This post is adapted from a talk given at WordCamp US 2016 in Philadelphia.
To say journalists have a bad reputation is an understatement. In a recent poll of least trusted professions in Canada, journalists had an 18% trust rating, ranking them somewhere between Financial advisors and lawyers.
Originally bookmarked on April 10, 2019 at 12:27AM
It's a story about the vagaries of the writing process and not about the cycle of life, but then again writing is life...
E.B. White’s backstory
Elwyn Brooks “E. B.” White (July 11, 1899 – October 1, 1985) was an acclaimed American writer who contributed to The New Yorker magazine and co-authored the quintessential English language style guide The Elements of Style, which is commonly known as “Strunk & White” ostensibly making him the writer’s writer.
While re-reading Charlotte’s Web and then watching the movie version of Charlotte’s Web (Paramount, 2006) while thinking about the struggling writer in White (and all of us really), I’ve found a completely different theme in the piece as an adult that I certainly didn’t consider as a child when I viewed it simply as a maudlin, coming-of-age, commentary on the cycle of life.
An Alternate Theme
One can think of the characters Charlotte, the heroine spider, and Templeton, the despicable rat, as the two polar opposite personalities of almost any (good) writer. Charlotte represents the fastidious, creative, thinking, and erudite writer that writers aspire to be–which White espouses in The Elements of Style.
Templeton is a grubbing, greedy, and not-so-discerning writer who takes almost any word to get the story written so he can feast on his next meal of left-over slop.
Wilbur, the runt Spring pig desperately wanting to live to see the first snow, represents the nascent story. It too starts out stunted and scrawny, and it’s not really quite clear that it will live long enough to get published.
And so the struggle begins between the “Templeton” in the writer, and the “Charlotte” that the writer wants to become.
Charlotte represents care, devotion, creation, and even life (she not only desperately tries to creatively save Wilbur’s life, but dies to give birth to hundreds), while Templeton is a scavenger, doing the least he can to get by and generally taking advantage of others. Charlotte is crafting art while Templeton represents the writer churning out dreck in hopes of making a buck.
Alas, once the written work emerges to finally see its first “Spring”, one finds that Charlotte has died the death we knew was coming, while Templeton remains–as selfish and dreadful as before–ready to gorge himself once more.
There’s also the bleak and looming fact that Charlotte is now gone and only the vague hope that one of her few progeny will survive to live up to even a fraction of her good name. (Will my next book be as good as the first??)
The Writer takes on the Editor
The other two voices a writer often hears in her head are those represented by the characters of Fern, the doe-eyed youngster, and John Arable, the pragmatic farmer whose sir name is literally defined as “suitable for farming”, but not too coincidentally similar to parable, but without the ‘p.’ The sensible farmer (editor) says kill the runt pig (read: story) before you fall in love with it, while Fern (the creative writer) advocates to let it live a while longer–naively perhaps–wanting to know what results.
Who will you be?
So as you work on your own writing process, who will you be? Templeton, Charlotte, Fern, or John Arable? Whichever you choose for the moment, remember that all of them are ultimately necessary for the best story seeing the proverbial Spring.
Though your story may not win the “blue ribbon at the fair”, the fact that it has a life that extends the winter is a special prize all on its own to the team that created it.
On Why E.B. White Actually Wrote Charlotte’s Web
Now that I’ve sketched out the argument, I suspect that most writers will now know, as I do, why E.B. White wrote Charlotte’s Web.
Since the beginning of January, I’ve come back to regularly browsing and using the website Rap Genius. I’m sure that some of the education uses including poetry and annotations of classics had existed the last time I had visited, but I was very interested in seeing some of the scientific journal article uses which I hadn’t seen before. Very quickly browsing around opened up a wealth of ideas for using the platform within the digital humanities as well as for a variety of educational uses.
Overview of Rap Genius
Briefly, the Rap Genius website was originally set up as an innovative lyrics service to allow users to not only upload song lyrics, but to mark them up with annotations as to the meanings of words, phrases, and provide information about the pop-culture references within the lyrics themselves. (It’s not too terribly different from Google’s now-defunct Sidewicki or the impressive Highbrow, textual annotation browser, but has some subtle differences as well as improvements.)
Users can use not only text, but photos, video, and even audio to supplement the listings. Built-in functionality includes the ability to link the works to popular social media audio services SoundCloud, and Spotify as well as YouTube. Alternately one might think of it as VH1’s “Pop-up Video”, but for text on the Internet. Ultimately the site expanded to include the topics of rock, poetry, and news. The rock section is fairly straightforward following the format of the rap section while the poetry section includes not only works of poetry (from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to the King James version of The Bible), but also plays (the works of William Shakespeare) and complete novels (like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.) News includes articles as well as cultural touchstones like the 2013 White House Correspondents’ Dinner Speech and the recent State of the Union. Ultimately all of the channels within Rap Genius platform share the same types of functionality, but are applied to slightly different categories to help differentiate the content and make things easier to find. Eventually there may be a specific “Education Genius” (or other) landing page(s) to split out the content in the future depending on user needs.
On even its first blush, I can see this type of website functionality being used in a variety of educational settings including Open Access Journals, classroom use, for close readings, for MOOCs, publishing in general, and even for maintaining simple-to-use websites for classes. The best part is that the ecosystem is very actively growing and expanding with a recent release of an iPhone app and an announcement of a major deal with Universal to license music lyrics.
General Education Use
To begin with, Rap Genius’ YouTube channel includes an excellent short video on how Poetry Genius might be used in a classroom setting for facilitating close-readings. In addition to the ability to make annotations, the site can be used to maintain a class specific website (no need to use other blogging platforms like WordPress or Blogger for things like this anymore) along with nice additions like maintaining a class roster built right in. Once material begins to be posted, students and teachers alike are given a broad set of tools to add content, make annotations, ask questions, and provide answers in an almost real-time setting.
MOOC Use Cases
Given the rapid growth of the MOOC-revolution (massively open online courseware) over the past several years, one of the remaining difficulties in administering such a class can hinge not only on being able to easily provide audio visual content to students, but allow them a means of easily interacting with it and each other in the learning process. Poetry Genius (aka Education Genius) has a very interesting view into solving both of these problems, and, in fact, I can easily see the current version of the platform being used to replace competing platforms like Coursera, EdX, Udacity and others in a whole cloth fashion.
Currently most MOOC’s provide some type of simple topic-based threaded fora in which students post comments and questions as well as answers. In many MOOCs this format becomes ungainly because of the size of the class (10,000+ students) and the quality of the content which is being placed into it. Many students simply eschew the fora because the time commitment per amount of knowledge/value gained is simply not worth their while. Within the Poetry Genius platform, students can comment directly on the material or ask questions, or even propose improvements, and the administrators (the professor or teaching assistants in this case) can accept, reject or send feedback request to students to amend their work and add it to the larger annotated work. Fellow classmates can also vote up or down individual comments.
As I was noticing the interesting educational-related functionality of the Rap Genius platform, I ran across what is presumably the first MOOC attempting to integrate the platform into its pedagogical structure. Dr. Laura Nasrallah’s HarvardX course “Early Christianity: The Letters of Paul,” which started in January, asks students to also create Poetry Genius accounts to read and comment on the biblical texts which are a part of the course. The difficult portion of attempting to use Poetry Genius for this course is the thousands of “me-too” posters who are simply making what one might consider to be “throw-away” commentary rather than the intended “close reading” commentary for a more academic environment. (This type of posting is also seen in many of the fora-based online courses.) Not enough students are contributing substantial material, and when they are, it needs to be better and more quickly edited and curated into the main post to provide greater value to students as they’re reading along. Thus when 20,000 students jump into the fray, there’s too much initial chaos and the value that is being extracted out of it upon initial use is fairly limited – particularly if one is browsing through dozens of useless comments. It’s not until after-the-fact – once comments have been accepted/curated – that the real value will emerge. The course staff is going to have to spend more time doing this function in real time to provide greater value to the students in the class, particularly given the high number of people without intense scholarly training just jumping into the system and filling it with generally useless commentary. In internet parlance, the Poetry Genius site is experiencing the “Robert Scoble Effect” which changes the experience on it. (By way of explanation, Robert Scoble is a technology journalist/pundit/early-adopter with a massive follower base. His power-user approach and his large following can drastically change his experience with web-based technology compared to the common everyday user. It can also often bring down new services as was common in the early days of the social media movement.)
Typically with the average poem or rap song, the commentary grows slowly/organically and is edited along the way. In a MOOC setting with potentially hundreds of thousands of students, the commentary is like a massive fire-hose which makes it seemingly useless without immediate real-time editing. Poetry Genius may need a slightly different model for using their platform in larger MOOC-style courses versus the smaller classroom settings seen in high school or college (10-100 students). In the particular case for “The Letters of Paul,” if the course staff had gone into the platform first and seeded some of the readings with their own sample commentary to act as a model of what is expected, then the students would be a bit more accepting of what is expected. I understand Dr. Nasrallah and her teaching assistants are in the system and annotating as well, but it should also be more obvious which annotations are hers (or those of teaching assistants) to help better guide the “discussion” and act as a model. Certainly the materials generated on Poetry Genius will be much more useful for future students who take the course in future iterations. Naturally, Poetry Genius exists for the primary use of annotation, while I’m sure that the creators will be tweaking classroom-specific use as the platform grows and user needs/requirements change.
In my mind, this type of platform can easily and usefully be used for publishing open access journal articles. In fact, one could use the platform to self-publish journal articles and leave them open to ongoing peer review. Sadly at present, there seems to be only a small handful of examples on the site, including a PLOS ONE article, which will give a reasonable example of some of the functionality which is possible. Any author could annotate and footnote their own article as well as include a wealth of photos, graphs, and tables giving a much more multimedia view into their own work. Following this any academic with an account could also annotate the text with questions, problems, suggestions and all of these can be voted up or down as well as be remedied within the text itself. Other articles can also have the ability to directly cross-reference specific sections of previously posted articles.
Individual labs or groups with “journal clubs” could certainly join in the larger public commentary and annotation on a particular article, but higher level administrative accounts within the system can also create a proverbial clean slate on an article and allow members to privately post up their thoughts and commentaries which are then closed to the group and not visible to the broader public. (This type of functionality can be useful for Mrs. Smith’s 10th grade class annotating The Great Gatsby so that they’re not too heavily influenced by the hundreds or possibly thousands of prior comments within a given text as they do their own personal close readings.) One may note that some of this type of functionality can already be seen in competitive services like Mendeley, but the Rap Genius platform seems to take the presentation and annotation functionalities to the next level. For those with an interest in these types of uses, I recommend Mendeley’s own group: Reinventing the Scientific Paper.
A Rap Genius representative indicated they were pursuing potential opportunities with JSTOR that might potentially expand on these types of opportunities.
Like many social media related sites including platforms like WordPress, Tumblr, and Twitter, Rap Genius gives it’s users the ability to self-publish almost any type of content. I can see some excellent cross-promotional opportunities with large MOOC-type classes and the site. For example, professors/teachers who have written their own custom textbooks for MOOCs (eg. Keith Devlin’s Introduction to Mathematical Thinking course at Stanford via Coursera) could post up the entire text on the Poetry Genius site and use it not only to correct mistakes/typos and make improvements over time, but they can use it to discover things which aren’t clear to students who can make comments, ask questions, etc. There’s also the possibility that advanced students can actively help make portions clear themselves when there are 10,000+ students and just 1-2 professors along with 1-2 teaching assistants. Certainly either within or without the MOOC movement, this type of annotation set up may work well to allow authors to tentatively publish, edit, and modify their textbooks, novels, articles, journal articles, monographs, or even Ph.D. theses. I’m particularly reminded of Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s open writing/editing of her book Planned Obsolescence via Media Commons. Academics could certainly look at the Rap Genius platform as a simpler more user-friendly version of this type of process.
I’m personally interested in being able to annotate science and math related articles and have passed along some tips for the Rap Genius team to include functionality like mathjax to be able to utilize Tex/LaTeX related functionality for typesetting mathematics via the web in the future.
Naturally, there are a myriad of other functionalities that can be built into this type of platform – I’m personally waiting for a way to annotate episodes of “The Simpsons”, so I can explain all of the film references and in-jokes to friends who laugh at their jokes, but never seem to know why – but I can’t write all of them here myself.
Interested users can easily sign up for a general Rap Genius account and dig right into the interface. Those interested in education-specific functionality can request to be granted an “Educator Account” within the Rap Genius system to play around with the additional functionality available to educators. Every page in the system has an “Education” link at the top for further information and details. There’s also an Educator’s Forum [requires free login] for discussions relating specifically to educational use of the site.
Are there particular (off-label) applications you think you might be able to use the Rap Genius platform for? Please add your comments and thoughts below.