The Crosshairs of the Split Hairs: #digciz

This week, Mia Zamora and I are kicking off #digciz 2017 with a conversation about digital citizenship, and what it means in a world wherein “the digital” is increasingly a delivery system for surveillance and spectacle and amplified uncertainty.

(Or maybe that’s just my take. Maybe it’s different in your world. Maybe you see it differently? I would pay big cash money to see it differently so I am open to being invited over. Please note I actually have no big cash money.)

In any case, the month of June will be a #digciz-fest of epic proportions *if* y’all come out and play, and Mia and I have the privilege of leading us all out of the gate with a few provocations and a #4wordstory conversation about what good citizenship means in participatory spaces.

Here’s my opening salvo. :) (I’m a bit of a shit about the word “citizenship”…)


Grumpy Cat, ultimate Digital Citizen, makes the perfect Rorschach Test for your own interpretations of digital citizenship! Is he saying:

a) Even online, we are all people. Kumbay-effing-yah.
b) Digital citizenship sucks because people. People suck.
c) It is irritating to even have this conversation. Stop being a digital dualist.
d) All of the above?
***

I myself am still not entirely sure. A little over a month ago, I wrote up a talk on citizenship and identity that I didn’t manage to explain very articulately…and got comments like it was 2008 up in here.

Note to self: PUBLISH HALF-BAKED LIGHTBULB MOMENTS MORE OFTEN.

Or rather: publish half-baked lightbulb moments more often, *if* you like the hit of attention/engagement/validation that comments apparently still provide, even years after blogs were supposed to be dead.

(Disclosure: I am actually that person who likes the hit of attention/engagement/validation that comments apparently still provide, just if there were any questions. But we do not acknowledge that publicly, do we? Because decorum. Or the games we play around palatable identities in an attention economy.)

Only my discomfort with totally half-baked posts – or the rarity of lightbulb moments in my life – will save y’all from wanton comment-chasing, folks.

Which brings me back to the actual lightbulb moment that I’d had in the middle of that talk I tried to write up.

Digital platforms and digital affordances – underpinned by the capitalist enclosure of participatory digital spaces over the last decade or so, with its surveillance and metrics and constant advertising of reductive versions of our identity back to us – do NOT lend themselves to good digital citizenship, in the sense that they do not foster a space I would actually want to be a citizen of, to whatever (limited) extent the citizenship model holds when conceptualized in the border-free digital realm.

They do not lend themselves to good digital citizenship because they shape and direct human behaviour in ways that privilege capital and circulation and extremes, rather than, say, collaboration or empathy. Or even just being alone with one’s thoughts.

They increasingly shape the logic of our learning spaces to Silicon Valley’s concept of what that should be. Spoiler: that tends to be “individualism, neoliberalism, libertarianism, imperialism, the exclusion of people of color and white women.”

They foster spectacle and scale and virality and dogpiles and dragging and while there are moments of justice and glory in it all, at its logical endpoint it’s a Hunger Games.

(Wait. Mixed my dystopias.)

Of course, if you’re reading this, chances are good you don’t live in that web, that digital space. Humans have agency. Technologies or platforms are not determinist. I read my comments section. Got it.

Most of the people who’ll ever click on this post will come to it through the variety of still-quite-participatory communities that form my network, and our collective constellation of “digital” remains very much not-entirely-subsumed by capitalism and spectacle. We resist. We share. We care.

My research was really clear about the caring, the ways in which we make ourselves vulnerable to each other, even in the strange collapsed contexts of academic Twitter.

I’d venture that in most digital spaces that build any sense of ongoing community over time, people do the same. That‘s why I’m a bit of a shit about citizenship.
***

The web, and the capacity of strangers to receive my words – all of them, even the ugly ones or the half-baked ones or the things I couldn’t say out loud – once gave me back some sense of myself as being able to contribute to a world I wanted to live in.

It gave me a sense of being a citizen – in the rights and responsibilities sense, in the belonging sense – of something I was invested in more than I’ve ever, frankly, been invested in the concept of Canada as a nation-state (no matter how much Trump has done recently to make me appreciate that particular concept and its vulnerability, AHEM).

But the operations of scale and visibility and capital – especially capital – mean that our platforms keep creeping up on us, shifting, creating all kinds of insidious ways to monetize our caring and our sharing and in doing so, shape how we relate to each other…and in the long run, who we get to be in relation to these digital spaces.


And nope, #NotAllPerformativity is negative and #NotAllSoCalledSlacktivism is empty, but platform-based and -driven behaviours that shape our sense of personal identity should be things we’re watching WAAAAY more closely than we seem to know how. Not just because we may be frogs boiling slowly towards whatever Mark Zuckerberg’s end game of world domination may be…but because polarization seems to be eating us alive, as a broader society, online and off.

The fracturing of social bonds and security is not digital. The inequality and uncertainty at the root of it is not digital.

But it all leaves us…confronted. Constantly confronted.

And the digital amplifies our confrontedness.

The digital demands constant signalling. Other people’s signalling confronts us. We create spaces to bond over that confrontedness. Performative wokeness devolves into factionalism. White supremacy festers its way into the open.

This seems to be the yearbook quote of humanity confronted by virtue signalling:

And then, as a FB friend quipped in the thread under my earlier identity/citizenship post…we get caught “in the crosshairs of the split hairs.” THAT.

I think THAT should be 2017’s yearbook quote.

And because we are human, we don’t even always completely notice the way our identities are being shaped by our social environments and what they naturalize…THEY JUST BECOME OUR REALITY.
***

So…what can we do? How can we envision and work toward something better? What kinds of civic and social spaces do we want, online?

Tell us your #4wordstories of what YOU want, using the hashtag #digciz.

The conversation will unfold for 48 hours or so, through June 1st. Or whenever we’re done. Our goal is to get a sense of what people think digital citizenship can be, but also to hash out some of the constraints and realities that shape what it is, for most of us. And what works. What we could be aiming for, as a model of human engagement.

Just a little model for human engagement. You know. Shoot the moon. ;)

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?

The Spectacle…or Welcome to the Handbasket?

I ended up thinking about Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (1967) whenever I opened up Twitter this past week.

I mostly blame the clown-car/lynch mob that was Trump’s Republican National Convention (America, you have my bewildered sympathies). The ghastly God-I-wish-this-were-surreal-but-nope-it’s-reality sense of overwhelm that the convention engendered in me, even from the comfort of my securely-Canadian couch, was ugly. Add in the recurring black death and hashtag resistance that populates my Twitter feed all too often, the increasing regularity of mass-scale terrorism and retaliation, even the banning of professional troll @Nero from Twitter for unleashing all sorts of racist, misogynist hell against Ghostbusters’ Leslie Jones…it all adds up, for me, to a societal social contract that my existing conceptual tools are inadequately equipped to deal with.

Because what the hell is all this hot mess if not Spectacle with a capital S? (plus some other words that start with S and end with “storm”)…

So. Debord’s been niggling at the back of my mind. He defines the spectacle as “a social relationship between people that is mediated by images” (p. 5).

(Caveat: I am a very casual reader of Debord. I didn’t work with Debord’s spectacle in my dissertation on academic Twitter, except insofar as so many of my conversations during that period were with participant and mentor @KateMfD, whose visual identity on the internet during that time was the cover photo FOR Society of the Spectacle (see below). I spent that intensive and relational research period interacting with Kate while primarily visualizing her as that cover image, which…Debord would probably have something to say about.  I’ll leave that one for some other keener to unpack.)

Cover of Debord's Society of the Spectacle, people with 3D glasses on

@KateMfD, as I will forever see her in my mind

Anyhoo, while I was musing about spectacle thanks to the mangled mob pageantry of the RNC and its blue-collar billionaire, a Debord reference landed smack on my screen much closer to home.

Because last week for us here was also the extraordinary #DigPed PEI, which brought people from all over PEI education and from the US, UK, and other Canadian provinces together for three days of intensive engagement with ideas and tools – Twitter among them. And in one of the (so far very positive and thought-provoking) anonymous feedback forms I solicited afterwards, a participant brought up Debord and spectacle, as related to that individual’s residual hesitancy about social media.

And so I thought, clearly this is a combo endorsement from the universe to go back & read me some Debord.

(After all, beyond politics and societal participation, how many of my household’s personal and professional relationships find communicative and affective expression in Facebook/Twitter/Instagram? What about the casual but relationship-augmenting encounters that Pokemon Go has created for my kids and, erm, me this past week?)
***

So I did. Spoiler? I don’t, ontologically, buy the ways Debord separates society and the subject, and the implied essentialism of a reality outside the spectacle…which is why there was no Debord in my thesis. Still, there’s something to his idea of the spectacle I think we all ought to be digging into and trying to grapple with, especially those of us who see ourselves as educators. Or, um, people who don’t want the world to burn. Or both.

It’s this. What I took out of seventy cobbled-together minutes of my life spent re-aquainting myself with Debord is:

the spectacle of contemporary society is about power. Full stop.

(Okay there’s more about identity & commodity & reification but Ima hafta dig into that another day. Or you can. Ping me if you do!)

Debord, on power:
“At the root of the spectacle lies that oldest of all social divisions of labor, the specialization of power. The specialized role played by the spectacle is that of spokesman for all other activities, a sort of diplomatic representative of hierarchical society at its own court, and the source of the only discourse which that society allows itself to hear. Thus the most modern aspect of the spectacle is also at bottom its most archaic” (Debord, p. 8).

In other words, the bread and circuses we are being fed are pretty much naked, craven power subsuming all other forms of societal organization.

So Trump’s bizarre content-free campaign video, above? Just power as spectacle, image circulation subsuming any other form of discourse.

Those English people who voted for Brexit but now don’t want to leave? Who voted as they did as a way of signalling “burn it all down”? A sheer exercise in power, both from the political engineers and from many of the individual voters.

And everything Milo Yiannopoulos ever wrote on Twitter? Same. As Laurie Penny says in what is pretty much a mic drop to this particular cultural moment“It’s all an act. A choreographed performance by a career sociopath who will claim any cause to further his legend.” 

The problem, of course, is what Penny points out: there’s no room in this kind of game for truly believing in much of anything. That’s why the disconnects are so vast and nobody seems to care. The “attention hustlers,” as she calls them, “channel their own narcissism to give voice to the wordless, formless rage of the people neoliberalism left behind.”

Spectacle. Power. The fomenting of archaic hatreds, not because one necessarily believes them…but because they’re there. Because they allow social relationships to be mediated so effectively by images and symbols.

Oh goody. So THAT’s why most of my Twitter feed is so damn bewildered and depressed these days. For those of us who still believe in just about anything beyond the spectacle of power for its own sake, the way the Overton window on this kind of politics and personal practice has shifted is kinda staggering.

Now, given that Debord was writing in 1967 and Ann Coulter’s “career” – to name but one of Penny’s “attention hustlers” – pre-dates social media by at least a decade, Twitter itself nor social media more generally obviously can’t be the source of the spectacle. I don’t actually even believe it’s a more pure or powerful instantiation of the spectacle than television, especially in cable news territory.

But I don’t have cable news on when I work. I don’t spend my professional days with TV constantly in the background.

Whereas Twitter – for me, Twitter even more than Facebook – has been, for the past six or seven years, a constant presence. It’s a stream I dip in and out of as I work, even when it is not the site of my work…and it has been a rich source of connections and conversations and resources FOR that work as well as a space through which my work and voice have been amplified.

But it is also part of the spectacle-ization of broadcast media, part of the crush of the attention economy within which we all swim these days whether we sign up for Pinterest or Twitter or Instagram or no. Because our narratives are all filtered through the spectacle and its steroids of scandal and somewhere after years of 24-hour news cycles and Twitter fights and identity commodification, we all just seem to be rolling down hill in the same unfortunate handbasket, labelled “power.”

Or that’s how it felt this week.

I’m not quite done with Debord, I don’t think. Gonna try again – next week – to figure out what it means to be an educator in the midst of this sea of media and spectacle in which we all swim, and think about the ways in which social media in particular are handmaidens of spectacle…and yet maybe also means of subverting the spectacle that mass media and politics serve up? Maybe.

We’ll see. That’s next week. For the remainder of this week, I’ll just be over in the corner here rocking gently and staring at the wall trying to figure out how to get through another 5+ months of 2016. Join me! I have jellybeans.

Excellence &…the Wild Rumpus

This week I got to descend upon Ohio – and OSU’s annual Innovate conference – to give a keynote about networks and higher education.

Here are the slides I used to try to tell the story I was trying to tell:

Funny story about that story.

Innovate’s theme for this year was “excellence,” with a focus on, as their site put it, “sharing innovations that let educators re-imagine their instruction without sacrificing pedagogical quality and rigor.”

Now, I’m not in the habit of making claims about excellence. Or innovation, or even rigor, unless I’m in the throes of a formal academic paper in which case I can dig into ontologies and epistemologies and validity structures and make a case OSU’s own Patti Lather would be proud of. A language of excellence and innovation and rigor tends to emphasize performance rather than learning, and while that’s important for funders and decision-makers it doesn’t necessarily map tidily against ideas of connection and vulnerability. My work is still deeply steeped in the logics of the social web, if aware of that perspective’s limitations…and the forces that aim to eclipse it.

But they clearly knew all that. The ad for the talk read:
Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 8.48.18 PM
I laughed out loud when I read that first sentence. And I decided to approach “excellence” with some of the same wry touch they’d brought to the keynote blurb.

I enrolled my kids’ copy of Where the Wild Things Are to help illustrate the story. I talked about networked practice and its implications for higher ed as The Wild Rumpus.

Screen Shot 2016-04-29 at 3.51.29 PM
Where the Wild Things Are won Maurice Sendak the 1964 Caldecott Medal for Most Distinguished Picture Book. *That,* quite frankly, is about as safe a marker of excellence as you’re gonna find in the fraught world of higher ed these days, and not just because it’s a kids’ book: rather, that’s how the prestige economy of recognizable, institutionalized legitimacy works.

People have heard of the book, and the Caldecott medal, so the recognizability of the title and the award would serve as proxies for quality, I figured. If you’re going to introduce all kinds of new practices to a group of academics, best to start from a safe place. A signal that resonates. Kinda like when someone says, “I went to Princeton” or “I published in Nature.” Those titles are signals. I have (shhh…don’t tell) never read Nature and I’ve never been to New Jersey, but I have been acculturated enough to academia that I understand that both the journal and the college signal a level of widely-recognized prestige that I’m supposed to be impressed by.

Because that’s how prestige operates: that “supposed to” interpellates people and recruits them based on aspirational identity…the desire to be the sort of person who *gets* that kind of thing. So in academia, outside of our own very specific disciplines, we trade entirely on these broad, external signals. That’s how academia manages to function as a broad in-group in spite of the fact that most of our knowledge bases are so extraordinarily specialized there’s no way for a chemist to actually tell if a sociologist does good work or not, or vice versa. The signals are stand-ins for the actual knowledge we possess.

Entertainingly though, in the process of establishing broadly understood signals – where people went to school, who they’ve studied with, where they sit in the academic hiring hierarchy, where they’ve published, who’s funded them – those signals themselves get reified and the prestige accorded them comes to seem entirely natural.

Yes, Nature has the highest impact factor of all journals…but how many academics can actually explain impact factor, pressed to the point? Princeton is Ivy League, which means something even to us heathens up in Canada, who totally fail to recognize many of the prestige signals of US academia.

(Imagine the dismay and betrayal I felt when, after half a lifetime of hearing the words “Ivy League” bandied about as Americanized synonyms for “Oxford” and “Cambridge,” I discovered the Ivy League IS AN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE. Huh????


I digress.)

Long story short, I figured Where the Wild Things worked as a proxy for excellence in the tiny context of my talk because while both the title and the medal are recognizable, nobody’s gunning for either. Neither the book nor the wild rumpus – even as metaphor – has been declared the next Great Tsunami or Disruption, so nobody’s career or reputation ride on making sure that everybody is clear how mightily it sucks. Plus the book is sweet and nostalgic and most people don’t really remember what it’s about, they just remember how it makes them feel. Which is also how signals operate.

And *that* is how I tripped my own self up on and almost had to ditch the whole thing half-baked in the middle of the journey to making a case for the networked Rumpus as its own form of excellence.

Because I was thinking of The Wild Rumpus as a metaphor for some of the spaces outside the boundaries of conventional prestige signals, just a fun way of talking about an alternative prestige economy, when I realized I should probably re-read the damn book. RESEARCH.

I’d forgotten, of course. Max – the little blighter at the centre of the story who runs away to the fantasy world of the wild things in his fantasies – ends up wanting to go back where people love him best of all and his food is still hot. The rumpus is joy and freedom and the wild things bow down to his taming, but in the end he sails home to his bedroom, back to normal, back to the glorious comfort of the known.

The Wild Rumpus is just a distraction, for Max. Whoopsie.

But in the middle of knowledge abundance and precarity and disinvestment in public education, a world where over 70% of North American higher education instructional staff were reported to be contingent even back in 2007, I think it’s safe to say that most of us won’t be sailing home to our solid tenured realities when we’re done with the fun of our contemporary Rumpus.

So I made this slide, and turned the story sideways…a bedtime story to wake up conference attendees first thing in the morning. Not a happy ending, but the unpacking of the Rumpus outlines ways to navigate the seas of abundance and change, at least.

Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 10.15.31 PM
***
Post-script: I wish I could say my ideas will change the direction of the ship and bring us home to where supper is still hot.

I tell myself it is wiser to grow up and learn to forage with Wild Things.

I don’t know. The Rumpus has treated me extraordinarily well, but contingency is a flawed and exhausting place to live. The potential networked practice brings to higher ed – the particular versions of excellence it makes possible, the ones outlined in the slides above – are still by far best enacted by faculty and staff with the security to take risks, and iterate. But that’s often not how it works out. Higher ed is an increasingly stratified professional environment, and networked practice may increasingly be seen as a signal of LACK of prestige, as power circles coalesce around the privilege they conflate as excellence.

Maybe THEY are the Wild Things and we can tame them with Max’s magic trick of staring into their eyes and telling them, “Be Still!”

No? Dammit. Now I will not sleep tonight.

 

Third Places & Third Spaces – #DigPed PEI

Part the first: How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love the Internet (Kinda)

I come from a small place.

Seen from Google Earth, Prince Edward Island is a dot off the northern edge of the Atlantic Ocean, a pastoral sandbar best known for lobster, potato farms, and Anne of Green Gables. I left in a hurry at seventeen. I often say if you’d told me then that I’d move back willingly someday, I would have spat on you.

But I did move back. Mid-life is a funny thing: I now live a block away from my mother and call myself lucky, which is not the word seventeen-year-old me would have deployed. And from tiny Prince Edward Island, I’ve spent the past decade learning more than I ever imagined there was to learn about the operations of the global apparatus that is contemporary higher ed. More, I benefit from a richer, more robust circle of colleagues and fellow educators and learners than I’ve had at any other time in my life.

This is, in large part, because the internet became my local hangout.

(Yes, the internet is – as we are regularly informed by headlines, and not inaccurately – a fraught and messy place. Yes, the internet and its cloistered cousins, learning platforms and management systems, can be tools by which learning gets reduced and instrumentalized and commodified beyond recognition, if we’re not careful. Yes.)

But it can also be what Howard Rheingold was clever enough back in 1993 to recognize as a form of Oldenburg’s “third place;” a space for conviviality, playfulness, community, and “appreciation of human personality and individuality.” Like a coffee shop, bar, general store, library or arcade, a third place is a semi-public (often partially commercial) space that extends human community beyond the boundaries of home and work – a local hangout, as it were.

Howard’s assertions about the internet as inherently social were initially just stories I read, about places like The WELL and MUDs and MOOs, virtual frontiers that had mostly receded or disappeared by the time I even learned they existed. But I read them, and they stuck with me, and shaped my understanding of digital culture and my emerging practices as an online educator, even back in 1999. They planted a seed that suggested that the internet could be more than the glorified calculator and search engine and email machine I was gradually becoming familiar with. They opened the door to the idea that the internet might be a place to learn and engage and develop identity and friendships. That seed took years to take hold, but in the end, it is one of the concepts that has made the greatest difference in my life, professionally and personally.

Far more recently, in 2014, Catherine Cronin expanded my understanding of the third place by introducing me to Gutierrez’ somewhat more complex, political conception of “Third Space (2008).” The third space is explicitly an educational construct of sociocultural learning environments marked by what Gutierrez frames as “distinctive participation structures and power relations.” In Gutierrez’ model, the Third Space is the place where “teacher and student scripts – the formal and informal, the official and unofficial spaces of the learning environment – intersect, creating the potential for authentic interaction and a shift in the social organization of learning and what counts as knowledge.”

In other words, the Third Space is a potentially transformative space between the roles of student and teacher, a hybrid space where identities and literacies and practices can actually change on both sides. In a Third Space approach to education, what Gutierrez frames as a cosmopolitan in-between-ness marked by “shared humanity, a profound obligation to others, boundary crossing, and intercultural exchange where difference is celebrated without being romanticized” is core to learning design.

This Third Space is not the small place I grew up. But somewhere in seventeen years of the small-town classrooms I sat in from kindergarten through my undergrad, a few teachers, books, and Rolling Stone articles somehow nurtured some tiny kernel of Third Space in me. And then I spent my early adulthood looking for the third place where it could flower.
***

Part the second: There and Back Again

I thought for a long time it was probably in Prague.

I barely crossed Canada’s borders until my very late twenties. But for a decade after the Velvet Revolution, all over Canada’s more humbly regional towns, I pined for Prague. Not because I actually had much of a clue about Prague, but because I’d gotten the idea that it was the closest thing to Paris in the 20s that I was ever going to lay my grubby provincial paws on. And so I bought old travel guides at used bookstores and I read about absinthe and Vaclav Havel and I pored over picture after picture of ornate birthday-cake buildings. In one case the guide was so old it was for Czechoslovakia and not the Czech Republic, and so I learned mostly about the Soviet monuments of Prague.

But had I not already had some instinctive, hothouse-flower-cultivated sense that a Third Space/third place Elsewhere was out there having all the good conversations without me, that old sad, dog-eared Fodor’s guide might have served to foster my impression of Prague simply as an exotic, historic collection of pictures I could take someday.

When we humans fetishize something we have not yet experienced, we tend to reduce it to its instrumental, transactional elements. We imagine we understand, but we not only fail, we often do violence to actual lived experience in our insistence on our understanding. This is why immersion and perspective-taking and reflection are such powerful learning tools: they destabilize our known spaces, our first spaces, and force us to live through the experience of altering our perspective.

I eventually got to live that experience, though it – inevitably, I suppose – changed my fetishized vision of what Third Space would be. I made it to Prague one November at almost thirty, and took a pile of pictures, sure, but also stumbled into conversations late at night in underground bars and street festivals that opened my access to perspectives I’d never encountered before. I stayed abroad for five years. I went to Korea and braved slam poetry for the first time. I sat in hostels and coffee shops in Turkey and Malaysia and Scotland, people-watching and talking to strangers. All through the process, I taught people and lived among people and befriended people who had grown up in cultures and education systems very different from my own small place.

And after five years of itinerancy and inbetween-ness, I concluded there was no ideal Elsewhere, no single third place that encapsulated the Third Space I’d longed for. Or rather, perhaps – as an old friend used to say – that wherever you go, there you are. In the end, I came home to PEI.

The talking to strangers was harder here. But then I found my way online.
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Part the Third / Space / Place: #DigPed PEI

Gutierrez’ concept of the Third Space has little to do with the internet or with digital education, though she talks about it as being mediated by a range of tools. Catherine Cronin’s work on networked publics has drawn from both third place and Third Space ideas, as has Kathrine Jensen’s.

For me, all three – combined with Howard situating digital community within Oldenburg’s third place construct – speak to the potentiality of the internet as a human in-between space that enables third place collegiality combined with the hybrid positionality and perspective-taking of Third Space. A perspective always larger than the local, while deeply embedded within whatever particular context it has sprung from; a hybrid perspective never fully subsumed into the thick of things.

This is what I aim for when I teach, and when I work with educators around digital technologies and digital practices. This is the hope I brought to Egypt with me last week for our #DigPed institute at the American University of Cairo.

It was hope more than fulfilled. I sat at tables with people who speak from a multitude of locales and perspectives and embodied histories, truly in a Third Space. Our work served to network some of them into conversations that take place in my online third place, and reciprocally, to give me a window into their contexts and classrooms, where they choose to share. I tweeted with one participant’s class in Beirut just this morning.

Still, when I first came across the idea of the internet as a third place, I hadn’t yet experienced much in the way of online community or conviviality. It was only later that blogs and social networking platforms began to extend my social world and community by thousands of kilometres. When I read Howard’s The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, I was very much the same person who read travel guides to countries she’d never been to and thought of them as collections of pictures to be taken.

My reductive, task-based understanding stemmed, at least for me, simply from not being able to imagine the full depth of what I had not yet experienced.

And I wonder if maybe a similar reductive failure of imagination informs a great deal of the dominant narrative critiquing digital engagement, particularly the cries of “screens are making us less connected!” that Sherry Turkle et al publish regularly in the New York Times. Not that fears and cautions and skepticism about the logics of media and capital that drive the internet aren’t warranted. Many, many are. But the dominant narrative tends more towards essentializing the face-to-face and reducing the digital to instrumental, task-based impersonality, rather than recognizing it as a human space with all the potential – educative and destructive, both – that that implies.

As I see it, we need third places – and Third Spaces – in order to grapple with the complexities of education and learning in an unequally globalized society driven by logics of media and capital.

So as a small start, this coming July, we’re bringing the three-day Digital Pedagogy Lab institute model home to my small place.

What I’m aiming to seed with #DigPed PEI is three-fold:

  1. To do what Howard did for me in opening up the concept of the internet and the digital as a human, social, third place environment where learning could take place.
  2. To scaffold the immersive equivalent of hanging out in Prague rather than reading reductive guidebooks, by curating participants’ experiential entry INTO actual human, social, educative third places ON the internet itself, in ways they can then apply to their contexts and their personal and professional practices. If they want. If they don’t, at least they’ll be making a choice informed by an experiential understanding of possibility, rather than by dominant narratives.
  3. To invite the denizens of my third place to experience this small place, which I think has much to offer, even beyond beaches and Anne of Green Gables. The lived experience of a town where “who’s your father?” remains the staple second question after “what’s your name?” is good preparation for the strange mix of hypervisibility and “is this thing on?” that marks networked engagement. The small scale of the educational system in this province offers an opportunity to get educators together from all three – for there are ONLY three – educational entities in the province to build ties and conversations in ways that can’t happen in the same way in larger centres. And as a hardscrabble, regional place on the margins of North American identity yet still utterly privileged as part of the global North, this site is…a little different. Too often, the third space of English-speaking networked scholarship and educational practice is profoundly US-centric. We don’t have FERPA here. Education is a provincial rather than federal matter. A conversation here is never entirely removed from the dominant North American conversation, but neither is it entirely encapsulated by it. We have the makings of a Third Space, maybe. I can hope.

And our dollar is dismally cheap right now. Just sayin’. ;)

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If you’d like to hold a space for yourself in #DigPed PEI, fill out this handy pre-registration form by April 30th. We’ve been delighted by interest so far. 

And if you can’t join us in person but want to contribute to the conversation, there will be a #DigPed discussion on digital literacies – and third places and spaces – Friday April 8th at noon EDT (1pm PEI time!).