Experimenting with Tapestry in My Writing and Digital Media Class

About a year ago, I stumbled across Robin Sloan’s beautiful iPhone experiment called “Fish“. If you haven’t read (viewed? experienced?) Fish before, you should do so right now. Go ahead — I’ll wait. (I recommend reading it on your phone, but if you’re in a hurry, you can read it in your browser, too.)

Pretty great, isn’t it?

Sloan called this new thing a “tap essay” and described “Fish” as a “manifesto about the difference between liking something on the internet and loving something on the internet.” As someone who spends a lot of time online, both for work and for play, Sloan’s essay hit me right in the gut. I subscribe to way too many RSS feeds, there’s rarely a moment when I have fewer than 15 tabs open in my browser, and I won’t even mention the endless streams of new information that flow through my Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook feeds. “Fish” reminded me that sometimes I might be better off revisiting a favorite story, poem, song, or website than trying to keep up with the influx of new material every day.

Perhaps appropriately, “Fish” became, for me, the very thing that Sloan articulated so perfectly in his essay. I returned to it over and over, then started handing my phone to friends and forcing them tap through it while I watched (sorry, everyone!). Eventually I started thinking about how I could incorporate this type of essay into the classes I teach. Last fall I started a new job at Virginia Tech, where I was asked to develop a course called “Writing and Digital Media.” This new course is part of our Professional Writing track in the English Department, and one of my goals for the class is to help my students expand their definitions of “writing,” so we spend a lot of time working with images, video, and audio. In similar courses I’ve taught in the past, my students have created short documentary films, podcasts, instructional comics, and PechaKucha-style presentations, so the idea of incorporating a tap essay into the class wasn’t too much of a stretch. There was just one little problem: my students aren’t programmers and neither am I. Given enough time, I was pretty sure I could figure out how to build a tap-essay app like Sloan did, but I knew there just wasn’t enough time in the semester to have my students develop standalone iPhone apps from scratch.

Lucky for us, a company in New York called Betaworks created a platform called Tapestry that allows users to create their own tap essays in a browser window, then share those essays online and through the Tapestry mobile app. The minute I heard about Tapestry, I knew I had to find a way to use it in my spring class. I made some adjustments to the schedule, and about a month ago my students started working on their very own “tap essays.” Watching my students develop their essays has been so much fun. On its face, the Tapestry platform is remarkably unsophisticated. But its simplicity belies its narrative and rhetorical power. Because the tap essay format is so constrained, my students have had to carefully consider every word, every image, and every transition in their essays. In short, Tapestry has helped my students think more precisely about what it is they want to say and the various ways in which they might say it.

As we started the project, I contacted Tapestry to let them know what we were doing, and they generously offered advice for writing and designing better tap essays, as well as some essential technical support. They even set up a Google Hangout with my class so we could ask questions about the app and give feedback on our experience using it this semester.

Yesterday my students clicked “Publish” on their essays, and they are now having a friendly competition to see who can share and promote their essays to the widest possible audience. Regardless of how far their essays spread on social media, the tap essay assignment will definitely make another appearance in my class this fall. The folks at Tapestry tell me they have some big plans for the future of the platform, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds.

Turn Back Now

A friend pointed out that, in my last post about my digital self, I linked the shit out of that sucker, a choice that she argued had the effect of shifting the reader from a linear experience in this space–scrolling from top to bottom–to one that’s unstuck in both space and time by kicking the reader through my back catalogue of posts, but in a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure sort of way, you know, like:

You see a series of doors ahead of you.

  • If you choose the one marked “slash fic writer,” turn to page 7.
  • If you choose the door marked “rhetorician,” turn to page 4.
  • If you choose the one marked “political junkie,” turn to page 12.

Huh. I’d never thought of this place, this blog, quite like that.

Part of it, I suppose, is that because I wrote all of the posts in question–build all the damn doors myself–it’s hard for me not to think of this space as linear. At its core, this blog’s a trace of my thinking, for better or worse, and I tend to think of it in temporal terms. How the posts tagged to what was happening offline, what I was reading, where I was physically located, etc.

Now my friend, she’s very into space, the way that physical environments–especially those designed/designated as memorials–can affect the user/visitor’s construction of knowledge. So it stuck with me, a burr under my mental saddle–and then it ran headlong into George Siemens.

Siemens is an educational theorist and teacher up in the Canada, eh, whose work explores what he calls “connectivism,” a theory of learning that attempts to account for human-computer interactions. In “A Learning Theory for the Digital Age,” Siemens recasts learning as

a process that occurs within nebulous environments of shifting core elements – not entirely under the control of the individual.

(HAL 9000? Is that you?)

I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave.

Such a redefinition is necessary, he (Siemens, not HAL) argues, to account for shifts in learning practice and application. Educators must recognize that

knowledge is no longer acquired in the linear manner

but is rather constructed, negotiated, and revised by an individual end user within an ever-evolving panoply of informational networks comprised of both electronic devices–hi Gerty!–and other individual users.

I’m here to help you, Sam.

Ultimately, each of us is constantly playing in and with what Siemens calls our “personal learning network,” one which, if it’s to remain useful, must always be kairotic.

So this got me thinking. Maybe one way of approaching this blog–a clearinghouse for my online life–is as the temporary home of my personal learning network, an online space through which I can momentarily move beyond what Spock might call “two-dimensional thinking.”

That is, a place wherein I might learn/write [because for me they are inexorably connected] not outside of time and space, per say, but through it, with the understanding that the Enterprise can fly up and down and beyond just as well as she can fly straight ahead.

But this assumes, I think, that I’ll return to the blog as a reader, too; as someone who engages with what I’ve written after the fact, outside of the kairotic moment in which the words first flew. Hmm. So building this living memorial to my PLN isn’t enough, perhaps; I’ve got to wander through it from time to time and engage the gaze. Participate in a little metacognition.

So, then, if other people, other readers, visit this space, then, it might become a point of connection within their own PLN, temporarily or no.

Besides, you can always turn the pages back and choose another door if you don’t like what you find:

  • You see Castiel spread out on the bed before you.
  • You see Gorgias spread out on the bed before you.
  • You see Rick Santorum spread out on the bed before you.

…do you wish to proceed?