Tag Archives: pedagogy

WordPress for credit: Conceptualizing and justifying a WP course

A few months ago, I was contacted by Kathryn Weinstein, a local graphic designer and member of the graphic design faculty at Queens College, about co-teaching a WordPress course, for credit toward the Graphic Design degree, in the fall of 2011. Immediately, I felt drawn to the prospect of revisiting my old haunting grounds. But more than that, I was convinced that such a class had potential to benefit students in a few important ways. So I agreed to the project, and Kathryn and I have been planning, off and on, since then.

While the first goal of this fall’s course – titled “WordPress: Beyond the Basics” – is, of course, to serve its enrolled students, Kathryn and I have agreed that we also want our experience to serve as a sort of experiment for future courses, at QC and beyond. In that vein, I’ll be writing occasionally, both here on my personal blog and on our course site, about the process of planning and executing the course. This post will focus on how we’re conceiving and justifying the class, in very broad terms.

What would a WordPress course look like?

The course objectives, in the current draft of our syllabus, look like this:

  1. to strengthen web-building skills
  2. to explore the relationship between content, design and organization
  3. to gain familiarity with standards and best practices in the industry

This suggests a multi-layered approach to the course. On one level (roughly corresponding to the second objective in our list), it’ll be what I take to be typical of a graphic design curriculum. The first and third objectives, which will involve getting our hands dirty with some real coding, call for more justification. A few thoughts:

  • As anyone knows who’s ever tried to hire someone to do web work, or land such a gig himself, the term “web designer” has a wide variety of accepted uses. Sometimes it’s used in the strict sense, where the designer delivers comps that are, in turn, implemented by more “technical” folks. Sometimes a “web designer” is a front-end specialist, doing the creative work and the implementation, often at the same time. Sometimes “web designer” means “coder of web stuff”. Most often, the “designer” is the jack-of-all-trades, knowing enough about each stage of the idea-through-implementation process to be able to make it happen. By learning something substantial about web technologies, students will make themselves fit a greater variety of these definitions. That, in turn, means more job opportunities after graduation.
  • Even if the designer never touches a CSS declaration after semester’s end, it’s unquestionably beneficial to have at least a rough understanding of how the Web’s underlying technologies work. How many web professionals have been frustrated by site mockups, created by “pure” designers, that are impractical or impossible to translate into markup? More importantly, how many hours and dollars have been wasted in this way? Much of this frustration can be avoided if the relevant parties share a common grasp on some key concepts: the CSS box model; the distinction between client- and server-side processing; progressive enhancement; etc.
  • As some of my friends in the digital humanities have argued, there is a general, humanistic argument for learning about how the web works. For one thing, the Web is the medium through which so much of our communication happens – and, by extension, the medium in which our conceptions of others and ourselves are formed. Working with some of the tools that make the Web work is a way of engaging critically with the medium, thereby arriving at a richer understanding of our relationship with it, and how it affects our relationship with the world. On a related note, writing code – whether on the Web or not – is a mode of inquiry that is (arguably) fundamentally different from more traditional academic modes, and (definitely) different enough to make it epistemologically worthwhile. (This last bit is nicely summed up, appropriately enough, by WordPress co-founder Matt Mullenweg’s pithy “scripting is the new literacy”.) Some of us would like to see these kinds of priorities spread throughout the curriculum; this class can serve as a testing ground.

On balance, I see these considerations as a pretty solid justification for the academic value of a course like the one we’re considering.

Why WordPress?

If it’s not too much of a stretch to justify a graphic design course on designing for the web – and, as you might gather from my previous musings, I don’t think it’s a stretch at all – you may still wonder why it makes sense to focus on WordPress.

There are a few reasons. First is a conviction, shared by Kathryn and me, that diving into a complex platform like WordPress will ultimately make for a more engaging and valuable experience than a more staged, “Hello World”-style introduction to web technologies. It’s true that many of our students will never have seen so much as a line of HTML, and it may be true that our job would be easier if we waded in the shallows instead of diving headfirst into WordPress’s morass of HTML, CSS, PHP, MySQL, JavaScript…. But I – a Seasoned Web Professional – didn’t learn about the web that way. I learned by jumping into a complex system, and figuring my way out.

The architecture of WordPress makes this kind of learning easy. Take WP themes. I’ve often heard friends (who were much smarter than me, by the way) complain about the fact that WP’s theming system involves the on-the-fly interpretation of raw PHP – a recipe for security and aesthetic disasters if there ever was one. But this feature/bug also makes the themes readable, and thus hackable. The fact that WP is written largely in procedural PHP means that you can follow its thread of reasoning, change a line of code, and see the changes with a simple browser refresh. No compilation; no MVC framework; no class dependencies. One might argue that these features of WP make it less robust or sophisticated, but they almost certainly lower the bar for the n00b.

Moreover, WordPress is really, really widely used. Starting with WP will give students a sense of what it’s like to develop a website in the actual world. More than that – facility with WP development is something that a budding designer can put on her resumé, and it will actually mean something to those who read it.

From an ideological point of view, I’m a fan of the fact that we’ll be able to build an entire class on totally free technologies. From the LAMP stack, to WordPress, to Firefox and Firebug, we’ll be developing with tools that are free-as-in-beer and free-as-in-speech. That’s good for students in several ways. It means that they won’t have to plop down for expensive licenses. And it means that lessons about data ownership and free software philosophy can come along for the ride.

More to come

In an upcoming post, I’ll be talking in more detail about what we plan to cover in the course. It’s still very much a work in progress – and will be right up through the beginning of the semester, as we won’t know until then about our students’ backgrounds – but I plan to use this space to workshop some ideas. Feedback welcome!

Planning an Introduction to Philosophy course

In April, I’ll be teaching an Introduction to Philosophy course at my alma mater, Cornell College. (Cornell’s academic calendar is called One Course at a Time, or the “block plan”, so that an entire course happens in the confines of three-and-a-half weeks. Thus the ‘In April’ bit.) I am really excited to be teaching at my very small and very dear Cornell, but I am nervous about the class itself.

I find the very notion of an “introduction to philosophy” course to be slippery and intractable. Philosophy is not like, say, Russian, where the first introductory course provides the pieces of knowledge (vocabulary, conjugation, stuff like that) that will be required in all subsequent courses. Philosophy has its own techniques and terms of art, of course, but they’re not the sorts of things that lend themselves naturally to sequential teaching, like in a foreign language (or math, or chemistry….).

The term ‘introduction’ seems apt in the case of philosophy, because the act of putting together and teaching an intro to philosophy course seems very much like the act of introducing more generally. If I want to introduce a visitor to Brooklyn, for example, I have to decide which of the things that I know about Brooklyn (which are too many to share in a short visit!) are salient enough, pleasant enough, relevant enough to include. The calculus depends not only on my knowledge of Brooklyn (the introducee) but also the visitor (the introduced). I want the picture of Brooklyn they get from my visit to reflect the way that I represent Brooklyn to myself, or at least a sort of idealized version of my own idea that will leave the visitor with pleasant memories of the city and a desire to learn more. And how I aim to develop that picture will change based on what I know about the visitor and his background knowledge.

So the trick is to do something similar with philosophy. The problem is that – like Brooklyn! – philosophy is vast and deep. Moreover (and here is where the analogy breaks down), in the case of philosophy it actually matters that the introduced comes away with a truly representative sense of what philosophy is like – at least, that is, insofar as the work of philosophy is independantly important. How do you select a reading list that is representatively broad without being vapid? sufficiently deep to represent the way philosophy is done without giving an overly narrow perception of the philosophical landscape? simplified enough to be approachable without overly caricaturing? relevant enough to the existing interests and knowledge of underclassmen without being pandering? And, given that there is no “right” way of making these decisions, how do you weigh each of these factors in the inevitable compromise that is represented by the eventual syllabus?

For me, it’s helpful to think about the different indexes one could use to organize and shape one’s course. These indexes are not mutually exclusive, but they must necessarily be ordered – favoring one index means making another index secondary, etc. Also, some of these indexes might necessarily be nested within others.

  • Chronology (eg 18th century)
  • Nationality/language
  • Great texts
  • Philosopher biography
  • Philosophical schools (eg empiricism, or utilitarianism)
  • Philosophical subfields (eg epistemology, or philosophy of language)
  • Topics (eg abortion, personal identity, truth)
  • Questions (eg ‘What is the nature of justice?’)

There are surely more, and different ways of carving them up, but this is a starting point.

In the past, when I have taught intro, my primary index has been philosophical subfields, with secondary index of questions and tertiary index of Great Texts. Thus I might do a unit on the philosophy of religion, which contains a section on proofs for the existence of God and a section on the problem of evil. In each of those sections, we read very well-known texts that represent different kinds of answers to the questions at hand. The next unit might be on ethics, with sections on virtues and on the goodness of acts, where we read Aristotle and Mill and Kant. And so on.

Clearly, this is not a terribly creative way to teach an intro class. From what I can remember, it mirrors closely the way that intro was laid out when I took it many years ago. But even though it is probably a pretty common approach, it is in many respects quite arbitrary. I try to take the Indian Buffet method – give just a taste of a couple different kinds of dish, and even the terrified diner might find something to latch onto. But the variety that constitues the strength of the buffet approach is also a weakness, as it threatens to give the newcomer an impression that the discipline is really a jumble of neato but otherwise unrelated questions. This is not indicative of the way that real philosophers actually do their work; that this approach is shallow means ipso facto that it does not display the best of what philosophy has to offer.

For this reason I find myself very drawn to an approach that takes a question or a topic as its primary index. A mentor of mine recently told me that he taught his most recent intro class as a sort of seminar on the topic of death, which involved both the reading of philosophical Great Works with a focus on death, as well as the introduction of texts that might not often be seen on a typical intro syllabus. This approach does not do away with the issue of arbitrariness – why choose death, after all? – but it does bump it up to a global arbitrariness, where once the overall topic of the course has been decided, the relevance of each reading to a cohesive whole is manifest.

There are several problems with this kind of approach, though. First is the obvious one: what topic do I choose? Ideally it’d be something that would permit the inclusion of at least some Great Works, and with a broad enough appeal to non-philosophers to convince them that it’s worth studying. A more fundamental problem that nags at me is whether this approach to an intro course is justifiable. Every course I ever took that was pitched this way, around a single topic, was an upper-level seminar type course. Does an intro course have the responsibility to be broad in scope? Or is it perhaps possible to have an appropriately broad list of readings centered around a single topic? Or – and this is my secret suspicion – is the concept of an introduction to philosophy class vague enough to be more or less meaningless, so that just about any kind of legitimate philosophy course might be explained away as an “intro” under the right kinds of circumstances?

I’d like to hear what some of my philosopher friends think about this dilemma (or maybe lack of dilemma, if I’m way off base). I’m also curious to hear what happens in other disciplines where the concept of an “introductory” course is just as inscrutable.

Social Media and General Education: My Queens College Presidential Roundtable talk

This week I gave a Presidential Roundtable discussion at Queens College. The talk was titled, somewhat anemically, “Teaching on the Coattails of Text Messages”, though arguably what I was saying didn’t really end up having much to do with text messages! (I justify my being misleading by reference to the fact that the Presidential Roundtable was not in fact a roundtable format.)

The thrust of the talk was that there are important structural similarities between social media like blogs and Twitter (their openness, their relative lack of imposed structure, their focus on audience and emergent conventions, their positioning of the individual as the locus of value and meaning) and the kind of general education that we’re seeking during this year of gen ed reform at QC.

I transcribed the video after the break, mainly so I’d have the text for my own purposes. It’s lightly edited to cut out some of the more egregious ums and ers and actuallys. Video of the talk is below for anyone who is interested. I spoke mostly extemporaneously and said some dumb things, so please be generous in your interpretation!!

Special thanks to Zach Whalen, who generously answered some of my questions about his Graphic Novel class. (And to his students, whose tweets served as fodder!)

Teaching on the Coattails of Text Messages from Boone Gorges on Vimeo.

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