Thursday, September 15, 2016

Iterating a Hybrid Digital Literary Analysis

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I'm asking my students to be part of two worlds: the traditional, text- and paper-based world of literary reading and writing; and the emerging, digital-first world of ebooks and literacy practices constrained by the internet, our mobile devices, and the social habits that they carry with them.

One of the very important principles of the digital age is iteration. I want to teach my students this principle and to use it as together we evolve some new kinds of literary analysis for the digital age. So, first I will explain iteration, then review where we have come in our analytical efforts, and then set forth some areas of improvement for our next iteration.


Iteration is a design principle of great importance across many disciplines today. It means following a pattern of development in which one quickly prototypes and shares some initial form of what one is working on. This then allows for meaningful feedback from others who understand that whatever one is doing is a work in process. This is repeated, becoming a virtuous cycle: prototype → share → revise → share again → revise.

Iteration becomes both more possible and desirable when communication is simplified and made rapid through electronic means. It's also extremely important when working in groups and on projects -- when there are coworkers and stakeholders that need to give input on something and who care about its outcome.

Writers have always been invested in revision. But revision isn't iteration unless it involves the cycle of sharing in-process versions of things and receiving feedback. A peer review could be considered part of an iteration cycle, but this is typically a one-on-one thing, and often taking place only when a paper is close to being finished.

Iterating literary analysis requires sharing at earlier stages, broadening the scope of those who give feedback, and repeating the feedback and production cycle more times.

First Iteration of Digital Literary Analysis

My current students are writing analyses of sonnets by Shakespeare. They've prepared for this by receiving instruction on Shakespeare's language and the sonnet form, by discussing sonnets and analyzing them in brief -- partly in class, partly by using the "smartbard" community I set up on to discuss their sonnets with other students. I've also instructed them on several best practices for online writing:
  • Meaningful uses of blog post titles and labels (metadata for both humans and machines)
  • Visual design (including a requirement to use an image, and the recommendation to use subheadings, bulleted lists, and other means to break up the text and give readers points of entry into their content)
  • Linking practices (for citation, and in part for readability and emphasis as part of the visual design)
  • Commenting (especially in drafts and prewriting, getting actionable feedback from peers on their developing ideas)
  • Sharing (with those outside of the class, in person or via their online social graph, especially in formulating ideas)
As I review their first completed drafts of their sonnet analyses, this gives me an opportunity to see what works, and what might work better, in a more finished and perfected version. As part of the iterating, I will be reviewing their current drafts with them in class, and then I will return and update this post as we figure out improvements that can be made more generally.

Update: Next Iteration

After reviewing several examples of student analyses on our blog during class, it brought to mind some better practices that we must keep our eyes on for subsequent online work.

  • Audience
    It's clear we have a tendency to default to writing in terms of our immediate audience, and we have to change and consider the broader and later audiences that will find our online content. Blogs have a longer life than the length of our class, and we have to think in terms of blogs being found and used by people whom we do not know or who are not studying with us.
  • Introduction
    This should set up a context, not assume one. If writing about Shakespeare, we must name Shakespeare. If we mention one of Shakespeare's works, we do not assume people have just read that or have it at hand. We may need to paraphrase or introduce a given work for that general audience with less Shakespeare literacy than we may have.
  • Primary Text
    When posting a literary analysis, we need to insert or link to the primary text we are examining, and not assume readers have just read that or have it at hand. This is easier for works in the public domain, such as Shakespeare's, and it is a simple thing to link to Open Source Shakespeare or to It is a judgment call whether to include in one's blog post an entire text (which isn't unreasonable for something short like a sonnet).
  • Personal Style
    Online communication works better when we bring in our personalities. In rhetorical terms, our "ethos" is very critical in order for people to take interest in what we post. Therefore, we need to find a balance between being personable and being professional in our online literary analyses. We found that Karee did a good job striking the right personal tone in her sonnet analysis.
  • Image Sources and Attribution
    It may be an advantage to provide personally created images, both for personal appeal and so as not to have to worry about copyright. However, students can use copyrighted images if they obtain permission. An easier way is to find and use Creative Commons-licensed content. This allows one to make legitimate use of others' images by providing attribution. Here is a search engine for finding Creative-Commons-licensed images, and also a page describing best practices for giving attribution for such Creative Commons content, which is the right thing to do. (I've modeled this with the image above, credited below).

Image credit:  "GDJ" on Pixabay CC0 Public Domain

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