A Poetry Class for 36,000

Tuesday 4 December 2012, 7:24 pm   ///////  

December 10, 5:30pm in MIT’s 6-120

Al Filreis

Teaching Modern & Contemporary American Poetry to 36k

Al Filreis has taught his “ModPo” course at Penn for years; in Fall 2012 he offered a 10-week version of the course online, via Coursera, to more than 36,000 students. The course, as in its previous versions, does not include lectures, being based instead on discussion – the collaborative close readings of poems. The course grows out of Filreis’s work at the Kelly Writers House; he has been Faculty Director of this literary freespace since its founding in 1995. Filreis is also co-founder of PennSound, the Web’s main free archive of poetry readings, publisher of Jacket2 magazine, and producer and host of “PoemTalk,” a podcast/radio series of close readings of poems. In conversation with Nick Montfort, Filreis will discuss ModPo and his perspective on writing, teaching, and digital media.

Filreis is Kelly Professor of English and Director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Wallace Stevens and the Actual World, Modernism from Right to Left, Counter-Revolution of the Word: The Conservative Attack on Modernism, 1945-60, and other works. He was chosen as Pennsylvania Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation in 2000.

Co-sponsored by the SHASS Dean’s Office and the Literature Section.

All Purple Blurb events are free and open to the public. The Purple Blurb series is supported by the Angus N. MacDonald fund and Writing and Humanistic Studies.

On Reading

Sunday 1 April 2012, 9:00 pm   ////  

I was asked to discuss reading (and reading education) from my perspective recently. Here’s the reply I gave…

The students I teach now, like other university students I have taught, have the ability to read. They are perfectly able to move their eyes over a page, or a screen, and recognize the typographical symbols as letters that make up words that make up sentences or lines.

The problems they face usually relate to a narrow concept of reading, which includes an unwillingness to read a wider variety of texts. These are not problems that are restricted to well-qualified, well-educated university students who are expert readers. As the networked computer provides tremendous access to writing and transforms our experience of language, all of are asked to rethink and enlarge our reading ability.

One problem with reading too narrowly is the view that reading is only instrumental. People who spend a significant portion of their lives speaking to their friends and family members about nothing – simply because they enjoy company and conversation – will sometimes refuse to believe that reading can a pleasure in and of itself. Reading is too often seen only as a tool, to allow one to follow instructions, determine the ingredients in packaged food, or to learn about some news event or underlying argument.

To try to enlarge a student’s idea of reading, I might present a text that, whether said aloud or imagined to one’s self, communicates almost nothing and is simply beautiful. To take a very conservative example:

Glooms of the live-oaks, beautiful-braided and woven
With intricate shades of the vines that myriad-cloven
  Clamber the forks of the multiform boughs,—
      Emerald twilights,—
      Virginal shy lights,
Wrought of the leaves to allure to the whisper of vows,
When lovers pace timidly down through the green colonnades
  Of the dim sweet woods, of the dear dark woods,
    Of the heavenly woods and glades,
That run to the radiant marginal sand-beach within
      The wide sea-marshes of Glynn;—

This is from an American poem, Sidney Lanier’s The Marshes of Glynn, published in 1878. It shows that it is not necessary to turn to some almost unrecognizable avant-garde poem to see how sound can overflow meaning, providing a pleasure that has almost nothing to do with communication. Lanier had a very musical view of poetry, but this poem does not need to be sung or played by an expert musician. Anyone who can read English can bring it alive.

Another problem with a narrow concept of reading is not understanding the full range of what can be read. Students are comfortable reading pages and feeds, and reading emails and IMs, but it is not always as clear how they might read around in the library to explore as researchers, how they might read an unusual Web site or other complex digital object, or how they might read their daily urban environment. Those of us familiar with art and literature will habitually “view” something in the former category, perhaps not even noticing that it may be legible.

To address this issue, I do turn to an almost unrecognizable avant-garde poem, Steve McCaffery’s Carnival, the first panel. This Canadian concrete poem, typed in a red and black in an amazing configuration of characters, seems to many to be an artwork but was created by a poet and published as poetry. Unlike the most famous Brazilian concrete poems, this is an example of “dirty concrete” that many do not even see, initially, as legible. Students who are able to assume the attitude of readers find that it can be read, however, and that it has an amazing ability to disclose things about reading: Our assumptions in how to trace words and letters in space, our ability to fill in partly-missing and entirely missing letters, the question of how to sound fragments of words and patterns of punctuation marks.


The first page of Carnival, panel one, is from the Coach House online edition.

When people learn how to speak a language – whether as an infant or later in life – they sometimes simply babble or chat. Everyone would agree that a learner should be allowed to enjoy speaking and listening, to enjoy making and hearing the sounds of a language, in addition to caring about the purposeful uses of that language. I believe it’s the same for reading. Reading is more than just a process of decipherment that provides an information payload. It gives us special access to the pleasures of language and to its complexities. Any sighted person, with or without any English, can look at the first panel of Carnival. But only a reader can both view it and read it, comprehending it as a visual design and as language. If a reader is unwilling to hear The Marshes of Glynn, it could be understood simply as a botanical catalog with some lovers traipsing about here and there. To hear, instead, the play of sound and sense, is to encounter something new, to understand another aspect of words and how they work.

An Image Is Worth a Thousand Midi-Chlorians

Tuesday 20 March 2012, 5:06 pm   ////  

This was good for 45 minutes of narratology discussion in the ol’ graduate seminar today.

IF in College Education?

Tuesday 18 May 2010, 9:52 pm   ////  

Mary Dooms, a middle school teacher in Illinois who has used interactive fiction in her teaching, recently asked me if I knew about any uses of IF in teaching in higher education. That’s a good question.

She had found Utah State’s Voices of Spoon River and Myth Mechanic. I know right off that Jeff Howard has taught The Crying of Lot 49 using IF, and that students read IF and create it as a digital literary practice in two of my classes, Interactive Narrative and The Word Made Digital.

I’ve certainly heard of many other uses of IF in education, and when I can, I’ll begin to collect and list those. Rather than wait, I thought I’d call for links from Post Position/Grand Text Auto readers, since I know there are many classroom deployments of IF that I’m not aware of. If they have well-packaged downloads like the Utah State projects, that’s particularly nice, but I imagine that other information about the classroom use of IF would also be helpful. Any ideas?

Writing Instruments for Class Today

Wednesday 10 February 2010, 6:00 pm   ///  

Purple Blurb – Digital Writing, Fall 2009

Tuesday 8 September 2009, 5:17 pm   ///////  

Once again, Purple Blurb offers readings and presentations on digital writing by practitioners of digital writing. All events are at MIT in room 14E-310, Mondays at 6pm. All events are free and open to the public. The Purple Blurb series is supported by the Angus N. MacDonald fund and Writing and Humanistic Studies.

Noah Wardrip-Fruin.

September 14 — Noah Wardrip-Fruin is author of Expressive Processing: Digital Fictions, Computer Games, and Software Studies (MIT Press, 2009), co-creator of Screen (among other works of digital writing), and assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Mary Flanagan.

November 2 — Mary Flanagan is author of Critical Play: Radical Game Design (MIT Press, 2009), creator of [giantJoystick], and author of [theHouse] (among other digital writing works). She is Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor in Digital Humanities at Dartmouth.

D. Fox Harrell.

November 16 — D. Fox Harrell is the creator of the GRIOT system for computational narrative and author of several works in this system, including Loss, Undersea and The Girl with Skin of Haints and Seraphs. He is assistant professor of digital media in the School of Literature, Communication, and Culture at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Marina Bers.

November 30 — Marina Bers is author of Blocks to Robots: Learning with Technology in the Early Childhood Classroom (Teachers College Press, 2007) and creator of the system Zora. She is associate professor in the Department of Child Development and adjunct professor in the Department of Computer Sciences at Tufts University.

Digital Writing and Readings

Thursday 20 August 2009, 12:27 am   //////  

[As I wrote on netpoetic.com:] Adam Parrish recently taught a class at NYU in the ITP program: Digital Writing with Python. I was very interested to learn about it and to see documentation of the final reading/performance, with some links to students’ blog entries about their projects. Here at MIT, I teach a class called The Word Made Digital in which students do poetry, fiction, and less classifiable writing projects using Python and other systems and languages. And, I know that Daniel Howe has taught the RISD and Brown class Advanced Programming for Digital Art and Literature.

I suspect, though, that these classes that are mainly focused on writing and programming are rather rare – much more rare, I’d bet, than design and art classes that are heavy on programming. It may have something to do with the number of galleries and curated Web sites exhibiting programmed visual art, which seems to me to be much greater than the number of similar edited venues for digital writing that’s driven by code. I’m not sure which way the causality flows. But several of the art-loving among us have some idea that, say, Processing programs can be aesthetic, even though they’re made of code. It’s not as common for literary folks to think of Python, Perl, or other programming languages (whether or not they start with P) as ways of creating literary art.

My sense is that having readings, of the sort that Parrish hosted at the end of his class and of the sort that the Electronic Literature Organization has sponsored and organized over the years, is a useful way to address this gap between literature and the visual arts. (Full-blown festivals, of course, don’t hurt either.) A reading allows writers to show off a program, which may be intricate, and explain how it works. It’s fun for those who are already into digital literature, and an accessible way for other literati to see what computational writing is about and how it bring certain literary qualities into the digital realm – even if it does radically subvert others. And since there aren’t as many official, edited, and well-promoted publication options for computational writers, going to do a reading can be a good way to appear in a context of other writers and reach a public.

I’m trying to do my part here by running a reading series for digital writing, but that’s grist for the next post [of mine on netpoetic.com].

This was posted here on Post Position for the convenience of those of you who subscribe to the feed or visit the site. If you want to leave a comment, please head over to this post on netpoetic.com.

Pythonic Textuality at NYU

Friday 31 July 2009, 12:56 am   ///////  

I was very interested to learn that Adam Parrish, whose own Interactive Telecommunication Program (ITP) masters project was “New Interfaces for Textual Expression,” is now teaching Digital Writing with Python at NYU’s ITP. The course is concluding; Parrish and his students will mount a final performance on August 5 at 7pm. Parrish eschewed powerful, cryptic Perl for clarity of Python in this course on creating text machines, as I did in putting together The Word Made Digital, which I’ll be teaching again this Fall. His reading list overlaps with mine a bit and includes a nice article on appropriation in writing – I may just rip that right off. I won’t manage to be in New York to hear students read their programs’ output, but I hope the conclusion to the class goes well and that I’ll be able to read and run some things that will give me a sense of the event.

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