The #alt-ac Conversation I Wish We Could Have

“You know, what you really want to do is create a personal brand,” the career counselor announced, a PowerPoint display glowing behind her with the image of a man in a suit shaking hands with a woman in power heels. I looked at the audience members around me, and I saw eye rolls, wry smiles, and head shakes. I heard groans, whispering. We were an audience of humanities PhD students, attending an event on non-academic career paths, a hot topic given the changing academic job market and its move towards privatization and “adjunctification.” In this moment, looking around the room, it was clear to me what the problem was: this counselor did not know her audience.

After all, this was an audience intensely critical of corporate models and language; we’re inclined to critique and unpack phrases like “personal brand” and its neoliberal implications. We’re also an audience that has a “personal brand” already; we’re scholars and instructors. That’s how we’ve identified for years. We didn’t want to be in power heels and suits. That wasn’t the point of getting a PhD.

And yet here we all were, wondering whether we were looking into a future of hand-shaking in power suits. Certainly not all “alt-ac” conversations are about branding and marketing, but I’m increasingly aware of how many seem to elide what seems to be a central issue: how does a group of people whose identities are so enveloped in their work, change their work, and consequently how they identify themselves?

So, I want to propose some points of conversation that I wish #alt-ac communities could have. Personally, I’m excited that there’s so much open conversation about pursuing alternatives to academia with PhD, and I feel comforted knowing that it is possible to pursue stimulating work using the immensely valuable skills I’ve developed in graduate school. With that said, I still have questions…

  • How do I prepare myself for multiple careers without going crazy? There’s a large part of me that thrives off of doing a several things at once. I currently manage a UC Davis undergraduate student blog, teach, and consult with graduate student writers while – you know – preparing to write a dissertation. Frankly, I couldn’t be happier; I love everything that I’m doing and in a perfect world, I think I probably would want my “ideal job” to be something that combines all of these interests. With that said, I don’t quite know how to be a “perfect” academic alongside all of these other interests too. How do I churn out articles, attend conferences, and network in several industries at the same time? Is it possible? Somehow, I feel like that’s what I’m expected to do, and I’m not sure if I can actually meet those expectations. I’d love to hear if anyone else had insight on this.
  • What industries value the PhD in the humanities? Where can I go to avoid “PhD stigma?” I find myself continually troubled by the stigma I experience when I tell people I’m getting a PhD in the humanities. I’ve been shocked by a lot of the backlash I’ve received when I’ve explained my choice to people; responses range from mocking derision (a smirk and a statement like, “Good luck with that”), to confusion (“What are you going to do with that?”) to dismissal (“Oh, so you’re going to become a teacher. Great.”). I know these attitudes are pervasive and, like all stereotypes, they are rooted in some truth. That said, I have no regrets about going to graduate school. I know that I’m a better project manager, communicator, and collaborative worker than I ever was as an undergraduate. My perspective on communicating with different audiences, of refining my writing for different purposes, and of working in teams has deepened considerably. That’s not to mention how positive my work environment has been; I’m constantly inspired and motivated by mentors and colleagues who are engaged, positive, and thoughtful. So, where can I go in the future, who can I talk to about these immense skills I’ve gained, and perhaps most importantly, who will actually listen?
  • How do I find ways to re-identify? I’ve always thought of myself as a student and writer. My work has always been really enveloped in my values. There’s not much I enjoy more than hashing out ideas with another writer, working together to clarify their thoughts and deepen their insights. Though I know that I am more than my work, my work – as an instructor and as a learner – is largely how I self-identify. So, choosing a career beyond academia seems challenging in some ways because it forces me not just to look for new forms of income, but also to identify myself differently. So, how do we shift our expectations? How can we find some ways to maintain that core of who we (think we) are while still being able to – well – eat and pay rent?
  • How do I remain part of an academic community even if I’m no longer in academia? I’ve found that I really enjoy being a part of academic communities; I feel like I’ve found “my people” in many ways. I know that I always want to surround myself with people who value academic thought in the ways that I do. Are there ways to identify without feeling like an outsider or a fraud?

So, I’m aware of the number of resources out there, but it’s worth unpacking questions about identity and work and how we – well – can view work positively without being delusional. There’s a goal!

Dabbling in Text Visualization, Part 1

It’s no news that decision-making in academia is slow. Journals, conferences, edited collections, new haircuts – all of these things seem to take a while to happen in academic settings. So far, I’ve had the most experiences with waiting for conference acceptances (oh, and haircuts); I was shocked the first time I had to submit a proposal for a conference application nearly a year before the conference would actually happen.

The problem (problem?) is that I’m a bit of an opportunist when it comes to applying for things. So, I applied for a major conference in the rhetoric/composition community last year (read: CCCC) and got accepted! Hooray happy day!

But when that acceptance came in, it felt like – you know – it wouldn’t happen for a very long time. So, of course, that feeling that this very important thing is actually very far away was simply the beginning of a typical procrastination narrative: “Surely, I’ll have a much better idea of what exactly to do for this presentation if I wait, right?”

 

I mean, really, what was I thinking? Image courtesy of: HaHaStop.com.

 

Now, to be fair, I had done a little bit of work on this project for the UC Writing Conference, and Katie Arosteguy, a member from the panel I was on, put together a pretty sweet-looking Wix site for us to put up our contributions (i.e. I posted a PowerPoint with my presentation on it).

So, I had something to get me started, but the PowerPoint struck me as a bit anemic, even as I was presenting it.

A little bit of context: the presentation is trying to answer the question of whether students see the value in acquiring digital literacy skills, and whether these skills seem useful for them (from their perspective). I’m defining digital literacy skills as the ability to create a website (e.g. a WordPress page or a blog, not anything requiring coding knowledge), to read texts closely in virtual spaces (e.g. online, in PDF readers), and to navigate web-based research through library databases. I realize others have more nuanced definitions of what digital literacy means, but I developed mine based on the NCTE’s definition. Their definition is (rightfully, purposefully) broad, and I know that the skills I associate with “digital literacy” now will likely change over time.

OK, that said: after doing some interviews, organizing a focus group, and close reading some digital literacy narrative I ask them to write (more on that in a moment…), I’m finding that a lot of students are not really seeing the same importance of learning digital literacy as – well – many of their instructors are. In fact, the digital literacy narratives (yes, more on this in a moment, really) seem to reveal that a lot of students have (or are at least performing for the sake of assignment) a certain kind of shame about their use of digital devices to read, write, and communicate, calling their use of computers “addictive” and “unproductive.” Sure, activity like going on Facebook 24/7 is probably not the most productive use of time, but the kind of work they do on Facebook is often rhetorical and (seriously), many of them will probably need to navigate more social networks in the future to find jobs and network with people. 21st century stuff.

Now, I don’t want to assert that it’s a problem that students think/feel this way; I want to make some bigger claims about why they might be feeling this way. I’m not going to talk about those “why” claims here (perhaps they’ll appear in a post to come and/or I’ll post my presentation materials from CCCC here), but what I do want to write about here (and what has taken me a really long time to get to; sorry!) is how I want to represent these ideas.

Students from five different sections of freshman writing have to write a digital literacy narrative, and I wanted to see if the repeated tropes in the narratives I read in my section were similar to the ones in other sections. I really wanted to see whether there were any trends in the things those students were writing about.

So, I did something I had never done before: I entered the big bad world of data. I took an afternoon to mine a bunch of past UWP portfolios and put together a huge corpus of digital literacy narratives. How did I do that?

Why, through Voyant Tools!

voyant tools

Now, this tool is awesome. After entering in the URLs of a bunch of student portfolios, I was able to create an insta-corpus where I could look at lists of the most-often-repeating words and create visualizations of the data, like Word Clouds and Collocations. Once you enter in all of your data, your page looks something like this:

voyant tools2
I was looking at the patterns of a frequently used word, “obsession,” at the moment when I took this screen shot.

The most important thing I learned how to do while creating a textual visualization of my data was to use a “stop list.” This is a list of words that the corpus will ignore in its analysis, so that the analysis is not just spitting out data like, “Hey, look, the most frequently-used word in these narratives is ‘I’!” Isn’t that neat??”

Voyant Tools has its own stop list (in English and other languages), but I found myself adapting the stop list a lot, making sure that words appearing in WordPress templates (like the word, “WordPress”) were not analyzed. It was fun going through and pruning, making sure I could make as much sense of a large body of texts as possible (hey, is this what they all mean when they’re talking about Digital Humanities work? Side note for another time as well).

I’m really new to any kind of textual and linguistic analysis, so I’m sure there’s still a lot for me to learn, but I was surprised at how easy it was to find this tool and how simple it was to use. Check out how cool this word cloud is!

dignarrativewordle2

The collocation is actually even more interesting than this, but again, I think the analysis (and my impressions of how different doing analysis based on large bodies of text and visualizations) will have to wait for a Part 2 to this post…

What’s in a Name?

Every six months, I go through this cycle where I wonder if I’m a sham.

I’ve identified myself as a “writer” for most of my (young) adult life, but I frequently find myself in a self-loathing moment where I wonder, “If I don’t write, can I call myself a writer?”

That niggling assertion frequently gets countered with: “Well, that’s a silly question to ask. It’s not that you don’t write; it’s that you don’t write for YOU. You write comments on students’ papers, you write hundreds of e-mails, and hundreds more notes. You write text messages and you write to-do lists. You’re writing!”

This is the logic I take with my teaching, too. I try to empower students and help them to believe that they ARE writers even if they major in biology and chemistry and animal science. I suppose at the heart of it, I like to say that all of us can identify as writers as long as we make the commit to thinking about our writing and being mindful of what we write, how we write, where we write, and why we write.

A question I find myself drawn to in my studies is, “how do we gain the awareness of our writing practice necessary to understand both the affordances and constraints of that practice?” The question to naturally follow this might be, “Well, what does it matter? Why should we be aware of the affordances and constraints of writing practice?”

I’d say the answer is simple: to ensure that we’re smart producers of content. What I’m afraid of is the knowledge that so much of my current writing practice in the digital age occurs in a place where content is endless. I write in a (virtual) institution that swallows up knowledge as quickly as possible, just gobbles it up. So, how do I remain aware of this institution that shapes the way I write without becoming completely paralyzed by it? I don’t want to produce content that doesn’t DO or SAY anything, but I also don’t want to be voiceless.

So, how does one get past these competing desires to be identified and to have a voice, but also to be mindful of the fact that it is very difficult to assert one’s voice in a room of chatter? I don’t yet have the answer to this, but maybe the answer doesn’t matter. Perhaps it’s still about speaking just loudly enough to create a small tremor of sound in the ceaseless murmur.

Neither Here Nor There

“Is anyone going to get this?”

Today involved a lot of grumbling over my keyboard at the office, not because I disliked the task at hand so much as I questioned the utility of it. This, of course, is a consequence of that inevitable malaise at the end of a project, the recognition that this will soon be out of one’s own hands and into the hands of another. As an intern especially, these kinds of projects become especially lost in the ether of future interpretation and manipulation; who knows what will become of the dozens of new help documents I’ve created? They may be useful for new training (that’s the goal, anyway), but will they actually improve the experience of using the software? More importantly, will they actually enact change?

This question of whether distance help can actually – well – help is a really interesting one to consider especially in light of the growing ubiquity of online education. After all, that is perhaps the larger goal of this project: to create a kind of “online educational” system for new users of this software. Granted, the content of this kind of online educational system is very different than that I’m developing for UCOE (and that, inevitably, changes the approaches for delivery of said content), but theoretically, the concerns are very similar.

I guess I’m jazzed by this idea of what can be enacted from a distance because I’m slowly working my way through Lev Manovich‘s The Language of New Media and found myself especially interested in his chapter on what he coins “Teleaction.”

(On a sidenote, there will definitely be more posts about this book in the future, because it is really thought-provoking and awesome and I happen to love Manovich’s writing, too).

Bigger picture: Manovich’s text is all about trying to understand how new media objects differ from – well – text-based objects (i.e. “old media,” if you will).

Back to the more focused picture (and hey, isn’t it interesting that I’m invoking the logic of the visual to explain an abstract thought?): To Manovich, “teleaction” is one of three “operations” essential to understanding how new media functions. The prefix “tele,” of course, means “distance,” so, naturally, any word with the prefix “tele” attached to it is going to indicate something that is either performed or located at a distance.

Anyway, Manovich argues that “teleaction” has only been made possible through new media objects (like telephones and televisions, of course). But, hey, here’s something unique that our computers do: it projects telepresence. 

That is, with a simple Internet connection, we perform actions from a distance that necessarily impact what other people do. Manovich discusses the example of military decoys controlled by remote operations, but I couldn’t help but think of virtual classrooms, places where teachers transmit lectures over a distance, necessarily affecting the kinds of changes (i.e. the transmission of knowledge) that have traditionally been affected in a present space. Of course, one could argue that since the age of the printing press, knowledge has been transmitted from a distance. However, to me, it seems that online education marks a distinct change in ontological mindset: when we read, we know that learning is unilateral (we are but receiving information), but when we attend a lecture or become a part of a class we are (hopefully) engaging in a bilateral process, one where we are not but passive recipients, but also users of information, learners making changes (or at least reaching conclusions and solving problems) based on the information received.

The way Manovich puts this is far more articulate than the way I’m expressing it: “The ability to receive visual information about a remote place in real time allows us to manipulate physical reality in this place, also in real-time. If power, according to Latour, includes the ability to manipulate resources at a distance, then teleaction provides a new and unique kind of power – real-time remote control” (169).

TL;DR? Isn’t it compelling that in the twenty-first century we can affect change from a distance so quickly and easily?

The question now is: how do we affect that change responsibly and effectively? How do we not just assert presence in another place instantaneously and affect unilateral change, but also continue to encourage conversation?

This may seem somewhat tangential to the conversation at hand, but I also cannot help but think of the cool ways in which musicians interacted with Chatroulette when for all of a fleeting second, that was the hottest thing on the Internet. For those who missed this blip on the Internet radar, Chatroulette is a webcam chat service that users would log on to with the intention of talking to strangers. One would simply log into Chatroulette and be connected to another stranger also using Chatroulette. If a user on one end was not enjoying the conversation with the user on the end, he/she could simply “skip” to another user and see yet another floating face from any part of the world logged into Chatroulette.

This was a really provocative idea. To be able to talk with people instantaneously from all over the world provided the potential to make some great conversations and see what other people’s lives are like. Unfortunately, Chatroulette became well-known for the ubiquity of – well – shall we say inappropriate exposure?

That said, one of my celebrity crushes, Ben Folds, did one of the coolest things ever with Chatroulette: he logged into Chatroulette during a concert and improvised songs about the people who appeared on Chatroulette with him:

Anyway, Ben Folds completely reclaimed Chatroulette and turned it into exactly what it was intended to be: a conversation between people that had the potential to affect change. In concert, Folds responded to whatever the person on the other end did; the lucky ones who happened to be on Chatroulette at the same time that Ben Folds was are just tickled pink by the fact that their every movements and words change what Folds sang. Sure, this kind of “change” is not exactly cultural upheaval, but it’s exciting to see the way in which someone (effectively) manages to use this power of telepresence to make some kind of impact (even if it’s just an entertaining impact).

To bring this back to the work I’ve done this summer: I can only hope that the way I’ve transmitted information (hopefully over distances to future users of this software) can not only be an effective way for people to learn, but also promote greater inquiry into and understanding of the kinds of tools they’re using.

Life in the Cube

For the first time in my life, I have a punch card.

That’s right: my hours inside an office are tracked.

Punch in. Punch out. Present. Absent. Working. Not working.

Shifting from a life of complete flexibility and fluidity to one with rules and set hours is jarring. But this kind of experience – a life where work is at work and coming home means actually being at home and no longer thinking about work – is something I’ve always kind of longed to experience. It’s funny; there’s a part of me that had this glorified vision of what it would mean to work an office. I’ve perhaps seen one too many films where nicely-dressed women in crisply-pressed suits flounce into desk chairs, receive incredible praise for writing memos and reports, and then earning oodles of cash at the end of the day. I somehow imagined that I could be this kind of “career woman,” one with professionalism, grace, and intelligence!

Of course, I chose a life of academia, one where I don’t ever wear crisply-pressed suits (and if I did, I’d likely garner more than a few strange looks) and one where my professionalism is not reflected through the ways I interact with my co-workers, but through the intellectual labor that I produce. So, to have this opportunity to live another life, to be another “Jenae” who negotiates office politics, who sits at a cubicle, and who does work that is not concerned with literacy, literature, or abstract theories, is one that’s important for me (if for no other reason than to dispel myself of that office life myth).

As it turns out, working in an office is kind of like working anywhere else, except that you don’t get to see too much sunshine during the day (though I have scouted out a prime lunch spot overlooking a canyon). Oh, and you’re also in front of computers a lot. That’s hard. But my tolerance for screens has improved, so that’s a plus?

In spite of the fact that this internship is very much a way for me to do some career exploration, a week on this job has inevitably informed my academic interests. My mind can’t help but veer to digital literacy concerns!

Help documentation, as it turns out, is still something very much rooted in a logic of the print age: I spent two of my four days on the job simply combing through pre-existing help information in the form of “QuickStart” guides (which are basically step-by-step directions for how to complete certain functions within the software this company sells), “TechNotes” (which tend to give suggestions for “efficient workflow” processes using said software), and more traditional online “Help” supplements (remember Clippy? Like that, but not as invasive).

The company has tried implementing some Online Tutorials, too, which are Flash-powered slideshows with moving screenshots of different functions in the software, but even these cater to a logic that seems somehow incongruous with an experience working on a computer. All of these help guides suggest that there is one very particular way to go about completing certain tasks and using this software.

Now, again, as a newb on the job, perhaps I’m making a certain amount of unfair assumptions: indeed, it may be true that these kinds of linear, step-by-step manuals are the best way to teach people how to use software. However, given the fact that I’ve been so invested in pedagogy for the past… several years, I cannot help but scoff at the idea that this kind of passive learning could be effective.

Let me get this straight: the manuals are incredibly well-written and detailed. They contain so much valuable information for a new user. But is a user who relies upon this kind of help actually going to learn the ins and outs of the software? It seems to me that tinkering, toying, and getting your hands dirty in the process is the only way to truly – well – LEARN.

But how does one really learn tasks that are almost entirely reliant upon memorization and experience? After all, I’m used to helping people learn about writing, a nebulous process enveloped primarily in critical thinking and analytic skills. Using software like the one I’ve been learning does not require critical thinking per se; it just requires a little bit of logic (“So, when you press the ExamType button, you see codes for different exam types. Who knew?”) and some memorization.

I’ve been tasked with making a particular “modality” (i.e. mammography functions) within the software my company represents more “interactive.” I’m still trying to figure out exactly what that means (without suggesting the extreme intervention of a programmer to make me something awesome). Thus far, much of my time has been spent simply trying to use the pre-existing help myself to learn how to use this software. And you know what? I’ve actually found that a balance between the linear help and my non-linear playing has been the most useful for me. What has really helped me to learn this software is both reading, playing with the program, and re-purposing the information myself from taking notes to categorizing the software functions to imagining myself in different user roles using the program.

The only role I can’t seem to escape is one of a “digital native;” I’m unafraid to press buttons, to see what certain links do and do not do. I can imagine that many of the people using this software (i.e. radiologists transferring from print records to electronic) may not feel the same way. This, however, is the audience I have to remember as I consider re-purposing this work.

As I continue to punch in and punch out each day for the following five weeks, I’m hoping I’ll experience increasing clarity about how to best spend that time punched in, and keep myself even more “punched in” to thinking in an entirely new way.

In Which I Will Not Be Afraid!

“You’re going to come running back to academia,” a colleague assured me when I described to her my summer internship working in a Technical Communications department at a company in San Diego.

Maybe so. I received a whole packet of documents today with the types of reports I’ll be expected to write. And now? I kind of feel like this:

As in, wait: am I prepared to do something at which I could potentially fail?

So, OK. Wait. You need more information before you can understand my quick surge of panic this evening.

Potential projects for me include improving the usability of help information for breast cancer imaging software, creating a more interactive, educational platform for understanding electronic health records software, and collating a series of articles about electronic health records use into one more cohesive space.

This is all very cool stuff! These are the sorts of projects that could:

  • Make doctors’ lives easier!
  • Improve patients’ ability to get the results they need to be healthy!
  • Save HR departments from having to lead terrible training sessions!

So, real world solutions! Cool! I don’t often get to say that my work inspires tangible change in a working environment that – and we’re about to get real – SAVES LIVES. (Though come on, my understanding of esoteric literary theory should clearly impact your outlook on your digital reading/writing practices. I wrote this great essay on lolcats, you should read it some time).

But I’ll admit it: I’m scared of doing in a field with which I am not comfortable and familiar. This anxiety is clearly the vestige of some serious “straight A student syndrome;” I’m compelled to pursue projects in which I feel that success is within my reach. This is the first job I’ve undertaken where I don’t feel like I am comfortable with what I’m diong. I’m going to have to learn on the job and – well – maybe fail a few times.

I could go into any number of hackneyed aphorisms about this. One must not try; one must DO. (I’m on a Yoda kick tonight if you didn’t get that already. Looking for inspiration in all of the right places).

What am I going to do?

1.  Get over myself. And promptly.

2.  Look for some points of familiarity. I will say that upon looking through the project documents sent to me, I did see some places that I could contribute my knowledge. Many of the documents (especially the step-by-step help guides for using the mammogram software) were driven very much by the logic of a page. That is, while they are conversational in tone (typically a good start to making help text accessible), they’re a little – well – verbose. Clearly, I can sympathize. Verbosity is always my inclination.

But I thought a lot about my discussions in my Literacy and Technology class concerning the relationship between content and design and there are certainly design issues at stake here. So, I could certainly do some re-design work if nothing else.

3. Employ my love of organizing and re-organizing. There’s probably nothing I love more than a great spreadsheet or a clean table. A lot of the writing could probably be organized into the sweet, sweet symmetry of a table! I suppose this is still an issue of design, but if my background in literature has provided me with one practical skill it is the ability to distinguish main points from blocks of dense text. So, while the language of these documents is difficult for me to understand, I can typically distinguish the purpose of the pieces I read.

So, those are my strategies for not being such a fail-fearing wimp. Who knows? Thinking though ways to work through these challenges is compelling. Plus, I have a new work environment to anticipate. I happen to crave novelty. Maybe the office will even feel like this:

One can only hope.

The Shortcut Divide

“Wait, wait, what is it that you highlighted? Do I click here?”

“Do I need to get the YouTube BEFORE I make the post?”

“Hold on: what are you doing exactly? What button did you press?”

These are questions I hadn’t thought about.

“Oh, um, you just highlight the URL. You know, the long series of words that are in this bar – yes, this one.”

“It’s the button with the music note and the camera. You see that? There?”

“So, I just clicked the ‘video’ button. Yeah, where it says ‘video.'”

It’s easy to take for granted the processes online that feel so natural to those of us who have used computers for as long as we can remember.

Yesterday, I attended the last portion of a WordPress workshop for middle school and high school history teachers led by UC Davis Digital History developer Phillip Barron. I was asked to give a small presentation on the functional literacy project I developed for UWP 270 as well as any tips or experiences I had about working with WordPress.

Frankly, I’m not sure I had too much to offer (I still have so much to learn myself!). The main piece of advice I gave was not to have fear. Looking out at the group, mostly absorbed in their laptops, I couldn’t help but remember that feeling I get almost every time I sit in front of a computer and start a new project. For the most part, when I sit with my hands upon the keys, trying to figure out how to tweak the code of a webpage, I alternate between fear, frustration, and impatience. I know that it is within my control to change whatever it is that I want to change, but I do not intuitively know how to manipulate space on a screen. It takes me a long time to figure out how to do something new.

I felt really impressed with the group that was there because I know how challenging it is to change the way that we think about our work. Learning is fun. Learning is exhilarating. But much of the time, learning is also really, really hard.

So, there was a part of me that felt like a huge hypocrite standing at the front of the room, speaking about pushing past fears as if it was something I had already done. But after I gave my “talk,” I helped individual teachers work on their webpages, and I realized that I did have something to offer: patience. If there’s something that teaching has taught me, it is the patience to help people when they’re struggling, to listen through struggles, and to find solutions.

I realized that even as I struggle and complain about my own technical incompetency, I still have the major advantage of being young, of growing up knowing how to copy and paste, of understanding what a hyperlink and a URL is, of opening up millions of tabs on my screen and being able to effortlessly click among them. The concept I found I helped the participants with the most was just that: copying, pasting, choosing the right buttons to do certain actions.

For many of the things participants wanted to do, I had already found shortcuts. And that, I realized, was the source of the divide between my experience with computers and many of these workshop participants’ experience with computers: I felt comfortable enough with the fluid processes of using a computer and browsing the Web that I wasn’t afraid to take shortcuts and cut corners. The workshop participants, however, wanted every step laid out in sequential order; they wanted to know exactly what to press and when to press it.

There’s clearly no wrong way to use a computer, but the desire for linearity, for seeing all of the steps, for making the process of using a computer transparent surprised me a little bit. It shouldn’t have, of course. After all, what have I been reading about all year? The inherent discomfort in our postmodern tendencies to shake up the order of our lives, to see our lives and experiences as disconnected and fragmented. The shortcuts might seem easier, but for someone entering a new world and a new way of thinking, they can simply be baffling.

If nothing else, yesterday was a good reminder of why I’m so fascinated with and interested in the intersections between literacy technology: the way we use the devices so central to our lives changes the ways that we think about leading our lives. I think after yesterday, I’m even more motivated now to think closely this summer about how I’m going to adapt to teaching in a computer classroom and how I might consider integrating 21st century literacies into my formal writing class.

Early Reflections: Digital Media and Learning Conference 2012

Over the past two days at DML, I’ve come to realize just how perfect it is that we’re in San Francisco. A city committed to openness and liberal thinking with progressiveness at its ideological core, even its city streets reflect a kind of hybrid juxtaposition of old and new: curved and winding streets bleed into different neighborhoods seamlessly. Though I am new to this community, it seems as though digital media scholars, practitioners, and industry specialists are open to each other’s ideas, willing to collaborate, motivate, and inspire each other regardless of their differences.

As a graduate student, it sometimes feels as though academia is separated from the rest of the working world. However, here, communication flowed freely between educators at all levels as well as software designers, industry specialists, and project/program managers. Refreshing, indeed!

It’s overwhelming to know where to start. I have pages of notes (some of which are coherent, some of which are not). There’s a part of me that wants to do a blow-by-blow summary, but what perhaps may be most valuable (and interesting) is not a run-down of the proceedings (after all, you can always read through all of the Twitter feeds from the past few days (look up #dml2012) if you’re interested in the specifics), but rather a reflection on the most thought-provoking discussions for me and the kind of work I’m considering doing.

Sound fair? Let’s go!

Something that has really struck me about this conference is the emphasis on “play” as a guiding principle through which to engage students academically. There’s been a lot of talk of “gamification” and the potentials for creating lighthearted challenges of students via the creation of fantasy spaces and structured games. I went to a panel discussion today on “gaming experiences for the freshman experience” in which the designers for USC’s School of Cinematic Arts’ Reality Ends Here” (which I DESPERATELY want to play) game and Rochester Institute of Technology‘s “Just Press Play” presented the platforms they used to develop their games and the “results” of the gaming experiences. USC and RIT designed whole “gaming environments” for their students, in which students received “cards” or “badges” to show that they had completed certain “challenges.” I mean, just check out the “trailer” for RIT’s program This looks bomb, right?

But “gamification” in learning seems to go beyond the organization of a game.

“Gamification,” to me, seems to suggest a shift in a learning philosophy: school CAN be fun and educators can help school become even MORE fun if we use a different kind of rhetoric: a rhetoric of gaming.

What is the rhetoric of gaming? It’s a rhetoric committed to individual customization, to finding the best solutions for you to succeed. It’s a rhetoric committed to collaborating with others to customize in optimal ways, to form “guilds” and to work through struggles as though they were simply levels and challenges. In short, gamification encourages students to think of their schooling experiences not as chores to be completed or items to check off a list, but a series of “quests” that they, as noble heroes, must fulfill in order to gain… whatever it is they want to gain.

On some levels, this is controversial. Indeed, one of the conference’s biggest hot topics is “the badges system.” Developed by the non-profit Mozilla, badges were designed to help students earn “credit” for acquiring particular sets of skills that may not be acknowledged in any kind of institutionalized setting (like programming, designing, etc). I joined in on the “Occupy Badges” session a little bit late (led by Cathy Davidson and Erin Knight), but learned a lot about some of the questions and controversies. The “Occupy” group seemed to be more positively inclined towards badges than not, and from what I could gather, the guiding philosophy is that earning badges will motivate students to master the skills they already may be acquiring “for fun” and give them some credit that they could take to potential employers as “proof” of their hard work.

I bring this up in conjunction with gamification because I think the principles behind badge-earning and gamification are the same: student motivation can be driven not necessarily by a desire to MAKE AND DO. That’s what games are about after all, right? We play Minecraft in order to construct new spaces. We play LoL or WoW in order to become “better warriors.” We play tetris in order to break a puzzle.

Schools train students to meet criteria, not to create and innovate. Students are compelled to earn grades to get into a “good” college to get a “good” job. But what does getting into a “good” college mean? Do students have a conception of what a “good” job (aside from one that makes a lot of money)? The principles of achievement are abstract: good grades simply mean advancement for advancement’s sake. Good grades don’t mean contributions.

A caveat: gamification could be about simply earning points for the sake of earning points. But no one likes playing with someone who just wants to rack up a high score. That’s boring. The best players are those who want to approach the game in different ways, who want to find new ways to solve the same puzzles or find the most efficient ways to destroy the enemies. Sure, there may be one surefire way to “slay the dragon” each time you play a fighting game, but the game is no longer fight if one relies on the same solution repeatedly.

Applying this philosophy to education is powerful to me.

More than that, applying this philosophy to WRITING education is powerful to me.

Perhaps the one thing that has disappointed me at this conference is the seeming lack of attention to conjunctions between writing education and digital literacy. There’s a lot of talk about tinkering, hacking, programming, and designing, but where does writing fit into all of this?

Mary and I went to a panel this afternoon about “the multiplicities of composition,” but even there, we only really got to talk about how writing fits into digital literacy when Mary went up to a couple of the panelists at the end with Peter Kittle and Chad Sansing and asked them some pointed questions about teaching freshman composition.

This seems like a huge missing piece in the conversation: we can’t tinker if we don’t write. We can’t “remix” if we’re not writing. Why are we not talking about this?

Why are we not discussing the writing conventions emerging from blogs and wikis? Why are we not considering how the creation of these discourse communities affects literacy education? At this conference, we’ve all been tweeting away and yet there’s not been one “meta” conversation about the implications of this kind of written dialogue rippling beneath the tides of this conference.

To take this one step further, why are we not applying “gamification” to writing study? I’d say the process of writing an essay is a LOT like playing a game: you have to create a challenge, find evidence to help you “solve” the challenge, and then, like any master detective, put all of the pieces together to “unlock” the challenge (i.e. write a thesis statement, build that thesis statement, complete a coherent piece).

Wouldn’t writing be so much more FUN if we explored it through the lens of a game? If we see the essay as a product we can construct, that we can tinker, that we can “remix,” can’t we reinvigorate this writing education with some extra energy?

During the first night’s “Ignite Talks” (I’d describe them as “shotgun TED talks,” but they’re more formally described as five-minute “mini-presentations” to present a personal philosophy or project accompanied by twenty slides), there was a lot of exciting discussion of remixing and shifting pedagogy (I was especially interested in David Cooper Moore‘s challenges to help students assess “why they hate” certain kinds of art/pop culture, Tessa Joseph-Nicholas‘s re-imagining of cyberspace as a “zombie space,” and Rafi Santo‘s culture subversion via hacking). So, yes, we’re thinking a lot about web culture, but… I feel like we could think even more about writing. This doesn’t necessarily mean creating narratives; this means putting pen to papers and expressing ourselves verbally in an online space.

I hope these insights make some sense after a very long two days!

We have one more full day tomorrow and, by then, I’m sure there will be even more to talk about.

Digital Media and Learning Conference 2012 teaser post

OK, I’m writing this quickly during a break at the 2012 Digital Media and Learning Conference in San Francisco.

There is A LOT to write about here (one only has to look to Twitter to see), but let’s just say that:

– “Play” is a big buzzword here (thanks in no small part to John Seely Brown‘s keynote talk on the important values of the “21st century entrepreneur”)

– “Tinkering” is highly encouraged

– Pragmatism a la John Dewey is highly favored.

Badges are a MAJOR hot topic and possible means of revitalizing higher education assessment and skills-based recognition.

I will provide some more thorough reflections when I have:

a. Recovered from awakening at 5:00 A.M. to make it to the city.

b. Have had time to process my notes and the slew of Tweets/Google Doc notes I’ve been reading.

… and this is just the start to three days of discussion!

A Humbling Weekend

Most digital natives have likely had an experience like I had this weekend: helping mom with the computer.

I’m not sure why she entrusts me with this task. I probably don’t know that much more than she does (though, of course, I have to adopt the bravado to act like I do). But our big task was to determine why her desktop computer was not recognizing a thumb drive.

My solutions to these sorts of problems tend to follow a simple, sequential sequence:

1. Mash the thumb drive into the USB port repeatedly until something new happens.

2. Try to run the E:/ as many times as possible and see if anything shows up.

3. Google the problem and see if someone smarter than me has a solution.

Alas, none of my typical problem-solving techniques proved successful. Eventually, we realized the ever-simple solution: turn off the computer, turn it back on again. Facepalm.

In any case, I suppose this rather minor technological gaff proved to me one thing: keep it simple and always have a back-up option.

I wish I had followed my own advice as I conducted interviews for my final project this weekend. I had some fantastic conversations with Eric and Brian this weekend (I learned some incredibly useful things about both of their writing/blogging processes), but all of my recording technology failed me. All. Of. It.

I spoke to both Eric and Brian over Skype and used CamStudio to record our conversations. Alas, during my conversation with Eric, my screen started flashing in all sorts of bright, photosensitive epilepsy-inducing colors. In a panic, I told Eric that I had to shut down my computer and we ended up resuming our conversation over the phone. Fortunately, with a computer reboot, my precious laptop was well and good, but I was far too terrified to reboot CamStudio again. I tried screencasting parts of our conversation (as Eric was generous enough to share his desktop screen with me and walk me through his design/marketing processes on his blog). Still no luck.

After I got off the phone with Eric, I felt utterly defeated and incompetent. Wasn’t this supposed to be easy to do? Wasn’t I supposed to have easy solutions to troubleshooting problems like this?

Before I spoke with Brian, I did a few test runs of CamStudio and saw what I had been doing wrong with Eric (I had not adjusted the settings appropriately; go figure). So, Brian and I had a nice, hour-long conversation, CamStudio chugging away in the background recording.

Hooray! This is working! I’ll have all of this fantastic data! 

So, my enormous video file with Brian saved successfully, but now? I can’t seem to open it any of my media players. I keep getting error messages with every media player I attempt to use. I even attempted to open the file in a web browser. No dice.

In short: I’m frustrated. It’s even a little ironic perhaps that I’m writing a project on the relationship between functional and rhetorical literacy and I can’t even master functional literacy for myself!

I briefly whined about this to Mary and Aaron and they both encouragingly suggested that my struggles could, in fact, enhance my project. To share that I was learning as I’ve been going along is  a helpful admission of my own process in developing greater technological literacy. So, I’m grateful for those reflections from them and I’m not willing to entirely give up hope on Skype recording software. I have one interview left to go and I don’t think I’m really willing to risk losing more footage via CamStudio. Research time!