Wordclouds and Composition I

Hi everyone!

This is my first HASTAC Blog post as a scholar…Woah. While my response is a bit delayed given the Thanksgiving break, I figured this would be a good space to reflect on my first digital mini lesson. I’m a Teaching Assistant at SUNY New Paltz. Here, Composition is broken down to a two part class. Fall semesters are reserved for Composition I, which functions as a general introduction to writing and rhetoric class, then Spring semesters students move on to Composition II, which focuses more on argument and analysis. 

Composition I has been a good space to explore multiple forms as well as mediums of writing. I’ve always been intrigued by digital studies, and especially love to study wordclouds. At least in my literary analysis world, wordclouds are often used to analyze large chunks of text and figure out why certain phrases appear so many times. While I did not exactly get into using Wordclouds for this function in my lesson, my students did use them as aesthetic objects. 

I first introduced wordclouds along with a paper assignment project. Students were to curate a Hawksites page for themselves (the SUNY NP equivalent of WordPress) that contained the following: a resume, cover letter, about me biography, and wordcloud. Each component of the site was to build up a professional presence on the internet. The project had students apply to either a job or internship they have been looking into in real life, or a hypothetical dream job situation. In essence, they were to design a professional image of themselves– I tied this into design studies and presentation in the lessons leading up to the assignment.

Back to the wordcloud topic… When I first introduced the concept, my students were a bit hesitant. Luckily, our classroom has desktop computers. I had students start up the computers before class began. They were to turn the monitors off until we broached the digital topics at the end of class. This worked well, but some students were a bit distracted by the computers being on during their 10 minute start of class writing exercise. 

We began by me explaining what exactly a wordcloud was. I showed students where to find various wordcloud sites on the Blackboard class page, then illustrated on the big screen at the front of the classroom how to input text. I couldn’t think of much on the spot and decided to go with the opening soliloquy from Richard III Then, I asked them to find their own text to input and play around with.

Most students had the most luck with wordclouds.com. Most had compatibility issues with Wordle, only one or two elected to use Tagxedo. All in all, having them work at their own pace was good. I circulated the room and offered individualized feedback when necessary.

While the lesson went well, I wish that I had gone more into specific design related criteria. Most students did a great job with selecting their text colors, wordcloud shapes, and overall aesthetic elements. However, certain clouds were a bit busy in their design and hard to read. More time spent discussing why certain elements are better in certain rhetorical situations than others might also help out in the future. Why might one decide to go with a music note for a wordcloud shape? Why might certain color themes/font choices go well with specific jobsites and not others? I also wish I had taken more time to get into “stop words” and selecting criteria to limit what goes into a wordcloud.

Thank you to everyone that answered my #Twitter question regarding which wordcloud platforms to use! I’ll sign off with a question:

Has anyone else brought wordclouds into their respective classrooms?

How did you utilize them, and what did your students learn from the experience?