Using Xtranormal Against Straw Men

Straw MenWhen my wife and I decided to team-teach this semester, we were mindful of several challenges: keeping the class from turning into a marital soap opera, modeling for students not only divergent academic perspectives, but how those perspectives connect (see this helpful Tomorrow’s Professor post), and keeping the focus on the class on the Honors program learning objectives. The biggest challenge, at least at first, seemed to be about technology and pedagogy: How would we balance her preference for papers and exams with my own interest in a variety of born-digital assignments?

It turns out that this has been less of a problem than we expected. In part, this is about sequencing. My wikified class notes assignment lends itself well to an exam, so that fit. And a regular blogging assignment helps generate lots of ideas for papers, so that was ok, too.

We also have quickly found common ground over Xtranormal, the easy-to-use animation software that was trendy about a year-and-a-half ago. (My favorite.) Xtranormal uses simplified animation choices and computer voice overs to make it possible for anyone with access to a web browser to make movies.

In addition to being fun to use, Xtranormal has helped us with a specific conceptual problem. Aimee and I both rely on Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing in teaching argument, both in first-year classes and in advanced courses on writing an honors thesis. We both value the book for its practicality (writing templates turn out to be immensely helpful) and for its emphasis on trying to understand the perspectives of other people. Often, especially in literature classes, students will feel stymied by the apparent obviousness of their ideas: “Surely everyone must think X,” and they worry that disagreement is a sign of error. Graff and Birkenstein can help students see that such disagreements are actually pretty productive.

As with any approach, however, Graff and Birkenstein’s has its problems: When you ask students to contemplate what others might think about a particular topic, you often get straw men on a truly mammoth scale, with the most outlandish views being posited as conventional wisdom. (All the better to disagree with, you see.)

This is the piece Xtranormal can help with: By visualizing the contrast between what they say, and what I say, students will sometimes see more quickly the straw man problem. It’s as though the animation helps them grasp more vividly the idea that they should be engaging with real ideas that their audience might hold. They can fix it–or, sometimes, they’ll fix it by pushing the straw man to over-the-top, satirical ends, which can also be effective.

What has been helpful for us, then, is the way the videos have helped us advance a technical point about rhetoric argument that we usually have to struggle with in early drafts. And it does so in a way that’s fun. It doesn’t wholly replace a paper (which I think was Aimee’s concern), but can help along the way to writing better ones.

Parenthetically, let me just mention that the students take to the Xtranormal software pretty easily. The only technical challenge that any of the students mentioned was genuinely unexpected. A student was making a video about Freud’s account of his grandson’s fort-da game, and wanted to animate this part:

This good little boy, however, had an occasional disturbing habit of taking any small objects he could get hold of and throwing them away from him into a corner, under the bed, and so on, so that hunting for his toys and picking them up was often quite a business. As he did this he gave vent to a loud, long-drawn-out ‘o-o-o-o’, accompanied by an expression of interest and satisfaction.

Instead of saying a “loud, long-drawn-out ‘o-o-o-o,” however, the Xtranormal software insisted on saying, verbatim, “a long series of o’s.” While it was a little frustrating at first for the student, it also struck us all as a little funny, and she quickly sorted out a workaround.

If you use Xtranormal or other similar video tools in your classes, how do they work? What problems do they address? Let us know in comments!

Photo “Straw Men” by Flickr user Robin Ellis / Creative Commons licensed BY-ND-2.0

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