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December 31, 2008

oh no

Posted by dogpossum on December 31, 2008 11:53 AM in the category academia and clicky and teaching

Faceplant and twitter are killing my blog. Or, more accurately, my blogging skills. I haven't written a longer and thought-out entry in ages. I was never one for hardcore planning and editing (I just write straight into MT here, then do a bit of cursary editing once it's published), but the one-line update has killed of what little stamina I had. But I do update regularly.
I do quite like the short, one-line update. I like experimenting with content and style. I like using lines from songs I'm listening to (most of which are oooold and fairly dirty), and I've just started adding sections from books I'm reading (for review). Yesterday, while adding a few bits from a book I'm reading about censorship, I was suddenly struck by the potential of one-line updates. If you have a group of friends, either on faceplant or twitter, you have a group of 'listeners'. If you write something provocative, you'll get responses (and the interesting bit is seeing which things turn out to be provocative - it's difficult to plan these things, I think). The really nice bit is, of course, the replies. What short answers does a one-line comment from you, on your 'profile' (showing up in their feeds on their pages) stimulate in your group of 'friends'? And then, what answers do their answers stimulate?
I'm a little frustrated by the short answer option, sometimes - I want to read a longer, thought-out comment in response to an update. But then, I think the shorter answers keep us reading. It's more of a conversation and less of a series of lectures or conference papers.
This all made me think: couldn't you use this feature to encourage learning? I mean, I don't think it's going to work if you announce a teaching mission, or even if you demand your students use faceplant or twitter or whatever (I prefer faceplant for the way it threads responses - though twitter might have the option, I'm not sure). But it could work if you were sneaky. And if your group of friends has 'naturally' formed around a shared interest or even just a shared relationship.

I've also been interested in the way a 'high status' poster/personality/friend, who has a larger group of friends stimulates discussion. If they post just one comment (on a photo, an update, a note), the hits for that comment (and that page) leap. This isn't anything new - this sort of thing is played out in more familiar public spheres, when a TV star (celebrity) comments, when an MP visits, when a famous scientist opines. But I'm interested in the way these statuses play out on a smaller scale, within peer groups.
A 'high profile' personality might simply be an agreeable sort - someone you like to talk with in person, someone whose comments entertain you. In the dancing world, the 'high profile' person is almost always a 'famous' dancer. But on faceplant, the highest 'high profile' personality always has a large group of friends (a large audience), offers something to these friends (interesting comments, funny jokes, and so on) and posts regularly. They have a high profile. There are, of course, gender correlations (at least within the online world of swing dancers).

I have a friend whose comments (on both faceplant and twitter) are not only very clever and funny, but also kind and socially gentle. She doesn't score points with cheap jibes. But she is assertive and 'present' as a speaker as well as a listener. In my mind, I'm equating lurking with listening. On facebook - as with discussion boards and blogs - the number of listeners always far outweighs the speakers. Which of course lets us think about the way speakers gain social status but listeners do not, and yet listeners are essential for the success of any speech or comment.

At any rate, though these things are boiling away in the back of my brain, I'm not writing long posts any more. Nor am I writing any academic posts. I found that I was at my most prolific academically when I was also writing masses online, whether on my blog or on discussion boards. I was also reading a whole lot. These days I'd say my feelings about writing and reading aren't so good. In fact, I'm not happy. I'm very unhappy with my inability to get full time work. I guess it's your typical overachieving academic crisis: so many years depending on educational institutions for a sense of self worth, and then suddenly I'm outside that system and there's no more affirmation. It doesn't help that I can't do any serious exercise (but I'm off to yoga next week, so things will improve there I hope). No lovely endorphines. None of that interpersonal interaction you get dancing. There's nothing quite as wonderful as partner dancing - two people working together, communicating without talking to make something lovely and creative - and there's no partner dancing like lindy hop. Jazz, sweet jazz - you make me happy.
But I'm struck by the way my satisfaction and inspiration in writing and reading is so necessarily social. Can't I just enjoy my own company? I think it's more that while I am very good company and terribly interesting ( :D ), I actually really enjoy listening to other people's ideas. And there's nothing so stimulating and exciting as having your brain stretched by someone else's great ideas. I mean, you'd never have come across that thought without their inspiration - how wonderful is that?

All of this post was inspired by Lisa Gunder's excellent post about teaching over on Memes of Production. I was struck by her comments about the relationship between casualised communication and students' _not_ doing the [opposite to casualised] sort of learning we expect from them. I also liked her comment (and do read through the article to the comments):

Most young people do, in my experience, care about issues and have opinions on politics. Sometimes you get glimpses of this in class, but inside or outside of class this frequently seems to be the bit of their lives that they keep private even if the rest of it is lived out online or on mobiles.

I think this is a fascinating point, that students (in a world where they broadcast all sorts of things about themselves online and via their mobiles) keep their politics and feelings about issues private. I think I agree with this. And I think I'd also add that these students don't often seem to have confidence in their ideas - they're reluctant to explain how they feel about something in class because they're afraid they'll look stupid or say the wrong thing. I wonder if this is because there's such great pressure to pass their subjects and get their degree. They don't seem to have the time or space to sort of mosey along, taking intellectual risks and generally playing with ideas. When I enrolled in my BA in 1993 I had no idea where I wanted to go with my study. I just chose subjects (from the absolute wealth on offer at UQ in those days) that interested me. And I really enjoyed tutorials and writing assignments - I liked talking and writing and sharing ideas. I was also very, very lucky to have tutors who were - for the most part - interested in my ideas. And they weren't massively overworked. And they were - quite often - staff members, not sessional teachers or postgraduates.
It makes me sad to think of my students not feeling brave enough or having enough time or even the interest to explore ideas. I think perhaps that this reluctance is encouraged by the way we structure assessment. I once taught a subject that had fabulous cumulative assessment. The first assignment was a literature review for a project. The second required them to plan out the project (but not actually complete it - which most of them found frustrating!). I had also taken great pains to develop tutorials (which ran for two hours, not the ridiculous one we had last semester) as places for discussing these projects. It was so wonderful to see them introducing their projects in the earlier part of the class (where we'd all just chat about the media we'd been getting into in the last week - and which we all enjoyed) and then commenting on each other's projects and offering suggestions. As their knowledge about research techniques and theory improved, so did the depth of their discussion. It was wonderful. Perhaps the best bit was seeing their confidence in their own knowledge increase, and their sense of 'ownership' of their project deepen. These guys really felt that their work was interesting, their ideas were important, and that they were doing something no one else could, simply because of who they were. I also made it clear that it was ok (if not preferable) to work on stuff that interested them - to choose topics or media that they were really interested in (I have written about this teaching stuff here).

So I guess I'm going to sum all this up by saying that I really enjoyed Lisa's post - it's as lovely and nice as she is in person. I am also definite that I need intellectual stimulation, and that self-stimulation isn't enough. I will endeavour to write and read more and to try to be more creative with the way I use faceplant and twitter updates (did you see I had my twitter feed up the top of that left column now?) and will have a bigger think about teaching tools.

Also, happy new year, homies. :D

Posted by dogpossum on December 31, 2008 11:53 AM in the category academia and clicky and teaching