Tag Archives: literature

On Failure

In her post, Sarah questions Scott Berkun’s assertion that the anxieties surrounding failure are uniquely American. I don’t think I can answer that questions of course, but I have been thinking about such issues as I’ve been getting to know this culture and especially its educational system over the past few years. And, like Sarah, I am a perfectionist who finds that this trait is very hard to shake, so these texts certainly resonate with me. As a teacher, one of my goals is to get students to let go of the fear to fail, and, if at all possible, to let go of their focus on and anxiety about grades. But truth is that for them so much depends on their final grades and GPA. Admission, financial aid, fellowships, etc.

Even though Allison Car wants to focus not so much on external evaluation and assessment, ie. failing a course, as on failure as an “affect-bearing concept”, i.e. “being a failure,” I think the need for external praise and the importance of assessment is such an integral part here, not just of the educational system but the culture as a whole, and plays a huge role in why failure and “being a failure” is such a shattering experience. And, in a way, being able to take risks and be creative as a student is a luxury, something you probably would not dare think about if your GPA and financial aid is on the line when you’re just a number in an education factory. A lot of factors play a role, and I don’t think you can pinpoint the exact differences between different ways failure plays a role in different societies, but I do know that in the Dutch school system everyone fails at some point. And that’s totally fine. Grading is different. Only 50-60 percent of students usually pass a course (in higher ed mostly, secondary and elementary school are a bit different but there’s a difference in how they’re structured too, with three different levels of high school and no public/private–happy to elaborate on that in class). So almost everyone fails once, or twice, or more. No big deal. Then there’s the question of (access to) resources of course. Here, for many students failing a course or lagging behind means an increased financial strain on the student or family. In a system with only public schools, equal access and quality of education, there’s some wiggle room to fail and try again. Life doesn’t end there. Oh, and there are no class rankings, honors rolls, etc, all a result of the way in which secondary and higher Ed is structured in The Netherlands, which I think reduces the pressure and competition among peers.

I am still thinking about the differences here, why it sometimes seems it’s either/or here–either you’re a success, or you’re a failure–and why so many people have internalized this as well as the idea that it’s to the individual’s own fault or merit. But there are two other, more concrete things that I’d like to say about today’s readings, and that’s that I fully agree with what two articles in the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy’s Teaching Fails columns say, namely, that there’s a huge amount of student orthodoxy, and that in English/literature classes, you often find yourself spending more time navigating the technology (ie. finding the same passage on your e-reader) than on the actual text under discussion. The article’s author is waiting for a tool that makes the text more “ready to hand” than current technology. I also sometimes feel that with all these different devices students carry, the different letter sizes they use, etc, etc, it’s hard to be on the same page, literally. There are a few of us who teach the kind of massive literature surveys I teach, and I would love to hear your thoughts on this.


Anke’s Project Proposal #1: WordPress Framework with Commons and Annotation Tool for Literature Courses


Effective close reading is a challenge in many literature classrooms. Before students can even start to discuss or write about a text they have to actively engage with it. But the problem is that the majority of students read texts on electronic devices, especially on their smartphones. Active reading and annotating are habits rarely seen anymore. I want to design a WordPress framework for literature courses that brings this practice back into the (online) classroom. It will include an annotation tool and student community function, so that students can annotate and comment on (parts of) class readings in an online community setting. After basic training in WordPress, instructors can fill in the existing framework with their own reading materials. This will save them a lot of time. It can also help the department streamline course design and requirements, and, most importantly, improve student performance.


  • Willy: a young parttime adjunct instructor in the English Department. Wants to teach with WordPress but does not have the time or expertise to build his own website from scratch. Has been given a mandatory reading list for a literature survey course—a requirement for the Gen Ed Curriculum. Because of this, his students will have a widely varying level of ability and interest in the subject. This framework can help him set up his course site, save him time, and give him an effective tool to work with students with varying skill sets.
  • Beatrice: a fulltime professor in the English Department. Invested in curriculum development and innovation. Currently serving on a committee to rethink the Gen Ed course offerings, reading lists, and course tools. The framework can provide a user-friendly and effective way to integrate technology into the classroom, and streamline the course offerings across the department but still offer each instructor/course the freedom to fill in the course in a way that fits their specific needs/course requirements.
  • Alex: a student. Junior, majoring in English. English is his first language and he generally does well in literature and arts classes. Likes to read. Likes to contribute to class discussions but is shy to speak up. Uses his tablet to read the texts. Online annotation would be a great addition to class participation for him and help him actively engage with the texts, and his peers, on his tablet.
  • Julia: a student. Freshman, majoring in engineering. Has to take literature to meet Gen Ed requirements. English is not her native language. Struggles with reading comprehension. Uses her smartphone to read the texts. Online annotation can help her comprehension of class readings, give her a way to show where she’s struggling with the text, and increase overall engagement in class, even when she’s working on a smartphone.

Use Case Scenario

Language and literature departments can offer this tool to their faculty. In addition, they would offer faculty an introductory workshop on how to use WordPress and this framework specifically. Instructors would then incorporate it in their course design and use it to read (parts of) the assigned readings with the students. Follow-up meetings can address issues of assessment, offer continuing support and function as a platform for new ideas and the sharing of experiences.

Students would access their course websites before class to read texts, annotate and comment on them, and comment on each others’ comments. Passages that many mark as difficult, relevant or otherwise noteworthy will receive special attention in class discussion. It helps student engage with the texts, and faculty align instruction with needs and experiences of students.

Full Version

For the framework to be able to offer a blog, annotation tool and community function to many classrooms, I would need a tablet/smartphone compatible multisite network on WordPress with an annotation tool plug-in and commons function. I have recently changed my course website (courseblogs.org) into a multisite but have not yet made any additional sites. It is already smartphone compatible, and my students already use it on their phones. A large multisite needs a strong multisite network administration. Once the site is up, this administration, plus support for faculty, would take the most time and resources.

Right now the only annotation plug-in that I know is Commentpress, which is not the most user-friendly nor easy to integrate with other functionalities such as a blog. There are other options, such as Social Reader (also from The Institute for the Future of the Book), PRISM (from the Praxis Program at U of Virginia), NowComment, and Annotate.co. I need to evaluate all the options, but in an absolute ideal situation I would be able to design the annotation tool also.

Since undergraduates cannot access the already existing CUNY commons, I want to integrate that function by installing Commons in a Box.

I think the biggest hurdle is to make such a multi-user site run smoothly and to integrate the various functionalities within framework.

Time and Skills

I have intermediate skills with WordPress but would need to learn more about these specific plug-ins. Commons in a Box has a lot of features so it takes some time to learn how to work with it effectively. I would also need to learn how to manage a multi-site and train faculty how to start using it.

As the goal is to offer a framework for various literature courses, I would have to sit down with faculty in charge of curriculum development and discuss the process of building, implementation, and support for faculty. Together we would draw up the design for the framework, so that it reflects the needs and desires of the department and/or the Gen Ed curriculum.

I think it would take 2-3 months to design and create the framework. The faculty workshops, site management and troubleshooting, and user support would be ongoing after implementation.

Minimally Viable Product

The stripped-down version would be a WordPress site with the same functionalities (blog, annotation, commons). Everything would be the same but it would not yet be a multi-site network. I can build out my website to include all the features I would like the framework site to have, and use reading material from a course I am currently teaching to give it content. This could also serve as a showcase for the extended version. I would have to familiarize myself with annotation tools and Commons in a Box and can experiment with it in my own classroom, but would not yet expand beyond my own use.

It would take me 2-3 weeks to build out my site, then a few weeks to test it in the classroom, and another 2-3 weeks to fine-tune it.

(For my other proposal I am working with Sarah so we will post that separately).

Anke Geertsma

Apologies for the late posting, and, even though I would never accept such an excuse from my students (there are plenty of computers in the library of course), I just need to share that my macbook crashed a few days ago. It’s a devastating experience. Maybe I expect to find some sympathy here. Everything was backed up, but it’s still hard to have to give your dearest companion to a genius at a bar hoping he will be able to resuscitate it.

About myself: I was born and raised in Friesland, a small province in the north of the Netherlands, famous for its Frisian horses, black-and-white cows, open skies and lakes, islands, and for the strange language we speak, Frisian. This is now mostly a spoken language (I was never taught how to write it and can barely read it), but is one of the oldest European languages which closely resembles Old English with a bit of German and Dutch thrown in. Frisians are officially the tallest people on the planet, but I am clearly an exception.

I have a BA and MA in American Studies and am now a fourth-year PhD student in Comparative Literature, where I work in German, French, but mostly contemporary American literature. I have been teaching World Humanities Gen Ed classes for the past few years and went to the Institute of World Literature at Harvard, where I became interested in “world literature” as a field, and in questions concerning translation, circulation, and canonization in multicultural and multilingual classroom such as those I teach in at CUNY. One of my goals for this course is to come up with a way to teach literature so that student can see (literally, on a digital map of the world) how a text can change over time (different translations), and where and when it sees publication for the first time. Knowing I have to be careful not to want to do too much, I want to limit and link it to for example a Nobel Prize winning book, showing its “origin” on a map, and its reach before and after the moment it wins the Nobel Prize, with possibly links to reviews, selections of translations, and dates of publication in various parts of the world. I really don’t know if this would be at all possible, but it comes out of course I am designing on Nobel Prize novels, which is set up in such a way that student are exposed to the (politics of the) selection process and hopefully start to see a book or text not as a stable, finished product but as something that is always in the making, and always responding to the local culture in which it “lands.”

Jeffrey’s project ideas: text manipulations

Here are some ideas I had for my project this semester.

  1. One idea would be to try to develop a way of visualizing the establishment of clichés over time—especially ones that originate in quotations from literary texts. It would be possible to track the histories of relatively short clichés using the Google Ngrams data set, although that would require Big Data-level computing. I could also do this on a smaller scale (and with a lot more flexibility) using the just-released EEBO-TCP corpus, which includes manually transcribed versions of over 25,000 early modern English books.
  1. I might try to do something with computerized outlining tools. The work that I’ve done so far is way on the complicated side, so in the spirit of this class it might be useful to try to come up with a minimal viable product. In an ordinary outline, one line might be indented beneath another for any number of reasons—it might expand on an idea, provide an example, give a possible counterargument, etc. By including symbols that make these relationships explicit, it is possible to manipulate the structure using a computer—something that can be used, for instance, to play around with different possible structures for a paper in an interactive way.
  1. I’ve been toying around with the idea of developing a programming environment specifically designed for working with texts. There was an attempt to create a programming language for humanists way back in 1970, but nothing this century as far as I know. We have mostly picked up general-purpose languages like Python. But some of the basic operations that we have to do in manipulating texts—stripping tags, parsing document structures, tokenizing—can be awkward in these systems, and it can be difficult to the user to tell whether these operations are working right with a particular body of text. It would be much easier to work in an environment with immediate feedback. Imagine having your code on one side of the screen and a visualization of a text on the other, with annotations that indicate how the text is being chopped up, and that change immediately when you change the code. This project would constitute a desktop application along with either an interpreter for a new programming language or a library for an existing one that includes functions for the interactive manipulation of texts.

Bio: Patrick Smyth

I’m a third year English PhD student studying the history of science in the 18th and 19th centuries. I also have an interest in new media, particularly new ways of approaching the ebook in general and the scholarly edition in particular. As a Digital Fellow with CUNY DHI, I work on digital initiatives around the GC. The Digital Fellows site is here. We have a blog, Tagging the Tower, and our workshop schedule should be going up soon.

Both my project ideas have to do with the aesthetics of science, including how science is portrayed in literature. The first idea is for an online archive or database of technologies as they appear in various works of science fiction. Visitors could view books by technology and see when new technologies were first introduced in literature. Ideally, they could also compare the advent of technologies in fiction with the real-world development of those technologies. I envision this database as primarily crowdsourced. Not sure how I’ll build it, though I’ve been experimenting with Django, a Python framework for building web apps. I also have some experience working with the Drupal content management system, although for various reasons I’d prefer not to build this project with it.

My second idea is a digital scholarly edition of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s memoir, which is titled Memories and Adventures. The book is interesting from a history of science perspective because of the contradiction between Doyle’s invention of Sherlock Holmes and his fascination with spiritualism, psychical phenomena, and the occult. I’d like it to be something of a linearly curated archive, where readers could branch off the central text to explore information about  Doyle, Holmes, the Boer war, and other subjects covered in the book.

I’ve researched a lot of platforms and systems for publishing on the iPad, and most have pretty big drawbacks. I’d have to either bite the bullet and pick one of those frameworks or try to come up with something on my own, which might be tough going.

It’s been great to read about everyone’s background and scholarly interests. Looking forward to class tomorrow evening!