not quite a raven and a writing desk a sonnet and an algorithm
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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.

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not quite a raven and a writing desk a sonnet and an algorithm

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
The starting question
  • How can we get from a traditional poem (in this case, a sonnet) to this:
  • ?
machines and poems
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
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
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
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
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 14 th sonnet
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
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
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
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
exercise 2 encode decode
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 back1
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)
exercise 3 algorithm
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 back2
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.
what worked
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
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.”

  • 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.