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:
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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.

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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.

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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.


Networks of Care and Vulnerability

This Thursday – November 6th at 1:30pm – I’m a guest in George Veletsianos’ #scholar14 open course, talking about networks as places of care and vulnerability. It’s a Google hangout, so the talk will be an informal back and forth, open (I hope?) to multiple voices if folks want to join in.

It may even be a little bit fraught, as George may have had a different concept of vulnerability in mind when he first suggested the topic. He frames vulnerability in terms of sharing struggles, which I’ll definitely talk about on Thursday; my online origins lie deep in the heart of that territory. But, the juxtaposition of care and vulnerability, as a topic, was rich enough it that it helped me grapple with some of the complexities I was trying to frame from my research study, and I took up vulnerability more through a lens of risks and costs. As I am wont to do, I ran with that lens, and ended up not only with the presentation below (liveslides from Alec Couros and Katia Hildebrandt’s EC&I831 class last month) but with half a research paper under that working title for my ongoing dissertation project. So. Yay for networks.

Join us Thursday for the fisticuffs over sharing v. risk. Or something like that. ;)

More seriously, I may have ended up in a somewhat different place than George envisioned, but it’s a place I think needs to be visited and explored.

The Risks and Costs of Networked Participation
I just spent a week almost entirely offline, for the first time in…oh…about a decade. Not an intended internet sabbatical, but a side effect of extended theme park adventuring with small children and a phone that turns into a brick when I cross the US border. Y’all were spared an excess of gratuitous commentary on the great American simulacra that is Disney, basically. You’re welcome.

Being disconnected from my network was kind of refreshing. No work, no ambient curation, no framing and self-presentation for a medium with infinite, searchable memory.

It didn’t mean I was magically present the whole time with my darling offspring: I remain a distractible human who sometimes needs to retreat to her own thoughts, online or off. Nor did it mean I missed out entirely on the surge of painful yet necessary public discussion of sexual violence, consent, and cultures of abuse and silence that bloomed in the wake of Canada’s Craziest News Week EVER. Still. Sometimes a dead phone is a handy way to cope with the overload and overwhelm of networked life, especially for those who both consume and contribute to the swirl of media in which we swim.

Because contributing and participating, out in the open – having opinions and ideas in public – has costs.

Participation makes us visible to others who may not know us, and makes our opinions and perspectives visible to those who may know *us,* but have never had to grapple with taking our opinions or positions seriously (oh hai, FB feeds and comments sections hijacked by various versions of #notallmen, #notallwhitewomen, and #notalltenuredscholars).

Participation enrols us in a media machine that is always and already out of our control; an attention economy that increasingly takes complex identities and reduces them to sound bites and black & white alignments.

The costs are cumulative. And they need to be talked about, by those of us who talk about networks in education and in scholarship and in research. Because in open networks, a networked identity is the price of admission. The costs are what one pays to play. But they are paid at the identity level, and they are not evenly distributed by race, gender, class, orientation, or any other identity marker. And so with participation comes differential risks. This matters.

Bud Hunt pointed out in a (paywalled but worthwhile) Educating Modern Learners article this morning that October was Connected Educators Month…and also Gamergate. Two sides of the participatory coin. Audrey Watters doubled down on that disconnect this afternoon in Hybrid Pedagogy, riffing on Dylan’s Maggie’s Farm and asking edtech to take a good, hard look at what we ask of students when we ask them to work online:

“And I think you need to think about your own work. Where you work. For whom.

And then you must consider where you demand your students work. For whom they work. Who profits. Where that content, where that data, where those dimes flow.”
– Audrey Watters, 2014

So. This post comes, like Bud and Audrey’s pieces, from a growing dismay and uneasiness with what’s happening at the intersection of technologies and capital and education; a growing belief that the risks and costs of networked identity are an ethical issue educators and researchers need to own and explore. It comes from looking through my research data for what Audrey calls “old hierachies hard-coded onto new ones.”
Attending to Each Other in the Attention Economy
But it also comes from the sense that there is more; that the ties created even in the most abject, hierarchical, surveilled online spaces tend, like good cyborg entities, to exceed their origins.

It comes not just from the formal research data collected over months of ethnographic observation and conversation, but also from some deep and powerful conversations that the research process created.

I didn’t know Kate Bowles especially well when I put out the call for participants in my dissertation project a year ago today. She didn’t know she had breast cancer when she agreed to participate. Somewhere along the road of the past year, our discussions of identity and networks and academia and self and life sometimes got beautifully tangled, as ideas actually do, freed from eureka-moment idealizations of authorship. And somewhere in the middle of one of those tangles, she reminded me that my sometimes grim vision of the attention economy is not the only way to conceive of attention at all; that its origins come from stretching towards and caring for each other.

“the attention economy…isn’t just about clicks and eyeballs, but also about the ways in which we selectively tend towards each other, and tend each other’s thoughts–it’s an economy of care, not just a map to markets.”
– Kate Bowles, 2014

I don’t know what to make of all that…but there’s hope in it that I’m not willing to abandon just yet. When I think about networked scholarship right now, it’s in terms of these contradictions of care and vulnerability, all writ large in the attention economies of our worst and better angels.

Maybe on Thursday, in the #scholar14 hangout, we’ll figure it out together and I’ll know how my paper should end. ;)

something is rotten in the state of…Twitter

I read another article yesterday on The Death of Twitter: they’re multiplying, these narratives, just like the fruit flies in my kitchen.

Like fruit flies, these lamentations for Twitter do not spontaneously generate, but are born from a process of decay: they are the visible signs of something left neglected, something rotting quietly out of sight.

Since I’m currently in the extended throes of researching Twitter for my dissertation, I read these articles like I used to read Cosmo back when I was twenty: half-anxious that Enlightenment will be contained in the next paragraph, half-anxious it won’t. When I was twenty, I had Cosmo to make me feel miserable about the gap between what I valued and what I saw reflected and valued by the world. These days, I have The End of Big Twitter.

I wonder about what it means to research something changing so quickly, so drastically. Will my dissertation end up being about the Twitter that was, rather than whatever it is in the process of becoming? Can a person become an historian by accident?

Is this all there is to say, anymore?
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Because once there was more, at least for me. Way back in the arcane days of 2006 and 2007, I went to live among another culture – participatory culture, in its heyday – and felt at home for the first time. A particular confluence of privilege and obscurity and the need to speak things I had no place to speak aloud contributed…and the experience was mostly good. Not always ideal, by any means, but networks and Twitter in particular opened for me whole worlds of conversations and ties that I would never – flat-out – otherwise have had access to. And those conversations and ties have shaped my identity, my work, and my trajectory in life dramatically over the last eight years. Yet I sense the conditions that made all that possible shifting, slipping away.

I do not know what comes next, at this strange intersection. This post is My Own Private Fruitfly: its lifespan short and humid. It may be dead or obsolete in fifty days. But it is what I see, here and now, on the heels of a sweltering and disturbing August.

“The Death of Twitter” is Not About Twitter
I’m no great fan of their recent platform changes and even less of the likelihood that they’re about to make what I see in my feed far more algorithmically-determined, a la Facebook. But I don’t think a new platform will arise to save what’s getting lost and lamented about Twitter. The issue all the articles point to is about Twitter As We Knew It (TM) as a representation of an era, a kind of practice. At the core, it is about the ebbing away of networked communications and participatory culture – or at least, first-generation participatory culture as I knew it, as Jenkins is perhaps best-known for describing it.

It is also about the concurrent rise of what I *hope* is peak Attention Economy.

(Of course, the founding premise of the Attention Economy is there’s no such thing as too much Attention Economy, so yeh, I’m probably wrong on the peak front .)

Consolidation of the Status Quo
Some of this is overt hostile takeover – a trifecta of monetization and algorithmic thinking and status quo interests like big brands and big institutions and big privilege pecking away at participatory practices since at least 2008.

Oh, you formed a little unicorn world where you can communicate at scale outside the broadcast media model? Let us sponsor that for you, sisters and brothers. Let us draw you from your domains of your own to mass platforms where networking will, for awhile, come fully into flower while all the while Venture Capital logics tweak and incentivize and boil you slowly in the bosom of your networked connections until you wake up and realize that the way you talk to half the people you talk to doesn’t encourage talking so much as broadcasting anymore. Yeh. Oh hey, *that* went well.

And in academia, with Twitter finally on the radar of major institutions, and universities issuing social media policies and playing damage control over faculty tweets with the Salaita firing and even more recent, deeply disturbing rumours of institutional interventions in employee’s lives, this takeover threatens to choke a messy but powerful set of scholarly practices and approaches it never really got around to understanding. The threat of being summarily acted upon by the academy as a consequence of tweets – always present, frankly, particularly for untenured and more vulnerable members of the academic community – now hangs visibly over all heads…even while the medium is still scorned as scholarship by many.

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You’re Doing It Wrong 
But there’s more. The sense of participatory collective – always fraught – has waned as more and more subcultures are crammed and collapsed into a common, traceable, searchable medium. We hang over each other’s heads, more and more heavily, self-appointed swords of Damocles waiting with baited breath to strike. Participation is built on a set of practices that network consumption AND production of media together…so that audiences and producers shift roles and come to share contexts, to an extent. Sure, the whole thing can be gamed by the public and participatory sharing of sensationalism and scandal and sympathy and all the other things that drive eyeballs.

But where there are shared contexts, the big nodes and the smaller nodes are – ideally – still people to each other, with longterm, sustained exposure and impressions formed. In this sense, drawing on Walter Ong’s work on the distinctions between oral and literate cultures, Liliana Bounegru has claimed that Twitter is a hybrid: orality is performative and participatory and often repetitive, premised on memory and agonistic struggle and the acceptance of many things happening at once, which sounds like Twitter As We Knew It (TM), while textuality enables subjective and objective stances, transcending of time and space, and collaborative, archivable, analytical knowledge, among other things.

Thomas Pettitt even calls the era of pre-digital print literacy “The Gutenberg Parenthesis;” an anomaly of history that will be superceded by secondary orality via digital media. 

Um…we may want to rethink signing up for that rodeo. Because lately secondary orality via digital media seems like a pretty nasty, reactive state of being, a collective hiss of “you’re doing it wrong.” Tweets are taken up as magnum opi to be leapt upon and eviscerated, not only by ideological opponents or threatened employers but by in-network peers…because the Attention Economy rewards those behaviours. Oh hai, print literacies and related vested interests back in ascendency, creating a competitive, zero-sum arena for interaction. Such fun!

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Which is not to say there’s no place for “you’re doing it wrong.” Twitter, dead or no, is still a powerful and as yet unsurpassed platform for raising issues and calling out uncomfortable truths, as shown in its amplification of the #Ferguson protests to media visibility (in a way Facebook absolutely failed to do thanks to the aforementioned algorithmic filters). Twitter is, as my research continues to show, a path to voice. At the same time, Twitter is also a free soapbox for all kinds of shitty and hateful statements that minimize or reinforce marginalization, as any woman or person of colour who’s dared to speak openly about the raw deal of power relations in society will likely attest. And calls for civility will do nothing except reinforce a respectability politics of victim-blaming within networks. This intractable contradiction is where we are, as a global neoliberal society: Twitter just makes it particularly painfully visible, at times.

Impossible Identities
Because there is no way to win. The rot we’re seeing in Twitter is the rot of participatory media devolved into competitive spheres where the collective “we” treats conversational contributions as fixed print-like identity claims. As Emily Gordon notes, musing about contemporary Twitter as a misery vaccuum, the platform brings into collision people who would probably never otherwise end up in the same public space. Ever. And that can be amazing, when there are processes by which people are scaffolded into shared contexts. Or just absolutely exhausting. We don’t know how to deal with collapsed publics, full stop. We don’t know how to talk across our differences. So participatory media becomes a cacophonic sermon of shame and judgement and calling each other out, to the point where no identity is pure enough to escape the smug and pointless carnage of petty collective reproach.

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Somewhere, Donna Haraway and her partial, ironic, hybrid cyborg weep, I think.

This doesn’t mean I’m leaving Twitter. I’m not leaving Twitter. If this post is a fruit fly signalling rot, it is likewise the testament of a life dependent on the decaying platform for its sustenance. The fruit is still sweet, around the rotten bits. And there is no other fruit in the basket that will do so well.
Perhaps it is not rot. Some would call it inevitable, part of the cycle of change and enclosure that seems to mark the emergence of all new forms of working and thinking together. I’m not so sure: that still smells to me like high modernity. Either way, I will miss Twitter As We Knew It (TM)…but I wonder: what am I not seeing yet? What paths of subversion, connection, hybridity are still open?

I’m over by the fruit bowl, listening.

We Don’t Need No Thought Control: the deep grammar of schooling

Late last month I went to London, not to look at The Queen but to lead three days of Media & Information Literacies workshops with Swedish teachers. It was a pleasure and a privilege and also just a really good time…and I came away having learned the following:

1. When I was 13 and I thought I wanted to run away to London to hang out with David Bowie and Boy George I HAD TOTALLY GOOD INSTINCTS. At least about cities.
2. Swedish teachers do not dress like Canadian teachers. Which may be just a Euro v. North American style distinction…but since, in my world, you can’t turn around without stumbling on people fretting about the dang PISA test and Finland, the theme of teacher professionalization and status has been on my mind. And while Sweden is NOT Finland, hey, it’s next door. So when I wandered into the first all-Swedish event of my stay, I found it curious to observe the fact that pretty much every. single. person brought the funk and androgyny (and great boots!) generally reserved here for NYC artistes or filmmakers and I wondered about cultural capital and masculinities and how a profession builds its own reputation for cool. Then I wondered where I could get myself some new and improved boots, thank you very much.
3. Again, Sweden is NOT Finland. Ahem. I learned Swedes are not officially fond of Finland. Or the PISA test. They will, if pressed, politely talk about their boots. The folks I met mostly wanted to talk with great thoughtfulness and enthusiasm about learning. They were lovely. Thanks, Per!
4. Swedish schools increasingly – though not necessarily entirely equitably – have 1 to 1 computing, meaning a device in the hands of every student.

The last one blew my mind.

The possibility of an education system where connectivity and bandwidth and crappy outdated computers and blocked sites are NOT a hurdle is, frankly, totally outside my experience. When I realized I was talking about networked education with a group of people who actually have the infrastructure to DO networked education, I felt like I’d landed at Disneyland.

For all of about 23 minutes.

Then I listened some more to what they were telling me. And I discovered what I should have known – the challenges education faces coming to terms with information abundance and 21st century communications media and all that those shifts imply are NOT actually infrastructure challenges. Yes, those are real, and they are political, and distribution of technologies is uneven and unequal and that is important to talk about and address. But they are not the key barrier.

Technology is not a solution to problems of competing knowledge claims and changing communications structures. Digital technologies can be a tool for making meaning within information abundance, but in order to function as a tool, they require skills and literacies for using them effectively FOR THAT PURPOSE.

If you could wave a magic wand and put a working iPad in the hands of every teacher and student in the world tomorrow, we’d still have an institutional schooling structure that is neither designed nor equipped nor interested in truly taking on the challenges of networked education, no matter how much lip service it pays to the ideas of “innovation” and “21st century learning.” This structure is not something we can carve out and separate from the heart of our concepts of school – it IS our concept of school. We – teachers and students most of the world ’round – are complicit in it; in upholding and replicating what Lankshear and Knobel call the “deep grammar” of schooling (2006). When we consider the idea of classrooms full of young people with devices in their hands, the words that leap to minds and mouths aren’t “connection!” or “participation!” but “distraction” and “disruption”…in all senses of the term. This is our institutionalization showing.

Our institutionalization means that, without new ways to conceptualize the work of learning, we end up replicating top-down power and knowledge structures no matter how many shiny screens we add to classrooms. Yet knowledge and information no longer work that way, not really.

I left London wondering about power and control.

When I talk about networked education, I try hard to confront and undermine the fetish for “shiny!…the idea of tech as a goal in itself. I focus on literacies for filtering and prioritizing within a world of immersive communications: on networks as a way of un-schooling and adapting our systems of education.

Networks need not be digital – we all grow up within networks of friends and family and acquaintances to whom we are tied one-to-one with various degrees of closeness and communications. At the same time, many of us have, with Facebook, ported our f2f networks online and live in a state of hybridity, blurring online and offline identities and connections. We are skilled in many of the practices we might need to make meaning in the great firehose of information abundance, but our culture is not giving us the meta-literacies to recognize and value and utilize those skills.

Increasingly, I encounter a strain of “I’ve never tried it but I know it’s bad” resistance to networks as educational possibilities; to social media as represented by mainstream media and cultural narratives. People have heard of Twitter, or blogging…they may even have accounts. They often use Facebook socially. But they come to the idea of educational use, increasingly, steeped in the pervasive cultural messages that social media is making us lonely or stupid or toxic or whatever the deterministic accusation of the month may be. Educators get the message that these communications media are not part of the legitimate curriculum, of the *true* pursuit of knowledge.

I get it. And I get that networks are hard, and messy, and require a constant filtering that exhausts us: I live it. But I want to consider why these cultural messages are growing stronger; who is served in the fantasy of imposing control over the proliferation of networked, peer-to-peer communications.

Some of these questions came together for me in London, in the midst of presenting. I was a few slides into the second deck below, on the second day of the workshop, talking about traditional broadcast media and information literacies and the idea of trusted channels. It occurred to me that in the midst of information abundance, our desire for trusted channels so we don’t HAVE to do the constant work of filtering is…huge. It occurred to me that the cultural narratives circulating about overload and lack of connection serve to blind us to whatever network literacies we actually practice, and that public models for complex filtering are rare. It occurred to me that those narratives implicitly encourage the default institutionalized passivity of waiting for “good,” sanctioned information from established, gatekept, powerful channels. And it occurred to me that those channels tend to be corporate or institutional hierarchies with a great deal of power and a great deal to lose if peer-to-peer networked learning and communications actually manifest to capacity, in our society. It occurred to me, much as Sarah Kendzior succinctly stated in Al Jazeera yesterday, that “demonizing social media can be a play for power.” She’s talking state power. But I’m not sure it’s any different in education. Just ask every system struggling with the externalized standards of the PISA test.

This doesn’t mean networks are in any way idealized forms of communications. That need to leap to the binary assumption that critique of one thing equals uncritical lionization of its perceived Other is itself residue of the deep grammar of schooling, the Enlightenment categorization embedded in our cultural practices. Institutions and networks are neither entirely separate nor either of them ideal. We need to be able to discuss where each offers value, and to whom. But in order to do that, we need to unpack our pre-conditioning, our sense of deep vulnerability without someone in authority telling us what to think.

Or maybe Pink Floyd were wrong. Maybe we *do* need thought control, after all.

What do YOU think? How do we address the ways in which the deep grammar of schooling and its inherent top-down structure still constitute the language our thoughts are written in? And for those taking part in Dave’s #rhizo14 conversation this week, what role do you think writing itself plays in this?

And what would (or do) YOU do in a classroom full of people with devices?

from scratch: a dissertation research problem, take two

I haven’t had much to say here lately about my, erm, thesis. I started this blog back in 2011 to try to work through the process in the open, but complexity and uncertainty and the MOOC book – which is still chugging along through various stages of labour – seem to have gotten the better of me over the past couple of semesters.

That, or I finally started listening to mother’s advice, in the “if you can’t say anything nice…” vein. The whole, “here, this is a dog’s breakfast! Please enjoy!” line seldom hooks a readership, unless they’re compulsive editors or have an excessive empathy drive. Or are procrastinating on their own writing (welcome!)

I did write an 80 page thesis proposal, as part of my comps portfolio last December. I passed (woot!), and became an official Ph.D candidate. But in the process it became clear that I’d bitten off about half the Internet as subject matter and wasn’t clear on how to focus the scale of the project to, um, do-able.

Do-able is, of course, the key to that magic future perfect (in the grammatic sense) state of “done.” So after much thinking and reading and talking with my advisors, I’ve skinned the scope and scale of the thesis down and am starting the proposal again. From scratch.

And I’m asking for input. Your eyes. Your suggestions. Your thoughts about potential participants. Your sympathies gin.

My introduction and “research problem” for the new proposal are below. What they begin to lay out will be an ethnography: a form of qualitative research that explores cultural phenomena and meanings and patterns from participants’ viewpoints, making visible what might otherwise be invisible to those outside the culture.

Or that’s the plan.

The culture under investigation here is one to which this blog is a (tiny) contributor: the public participatory sphere of scholarly networks. This subculture of the broader phenomenon of participatory culture spans Twitter and blogs and G+ and even major media spaces, but also runs parallel, in a sense, to institutional academia: the participants I study will all have a foot in both worlds, and the goal of the research is to make the operations and practices of the online sphere visible and intelligible to scholars (and the public) outside it. So I’m looking at digitally-networked practices and identities, as ever, but rather than beginning from a theoretical framework of the cyborg to which my data (ie participants) would need to conform, I’m starting instead from practice and experience.

Basically, I’m looking for and at academics and grad students and others all along the continuum of scholarship. I’m looking at the ways we build identities and reputations for our ideas outside of – but often in tandem with – accepted academic practices like publishing in refereed journals or climbing the tenure track ladder, particularly since that ladder has come to look a bit like Brigadoon for many within the ranks of adjuncts and graduate programs lately.

I’m drawing heavily here on the work of George Veletsianos and Royce Kimmons, who’ve been writing about Networked Participatory Scholarship (2011) for a couple of years now. I’m narrowing the focus of that concept by looking not just at the online participatory work of scholars, but specifically at the work of scholars for whom a significant portion of work and thinking and reputation-building occurs online. Using Dave White & Alison LeCornu’s (2011) visitors and residents model, I’m looking at resident online scholars, engaged in the kind of merged production/consumption Bruns (2008) calls produsage and Ritzer and Jurgenson (2010, with particular focus on unpaid labour in the context of abundance) term prosumption. In the intersection between residents, prosumption, and networked participatory scholarship, you have what I’m calling networked scholarly participation, or the subset of participatory culture that intersects with academia. I’m also drawing on the work Cristina Costa did in her recent dissertation on the participatory web’s relationship to academic research, though my study will focus less on research and more on reputation and identities development. the work of danah boyd and others on networked publics and the New London group’s literacies and new media literacies will frame my approach to what it means to work in public.

But there’s always more out there.

Being an open, networked teacher/learner/scholar means asking, “Hey, does this make sense? Is it silly? Is someone already doing it? How can I improve?” EVERY SINGLE TIME you put your work out there. It’s intimidating. I always forget, until that moment right before I hit “publish.”

But it also means getting answers to those questions while the work is still in progress, taking shape, and that is immensely helpful. So here goes. Take two on my thesis research problem, a draft, needing your eyes.

Does this make sense? Is it silly? Would you participate?

I’m all ears.

Over the last decade, the ways in which people can to connect with one another and share ideas online have multiplied dramatically. Social network platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have become commonplace means of communication and interaction. The proliferation of free blogging platforms such as WordPress, Blogger, and Tumblr has enabled unprecedented self-publishing, and the rise of camera-enabled phones combined with platforms such as Youtube and Instagram has meant that images and videos can be freely shared as well. Participation in public conversations via the Internet has become a feature of contemporary life.

Many forms of online participation are becoming visible within contemporary academia, as well. Since the first computer-based courses in the 1980s (Mason 2005), learning management systems such as Blackboard and Moodle have been widely adopted by institutions in many countries, enabling both fully online and hybrid or blended courses, which combine face-to-face facilitation with supplemental online engagement. Pressure on institutions to deliver courses online has risen recently as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have become a buzzword across higher education: the New York Times went so far as to dub 2012 the ‘Year of the MOOC’ (Pappano, 2012).

The proliferation of online learning in higher education, however, goes far beyond the rise of online and hybrid classes and formal learning opportunities. The phenomenon of participatory culture (Jenkins, 2006) has begun to permeate higher education. Scholars themselves are going beyond teaching and searching online to building public bodies of work via participatory media; self-publishing, sharing ideas via multiple platforms, and engaging with emergent issues in higher education and society at large. Within this public, participatory intellectual sphere, networks of scholars and emerging scholars develop across multiple technological platforms, engaging with each other and each other’s work regularly. These networks of participation and collaboration may extend beyond online communications to face-to-face contacts if geographic limitations allow.

There are myriad platforms available for open scholarly networking, many with their own particular purpose. Social networking sites (SNS) such as Academia.edu have emerged specifically for scholars, while reference management tools such as Zotero and Mendeley have gradually integrated networking capacities for scholars to recommend, share, and tag resources. Twitter is a general but immensely adaptable platform: hashtags such as #highered, #cdnpse (Canadian post-secondary education), and #phdchat aggregate input from interested parties all over the world. Google hangouts are utilized to host informal open discussions and learning experiences, and Facebook groups focused around specific disciplinary and research interests enable real-time public discussion of issues and ideas. Nor are SNS the only means by which scholars connect and share their ideas: major media outlets and higher education news forums host blogs that amplify scholars’ opinions and voices; many academics share their own emerging ideas and observations via active independent blogs.

These networked practices not only connect scholars to each other across disciplinary lines; they open access to discussions that have traditionally occurred within more closed and formalized channels. Participatory scholarly networks therefore create new opportunities for public engagement with ideas (Weller, 2012) and can offer junior scholars and graduate students opportunities alternate channels for participation, leadership, and development of scholarly reputations. They can serve as communities of practice (Lave and Wenger, 1990) and informal learning communities for scholars, and foster what Lankshear and Knobel (2007) call “new literacies,” or an ethos of “mass participation, distributed expertise, valid and rewardable roles for all who pitch in” (p. 18).

This ethos and practice of mass participation, however, does not align entirely with the institutionalized traditions and operations of academia. As Daniels (2013) notes, in her discussion of “legacy” (pre 21st century) model journalism and its implications for higher education, “We have our own “legacy” model of academic scholarship with distinct characteristics…analog, closed, removed from the public sphere, and monastic” (Legacy academic scholarship section, para. 3). While Daniels acknowledges that this legacy model is not necessarily as dominant or closed as it once was, she notes its retreat is partial and piecemeal (Legacy academic scholarship section, para. 2). There can be hesitation among academics about the risks involved in developing an online presence (King & Hargittai 2013) and sharing intellectual property. Some of the practices and identity roles cultivated via participation can appear transgressive or inconsequential when viewed through the lens of the academy.

The goal of this proposed dissertation research is to make visible how those same practices and identities appear when viewed through the lens of new literacies and mass participation. The work of Veletsianos (2011) and Veletsianos and Kimmons (2012, 2013) frames such practices as ‘networked participatory scholarship’ (Veletsianos, 2011). Defined as “scholars’ participation in online social networks to share, reflect upon, critique, improve, validate, and otherwise develop their scholarship,” (Veletsianos and Kimmons, 2012), networked participatory scholarship is a framework that invites inquiry into the relationship between technology and scholarly practice, and into the techno-cultural pressures surrounding the use of digital technologies in academia. Networked participatory scholarship centres on individual scholars’ participatory engagement with digital technologies, and also on the effects of participation on scholarly practice. Its definition of scholar refers to any “individuals who participate in teaching and/or research endeavours (e.g., doctoral students, faculty members, instructors, and researchers)” (Veletsianos and Kimmons, 2012, para. 2).

This proposed dissertation project will build on the concept of networked participatory scholarship in designing an ethnographic study of networked scholars, but will focus specifically on scholars whose networked participation is a central, sustained aspect of their scholarly work, identity, and reputation development. The study will therefore expand the literature on networked participatory scholarship while also narrowing the focus of the concept to a particular practice and group of practitioners as a subset of participatory culture. The project will re-frame this specific focus of study as networked scholarly participation.

In order to facilitate this re-framing, I intend to bring networked participatory scholarship into conversation with two other key frameworks related to online networked practices. The first of this is White and LeCornu’s (2011) visitors and residents typology for online engagement, which offers a means of framing participation and participatory buy-in beyond Prensky’s (2001) much-critiqued “digital natives” model; this study will focus, effectively, on what White and LeCornu call residents, or regular, active users. Second, the study will focus on scholars for whom networked participation involves ongoing production and sharing of ideas and resources related to their own scholarly inquiries. This demarcation is drawn from Bruns’ (2008) concept of a produsage economy, in which production and consumption are collapsed and combined via the interconnectedness of online networks and their capacity to create reciprocal audiences. Ritzer and Jurgenson’s (2010) notion of prosumption further contextualizes the combination of production and consumption into a prosumption model that takes into account societal trends towards abundance and unpaid labour.

Ultimately, then, the practices under investigation in this study will be those of scholars actively developing and sustaining a networked participatory identity and reputation while simultaneously engaged in institutional scholarly work.

Research Problem:
Both academia and social media can be said to be ‘reputational economies’ (Willinksy, 2010; Hearn, 2010), but the terms of entry and access for each are different, as are some of the values and practices upon which reputations are built.

For scholars active within participatory networks, this can mean navigating two sets of expectations, legitimacy standards, and concepts of success at the same time, as well as negotiating institutional relationships with peers, superiors, and students for whom the participatory set of terms may be invisible or devalued.

This dissertation project will focus on making the terms of credibility and reputational value within participatory scholarly networks visible. The study will investigate the ways in which online networks open up identity and reputation spaces that may not otherwise be available. It will trace both distinctions and commonalities in the ways institutions and networks foster identities and reputations, from the perspectives of scholars who actively straddle both worlds.

Online networked participation demands the construction, performance and curation of sustained, intelligible public identities. There is no formalized route or guide for this process, nor a clear distinguishing point between non-engagement and engagement in the process. Whether one is an outsider, an insider, or somewhere between cannot always be clearly identified, particularly from an external viewpoint. Networks tend to be distributed and fluid entities, wherein “membership is mostly unrestricted and participants may know some but not all members of the network” (Dron and Anderson, 2009, section 4.2, Amongst scholars, para. 6). Participants, therefore, self-select into the cumulative and ongoing realm of networked belonging and reputation-building.

Academic belonging, on the other hand, is more overtly restricted and codified: identity roles such as ‘graduate student,’ ‘associate professor,’ and ‘adjunct’ have widely-understood meanings and criteria for belonging. An academic reputation requires clear membership within the hierarchic institution of the academy, through the completion of an advanced degree and, usually, the securing of a tenure track position. Within the tenure model, success is incremental and reputation tied at least in part to clear externalized achievements:

Those who work within the academy become very skilled at judging
the stuff of reputations. Where has the person’s work been published,
what claims of priority in discovery have they established, how often
have they been cited, how and where reviewed, what prizes won,
what institutional ties earned, what organizations led?
(Willinsky, 2010, p. 297)

In both online and formal academic spheres, reputations are also dependent on relational ineffables such as social capital (Bourdieu, 1984), and the goodwill and esteem of peers. These and other commonalities will be included in the study. But the premise of this research is that the terms on which reputations are built, enhanced and taken up within the ethos of mass participation exemplified by scholarly online networks demand specific attention and articulation.

This dissertation proposal, then, proposes an ethnographic exploration of participatory scholarly networks. Its intent is to conduct a sustained ethnographic investigation into the ways scholarly practices and identities are shaped, enabled and constrained by online participatory networks. The study will investigate the ways in which scholars enact and experience scholarly engagement, research and research dissemination, and reputation-building within participatory online networks. It will attempt to make visible both overlaps and differences between these practices and those experienced within institutional contexts. Distinctions will be framed both in terms of the differing affordances of online and offline interactions and between what the literature frames as the differing mindsets (Barlow, 1995, in an interview with Tunbridge) or paradigms shaping physical space and cyberspace.

What do these participatory networks offer scholars? What – if anything – is their value and advantage over more conventional forms of scholarly networking, such as that which occurs at academic conferences and symposia? What do they offer over established forms of idea sharing and reputation development? What are their disadvantages? In what ways are they complementary? These questions will form the guiding core of this research investigation.