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.

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’. ;)

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!).

do you know networks? on leaving the Garden of Eden

Today, class, we’re going to talk about networks. And education. And power relations. Yes, again. I KNOW. You poor lambs.

I fear becoming a proselytizer. The good people who show up at my door asking if I know Jesus are not my people. I like doubters, complications, ideas that break down assumptions and build toward further questions, not answers.

And yet every time I introduce the topic of networks I feel as if I inch a little closer to preaching to the self-selected network choir and ONLY the network choir and I worry. Preaching is not the work I set out to do. Rather, I want to dig, to lay out ideas, to build new ideas. I am ever-tempted by the Tree of Knowledge. But – and this is my problem, perhaps, a problem shared by my entire household…or at least its members over four feet tall – I no longer think it is a tree.

I have thought, for ten years since I first read Deleuze and Guattari and mentioned them in passing to Dave Cormier in a long-distance phone booth call from Switzerland to Korea, that it is a rhizome. The fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is not an apple, in my belief systems.

It is a weed.

Yet I was raised by the tidy gardeners and the pesticide companies and the folks who built enclosures for weedy ideas, locking them in like dandelions under glass. And likely, dear reader, so were you.

I talk about networks not to try to convert you…but to try to understand the limits of the systems we were raised in. To understand what is happening now that structure of those systems and their institutions no longer describes the structure of information flow in our society. To understand how and why the powers-that-be still rely, structurally, on those systems’ totalizing capacity. To ask how it has come to be that participatory networked practices are more likely to be framed as threats than opportunities for education in the 21st century. And to wonder who benefits from that framing.

(Okay, maybe I am trying to convert you, a little. Only because the Eden we thought we grew up in is gone.)

I chose a profession I initially understood in terms of tidy gardener and encloser roles: I became a teacher. I wanted to get as close to the Tree of Knowledge as I could, and to bring others into that garden. But teaching is messy: it bears little resemblance to distributing apples in Eden. I taught Inuit high school students from a social studies curriculum in which their people and their history did not appear at all; I taught GED adult learners in a back room in a tiny rural schoolhouse where many of them had learned, as children, that they were not made to succeed in school. The desks were too small for all of us. The metaphorical apples clunked on the floor. My students had long ago learned to distrust apples.

It was through weeds that I reached them, any of them, to whatever extent I reached them: informal threads snaking from one human to another. They were not Eves waiting to eat. Our learning happened underground, snaking underneath the formal level of the curriculum. Tentative connections, in multiple directions. I tried to design learning experiences, but I did not control them. Most often it was me who learned: variations on How Not To Fail The Same Way Twice.

I began to understand that my concepts of success and failure were stacked around a very narrow stream of life options and legitimacy. I began to sense the edges of what Knobel & Lankshear (2006) call “the deep grammar of schooling,” the institutionalization of my own thoughts and conceptual tools. I began to think of print as an educational problem for my students, not a solution.

My issue was not with the technology of letters per se. I love print as text, the ways its technology of letters allows for skimming and floating and starting in the middle.

My critique was for the culture of print: the Truths we use it to reinforce and regulate and reify.

My Masters thesis (2000) led me to think about the ways print works, about the ways in which the technologies of a given time shape what it means to know in that time. Things written in print are either finished or not. They do not blend into each other; they do not create webs. They create canons, privileging some over others and erasing the steps of their logic so as to make it all appear natural. They encourage us to see knowledge as finite and discrete; truth as singular, sanctioned. Our cultural attachment to the idea of knowledge as arboreal, tree-like, apple-whole: this is based in print, in The Good Book itself and moreso, in the very idea of The Good Book. Yet this Eden of high print culture, so deeply embedded in Enlightenment ideals of binaries and taxonomies, has never really had apples for everybody.

Dave Cormier’s #rhizo14 course this week is taking on the limitations of print in a Nicholas Carr parody titled “Is books making us stupid?” Risky, that. Even those of us who have spent years unpacking all the ways that print as a medium hardens and solidifies knowledge are still culturally conditioned to love books. *I* love books. When Dave announced the title for this week’s theme, I laughed and winced and hoped no offended book enthusiasts would feel it necessary to beat him about the head with a dictionary.

I don’t think books make us any stupider currently than we always have been. But even as we cling to our bookshelves of beloved companions with their dusty pages and their old-book smell, it behooves us to consider the ways in which print has shaped us societally towards institutionalization and compliance, the ways in which the deep grammar of schooling is written in print.

Because we are conditioned think of books not as technologies of paper, with particular affordances, but as representations of human good.

It’s true that until the last generation, books stood as the epitome of human capacity to share knowledge. Books were bastions against ignorance…symbols of freedom of thought against repression and enclosure. But…and this is important…it was the free exchange of ideas and communications we valorized in that Enlightenment ideal. Not actually the small yet increasingly commodified paper packet. Yet we conflated the two. And in the process, we allowed the grammar of schooling to reinforce a Romantic identification of books, in particular, with all things noble about humanity.

And that’s a mistake, because for all that good and that beautiful, undeniable history, books and their affordances – their action possibilities – are part of a complex economic system just as digital technologies are, and create mindsets that can be as limiting as they are freeing.

Books teach us implicitly that the culmination of writing as an act of communications is a product, not a conversation; a finite rather than a fluid thing. Books teach us that the one speaks to the many, but the many cannot speak back and be heard.

Education as a system is built upon and relies on the taxonomic, hierarchic structures print reinforces. It relies on people learning their places within those structures. Education is historically both a product and a producer of a deeply-embedded command and control society, as Matt Reed pointed out in Inside Higher Ed earlier this week. Now, networks have power relations too…networks can amplify inequality just as they amplify everything else. But their power relations are less fixed, more quixotic. They can cause harm, absolutely. But our conversations about that harm and about throwing one’s life away with a tweet seldom take up the harm that institutionalized power relations of racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and classism enact upon people every day. Those are the power relations naturalized by The Book and the deep grammar of schooling it is embedded in.

And here’s the thing. Perhaps that was, arguably, the best we could do. At least until knowledge and information exceeded the scarce and weighty bonds of paper and the distribution structures of shipping through time and space. It is no longer the best we can do. It is no longer WHAT most of us do, in our day to day lives. Yet the institutions and gatekeepers of the old Eden struggle to adapt and maintain the familiar balance of power by convincing us we are still better off relying, passive and trusting, on their noblesse oblige than on each other.

I do not think we should throw out our books. I am not such a network evangelist that I want what books have stood for to fall away from us, as humans. But nor do I want that to remain the limit of our vision.

Because in a world of information abundance, the walled Garden of Eden it reified is…gone. It cannot be brought back. Those who sell us a simulacra of its glories are only propping up the power relations of the past.

That Eden of *real* print culture is only a Potemkin village now, no matter how the gardeners and the pesticide companies would like to gain control back over the weeds. Let us leave the apples behind, and see what those weeds can reap.

in the wake of MOOC hype, what shall we talk about?

So, the Typhoid Mary of education disruption, Sebastian Thrun, has admitted that venture capital interests are not well-suited to the complex structural realities of public education, and moved on to professional and corporate training.

Ding dong, the MOOC hype is dead.

(Yes, Audrey Watters and Mike Caulfield are both quite right: this doesn’t mean venture capital is moving out of education’s purview, nor can educators just “shrug off lousy educational practices because they occur outside the walls of formal education.” Agreed. But the professional training end of education has always been a business: it’s never had the same public and societal responsibilities, nor scope of systemic challenges.)

Yes, we need to talk about venture capital’s incursion into education, even at the corporate training level. And we also need to talk about what it means to pitch the promise of education as social mobility in a society where the promise of jobs is actually pretty scant. We need to talk about academic labour in higher ed’s increasingly adjunctified system. We need to talk about the ways in which institutional higher ed both supports and penalizes students, by nature of its systemic structure. We need to talk about pedagogies for utilizing the internet to teach cheaply and widely. We need to talk about the fact that Udacity was allowed to conduct its Silicon Valley-style “fail fast” experiment on public (and largely minority) students at San Jose State. All of these are connected conversations, broadly.

But if the “solution” of venture capital MOOCs is off the table, maybe we can stop getting mired in the plate of shiny red herring it pretends to offer to all these real issues, and actually work on them. Maybe across some of the fault lines the hype has created.

To me, Thrun’s change of course changes the whole discussion, because it forces the flaming hype of MOOCs as replacements for systemic education to separate into the multiple conversations that have been conflated under that rhetoric for more than a year. Udacity’s about-face may not prove the VC model for education won’t work, but it sure lays out the fundamental disconnects between shareholder accountability and messy public education real nice.

Let’s talk about that.

Yesterday’s news might even mean we stop talking about MOOCs at all, since Thrun’s putting distance between his new initiatives and the word (Rolin Moe looks at this and the whole Udacity announcement in far more complexity here). Makes sense. By definition, corporate training is structured to be neither massive – even in possibility, as it’s bounded by the corporation’s limits of who belongs and who qualifies – nor open.

Then, those of us interested in what massive and open can mean, learning-wise, can go back to whatever we decide to call networked open online learning, aka the MOOCs outside the venture capital model. As George Siemens said this morning, “Make no mistake – this is a failure of Udacity and Sebastian Thrun. This is not a failure of open education, learning at scale, online learning, or MOOCs.” Or, in Martin Weller’s words: “Does this mean MOOCs are dead? Not really. It just means they aren’t the massive world revolution none of us thought they were anyway.”

I come to bury hype, not to praise it.

…And in terms of what I think MOOCs are, here’s a taste of a small, semi-open one I’ve really enjoyed being a part of this past week.

I’m one of the facilitators and participants in the #wweopen13 MOOC on Online Instruction for Open Educators. I’m teaching a short conceptual-ish introduction to the idea of networked identities, for people interested in teaching online.

What do identities have to do with teaching online? I think of identities as being at the centre of networked participation, and the ethos of participation that Lankshear and Knobel emphasize as one of the key “new literacies” for moving beyond just tossing paper-based educational materials onto a computer. Networks are at the centre of online interaction.
(This isn’t to say we don’t have networks in our f2f worlds and lives – families are, broadly speaking and in the extended sense, networked systems that we’re webbed into).
But to the extent to which online engagement differs from f2f, it’s the networked aspects of identity and the ways in which digital technologies shape networked identity that can make an online learning experience very different from just transporting a paper syllabus to screen. In online networks, we rely on identity profiles and practices to understand who is present alongside us and whether we want to engage with them. Others read our identity signals to make the same decisions about us.

Yet the institutional structures and norms that dominate our society and particularly our education system do not foster networked identities. In the midst of all the pressure for educators to somehow prepare students for this mythical “21st century” we seem to be both living in yet still casting as the eternal and exotic future, the whole fact that schooling practices are broadly structured to create herd identities of compliance and uniform mastery rather than networked identities of differentiation is…well…not surprising. But definitely a disconnect.

Here’s the slideshow from my live sessions this week, exploring my ever-expanding “key selves” of digital identities as well as some of the benefits and challenges of identity work as a connected educator, and a cameo from Freire.

the story of education: a Grimm fairy tale

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

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

A trail of breadcrumbs to follow.

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

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

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

Yeh. That.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeh. That.

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

What if it’s you?

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


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

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

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

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

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

“find your niche” can suck my elephant: on Bourdieu’s distinction, and social media identity

Find your niche, they tell us, all those contemporary exhortations to success. 

Do the thing you love and the money will follow! 

I’ve been reading Bourdieu, thinking about his concept of distinction. Distinction is at the heart of Bourdieu’s theory of cultural consumption, or how we divide ourselves by class in contemporary culture. In his work, class distinctions go far beyond economics to other forms of capital. Symbolic capital and cultural capital – the ineffables of class captured in phrases like “high class” and “classy” – manifest in aesthetic preferences that are actually marks of taste, or belonging. They refer less to money than to status and aesthetic status markers.

They aren’t only the purview of the ruling classes, though. Every group within society has its markers, its distinctions. We think of them as our tastes, but they are – says Bourdieu – markers of our class identities, internalized and usually invisible to us. (Or they were until the hipsters started drinking Pabst, at least.)

Distinction says “I am not that. I am this.”

In Bourdieu’s work, “all cultural symbols and practices, from artistic tastes, style in dress, and eating habits to religion, science and philosophy – even language itself – embody interests and function to enhance social distinctions” (D. Schwartz, Culture & Power, 1997, p. 6).

Bourdieu is helping me understand why I shudder when I hear “find your niche.”

I am in the middle of designing the study around which I will build my dissertation. 

Any act of writing, really, shapes what comes after. And while you’re not married to your dissertation, it IS a significant relationship. It’s years of your life. And a carving out of intellectual territory, particularly if your research is your own.

And so each of the small choices by which I’m gingerly shaping the direction of my Research Ethics Board proposal feel amplified, like echoes that bounce ahead into unseen territory. Most aren’t likely to cause rockslides, really, but the fact that I cannot tell the difference is ever intimidating.

I am relearning, again, the story of the blind men and the elephant.

The field of education is a strange animal. It straddles the disciplines of the academy, but it is not – at least so far as I understand it – a discipline unto itself. It is, rather, an elephant.

In the nearly twenty years since I started my Bachelors of Education program in 1993, I’ve run the full gamut of wise blind men – and women – clutching at tails and feet and ears. Some swear the entire animal corresponds to the piece they hold. Some work hard to see and appreciate the whole, except for that cancerous hunk over there, with its discourses irreconcilable to the piece they have spent their careers grooming.

It’s rather like distinction. The “I am not that” is as important as “I am this.” And all of it is tied to practices and discourses and identity.

And I, of course, am no different. All the more full of hubris, because I keep believing I’ve discovered the outline of the whole beast only to slip again in elephant shit.

But now, I must choose a part of the elephant to tie myself to, upon which to build the rest of my career.

The last time I planted my own stake firmly in the poor old elephant it was for only a Master’s thesis and really, it was neither a professional nor a public enterprise then. There was no social media and nobody much outside my committee ever read it except Dave, bless him. That it got published a few years later was a great joy to me, because publication wasn’t what grad school seemed to be about, then and there. I thought then that education was a societal enterprise best geared toward social justice and analyzed via poststructuralism and if I didn’t fully understand what all that was, well, the rest of the class were still stuck debating whether kids should wear hats in class or no.

But I am now in a faculty far more strongly aligned with the social sciences and that has opened up new doors for me into my research. And so I am a neophyte all over again, self-consciously grappling with a part of the elephant I’ve never held or named.

And all the while, the elephant itself keeps changing.

Higher ed in general is far more self-conscious and self-aware and strategic than it was fifteen years ago. The world of knowledge and cultural production has had its gatekeeping industries exposed and deconstructed; its institutions questioned.

That’s the narrative around which my dissertation and my research study are designed: I’m interested in our practices as social media subjects because I think social media and its ever-encroaching neoliberalism has changed the cultural and knowledge production industries most  – or at least first – and academia, according to Bourdieu, is one of these industries. The find your niche prescription for success that permeates contemporary culture echoes strongest out here in social media, where we make ourselves in words and pictures everyday, and are taken up by others as we portray ourselves. But it is part of the academic process too: hence the meta-dilemma of this act of picking which part of the elephant to stand in. Or on. The cultural pressure shaping both is largely the same.

As I saw in my tweetstream just yesterday morning, via @resnikoff: “Ubiquity/structure of social media mean you’re now an eccentric if you *don’t* treat your public presence like a corporate brand.”

In finalizing my research direction, I’m in effect branding myself, tattooing myself all over with identifications, with labels and signifiers.

I am making my niche as a scholar, just as surely as I am making my niche publicly by writing and tweeting about social media media identity.

And in making my niche, I end up not just getting stuck with one part of the elephant, but in all the conversation about the damn elephant, too: all the baggage of generations of scholarly debate.

That’s the problem with “finding your niche,” people. It mires you in everybody else’s distinction processes. Wonder why everybody’s slagging everybody else so hard these days for seemingly mundane choices? We’re not actually arguing with each other, anymore. We’re just enacting distinction. We’re shouting about our part of the elephant.

Niches, of course, are boxes. Rather like the academic disciplines, niches first coalesce areas of interest and then harden lines of communication and their underlying ideologies. If you have a niche, your interactions with the world tend to take on something of a “stay on message” party line. And especially in the social media sphere – which is generally where one is magically supposed to find one’s niche, or at least the market for it -even a purely professional niche becomes a central component of the identity around which relational interactions with others are built.

The “find your niche” mantra is a discourse that reduces a world of complexity to false simplicity. The neoliberal market assumption that there actually IS a niche for everyone makes inherent value judgements about the kinds of people and practices that matter, and it tends to elide the issue of all those who do not fit its precepts. Don’t have something of market value? Don’t want or know how to shill it? You don’t count as a “you,” then, apparently.

Or better yet, you’re arrogant for not self-promoting. Yeh. Far better to find your niche as a pompous zealot.

But then I think, hush, Bonnie. Because my reaction to that kind of extreme neoliberalism is just MY distinction processes at work.

As an educator, yes, it’s part of my role to consider the literacies and privileges and means of production that tend to be necessary for people to actually engage – successfully or no – in the cultural production processes of social media and contemporary commerce. It’s part of my role to value, recognize, and foreground things that the market is not designed to reward. And that role is part of my identity.

But the tastes in discourse and values that led me to choose that role? The ones that are largely invisible to me as anything other than the way the world *should* be?

Those are products of distinction. Just as is my preference for complexity over simplicity.

You are not that, distinction tells us. You are this. And this is good. Our tastes go unrecognized for what they are: the ways in which we construct and are constructed by the hierarchies of society in our turn. Distinction  makes aesthetic and taste and identification preferences appear simply natural.

So. Here’s my hypothesis:

In my research study on social media identities and practices, I want to explore whether and how distinction, as part of Bourdieu’s theory of cultural consumption, can be applied to cultural production, too.

One of the tenets of social media identity is that we are prosumers, involved in processes of produsage. We put our own work out there, and consume and comment on that of others. Thanks to the weakening of those traditional gatekeeping industries that protected the role and status of cultural knowledge producers in academia and journalism and the arts over recent years, we have become part of the cultural production conversation. Production, in other words, is no longer so separate from consumption.

I suspect this is how the so-called culture wars have gotten so nasty over the last few years. As cultural production’s come uncoupled from the traditional gatekeeping institutions – which themselves all had roles in the hierarchies of cultural and symbolic capital – it has become increasingly overtly aligned: the once-naturalized taste distinctions between opera and bluegrass music, for instance, have been gradually blurred and broken down. Cultural products that once carried high class status became visibly commodified, and the ease of technological reproduction and sharing has made awareness of products that were once marginalized appear more exclusive and “authentic.” This lent them a particular sheen of symbolic capital, because their ties to any sort of economic interest were less visible.

In other words, things have gotten messy. Add in a panoptical site of identity performance and prosumption like social media, and you’ve got people’s distinction reactions bouncing up against each other All The Time.

I think our webs of alignment and values have gotten all tangled up. We can see and feel the alignments at an identity level – and react accordingly, with our “I am not that!” defenses of whatever it is we feel is threatened – but because of the way distinction operates, we can’t name them or unpack them particularly well.

We find our niches – even those of us who resent the idea for its reductionism and its misrepresentation of overt economic interests as natural and good – and we cling to our pieces of the metaphorical elephant like blind men, insisting we see the whole, and we wonder what the hell happened.

Does this make sense?

In my research, I want to explore our social media practices, our identity performances, and our alignments of distinction within this newly fragmented field of cultural production, or prosumption. And I want to consider the ways in which dominant neoliberal social media discourses like “find your niche” – which encourage strategic thinking but also naturalize and assume universal market reward without need for other systems – affect our identities and our sociality. All while I unpack my own distinction processes and biases as I go.

Now, I just need to frame this in a way that makes sense to the various keepers of the elephant.