Platform Shift: Teaching on (Intentionally) Shaky Ground

Lebbeus Woods, Terrain, project, 1999; via MoMA
Lebbeus Woods, Terrain, project, 1999; via MoMA

What follows is my presentation for the “Making, Playing, Knowing: New Designs for Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age” discussion — with Ann Pendleton-Jullian, Kimon Keramidas, and Micki McGee — at Fordham tonight. Scribd screwed up my fonts.

I often try to kick off my presentations with a timely, topical image – so I asked myself, where have we seen “platform shift” in current events or recent popular culture?

This [SLIDE 2] was initially my introductory image. I’m sure we’ve all heard of Florida’s tragic sinkhole affliction (this particular image happens to show a 30-story-deep sinkhole in Guatemala in 2010, but it illustrates the potential severity of the issue particularly well). I eventually recognized that this is hardly an appropriately confidence-inspiring image with which to begin an uplifting talk about the potential of digital pedagogy. But it’s not an entirely inappropriate visual metaphor, either. It’ll return a bit later.

[SLIDE 3] For now, we’ll start again, here: Over a decade ago I finished my dissertation on the Seattle Public Library, whose form, consisting of platforms of disparate activities stacked precariously and wrapped in a metal mesh, was described by architect Rem Koolhaas as “pre-quaked.” This building, in an earthquake-prone region, would bravely face up to, and thereby gird itself for, seismic damage.

[SLIDE 4] In a way, a similar strategy informed the programming inside. When design began in 1999, the architects were aware that they were creating a building for media objects and media uses that would change dramatically between then and when the library would open five years later. So, they planned for platform shift, building in space for managed growth and allowing for flexibility.

Perhaps we need to “pre-quake” our pedagogy, too. In my remaining time I’ll address how I try to plan for platform-shift in three of the classes I teach.  [SLIDE 5] But before I begin, I want to point out that all of my teaching material – including syllabi, links to course websites, documentation of student work, etc. – is available on my website. [SLIDE 6] These are the courses that I’ve taught at The New School over the past eight years, and nearly all of them have involved some form of digital pedagogy. [SLIDE 7] But these three are in current rotation, and they all reflect what I’ve learned over the past decade about what we can reasonably expect digital technologies to do in the classroom, and about how to balance the forward-thinking with historical-mindedness, how to integrate contemporary skills with enduring sensibilities.

[SLIDE 8] In my Media and Materiality course, a semi-traditional seminar that I began teaching in 2010, we examine “media as material objects, as things, as symbolically charged artifacts, as physical supports for communication.” Much of our work questions the virtuality, the universally distributed nature, and even the newness of new media. [SLIDE 9] We begin by exploring various theoretical frameworks and methodologies – from “thing theory,” to material culture studies, to media archaeology – that can be useful in studying media. [SLIDE 10] The second third of the semester is dedicated to custom-designed “plug-ins” that pertain to students’ individual research interests. [SLIDE 11] And in the final third, we work on the creation of online exhibitions of material media – an endeavor we approach as a form of “multimodal scholarship,” an alternative means of performing and publicizing academic work. The particular formats of the students’ projects offer them an opportunity to think through the central concepts of our class: what does it mean to mediate the materiality of media objects, and to create a virtual exhibition that addresses their material natures

[SLIDE 12] Over the course of the semester, everyone does an exhibition review – of an on-site or online exhibition – to allow them to identify best practices, to develop criteria for evaluation, and to introduce them to the various platforms they could use in their own project. [SLIDE 13] Most students have chosen to make WordPress blogs or Tumblrs, while some have created Pinterest collections, designed e-books-as-exhibitions, [SLIDE 14] or custom-designed their own sites. We always encourage students to choose platforms that match their skill sets, and I always work with a student technical associate – someone who has a broad set of design skills that cross many platforms – to organize outside-of-class tutorials to help those students who perhaps aren’t as technically confident, or who want to hack or customize their chosen platforms

[SLIDE 15] One fashion student even re-purposed the Facebook page – detourning the real estate of the profile page, using it in a way it wasn’t meant to be used – to create an exhibition about fashion and mediated identity. Unfortunately, this fabulous project is no longer alive online – and this isn’t the only one that’s disappeared. Because students choose their own platforms, which is an integral part of the design process; because they sometimes make use of platforms that fold or evolve in such ways as to compromise their designs; and because students sometimes elect to host their projects on their own webspace in order to add them to their personal portfolios – I have little control over what happens to them after the semester’s over.

[SLIDE 16] Digital death and disappearance shouldn’t come as a surprise. As a few of my 2010 students learned the hard way, we can’t even count on our platforms being available to us the week before finals. A few students elected to use a platform called Vuvox to create “multimedia collages.” [SLIDE 17] Vuvox, it so happens, is owned by ebay, which also owns PayPal – and PayPal’s servers were attacked in early December 2010, right before finals, in retaliation for the company’s decision to cut funding to WikiLeaks. Hence, no VuVox, and no work on final projects, for nearly a week. Thus, while my students probably weren’t the hackers’ intended targets, WikiLeaks’s quakes shook them. [SLIDE 18] And the students learned a difficult, although valuable, lesson about Internet infrastructure, and how platform shifts have the potential to rattle all layers of the network stack.

[SLIDE 19] At the end of each class each semester, I create a blog post (2010, 2012), recapitulating what we’ve learned, identifying what we might want to do differently next time, and documenting the students’ work. In some cases, this post is the only trace that remains of a project, like the Facebook exhibition. I have mixed feelings about the ephemerality of this student work, and the issue of archiving of digital pedagogical projects is something we’ll be discussing at a workshop at the Bard Graduate Center this coming Friday.

[SLIDE 20] The impact of digital technologies on archiving is also one of many issues we address in another of my classes, a seminar on Archives, Libraries, and Databases. For the sake of time, I’ll say only a few words about this class, and, in the interest of laziness, I’ll draw those words from the course description: “There has been more information produced in the last 30 years than during the previous 5000.” We’ve all heard some variation on this maxim. As U.S. publishers add 250,000 printed books and close to 300,000 print-on-demand books to our libraries each year; as we find ourselves wading through over 200 million websites; as we continue to add new media – from Tweets to Apps to geo-tagged maps – to our everyday media repertoires, we continually search for new ways to navigate this ever more treacherous sea of information. Throughout human history we have relied on various institutions and politico-intellectual architectures to organize, index, preserve, make sense of, and facilitate or control access to our stores of knowledge, our assemblages of media, our collections of information. This seminar looks at the past, present, and future of the library, the archive, and the database, and considers what logics, politics, audiences, contents, aesthetics, physical forms, etc., ally and differentiate these institutions. We examine what roles the library, archive, and the database play in democracy, in education, in everyday life, and in art. Throughout the semester we examine myriad analog and digital artworks that make use of library/archival material, or take the library, archive, or database as their subject.”

[SLIDE 21] And as a follow-up to this class, which I’ll be teaching again this coming fall, I’ll be collaborating with The New School’s Libraries and Archives to create a “Digital Archives and Institutional Memory” studio, a chance for students to put into practice some of the theories we address in the seminar. The New School’s digital archiving efforts are relatively recent, so it’ll give students a chance to shape the direction of future archival work and create new opportunities for future pedagogical uses of the archives.

[SLIDE 22] My final example is a class I’ll be teaching for the fourth time this coming fall. [SLIDE 23] In Urban Media Archaeology, we investigate historical urban media infrastructures – from newspaper delivery to the use of carrier pigeons, from telephone switching stations to independent bookstores, from video game arcades to the evolution of New York’s street signs. [SLIDE 24] The students conduct archival research – what you see here is a list of just a few of the archival collections they’ve used – and produce their own primary documents: oral histories, ethnographic videos, field recordings, etc. [SLIDE 25] And these materials are woven into arguments they make on a map – a map we’ve been collaboratively developing with programmers and designers at Parsons the New School for Design for the past five years.

[SLIDE 26] Our platform for this class is thus constantly shifting. Intentionally. It’s a living platform – one that’s always evolving in response to students’ methodological needs. We use Open Street Map – a collaboratively developed, open-source map – rather than relying on proprietary platforms like Google. [SLIDE 27] Many students recognized the rhetorical value of the map’s aesthetics – so they requested that our programmers and designers make it possible to integrate different tiles created by stamen, a design firm globally renowned for data visualization and mapping. You saw some of those tiles on previous projects, and [SLIDE 28] this project, which is based on stamen’s high-contrast “toner” design, uses the metaphor of the oyster to explore the evolution of New York’s docks – and how they served as a hinge, or mediator, between land and sea. 

With the terrain constantly moving beneath their feet, students have predictably encountered a few bugs. [SLIDE 29] By accessing and participating in the software development process, however, they can develop insight into where bugs “come from,” and eventually learn not to fear those moments when they feel the platform shifting. [SLIDE 30] As I wrote in a “recap” post from a few semesters ago,

Opening the black box…requires that we test its limits, that we often push the system until it breaks. And when we do break something — when we encounter one of those ugly “TemplateSyntaxError” messages — rather than panic or give up, we can actually learn to hear what the system is telling us, and work with others in class — most likely those with a different set of technical skills than our own — to fix the problem. These small defeats and victories tell us a lot about how a system works. And ultimately we learn more from these error-pitted processes, uncomfortable though they might be, than from those that proceed perfectly smoothly.

[SLIDE 31] Learning this agility and resilience translates to many other contexts. Technological change certainly doesn’t happen only when we choose to effect it ourselves, as is the case in my mapping class. Others shift the platforms on us all the time; they create technological sinkholes that we have to crawl out of – and we have less and less control over these shifts as our institutions outsource many of their technical services to Google, and as we turn over our data to commercial services. [SLIDE 32] These are the choices we’ve made, and we need to learn to roll with the inevitable punches, to brace ourselves for seismic shifts – like when our favorite bookmarking service is rendered totally useless by some inane redesign and the needless integration of stupid social-media functions. [SLIDE 33] Or when the days are numbered for a perfectly functional RSS reader, because its parent corporation has priorities that are quite different from ours.

[SLIDE 34] Adaptability is an inherent and integral part of digital learning—indeed, all learning. It requires that we accept the inevitability of change and, yes, even obsolescence; that we acknowledge the potential capriciousness of commercial platforms and start-ups; and that we regard these experiences not as obstacles or dead-ends to be avoided, but as inevitable components of any learning process that we need not work around, but work with.

By planning for platform shift, by building seismically-sound pedagogical infrastructures – and preparing our students to handle the shock when it hits – we develop more resilient learners – learners who can think beyond the particularities of a specific program to understand larger principles and broader sensibilities. We develop learners who know how to survey the shifting terrain, to identify – and perhaps intercept – the forces effecting those shifts, and, when necessary, to engineer scaffoldings (intellectual, technical and otherwise) for adaptation.

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