Tower of Song

For my birthday back in January, Dave bought me a Leonard Cohen biography.

I opened it and laughed and laughed.

He bought it because Cohen is still alive. David Bowie – who for more than thirty years was my imaginary boyfriend and the person I wanted to be when I grew up – is dead. And I woke up the morning of January 10th and realized:

a) me & Bowie are never gonna have that conversation about identity. dammit.
b) life is short .

But I turned 44 on a paid-for plane trip back from London, so not all was ashes. I gave talks at the LSE and the Tower of London and I made a side pilgrimage to the street where the Ziggy Stardust album cover was shot the week I was born, and I woke up in my own bed the morning after I got back and there was Leonard Cohen waiting for me in the only form he or Bowie will ever be waiting for me, and I opened up the bio and the first lines I saw were Cohen’s poem that begins:

Marita, please find me.
I am almost thirty.

And then I laughed some more and it was only faintly hysterical.
***

But my point was about identity.

Given the timing of the London trip, I turned talks about academic Twitter and orality and literacy into a Bowie tribute of a sort.

Bowie songs made up the titles of half my digital identity posts back when I started this blog. I firmly believe thirty years of watching him navigate time and selves prepped me well to live in a world of hypervisibility and monetized identity and blatant performativity.

Or, you know, social media.

But I’d never fully mapped it out.  So before I got into Twitter’s collapsed publics and what Meyer (2015) calls the “smoosh” of orality & literacy, I laid out – with images and lyrics and some core points, the idea that networked identity is very much a Bowie approach to identity.

Fluidity, fragmentation, the vision and chutzpah to stand just on the edge of rising trends and embody them for audiences…notable qualities of successful networked identities.

But for scholars in particular, the core of the Bowie approach is a distinction between role and identity.

It used to be that the personal/professional axis generally divided lives into separate domains, at least where the possessors of said lives took on paid roles outside the domestic realm. In most fields – and certainly in academia – such paid roles tended to be stations within articulated, often hierarchical systems. Or organizations. Or institutions. A person – often a dude – showed up for his or her job and fulfilled clearly-delineated responsibilities that were parallel to those of other people working in similar roles, until such point at which a higher up determine he or she was worthy of another role.

Whatever kind of special snowflake this person secretly imagined him or herself to be had to be enacted off the job, at home, in the personal domain.

Under sway of this broad societal norm, only those rare animals who became celebrities of some sort or another made their individual identities – their distinctions rather than their interchangeability – the core of their professional lives.

(Enter Bowie. But Bowie was not just any celebrity).

Gossip rags vouch for the fact that a great many people catapulted to fame not only discover that the collapse of personal/professional identity results in a parallel and alarming collapse of privacy, with the public working self taking over 24/7…but for many, that public working self quickly becomes a stale trap of typecasting, minimizing their creativity in exchange for a single hypervisible public image that they tended to be pilloried from departing from. Alas, poor Fat Elvis.

Bowie may not have been the only celebrity to manage to change successfully with the times AND maintain – some of the 70s aside – a modicum of personal privacy regardless of public scrutiny and visibility…but he did a smashing, savvy job of it, for the most part. As he did a smashing job of messing openly with constraints of gender and sexuality.

Selves were things Bowie picked up and put down, serially, while managing to create an overarching identity as someone so utterly distinct that people repeatedly referred to him as “otherworldly.”

Bowie’s job wasn’t really to be a rock star, like all the other rock stars in the constellation. Bowie’s job was to be Bowie.

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***
So what does this have to do with academic Twitter?

Our academic institutions are still built on roles. Tenured roles – or permanent academic roles, for those outside North America – are an endangered species, but the hierarchical, institutional model still conceptualizes labour along roles’ interchangeable, impersonal terms.

My research into academic Twitter the last couple of years was pretty emphatic that Twitter enables actively-participant (or resident) scholars to operate beyond what Boyer (1990) would have called the “hierarchy of functions” of scholarship. Twitter doesn’t just situate users within the realm of networked scholarship…in can enhance their sense of community and engagement in their work in general.

And it can open up paths to the development, performance, and circulation of scholarly identities…even without roles. People who may not have institutional roles or academic jobs or status in the hierarchy can become known for their work and their ideas, via Twitter and broader networks of participation.

This changes things. Junior scholars and grad students and contingent academics can create forms of visibility and legitimacy within the blurred space between media and institutional scholarship that do not match their institutional status, or lack thereof.

But it changes more than who gets to join in some aspects of the academic conversation. It changes how.

When, on your campus, you need someone who does things that seem “digital,” you can look for somebody who has that word (or some other word in permanent danger of becoming imminently outdated…I’m looking at you, elearning) in their title…or you can look for the person who for inexplicable reasons seems to do that stuff. Sometimes it’s the same person, but sometimes it’s better if it’s not.

Because humans are funny. If we approach someone on the basis of their title or role, we tend to approach them within the boundaries of the institutional hierarchy. I suspect many folks in higher ed still secretly associate all things digital with the 1996-era title “webmaster”…which meant you had a seat at neither the faculty nor the admin table.

But if somebody is approached based on an interest in that person’s differentiated, visible, searchable expertise and identity…the conversation changes. The hierarchy is a little bit undermined. The conversation tends to depart far more quickly from what’s happened before to what *might* actually be possible. New things are more likely to emerge.

This isn’t rocket science. It’s just a networked approach to identity and interaction.

***

There’s a catch, though.

Carving out space as a career individual within a society primarily marked by institutionalized roles is one thing. Bowie had uncanny timing and instincts in this regard.

Carving out space as a career individual within a society – and particularly within a sector – primarily marked by the collapse of institutionalized roles is another thing entirely.

We can all be as Bowie as we can muster in the connective tissue of our networks. But those do not – at least for scholars, nor for musicians either, at least in the way they used to – an industry make.

A ton of us live here, straddling this strange gap between academic roles that don’t – and may never – exist for us, and academic-ish identities that we use to contribute in the ways we can, whether to institutions or just to the broader conversation.

Paying our rent every day in the Tower of Song, as it were.

Maybe Leonard Cohen, who found himself swindled out of everything in his seventies and hustled his way back on stage, touring til nearly eighty in his sharp gangster suit, is who I oughtta plan to be when I grow up.

Somebody call me when we figure out alternatives?

What Your New Year’s Facebook Posts Really Mean

So I did that Facebook “Year in Review” thing a week or two ago even though I’m moderately sure it serves up some extra layer of data-mining capacity on a platter to Zuckerberg’s new personalized learning minions. Encapsulated in ten photos, my reductive 2015 in review looked…nice.

Really nice. A lot of travel, a lot of family time, a Ph.D earned, a conversation on Twitter with David Bowie’s son. Some excessive (expletive deleted) snow, but otherwise nice.

It left the rejected papers out. The time my son wore the same socks for four days. My posts about alcohol and fascism and friends leaving town all stayed conveniently out of the frame, presumably because Facebook knows these are not the prettiest things upon which to reflect fulsomely at the close of the year. Or perhaps Facebook only *knows* that because nobody much liked those posts.

All in all, it made me appear more or less like an amalgam of the identities I aspire to. Yeh, yeh.

You already knew that about Facebook.

But I think there’s more going on there. Today, on New Year’s Eve, my Facebook feed is a radiant orgy of Auld Lang Syne recollecting the year gone by in (mostly) tranquility and (mostly) appreciation, with a smattering of don’t-let-the-door-hit-you-on-the-way-out, depending on what kind of a year people had & also where they self-identify and perform on the emo-to-chirpy spectrum. It is also, increasingly, a site of exhortations to do better as a society in 2016, a space for calling out the broken social contracts and structural underpinnings that differentiate individuals’ life chances so drastically even in some of the wealthiest countries in the world.

It occurred to me this morning that a thousand years hence, should archaeologists or aliens dig up the remnants of bourgeois North American “civilization,” such as it is, they will be sorely challenged to understand a damn thing about who we were and how we lived without our Facebook feeds.

If we cared about the future, people, we’d be chiseling this stuff into stone.
***

I got a book for Christmas – thanks Santa Dave! – called A Colorful History of Popular Delusions. Like all good gifts for fledgling academics, it has me thinking about work, even while I appear to be lolling in sloth over the holidays.

The book is a cultural history – without excessive depth, but this is not a peer review – of mass phenomena that overtake pockets of society at various intervals: fads, crazes, urban legends, mass hysterias. It details examples of each of these phenomena, from the tulip craze in Holland through the Salem witch trials and McCarthyism, and some of the extenuating cultural factors that generated them.

Two things strike me:

  1. We, as humans, are profoundly adaptable – we have, historically, in matters of weeks and even days, on occasion adjusted the norms and compasses of our societies – in ways that seem almost unimaginable later on – in response to triggers that prey upon particularly cultural powerful fears, aspirations, or repressions.
  2. We, as cultures, are profoundly vulnerable to the narratives that we circulate and enact as members of our societies, particularly surrounding fears, aspirations, and repressions.

What does this have to do with Facebook?

Facebook – and more broadly, social media in general…but Facebook remains for the moment the space of the widest participation across demographics even while targeting ads designed to keep people IN their existing demographics – is the stage upon which the battle over dominant cultural narratives is played out.

Social media is where we are deciding who we are, not just as individual digital identities but AS A PEOPLE, A SOCIETY. Or perhaps, as we haven’t quite acknowledged yet, as almost separate societies within the same geopolitical entities, subject to laws and policies that have differential effects on different bodies and identities. Day-to-day, social media is the battleground for the stories we live by. It is the space where our cultural fears, aspirations, and repressions circulate.

Previously, at least as my book loosely outlines it, these narratives tended to be nursed and cultivated through a combination of institutional and moral edicts, generally protecting whatever the status quo was except in times of upheaval wherein individual voices – or, occasionally, intentional power gambits – destabilized those normative belief systems and identities and galvanized new ones around them, even if only for a brief window of time.

I’m not naive enough to think this means we’re free from our institutions, the media perhaps most outsizedly and dangerously powerful among them in terms of narrative capacity, but as any of us who have had any level of professional media exposure via social media participation can attest, even the media now draw their sense of the tenor of things from social media, even if they insist on repackaging them in binaries in the process.

This is why hashtag activism matters, and why social media visibility is risky and why posting about mass shootings draws out your weird uncle (who otherwise never acknowledges anything you say) in full Gandalf “YOU SHALL NOT PASS” mode, even if Gandalf wouldn’t approve of his from-my-cold-dead-hands politics.

Facebook and the rest of social media are our day-to-day archive of who we are trying to become.

These are our times and they are fraught and sometimes ugly and we move too fast from fad to fad and whiplash to whiplash in the outrage generator that social media creates, absolutely.

Still, I watch people get a little bit more media literate all the time, make the wizards behind the curtain a little more visible, push back against witch hunts in ways that I’m not sure were possible in closed and isolated societies like 17th century small-town Massachusetts.

Sometimes I have hope that maybe this isn’t all just a one-way sinkhole. Sometimes.
***

Which brings us back to the New Years posts. We live lives of inexorable and relentless change, amplified by the bucket lists and planned obsolescences and precarities and excesses the kinds of lives Facebook seems designed to reflect. A lot can happen in a year of living one’s Best Life (TM), after all, and if one fails to reflect on it all with sufficient attention, one is committing the ultimate sin of those aiming for Best Lives. My thoughts on the pressure to live our Best Lives are not pretty.

But when I see our collective New Years wishes and reflections and updates and hopes less in the vein of the “yay me” holiday update of wonderfulness and more in the spirit of a mass ongoing narrative conflict in which we try to influence our peers’ understandings of what has meaning and value, of what our repressions are and what our fears and aspirations *should* be…I’m less cynical.

Bring on the New Years posts and wishes and wrap-ups. Maybe these little outpourings help us focus on bits of hope as we cross into a new turn around the sun, bring collegiality to spaces and identities that are often fraught. Even if the aliens and archaeologists never see it all, maybe it makes a difference to the rest of what they dig up someday.

Happy New Year, friends. :)

inequality & networks: the sociocultural implications for higher ed

Next week is #dLRN15 at Stanford. Months of planning and debating and collaborating (and panicking!) all come together to launch an inaugural conference/conversation on Making Sense of Higher Education: Networks & Change.

It’s all Panic At The Disco around here these days, people.
***

There are some serious high hopes embedded and embodied in #dLRN15. Not just for a successful event – though a successful event is a joy forever, as the poets say. Or, erm, something like that. But success is a complex thing, and hopes go beyond the event.

#dLRN15 is grounded in the kind of quiet hopes most of us in higher ed these days don’t talk about all that much: the hopes that things can actually get better. The hopes that research can be conducted and communicated in such a way as to shape the direction of change. The hopes for a future for the spirit of public education, in a time when much in higher ed seems to have been unbundled or disrupted or had its goalposts moved.

Those kinds of hopes are waaaaay too big to lay on the shoulders of any single event or single collection of people…but still, we got hopes, and they underpin the conversations we’re hoping to start through this small, first-time conference next week. We have the privilege of bringing together powerful thinkers like Adeline Koh and Marcia Devlin and Mike Caulfield as keynotes, plus systems-level folks and established researchers and students and grad students and people from all sorts of status positions within higher ed, all thinking about the intersection of networked practices and learning with the institutional structures of higher ed.

However, there’s one strand of conversation, one hope, in the mix at #dLRN15 that I’m particularly attached to. It’s the Sociocultural Implications of Networks and Change in Higher Ed conference theme, and particularly the opening plenary panel of the conference, on Inequities & Networks: The Sociocultural Implications for Higher Ed. I’m chairing, and the ever-thoughtful George Station, Djenana Jalovcic, and Marcia Devlin have agreed to lead the conversation from the stage.

But we need you.

No plenary panel is an island…and while all of us contributing have our own deep ties to this topic, our role is only to start the conversation. Help us make it wider and take it further. Whether you’ll be there or not, your thoughts and input are welcome on the #dLRN15 hashtag or on our Slack channel, or here in the comments. Throw in.

To me, this is the strand that gets at the heart of what education is for, and who it includes, and how, in a time of massive stress: is the digital helping widen participation and equality? Is it hindering?

If the answer to both is “yes,” WHAT NOW?
***

The aim of the panel is to explore how intersectional issues – race, gender, class, ability, even academic status – in higher education are amplified and complexified by digital technologies and networked participation. While digital higher education initiatives are often framed for the media in emancipatory terms, what effects does the changing landscape of higher education actually have on learners whose identities are marked by race/gender/class and other factors within their societies?

We’ll be sharing and unpacking some of the places we get stuck when we think about this in the context of our work as educators and researchers.

What effects do you see digital networks having on inequalities in higher ed? What sociocultural implications do networked practices hold for institutional practices? What are universities’ responsibilities to students who live and learn in hybrid online/offline contexts?

Please. Add your voices, so that this panel becomes more a node in a networked conversation than a one-off to itself. That in itself would pretty much make #dLRN15 a success, in my mind. :)

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

Open to Influence: Academic Influence on Twitter, The Short Version

The Preamble:
I am the sort of person who was born to be elderly and didactic. Deep in my nature lurks the spirit – if not the vocabulary – of a teeny, slightly melancholic sixth cousin of Marcel Proust hankering to wax pensively about the eternal nature of change and What Once Was. Inside my head, it’s all Remembrance of Things Past, all the time. Not because I’m nostalgic – je ne regrette rien! – but because this appears, even at midlife, to be my only wayfinding strategy; reflective recall is how I make sense of the world.

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So I cannot leap back onto the blog after four months of TOTAL SILENCE without spitting up metaphors. I am surfacing from the thesis. I am almost at the finish. I am beginning to get my voice back; my feet back under me. You would be forgiven for thinking I’ve been engaged in some kind of strange swimming marathon. Or drowning. Because both are true in the ways that matter even through really I’ve barely left my couch in three months. Back about mid-November I embarked on the gradual withdrawal from everything except my thesis (and working and parenting and – sadly – shovelling SEVEN FEET of %#&*(ing snow). And it is done and submitted, which is still surreal to me. It is three papers and another forty-odd pages and has itself a fancy title and will be defended in April, warts and all. It is about scholarship in the context of knowledge abundance and how online networked practices intersect with/assemble with institutional practices in terms of influence and engagement and attention, in particular. It is basically a slice of a particular cross-section of academic Twitter circa early 2014. And it is done (I never really actually thought it would be done). Done.

The first paper of the three that comprise the body of the thesis was actually finished and submitted back in July, which feels like a misty past now, The Time Before. That paper came out today and the pre-print is here if, like me, you don’t actually have access. And below I am going to break it down into the Very Short Version in case reading 38 pages isn’t what you’re on about.

But this is The Preamble and elderly didactic cousin-of-Proust me just wants to chew upon how different it all was when all my words were being lined up tidily for academic digestion. I nearly choked getting them out. I nearly choked on having no time to think in This Voice, because I had to give up most of my tweeting and all of my blogging to get the thesis finished and yet in doing so I gave up my primary wayfinding and sensemaking processes and that felt exactly as untenable as you would imagine and it was all *almost* as ironic, to me, as the fact that my first paper for the thesis is about openness and networks in a closed journal. But you may as well laugh as cry, right? I made each of these irreconcilable choices. These are the contradictions of our time and even researching them has not helped me navigate them remotely cleanly or well. I do not know what all this means for my future in whatever academia is becoming but I do know that writing in my own voice gives me joy and not writing in my own voice breaks my spirit and I do not think I want to slide so far away from the networked side of things again for awhile yet. And still.

Je ne regrette rien.

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The Paper, SHORT VERSION:
This paper is about what counts as academic influence on a platform like Twitter.

Influence is how we determine the reputation and credibility and essentially the status of a scholar. There are two ways we assess influence: first, there’s the teeny little group of people who understand what your work really means. Then there’s everybody else, from different fields, who piece together the picture from external signals: what journals you publish in, what school you went to, your citation count, your h-index, your last grant. Things people recognize and trust. It’s a complicated shorthand.

And now, in the mix – against a backdrop of knowledge abundance and digital technologies and the fact that nobody needs to go through a gatekeeping institution to contribute to knowledge anymore – Twitter. This paper explores what circulates or counts as influence and credibility in academic Twitter, and in networked participatory scholarship more broadly.

The paper concludes that scholars assess the networked profiles and behaviours of peers through a logic of influence that is – at least as yet – less codified and numeric than expected. Participants in the study did perceive relatively large-scale accounts as a general signal of influence, but recognizability and commonality are as or more important than quantifiable measures or credentials.

The paper suggests that the impression of capacity for meaningful contribution is key to cultivating influence and the regard of actively networked peers. The value and meaning of that sense of contribution is tied in part to the ways in which network signals operate individual to individual – more on that in papers #2 and #3 of the thesis, as well as its conclusion. The value is also, frankly, in the fact that we can see our signals received, in networks, in real-time. Never underestimate the power of people listening.

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Key messages from the findings of the paper:
1. Metrics matter, but not that much

2. Scale of visibility (ie having a large account and a large active reach) is a signal of influence but also a weird and complex identity space

3. The intersection of high network status with lower or unclear institutional academic status is also a weird and complex identity space

4. The perception of someone’s capacity for contribution is created and amplified by common interests, disciplines, and shared ties/peers

5. Institutional affiliations aren’t considered that important by active Twitter users (unless they’re Oxford)

6. Automated signals indicate low influence

7. Digital networks offer scholars a sense of being someone who can contribute…in ways that the academy does not offer. (The academy offers other ways. But this paper focuses on the signals and lived experiences of networks.)

If you want to read the rest, there’s lots. The official article is here, and the open pre-print is here. Your feedback and your thoughts and your ideas are very welcome. :)

The Post-script:
The fourteen participants and eight examplars who stepped forward to be a part of this research…I thank all of you hugely, for your time, and your teaching, and mostly for your trust.