking is, as Nicholas Carr argues, “rewiring our brains.” From 2009-2011, many cultural events underscored the urgency of these debates, such the 2009 shift which marked, for the first time ever, when mobile phones were used more for data transfer than for voice conversations. Farman’s autoethnographic approach draws upon his experiences using mobile media in the classroom and considers emerging scholarship on multitasking and distraction, such as Cathy N. Davidson’s Now You See It. The exhortation to disconnect, Farman argues, simplifies a complex, embodied process of engagement across the spaces of our screens and physical environments.

Software developers prize transparency: a desktop folder holds files just like a manila folder holds papers. But in the virtual classroom, where the software is meant to remediate a huge range of conscious and unconscious communication practices, “face-to-face” is distractingly literal: a Brady Bunch grid of nodding heads. Kathi Inman Berens spent a year experimenting with virtual classroom software in her classes. In this “medium-specific analysis,” Berens contextualizes the results of these software-and-pedagogy experiments with readings from Hayles, Apple’s Software Developers’ Kit, and Oram and Wilson’s Beautiful Code. How does choice of platform influence student engagement and interactivity? Should student reaction to the virtual classroom software become a subject of course content, or should it be “invisible”? Walled gardens (Blackboard, Adobe) and ad-supported services (the Google suite, Twitter) necessitate thinking through the ethical implications of commerce that openly underwrites our freedom to “make stuff.”

“I’d like to think that meeting in a physical space has value,” discloses LeeAnn Hunter. “But unless we begin to think of human interaction as a technology in itself that aids learning, I can see why publicly funded institutions would want to go the way of Khan.” Hunter proposes to formulate — or begin limning the parameters — of a technology of human interaction. What are the advantages and specs of embodied, collective, synchronous learning? How might it impact learning and growth? In an economy of scarcity, what is its cost-benefits analysis? Exploring the perspective of embodied learning, Hunter turns to the canons of disability studies and non-verbal communication such as dance to seek alternative paradigms for understanding the stakes of embodied learning in ubiquitous computing environments.

Beginning our panel with the institution and ending it with the body implies a trajectory of inquiry that has a rich history in literary studies. Decades of feminist and queer writing on embodiment, “writing-from-the-body” and the body inscribed by the institution prompts us to wonder to what extent our humanness, in this world of newly ubiquitous computing, might be a byproduct of interface?

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