Blog Post

XML/TEI in the First-Year Writing Classroom

I've recently had a series of meetings with the Director of Digital Media Studies (my HASTAC Scholars mentor) and the Director of First-Year Writing at Ohio State, and  it looks like I'll be able to teach my first-year writing course next semester as an XML/TEI based class. Below are some of the highlights from the proposal that I wrote up for the occasion.


Course Proposal: ENGL 1110.01: “Codes” (Spring 2013)


Course Rationale: This version of first-year writing will enhance and expedite the current goals of first-year writing (as expressed by both the first-year writing program and the general education curriculum) by using a medium that requires minimal adjustment, yet better facilitates the analytical thinking around which the course already is designed. Students will compose, analyze, archive, and transform their assignments in a fully integrated way.

Medium of Composition: The course rationale rests on a change of medium. Instead of composing assignments for the analytical research project in a word processing program, students will compose the assignments in <oXygen/>, an extensible markup language (XML) processing program. Put simply, students will compose the ARP in XML. In-class work will consist of adding markup to their compositions in line with the terminology and reading assignments from Writing Analytically.

What is XML? Extensible markup language is exclusively descriptive, meaning that it does not tell any computer what to do with the information at hand. In other words, a machine cannot do anything with an XML document. “Coding” in XML in no way refers to how that code will be interpreted. It refers only to the elements contained within the code itself. Thus, <seg type=”binary”>insert writing here</seg> merely indicates the presence of a binary.

Benefits of Composing in XML:

(a) XML requires students to describe what they’re doing as they’re doing it, thus merging composition and metacognitive reflection. For example, if a student were to identify a binary in the primary source analysis, the student not only would compose the words indentifying that binary but also would enclose those words in a tag that describes those words as identifying a binary. This is the kind of thinking that Writing Analytically already asks students to do; in the case of <oXygen/> and XML, it simply becomes part of the process of putting words on the screen.

(b) Though XML is a coding language, students would hardly have to learn how to code in the traditional sense. The <oXygen/> interface resembles a word processing program; in addition to composing as is usual in a program like Microsoft Word, students would simply take the additional step of enclosing portions of their writing with descriptive tags. Far from being additional work on top of the standard tasks assigned in first-year writing, composing in <oXygen/> streamlines those tasks. The instructor will establish the markup scheme and format prior to the course.

(c) While <oXygen/> and XML represent a minimal adjustment for students, they also represent enough of a change of medium and interface to defamiliarize and denaturalize students’ assumptions and habits pertaining to composition, thus leading to more active reflection on why choices are made at certain moments in the composition. For example, while in Microsoft Word a student might simply break a paragraph when it “looks right,” in <oXygen/> the student would have to think actively about the paragraph as a rhetorical unit enclosed by the <p> and </p> tags.

(d) Because students would be committing updates to their own sections of a collectively authored corpus file hosted on an SVN repository, assignment submission is expedited. Rather than requiring students to submit files to a Carmen drop box, the instructor will transform the XML file into HTML as a readout of all student assignments. Additionally, on the students’ side, updating their assignments is expedited (and thus the notion of the static “draft” obviated) because they would commit changes to the corpus file on the basis of individual “sittings.”

(e) Composition in XML will allow students to do things with their writing that otherwise would be off the table in word processing programs. Because XML is only a descriptive language, a transformation language (XSLT) allows composers to analyze and reorganize their compositions according to whatever rationale they deem fit. For example, students could view their evolving theses over several drafts; they could display research questions for the class categorized by subject headings; or they could view evolving paragraphs in the context of instructor comments. Put simply, students would take responsibility for their compositions and would view the first-year writing class as more of a collaborative workshop.


Student privacy arose as the one problematic issue during my talks with faculty, and yesterday we sat down to outline how the class might be approached in order to respect students' rights while not neutering the pedagogical affordances of the medium of composition. I'm looking forward to developing this course!



This is wonderful, Trey. 

I've been looking for ways to incorporate code in a Code Work workshop for court-involved youth that I hope to develop in New York City. I think your approach of using markup language as opposed to programming language make sense as a medium through which students can explore composition and art. I'm wondering if you might share your syllbus at some point. I'd like to try and create an abbreviated version of what you're doing with younger students outside of the traditional classroom.


Thanks for the words of support, Tara!

I'll certainly keep everyone up to date on this site, and I'd be happy to make the syllabus public.


This course proposal looks great. May I suggest one minor change? Use git (or even github) instead of svn for version control. 

Will they be learning XSLT, too? I assume "no" since the learning curve is much steeper than for TEI. 


You're correct, Michael. I'll be the one writing the XSLT, and though I will have my ideas of what should be done with the XML, I'll hold a few sessions with the students over the semester to talk about what they want to do re: transforming their work.