Another reason I love Mendeley: Grading student projects!

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Ya’ll, I’m totally on the Mendeley bandwagon. In an earlier post, I talked about how great it is for organizing my course readings and for taking notes on the readings to have them all in one place. But I’ve branched out to experiment with another potential use for Mendeley – grading student projects. So far, I think it works pretty well.

For the second unit of ENG 101, we explore the differences between academic writing (through looking at journal articles) and public writing (by analyzing magazine articles). Their unit project is to adapt a journal article for a popular audience by creating a magazine spread that reports on the information and targets their audience effectively. I let the students get creative and go all out with the layout and design, whether with just MS Word or with Adobe Creative Suite. Because of this, I ask them to submit their projects in PDF format instead of as a Word document or RTF (which is how they normally submit projects; I grade everything electronically in Word using “Insert Comment” and “Track Changes”). Before using Mendeley, though, I had no way to grade ON a PDF; instead, I would create a Word document and just record my comments in there. As you can imagine, that’s not the most efficient way to do so. (I know, I should just buy Adobe Pro, and then I’d be set, but – I’m holding out until I get my new computer.)

So, since I’ve discovered Mendeley, I’ve been thinking that it would be a possible solution to my grading PDF conundrum. And it is! I just download a folder with all of my students’ projects in them. I start grading by highlighting where there are spelling, grammar, or punctuation errors, just like I used to in Word. Then, I’m able to insert comments directly at the point where I’m commenting on. When I’m done, I export the PDF and am able to email the file with annotations back to the students. Genius!

I’ve really only one complaint about the process: when I export the PDF, I lose the little comment graphic that shows students where I’ve commented in their file. I don’t know if that’s only because of my computer at this point, or if that’s how it works for everyone. So, I’ve come up with a solution by highlighting just the final word of a sentence where I’m commenting and then inserting the comment over top of the little highlighted part. In my emails to students, I tell them to hover their cursor over the small highlights, and they will see my comments for that part. (Dear Mendeley: Is it just because my computer is older? Or if the graphics do not export, can you try to make that happen for future versions? Thank you!!).

Overall, though, if you like working with free software and grade PDFs, this is totally a great idea. Even better if your students use Mendeley, as I’m sure the graphics would show up if they imported the graded file into their own Mendeley desktop. If I ever move to a no-textbook and only online readings course, I might just make them all download the software…

**Edited to add: Also, once I’ve exported all of the PDFs to save them on my computer in my teaching files and emailed them back to students, I plan to delete them from my Mendeley desktop & web account so that those files don’t contribute to my free space limit.  **

Book Review: The Future of the Internet

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Zittrain, J. (2008). The future of the internet – and how to stop it. New Haven, CT: Yale. Paperback. 328 + x pages. $17.00. ISBN: 978-0-300-15124-4.

In The Future of the Internet, Jonathan Zittrain explores the development of personal computers (PCs) as generative devices that allowed for the Internet to explode in popularity in the way that it has in the last ten years. He argues that while open networks were the only way for PCs and the Internet to be runaway successes initially, it is now time to reassess the generative PC and put security of our networks first. Without doing so, we stand to lose the greatest asset of our networked society: innovation. The author presents his message in a thought-provoking manner, alerting readers to the danger of continuing on the current path and prompting users to be more savvy “netizens” who help to make the Internet a safer communication platform for everyone. His argument for a solution – the development of a “community ethos” online – has implications for the general public whom he is writing to, as well as for rhetoricians, to consider.

Zittrain organizes his argument into three parts: a history of the explosion of PCs and the Internet, a discussion of generativity and its implications for networked society, and finally, a presentation of solutions for moving past the current state of generativity to a more secure and sustainable networked society. The first section, “The Rise and Fall of the Generative Net,” gives a selective history of networked computers and introduces readers to the initial struggle between centralized proprietary networks, such as early AOL and CompuServe offerings, and the Internet, examining the features that led to the demise of the former and success of the latter. The Internet, Zittrain writes, began with few rules and expectations, growing exponentially to the point that it is at now, connecting people all across the world. PCs, furthermore, developed in much the same way: with hardly any regulations and instead an open platform that allowed anyone who wanted to tweak and improve both hardware and software. Zittrain posits that the openness of the system led to significant vulnerability and the inevitable development of viruses, worms, malware, and spam that proliferate on the Net today. Internet threats are spiraling out of control: highly communicable and available almost instantaneously around the globe to networked computers, programmers and Internet security companies cannot keep up with the volume. The remainder of the book is developed on the premise that the current “status quo” of cybersecurity (or lack thereof) is not sustainable and requires intervention – though not primarily on the part of technology companies or software developers, but on the part of individual users around the globe. (More after the jump break…)

The second section, “After the Stall,” identifies more precisely how PCs and the Internet are generative, illuminating the benefits and drawbacks to such an open system. By examining the different layers of the Internet – physical, application, social, content, and protocol –, Zittrain explains how generativity works within and across these layers. He defines generativity as “a system’s capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences” (p. 70, emphasis in original). This principle assigns users to the role of active participants in the development of the Internet instead of merely being passive consumers. Zittrain credits generativity for all of the innovation we have seen with PC technology and the Internet, saying that it encourages people to pitch in and help with the development of new and better ways to connect and interact with each other online. With the benefit of generativity, however, comes potential disruption, which we have seen increase exponentially over the last decade. Zittrain warns that technology companies are overreacting to the all of the harm that exists on the Net by creating “tethered appliances” (p. 102). Products like iPhones, Blackberries, DVRs, and Kindles are “tethered” because even after being purchased by a consumer, they are directly connected to their vendors and are easily reconfigured by vendors from afar. Zittrain also calls them “appliances” because unlike generative PCs, they are not easily reconfigured by any consumer who wants to tinker with them. While tethered appliances may be safer in the short run (less susceptible to viruses and malware due to tight control by vendors), the author claims that they are detrimental to creativity and innovation in the long run.

Instead, Zittrain argues that we need solutions that foster creativity as well as internal security. He uses Wikipedia as an example of a content-layer community that self-regulates to preserve the integrity of the system. It began with no rules or governing body – just like the Internet itself – and as the system evolved, so did a legislative group and acceptable terms of use. The regulations came from people who cared about the community and wanted to see it succeed, and Zittrain suggests that the same principle can be applied to Internet security and generativity.

In the final section of the book, “Solutions,” Zittrain presents his ideas for moving forward to “the future of the Internet.” The obvious solution to the technology companies, he says, is to produce more tethered appliances to “clamp down” on malintentioned users in cyberspace. Instead, he argues, in order to preserve technological innovation, we need to foster generativity at both the technical and content layers of the Internet and promote a community defense, such as the one used to maintain Wikipedia. He likely loses some readers at this point with his call to “figure out how to inspire people to act humanely in digital environments that today do not facilitate the appreciative smiles and ‘thank yous’ present in the physical world” (p. 195). After thoroughly discussing the development of all the harmful things found on the Internet today, this solution in particular is anti-climactic and hardly seems feasible. If all Internet users desired to “act humanely in digital environments,” Zittrain would not have had to write the book that he has here. He indicates that solving generativity issues at this layer, the social one, might also work to solve problems found in other layers, such as the content and technical ones, but never explicitly states how the transference of solutions could happen. Overall, this solution comes across as preachy instead of pragmatic, the opposite of the first two sections of his exposition.

In this final part, Zittrain also considers many of the legal aspects of privacy and network security and the implications if we do not pursue better enforcement in the future. A professor of law at Harvard, he adeptly adapts the legal discussion for his lay audience for maximum understanding. Much the of the network security discussion, however, is directed toward an informed audience with previous knowledge of code, network design, and other technical language and may leave many less-informed readers in search of the Wikipedia entries for offending terms. Further, his solutions for a more secure network also assume that most Internet users have this basic knowledge of code, malware, website security certificates, and other network issues in order to be viable. Perhaps in his Harvard University Berkman Center, a significant number of his peers possess this knowledge, but a majority of the general public would certainly not have the technical know-how to set his plan in motion. If they did have knowledge of these issues, as he concedes a couple of times in the final section, network security would not be an issue for us to solve in the first place.

Overall, the greatest benefit of Zittrain’s book for rhetoricians lies in his explanation of generativity and the key role it has played in the development of the PC and the Internet. As scholars, we see great benefits in the peer production of Web 2.0, but as Zittrain points out, we must also be aware of the security and privacy dangers associated with such an open network. One of his solutions, a community ethos, is worth exploring from a rhetorical perspective. In what way can Web 2.0 build a community ethos from the ground up? His prime example of this is the development of Wikipedia and its key community of frequent users who developed and still maintain standards for all users, claiming, “Wikipedia, as a tool of group generativity, reflects the character of thousands of people” (p. 198). What constitutes character in a group-governed online encyclopedia? How does community ethos work in an online setting? Rhetorical scholars might also investigate which features of peer production are most salient for discussions of community ethos. Zittrain claims that community ethos is made possible by generativity, and he attempts to show this in his explanations of copyright issues on the Internet, the procrastination principle of networks (which assumes problems can be solved later and by others), and the replicability of ethos from one layer of the Internet to another. Rhetorical scholars are also beginning to look at issues of rhetoric and intellectual property (Reyman, 2010), and Zittrain’s work begins to explain the importance of clear copyright regulation and the consequences of not establishing feasible expectations for intellectual property governance. Using his ideas, rhetorical scholars should continue to explore the rhetoric of copyright in the digital age. Overall, this book provides a solid foundation for the principle of generativity and a prompt to study community ethos in greater depth and its implications for the future of the Internet.

Managing Your Identity Online

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We all know why we should be conscientious about what kind of material about us is out there on the Internet – you’ve heard the “horror stories” of that poor woman who didn’t get a job because there were pictures of her half-naked sloppy drunk on Facebook – but how exactly do you do this?

I was prompted to think about this by a radio commercial I heard on the way home from class tonight. The commercial was for a company that claimed that they would “clean up your online image” – for only $99! Obviously, I’m skeptical. I grew more suspicious as the commercial continued: they would either “take down the offensive material” or they would “bury it so far down in the search engine results that no one would ever find it.”

Is this possible?! As an individual, can you outsource your image management? (Well, I guess celebrities do, but – is this something that you or I could do?) Are these claims legitimate? How could a company – who doesn’t have control over the content for Facebook, or a blog – claim to be able to actually remove something off of the Internet? Further, we sort of know how SEO works (Google’s not exactly forthcoming about the process, but we have some idea of the criteria), and it seems that a lot of it relies on the content of pages – again, not something one company can just go and change in the code of another company’s website.

Ultimately, I think, it comes down to owning your “image,” owning your name online and you being the person who generates the content about yourself. Don’t let other people define you online. When you Google yourself, your content should be the first few results that appear. People are more likely to click on the first few results, so make sure those results are your choice of words, your choice of photographs, your choice of videos.

Some ways to do this are obvious – having a blog with your name attached, Twitter account using your real name, and/or website your own domain name – but it’s also easy to overlook things that pop up on a search that you might not want to be readily available. For instance, if you comment on a blog using an account login – your name is permanently attached to the comment you post, as well as the original post and other comments. Obviously, you don’t want to get in a heated exchange about the reason why Lindsay Lohan is right to blame her dad for all her issues with your name plastered on all your comments.

What are ways that you manage your online identity? Do you think that this company has a legitimate claim for its services that I’m not aware of? This is an emerging issue for students, job seekers, etc. that we all need to be thinking about.

Genres & digital media

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Genres are an ever-moving target; “dynamic [and] evolutionary in nature” (Miller & Shepherd, 2004), they are subject of an immense body of research into which I barely dipped a toe this week when reading for my course “Rhetoric & Digital Media.” The readings demonstrate the close relationship of form, genre, and narrative. I’ll attempt here to explore briefly some of the major issues discussed in our readings and take a stance on what genres are, what emerging issues for genre accompany the developments in digital media, and how we, as budding digital media scholars, can examine them.

To begin, Burke’s Counter-Statement (1968) takes form as a central tenet, and the selections we read reflect his initial exploration of form (“Psychology and Form”) and the subsequent addenda to and corrections of his ideas (“Lexicon Rhetoricae”) In the former, Burke demonstrates Perelman’s (1982) “dissociation of ideas” to distinguish between form and psychology. To Burke, rhetorical form is the creation and fulfilling of desires of the audience, their psychology. It is dynamic: the reader anticipates, the writer delivers, and the text satisfies, creating a profoundly social and rhetorical view of form, as opposed to the traditional aesthetic view used within literature at that time.

Burke’s early ideas of form and human action lead us directly to Miller’s (1984) discussion of genre as social action. She explains that form, combined with the substance of discourse, permits “that symbolic structures take on pragmatic force and become interpretable actions” (p. 160). She makes clear, however, that form does not mean genre, instead suggesting a definition of genre that has become the discipline-standard for scholars: “typified rhetorical actions based in recurrent situations” (p. 159). Thus, genre is not a property of a text, but a function. Genre organizes constraints on textual production and meaning-making. In outlining this new way of understanding genre, Miller responds to the exigence that hardly any scholars discussed genre similarly at that time, seeing a need for a more stable way to define and analyze genre within the field. In developing what she calls a “rhetorically sound definition of genre” (p. 151), Miller places emphasis on the pragmatic component of texts (as opposed to syntactic or semantic) and gives rhetorical critics a new standard for evaluating genre.

Miller & Shepherd (2004), in “Blogging as Social Action,” use methods that we can consider for genre analysis. Using the semiotic terms from Miller’s (1984) “Genre as Social Action,” they examine at the generic semantic content, the formal features of the genre, and the pragmatic value of blogs as social action, deducing that the blog as genre “addresses a timeless rhetorical exigence in ways that are specific to its time.” This study demonstrates the work that we may do for this course or for our dissertations. We see through the blog example that digital media engender new genres. The Internet was able to accommodate the cultural exigence, and thus the genre emerged.  So, as digital media scholars, how can we explore emerging or evolving genres? It seems that many of the rhetorical concepts we are covering this semester are useful for this type of study: determining the kairotic moment for genre emergence, looking at the form (formal features) of text, and the exigence out of which the genre develops, just to name a few. Miller & Shepherd identify a key problem that we may encounter in our studies: they identify blogs as “a rapidly moving target,” reflecting on the constant evolution and adaptation of digital media and genres. How can we identify generic features if they are constantly changing?

Upon re-evaluation a few years after their original study, however, Miller & Shepherd (2009), conclude that blogs are not genres, but a medium, hypothesizing, “when they were new, the medium was the genre; but adoption and experimentation led to differentiation and the multiplication of genres anchored in the same medium” (283-4). Now, the blog medium, with all of the tools that a person needs to create and maintain their own blog, carries blog genres: political blogs, photography blogs, academic blogs, family blogs, and many more, each of which can serve as a subject for genre analysis in their own right.  Miller & Shepherd show that while media can carry genres, they are not genres in and of themselves. Genre and medium seem to have a symbiotic relationship, but it is important to distinguish between the two concepts to determine where a medium simply provides affordances for a genre, and where the true social action through discourse takes place. Placing a genre in a new medium – for example, taking a novel and making it available online – would not necessarily create a new genre, as the exigence and social action of the genre has not changed. Are there instances where this does happen? How does the Internet create new kairotic moments or alter social action? Can a person create or “design” a genre? This last question would assume, perhaps, that a person can also create a rhetorical exigence for a new genre.

It may seem that genre criticism is a difficult or futile exercise if genres consistently change and adapt, but as Frow (2006) argues, genre is important to the reading of every text. Genres are real classifications that we use to organize our culture. We rely on genres to establish constraints on how we produce and interpret meaning in texts. Shifting and emerging genres raise important questions of social, technological, and economic change that we as rhetorical critics have the privilege to address. So, if we are going to analyze digital genres, we must think critically about how we can effectively do so. Can we ask the same questions for digital genres as we have about print genres? I don’t think we can. Certainly, print genres may be the antecedents for some digital genres and some similarities may exist between them, but we also have new issues to consider with digital texts. As we’ve established in previous class discussions, we have new exigences to respond to, new ways of constituting audiences, and an overall highly complex rhetorical situation.

References

Burke, K. (1968). Lexicon rhetoricae. Counter-statement. Berkley, CA: U of CA. Original edition, 1931. 123-183.
Burke, K. (1968). On psychology and form. Counter-statement. Berkley, CA: U of CA. Original edition, 1931. 29-44.
Frow, J. (2006). Genre. The new critical idiom series. Ed. J. Drakakis. London: Routledge.
Jasinski, J. (2001). Narrative. Sourcebook on rhetoric. Rhetoric and society, ed. H. Simons. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. 389-404.
Miller, C.R. (1984). “Genre as social action” Quarterly journal of speech 70, 151-76. Accessed Jan. 24, 2010, via Communication & mass media complete.
Miller, C.R. & Shepherd, D. (2004). Blogging as social action: A genre analysis of weblogs. Rhetoric, community, and culture of weblogs. In L.J. Gurak, S. Antonijevic, L. Johnson, C. Ratliff, & J. Reyman (Eds.), Into the blogosphere: Rhetoric, community, and culture of weblogs. Retrieved Jan. 21, 2010, via http://blog.lib.umn.edu/blogosphere/blogging_as_social_action_pf.html.
Miller, C.R. & Shepherd, D. (2009). Questions for genre theory from the blogosphere. Theories for genre and their application to Internet communication. Eds. J. Giltrow and D. Stein. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Perelman, C. (1982). The realm of rhetoric. Trans. W. Kluback. Notre Dame, IN: U of ND. Original edition, 1977.

Web portfolio updated!

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After realizing that my CV was out of date (read: still listed my Master’s degree “in progress”), I spent some time today updating my web portfolio. It now includes a section on my newest research focus, environmental communication (though I’ve haven’t posted any research products, yet).

Take a peek!

Using Mendeley to Manage Readings and Citations

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It seems that half of the battle in a PhD program is not doing the work, but knowing how to accomplish it. Sure, I can read through five journal article PDFs for a class, but what’s the best way of going about reading/annotating/synthesizing and coming up with discussion points for class? I found myself asking this question early on in the semester and was quickly pointed to Mendeley by a couple of my fellow CRDMers. And how quickly I’ve come to appreciate this cool platform for how well it manages my readings! I thought I would share how I use Mendeley, because if there are other graduate students out there like me, sometimes you just don’t know these programs are out there to use, and they sure make your life a lot easier once you find them. I know that I’m also not using Mendeley to its fullest advantage, so if there’s another neat function that I don’t mention, please point me to it.

I use Mendeley to read journal article PDFs, to annotate readings for class, and to organize all of the files and notes that I accumulate throughout the semester. I’ve downloaded the desktop software application, which serves as a database for all of the files. When I have a new reading for a week, I save the PDF on my computer and then upload it into Mendeley. When I open the file in Mendeley, I can highlight lines in the reading, insert notes in the margins that look like Post-It notes, and search the text for key terms. My favorite features is probably the Post-Its: the graphic for it is really cool, and they appear both in the side bar with my notes and in a little bubble in the PDF to show me where I’ve inserted them.

Sample file in Mendeley desktop with Post-It notes

I can also use Mendeley to manage my research sources as I continue to work on my seminar projects. It will generate a bibliography for me from the bibliographic information of the PDFs, saving me much time down the road. (Although, I must admit, that I like doing my bib by manually entering the citations, as inefficient as that is!)

Something I wish I could change about Mendeley is the default opening screen: it opens to an  “All Documents” folder, which lists all of my PDFs. To me, seeing all these files is overwhelming; I’d like to archive them in files like you can with your Inbox so that only my current readings are displayed. You can currently label PDFs so that they appear in a certain folder, but they continue to appear in “All Documents.” Anyone know if this is possible to change? Or am I stuck with it like this?

The Mendeley website also has capabilities for sharing sources with others who are researching similar topics or who want to swap readings. I also found out via a Twitter user that I can use the website to upload PDFs of my students’ essays that I’ve graded by inserting Post-It comments and share them with their respective authors – something I’m definitely open to trying. Ideally, I’d be able to export the file from the Mendeley desktop and email it back to them, but I’ve been told that is not yet possible. (Note to the Mendeley people: can you make this happen? Signed, an Appreciative Instructor.) There’s also a social component to the Mendeley site where you can search other Mendeley users to see what other people are reading and researching. Overall, this is a must-have tool for graduate students and academics.

So – what am I missing? How else can I use this software to expedite my research process? Tell me more!