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NYU Center for the Humanities hosts “Distracted Reading: Acts of Attention in the Age of the Internet” event on Tuesday, September 27, 2016

NYU Center for the Humanities

The NYU Center for the Humanities held an event entitled “Distracted Reading: Acts of Attention in the Age of the Internet”on Tuesday September 27 at 6 p.m. that addressed the concept of “distracted reading,” or the idea that students’ attention is being diverted to technology rather than their class work. Speakers at the event, which was moderated by Marion Thain, Associate Director of Digital Humanities at NYU, described how they have incorporated this concept in their research and in the classroom, taking advantage of technology that, to this point, has mostly been conceived of as a distraction and hindrance rather than an influential educational tool. The event was divided into two consecutive panels. The first panel, which focused on sound and image, featured Jaime E. Oliver La Rosa, Assistant Professor of Music at NYU; Marina Hassapopoulou, Visiting Professor of Cinema Studies at NYU; and Martha Hollander, Professor of Art History at Hofstra University. The second panel, which was about text, included Ethna Lay, Associate Professor of Writing Studies and Director of the Digital Research Center at Hofstra University; and Suzanne England, Professor of Social Work at NYU.

Electronic devices have long been considered a nuisance in the twentieth-century classroom. Many educators actively battle against the diversions caused by electronics, often going as far as banning cellular devices and laptops in the classroom. However, in an effort to negate the idea that these tools merely encourage distraction, other educators have incorporated this new technological approach in their pedagogy and research as a means of facilitating a new way of reading and engaging in and outside of the classroom.

The “Distracted Reading: Acts of Attention in the Age of the Internet” event, hosted by the New York University (NYU) Center for the Humanities on Tuesday, September 27 at 6pm,  explored the ways in which several educators exploit hyperconnectivity and distracted reading techniques in the classroom and in their scholarship. Marion Thain, Associate Director of Digital Humanities at NYU, moderated the event that consisted of two consecutive panels, the first on sound and image and the second on text.

Second prototype of the silent drum Jaime E. Oliver La Rosa, assistant professor of Music at NYU, kicked off the first panel on sound and image with his presentation on the construction and dissemination of his instrument, the silent drum. La Rosa described his journey in creating this new device, which basically consists of a flat piece of material laid taut over a drum frame and a high-speed camera set directly in front of the drum below the frame. As the player moves their fingers and hands across the material, the camera senses the subtle movements and generates a corresponding sound for each motion. La Rosa used a piece of cloth and a camera from the PlayStation 3 on his silent drum, but as his design spread internationally, others took his model and adapted it to their own materials and interests. La Rosa continues to update his prototype, taking suggestions from new users and continually improving upon his design.

Marina Hassapopoulou followed La Rosa, describing a class project in which she encouraged students to use technology to reinterpret old movies for a modern audience. Hassapopoulou, a visiting professor of Cinema Studies at NYU, briefly outlined the image-over-sound relationship often found in movies and television, where sounds augment the viewing experience of an audience but are noticeably inferior to the imagery on the screen. She asked her students to flip that relationship, emphasizing the sound over the image to explore how that changed the final result of video and audio combined. Hassapopoulou showed the example of Tomatoes Another Day, a silent film, which was remixed by students with a YouTube playlist as a soundtrack. Although the experience was ultimately quite funny for them, Hassapopoulou pointed out how the students needed to be familiar with the plot development in order to best apply their new sounds to the action occurring on the screen. Her findings noted that students were motivated by the use of new technology and their favorite music, yet they were also learning a great deal about a movie nearly a century old. Hassapopoulou was able to implement a new form of technological learning in her course about classic cinema, revamping a traditional class with innovative pedagogical practices.

Martha Hollander, a professor of Art History at Hofstra University, wrapped up the first panel with her discussion of incorporating technology into her teaching. Hollander described several methods of integrating technology, the first being its active use in her classroom. She has students look up a piece of artwork themselves, and compare the art to other images that appear in the Google algorithm. Simultaneously, this activity motivates them to pursue answers to their own research questions as they explore. Hollander then transfers this concept to the museum, having students explore specific pieces using Google searches. While many museum patrons may scoff at the visual of students focused on their portable devices while standing in front of a classic piece of art, Hollander promoted such behavior to create a pseudo-augmented reality for her students. Lastly, Hollander had her students build their own “imaginary museum” as their final project using the digital library tool VoiceThread. Rather than lecturing her students and allowing them to remain passive in their work, Hollander motivated them to pursue information for themselves by curating their own exhibit. She concluded her discussion by emphasizing the point that portable, digital, visual technology can make classrooms a more collaborative and dynamic space.

Ethna D. Lay began the second panel, which focused on text, with her discussion about using an annotation tool, MIT’s Annotation Studio, in class projects. Lay, an associate professor of Writing Studies and Director of the Digital Research Center at Hofstra University, assigned texts that were uploaded into Annotation Studio. She then divided her each of her classes, one in the morning and another in the afternoon, into two groups. Group one from the morning would annotate the text with group one from the afternoon, while group two from the morning would work with group two from the afternoon. Students could not only add their own comments, but they could respond to those of others, initiating a conversation that was perpetuated and regulated by the student participants. Lay argued that the students were able to learn each other’s language and came to conclusions about texts through this unmediated conversation that would not have been reached in a traditional classroom setting.

Suzanne England, professor of Social Work at NYU, concluded the second panel with a discussion of her course on memory. England, along with her absent academic partner Martha Rust, conducted a course that used the multimodal storytelling program MyStory to consider memory within the context of Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak. Students read the text and inserted their own memories into Speak using the MyStory program, weaving their own stories and family traditions into the narrative. England and Rust argue that this process allowed students to connect life writing and storytelling, and to consider the act of remembering as a creative process in itself.

Although the exact definition of distracted reading for some of the panelists was unclear to me, I did find that each one alluded to different forms of community and collaboration in digital humanities. This field is known for its vocal support of collaborative efforts and the formation of communities, and the “Distracted Reading” event demonstrated how varied these concepts can be.* For instance, a community could be related specifically to the classroom: Hassapopoulou’s course formed a community where students could create content by themselves and subsequently share it with the group. The work is done by the individual, but ultimately shared and enjoyed by a wider audience who connected over their novel interpretations of classic film.

Hollander likewise used a classroom setting, but she mobilized it and incorporated individual and communal methods of learning. Although she facilitated the students’ activities to a certain extent, Hollander encouraged students to more actively engage in their learning experience outside of her immediate influence. Lay likewise conducted her project in a community of students within a course, but enlarged the community to include multiple sections of the class and made it a purely online experience. By expanding the group to include some students who were unknown to others, and by allowing them to regulate their own work, Lay’s annotated texts let students learn to communicate in a way that she could not have facilitated in a lecture.

England touched on two different types of collaboration, one of which being the classroom community and the other the scholarly partnership. The scholarly partnership is not a new form of collaboration, but it is prominent in digital humanities research and facilitates new interpretations of traditional works. Finally, La Rosa featured a different type of community, namely practitioners on an international scale. While he does not interact with these individuals directly, their modifications inform his research and allow him to improve upon his instrument. This community is not as personal as a classroom, but it can be just as insightful as work done in close quarters.

Ethna Lay ultimately argued in the question and answer portion of the event that we are going into a new version of literacy that is communal. It is unsurprising, therefore, that educators are designing pedagogical techniques that encourage “distracting” digital means of learning that rely more on a community setting. As literacy becomes a collective endeavor, such technology will likely continue to be incorporated into instruction.

This event is part of a larger project on distracted reading, which will be the topic of a special issue of Digital Humanities Quarterly. A CFP will be circulated soon.

*In her article “‘This is Why We Fight’: Defining the Values of the Digital Humanities,” Lisa Spiro reminds her readers of the desired values of those in the digital humanities fields, including openness, collaboration, collegiality, connectedness, diversity, and experimentation. She also provides a brief overview of some of the critiques aimed at DH, particularly regarding a lack of diversity and inclusiveness. Spiro calls for a core values statement in DH, perhaps to deter the poor behavior of those who do not uphold collaboration and community. The collaborative efforts of the panelists at the “Distracted Reading” panel may be suggestive of a return (or perhaps the first actualization) of such values that digital humanists espouse.

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