Monthly Archives: May 2011

Computers and Writing Wrap-Up

I’ve been home from Computers and Writing for a couple days now. [Insert standard text here about it taking a long time to catch back up with real life, about having a lot to process from the conference, etc.]

It was certainly the best conference I’ve been to, and it’s been rewarding to see so many veterans of the field describe it as one of their favorites as well. As a young scholar, I felt like C’s this year (my 4th) was a tipping point for me, where I first felt I was maintaining relationships from past years and was being remembered by others. C&W (my first), then, felt like a narrowing and perfecting of that time, with so many of the faces and names from C’s–the ones I most was interested in keeping up with–coming there, too. It was friendliness and support all around, something I don’t think graduate students in every field experience.

The Sessions

I attended quite a few–I’m still in that youthful phase where I go to lots of panels and feel guilty when I skip (though I secretly hope I will always participate heavily in conferences). Besides the excellently helpful Graduate Research Network, my strongest impressions:

  • In B03, Making Writing Socially Engaging: Asking Why New Media Draws Us In, led by Eric A. Glicker (via Skype), Gian S. Pagnucci, Dennis G. Jerz, Daisy Pignetti, and David Schaafsma, I experienced my first hardcore backchannel experience. Seriously, folks in there were tweeting up a storm. I kept Tweetdeck on full screen and shrunk my Evernote window for notetaking so I could see both at the same time, and things zoomed on from there–“writing in motion” indeed. I was tired when I went in, but energized from the quick attention-switches when I left. It’s not the pace at which I want to live most of my life, but I enjoyed the temporary spin through multi-conversationality–which continued throughout the conference, but which I was most heavily involved in here.
  •  D01, What Games Say: Teaching Rhetoric Through Game Design, led by Danielle LaVaque-Manty, was the most successful of the 3 mini-workshops I participated in. I was a little surprised to find that these mini-workshops seemed to be aimed more toward the “I have absolutely no idea how to do X” mindset than the “I have a clue, but I want to learn more from experts” mindset. I wonder if C&W is always like that, or if it was just the ones I attended? In any case, this game-development workshop was fantastic, and you’ve got to love a session that gives you a literal website to walk through as you engage with the discussion and activities.
  • Unsurprisingly for anyone who knows me, my favorite session was F06: Music, Microphones, Multimedia: Writing with Sound in the Composition Classroom, with Crystal VanKooten, Bump Halbritter, and Steve Lessner. Bump reminded us of the importance of microphone use, Crystal described her efforts at helping students find more complex ways to talk about sound and music (expanding on an argument in her recent piece in Currents in Electronic Literacy), and Steve talked about ways to use popular music in the classroom.
  • I should also mention the brilliance of my co-presenters in H06. Will Burdette talked about sound as disruption, and Jennifer Ware and Kevin Brock brought their arduinos, which live-translated our tweets into bleeps and bloops. This led to a fun discussion of how different forms of composition translate into each other and the brain’s ability to make sense of sound.

Other Experiences Worth Remembering

  • Steven Hammer‘s performance: playing live beats for us over a video and narration of himself talking (remixing Burke’s parlor metaphor for 21st-century student-remixers)
  • Byron Hawk’s final call for more sound-related studies in the field. I turned to Crystal VanKooten and gave her a high-five; she’s one of many amazing sound-studying folks I met at C&W. When they’re not around, I call them my new best friends. We’ve already got some good steam on moving ahead with these projects, at the new SoundComp wiki, Will Burdette’s, and Dan Anderson’s Collaborvention space, where we made an interest group on Sound and Music.
  • Pub crawling with Daisy Pignetti and Randall McClure, which in many ways turned into a night of me getting awesome job-market advice (of all things), especially from the patient and friendly John Dunn.
  • Eating at Zingerman’s with Meredith Zoetewey and Michael and Tammy Salvo. Like Michael said, I would eat there every day if I could, and it was only lovelier going with such food-lovers (especially since none of us were afraid to share). Michael: “You’ve got to try this sandwich.” Me: “I should just bite right off the front there?” Michael: “Just bite it right off.” Me: [mouth full]
  • Using Evernote to take notes. It’s my 3rd conference using it at every session, and I’m never going back. (Er, until some new program buys it up or something.)
  • Remembering to take introverted-Kyle time and walking around Ann Arbor in what was probably the best possible weather (when it wasn’t raining). I spent a good deal of time wandering through 2 different comic/game shops, 3 used book stores, and 2 used record stores. It’s a beautiful city, and I think I could live there happily.
Here’s to C&W 2012!

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Dr. Mario, Play, and Composition

I’ve always been better at Dr. Mario than Tetris. You remember Dr. Mario? In a Tetris-like environment, you control a colored pill falling down the screen, trying to align 4 blocks of color in a row to make them disappear:

Here’s the core of the game’s brilliance: there are only 3 colors in the game, so there are only 6 possible pills (red/red, blue/blue, yellow/yellow, and then red/blue, red/yellow, and blue/yellow). In practical terms, that means that things rarely go so wrong that you can’t get out, because one of the colors you need is likely to come up soon.

That’s got me thinking about the role of play when composing. The game’s limited color possibilities encourage you to play around, to take risks. I can set up all kinds of crazy combos (where an unused, falling piece will complete a 4-row set somewhere else) knowing that the combo might not work out the way I expect it to, but that some kind of awesome combo will pull together. All I have to do is set things up with that potentiality in mind, ready to do something awesome with anything that comes my way. In practice, I slam the pieces down in a rough order, like a restaurant cook tending 4 different pots, adding something here, something there, rushing around and loving it.

To me, Tetris feels different. In a Tetris game, I tense up, feeling that there is often no good place to put a piece, making me choose between multiple crappy placements. And that single bad move can ruin an entire game. But in Dr. Mario I feel loose, flexible, able to lay down viruses quickly based on my knowledge of what might come from that placement, while confident that if I’m wrong, something else will serendipitously arise.

So why go into all this? It reminds me of the conversations I’ve had with music composers for my dissertation, how so many describe just sitting down at the keyboard, picking some constraints (d minor and piano and oboe; or in Dr. Mario, two player, medium speed, level 5), and playing around until something emerges. That emergence happens because of practice: I can play around in Dr. Mario because I’ve spent so many hours playing it over the last 20 years, so the potentialities just kind of appear, as a jazz soloist can solo because of his or her familiarity with the scales and with that tune.

But I think for lots of composers–and I’m including writers here, especially unpracticed, student writers–the act of composition feels more like Tetris feels to me. That is, it’s tense, and it feels like everything has to be right the first time, and there’s abso-freaking-lutely no hope that mistakes can be easily fixed up by playfully diving into the future.

This is nothing new, of course. Folks have been encouraging teachers to build on students’ existing literacies as a pathway into learning new literacies for years. This one example makes me wonder what my students can do as well as I can play Dr. Mario, and how/if that metaphor can inspire/teach/guide them to a similar approach to their school compositions.

And deep down, perhaps this is really why I wrote this post: to share my moment of glory, the one time my name was featured in Nintendo Power magazine (issue 24, May 1991). (It’s a wonder what’s out there on this inter-net thing!) I had to take a picture of my achievement (and develop the film, of course) and send it in (through the mail) to prove it.

Scan from Nintendo Power Magazine

Not the best, not the worst--just right


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Grading and Voting

This morning, I’m listening to OverClocked ReMix radio over at Rainwave. I enjoy the complex interactivity of the voting system, which allows me both to rate songs I’ve heard and vote on which of 3 upcoming songs I want to hear.

A few minutes ago, though, I had a new thought: as someone who regularly grades student work, including short, informal, online work, do I vote differently than someone else who doesn’t have those judging/scoring/grading habits as deeply ingrained? Or, more perversely, is my grading behavior affected by my habits voting on music on this site?

Here’s an annotated screenshot of what the voting area of the screen looks like:

Annotated screenshot of

With videogame remix music (or ReMix music, they would say), there’s a fun interplay of influences guiding my voting. I might choose a given song because:

  • I know the game and love its music
  • I know the original game’s composer and love his/her music
  • I know the ReMixer and love his/her ReMixes
  • I’ve previously rated how much I like the other 2 tunes on the docket, so I want to hear one I’ve never rated before
  • The average rating for a tune is higher than the others
  • The average rating for tunes from a given game is higher than the others

There’s something satisfying about quickly (almost instantly, sometimes) skimming the list of upcoming tracks, voting on which should come next, and then rating the currently playing track. It’s intuitive, sometimes hard to describe, and felt, as opposed to a solidly logical choice based on definable traits of the upcoming tracks. I could have a rubric to try to make my choices make more sense to outsiders, but that rubric would only go so far.

I hope my grading is more consistent and outcomes-driven than that, but especially on small assignments that earn a check, check plus, or check minus, there’s still an intuitive, emotion-tinged, bodily aspect to the decision that can never be wholly explained to another person. And right now, I’m not sure what I think about that. Thoughts? Resources I should read?

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