Digital Identities & Digital Citizenship: Houston, We Have a Problem

A couple of weeks back, I gave the closing keynote in Keene State College’s Open Education spring speaker series.

It was a rumination on Open as a set of practices and a site of identity, particularly for those of us in higher ed. I wanted to consider what it means to engage in digital scholarship – and digital leadership – from an identity perspective rather than a role perspective…especially for those of us for whom the standard higher ed roles and labels of student/staff/faculty may be only partial or precarious, aspirational rather than fully institutionalized.

Now, one of these days I will become one of those people who actually writes out their talks. Until that day, Dear Reader, all I have for you is Slideshare and my tendency to post talks as jumping-off points rather than transcriptions.

Digital identities & citizenship: Leading in the Open from Bonnie Stewart
***

This particular slide deck is a REAL jumping off point, though. Because I was in the middle of my talk – mouth open, mid-sentence – when an awkward realization kinda opened up in front of me.

The connection I was trying to make between digital identity and digital citizenship in the open? Has a big gaping contradiction in it.

Nothing like a lightbulb moment in the middle of a narrative in front of a room full of people.

The point of my talk was that we need to go beyond thinking about identity in the open – digital identity – and start thinking in terms of digital citizenship.

Identities never generate in a vacuum; we are mockingbirds, mimics, ornery creatures whose Becoming is always relational, even if often in reaction to what we don’t want to be. Our digital identities are no different…and unfettered individualism, as a lens, tends to do a TERRIBLE job of acknowledging the ways collaboration and cooperation make the spaces in which we Become actually liveable.

So the presentation for Keene was about going beyond ideas of individual digital identity to ideas of digital citizenship and the shared commons…while acknowledging citizenship as a flawed framework that brings up issues of borders and empire and power. It was about the fact that we can’t really talk about digital identity without talking about citizenship, because when we’re all out in the open Becoming identities together, we’re shaping the space we all inhabit.

But. If I was right on this point – and I still think I was but hey, you can take that up in the comments – it was the other side of the argument that blindsided me.

I hadn’t fully – until that moment in front of the keynote audience – thought through how digital identity, as a practice, operates counter to the collaboration and cooperation that need to be part of digital citizenship.

This is our contemporary contradiction: identity as a construct in contemporary social media spaces makes for pretty rotten social spaces.

We know this. You know this. Much as many of us appreciate and enjoy aspects of the ambient sociality and community that social network platforms deliver us – shout out to everybody who hit “like” on the photos of the Hogwarts letter we made for my son’s eleventh birthday today, because those likes are, frankly, validating whereas if I parade the letter up and down my actual street I’m just weird – we all know there are fundamental drawbacks.

We’re algorithmically manipulated. We’re surveilled. We’re encouraged to speak rather than listen. We’re stuck engaging in visibility strategies, whether we admit it or not, in order simply to be acknowledged and seen within a social or professional space.

Our digital identities do not – and at the level of technological affordances and inherent structure, cannot – create a commons that is actually a healthy pro-social space.

And yet. And yet. Here we all are.
***

What I realized in developing the talk for Keene was that I used to write a lot about identity, and digital identities…and I stopped.

In the early days of this blog, digital identity was the crux of the phenomenon I was trying to work out and develop a research approach to: the why and the how of making ourselves visible and public in open, online spaces. In those early days, blog comments were still alive and well and many, many people contributed – generously, chorally – to my understanding of identity in the overlapping networked publics that blogging and academic Twitter comprised, back then. I’d been blogging in narrative communities for years, and had watched how monetization and scale of visibility shaped and shifted not only people’s presentation of self, but their experience of it, in the digital context.

I wrote about six key selves of digital identity. I wrote posts with David Bowie songs as titles. I played with messy ideas like brand and cyborgs and never did write as much about theory as I’d intended when I started out and gave the blog a name. But it was mostly identity that I focused on in those first few years.

And then I more or less walked away.

On the flights home from New Hampshire, I reflected on this; on the fact that even in my dissertation, I took up identity and digital identity but balked around focusing enough on it to theorize it, to fully unpack it. Because I knew it was the wrong lens for the socio-technical scholarly sphere I was trying to explore…but I didn’t know why.

Until I finally unravelled what bothered me about it, in the middle of a talk at Keene.

Digital identity isn’t just the wrong lens for figuring out digital scholarship, or encouraging participatory engagement in learning. It’s actually the wrong lens for building towards any vision of digital citizenship that makes for a liveable, decent digital social sphere to inhabit.

You probably already knew that. But I feel like something finally fell into place…years later than it ought to have, maybe, but nonetheless.

Now the question is how do we really get past identity and build for citizenship, in environments that limit, organize, and shape our sociality in ways we often even cannot see?

what’s next? care, vulnerability & disclosure – a research project

So. Flanked by my children, who have shared their childhoods with the gestation of my Ph.D – a rather demanding sibling – I trotted across the UPEI stage Saturday and had this fancy hat bestowed upon me.

I am now either a right official Ph.D or Head of Gryffindor, one or the other. Either way, it was officially my mother’s very Best Day Ever.

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With the end of a Ph.D comes one question – “what’s next?”

It’s an entirely reasonable and utterly terrible inquiry. In spite of increasingly-regular calls for changes, the long road of the Ph.D tends to veer to the straight & narrow production and acculturation of scholars to a profession that, frankly, has little room for them. Not all Ph.Ds want a tenure track position within the academy, certainly. But those that do face pretty grim odds…and have for some time. And while work in industry may be a far more lucrative option for some, opportunities vary drastically depending on discipline and geographic location and mobility. For those of us based in small, isolated, single-university towns with two young dependents and absolutely zero industry, “what’s next?” tends to be a rather painful confrontation with every Life Choice we’ve ever made.

Unless we get lucky.

I am, for the moment, lucky. I have an ongoing half-time Coordinator’s position at my university, and last week, I began a half-time post-doc with one of the people I like and respect most in my field, George Veletsianos, Canada Research Chair at Royal Roads University. I get to do the post-doc from here in Charlottetown. It’s the kind of research I do best. And so I count myself extraordinarily lucky, even while in the same breath I note that two half-time jobs does not a pension make and Dave & I have big decisions to make in the coming year. We are entertaining possibilities. But for the moment, I get to do good work with people I have great regard for, and I have An Answer to the question, “What’s next?” So glory be.

But there is a safety and security in the public position of “graduate student” that disappears once you get the funny hat. Even if the grad student label is pretty infantilizing for mid-career scholars, it’s still a form of protection against the assumption that you oughtta have a full-time academic job, if you’re any good. Once that student status is removed, you’re left standing naked at the precarious and contingent intersection of contemporary academic employment and the narratives of meritocracy that still fuel a great deal of graduate training. In a prestige economy, it can be risky to acknowledge your lack of prestige. Or your financial insecurity, or your hunger, or your part-time job at Starbucks/Walmart/ that pays the bills.

This is one of the positions that George and I want to explore in our first research project together. It’s a study of disclosure, care, and vulnerability in networked scholarship – an examination of the effects of sharing challenges online.

This is where you come in, dear readers.

We are speaking to people in higher ed about personal and professional disclosures they’ve made within social media networks, and the vulnerabilities and the expressions of care that have resulted, as well as what those experiences have meant for them as individuals and scholars. We have begun by looking at more personal disclosures – physical and mental health challenges, personal losses and life adjustments, identity factors. But my own ruminations on what is speakable online have left me curious about whether it may actually be riskier for scholars to talk about their professional difficulties than their personal ones, in identity spaces as public and traceable and searchable as social media platforms.

So we’re wondering…want to be involved? :)

Our formal invitation is below. The link to the consent form is in paragraph 5…if this research speaks to your experiences in any way, we encourage you to check out the link. Your voice is welcome, and appreciated.

***

We are inviting PhD students/candidates and academics to participate in a research study that we are conducting entitled “Academics’ use of social media: care and vulnerability.”

While the research community has studied the use of social media for teaching/research, we don’t know much about how these technologies are used by academics to share the challenges they face, express their vulnerabilities, and experience care online.

If you have disclosed a personal OR professional challenge that you have faced on social media (e.g. blogged about: being denied tenure, a dissertation committee conflict, or underemployment or adjunct challenges), we invite you to participate in this study.

We believe that these experiences are significant to share and discuss and we would love the opportunity to interview you to learn and write about your experiences.

If you are interested in participating in this study, please visit the following page to read the consent form that provides more details about this project: http://survey.royalroads.ca/index.php?sid=44151

We understand that this topic is very personal and discussing it with us may be difficult. If you have any questions or concerns regarding this study, please don’t hesitate to contact us. We would love to talk to you more about it.

Yours,

George & Bonnie

Dr. George Veletsianos
Canada Research Chair and Associate Professor
Royal Roads University

Dr. Bonnie Stewart
Post-Doctoral Fellow
Royal Roads University/University of Prince Edward Island

the story of education: a Grimm fairy tale

The other morning I woke up to a flurry of Twitter conversation that had unfolded while I slept.

A woman in Australia talking to a woman on the west coast of North America. Another person in Ireland chiming in, flagging other names, leaving little mentions dotted across the globe. Somewhere my name got included and by the time I was up and ready for coffee, they’d left a trail of @s: some with external links, some about the #wweopen13 MOOC that’s just gotten underway – a course I’ll be teaching a week of come November – some broader, more meatily philosophical. That’s what Twitter offers me, people. Random enrichment opportunities while I sleep.

A trail of breadcrumbs to follow.

One of the links in that trail the other morning was this post, titled Being Tongue-Tied and Speechless in Higher Education: Implications for Notions of (Il)literacy #metaliteracy. The blogger, Paul Prinsloo, was new to me, though I’m now following him on Twitter (dude, I look forward to occasional further trails of @s emanating from South Africa. No pressure).

I read it and a shock of recognition flooded me. I waved weakly at my screen, a silent “me too” across half the globe to someone I’ve never met. Because in it, he talks about aphasia, or the inability to speak. Not clinically, but not metaphorically, either. Educationally, professionally, participatorily.

“It seems as if I lost my ability to speak spontaneously, to form words or name
objects. Even when I could find the words, the words got lost or lost their meaning
before they reached my fingers…As the frequency of my blogs during 2013 declined,
I increasingly became aware of being tongue-tied.
Many times I would start with a title for a blog or a first paragraph
only to lose interest or lose my way halfway through the second sentence.
Words, concepts, images would race through my mind but somehow the coherence,
the rationale for blogging was lost in the inner noise and confusion.”

Yeh. That.

I haven’t *really* blogged here in what feels like a very long time: I’ve been using the site sporadically to share ideas or post updates on my thesis proposal, but I haven’t really been digging deeply and publicly into ideas in the ways I found so powerful for years. Oh, I was always irregular in posting…but it wasn’t for lack of voice.

Until recently. Part of the radio silence came simply from work – I was focused elsewhere, on the long-form spelunking of a second thesis proposal. Behind that was a complicated story of voice and my own failure – in the first thesis proposal – to apprehend or master the forms of language and presentation implicitly expected of me. I did not fully understand the extent to which my own voice and formal Academic Writing did not/would not mix. Another few months and forty-odd pages later and a go-ahead to go ahead and I think I’ve learned a lot on the journey, thank you very much. But the process itself was a quiet, internalized one.

My silence hasn’t been mainly personal, though: rather, it stems from same uncertainty of speech writ large and broad; a pervasive, sinking sense of not knowing the contexts into which I speak and write and share my ideas.

Last night I went to a small community gathering of educators, and a colleague said: “the conversation around education has become a skills conversation. We’ve lost the story we’re in. We’ve lost the sense we’re in the same story.”

Over the last year – particularly the more I followed and unpacked the hype cycle of MOOCs – the more I felt like I no longer recognize the story of education as it gets told. Or enacted in policy and curriculum design. Or reported in the news.

I have been silent because I no longer felt like I knew how to talk about any of it. And Prinsloo reflected me back to myself, adrift.

“As higher education institutions respond to changing funding
regimes, increasing accountability, demands from the marketplace and employers
as well as students as customers and consumers; many staff members may
experience something alike to aphasia, being tongue-tied and at loss of words.
Their experiences resemble the experiences of many migrants or
refugees trying to respond to and negotiate sense and meaning in foreign
and uninviting dominant cultures and narratives. At the end
these staff members stumble from one performance agreement to another,
failing to speak out, possibly giving up believing that
speaking out may make a difference.”

Yeh. That.
***

It’s hard, when your voice feels wrong-footed and shaky, to use that voice to ask others if their experience is similar. I mean, what if it’s just you who feels like education’s become a place you no longer know? (Okay, and the dude who wrote the article and the colleague who sent it, but hey, let us not extrapolate from a sample of three). What if precarity is treating everybody else just fine and they can see the forest for the trees and are clear who the witch is?

What if it’s you?

Worse, what if it’s them and they lure you into their gingerbread house and eat you?

Ahem.

(If you mostly know me from Twitter, this probably sounds ridiculous: I’m hardly tongue-tied. I talk enough that people talk back to me while I’m sleeping. But Twitter is still relatively ephemeral and requires little time investment in any given speech act. Emotional investment, yes…but not the time. And I think that’s key. Monetization and consolidation of bloggers under major banners has redistributed focus/limited time to paid opportunities. Mobile tech means less deep engagement with the links and threaded ties that makes blogging rich and serves as its citational, networking engine. So people fewer people blog in a personal voice, in a personal space, and fewer comment, and that cycle is in itself a vicious circle.)

Blogging leaves far more of an imprint for misinterpretation than, say, the breadcrumbs of Twitter. Blogging requires you to dare to paint a map, in your own voice. Is that becoming too costly, in the fray of contested meaning-making that education has morphed into?

Is having that kind of voice becoming the equivalent of sticking your head up and shouting “Here I am, witches! Come and hunt me down?”
***

Still, I want to know. Do you write, still? Are your practices shifting? If you think out loud, in public, do you still do it long-form, for free? Do you know what story we’re in, or where the woods end?

I don’t have a nice tidy conclusion for this post. I just wanted to say I am still here, thinking, collecting breadcrumbs, trying to share a few, for others to maybe wake up to tomorrow. In the midst of the changes and pressures sweeping all of us in higher ed at this juncture, I count myself hugely lucky to have this kind of network to help me make sense of my world. Perhaps the breadcrumb trail won’t lead out of the woods. Perhaps some crumbs lead to the dangerous candy house. Still. Your voices remind me that I don’t wander alone.

Participate or Perish?

I’ve been thinking a lot about institutions lately. In trying to trace a narrative line through the sturm und drang around MOOCs and all that they make visible, I’ve been digging into institutional histories, trying to understand what the hell happened in the last thirty years. Who switched the terms of the game of higher education?

I’m looking at you, market forces.

For those of us raised in the world that Stanford researchers in the 70s called ‘the New Institutionalism’ – a world where education’s entire organizational structure was understood to place it firmly “beyond the grip of market forces” (Meyer & Rowan, 2006, p. 3) – it’s all gotten rather bewildering. Many managed not to notice the stealth incursion of for-profit institutions and Pearson into the world of academia (related: the student populations these corporate entities have served, via ESL textbook empires and “the MBA you can probably get into” ads, have not been the white middle-class that still codes “default university student” in North America. Ahem. Just sayin’.). But MOOCs, with their posh ties to Harvard and Stanford and their grandiose claims of revolution, sorta blew that stealth game out of the water.

MOOCs as Enclosure
This past week alone, Coursera moved into professional development for teachers and announced a partnership with Chegg, an online textbook-rental company, to connect MOOC learners with select, limited-time access to texts from large publishers. As Audrey Watters notes, these shifts are  beginning to look like the enclosure of education against the very openness that MOOCs began from: “What was a promise for free-range, connected, open-ended learning online, MOOCs are becoming something else altogether. Locked-down. DRM’d. Publisher and profit friendly. Offered via a closed portal, not via the open Web.”

This enclosure is about profit models, not learning. And it profits few, in the end, because – as I got het up about in Inside Higher Ed last week – the societal mythology of education as value really only functions if institutionalized credentials in some way tie to social mobility and lucrative work.

That’s not the game we’re in, anymore.

But here’s the thing: MOOCs are a symptom of change in higher ed, not the source of it. We need to find ways of talking about this enclosure of openness by profit models, without conflating these forces with online ed in general or even entirely with MOOCs.

Because we will not resist the corporatization of education by standing solely for conventional institutionalized models. That horse has left the barn. But in online practices there may still be ways to protect and preserve some of the broad societal concept of the “we” that institutions were intended to enshrine.

MOOCs as Symptom: Networks + Neoliberalism
Basically, this is where we are: traditional institutional education is being encroached upon from all sides. And the big MOOCs conflate the two primary forces for change: networks and neoliberalism.

Screen shot 2013-05-11 at 11.56.02 AM

This is an ugly slide – I kinda like to call the clip art “retro” – but it’s the best illustration I have at the current moment for what I see actually happening to higher ed as we’ve known it. From one side, what George Siemens terms “the Internet happening to education,” or the networked opening of what was conventionally the closed domain of knowledge. From the other, the market incursion into the sphere of education, with its attendant ideological leanings towards the measurable and the profitable.

Last week, Dave & I went to two conferences together. We do the majority of our conference travel independently, so even getting to be at the same events was kind of exotic for us: being invited together was a treat. But blending our two separate strains of thought into a single keynote for the second conference was something we haven’t done in a couple of years, since all the MOOC stuff blew up.

We bickered about process: that’s par for the course, for us. We’ve worked together as long as we’ve known each other, and while our ideas and even perspectives tend to complement the other’s, our ways of getting there are pretty much opposite. (Sidenote: our writing on the MOOCbook has been pretty much two solitudes, enabling us to continue our lawyer-free relationship.)

But in the process of pulling together, between the two of us, three hour-long presentations to be delivered over the course of three days, on separate but intertwined topics, something converged and snapped into focus.

I’ve been looking at networks from an identities perspective for a few years now, trying to understand who we are when we’re online and what it is about this whole experience that actually matters, from an education perspective. Dave’s been wending his way through an exploration of rhizomatic learning as a way of navigating uncertainty within an era of knowledge abundance. Both of us have been thinking a lot about MOOCs and what they mean for change within higher ed. Hell, most of our household income comes from academic institutions, so the current budget crunch hits home.

But it became clear this week that our work needs to be about finding ways to use networks to push back against the neoliberal vision of the future of education. About making clear that the two do not share the same set of interests.

The conflation of the two is everywhere. Salon has an interview with Jaron Lanier today that makes the case that the Internet killed the middle class. Lanier’s arguments conflate networks with neoliberalism, making the latter invisible as a force unto itself. Sure, there are places where networked practices rely on neoliberal approaches to the world, in the sense of Foucault’s “entrepreneur of the self.” And neoliberalism often co-opts networked practices and naturalizes the perception that the two are one and the same.

But I don’t think they are. At least…I don’t think they inherently are.

Whether they become so is up to us. Particularly those of us who share the values espoused by public education. We need to build our learning and teaching networks, share our ideas and our questions and our practices and what works and doesn’t, and refuse to be enclosed.

Institutional concepts of educational practices enclose easily: that is their nature. The transition from institutional models of the classroom to a massive for-profit textbook magnate’s version of the classroom isn’t really much of a transition, except in what gets lost in terms of public values.

Networks don’t actually enclose easily. Hence the idea of “participate or perish” that Dave & I came up with the night before our keynote at #WILU2013 in Fredericton: a new academic imperative for our times.

Don’t just publish, because the institutional models are encroached upon and becoming enclosed. Participate. Make things different. Don’t wait for it to be your “job:” that’s institutional thinking. Institutional jobs won’t be there if we let the profit models gut education entirely.

Here are our slides from WILU2013, which trace some of these ideas through our own research lenses.

And here are the slides from my Spotlight Speaker session at CONNECT2013, where I focused in more detail on the participation and networking side of things: on how to go beyond institutional identities. Help yourself.

(Postscript: the “Education is Broken” Narrative as Sniff Test)
I want to return to this one in more depth…but a quick thought. The phrase “education is broken” gets thrown around a lot in the current educational climate. It is, in a sense, one of the key reasons neoliberalism and networks get conflated: it’s the area in which they agree. 

But from one perspective, the idea that education is broken is a learning claim. From the other, it’s a credentialing and business model claim.

If you’re in the process of learning to tell the difference, don’t necessarily run from anything that claims education is broken. Rather, ask what aspect of ed it frames as broken. Is it the learning? You might be looking at a network. Is it the profit model and the structure and the means of offering credential? Probably neoliberalism and enclosure at work.

You’re welcome. ;)