My Interest in Pinterest
To pin, or not to pin: that is the question.
But nobody thinks of it that way: that is, as an ethical, moral, or imperative question. We just keep pinning and pinning, tagging and marking the world into a virtual map cut and paste by our fingers. Until the map is the territory and "all visible objects...are but as pasteboard masks."
So let us not follow Ahab and "strike through the mask" at something deeper. No. Let us remain on the surface, skimming and cruising like Melville's prose, catching and collecting the loose-fish waiting to be pinned and fastened by hands.
My Interest in Pinterest is twofold: on the one hand, I am fascinated by the cultural obsession with tagging, pinning, and marking up the world of signs into a map of desire - a map that we control through simulated digits that allow us to tickle, touch, and titillate our fancy. It is the world of poaching extended into virtual space, the world of reading and writing and editing all at once, and we are all addicted. After a year with my iPad, I am convinced of only one thing: that the addiction lies in the fingers. They are the extension that out paces the mind and the body and just keeps touching and pinning, dragging and clicking, punching and smoothing.
What does this curious activity teach us about what it means to write? Before we arrive at the archival possibilities of Pinterest - its potential as revolving archive for communal and individual desire (the 21st century equivalent of the 19th century chapbook, perhaps) - I think we have to admit that Pinterest, at bottom, is really about the interest in pinning. An interest that we all share.
My other interest in Pinterest has to do with the classroom, for this semester I have been experimenting with Pinterest in one of my sections of Interpretation of Literature at the University of Iowa. It is one of the few required courses at the university, and for most students it is the only literature class they will take during their four years. It is taught mostly by graduate students in the English Department or the Writer's Workshop, who design and develop the course however they see fit. The course descriptions usually indicate a particular slant (poetry, multicultural literature, drama, etc.), but according to my informal survey on the first day of class, few students read the descriptions. Only two students raised their hand when I asked who had; everybody else just said the time of the course fit their schedule. Nobody mentioned the desire to read Henry James.
But I'll cut to the chase. Suffice it to say that I renamed the course "Reading and Writing Across Media" and chose to focus the semester around literature that either implicitly or explicitly engages questions related to technology and mediation. You can check out the course website if you're interested, and I encourage you to check back in a few weeks to read my students's Reality TV essays. They should be up on the site in a few weeks.
One of the weekly role assignments for the class (handled by a different group each week), is to maintain our Class Pinterest Board by finding and "pinning" two to three different items (pictures, articles, etc.) that somehow touch upon the week's readings and discussions. I wanted to see what would happen if we tried to take Pinterest seriously as a forum for archiving material. Would students take the time to look for helpful material, or would they just quickly "pin" the first thing that Google fed them. I didn't have many expectations at first, and to be honest, I'm still not sure what I think about my own attempt to appropriate the service for educational purposes. But I take solace in the fact that it keeps the literature in their mind for at least a few more minutes; and the fact that it accounts for less than five percent of their participation grade.
So here's what I've learned thus far. The worst part is that I have stare at wedding dresses everytime I sign in to my account. To create a "communal board" you have to follow all of your students and they have to follow you, which means that you have to open your pasteboard mask to the flood of college fantasies. But this is a minor issue that recedes into the background once you've bookmarked your class board, bypassing the wider sea. The best part is that students actually find some really interesting material, drawing connections between the literature and popular culture, on the one hand, but also excavating information about primary source material that is available online. At this point in the semester, however, I'm starting to question what I can possible have the students do with this material? I've already indicated that they are free to pursue any "pin" they find interesting, just as they are free to use some of the material in their blogs posts or future writing assignments. But few have. And few probably will.
So what else? What else can one do with Pinterest once the "pinning" has taken place? It's not a database so we can't really process the information; we can't even sort the information by tags, as far I can tell. So what are we left with? A virtual pasteboard of curiosities? A reflection of what the students find interesting enough to search for online? A popular culture rendition of the course's reading list?
I'm not sure what I have at this point, but I'm pretty certain that it's something new. At least new enough for companies like Learnist to follow suit and invest money in it. It's a collection of something. Something trivial and useless perhaps, but at least something. So let me end with an appeal for help. Has anybody tried to use Pinterest (or a service like it) for a course they've taught? Or does anybody have any thoughts on how to turn this something into something more? Is there any value in asking students to play, poach, and tickle their minds with something other than wedding dresses?