Choose Your Own Adventure

2018-12-03 00:00:00 +0000

For today’s class, you chose a game to play from a list. Some of you may have chosen the same game, but hopefully across the class you chose several different options. To start our conversation, then, we need to do a little bit of description and basic analysis. To that end, I’d like you to answer the following questions about the game you played:

  1. What is the primary mechanic of the game? That is, how do players interact with the game: e.g. through some style of movement, by managing resources, through simulated combat, etc.? Is the game’s mechanic similar to other games you know, or does it seem notably distinct?
  2. How would you describe the style of the game? Consider its visual style, its aural style, and (if applicable) its textual style. Do these different elements work in harmony or do they seem at odds with each other? What does the game’s style seem to convey, and does it succeed?
  3. Is there a narrative in this game? If so, would you describe the narrative as scripted or emergent—that is, does the game proceed through a set series of narrative moments, or does the player participate in creating the narrative through playing the game?
  4. Does your game explore particular themes or ideas through its mechanic, style, or narrative (or some combination thereof)? How are these themes and/or ideas articulated? Does the game seem aimed at giving players a particular view of these themes and/or ideas, or does it seem designed to provoke independent thinking?
  5. Finally, is your game fun? Why or why not? How do the elements discussed above contribute to the fun of the game (or lack thereof)?
  6. Imagine you were charged with writing a tagline for this game for a web store or the back of a case. Can you summarize the game in a sentence in a way that gives some sense of what it’s about and why it might be interesting to play?

Attending to the Web

2018-10-15 00:00:00 +0000

In-class Activity: Attending to the Web

The pieces we read for today share a few ideas, namely:

  1. That the media we consume shape our habits and attention
  2. That the web works on our attention in specific ways that are, perhaps, unique compared to previous media
  3. That we have trouble fully apprehending these changes from within the system that fostered them

Today, then, I’d like you to think about the way some of your favorite websites operate within the web’s “attention economy.” What kinds of attention do these sites ask from and/or cultivate in visitors? How do these sites reward particular kinds of engagement, and how do these rewards play into what we know about the science of attention? Who stands to benefit—visitors/readers, advertisers, writers, or someone else?

Blueprinting a Bot

2018-10-10 00:00:00 +0000

You don’t need to be a programmer to imagine how you might create—or write?—a bot for Twitter or another web platform. Essentially, a bot requires these things:

  1. Source data. Where will your bot get its source material? It could could from pre-written text(s), other social media feeds, other website(s), open governmental data—and there are far more possibilities. Some bots work with a single data source, others combine multiple data sources for absurd, profound, or absurdly profound results.
  2. A principle of selection. What precisely is your bot looking for in its source data? Does it work with every data point from its source, or only those that meet particular conditions?
  3. A transformation. What will your bot do with its source data? Will it alter the source data somehow? Will it mash up multiple data sources? What kinds of structures (linguistic, formal, technical) will it need to use to make these transformations?
  4. Output. What should the final product look like? What will happen to it? Does it get posted to social media? Added to a website? Displayed on a monitor somewhere? Twitter bots are perhaps the most famous, but they are far from the only bots in the world today.

Working in groups of 2-3, I’d like you to imagine a bot using the guidelines above.


2018-09-20 00:00:00 +0000

Developing a Research Problem

  • Move from topics to questions to problems (to claims)
  • Keep asking questions about relationships and significance
  • Genuine problems have consequences for readers, though perhaps only particular communities of readers

Tangible Problems

Some problems have tangible, or “real world” consequences for a group of readers. In many ways these are easier to identify as problems for new writers.

Example for Developing a Tangible Problem

  1. Topic: Reading on screens versus reading on paper
  2. Question: I want to learn, do readers using screens retain less information than readers using paper media?
  3. Consequence:
  4. Potential Application:

Conceptual Problems

Conceptual problems can be harder for new writers because they are a bit more abstract, and their consequences perhaps seem less…well…consequential, at least in immediate, corporal ways. But conceptual problems should have consequences for readers, at least readers from communities or disciplines for whom understanding your topic well is a priority.

Example for Developing a Conceptual Problem

  1. Topic: depictions of geography in “17776”
  2. Question: I want to learn whether there is a relationship between depictions of geography in “17776” and the story’s depictions of human (or non-human) relationships
  3. Consequences:
  4. Potential Applications:

A Glow-In-the-Dark Newspaper

2018-09-19 00:00:00 +0000

Shortly after the serialization of “17776” was fully published on SBNation, author Jon Bois posted a Q&A about the story in which he responded to readers’ questions. One of these questions, along with Bois’ answer, seems particularly pertinent to our course discussions:

Do you think weird experimental stories like this have a future in sports writing or was this a singular event?

  • @Crazyeyesdave

I hope so. Maybe not distant-future sports sci-fi, but that’s only one of a thousand lanes.

I could go really, really long on this answer. I’ll keep it short: There are countless different ways to write, and things and ideas to write about. And the Internet offers a kaleidoscope of different formats, media, tools, sights, and sounds to tell your stories. And most of us are not even trying to scrape the surface of any of it. We’ve got to start thinking of the Internet as something more than a glow-in-the-dark newspaper.

Thanks @Crazyeyesdave!

Take a few minutes to reflect on this question and Bois’ answer in light of your reading of “17776” for today’s class. Did the story help you think in new ways about online writing, whether sports writing, journalism, or fiction? Would you want to see more experimental writing like this, or not? What works in this story and what doesn’t, and what (if anything) do you think it might help us consider about where reading and writing are heading in the next few (or 15,000) years?

Jekyll/Github Pages Site Tutorial

2018-09-12 00:00:00 +0000

We’ve had trouble finding time in class for a full tutorial on Jekyll/Github Pages, so I recorded a screencast walkthrough of the basics. This has the advantage of “rewind” as well, so I hope it will be useful as a complement to what we cover in class.

Introduction to Github Pages (and Markdown and Jekyll)

2018-09-06 00:00:00 +0000

Creating a Github Pages Website


Recently flat HTML platforms like Jekyll have been getting lots of buzz: they load quickly and don’t have all the overhead of a database-driven platform like Wordpress. Once the system is set up they’re remarkably easy to use, but the setup is more complicated than “out of the box” solutions like Wordpress. As we learn about Jekyll and Github Pages, we will largely follow Barry Clark’s tutorial, Build A Blog With Jekyll And GitHub Pages, though some details have changed since 2014.

Step 1: Set up a Github Account

If you don’t yet have a Github account, you’ll need to sign up for one. You’ll be able to use a free Github account for this class, but if you decide to continue using Github for other projects, you might consider applying for an free Github Education Account.

Step 2: Find a Theme You Like and Fork It

As of last year, all Jekyll themes should work with Github pages, though some require more tinkering than others. Check out this list of supported Jekyll themes, sorted by how many people like them. Find one you like, but make sure it’s a theme that supports blogging. The easiest way to know is to see if there’s a folder titled _posts in the repository after you fork it. We can work during the semester to customize these themes, so it doesn’t need to be perfect: just good enough. When you click on a theme name in this list you’ll see its files. Most of these pages will include a link to a sample site, which will give you a sense of what your site would look like.

Once you’ve found a theme you like, we will fork the repository. Don’t worry if that phrase sounds like nonsense: we’ll do it together and I’ll explain what it means.

Step 3: Review Your Site’s Structure

Once everyone has their own Github Pages repository, we will spend some time studying the structure of a Jekyll website together. I will show you where to find the files for static pages, blog posts, and basic configuration files.

Step 4: Edit the _config.yml File

The _config.yml file includes all the basic configurations for a Jekyll website. We need to customize these for each of your individual sites. We will work through this together as well.

Authorize Prose

There are different ways to edit the files for your Github Pages account. You can simply edit files directly (I’ll show you this today) and you can sync the files with your desktop and use an application on your computer (I’ll show you this in the future if you like. is a useful application for editing the files online, and that’s what we’ll use today and next Monday for learning how to edit your website using Markdown.

Step 6: Edit at Least One Page

We will work together to edit at least one of your site’s pages, so that you know what to do to edit others going forward. To work with Jekyll’s content you’ll need to know how to use the Markdown text convention (see below).

Step 7: Create a Sample Post

We will work together to create one sample post, which will be much like editing a page save some different metadata in the header. Here too you’ll use the Markdown text conventions to edit your posts (see below).

Step 8: Customize Your Pages and Begin Blogging

Other Jekyll/Github Pages Resources

  1. Other Jekyll themes that will work with Github Pages, though they might require a bit more tinkering.
  2. Amanda Visconti’s Jekyll/Github Pages tutorial at the Programming Historian

Writing in Markdown

What is Markdown?

Markdown is a lightweight standard for writing in plain text while encoding the structure of your document for later representation in a format like Word, PDF, or HTML. If you have ever marked up a text using HTML tags, Markdown works quite similarly, but uses simple typographical symbols to encode text rather than longer HTML tags. There are a number of affordances to working in Markdown, including:

  1. Simplicity. Because Markdown is a plain-text system of encoding structural elements typographically—rather than, as in proprietary formats like docx, though hidden, underlying code—Markdown files are small in size and simple to compose. You do not need to interrupt your writing to format your document while writing in Markdown.
  2. Flexibility. When writing in Markdown you encode directions for styling your text, but you do not style it directly. Because of this, an md file can be easily converted to many other standard file types, including html or pdf. You can easily convert a single .md file into a range of other formats, giving you flexibility when you wish to publish your writing. When you send me your fieldbooks in Markdown, our website will translate the Markdown you wrote into HTML for display online.
  3. Durability. Unlike files composed in specific version of proprietary software, Markdown files are, essentially, plain text files. This means they can be opened by a wide range of applications and they will look essentially the same, and that they are not subject to the vicissitudes of software updates or platform dependencies. You can open and edit a Markdown file on virtually any computer, and you will likely be able to do well into the future. Even if the conventions of Markdown are no longer understood, the central text should remain widely compatible and portable.

As with any medium, of course, there are also limitations to writing in Markdown, such as:

  1. You have less granular control over the appearance of your text than you would in a full featured word processor. In order to ensure the flexibility and durability of Markdown, its grammar is relatively constrained. While you can indicate text should be bold or formatted in a numbered list using Markdown, for instance, you could indicate that one paragraph’s font should be 2 points larger than another.
  2. You typically have to convert Markdown files into another format before publication. This is not quite true on the web, where some frameworks (like Jekyll(, in which our class website is built) can understand Markdown directly, but usually the production stage for a Markdown document involves converting you md file into another format and converting its structural encoding into actual stylistic changes.

For our class, writing in Markdown will help you reflect on the relationship of your texts’ structure to the media of their presentation. If you follow the Github Pages option for your website, you will edit your pages and write your posts in Markdown using or one of the desktop applications listed below.

Markdown References

Below I will describe the most common Markdown syntax, but for additional reference you can consult:

In short, in Markdown your text will not include any visible stylistic variations such as italics or bold text; Markdown is a plain text format. However, if you’re using an editor such as you will be able to preview the way your documents will look like when they’re styled.

Applications for Writing in Markdown

One advantage to this flat-text format is that you can write valid Markdown in many, many editors, including the free text editors (such as TextEdit on the Mac or Wordpad on the PC) that come with most computers. You can also write in Markdown in my favorite writing application, Scrivener.

There are many dedicated Markdown composition applications with additional features, such as syntax highlighting or the ability to preview what your documents. Some are paid, but here are some free ones:

To write your blog posts using these desktop applications, you will need to sync your Github repository, which I can show you how to do next week.

Markdown Syntax

So, a few basics:

  1. If you want your text to be italicized, then enclose it in single asterisks. (i.e. *enclose it in single asterisks*).
  2. If you want your text to be bold, then enclose it in double asterisks. (i.e. **enclose it in double asterisks**).
  3. To start a new paragraph, simply hit return twice, so that you see a single line space in between paragraphs.
  4. To start a new line without a paragraph break, add two spaces to the end of the first line and then hit return once.
  5. To create a hyperlink, enclose the words you want linked in brackets and the link in parentheses following. i.e. [words you want linked in brackets and the link in parentheses following](

You can also create headlines of descending sizes, lists (numbered or bulleted), footnotes, block quotations, embedded images, and more. See the reference materials above for details on these other elements.

Day 1

2018-09-05 00:00:00 +0000

Getting to Know Each Other

In order to get our semester started, I’d like you each to share a bit of information about yourselves and respond to a short writing prompt. We’ll discuss these together.

BTW: I also wrote this post so there would be something in the “Updates” section of the course website as we talk about the syllabus today!

So, first tell us:

  • Your name and any preferred nicknames
  • Your pronouns
  • Your year at Northeastern
  • Your major(s), minor(s), or concentration(s)
  • Your favorite meme right now (and be prepared to share it and talk about why you like it)

Writing prompt

Next, I’d like you to reflect briefly on these questions:

  • How have reading & writing practices shifted just during your lifetime?
  • Do you think these changes are significant?
  • How so or why not?


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