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Teaching

NeoVox

Most of you here at Cortland probably have heard of Uniplanet, now recently renamed NeoVox (aka New Voice). If not, it’s a student-produced international web magazine created in collaboration with students from six other universities around the world. If you have visited the old Uniplanet site, you might not have been all that impressed with the design or the writing, so you might be skeptical when I say to you that NeoVox offers a glimpse at the classroom of the near future. The site of NeoVox’s production does not look like a classroom, even a computer classroom. There are clusters of computers, but there is also a conference table and a large comfortable seating area. Students who participate in the magazine come from across the humanities and social sciences: art, professional writing, communications, political science, sociology, international studies, psychology, economics, etc. It’s also certainly possible to imagine students from the sciences contributing as well, though currently none are involved. Working on NeoVox requires brining together all of our creative and intellectual energy to solve problems and produce a magazine. It is truly “student-centered” in that the students provide the primary direction as well as the content for the magazine; the faculty serve as advisors, gudies, and experts–as consultants or “egents” in Ulmer’s terminology. But to understand how this is different, I need to reflect for a moment on where we are coming from. The “school” is an invention of literate culture, of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and their contemporaties in Classical Greece. The school combines written and oral communication; it also institutionalizes an Aristotlean topology that still exists as academic departments.In fact, if anything the past century or two has seen increasing specialization and a proliferation of academic departments, particularly in the human/social sciences. More recently though, in the last twenty years, there has been an increase in “interdisciplinary” activity and scholarship. Cultural Studies, for example, takes place across the university. What are called “learning communities” on this campus is another example. New media as well enters into nearly every department. Where traditional academic study is founded on abstract concepts, NeoVox addresses problems and events. That is, for example, biology is constituted by a scientific paradigm that examines life processes, which separates it from chemistry and phsyics and certainly from economics. However, we know that chemical and physical principles obviously affect life processes and that economic practices do as well, as they might lead to pollution, desertification, or the opposite–cleaner air, healthier ecologies. At NeoVox we might not study the biology of fresh water fish but we might investigate the poisoning of these fish in the Great Lakes. We might not study the history of American colonization as a history professor and class might, but we examine the conflicts between a reservation and nearby towns. Equally we might not write literary-critical papers as some English faculty and students do, but we might write a review of a recent novel or incorporate a line of poetry into an article. Electracy doesn’t mean giving up literacy any more than literacy meant giving up orality. Electracy builds on literacy. I’m not saying there won’t be biologists, historians, literary scholars, etc. in the future. Instead i am suggesting that these areas of knowledge will be understood and pursued differently. Such changes have always been a part of the pursuit of knowledge, though this change may be more dramatic and sweeping, affecting more disciplines, than most. So here’s an example that’s not unlike NeoVox. You’re a high school English teacher, as such, your expertise is in literacy–in reading and writing, but now also new media literacy: how to communicate electronically. You are working in a team with an art teacher, a science teacher, and a social sciences teacher. Together you work with 100 students (a 25:1 ratio, about what it is today), who we’ll divide into five classes of 20. Your classes together produce a weekly magazine. Each class is responsible for producing it once every five weeks. Here’s one way it might happen. Each day you begin with meeting with your colleagues and one of these classes; your discussion depends on where they are in the production cycle (e.g. Week 1, brainstorming; Week 2, research; Week 3, composing and designing articles; Week 4, editing and revision; Week 5, final production). The next four periods you meet with each of the other groups, this time as a single teacher. You need to be flexible and responsive. The students are writing about current events, local problems, and social issues that concern them. You need to bring your understanding of writing and reading to the foreground and help them produce rhetorically effective multimedia pieces. You need to introduce them to literary studies in a way that demonstrates that value of literature in understanding the problems that concern them. Your colleagues are engaged in similar activities. Collectively your challenge is to take advantage of the “teachable moments” emerging from the problems the students pursue. This is what happens in the NeoVox classroom. Whether the problems are ones of design or composition or issues raised by students require some background information and deeper research, there are numerous opportunities for students to learn about the world and become better communicators and investigators. Ultimately, this is perhaps were electracy Ulmer-style is taking us: toward viewing the classroom as a problem-solving team that employs interdisicplinary methods and knowledge and new media resources and production skills toward investigating problems. Rather than dividing the world into essential attributes and categories as literacy has done, here the world is examined as it occurs, as a messy combination of things.

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