Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Fruits and Flowers for Pedagogical Thieves

It has been WAAAYY too long since I've stepped foot on the frozen tundra of this blog, which probably explains why it has iced over, with no mark of activity.  Yes, HEL can freeze.

But I am happy to say that my participation in the roundtable, "Productive Anachronism," at the Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo this last Thursday evening inspired me to return to this blog and post the text of my paper.  I hope to conjoin this paper with ones posted by fellow participants Rick GoddenRobin Wharton, and Anna Wilson, so that more potentially "productive" conversation can be had in the blogosphere.

Fruits and Flowers for Pedagogical Thieves

           As my contribution to the roundtable, I want to characterize the late medieval pedagogical tradition of reading, glossing, and rewriting Aesopic fables as a premodern form of intellectual theft, usually associated with certain types of academic thievery, such as copying and pasting, full scale textual appropriation, and silent citation, that have become increasingly visible in this early digital age.  On the one hand, acknowledging the poorly kept secret that so-called innovative or seminal work always comes from somewhere else threatens to weaken our claims to "credit" for a particular research finding or publication.  On the other, we have developed rigorous criteria for citing our sources, such as footnotes and endnotes that simultaneously recognize and marginalize the material we rely on, all the while retaining our rights to authorship to this compiled corpus we have assembled. 
If we recognize our scholarship as a remixed object of previous scholastic work, we are in a position to understand the long history of textual appropriation, which is productively embodied by the dissemination and production of the most popular version of Aesop's fables after the twelfth century, the elegiac Romulus, a series of sixty verse fables that survive in at least 170 manuscripts and fifty printed editions published in five countries by the end of the fifteenth century.[1]  In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries throughout Europe, students and their teachers paraphrased and elaborated upon this collection through extensive glosses, making them flexible works in progress, ripe for correction and appropriation, rather than finished products to be consumed "as is." 
I want to trouble our common claims to original authorship and explore the affinities that these medieval practices of fable revision share with the pervasive digital practice of remixing.  Remixing, as a recognized enterprise, has been occurring for decades behind the closed doors of publishing houses, music studios, and film editing rooms, but the emergence of read-write platforms such as blogs and wikis render such media mashups much more visible.  Raffaele Simone predicts that such remixing will lead to the disintegration of textual corpora, in which "the protective membrane of the texts will decompose and they will once more become open texts as in the Middle Ages with all the standard concomitant presuppositions."  The digital practices of creating new texts out of old ones complicate the copyrighted claims to authorship or "membrane" in ways that anonymous medieval fable writers, commentators, and glossators would have considered necessary for their own textual production or classroom pedagogy.  As Kathleen Fitzpatrick has recently suggested, the characterization of scholarly work as remixing might shift us "away from a sole focus on the production of unique, original new arguments and texts to consider instead curation as a valid form of scholarly activity, in which the work of authorship lies in the imaginative bringing together of multiple threads of discourse that originate elsewhere."[3]  Refashioning the production of knowledge as a form of "curation" would acknowledge the creative appropriations that scholars and teachers already tacitly embrace, effectively making transparent their conversion of old texts into new ones.
            The expansion and canonization of Aesopic fables would have been impossible without the capacity to selectively remix textual corpora.  And in at least one sense, "mixing" and "appropriation" have always been central values of fable writing and reading.  Take for example the opening lines of the prologue to the elegiac Romulus, which employs horticultural language to express the ways in which fables are composed and then used by their readers:  
            Ut iuvet et prosit conatur pagina presens:
                        dulcius arrident seria picta iocis.
            Ortulus iste parit fructum cum flore, favorem
                        flos et fructus emunt: hic sapit, ille nitet.
            Si fructus plus flore placet, fructum lege, si flos
                        plus fructu, florem, si duo, carpe duo. (1-6)
[This present work ventures to be pleasurable and useful; serious things are more alluring when they are embellished with sport.  This garden brings forth fruit with flowers.  The flower and the fruit win favor, the one by its flavor and the other by its beauty.  If the fruit pleases you more than the flower, steal the fruit; if the flower more than the fruit, steal the flower; if both, take both].  
This fable writer characterizes this enterprise as one that mixes the serious with the playful, and more precisely the serious "embellished" by the playful.  The word used here is picta, which would normally refer to something "painted," implying that the sport inherent in fable telling serves as a veneer for what lies underneath.  Yet, the fruit (the serious message) is not privileged over the flower (the aesthetic attributes of the fables).  Instead, the fabulist uses the aggressive verbs lege (steal) and carpe (take) to explain what readers might do to the fable text, taking either the fruit or the flower, or both.  While we might expect that readers would select particular aspects of a text to take away, the writer perceives his material as an open source, in which "both" or "all" may be taken. 
            One reader who embraced this fable thievery was the fifteenth-century Scottish schoolmaster Robert Henryson, who composed one of the earliest and most influential fable collections in English known as the Morall Fabillis.  In his own version of the Romulan prologue, Henryson offers the following line, translated almost directly from his source: "And clerkis sayis, it is richt profitabill / Amangis ernist to ming ane merie sport" (20-1).[4]  By claiming that he learned this mantra from "clerkis," he characterizes the elegiac Romulus as a collection collaboratively compiled by a number of unnamed authorities.  Perhaps more interestingly, he alters the relationship between "sport" and "ernist" ["serious things"] slightly, moving away from the Latin "seria picta iocis," or “sport painted upon serious matter,” towards a more balanced "mix," the result of Henryson's "to ming."  He appears to endorse appropriation and remixing as characteristics of fable writing, but his next use of "ming" a few lines later is accompanied by a direct citation of a singular authority (26-8).  The naming of Aesop reflects a growing tension between the diversity of Henryson's source material, the compilers and commentators who contributed to the elegiac Romulus, and the location of authority in a single author.  On the one hand, it was conventional to cite Aesop as the origin for fables, but on the other, Henryson had just attributed the sentiment of "serious things mixed with sport" to anonymous "clerkis."  This is a contradiction, but if we read on, contradiction is not the only problem: Henryson offers three different versions of this line within the space of ten lines.  In the first instance, he offers a fairly faithful rendering of the aphorism, making just one significant substitution: rather than translate dulcius as "sweeter" or "more alluring," he selects “richt profitabill,” which privileges the moral profit of the fables over their aesthetic delights.  The second version, however, offers a more qualified perspective than the first: rather than suggest that any kind of frivolity may be mixed with serious things, he revises it slightly, saying “With sad materis sum merines to ming.”  As if he is dissatisfied with either translation, his third version is the original Latin line itself.  While this kind of translation and citation might seem repetitive and contradictory, this redundancy reflects the redundant nature of many fable collections, which offered multiple versions of the same fable in the same manuscript.[5]  Henryson may have been influenced by his immersion in this pedagogical tradition, but it is also important to note that his three renderings of the line cleverly mimics the three levels of appropriation encouraged by the Romulan prologue: stealing one, seizing another, and then taking the whole thing.  Understood this way, Henryson steals the fruit, seizes the flower, and then, having decided he wants them both, he takes both, offering his own remix of the Aesopic mantra.[6]
This anachronistic application of remix culture should encourage us to reconsider our own perceptions of scholarly originality, ownership, and even the very nature of critique.  On the practical level, we might support the efforts to taxonomize digital remix culture or develop responsible reforms to copyright law.[7]  Yet, I believe that any resistance to copyright restrictions must be accompanied by changes in intellectual dispositions, away from myths of individuality and genius, and toward good faith collaboration and appropriation.  That is, research would acknowledge its roots in the rich work it draws from, and then disseminate that research publicly through creative commons licensed work, open-access journals, wikis, and blogs.  This reorientation toward our work as an assemblage would necessarily lead to revisions in our approach to critique as a destructive process of unveiling what had previously been obscured. As an alternative, Bruno Latour offers a disposition he calls "compositionism": "a reuse of critique; not an even more critical critique but rather critique acquired secondhand – so to speak – and put to a different use."[8]  Jamie "Skye" Bianco takes Latour's compositionism a step further by asking, "what might happen if this critical impulse, described as "reuse" (remix) and "secondhand" (mashup), operated not through creative destruction but creative construction, or . . . composing creative critique?"[9]  As I hope I have expressed here, I do not merely believe this "might happen."  The production of the Aesopic corpus during the Middle Ages depended upon its status as an open resource, in which writers and readers intimately interacted, actively revising and expanding fable collections, blurring the boundaries between the text and its critics. 

[1]  Léopold Hervieux, ed., Les Fabulistes Latins depuis le siècle d'Auguste jusqu'à la fin du moyen âge (New York: Burt Franklin, 1960), 1:472-684 and 2:602-31; Gerd Dicke and Klaus Grubmüller, Die Fabeln des Mittelalters und der Frühen Neuzeit: Ein Katalog der deutschen Versionen und ihrer latenischen Entsprechungen (Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 1987), lxvi-lxviii; Edward Wheatley, Mastering Aesop: Medieval Education, Chaucer, and His Followers (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000), 3.
[2] Raffaele Simone, "The Body of the Text" in The Future of the Book, ed. Geoffrey Nunberg (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 239-51, at 249.

[3] Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy (New York: New York University Press, 2011), 79.

[4] My quotations from the Morall Fabillis are from The Poems of Robert Henryson, ed. Denton Fox (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981).

[5] For example, one fourteenth-century Austrian manuscript, Codex Vindobonensis Palatinus 303, is a veritable cornucopia of Aesopica, containing five different collections (and one solitary fable).  Even one set, known as the prose Romulus, appears twice.  The first time the prose Romulus fables appear, they appear as prefaces to the elegiac Romulus.  Given their appearance later in the manuscript, it is likely that these prefaces were written by students to demonstrate their knowledge of the fable tradition, including the variations of each fable.

[6] If we move beyond Henryson's prologue, we find that he applies this practice of remixing to texts beyond the fable tradition.  As Jill Mann has recently argued, Henryson is not content simply to rewrite Aesopic mainstays.  Rather he merges the fable genre with another animal corpus that centers on the exploits of one Reynard the fox, the Roman de Renart.  See Jill Mann, From Aesop to Reynard: Beast Literature in Medieval Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 262-305.

[7] Lawrence Lessig, Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy (New York: Penguin, 2005).

[8] Bruno Latour, "An Attempt at a 'Compositionist Manifesto,'" New Literary History 41.3 (Summer 2010): 471-90, at 474.

[9] Jamie "Skye" Bianco, "The Digital Humanities Which Is Not One," in Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew K. Gold (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 96-112, at 107. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Thinking and Linking: Teaching with Hypertext

A "hypertextual" assembled book. 
British Library Board. All Rights Reserved (Shelfmark C23e4).
Image taken from here.
On Thursday I participated in the annual Center for Innovative Teaching / Educational Technology Conference, entitled "Transforming Teaching and Learning."  Last year, a group of undergraduates and I ran a session called "Arthurian Fan Fiction" and the year before that I gave a solo presentation called "Wikipedia in HEL," a talk that in many ways inspired the creation of this blog.  This year, a group of graduate students from my "Teaching English with Technology" (see our course blog here) and I collaborated on a session entitled "Thinking and Linking: Teaching with Hypertext."  I provided a theoretical introduction, detailing what I see as the benefits and limitations of using hypertext, and then the students, Melody Anderson, Brendan Holloway, and Alex McAdams shared the hypertext projects they developed in the course and have since revised based on some rethinking and application in their own graduate teaching experiences.  Here is the abstract of our session:

Thinking and Linking: Teaching with Hypertext

When we ask students to read course texts, we also expect that they make connections to related concepts, literature, or events.  Yet, students often do not make significant connections or record these connections in systematic ways.  This panel will address these problems through the pedagogical use of hypertext links, the ubiquitous facilitators of online networking and research that provide immediate and sustained connections between web pages.  While the development of hypertext links used to require knowledge of HTML, blogs and wikis now offer user-friendly interfaces that make linking an accessible educational tool for both teachers and students.  Moreover, hypertext linking offers new and interesting benefits and challenges for student thinking and learning that transcend the possibilities of face-to-face dialogue.  This session will confront the ways in which hypertext can mediate what Ann Berthoff calls "elemental meaning-making actions" within cyberspace.

Assistant Professor of English, Alex Mueller, and English graduate students, Melody Anderson, Brendan Holloway, and Alex McAdams will share both their rationale for teaching with hypertext and the projects they have individually developed using blogs, wikis, and webquests to enhance student engagement with course texts.  These applications include a linkable version of Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," a Freirean hypertext for Composition 101 students, and an Uncle Tom's Cabin interactive blog site.  After these projects are presented, the panelists will engage the audience in a discussion about potential uses and possible abuses of hypertext across content areas and disciplines.

Below is the text I used as the basis for my introductory remarks and then what I had hoped to offer as some attempt at a conclusion, but as it turned out, we ran out of time.  I decided that I would rather have a conversation with the audience members rather than squeeze my thoughts in at the end.  That said, I would love to know what YOU think about my attempts to critique/compose through hypertext.  Or, if you prefer to see/hear a screen capture of the session, go here.  Of course, you could always do both!

Hypertext: Revolutionary or Restrictive?           
            We approach this session from the assumption that the aim of pedagogy is to establish a learning environment in which students actively produce meaning and exercise their creative faculties as they confront the complexities of the world around them.  The opposite educational posture, in which students passively consume information and receive knowledge, has been famously decried by Paulo Freire as the oppressive "banking concept" of education.  He describes these pedagogical deposits as cancellations of creativity: "The capability of banking education to minimize or annul the students' creative power and to stimulate their credulity serves the interests of the oppressors, who care neither to have the world revealed nor to see it transformed.  The oppressors use their 'humanitarianism' to preserve a profitable situation.  Thus they react almost instinctively against any experiment in education which stimulates the critical faculties and is not content with a partial view of reality but always seeks out the ties which link one point to another and one problem to another."[1]  As 21st-century teachers and students of English, it is difficult to ignore the resonances that a pedagogy – one that "seeks out ties which link" – shares with the educational possibilities of hypertext, which has the capacity to facilitate an innumerable number of linkages between related points and problems.   
            Hypertext, the digital strategy that associates chunks of text, image, or sound within an informally and intuitively structured retrieval system, has often been described as possessing revolutionary characteristics and operating as a synecdoche for the liberatory character of computer technology.  The inventor of the term "hypertext," Theodor Nelson even went so far as to suggest that "[t]he purpose of computers is human freedom, and so the purpose of hypertext is overview and understanding."[2]  From a Freirean perspective, Nelson's "overview and understanding" is the access to reality that hypertext affords by making transparent the links that already exist between global problems and deconstructing the elitist claims to higher knowledge protected by oppressive regimes.  In one sense this seems to be an accurate description of hypertext, which offers readers choices and multilinear itineraries through hyperlinks, equating "writing" with "reading" and allowing systematic connections to be made between seemingly disparate texts.  J. David Bolter argues that hypertext, the tie that binds what he calls the "electronic book," offers a more suitable approach to the complexity of the world than the structures of the printed book has ever been able to provide: "There is nothing in an electronic book that quite corresponds to the printed table of contents . . . In this sense, the electronic book reflects a different natural world, in which relationships are multiple and evolving: there is no great chain of being in an electronic world-book.  For that very reason, an electronic book is a better analogy for contemporary views of nature, since nature today is often not regarded as a hierarchy, but rather as a network of interdependent species and systems."[3]  For those of us who rely on printed books for our instructional material, we know all too well the limitations of working with such discrete objects, some of which are published in competing editions, offer little to no space for commentary, and provide little guidance in making even transitory connections between other printed texts.
            While many of us might acknowledge the advantages of information retrieval and networked data that hyperlinks provide, hypertext can also be highly limited and restrictive in its scope and operation.  A prominent digital scholar, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, confesses that her students often resist pedagogical uses of hypertext, condemning it as manipulative.  She adds, "Hypertext isn't really interactive, they argue; it only gives the illusion of reader involvement – and certainly only the illusion that the hierarchy of the author and reader had been leveled: clicking, they insist, is not the same as writing."[4]  From this perspective, hypertext is an oppressive form of narration, in which the author determines when and where the links will be, thereby limiting the number of pathways a reader may take.  When hypertext is simply read, the digital author arguably has even more control over the way a reader can approach the text than a print author, who cannot determine which connections the reader can make or which pages she will read.  Understood this way, hypertext embodies the Freirean "banking notion of consciousness," in which "the educator's role is to regulate the way the world 'enters into' the students."[5]  If teachers are content to simply create hyperlinked texts that their students will submissively click and follow, hypertext offers little opportunity to achieve Nelson's ideal of the "freedom" that the computer supposedly affords.
            As panelists, we cannot claim to have solved this inherent tension in the pedagogical application of hypertext, but we feel that a via media or "middle way" is not just possible  –it is desirable.  The projects that we will be sharing today emerged both from the graduate English seminar entitled, "Teaching English with Technology," and from our recent reflections upon our own teaching of literature and composition courses.  While we differ in our approaches to hypertext, we collectively see the use of such computer technology to be less about "freedom" than it is about "power," as Espen Aarseth has influentially suggested.[6]  This hypertextual power can be wielded in ways that can be certainly oppressive in their application, but if we envision hypertext less as text to be read than to be written, the cognitive power of linking can be applied by students powerfully within hyperspatial educational environments.

Conclusion: From Hypertext Critique to Hypertext Composition
            As these projects demonstrate, the possible pedagogical uses of hypertext are nearly endless, enhancing the teaching of reading and allusion, the exploration of new forms of commentary, and the incorporation of visual design into multimodal forms of composition.  They also collectively recognize, we believe, the limitations and advantages of such computer-mediated dialogue for knowledge production and textual critique.  On the one hand, these projects defy the banking model of pedagogy and engage in what Freire has called "problem-posing education," in which students interrogate the texts or real-world issues before them through juxtaposition, compilation, and critical commentary.  Freire offers the following formulation for these practices: "Whereas banking education anesthetizes and inhibits creative power, problem-posing education involves a constant unveiling of reality.  The former attempts to maintain the submersion of consciousness; the latter strives for the emergence of consciousness and critical intervention in reality."[7]  Terms such as "unveiling" and "emergence" and "intervention" share kinship with the progeny of hypertext such as trackbacks, hyperlinks, and wiki-edits, all of which facilitate the identification and deconstruction of digitally-mediated realities.
            When we commit to these pedagogical enterprises, we are in some sense championing what we traditionally call "critique," "reading against the grain," or even "peeling back the surface" as the preferable instructional modes.  Yet, since the digital world is a reality untenable and unmanageable for many of us, adopting a Freirean conviction to "unveil reality" in cyberspace is increasingly a futile exercise in chasing shadows, many of which may not represent any recognizable reality at all.  Moreover, acts of critique are often described in aggressive and destructive terms that do not suit the constructive work of linking, blogging, and wiki-editing that hypertext affords.  As Bruno Latour dramatically puts it, "what performs critique cannot also compose."[8]  Latour is responding to the pervasive assumption that once reality is "unveiled" the work of critique is finished, leaving little to no room for "composition" or reconciliatory work to be performed.  Using the metaphor of a critical "hammer," Latour explains:  "With a hammer (or a sledge hammer) in hand you can do a lot of things: break down walls, destroy idols, ridicule prejudices, but you cannot repair, take care, assemble, reassemble, stitch together.  It is no more possible to compose with the paraphernalia of critique than it is to cook with a seesaw.  Its limitations are greater still, for the hammer of critique can only prevail if, behind the slowly dismantled wall of appearances, is finally revealed the netherworld of reality.  But when there is nothing real to be seen behind this destroyed wall, critique suddenly looks like another call to nihilism.  What is the use of poking holes in delusions, if nothing more true is revealed underneath?"[9]  If we use hypertext as a tool of critique, we are adopting the Freirean model of "problem-posing," but if our use of this digital medium stops there, we will not be tapping its full potential to "repair," "assemble," or "stitch together."  Contra Latour's suggestion that a tool cannot both "critique" and "compose, we believe our projects have shown that hypertext can be used as both a critical hammer and a compositional needle and thread, which both "unveil" the many layers, allusions, and subtexts beneath the textual surface and "sew" together the ruptures that often arise through the process of critique.  If we are content to use hypertext for critical reading, making connections, or challenging assumptions, we are only applying a portion of its utility as a pedagogical resource.  In other words, if we are doing more passive clicking than active linking, we are not fully pressing the limits of our thinking or taking advantage of the many opportunities that hypertext offers for digital acts of composing and meaning-making.                                                        

[1] Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos (New York: Continuum, 1993), 54-5.  Our emphases are marked in italics.
[2] Theodor Nelson, Computer Lib/Dream Machines (South Bend, IN: Self-published, 1974).
[3] J. David Bolter, Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1991), 105.
[4] Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy (New York New York University Press, 2011), 98.
[5] Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 57.
[6] Espen J. Aarseth, Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 82.
[7] Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 62.
[8] Bruno Latour, "An Attempt at a 'Compositionist Manifesto,'" New Literary History 41 (2010): 471-90, at 475.  It is important to note that Latour's "composition" does not refer to "writing," but rather to intellectual work as a whole, which he suggests should adopt the virtues of assemblage over critical acts of what he calls "creative destruction."
[9] Ibid.