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Not quite a raven and a writing desk:
     a sonnet and an algorithm.
   The assignment: use a poem to describe an algorithm and
              an algorithm to describe a poem.
The starting question
 How can we get from a traditional poem (in this case, a
  sonnet) to this:




 ?
Machines and poems
 “To make two bold statements: There's nothing sentimental
  about a machine, and: A poem is a small (or large) machine made
  out of words. When I say there's nothing sentimental about a
  poem, I mean that there can be no part that is redundant. …
 Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship. But
  poetry is a machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect
  economy. As in all machines, its movement is intrinsic,
  undulant, a physical more than a literary character.”
 (William Carlos Williams)
Looking at/looking through
 A poem may be a machine, but it’s easy to get distracted by
  meaning and not see the mechanisms working on us underneath.
 Students often resist looking at the formal attributes of
  poetry, preferring to stick with more familiar representational
  aspects: imagery, metaphor, emotional resonance.
 “People look for messages in poems; certainly most of my students
  do, no mater how much I try to discourage them.” – PiotrGwiazda
 Students are easily flummoxed by the economy of a
  poem, preferring free expression to affordances and constraints.
Use digital literacy to better understand
the mechanisms of a poem
 “Digital literacy means not rote learning but
  experimentation, process, creativity, not just technology but
  multimedia imagination, expression–and principles too.” –
  Cathy Davidson
 So, let’s see if we can do an experiment in multimedia
  imagination.
Use a poem to better understand
digital concepts
 The plan: try working with a couple of key digital concepts
  that literature students tend to avoid (often on purpose):
 Encoding: writing is a code, not a conveyor of transparent
  meaning
 Algorithm: understanding a poem as programmatic, i.e.
  constructed according to a set of procedures
The plan:
 A “sonnet sequence” that takes students through a series of
  “translation exercises” converting a single poem into several
  different formats
 To be run in stages over the course of a semester, with
  students working in pairs
 Constraints & Economy: all work must be done in class
  during the time provided
 To remove the “fear factor” and encourage
  experimentation, the sequence is graded solely on
  completion of all tasks
Shakespeare’s 14th sonnet
   Not from the stars do I my judgement pluck,
   And yet methinks I have astronomy,
   But not to tell of good, or evil luck,
   Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons' quality,
   Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell;
   Pointing to each his thunder, rain and wind,
   Or say with princes if it shall go well
   By oft predict that I in heaven find.
   But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive,
   And constant stars in them I read such art
   As truth and beauty shall together thrive
   If from thy self, to store thou wouldst convert:
   Or else of thee this I prognosticate,
   Thy end is truth's and beauty's doom and date.
Exercise 1: qualitative/narrative
 Convert a Shakespeare sonnet into a non-textual format.
  You're accustomed to doing "readings" of literature and
  producing a specific kind of output: a paper. In this
  exercise, the "input" will be the same (requiring the critical
  reading apparatus you should have gained as an English
  major), but the "output" will be different. Thus it will
  require two sets of skills.
Working in dimensions
 Key concept: “dimensions.”
 In this context, dimensions are qualities that can be used to structure a
    piece of information. (Concept from Edward Tufte)
   Dimensions could include anything that can be quantified or grouped,
    for example, “duration”, “distance,” “weather,” “vision.”
   A dimension is useful for identifying structure and pattern in poems –
    for example, the “primary dimension” would be analogous to the
    “conceptual metaphor” that helps structure the poem.
   This exercise was used in conjunction with a parallel project students
    were working on in which they had to create a wordless biography.
   Students identified and came up with sample visual representations for
    each dimension (e.g. clock=time, eye=vision), and then created an
    object that expressed the poem in some way.
What came back
 A four-box diorama (one box representing each quatrain)
  containing objects representing words in the poem
 A clock showing the stages of reproductive life with eyes on
  the hands (time, vision)
 A zodiac mobile (fortune telling, stars)
 A sliding puppet show, with a figure moving back and forth
  (past, present and future) to death and back again
4-quatrain diorama
Reproductive clock
Zodiac mobile
Puppet slider
Exercise 2: encode/decode
 Key concepts: encoding schema, lossy/lossless
 A schema: a set of rules or agreed-upon language that is used
  to encode a piece of text
 Lossy& lossless: Are you going to encode the whole poem, or
  just key parts of it?
 The assignment: choose an encoding schema, use it to
  translate the poem into another format, and then provide a
  “decoder.”
 The encoding could be of the structure of the poem (ie
  quatrains, iambs etc) or of the words themselves
What came back
 A braided cord using color-coded thread to represent key
  imagery, along with a cord/card decoder
 A Braille poem using beads and thread, with color-coded
  beads for the words and thread to mark out different parts of
  the poem
 An envelope system in which each line was translated from
  letters to a 5-digit number. The number became a zip code,
  and each envelope was addressed to a real-life address that
  represented a word in the poem (e.g. “doom” in the last line
  means the envelope is addressed to a cemetery)
Thread poem (lossy)
Braille beads (lossless)
Poem as postal code (lossless)
Exercise 3: Algorithm
 Create a “program” that will “build” the poem when
    executed.
   The program is explained as a kind of “recipe,” which has the
    benefit of several key computing concepts:
   Procedure: series of instructions
   Function (small procedure that can be repeated over when
    needed)
   (maybe, stretching the analogy a bit): objects, small
    preassembled “ingredients” that can be combined
What came back
 A burger assembly box, in which the user assembled the
  poem using burger buns to represent each quatrain, and a
  patty and toppings to represent various parts of speech.
 A Jenga tower, in which users built a tower according to a set
  of instructions (requiring them to write key words and
  concepts on the blocks), and then knocked it down at the end
  (to signify “doom”)
 A Lego set for building a color-coded representation of
  quatrains & iambs.
Fast food poem
Jenga!
.. Lego set
What worked
 They knew the poem inside and out by the end of the
  semester. Or at least, would never forget what a quatrain
  was.
 Because the sequence was not graded, students were free to
  experiment and take risks without anxiety about the results
  (and they did!)
 Because the sequence was done in class only, students were
  able to see each others’ working habits and thought processes
  as they happened.
What didn’t
One of the issues with using the Internet for research in general
  is that it tends to provide “surface knowledge” in which
  students find it easy to find an initial layer of information but
  often don’t go any deeper.
This project did not necessarily solve the problem: students
  were easily tempted by the multitudes of plug-in “translation”
  tools online. It thus required a lot of supervision to make
  sure they were not taking the “easy route.”
Observations
 Students who did best at these assignments tended to be very
  detail-oriented in their other work and thoughtful in class
  discussion.
 Less well-prepared students were more likely to have trouble
  coming up with an initial plan, and had a tendency to rely on
  “translation tools” and not spend time on presentation.
 For some reason, the class quickly segregated into “boy groups”
  and “girl groups.” I attribute this to the “craft factor,” maybe?
 As the semester moved on, the projects became *more* detailed
  and imaginative, rather than less. This could be a function of
  seeing other students’ work, or the lack of grading anxiety that
  tends to move them towards conservatism as the semester
  progresses, or the blocking out of time in class so that students
  were not forced to choose how to spend their time.

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Sonnet

  • 1. Not quite a raven and a writing desk: a sonnet and an algorithm. The assignment: use a poem to describe an algorithm and an algorithm to describe a poem.
  • 2. The starting question  How can we get from a traditional poem (in this case, a sonnet) to this:  ?
  • 3. Machines and poems  “To make two bold statements: There's nothing sentimental about a machine, and: A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words. When I say there's nothing sentimental about a poem, I mean that there can be no part that is redundant. …  Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship. But poetry is a machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy. As in all machines, its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character.”  (William Carlos Williams)
  • 4. Looking at/looking through  A poem may be a machine, but it’s easy to get distracted by meaning and not see the mechanisms working on us underneath.  Students often resist looking at the formal attributes of poetry, preferring to stick with more familiar representational aspects: imagery, metaphor, emotional resonance.  “People look for messages in poems; certainly most of my students do, no mater how much I try to discourage them.” – PiotrGwiazda  Students are easily flummoxed by the economy of a poem, preferring free expression to affordances and constraints.
  • 5. Use digital literacy to better understand the mechanisms of a poem  “Digital literacy means not rote learning but experimentation, process, creativity, not just technology but multimedia imagination, expression–and principles too.” – Cathy Davidson  So, let’s see if we can do an experiment in multimedia imagination.
  • 6. Use a poem to better understand digital concepts  The plan: try working with a couple of key digital concepts that literature students tend to avoid (often on purpose):  Encoding: writing is a code, not a conveyor of transparent meaning  Algorithm: understanding a poem as programmatic, i.e. constructed according to a set of procedures
  • 7. The plan:  A “sonnet sequence” that takes students through a series of “translation exercises” converting a single poem into several different formats  To be run in stages over the course of a semester, with students working in pairs  Constraints & Economy: all work must be done in class during the time provided  To remove the “fear factor” and encourage experimentation, the sequence is graded solely on completion of all tasks
  • 8. Shakespeare’s 14th sonnet  Not from the stars do I my judgement pluck,  And yet methinks I have astronomy,  But not to tell of good, or evil luck,  Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons' quality,  Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell;  Pointing to each his thunder, rain and wind,  Or say with princes if it shall go well  By oft predict that I in heaven find.  But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive,  And constant stars in them I read such art  As truth and beauty shall together thrive  If from thy self, to store thou wouldst convert:  Or else of thee this I prognosticate,  Thy end is truth's and beauty's doom and date.
  • 9. Exercise 1: qualitative/narrative  Convert a Shakespeare sonnet into a non-textual format. You're accustomed to doing "readings" of literature and producing a specific kind of output: a paper. In this exercise, the "input" will be the same (requiring the critical reading apparatus you should have gained as an English major), but the "output" will be different. Thus it will require two sets of skills.
  • 10. Working in dimensions  Key concept: “dimensions.”  In this context, dimensions are qualities that can be used to structure a piece of information. (Concept from Edward Tufte)  Dimensions could include anything that can be quantified or grouped, for example, “duration”, “distance,” “weather,” “vision.”  A dimension is useful for identifying structure and pattern in poems – for example, the “primary dimension” would be analogous to the “conceptual metaphor” that helps structure the poem.  This exercise was used in conjunction with a parallel project students were working on in which they had to create a wordless biography.  Students identified and came up with sample visual representations for each dimension (e.g. clock=time, eye=vision), and then created an object that expressed the poem in some way.
  • 11. What came back  A four-box diorama (one box representing each quatrain) containing objects representing words in the poem  A clock showing the stages of reproductive life with eyes on the hands (time, vision)  A zodiac mobile (fortune telling, stars)  A sliding puppet show, with a figure moving back and forth (past, present and future) to death and back again
  • 16. Exercise 2: encode/decode  Key concepts: encoding schema, lossy/lossless  A schema: a set of rules or agreed-upon language that is used to encode a piece of text  Lossy& lossless: Are you going to encode the whole poem, or just key parts of it?  The assignment: choose an encoding schema, use it to translate the poem into another format, and then provide a “decoder.”  The encoding could be of the structure of the poem (ie quatrains, iambs etc) or of the words themselves
  • 17. What came back  A braided cord using color-coded thread to represent key imagery, along with a cord/card decoder  A Braille poem using beads and thread, with color-coded beads for the words and thread to mark out different parts of the poem  An envelope system in which each line was translated from letters to a 5-digit number. The number became a zip code, and each envelope was addressed to a real-life address that represented a word in the poem (e.g. “doom” in the last line means the envelope is addressed to a cemetery)
  • 20. Poem as postal code (lossless)
  • 21. Exercise 3: Algorithm  Create a “program” that will “build” the poem when executed.  The program is explained as a kind of “recipe,” which has the benefit of several key computing concepts:  Procedure: series of instructions  Function (small procedure that can be repeated over when needed)  (maybe, stretching the analogy a bit): objects, small preassembled “ingredients” that can be combined
  • 22. What came back  A burger assembly box, in which the user assembled the poem using burger buns to represent each quatrain, and a patty and toppings to represent various parts of speech.  A Jenga tower, in which users built a tower according to a set of instructions (requiring them to write key words and concepts on the blocks), and then knocked it down at the end (to signify “doom”)  A Lego set for building a color-coded representation of quatrains & iambs.
  • 26. What worked  They knew the poem inside and out by the end of the semester. Or at least, would never forget what a quatrain was.  Because the sequence was not graded, students were free to experiment and take risks without anxiety about the results (and they did!)  Because the sequence was done in class only, students were able to see each others’ working habits and thought processes as they happened.
  • 27. What didn’t One of the issues with using the Internet for research in general is that it tends to provide “surface knowledge” in which students find it easy to find an initial layer of information but often don’t go any deeper. This project did not necessarily solve the problem: students were easily tempted by the multitudes of plug-in “translation” tools online. It thus required a lot of supervision to make sure they were not taking the “easy route.”
  • 28. Observations  Students who did best at these assignments tended to be very detail-oriented in their other work and thoughtful in class discussion.  Less well-prepared students were more likely to have trouble coming up with an initial plan, and had a tendency to rely on “translation tools” and not spend time on presentation.  For some reason, the class quickly segregated into “boy groups” and “girl groups.” I attribute this to the “craft factor,” maybe?  As the semester moved on, the projects became *more* detailed and imaginative, rather than less. This could be a function of seeing other students’ work, or the lack of grading anxiety that tends to move them towards conservatism as the semester progresses, or the blocking out of time in class so that students were not forced to choose how to spend their time.