Thursday, January 31, 2008

Google Bombing (Just because I haven't done anything on Google for a while)

You may remember two months ago when I wrote about trying to increase my Google footprint. The goal was to push this blog up a bit higher on the Google hit list, over and above the random scatterings of Amazon and other such sites.

I managed to erase the trace of my commercial practices. But the blog still comes in only at the eighth spot on the list. I'm still being beat out by my Writing Center profile from last year (why is that still online?), a piece of creative writing from my Bakhtin seminar, the Yahoo! Pipes that I built last semester (see this post), and several threads from the SIMILE listserv (where you can see what a realtive n00b I am with writing teh HTMLz). Sure, you eventually get my blog, but it's not quite what I'd hoped for.

And that's what you get with the regular Google button. What happens if you use the we're-oh-so-quirky-and-such-an-Internet-company-that-provides
-stock-options "I'm Feeling Lucky" button? Well, you get the top hit: my Writing Center profile. And this brings us to the process of Google bombing.

Google bombing is where a group of people work together to link particular sites and words to a third site. If enough people do this, then the results of a "I'm Feeling Lucky" search become skewed. A recent and well-known example of Google bombing happened in 2003, when searching on the phrase "miserable failure" took people to the White House's biography of George W. Bush. (In an interesting, somewhat meta-commentary on this process, doing the same "miserable failure" search today points to a BBC article that discusses Google bombing and this particular example.*) There are other popular Google bombing phrases, including "french military victories" and "more evil than Satan himself" which used to take you to Microsoft's home page but now (again with the meta?!*) takes you to a 1999 CNN article that discusses the "anomaly caused by quantum fluctuations in Web space".

Enter 2008 and a fascination with all things Chuck Norris (a favorite Internet meme along with lolcats and ninjas). Try using the "I'm Feeling Lucky" button with the phrase "find chuck norris." Amuse yourselves.

Among many things I find fascinating with this process, one is how it exposes the fiction in which Google acts as an arbitrator of collective intelligence (one topic in the just-released 2008 Horizon Report, more to come soon on this). We generally assume that Google's algorithm produces an unbiased glimpse of what the web has collectively determined is most relevant to a particular search phrase. Google enjoys its current leading position as a search engine precisely because it so consistently returns results that match what you and I are looking for that we tend to naturalize the relationship between algorithm and the masses of people whose work generates it.

The reality is that manipulating the search results doesn't require anything close to a hive mind. The BBC article linked above mentions that it took perhaps as few as 32 web pages to produce the Bush Google bomb. If you know the basics of the algorithm, then, you can produce results that have the patina of collective intelligence, but are really just the work of a few individuals.

This is one of the key issues in digital literacy. How do we teach our students (and ourselves) to recognize the difference between a Google bomb and a larger, collective decision to change the structure and semantics of the web more permanently? It's much harder doing seeing the difference with Google than it is with the Wikipedia, where you can at least see who the people are that edit the articles and know how often the changes have been made. The Google bomb becomes even harder to demystify because every link to it (including this blog) reinforces it.*

This mediascape is our world and the world of our students. We've got to learn to read it properly.
* Incidentally, Google initially had a policy of not halting Google bombs. As of 29 January 2007, however, they began to link the bomb phrases to sites that discussed the phenomenon of Google bombing, such as the BBC site above. For more information, see the Wikipedia. Or maybe type "Google bomb" and hit the button...

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Department Directories 2.0

When I was going through the wonderful experience of the job market this past fall (score: 41 apps, 1 request for additional materials, 2 MLA interviews, 0 campus visits [thus far]), I spent a lot of time looking at department directories. You do this so you can get a sense of the department. You want to know how many other Americanists there are, how many people that do contemporary lit, how many people whose work you already know or should know. These are--apparently--important considerations when writing your cover letter and become even more important when you have interviews with schools. I say apparently because in practice my cover letters changed most frequently in response to the job ad. It was interesting exercise in fantasizing, however, to get a sense of who all these departments were and who my potential colleagues could be.

There seem to be two ways of creating online directories. There is the helpful version, of which Rutgers has an example. You get a page that lists people's names, but also where they received their Ph.D. and, most importantly, what their interests are. If you want to know more about a particular faculty member, you just click on his or her name and get a new page. There you get publication information, courses taught, etc. But the key here is that you can find out people's scholarly interests all on one page.

This one-page approach is what separates the helpful version from its counterpart: the we-want-you-to-click-a-lot (WWYTCAL) version. An example of this can, sadly, be found on the English department site here at Emory. Now, I can't deny that this page looks beautiful. It's certainly nicer looking than Rutgers's site. But the fact is that if I were trying to learn about Emory's faculty, I would have to open 43 separate pages (doing so is made much easier with the Snap Links add on for Firefox). I'd be sure to learn something interesting on each one, where all the same information as on Rutgers's site is present: publications, place of degree, courses taught, etc. But clicking through to each of these pages, multiplied by 26 other schools--my non-scientific data survey related to my job search indicates that 66% of departments go for the WWYTCAL version--is a LOT of pages to sift through.

Enter SIMILE (again) and its Exhibit javascript (again). Using these tools and a Google Spreadsheet (again), I've developed a dynamic department directory of the Emory graduate students. Not only can you see up front what people's interests and specialties are, but you can do a text search through the directory or use the attributes at the right to pull up what you want. Want to know all the people in the department who do 18th British lit? You've got it. Want to know who is interested in "Trauma Theory"? There you go. Want to know who does Caribbean lit and Victorian fiction? Alsjeblieft.

You'll notice that there are four different views on the page currently. The "Thumbnail" view in particular has not been polished and would look a lot better if it featured some photos of the grad students. But you get a sense of the different view options that have been built into the Exhibit code. My favorite is the "Hometowns" view, the data for which was initially provided by Shawn McCauley's post here. I like the map view because it gives a different sense of who we are as a department. If I had more time, I would go on and add a view to see where the grad students received their various degrees before coming to the Ph.D. program at Emory.

I've started work on a faculty directory for the department, but my attention is needed elsewhere in ECIT at the moment, so I'm not sure when I'll get back to that. And I'll be the first to admit that my grad student directory isn't as pretty as the one Emory currently has for its faculty. But I like to think that mine would fall into the "helpful" or perhaps even "very helpful" category.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Timelines redux

Yes, it's been far, far too long since you've had any news about what's turning out to be my favorite thing to do this year in ECIT. And that means, of course, another post about timelines!!

While at MLA, I had a chance to meet up with JBJ (and A and the little man) and talk some about my experiments with timelines. JBJ was the person who initially noticed the work being done at SIMILE. Based on my experiments during the just passed semester, we discussed building a timeline and an assignment for one of the courses he is teaching this semester. And lo and behold, that's what's come to pass. You can see the Victorian Age Timeline here.

Like the Hemingway Timeline that I began earlier, JBJ's is running his spreadsheet from a Google Spreadsheet. His students will be populating the spreadsheet in the coming weeks. Each student will be assigned one year between 1832 and 1901 and will eventually create 4 events for each year on the timeline. You can read the details of the assignment on his class wiki. Not only might this assignment give you an idea of how to design your own timeline assignments, but JBJ's also provided concise instructions on how one interacts with the fields of the spreadsheet.

While JBJ had the hard job of deciding how the timeline would actually integrate into his class, I got to do all the fun stuff: coding the timeline. While you'll note similarities between the Victorian Age Timeline and the Hemingway Timeline, there is a significant difference. The Hemingway Timeline was a cut-and-paste job from one designed by one of SIMILE's head programmers. With the Victorian Age Timeline, I decided to take the time to learn what each line of code does and how to build an Exhibit-based timeline from the ground up. If you feel like learning more about the process, feel free to peruse the source. What I'm most proud of in this iteration of timelines is that I now know how to control the colors of the events within the timeline. This means I no longer have to use the default Exhibit colors, many of which are similar to each other and likely to be confused.

One of my projects for this semester involves creating documentation that will hopefully allow anyone with interest in creating a timeline from scratch to do so. SIMILE has provided documentation already for doing this, but my goal is to make the instructions comprehensible to those who are not frequently writing their own HTML.

Look for more updates here.

Professors Strike Back!

Much as I hate to drive traffic to something like mtvU, they actually have an interesting page up right now called "Professors Strike Back!" The general idea is to give professors a chance to respond to comments left for them on (Sadly, yours truly never generated enough antipathy or enthusiasm in his four semesters teaching and TA'ing at Emory to generate any comments on the vaunted website.)

What I want to know is how the audience of mtvU (who is their audience, by the way?) is supposed to understand the video responses. Are these videos there to provide a serious and open forum for professors to finally have a chance to say what they'd like about their students? Or is this supposed to document even further how out of touch particular professors are? Where's the entertainment value here? Is it in seeing professors light out against students whom are deserving of calumny? Or is it in seeing these attempts at lighting out fall flat?

Interestingly, is waiting to be developed...

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Blogging vs. Peer-Review

An interesting article in today's Chronicle asks details Noah Wardrip-Fruin's attempts to couple the peer review process with comments from a blog where he will be posting excerpts of the book. His editor at MIT is (probably wisely) not allowing the book to go without a typical peer review process, but that this experiment is taking place at all suggests how far we've come in digital scholarship.

(Cross-posted from the Emory English Blog...but I thought it applied to both. What it really makes me want to do is start playing with WordPress so I can use CommentPress on a blog. JBJ: This is your chance!)

Monday, January 21, 2008

And we're...back! AKA Libraries and the "Google Generation."

I don't really know yet if I can be considered a "blogger." I mean, I guess I have a blog. But it seems like a "real" blogger would have not let a month go by without posting something. Be that as it may, I have been working on something that I'm getting ready to post about soon. I just need to get it into better shape. Because, you know, the world is reading this. I've also got a long overdue post about a superbly interesting course that was taught at Vanderbilt last semester. But for now, I just want to mention a report (PDF) from the UK on the "Google Generation." A convenient summary can be found here.

A couple of the findings are particularly intriguing for someone who is interested in teaching with technology. First is that the so-called "Google Generation"--those who have grown up with the Internet--is not any more savvy with interactive (i.e., web technologies) than other users. What the study does turn up, according to the summary, is that while young people are comfortable with computers, they "rely heavily on search engines, view rather than read and do not possess the critical and analytical skills to assess the information that they find on the web."

This opens an interesting problem that I think gets ignored frequently: what do we mean when we say "web-literate"? Do we mean the students who are most comfortable with computers? Those who can process the most simultaneous streams of information? Those who know the fastest ways to find a particular piece of information? Or the locations where this information might most logically be? Or do we mean those who can be "critical and analytical [in] assess[ing] the information they find on the web"? While I'm all in favor of critical and analytical skills--especially for those students who are in my classroom--I do not think that our older models of literacy are necessarily and 100% applicable to the concept of literacy in a web environment. After all, this is a new medium we are dealing with and who's to say that models of reading/literacy taken from other media such as painting, architecture, music, or engineering aren't better models of literacy for something that is so hybrid? How much does the definition of web-literacy at play in the report have to do with its originating from an institution that has natural biases toward reading printed texts?

Regardless where you come down on these questions, it becomes important to recognize that the students coming into your classroom--even graduate students, these days--are going to know a lot about how to find particular pieces of information very quickly. But this doesn't mean that they know how to decide which pieces of information are most germane to their arguments. I know that when I started college, I wasn't adept at always knowing what articles I'd read didn't really contribute to my term papers. The only difference between me then and them now is perhaps the number of hours I had to spend in finding the sources--and which I tended to think justified my citing as many of the things as I'd read/found as possible.

But the lack of critical skills qua materials should also serve as a reminder that just because a student knows how to use Google does not mean that s/he is going to be comfortable writing HTML or even blogging. Students who watch YouTube have perhaps never made their own video project. Or if they have, they haven't necessarily uploaded/hosted it anywhere. Some of our students certainly will have as much and more experience than we have. But those of us who teach with technology can, I think, sometimes forget that what we see as new, exciting, and useful might just be another unfamiliar task in a classroom full of unfamiliar tasks (like analyzing a novel or a poem).

The second of the report's findings that I find interesting is that all users, from freshmen through professors, show a tendency to be "impatien[t] in search and navigation, and [have] zero tolerance for any delay in satisfying their information needs." (I can certainly relate to this emotion. I was still using dial-up at home less than a year ago.) However, what is intriguing is the library's response: that libraries need to respond more accurately to the needs of these petulant researchers.

So...if the professors are just as impatient when working in a library as their students, doesn't this betray some radical shift in the literacy of the professoriate? Shouldn't these people be able to take the advantages of a quick, online catalog search--rather than card catalogs--and then graciously ascend to their library's stacks to put to use their "critical and analytical skills"? How is it the "fault" of libraries that we all suddenly expect them to play a different role now than they did a dozen years ago?

Of course, one can say that it is the duty of the libraries who have got us hooked on all this fast information in the form of the catalogs or of the databases they provide to become equally fast and flat in all its operations. But given my final dissertation chapter, I'm suspicious of all these claims of the advantages of speed. What libraries and universities as institutions stand for is, in part, a validation of the benefits of slow and careful study. This doesn't mean we must remain hidebound or that some changes or fields don't need to move faster than others. But in a world so saturated with RSS feeds delivering the latest information without your even having to remember the URL of where it is originating from, I see slowness as one of the principal things for my students to learn. And judging from my dissertation progress and the experience of compatriots, I'd say that a Ph.D. is all about the same thing.

How do I reconcile my suspicions about what digital literacy should mean and my unwillingness to blame libraries for my research-related ADD? I'm not sure. I suspect that this will be a thematic question that will haunt me throughout my career. And I suspect that it will matter to yours as well. The turn to the digital may not affect English types as much as the vaunted "turn to linguistics." But this will matter more to more people.