I began teaching online in 1998, the same year I encountered Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto (1991) for the first time. Her cyborg – partial, ironic, always hybrid – offered a model for identity that helped me navigate that new environment. The cyborg’s emphasis on breaking down binaries enabled and encouraged me to grapple with some of the institutional and technocratic power relations that shaped our online learning context, in ways that have continued to influence my understanding of my educational practice and my research to this day.
The cyborg teacher is a hybrid, both an instrument of the schooling system and yet subversive to it: the cyborg teacher is a learner too. Teaching from the cyborg point of view helped me frame my digital classroom not as “less” or “more” than conventional learning spaces, but instead as a site for building ties of curiosity and affinity. It helped me escape the concept of the virtual and approach my online work very much as real; human and technological, both.
Now, fifteen years down the road, I see the cyborg particularly as a metaphor for networked identities. These are the kinds of selves cultivated when people integrate online social networks into their personal and professional practices not just as consumers but producers: when they blog, tweet, filter, curate, and share ideas within networks of shared interests.
In a time when our technological platforms are primarily corporate-owned and even mundane daily practices like bank card usage expose us to constant digital surveillance, the cyborg strikes me as a particularly important figure. A teacher by example, she collapses the binary distinctions our media narratives are so eager to create about social technologies.
The message of the cyborg, as I see it, is that we are complicit, part of this digital world. But we are not necessarily subject to its terms: in an age in which human agency can seem dwarfed by the innumerable invisible digital systems we interact with, the cyborg – illegitimate offspring of the very things she subverts – stands for me as a figure of hope.
(When I say “short” I mean I was still talking when the poor timekeeper started waving the STOP sign in front of my face: it’s been awhile since I tried to encapsulate ideas into fifteen minutes.)
I made a few quick alterations to the slides after the presentation thanks to the really good questions and conversation that emerged, and in hopes of making the ideas reasonably clear on Slideshare even without an audio track. This is the first time I’ve really taken up this particular thread on the intersections between “student” and “networked learner”, so thanks to everyone at Difficult Dialogues for engaging with and supporting these ideas as I begin to work them through.
Learning in the Open:
It’s what I didn’t say that’s more interesting, though
The fact that I ran over time is apt, given how it mirrors my own current overwhelm as a learner.
The presentation troubles some of the categories of student that academia comes with, and how differing forces and logics govern the two spheres and the way learning is practiced within them. But I didn’t go far enough. While I’m a living, breathing advocate for the benefits of networked learning, it may be the problems with it that are the most instructional.
The keynote for the conference this weekend was S Bear Bergman, who gives one hell of a talk on sex, gender and trans identities. And while what I do may not intersect on the surface with Bear’s work as a thinker or a presenter, ze reminded me of something I know but have failed to transfer over to my analysis of learning and learners.
We are always signalling and reading
Engaging with each other as humans is a process of reading codes and signals.
(Okay, not entirely perhaps: I won’t wade into the “we are all texts” ontological discussion here.) But if our material and discursive signals to others aren’t readable or legible within the frameworks by which they comprehend the world, we tend to be rendered Other: either seen as transgressive or simply not seen at all.
In identity terms, visibility and speakability are necessary for legitimacy, for non-erasure. Only in the past few years have the identity signals and codes performed by queer and trans people begun to become readable and speakable on a scale that extends beyond those communities and makes those identities visible within the broader society. And slowly, slowly, mutually constituted with the very possibility of this legibility of trans people, society’s concepts of sex and gender are shifting.
Signalling networked learning
So perhaps it is with networks, though with far less advocacy, pain, marginalization and struggle, let me be very precise. But I believe learning – whether in online social networks or straight from the canon, bound in leather – involves being able to read and make sense of the codes and signals being given off by those you interact with, particularly those you expect to learn from. These are what I refer to when I talk about “legitimacy structures” within academia and networks in the final slide of the presentation above.
They are, in a sense, literacies. They’re what I’m stumbling towards when I talk about the networked or digital literacies that MOOCs – if they connect people – help develop.
I’ve been struggling to say what I research lately. Is it social media? Identities? MOOCs? Networks? My research is a process of trying to grasp and make visible a few ideas and realities from the midst of a flood. It’s about filtering and reflection and constant observation of moving targets. My sense of focus doesn’t shift so much as the ways in which it’s likely to be understood change all the time.
Part of the problem is filtering: I’ve realized recently that in my dissertation work I’ve failed, so far, to build a robust framework through which I can filter the seven hundred vaguely-related-to-the-Internet-and-learning-and-identities ideas that I encounter out here every day in my brilliant network. I meander in circles, fumbling to re-word and re-work things, trying to translate or adapt concepts I encounter and figure out whether they fit into the big picture of what we’re doing out here in this world of networked practice. Sometimes they do. Often they are rabbit holes. Seldom can I tell the difference in advance.
But what I learned at the conference on the weekend is that the filters and structure aren’t the whole challenge: how to translate and signal what I’m learning to two different audiences is also a process I’m going to have to address overtly. Because there are power structures that support and prop up societal views of knowledge that make networked knowledge and practices appear invisible or illegitimate.
For the many networked learners who are also formal students, this can be a very real problem: it can negate or frame as transgressive what is simply different. And within fields of knowledge and the academy in particular, it makes pressing contemporary conversations about online learning into polarizing and misleading soapboxes about what counts as real.
The fact that networked learners DO have signals and codes by which we connect and speak, though? Is a very important – and useful – fact. Because signals and codes – like all things that are read – can be learned.
The lack of face-to-face is not a void, only a lack of literacy
Whether networked learners are formal students within the academy as well, or no, many of us regularly come across sincere – and often deeply-thought-out objections – to the idea of online learning in general, and to its lack of the ineffable quality of authenticity in particular.
I think there are multiple axes of thought behind these objections, some of which lie in determinism or digital dualism or nostalgia or overt privileging of the physical over the virtual. But even among many participants of the MOOCs I’ve engaged in so far this winter – #MOOCMOOC, #etmooc,and #edcmooc – I see a strain of genuine hesitation to fully embrace networked learning as legitimate, or at least as AS legitimate as face-to-face learning.
And I think it’s a literacy issue. These people are, for the most part, highly traditionally literate – many are teachers and academics – and they are, to their great credit, game to give networked learning a try even if they’re not entirely sure it’s valid. But they are new to the game, and they haven’t yet put in the longterm immersion and reflection usually required to build literacies in a new environment: they can’t yet read the signals and codes by which we interact.
Because networked learning is not about technologies, or a lack of the human touch: these are simply common and understandable misconceptions given the narratives that circulate in our culture on the subject. Rather, if it’s truly about networks and not just mass broadcast, it’s about engaging with humans; about performing networked identity via the codes and signals that we digital selves share openly.
Just because that may not be visible doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. But those of us to whom it is visible…we have a job ahead to continue to assert and translate and help make our identities readable and legitimate in the field of knowledge.
What an interesting and slightly discombobulating ride this whole #change11 facilitation experience has been.
As I noted at the outset this week, this idea of digital identities and selves is for me simply a way of teasing out and naming some the threads of possibility and difference that digital sociality makes available to us. I offered up the six digital selves as ways to begin a conversation about how technological affordances and practices and norms shape us – not as separate or summative representations of who we are when we’re online.
You all have taken the conversation and run with it, and I have enjoyed trying to trace and map it as it’s unfolded.
This was my first attempt to think about networked publics within the reflective, participatory, social circuits of a networked public, and I’ve learned a lot.
Mostly, I learned a lot about myself, or my selves, rather, and how the particular affordances of this learning structure affected my own sense of identity.
The Performative Self
I got to share and perform my academic self at a scale that isn’t always available to me as a grad student on a small, primarily undergraduate campus. And in pushing my own comfort zones of digital performativity by stepping beyond writing or face-to-face presenting to video and liveslide facilitation – both of which are new to me – I got to feel, for the first time in a long time, both how heady and how intimidating performativity can be.
Butler claims we bring ourselves into being, performatively, by constant repetitive, gestural citation of practices that are intelligible according to the norms of our culture. It hadn’t occurred to me how performing a role while still getting up to speed in appearing, say, intelligible – or intelligent – in that role can be extraordinarily intimidating: at least, it hadn’t occurred to me in years, since the last time I stepped so far out of my comfort zone to do something in public. The intimidation factor of performative acts may be something to consider when encountering people who are resistant to social networks and digital endeavours: online interactions tend to be more visibly or overtly performative than other aspects of our lives, and self-consciousness may contribute to some people’s hesitancy to engage.
The Quantified, Articulated self
My quantified self notices that I got a bunch of new Twitter followers this week, and my articulated self was excited to find out who they were and start to connect in return. I’m not a particularly good quantified self, however, in the sense that my practices don’t maximize my retention of Twitter followers, because I don’t auto-follow back. If you followed me, and you’d like to be part of a mutual network, just say hi.
My quantified self was mildly disappointed to notice that my Klout score didn’t measurably improve during the flurry of conversation this week, though again, if I were a better quantified self, I’d actually be tracking how many conversations and blog posts and FB chats I engaged in. Instead I just threw myself – splat – into the deep end and tried to connect. I had fun, even if my quantified self was mildly disappointed in me.
The Participatory Self
This, for me, was the self that this week was really all about.
Networked participation is such a different pedagogical model – if it could even be called that – than any other teaching or facilitation experience I’ve had. It’s the piece that makes this connectivist MOOC model so appealing to me: it’s distributed, and while the facilitator is accorded a disproportionate place of prominence within the network, the flow of ideas is many-to-many, not many-to-one. Other people’s comments on participants’ posts were as much as part of the conversation as my own: I chased the conversation, rather than driving it. In a distributed model, it’s easy to lose track of stuff unless you have a more organized quantified self than I do, tracking everything with apps and analytics, but I still managed to stumble on a lot of ideas and conversations about digital identities this week: to such an extent that my own ideas are shifting to adapt to and accommodate what they’ve encountered.
Finding your thoughts reflected forty different ways takes you beyond reflexivity – or the self looking at itself being watched – to diffraction, the optical creation of difference in the gaze process. It’ll take awhile, I think, for my participatory self to come to terms with how this experience has altered its own sense of self: my thesis thanks all you who had a part in the process.
The Asynchronous Self
Interestingly, the week’s facilitation centered around a synchronous live event, for which I was delighted to have nearly 50 people present (pipe down, Quantified Self) and engaged on the slides and in the chat. This drove home for me a point I don’t think I made particularly well in my first post of the week: appreciation of asynchronicity as an affordance does NOT mean lack of appreciation for real-time connection and live interaction, whether mediated or no. I may not especially want to chat on the phone, person-to-person, at any given time of your choosing, but being together with others in an interactive manner in real time for an event? Co-presence helps strengthen ties in social networks both online and off.
In fact, in an attention economy like social media, the capacity to create what Dave Cormier and Dave White coined “eventedness” a couple of year back is a big part of creating coherence and belonging within networked publics. Thanks to all of you who came out and who tweeted and shared comments from and responses to the livechat, thus helping ensure I didn’t feel like I’d thrown a MOOC and nobody came.
Where I particularly appreciated the affordance of asynchronous communication this week was in the one-to-one contacts I got to make with many of you through your comments here and your posts on your own blogs. It’s true that in many cases there are real limitations placed on the depth of our contact and discussion because of the asynchronicity of blog comments, but that asynchronous factor is what allows most of to participate in something like a MOOC in the first place. We’re all professionals, with other commitments. Taking a week out of our lives to attend a face-to-face class – or teach it – is a privilege the majority of us couldn’t swing. So the asynchronous self – with all its good and bad – is necessary just in making this kind of experience possible.
The Augmented Reality Self
Augmented reality is, in its simplest form, simply a way of saying that our digital lives enhance and augment – but are not separate or divided from – our physical selves. This view of our digital practices suggests that identity is multiple across spheres, and actions in each sphere influence all the selves we perform.
This was vividly driven home to me yesterday, when my dear old friend Jeff Lebow synchronized and posted last Wednesday’s video, audio, live slides and discussion session and posted it on YouTube. It was awesome of Jeff to do it, as I’d only gotten around to getting the slides up on Slideshare, but not to syncing the audio, let alone the chat.
So yep, awesome. Except then I watched it. And I lisped. Badly. All my sibilant sounds were like loud hissing feedback, and the little clicks that sometimes punctuate my speech were more like chicken clucks, and overall I sounded like I had marbles in my mouth.
And my first thought was not, Wow, wtf happened to the audio? It was Oh. My. God. I’ve been lisping my whole life and NOBODY TOLD ME! Because I forgot about the affordances – or lack thereof – of the digital self. I forgot that the self I see reflected back at me in my augmented reality is not always actually real.
I said aloud, “The sixth sheik’s sixth sheep is sick” and listened anxiously. Not much lisp, really. I clicked over to my introductory video for this week, and thought I sounded distinctly less hissy.
I wondered, aghast, how I’d managed to develop a lisp in only three short days! At forty!
Then it occurred to me that possibly it was just the audio. But my Performative Self was concerned that nobody else was going to know that, and my branded self worried I’d never get a speaking engagement again.
The video gave me an identity crisis. Because I live enmeshed between atoms and bits, and sometimes I forget that the two don’t operate quite the same. ;)
The Branded Self I find it interesting to think about how different communities and networks emphasize some of the selves more than others do: in the communities that tend to converge around MOOCs, for example, there is minimal incursion – to date – of monetization and its attendant practices. Facilitating this course this week brought me not a single sponsorship proposal (happily), whereas within momblogging and narrative blogging circles, daily pitches to sample and pimp products and events and releases have long been the norm for bloggers and community members with any prominence. I’ve chosen not to monetize my blogging, outside of speaking gigs, so for me the regular pitches to Try Product X for Mother’s Day! and Tell Your Readers All About Our Marvellous New Whatchamacallit! are more irritations than opportunities, but they simply come with the territory. And they shape the territory: in momblogging circles, the Me Inc. perspective on one’s practices and identity is just how things operate, even for those of us who stay outside the territory of overt monetization. I have business cards for my blog, because that is how that sphere operates.
So this one? Was a bit refreshing, because of the ways in which this community and its discourses exist in part as a pushback to the encroaching neoliberalism in higher ed today. But don’t think it’s not coming, people.
As my final word to #change11, let me play prognosticator and prophet from a land in which branded, commodified selves have a long heritage and say this.
All of us in higher ed need to grapple openly and creatively with our relationships to the monetization that’s on the horizon. Because it’s there, and it’s looming, and now is the time to come to terms with both what it threatens and what it offers.
The play and experimentation – and volunteerism – represented by our connectivist MOOCs and their attendant practices are increasingly less visible in the cultural discourse around education and technologies. That’s no fault of anyone here, in my opinion. Nor does it mean we’re headed for a dystopia. But the game is changing, and a field that’s been remarkably free of the particular affordances -and structuring limitations – of economic capital is entering a new era.
Yesterday, The Atlantic posted the first mainstream media article on MOOCs that simply took the term at face value, as if the word popped up history-less last fall with the creation of the Stanford AI course and MITx. But their MOOC model is not this MOOC model, make no mistake. And if the tweets that came out of the Education Innovation Summit last month were any indication, a bevy of Ed Reform-minded politicians and movers and shakers are lined up to put dollars behind start-ups in ed and higher ed. Again, not necessarily a dystopic picture, but one to be wary of. And to be strategic about.
My own experience as a blogger in a field long since monetized is this. The branding and commodification hasn’t, contrary to my initial pearl-clutching horror, ruined everything. I know monetized bloggers who push the narrative and conversation envelope, though often from within specific niches, and who participate and perform within their networked publics in ways that add real value to their communities. And I don’t begrudge them the money they make doing so. Everybody needs to eat. Those who dismiss all monetization as “selling out” are often safely ensconced in the kind of pensioned jobs that others of us may never see.
But those niches change things, as does the sense of oneself as an identity within a market.
Facilitating #change11 this week made one thing very clear for me: networks are what matters about what we do here. This is a networked public, and the affordances of that networked public are what makes this experience so different from traditional hierarchical models of learner and knower.
And here’s the thing, looking down the road. Brand can exist in networks. Neoliberalism can exist in networks. Monetization can exist in networks, to an extent. But where these operate as trojan horses for bringing hierarchical institutional power back into the game to dominate, box out and silence the creative and connective power of networks, then be nervous. The affordances of the Internet open up all kinds of possibilities and selves and worlds. I do not want to go back into the box, people.
I opened my presentation the other day with Haraway’s cyborg, and I leave you with her. She is subversive, irreverent, blasphemous to her origins. Haraway envisioned her as the illegitimate child of the military-industrial complex, who contained within her oppositional, intimate, always relational self the capacity to escape the teleology of the 20th century story.
A year or so ago, I began playing with the idea of the branded cyborg; Haraway’s cyborg with the explicit digital identity of brand and commodity grafted on to her. A cyborg for this 21st century conversation. A cyborg for Ed Reform times.
I secretly hope, of course, that she is the Master’s Tool who can dismantle the Master’s house. I secretly hope that we, in our digital identities, are her.