Language, Words, Writing: TED Talks for Your Writing Courses


Happy 2015! May this new year sparkles a renewed spirit in all your personal and professional endeavors. Since classes here at the U don’t start until the 20th of January, I am having the time of my life just reading and writing this winter break (spending most of my time at a Starbucks that’s located a few blocks from my apartment). Of course, as a teacher, I’m never really on full vacation — so I am still thinking about teaching from time to time.

As I am preparing for the first-year composition class I will be teaching in a few weeks, I turn to TED for inspirations and materials to use in introducing students to the idea of writing and communication, and more importantly, the power of language. To cut to the chase, here are five talks that I think are appropriate for writing classes:

1. Anne Curzan: What Makes a Word “Real”?

I think this is a great discussion starter, especially for teachers who want to start out with something that’s closer to home (for students, at least!) — taking a look at the invention of words, including slangs like “defriend,” “hangry,” and “adorkable.” By evaluating the process of dictionary editing, language historian Anne Curzan charmingly finds crucial meaning gaps in the English language in a world of constant evolvement.

2. Mark Pagel: How Language Transformed Humanity

Biologist Mark Pagel shares his theory of the social engineering functions of language. He suggests that language is a social technology/learning that allow humans to cooperate. This may sound a little removed from the humanities, but I always like spicing up the class with some social sciences, what more a biological take on language!

3. Alan Siegel: Let’s Simplify Legal Jargon!

In our complex world, simplicity is bliss. Alan Siegel calls for a simple, sensible design — and Plain English — to make legal documents intelligible to laypeople. This may be a gem for technical and professional writing/communication classes.

4.  Andrew Fitzgerald: Adventures in Twitter Fiction

Here’s one for digital storytellers and media scholars! Andrew Fitzgerald, who works for Twitter, goes back in time to look at the (short) history of creative experimentation of fiction and storytelling through new-age broadcast tools like the radio, television, and now, social media.

5. Andrew Stanton: The Clues to a Great Story

This one is my all-time favorite. I show this to my students every semester. (Warning: it contains explicit language.) Filmmaker Andrew Stanton shares what he’s learnt about storytelling (through visual communication), giving his audience an engaging presentation that starts at the end working back to the beginning.

There you have it — five TED Talks you may use to jumpstart a class this coming semester. Have other videos that you might suggest to add to the list? Comment below to let me know!

A Dummy Guide to Creating and Giving a PechaKucha Presentation


You may have heard of the term “PechaKucha” and you are interested to learn more about the concept and how others have done it. Or, you might simply be required to do it in one of your classes or work meetings and you just want to get some tips. You’re in for a treat. In this blog entry, I intend to share with you my experience with PechaKucha presentations and some tips for planning and making one. I am also going to share with you an example of my own presentation.

I was first introduced to the idea of the PechaKucha (pronounced pe-charge-ka) presentation style in a classical rhetoric seminar at St. Cloud State University. The concept of PechaKucha is simple: 20 slides, 20 seconds per slide on auto-advancing mode. The idea was said to based off the Japanese “chit-chat” presentation format by shortening long presentations to 6 minutes and 40 seconds.

The presentation format was devised by Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham of Klein Dytham architecture. The first PechaKucha Night was held in Tokyo in their gallery/lounge/bar/club/creative kitchen, SuperDeluxe, in February, 2003. Klein Dytham architecture still organize and support the global PechaKucha Night network and organize PechaKucha Night Tokyo. (Excerpt from “Who Invented the Format?”)

Even though the idea was intriguing to me, I never really had the gut to do it, until last week. Along the final project in my visual rhetoric PhD seminar this semester, I was required to present my work to my classmates and instructor in the PechaKucha style. I have to say that the overall experience was rewarding, even though I was nervous from the time the assignment was given up to the second I stepped up to present. (Yes, teachers get butterfly stomach, too.)

Nonetheless, I documented my thinking and design process as I planned out my presentation, thinking that this would be a valuable resource for future students or people who are willing to experiment with this presentation style. So, here goes it:

  1. Think in perspective. It’s all going to end in 6 mins and 40 seconds, for better or for worse. If you miss a slide or an important note, you miss a slide or an important note! There’s not room to “make up” or try to “save” your presentation. A strong PechaKucha presentation is one that is well planned, organized, and edited. Think of it as writing down to a word count rather than writing up — you will need to pay close attention to cutting the fluff and getting straight to the point(s).
  2. Start by planning. Failing to plan is planning to fail, especially in a PechaKucha presentation. I have learnt that it takes great mental effort to outline one’s presentation — deciding what needs to be delivered (and what needs not), considering the “flow” of the presentation, choosing and putting together the content (text and images) of the presentation, and editing it. The following image shows my thinking steps: 1. Drawing the canvas. 2. Planning what content gets in the canvas. 3. Deciding which content comes first and where on the canvas.

PK planning

  1. Focus on the visual. But do so with an eye toward the overall consistency of the look and feel of presentation and how images can be used to support your claims, not to decorate your canvas. I came to realize, rather quickly, that it is tough for an audience to pay attention to a presenter going tutu-train speed (trying to finish his/her sentence before the next slide kicks in) while looking at the mind-boggling images on the slides. As you choose your visual, think like an audience, i.e.: Is this particular image related to my claim-at-point? How does this image work in relation to other images in my presentation? Does it take longer than a few seconds to understand or “decode” the image? Is the image going to distract my audience from my verbal presentation?
  2. It’s OK to add texts. I personally think that textual elements help an audience to “get it” faster than pure images. This is especially true when you have to share a jargon or technical language that your audience may not have access to. There’s more to say about signs and signifiers (how words and images work together to enhance cognition and memory), but I will let this web text here do the job. Yet again, remember that you and your audience only have 20 seconds to look at a slide – think for yourselves how many words can you read in that time frame.
  3. Practice. Practice and practice. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of rehearsal in delivering a tight, eloquent PechaKucha presentation. You will need to almost plan and write out the exact content — down to the actual sentences — that you will present. Twenty seconds aren’t a lot of time (technically, one can speak about 40 words on a tutu-train speed), but it only takes a few quiet seconds to make an awkward silence. Practice. That way you can train yourself into pacing your speech and mentally register the rough duration of a 20-second period. (It’s amazing how “muscle memory” works: I can now count to 20 and get it almost right on the dot.)

Now, in terms of the actual putting together of your slides, you will need some technical knowledge on how to program your slideware. Since I am a faithful user of PowerPoint, here’s a tutorial on how you can create a PechaKucha presentation format on PowerPoint.

There you have it. It is no rocket science, yet it takes time and energy to put together an excellent PechaKucha presentation. As promised, here is my example of a PechaKucha presentation. (Notice I stumbled a little in the beginning… my mind went blank for a second.)

The following is the feedback I received from my instructor:

  • You offered a great clear introduction, followed by a clear statement of methods.
  • I appreciated the care you put into developing a harmonious look and feel to your visuals.
  • I would appreciate screenshots reinforcing your argument about the “flag” color schemes if there be such.
  • Your pechakucha had a terrific structure overall. You offered a very clear argument.

I felt good after delivering the presentation, as well as watching others present. Overall, students seem to put more effort into this format given the need for practice and really knowing the content by heart.

As a compositionist, I have learnt so much from doing this. As such, I am assigning this presentation format to my University (first-year) Writing students next semester. Any comments and suggestions are most welcomed! Drop your two cents below, or tweet to me at @jasoncktham.

Vine Talk at #NCA 2014 Social Media Communication

Tham, Jason. “Vine: Redefining Racial Stereotyping in Six Seconds.” National Communication Association 100th Annual Convention. Palmer House Hilton Hotel, Chicago, IL. November 21, 2014.

Read manuscript and presentation deck here.

In early 2013, a new mobile video creating and sharing application, Vine, was launched to allow users to record and share video clips up to six seconds in length. Soon after its inception, the app became a frontier for racial comedies, including distasteful stereotypes similar to those of blackface minstrel shows in the 19th century. By identifying the likeness between Vine and early minstrelsy, and by scrutinizing the identification process in racial stereotyping, this paper considers the ethical dimensions in the video-sharing app as a new stage from racial comedy. The author also seeks to establish strategies for confronting stereotyping on social networking platforms based on three major ethical theories in moral reasoning, namely deontological, teleological, and virtue theories.

Referenced videos:

‘Don’t give them 4. Give them 2+2’

Effective storytelling is among the few units I teach in my first-year composition course. Every semester, I show Andrew Stanton’s TED Talk, “The Clues to a Great Story,” to the students and ask them to reflect on the traditional methods in storytelling and how they can tweak the ways to make their personal narratives interesting.

Following the steer to tell compelling stories, Entrepreneur publishes the following infographic to explain why “readers” today don’t have time to read anymore and how strategic communicators could cut through the digital noise to market to their audience. Essentially, the secrets are to:

  1. Show, not tell. The same-old advice from the ad folks – transform exposition into experience.
  2. Give bite-sized information. Follow Stanton’s strategy – no one has the time to digest huge chunk of text anymore.
  3. Write attention-grabbing headlines, copy. You have 3 seconds. Capture my attention!
  4. Use personal narratives. Audience wants real stories. The more dramatic the better.
  5. Give information in bulk. Avoid tediousness, save my time by giving me the package (information).


(Re)Introducing MOOCs: The Worst Idea at the Best Time


I co-presented this paper with my colleague, Jack Hannes, at the 11th International Symposium for Communication in the Millennium held May 22-24 at St. Cloud State University. The following is my portion of the roundtable presentation. (I apologize for the fragmented notes… Jack and I went back and forth during the presentation.)

Definitions & Background

MOOCs, or massive online open courses, are large cohort online classes started around 2010/11 when a few Stanford professors designed a tuition-free course system which is open to virtually anyone on the web.

Prior to what is perceived as the new MOOCs today, some old open-source platforms were available since 2008, where a handful of universities made their course materials available on the web. According to George Roberts (2012), these old, MOOC-like models:

  • Have explicit pedagogical perspectives (social constructivist)
  • Are distributed; have open-source platforms components (Websites, wikis)
  • Cultivate intentional social media conversations (Blogs, Twitter, etc.)
  • Open challenge to institutions (Access, environments, assessments)

Examples: Opencourseware like Open Yale Courses, or courses/podcast on iTunes U.

We see a lot of these traits remain in the new MOOCs, where courses are offered via MOOC providers — startup companies set up to give “everyone access to the world-class education that has so far been available to a select few.” Among these providers are Coursera, edX, Canvas, Udemy, etc.

Major funders: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Harvard-MIT collaboration, etc.

MOOCs for composition & communication (from writing to speech to mass comm to film studies):

Debates & Positions

MOOCs and the Connectivist Theory: The evolving MOOC knits together education, entertainment, and social networking. Originated about 2008 within the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement, MOOCs are developed based on connectivist theory, emphasizing that learning and knowledge acquisition happen from the interactions within a network of connections. Connectivism was a new educational framework developed at the dawn of the 21st Century, explaining how people learn in a networked and digital world (George Siemens, 2005). According to Stephen Downes, connectivism is essentially the idea that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks. Students participating in MOOCs are often required to play an active role in contributing to discussions through the course forums or third-party social networks, such as Facebook groups, Twitter, or Google Plus/Hangout. Capitalizing on the opportunity of the existing wealth of interconnectivity and social networking among its students, MOOCs encourage peer-to-peer learning, reviews, and even grading, which is another hot debate in the MOOC mania.

“Peer” Evaluation in MOOCs:

  • Blind leading the blind: are these students ready to evaluate others’ work?
  • Assigned vs. Free choices: Issues with diversity and experience
  • Picky students: A series of unfortunate evaluations
  • Ground rules/guide to evaluation

MOOCs aren’t serious pedagogy (?):

While the medium of learning still relies largely on lectures, MOOC certainly presents challenges in terms of the quality of the learning experience. Can learning be scaled up this much (think about a course taken by 400,000 students, taught by a team of five professors)? Other questions include:

  • Are MOOCs appropriate for the humanities?
  • Do students really know how to take MOOCs?
  • Power and ideologies within the platforms (Selfe & Selfe)
  • What are the targeted success rates in students taking MOOCs (passing)?
  • Medium is the message (McLuhan)
  • Banking model detected? (Freire)

For online writing instruction, check out: NCTE OWI Guidelines.

Image courtesy of David Kernohan @dkernohan, illustrating the massive destruction of MOOCs on higher education.