We Made It!

Congratulations to everyone for finishing their Capstones! And a special, very warm and bittersweet congratulations to all my fellow seniors. For many of us, this is the last assignment we will ever turn in at Michigan. Hope you all are doing okay with the existential dread of being a new graduate (and if you aren’t, join the club!)

My Capstone is centered around a legal principle known as environmental personhood. Basically, the idea is that you give natural features (lakes, forests, rivers, etc.) many of the same rights as a legal person. It may sound like an alien concept at first, but the concept of personhood is much more abstract than one would think. This Capstone challenged me immensely. I found the creative non-fiction piece especially scary, because I am apparently very uncomfortable with vulnerability. At the end of the day, I really enjoyed creating my Capstone. You can find it here.

Thank you to the MiW staff, especially Professor Shelley Manis. Shelley was so inspiring and understanding during the pandemic, and before the whole thing too! It meant so much to so many of us.

A Rambling Reflection

Literati, as a space, encompasses the energy that all bookstores have. It is warm, somewhat crowded, and smells like coffee. Heather Ann Thompson filled that space with a lively personality with a lot of interesting things to say.

Thompson spoke about many things that I am sure we have all thought about but have never taken the time to articulate. Thompson prioritizes taking the enormous amount of knowledge that exists in classrooms and giving it context.  Her contempt of academia for the purposes of academia was obvious – that is why she identifies as both an academic and as a public intellectual.

I sense this effect in my own writing – I am drifting towards writing for professors and GSIs. I find myself adding lofty jargon to my writing that, I half-heartedly believe, elevates my writing to sound more “professional”. Right now, there is a huge implication to inaccessible knowledge. As a student studying public policy, I learn more and more every day about the lengths politicians will go to make legislation dense and full of technical language. This language only serves to make the regular citizen struggle to understand how they are governed. So, even though the information is “available”, it is not “accessible”. This is not an accident. Even in academia, when the motives aren’t as malicious, creating inaccessible knowledge does a good job of creating information only the “elite” can access. Thompson is chipping away at that practice, from the inside.

Another thing I really enjoyed about Thompson’s talk was her struggle with writing trauma. Thompson explained how it is hard to find a balance between overwriting and underwriting graphic situations. On one hand, you want to properly express the weight of the situation. However, being too explicit can actually push people away from empathy, creating an almost voyeuristic effect instead.

One of my friends, Karolina, has a lot to say about this idea. As a black woman, she is constantly bombarded with pictures and videos on social media that show black bodies being abused. In the last couple of years, videotaped police shootings have begun to circulate on social media. These videos are posted in the hopes of raising awareness for the issue. However, many experts maintain that though these videos are effective at horrifying individuals into actions, they are more damaging to the cause.

Research suggests that for people of color who have frequent exposure to the shootings of black people can have long-term mental health consequences. According to Monnica Williams, director of the Center for Mental Health Disparities at the University of Louisville, graphic footage “combined with lived experiences of racism, can create severe psychological problems reminiscent of post-traumatic stress syndrome”.  It does a great job of desensitizing the rest of us to horrific shootings like this. Do we have to see continued footage of black men, women, and children being shot to spark enough outrage to act? I do not think so. (Or at least, I hope.) These videos are circulated generating hundreds and thousands of views, which means someone is profiting while black people are suffering. Karolina, after failing to rid her social media experience of these types of videos, has taken an indefinite social media hiatus. Even still, she still gets sent these videos by well-meaning peers.

Thompson articulates this struggle incredibly well. Overall, I was inspired by her approach to writing. She does it because she considers it her duty share stories that her privilege gives her access to, even though writing may not come naturally. “There’s no choice,” Thompson said. “You weigh in now or you don’t. You write now or you don’t.”

Listen

My grandmother loved stories. I spent the first six years of my life at her feet, in a tiny agricultural village in Andhra Pradesh. My earliest memory features me, being eaten alive by mosquitos at twilight, listening as she retold village gossip to her friends. There was always boisterous laughter, gasps of shock, and definitely some clucking of disapproval.

Every morning before sunrise, as my grandfather headed off to the fields, she would drag me to the village temple. I would be bleary-eyed and starving, sulking the whole way. We would sit on those cold concrete floors while the priest would sing beautiful mythological hymns for us. I don’t think these songs would be beautiful by today’s standards, but they often brought brought tears to my grandmother’s eyes. They are hundreds of thousands of stories, overwhelming even the thousands of gods – some are sung, some are told, some can’t be told before a certain hour, some can only be told at a in the presence of a certain person. These rules wrangled the sheer volume of stories to a manageable list for our listening pleasure.

I could not understand these hymns, and to be honest I did not care to. The prayer songs are usually sung in a specific dialect that even my devout grandmother could not fully understand, a secret language taught only to the caste of priests. I would sit there, nodding off, as the priest would chant and sing and conduct his puja. The sun would rise, and my grandmother and I would walk back home in the rising heat. The whole way, she would retell everything that was sung. I always liked her versions better.

There is something about listening to people tell stories that I love. As I was listening to Moth, I came to the realization that I really felt no desire to get up on that stage myself. Sitting, listening, is what comes naturally to me. Being a good listener is something that I have always prided myself on, but I never really thought that it came from loving listening as opposed to…I don’t know…being a good friend?

I think storytelling is an art, whether it is performative or not. The Moth stories are rehearsed and refined in some way. Still, I feel that same intimacy listening to strangers talk about their stories as I feel when my friends are telling me about their days. Stories are a huge part of what makes us human. Humans are  social creatures, and we have always used stories as an essential way to connect with one another. I think Moth capitalizes on that innate desire to gain a glimpse into someone else’s world, to look through their eyes for even a few minutes.

I know that my grandmother would have wanted me to create, but I do not think I have a story that needs to be told. I think I am happy listening in, watching someone else explore their world for a little while. At least for now.

How to: Create an Interactive Timeline

Timelines are such a mainstream part of our media consumption that I do not think that anyone has completely avoided them. Especially in education, timelines are used often to create a linear organization of large blocks of time. If text was used to illustrate the happenings of these time periods, it would be overwhelming and hard to process. Timelines are a compromise between words and images – they incorporate the two into a visually spacious style that makes information more digestible.

Interactive timelines as a genre were born in the Internet-age. Putting timelines on the internet gave timeline designers the opportunity to add many modal forms to create a more comprehensive experience. Often, these timelines link to relevant websites. Some have funny or informative gifs, or play music. Ultimately, whether investigating events on a historical continuum or studying the evolution of a social and/or cultural phenomenon, interactive timelines are an excellent visual for helping students recognize the cause and effect relationships between events.

Image result for infographic

  1. Create an outline for your timeline infographic

Creating an outline is arguably the most important step in designing a timeline. This step is crucial because the design of a timeline is dependent on the type and amount of content you want to include. Without knowing how much content you have to fit in the timeline, you might choose the wrong layout, and you’ll end up doing a ton of extra work.

always sunny conspiracy GIF

When designing an outline, there are four major aspects of a timeline to keep in mind: dates, descriptions, headers, and images.

Try to keep the descriptions pretty brief. I usually like to aim for less than 30 words per description, then try to spice it up with some visuals like icons or illustrations to make it visually exciting.

  1. Pick a layout for your timeline infographic

To choose the best layout for your infographic, you’ll want to consider the number of points in your outline and the amount of text associated with each point. Depending on the length of each of your descriptions, as well as the overall amount of content you’ve outlined, some layouts will be better at relaying information than others.

  1. Add dates, text, and images to your timeline infographic

Now it is time to fill in your infographic! You’ve chosen a skeleton for your timeline, and now it time to fill in the details. I recommend starting with images, since they tend to be the focal point of the infographic. Next, add the text from your outline.

happy kermit the frog GIF

You’ve done it! You’ve created an infographic. Depending on your subject material, you can now share it on whatever medium it was made for. Yay!

 

How to: Make an Infographic

We all know what an infographic is – they are plastered all over our social media feeds and are featured as resources on websites.

infographic – (noun) a visual image such as a chart or diagram used to represent information.

Again, you already knew that. Infographics are everywhere.

What makes infographics so popular among content creators? Ultimately, infographics make complex data more accessible to non-experts, increasing awareness into topics that might seem insurmountable otherwise.  There is something about the way an infographic conveys content that holds people’s attention and keeps it. Infographics correlate with significantly higher content engagement compared to blocks of text. Now, it’s time for you to create your own! 

How to: Create an Infographic

Step 1 – Identify a topic that your target audience will be interested in.

This is just like how nobody can “write in general” – you need to have a purpose! To create a killer infographic, the first step is to come up with an original infographic idea. How do you do that? Well, you figure out what your audience wants.

One mistake that is commonly cited when creating an infographic is that people try to choose something that is generically popular rather than specifically relevant to their audience. Which is fine! But, keep in mind that the more popular a topic is, the more content is being created in that area. You might have a better shot creating a specific infographic for a specific demographic, and letting it play out from there.

 

Step 2 – Simplicity is key.

Another thing I learned wading through infographics online was that you can usually always tell when an infographic is made by a beginner. Sometimes, beginners try to load their infographic with tons of information in an effort to translate their data into visual form. Instead of being informative, their infographic becomes intimidating.

 

“Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities among Communities of Color Compared to Non-Hispanic Whites.” Families USA. September 22, 2014. Accessed October 21, 2018. https://familiesusa.org/health-disparities.

This infographic, published by Families USA, does a really great job of illustrating this point. It breaks down health disparity statistics among racial groups using a very clear and well-organized design. The simplicity of this infographic is key: it is used as a supplement to draw the reader in, and then transition to more text heavy resources later on the website page

 

Step 3 – Keep it visual.

Use the strengths of the medium in your favor! One of the best parts about an infographic is the freedom to play around with fonts, layouts, colors, spacing, and icons. This is something I had a lot of trouble with when creating my infographic – I could not for the life of me stop writing. Instead of focusing on relaying my data through visuals like charts and graphs, my first instinct was always words. I worked like I was creating a summary of data for an essay instead of an infographic, which made my infographic clunky and visually unappealing.

“LinkedIn – A Well-Balanced Blog.” Column Five. Accessed October 21, 2018. https://www.columnfivemedia.com/work-items/infographic-a-well-balanced-blog.

 

This infographic was created by LinkedIn’s marketing team to assist bloggers in creating content that has high engagement, especially in a time where there is high content saturation. My favorite part of this infographic is that, instead of providing a list outlining when to post certain types of blog content, LinkedIn uses a visual metaphor to present the information. This makes the subject matter significantly more exciting and eye-catching.

 

The conventions of infographics are hard to pin down. The foundational terms of a good infographic seem to be simplicity and originality (like most things). Because infographics get significantly higher engagement on social media compared to good ol’ text, we run into them a lot more often than we do academic papers. Infographics have a more casual, approachable tone compared to a block of statistical percentages in text form. I think the fact that they are so much more accessible is a chance to take information from academia and transition it to more general consumption.

 

How To: Twitter Thread Edition

A Twitter thread is a series of tweets published by one individual, usually providing extra context or extending a point by connecting multiple tweets together. This is an interesting feature because it seems antithetical to Twitter’s “microblogging” elements. Ultimately, it pushes the platform to be more inclusive of longform tweeting.

Some of my favorite contemporary Twitter threads are stories. Most of these stories are funny, some are powerful, and others are just a list of favorite media from other platforms (ex: “Here are my Top 30 favorite vines!”).

In my genre exploration, I have found that most viral Twitter threads are anecdotal. One woman details the time she accidentally went on a date with a 97-year-old man (https://thoughtcatalog.com/callie-byrnes/2017/05/this-woman-accidentally-went-on-a-date-with-a-97-year-old-man-and-shared-the-whole-hilarious-story-on-twitter/). Another one, written by Kumail Nanjiani, is about a sweet moment he shared with the director of Star Wars: The Last Jedi Rian Johnson (https://mashable.com/2017/12/13/kumail-nanjiani-rian-johnson-twitter-thread/#XMp324nJ3iqt).

 

Anecdotal Twitter threads, specifically funny or sentimental ones, tend to be written for a more general audience than the other threads I researched. They are chock full of the author’s voice, slang, and reaction images and gifs.

Another common category of Twitter threads is the information thread. This thread tends to be more text heavy and formal than the anecdotal thread, but it doesn’t have to necessarily be so. For example, this thread, by Max Krieger, is a deep-dive into the “design hellscape” that is the popular American restaurant chain The Cheesecake Factory.

 

In recent times, as Twitter has become a newsource and political discussion board, many informational tweets are dedicated to “de-mystifying” complicated news items to more digestible and comprehensive.

Daniel Dale, the Washington correspondent for the Toronto Star, has a couple of tweets that are focused on “Donald Trump getting hilariously lost in his own lies”.

Dale also has a couple of tweets breaking down one of the most insurmountable laws passed in Trump’s reign: The Tax and Jobs Act of 2017. It is interesting to see that, as Donald Trump has used Twitter as a platform to be heard, there has been a marked increase in political scientists and reporters that have come up to meet him.

 

So, back to threads. How exactly do you go about writing one of your own?

  1. Determine who you want to write it for. A Twitter thread, like any other piece, requires an audience. Are you writing it for the high-schoolers who love memes? Are you writing for health insurance policy makers who need to be informed on a certain issue?
  2. Keep it short. The whole point of a Twitter thread is that you have multiple tweets to make your point, so don’t stuff each tweet until the 250 word limit. Give your reader some space to breathe.
  3. Integrate your voice! It is not your job to be an academic robot, whose only job is to connect different sources to support an argument. Tweets that have personality tend to be more interesting.
  4. Use other media. Twitter gives you the opportunity to use images, videos, gifs, and all that fun stuff – take advantage! Tweets that use media have notably higher engagement.
  5. Thread your tweets. This one seems obvious, but it is really important that your tweets have flow. If you’re telling a story or making an informative thread, make sure there is logic to the order of your tweets.

A Multimodal Friday

I decided to conduct an experiment on multimodality on just another regular Friday afternoon. Over the course of my day, I recorded my encounters with a variety of texts which all incorporated modality differently.

On my way to work, I encountered the first multimodal text of the day: a text message from one of my best friends.

My first instinct, of course, was to note down this text’s utilization of modality. The incorporation of linguistic and visual modes was immediately obvious, as the text used both words and a picture. Gestural mode was used in conjunction with visual mode: the way the dog is sitting is very indicative of the “energy” my friend is referring to.

Once I was at work, I ran across my second multimodal text: a recently published research paper that I was tasked with summarizing.

Again, linguistic mode was easy to recognize. The tone of this paper was very different from my friend’s text message, as this was a research paper and had to not only give background on a fairly complex topic, but also cater to a large audience of academics. The paper organized itself into paragraphs, used appropriate grammar, and did not have any photos of adorable dogs.

Visual and spatial modes are also important parts of this text. Looking at the font, spacing, and margins of this paper immediately categorizes it as a research paper. The authors chose to highlight an important point made in the paper by putting the pull quote in a different font and color, using both visual and spatial modality.

The final multimodal text of my Friday was a conversation with an old friend over dinner. In terms of modality, gestural mode came into the picture first. Things started off a little awkward, as we hadn’t seen each other in over two years. After ten minutes though, we were back to our normal selves, and that was clear from our body language. We went out to dinner at Sava’s, which immediately influenced the spatial mode of our interaction – we were seated across from each other at a high-top table. I was surprised to see aural mode make its way into our interaction as well: she had picked up a slight accent and different vocal tics from living abroad for so long.

One thing this experiment taught me is how interconnected all the modes are – most  modes, if not all of them, overlap with each other. Maybe for that reason, I had trouble finding a medium which used all five modes in distinct ways. I think the coolest thing about modes is how they are combined with each other, depending on the purpose of the text. Going forward, I am definitely going to be more cognizant of why an author decided to make use of a certain mode over another – what were they trying to accomplish? Who are they trying to reach?