If category clouds could talk…

…they might say something like this:

Engl375mm Cloud Tag

This is a current snapshot of the ever changing category cloud for the Early American Crime Narratives class I have been teaching and experimenting with this Summer session. Read about the conception of this category tag project here, a rare success in this classroom with this approach here, and a bit more about having fun with Early American lit and Cotton Mather in a Web 2.0-ready classroom here. For a close look at the class site as well as category cloud in action go here.

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13 Responses to If category clouds could talk…

  1. Martha says:

    Wow. That is so cool. Are you taking regular screen shots so you can produce some kind of movie/animation of the changes?

  2. jimgroom says:

    That is an excellent idea Martha. I have one other screenshot from the early, early stages, but I haven’t been doing it regularly. However, now I will certainly have to. This is the midway point and it seems like the category cloud is really starting to trace the classes ideas in very interesting ways. So, thanks for the brilliant idea!

  3. Gardner says:

    That is a great idea, Martha, absolutely. Every great tag cloud deserves to be in motion pictures. Add a little narration a la Jon Udell, and I think Jim’s got a classic on his hands here.

    Such a cool class, Jim. There’s got to be a way for us to invent a university in which colleagues can sign up for these classes too. Our students can’t be having all the fun. 🙂

    Great stuff.

  4. Shannon says:

    This is pretty awesome and I’ll definitely want to see that movie.
    What would be interesting to see is if and how category clouds change over many semesters. Imagine being able to see in your class (and in others) similarities in thought patterns and where each class diverges. Could it say something culturally, socially, etc. when a class has a different take on something? Ooh I am imagining so many possibilities right now…

  5. jimgroom says:

    Wow, Shannon -that is intense. So, don’t only trace the formation of one class’s ideas over the course of a semester, but the different ways various classes, over time, concentrate on different concepts, ideas, etc. This is fascinating, and it really starts to butt up against this unformed idea about the archive, surfaces and aggregation that I have been thinking of recently. Namely, as we are creating voluminous archives of information at an unprecedented rate in so short a period (almost daily!) than ever before, the surface of concepts, ideas, words, etc. becomes increasingly more important. Moreover, the rate at which certain concepts, ideas, and phrases begin to appear (and re-appear) with more frequently offers us a deep reading of the process of framing our knowledge through particular utterances of language in the aggregate like never before.

    In other words, part of what this class is doing is taking a cross section of popular crime narratives (which are relatively short so we can get through a bunch in a very little time) to see what ideas, concepts, and recurrence are emerging in these texts. A way of reading through complexities, transformations, etc. in the aggregate -a “close historical reading.” For example, the emergence of the term conscience in these narratives of the 1750s (as opposed to the insistence upon a more specific external morality like God from the 1670s-1740s) is something a few students have been tracing steadily over the 25 archival readings we have done thus far. By closely reading an aggregated series of short archival texts over time we can access some interesting ways of reading the repetition of terms and ideas. So much so that at times we can begin to discuss and trace some notions of emerging historical, literal, and even imagine some larger cultural shifts within the specific contexts offered through these narratives.

    Now back to your original (and unbelievably generative) idea Shannon -how might something like tag categories begin to give us another way of tracing the ways in which different groups of students at different moments (even if not as spaced out as a 100 years like the narratives) tell us something about commonalities and differences in a given approach to crime, religion, history, reading, thinking, discipline, education, conscience, etc. Very, very cool, Shannon!

  6. Barbara says:

    Damn, Jim, I wish you had made this post (and Martha and Shannon their comments) just a couple of days earlier–I could have used it in a recent presentation during which the audience was really having a hard time getting their heads around why we would ever want students to create tags (their take was that it would naturally lead to a dumbing down, in essence, of the discourse, or else require an awful lot of work by the prof to make sure they were taking into consideration scholarly taxonomies).

    I plan to use this post in my next talk, and in my class in the fall. Now we need someone to come up with an easy way to archive the flow of the tagging, kind of like the history function in a wiki.

    Once again, you UMW-ers lead the way.

    ~Barbara

  7. Mikhail says:

    Just sharing: here’s the category cloud for http://cac.ophony.org

  8. Mikhail says:

    Where’d the image go: here’s another stab: http://cac.ophony.org/files/cacophonycatcloud6607.jpg

  9. jimgroom says:


    @Barbara: Wow, thanks for the inspiring words! I think you nailed it in your comment: archiving the flow of the tagging, just like edits in the wiki, is exactly the approach we need -but how do we do this?

    Perhps this is where the hybrid appraoch to a blog/wiki combination may be key. I’ll search the MediaWiki extensions and talk to my tech God D’Arcy (paging Dr. Norman, paging Dr. Norman) about the tagging/category options available for either of these applications, or even externally (he turned me on to the WP plugin I am currently using). As this conversations suggests, morphing category/tag clouds is something that needs to be automatically captured with every change.

    This is so fun and exciting because tags/categories are starting to make sense for me in more spontaneous and organic ways than they ever have for me before. Terry Kennedy is planning on experimenting with a similar approach in a couple of weeks for the second Summer session, and this might be an excellent opportunity to ramp up for that occasion and have a better grasp on the process for anyone who may want to do something similar for their classes no matter where they are -we are all teachers and instructional technologists to the WORLD!

    @Mikhail -I saw your category cloud, how are you brining this into the sidebar? Are you? I really like this effect, more please!

  10. Mikhail says:

    Yes, it is in the sidebar by way of the Category Cloud Widget which is based on the plugin you are using.

  11. Mikhail says:

    I don’t know why bava rejects my code. Here’s the link: http://leekelleher.com/wordpress/plugins/category-cloud-widget/

  12. Jeff says:

    I’m intrigued by the idea, especially in a seminar without broad exams or essays, of trying to bring some kind of set of overarching order/categorizations to a semester’s worth of reading. I’m sensitive to the critiques Barbara was receiving about dumbing down complicated topics, yet isn’t bringing order to chaos, finding patterns, making judgments about the relations between ideas and arguments at the heart of the ideal academic experience and of critical analysis?

    I also think Shannon’s notion of extending one’s own tags over multiple classes and semesters could bring about interesting reflections on the sum of one’s experiences in college. Having a way to take snapshots of the tag cloud at least at the end of every semester would be necessary. I can imagine a culminating essay/blog post that every graduating senior did, reflecting on their educational experiences using the tag cloud (both an overall “college cloud” and the historical cloud snapshots) and their previous work (all available in a centralized online space, of course) as references for the essay. How’s that for the culmination of an e-portfolio? How’s that for outcomes assessment? How’s that for a key point of resupply for Gardner’s “caravan of learning”? [Okay, now I’m starting to sound like Rev. Jim…. But that’s a good thing, right?]

  13. jimgroom says:

    Awesome, Jeff -just not sure your final point is a good thing:) I think finding ways for students (with or without a tag cloud) to organize and prioritize their own learning with a focused reflection on key ideas that they have developed over the course of four year is an amazingly productive and refreshing way of approaching assessment.

    In regards to the culminating essay/blog, how about a final thesis wherein they take a semester to start revising and connecting their work for various classes into a “finalized” e-portfolio/website of their own journey -including multi-media, digital storytelling, maps, images, etc. Might this provide students with an experience that acknowledges the primacy of these mediums in our life today. Additionally, such a process allows for the emergence of relationships wherein jazzed professors and excited students can collaborate on ways of approaching this space order to track their own learning adventures in a more rigorous manner. This is the future of these tools, this is what we’re talking about here, and this is what I love!

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