Using a 'Building' and 'Breaking' Pedagogy to Teach Culture in the Digital Age
Pete Coco and M. Gabriela Torres
As Wheaton College explores blended learning in the liberal arts, we have found that the technologies our students use for learning are fruitful objects of critical engagement in their own right. Re-orienting student writing onto the web potentially leverages liberal arts learning by engaging a critical process we call “building and breaking.” This process asks students to think of their writing as a peculiarly digital form of curation in which they use digital platforms to “build” (curate new collections of alike digital objects), and “break” (critically engage with the curatorial decisions behind existing collections of alike digital objects).
This essay applies the frame of “building” and “breaking” to other classrooms where students engage critically with digital objects and collections. Drawing on case studies of students writing blogs at Wheaton College, this chapter uses excerpts of student writing from two blogging assignments in a course in anthropology to explore curation as a mode of online writing that simultaneously “builds” and “breaks.” We suggest that as students learn to build web content they do so by engaging in two related processes: gathering a collection of relevant digital content and composing a written framework that reflects on the selected content’s relevance. We propose that writing as curation, guided by assignments that direct student reflection, has the potential to encourage students to “break” the cognitive framework—both disciplinary and technological—when such writing takes place.
Blog Writing as Curation
Blogs can “build” or curate knowledge about culture through reflection on key issues in the social sciences: the politics and ethics of representation, power imbalance and the circulation of knowledge, and social responsibility. In one online writing assignment, students were asked to draw on existing anthropological research and blog in response to the following question: “What can you do with anthropology?” Madison Spigel highlights research by anthropologist Morgan Ames on the negative effects that short-term visitors have on non-governmental organization technology projects and makes her own conclusion: the assessment of development projects requires ethnographic research because of the power imbalances inherent in development itself. This kind of “building” assignment asks students to curate existing digital content in order to define and gather a new collection of digital items that has a signature logic and coherence.
The blogging assignment becomes a “breaking” activity that prompts critical reflection about the application of disciplinary knowledge when students begin to make conscious choices about what to include, why to include it in their collection, and how to organize and provide access to it. Writing on the politics and ethics of representation, student Lual Charles tackles his own reservations about engaging with the study of culture by drawing on the work of black anthropologist James Alves. Charles’ reflection challenges or “breaks” the discipline’s key methodology suggesting for himself a satisfactory way to engage with the study of culture.
Assignment design, like blog writing, that pushes the real world application of knowledge borrows its ethic from current conversations in the digital humanities around “making” and its learning benefits, succinctly described by English professor Stephen Ramsay’s “On Building” post.
‘Building’ and ‘Breaking’ in Liberal Arts Teaching
Curating collections of similar digital objects can be assigned across the curriculum. For example, consider the following sample “building” assignments at Wheaton College:
- In a course on American folk music, students choose from a list of songs that each have a rich and varied recording tradition. Students create playlists in Spotify that show this change for one song and embed these playlists into blog posts that explain their choices and process.
- In a literary theory course, students use the MLA International Bibliography to find citations that together demonstrate how the critical response to a canonical novel has changed over time. Using TimelineJS, they create a timeline that includes particularly illustrative examples of that change. On the course message boards, students write about the citations they were closest to selecting but ultimately decided against.
- In a course on the history of Boston, students use Google Forms to nominate and choose a neighborhood of the city to visually annotate in Google Earth. They then use the Boston Public Library’s collection of archival photographs to find images that they can plot to Google Earth.
Defining and collecting digital items through “building” activities like these encourage liberal arts students to understand the logic and coherence of information. On the other hand, assignments that use “breaking” make students critical users of existing digital objects and collections. For example, consider the following sample “breaking” assignments:
- Students examine a Wikipedia page with a high number of edits and consider the changes that were made to the page over time—and why.
- Students look at Google Poetics and use it to consider questions about authorship (who is the author of a “Google poem”?) and the definition of literature (Is a Google Poem literature?) while also exploring Google’s design choices in its autocomplete search function.
- Students use a large image collection using a tagging folksonomy (Flickr) and compare its treatment of a particularly thorny or contested terminology to its treatment in a collection that uses controlled vocabulary (a library catalog).
Through critical and inferential engagement with the object(s), these assignments tease out the decisions made by designers. Students develop a critique of the designer’s purpose and execution of that purpose. The focus of that critique can hinge on the discipline being taught, the tool itself, and/or student initiative. This method of assignment design stems from the scholarly conversation around critical information literacy, of which interested readers can find an elegant and comprehensive treatment in Critical Library Instruction as well as the work of James Elmborg.
In both sorts of assignments (and particularly in their combination), writing output, as process-oriented reflection but also a product itself, is great for driving home the information fluency and content outcomes in a convergent way. By building knowledge in digital tools that visualize, organize, contextualize or otherwise curate our course content, our students engage with potential audiences in new ways. When we critically analyze, test, and attempt to “break” digital writing platforms and disciplinary principles that curate course-related content and then reflect on that act together and as individual writers, we become more critical users of digital technology. In fact, there are specific learning outcomes associated with each type of assignment:
Learning Outcomes for Assignments that Build
Make and reflect on choices to:
- Find digital content
- Group digital content
- Present digital content
- Put together digital content with traditional print sources or data collected offline
Learning Outcomes for Assignments that Break
Identify and critique choices implicit in an existing digital object:
- Where the objects came from
- How the content is grouped
- How the design is presented
Beyond Blogging: Designing Assignments that ‘Build’
Beyond blogging, digital objects can be collected on pretty much any website you and your students could build via three basic features of html: (1) hyperlinks, allow designers to connect pages within sites and to webpages outside of them, (2) embed codes, which allow you to borrow or “embed” content from other sites (like YouTube) directly onto your own pages, and (3) hosted image files, which are stored on your own sites and displayed there.
Other platforms make certain kinds of visualization and arrangements of collection objects easier to construct or can serve specialized needs. Prezi and other tools like Popplet allow you and your students to visually arrange collection items in a way that demonstrates their interconnections at multiple scales. Google Earth plots collection items to geographic location and TimelineJS plots them chronologically.
Certain logistics are worth planning for in an assignment that builds. Critical questions to ask yourself upfront:
- Will students curate collaboratively or individually? What would be the trade-offs in each case?
- Will students need training to use the tools they need to complete the assignment? If so, will that be provided by you or by a guest presenter?
- Will students somehow use the final product of the assignment in-class, accompanying a presentation?
- What platforms will the class use to gather and display the final product(s)?
- Will the final products have a life beyond the classroom or the present semester? How will you plan for that?
- How much content will students be curating? How will students be prompted to reflect on curation? Will their reflections be apart of the content presentation or be pushed to another platform (a blog, a paper, a presentation, etc)?
- How much scaffolding can the assignment provide as students move through a potentially complex workflow?
- How will the student work be assessed? Will all projects be assessed along a single set of criteria or are there any circumstantial/topic-related factors that would make that unfair? Is the grading criteria focused on process and due diligence or the end product?
- To what extent will you give your students a role in making the above decisions–or access to your thinking as you make these decisions on their behalf?
It might be counter-intuitive, but using the assignment prompt to limit where students look for content can teach them more than leaving them to figure it out on their own. Restricting their search parameters allows the instructor to develop, in advance, a good sense of what sorts of content students will find and whether that truly fits with your goals.
Designing Assignments that ‘Break’
Assignments that “break” tend to begin with certain questions: How can students learn about a digital object’s purpose and function by investigating its output? What choices and values went into the construction of this digital object? What learning outcomes related to course content can be deepened or complicated by a critical understanding of the given digital object?
Assignments that “break” can be logistically simpler than those that “build,” but not all digital objects “break” equally well. Some will get to rich questions like the above more directly than others. Assignment design is crucial. Your students may not use most digital objects in the way you do.
“Breaking” assignments should be messy. Students will not all have the same experience “breaking” a digital object and that’s okay. Sharing their experiences with each other via face-to-face or online discussion–as well as having you or a visiting expert on-hand to explain the variations of experience–is key and gives the fullest sense of the object being explored.
Consider an example of an assignment that we have used and revised over the years. To prompt students to consider the fundamental differences between using Google as opposed to a scholarly database, we designed an activity that asked them to search “Batman” in both systems and then compare and discuss the results. This worked well because Batman is considered in a lot of different and interesting ways in both scholarly and popular contexts. If the research activity were to allow students their own choice of superhero, more of them would have had, at least in the moment, a more bemusing experience. “I didn’t really find anything on the PowerPuff Girls in the college library database,” a student might complain. We are not surprised when this happens, but the students are. So together, we ask: why? There are several answers, and going through them with students—particularly as a group—can help them later with seemingly unrelated tasks, like choosing a manageable topic for their big research paper.
One way to think about “breaking” is to think of it as reverse engineering: given this output, what can we deduce about the design of this system? As a pedagogy, it puts students in a critical frame from the start. This is particularly important for assignments that leverage technologies that students already use for uncritical and goal-oriented purposes (like Google Search).
Depending on the focus, “breaking” can achieve learning outcomes about the cultural role that information systems play in the human experience. More pragmatically, however, “breaking” teaches information literacy.
Curating Culture Online: Cross-Cultural Blogging Project
It is clear that writing blogs have the potential to guide students into “building” and “breaking” the online space as an extension of classroom practices that deconstruct culture. Between 2007-2013 more than four hundred students blogged at Wheaton College in an Introduction to Anthropology course.
The assignment required each student to document the process of learning about culture in a public blog that curated the individual’s encounter with unfamiliar cultural practice. Students learned to assume that culture is everywhere and that understanding this requires engaging with communities, and, crucially, a challenge to their own and each other’s misunderstandings.
To learn cultural relativism, a basic concept of social anthropology, students are charged to “build” and “break” cultural knowledge online and in public either using their own names or pseudonyms. Curating self-reflection, together with web-based information and data collected in interviews or participant observation, the Cross-Cultural Blog Assignment challenged students to reframe both their conceptions of culture and writing:
A cross-cultural encounter puts us in a situation where our understanding or our belief in how things ‘are’ or how things ‘should be’ is severely challenged. Cross-cultural encounters provide an excellent opportunity for understanding the discipline and practice of anthropology because they force us rethink ourselves and the worlds in which we live.
Your professor and your peers will read your writing and it will be available to the public at large. Anyone may comment on your writing (your colleagues will) and part of your job will be to rethink your encounter with other’s commentaries in mind.
In our experience, student-authored blogs became a reflexive curatorial exercise that both creates and questions knowledge in public. In practice, students actively engaged with web communities and with each other to begin their journey into understanding how culture works and how knowledge about culture is created. In a liberal arts curriculum that focuses on developing writing skills as well as multidisciplinary and global learning, writing in collaborative online spaces opens a unique space to “build” and “break” culture. Through blogging, our students began to understand the politics of representation and the complexity of public scholarship and culture; key learning goals of more advanced anthropological research.
The inherently interactive and public format of blogging pushed students beyond their comfort zone by design. Writing and rewriting with an audience in mind, students regularly reported how their online interactions proved transformative to their ideas and perspectives. The opportunity and space to rethink, rewrite and “break” the very idea of authorship. This was often a frustrating experience for students used to handing in research papers for a single audience. They carefully crafted their narratives as they engaged with the questions: “Why does this thing go with this other thing and not that one?” and “How will my audience react?” In their narratives and responses to commentary, student-bloggers typically were compelled to make their taxonomies, hierarchies and breadth of cross-cultural experience explicit.
Curating the knowledge of informants with their own, student-authored blogs challenged the usual approach to undergraduate paper writing. Kyla Baxter’s An Unfamiliar Culture blog used insight from her informants via online messaging or direct conversation to reflect upon. What emerged is a complex process of thinking and writing that enables students to curate already circulating information in sophisticated ways:
I was reading through my comments and someone posted a very insightful and interesting comment on the blog I wrote about the man who was an ex-Baha’i turned Christian. They said how it was true about the Baha’i faith as seeking individual exploration but it wasn’t only about that. I think this is true, there is a social aspect to the Baha’i community, but I think the important thing about the individual exploration of faith is that you are able to explore those parts of faith that you most connect with and you can explore other faiths and in that way link the faiths up together.
Kyla’s example is one of many that show that students can develop, strengthen, and sustain a voice and space of one’s own as it relates to the work and practice of other writers or knowledge producers.
Blogs that elicited engaged audience commentary demonstrate the potential of web writing to develop the curatorial skills of public scholarship. Students acted as audiences for their peers but their writing was also offered up to an infinite public community. One example of this is found through the exchange that occurred after a comment was posted on Laura Starr’s Culture of War blog on Ugandan child soldiers. In a thorough and charged comment, one of her readers concluded the following reaction to her blog. He wrote:
I just stumbled across your blog, so first things first, welcome to Uganda (when you get here …) Secondly, I don’t know who the source of your information on Uganda is, but most of it is outrageously incorrect.
After reading this comment, Laura reached out to the reader and began an offline conversation that became key to her cross-cultural encounter. The learning experience is eloquently represented in the concluding entry to her blog. She writes:
This experience was the closest I have had to an actual cultural encounter and this encounter, while only communicating online, was what helped me most in writing my blog. I had my first flash of recognition after receiving the comment from Tumwijuke in Uganda. I realized the power that words have, especially when you are writing or talking about something that you are unfamiliar with. I now understand how important it is to dismiss my own beliefs and thoughts before engaging in something I am unfamiliar with and become open to learning about something new. People are not all so different when it comes to war and trauma. Writing this blog has been one of the most eye opening experiences because it allowed me to learn about another culture through my own mistakes, which I believe are inevitable, and expanded by encounters with others outside of my life circle.
Comments to blog posts allow student authors to curate their own voice with a collective sense of shared knowledge that resides in a public sphere. Blogging about culture required an understanding of the author’s culture, and it required the search for a collaboratively-inclined ethnographic voice through which we can speak respectfully about others and ourselves. The collaboration in this practice of web writing extends beyond the students own experience and forces students to simultaneously “build” and “break” their own cultural knowledge.
Caroline Letourneau, writing in her Understanding the United States Military Academy blog, curates information from the course on language with information on West Point Military Academy in print and information from informants to “build” and “break” knowledge about the workings of language and culture:
Within the first dozen pages of Absolutely American, David Lipsky brings up ‘The Theory and Practice of Huah’ (11). Huah? Right. In addition to basing everyday speech on acronyms, apparently the military has its own vocabulary. Lipsky writes ‘There’s a word you hear a lot at West Point: huah. . . Huah is an all-purpose word’ (11). It seems that huah is something that you can say to anyone at any time. It can be attached to the end of a question signifying ‘right?’, it can be used as an adjective to describe someone who is ready for action, or it can be used as a response to most questions (‘How are you doing today?’ ‘HUAH!’). I guess that huah is the military’s version of ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,’ something to say when there’s nothing else to say.
I decided to bring up the idea of ‘huah’ with my ever-patient acquaintances at West Point. I received an instant response when I uttered the word, but it was not quite the response I had anticipated. I was immediately told that I was spelling it wrong. Apparently the spelling has changed since the publishing of Absolutely American in 2003. Nowadays it seems that this magic word is spelled H-O-O-A-H. Once we moved away from the technicalities of the word, I asked the cadets what hooah meant. I received an absolutely brilliant response: ‘hooah is everything and anything, but “no” ‘ (Anonymous). The cadets then went on to describe how hooah is the Army version of ‘good,’ except if you’re good then you’re alright, but if you’re hooah then you’re motivated, physically and mentally prepared, and ready to perform. It seems that hooah carries more baggage than one would originally think.
Tying this word into the anthropological study of culture, I think that it serves to create identity. According to the dictionary, hooah/huah is not a word, yet it is quite obvious that at the United States Military Academy it is a word, and a very important one at that.
Conclusion: Everyone’s a Curator
Both “building” and “breaking” work from the same assumption: everyone using and sharing digital content is a curator, whether they mean to be one or not. Curation is best done deliberately. It also involves skills we can cultivate in our students.
Because the scale of digital content and data now accessible is sublimely massive, none of us can engage with it without first making choices about which discrete segments are relevant. Curation of cultural knowledge discussed in our case study of blog writing demonstrates that online curation is an art that requires students to foreground audience and to sequence and stage the presentation of information. Most importantly, however, curatorial writing that “builds” and “breaks” culture online requires a self-conscious understanding of the student author as culture-maker.
“Building” and “breaking” work especially well in tandem. Putting students on both sides of the decisions that content curators make for their users makes easy answers less satisfying. The point, in our experience with blog writing and beyond, is never that designers and curators are “wrong” to make the decisions they make, but those decisions involve trade-offs and are too easily obscured to users. As a practice of reflexive writing, curation is not simply an administrative task in information sorting but a form of critical reflection in its own right.
Moreover, as curation becomes a greater factor in commerce and culture we increasingly find ourselves at the mercy of curators. The stakes can be high. Some will curate irresponsibly or for reasons that might be obscure, intentionally or otherwise. Whether we are discussing how Reddit users up-voted conspiracy theories that accused innocents of the Boston Marathon bombings to the “front page of the Internet,” or the provenance of an ad in a given user’s Facebook newsfeed, curation is an act with human, ethical, and technical dimensions that can be explored in any classroom that engages with digital objects.
In fact, we would argue that curation is a matter of such broad consequence that it can be considered meaningfully across disciplines and as a key skill for liberal arts graduates to bring into the workforce. A humanities classroom might ask whether a collection fairly or fully represents the human record and relevant experiences of a topic; social science courses can consider how and why people curate as they do; natural science courses can explore the vagaries of algorithmic function or as an example, at scale, of emergence. In an important sense, these are all different approaches to the same question.
Whatever the questions we ask about curation, they can be framed by an approach of “building” and “breaking.” But the fundamental question is universal: “Why does this thing go with this other thing and not that one?” The space for subjectivity and judgment in any curator’s answer to that question makes it a solid foundation for writing in the digital age.
About the authors: Pete Coco (@pfcoco) is the digital learning strategist at Wheaton College in Norton, MA. M. Gabriela Torres (@MGabrielaTorres) is an associate professor of anthropology at Wheaton College, MA. She is a teacher/scholar whose innovative work with technology in the teaching of anthropology has been featured through the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education, the American Association of Colleges and Universities, and Bryn Mawr’s Blended Learning in the Liberal Arts Conference.
How to cite:
Pete Coco and M. Gabriella Torres, “Writing as Curation: Using a ‘Building’ and ‘Breaking’ Pedagogy to Teach Culture in the Digital Age,” in Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning, ed. Jack Dougherty and Tennyson O’Donnell (University of Michigan Press/Trinity College ePress edition, 2014), http://epress.trincoll.edu/webwriting/chapter/coco-torres.
See an earlier version of this essay with open peer review comments.
- Madison Spigel, "Visiting Your Development Project Does No Good," What Can You Do With Anthropology? blog, April 21, 2014, http://whatcanyoudowithanthropology.wordpress.com/2014/04/21/visiting-your-development-project-does-no-good/. ↵
- Lual Charles, "My Conflict with Anthropology," What Can You Do With Anthropology? blog, May 3, 2014, http://whatcanyoudowithanthropology.wordpress.com/2014/05/03/my-conflict-with-anthropology/. ↵
- Stephen Ramsay, "On Building," personal blog, January 11, 2011, http://stephenramsay.us/text/2011/01/11/on-building/. ↵
- Maria T. Accardi, Emily Drabinski, and Alana Kumbier, eds., Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods (Library Juice Press, LLC, 2010), http://books.google.com/books?id=kw4AmX8uh8EC; James Elmborg, “Critical Information Literacy: Implications for Instructional Practice,” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 32, no. 2 (March 2006): 192–99, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.acalib.2005.12.004. ↵
- Prezi, http://prezi.com/; Popplet, http://popplet.com; Google Earth, http://www.google.com/earth; TimeLineJS, http://timeline.knightlab.com. ↵
- M. Gabriela Torres, "Cross-Cultural Blog Assignment Description," Anthropology 102 syllabus, Wheaton College, MA. ↵
- Kyla Baxter, "The Final Glimpse," An Unfamiliar Culture: A Glimpse into the Baha'i World blog, May 1, 2008, http://kybblogger.blogspot.com/2008/05/final-glimpse.html. ↵
- Tumwijuke, comment on Laura Starr, "The Civil War in Uganda," Culture of War and Child Soldiers blog, October 17, 2007, http://cultureofwar.blogspot.com/2007/10/civil-war-in-uganda.html. ↵
- Laura Starr, "Reflection," Culture of War and Child Soldiers blog, December 6, 2007, http://cultureofwar.blogspot.com/2007/12/reflection.html. ↵
- Carrie Letourneau, Understanding the United States Military Academy blog, April 22, 2008, http://whywestpoint.blogspot.com/2008/04/supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.html. ↵
- Leslie Kaufman, "Bombings Trip Up Reddit in Its Turn in Spotlight," The New York Times, April 28, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/29/business/media/bombings-trip-up-reddit-in-its-turn-in-spotlight.html ↵
- Coco and Torres, "Curation in Writing," in Web Writing (Open peer review edition, Fall 2013), http://webwriting2013.trincoll.edu/crossing-boundaries/coco-torres-2013/. ↵