Say hello to the next big thing: VoiceThread... or is it? Recently our class has decided to investigate the appeal of this new, interactive collaboration and sharing tool that enables users to add images, documents, and videos, and then other users can add voice, text, audio file, or video comments. According to the VoiceThread website, the collaboration tool is defined as:
"With VoiceThread, group conversations are collected from anywhere in the world at any time and shared in one place, all with no software to install. A VoiceThread is a collaborative, interactive, multimedia slide show that holds images, documents, and videos. It allows people to navigate through the slides and leave comments in 5 ways: using voice (with a microphone or telephone), text, audio file (for VoiceThread Pro users), or video (via a webcam). Share a VoiceThread with friends, students, and colleagues so they can record comments, too. Users can doodle while commenting (drawing annotation overlays), use multiple Identities, and pick which comments are shown through Comment Moderation. VoiceThreads can even be embedded to play and receive comments on other websites, and they can be exported and saved as a file on your computer, a CD or flash drive so that you can send them in an email or play them as an archival movie on a digital device."

Copyright © 2013 VoiceThread LLC
So, how will a class focused on Manzoni in the Digital Age utilize this tool? First, students and teachers can upload screen shots of specific passages from I promessi sposi and contribute annotations. Contributors can make note of reoccurring themes, symbols, diction, parallelism with history, etc. Second, an image can be uploaded to be analyzed for comparison to the novel. For example, an image of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, or Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins, a capuchin crypt in Rome, Italy may be a useful to analyze in comparison with the character of Fra Cristoforo in I promessi sposi. Third, a video clip of scenes from the movie I promessi sposi could be uploaded and analyzed in comparison to the novel. Fourth, other documents can be uploaded and comments and critiques shared amongst the users. For example, the class is currently working on a timeline that parallels the events of I promessi sposi with the life of Alessandro Manzoni; VoiceThread could be utilized to gain input from all users and have a real-time discussion outside of the classroom.
 
 
I Promessi Sposi combines the critical allegorical components to
help us comprehend the struggles that faced a young, and struggling nation that
so desperately yearned for independence. Touched upon in earlier blogs, we see
Manzoni’s interpretation of a hot-headed Renzo who is swept up in passion but
lacks the maturity needed to accomplish his ultimate goal of marriage or in a
historical context, unification. Similar to these hidden elements of foreign
blockades and Don Rodrigo’s wickedness, we must place ourselves in this context
to sympathize with the Risorgimento. We have also been introduced to a brand new
format where we attempt to bridge the gap between literature from two centuries
ago, with a digital connection of our own that looks to transcribe and unearth
Manzoni’s political and social relevancy.

With the assistance of Word Clouds and Timelines, we will be
relating this concept and struggle for identity within our current society. Word
Clouds provide us with the option to take a more examined and thorough approach
to the crucial themes and essential literary elements to I Promessi Sposi. With
this helpful tool we often uncover a hidden agenda of the author that may have
otherwise gone unnoticed.

The timeline is beneficial in piecing together the main events
from the plot of I Promessi Sposi and comparing them to the Risorgimento in an
organized fashion. We are now able to have a clear frame of reference when
discussing both the literary movement and Italy’s push for unification and
ultimate independence. In congruence with our digital adaptation of this novel,
it is possible and efficient to extract the key ideas and specific words to
place greater importance on this time period. By having a detailed account of
how often certain words appear in Manzoni’s work we can achieve an in-depth
analysis of each character and how they relate to one another. 


This representation will take a little bit of getting used to
and perhaps some growing pains but we anticipate a positive outcome in bringing
Manzoni to a modern audience. If we are able to uncover the hidden agenda of
Manzoni and do so in a digitally advanced manner we have already succeeded. 
     


 
 
In addition to how easily Manzoni’s political motives can be discerned after the initial “Lightbulb Moment” of the reader, one can also see that social disorder is an important and all-too-familiar matter when it comes to the changes that Italy was undergoing during the times in which the novel was set, written, and even across the world today.

Throughout history and especially in I Promessi Sposi, political and moral allegiances changed with the tide, many people (especially the noblemen around Don Rodrigo’s table) running to support the newest and greatest leader – the one with the most money, the biggest army, the best manipulating power, and the most social connections. Is this really what comprises humanity – completely forgetting moral obligations, disrespecting people as esteemed as Padre Cristoforo, blaming others for times of hardship (famine, disease, etc.) and acting as though the “right” to stomp all over those of lower classes actually makes them lower people? The question here is, "Why?" Why is it that this vicious cycle never seems to end? We have seen this happening in our lifetimes as well as in literature and history books, yet attempts at different forms of equality (or at least stability) immediately blow away with any breeze of uncertainty for one’s own “top dog” status. Are Manzoni’s depictions, several Revolutions, and our own measures all for naught?

I Promessi Sposi was first published almost 200 years ago, and the uncanny prevalence of his main topics led me to pose a second question: with this recent realization (at least on my part), how can we accurately represent the passion, the sadness, and the struggles – the human element – of his novel with digital formats? These issues have been around for so long; is it enough to create timelines with pop-up blurbs explaining the story of Lucia and Renzo, or to assemble pictures, videos, and intricately manipulated word clouds depicting our impression of Manzoni’s words on today’s audience?

The societal woes that Manzoni illustrates are not new, and most likely will continue long past you or I have moved on to, let’s say, greener pastures. It is the duty of our generation to determine if the influence of literature can be transposed onto the digital age, or, like Manzoni’s portrayal of social confusion and inequality, if literature in its written form will continue on in the way that it has been. Let the pioneering commence!

 
 
Originally, I thought this book was slow moving, dull and with a huge lack of substance. After a very informative class discussion, however, my opinion changed completely.  My objections settled mainly around the characters attitudes and the slow moving tempo of the book. I did not appreciate Don Abbondio’s worrisome and whiney attitude and I thought it was all too cliché for the young Italian man to be hotheaded and rash. However, an interesting question was asked of me.

I was told to think about what was going on in Italy during the time the novel was being written. Manzoni was writing in the time of uncertainty and turmoil. The Spanish were bullying the peninsular citizens and as a result, the city-states and kingdoms we have come to know as Italy were unifying.

All of that information being pointed out, it becomes quite apparent that Manzoni was I Promessi Sposi as a political commentary. Don Rodrigo plays the part of the overbearing Spaniard who is inhibiting the unification. Whiney Lorenzo represents the soon to be Italy—immature, unstable and generally unprepared for unification. When you think about all the things in the first few chapters that Manzoni says without actually saying it is apparent that the books is actually full of substance that the uninformed reader could easily miss.

I was amazed by how much I could look past when taking the reading at face value. To be honest, I am rethinking most things I’ve read up to this. Maybe there was a point to all of those high school readings after all!

 
 
At first glance, word clouds seem like a quick and easy way to accurately display information pulled from the verbiage of the novel. Simply put, the word cloud pulls out the most often used words from the text, and voila! You now have an idea of what a certain section of the book is all about. 

Yet as we began our work as a class of putting together appropriate word clouds for chapters of  I Promessi Sposi, we began to realize how much more complicated it was to accurately express those ideas. It turns out it wasn't as easy as copy-and-pasting information into a box and then using the aesthetically pleasing result. Jacob Harris' article "Word Clouds Considered Harmful" (see below for source) and Julie Meloni's "Wordles, or the Gateway Drug to Textual Analysis" (see below for source) demonstrated the pros and cons of word clouds, and instigated a class discussion as to how we could properly use a word cloud to convey information and not detract from said information. In other words, how do we make a word cloud useful and keep it from just "looking pretty"? 

What we came up with is this: A word cloud can only adequately express information as long as its paired with other methods of expressing background or complementary information. It is up to us, as the readers and analyzers of the novel, to use our available sources (such as word clouds) to assist us in expressing what we have learned, not up to those sources to do the work for us. Now comes the time for us to figure out how exactly we are going to pair assisting information with our word clouds, and in what ways the word clouds are suited (or not suited) to visually represent I Promessi Sposi. 
Sources:
Harris, Jacob. "Word Clouds Considered Harmful." Nieman Journalism Lab. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Feb. 2013. <http://www.niemanlab.org/2011/10/word-clouds-considered-harmful/>.

Meloni, Julie. "Wordles, or the Gateway Drug to Textual Analysis." ProfHacker. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Feb. 2013. <http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/wordles-or-the-gateway-drug-to-textual-analysis/22781>.