Virtually Connecting with Digital Pedagogy Lab

Last week I got to attend the first (annual?) Digital Pedagogy Lab in Madison, WI. The week was intense: attendees spent an average of 5 hours per day in one of three workshop tracks (Praxis, Networks, Identity) and also attended unconference sessions, keynote lectures, and daily meals together. It was exhilarating, exhausting, inspiring, and frustrating, all at the same time. The week left me with as many unanswered questions as it answered, and I’m still sorting through what I learned, and how to integrate that learning to improve my own teaching.

In addition to the regular activities, I was also one of a few people who acted as “conference buddies” connecting virtual participants to those who were able to attend physically by co-hosting brief, informal webcast conversations. There were live (and recorded) streamed hangouts each day of the workshop, and I participated in four out of five of them: Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. Here is the Virtually Connecting page with links to each of the sessions, and here is the overall schedule for the hangouts during the week.

Why Be a Buddy?

Rebecca Hogue () and Maha Bali () first introduced me to their concept of a “virtual buddy” who could facilitate informal chats between live conference presenters and/or attendees and virtual attendees at #et4online in Texas this spring. At that conference, Rebecca used her devices to connect Maha and other friends to a series of panels at the conference for brief “hallway chats” about the content of the panels. The style was informal and conversational, the purpose not to re-present conference papers, but rather to enable virtual participants (who watched live stream or Twitter feeds during the panels) to ask questions and discuss ideas.

Conferences are expensive and location-specific, so the virtual buddy concept that Maha and Rebecca developed is an attempt to address structural inequities that discourage so many academics from being an equal part of conversations. I love this idea, and I was (and am) delighted to be part of a project that encourages real inclusiveness. I have limited conference funding at my institution, so I am often the one watching the Twitter feed of a conference longingly, and I hope to get to participate as a virtual attendee one day soon. So far, I’ve participated as an attending buddy at three events this year: HASTAC, DHSI, and Digital Pedagogy Lab and as an attending guest at the inaugural #et4online conference.

How to be a Buddy

Now that I’ve been a buddy three times at different types of events, I thought I’d record my reflections. My overall feeling is delight and gratitude that Rebecca and Maha asked me to join their project. As a facilitator of conversations, I’ve gotten to chat with a bunch of folks at each conference–some I know well and others I’m meeting for the purpose of the hangout. The project opened doors for me, giving me a reason to approach Alex Gil (whose work I had admired from afar), and Amy Collier (whose keynote knocked my socks off). And facilitating an online conversation was something to offer back to friends whose work and ideas have influenced mine, such as Adeline Koh, Anne Cong-Huyen, and Chris Friend. Being a conference buddy–acting as a vector to connect virtual and physical attendees–is one of the most embodied modes of participant culture I’ve experienced. I love it!

Being there and being virtual: Balancing two ways of connecting

The most complicated aspect of being a buddy is the fluidity of connecting an embodied experience (conference attendance) with a virtual experience (streaming discussion). Ideally, the two should dovetail seamlessly, with the embodied bridging effortlessly to the technologically-facilitated virtual (which is, of course, embodied differently). In the best of all worlds, I’d hope that the VirtuallyConnecting hangouts provide the virtual participants a point of access into the sensibility of a conference, to the side conversations and serendipitous juxtapositions that transform conferences into coherent events rather than merely sequential presentations. Additionally, the virtual group, by participating in the conversation, can spontaneously generate fascinating connections and create their own shared sensibility, since such event coherence is produced by each conference attendee, or by small groups of attendees who share ideas.

But the part I find tricky is being the conduit: the “buddy” who acts as fulcrum between physical and virtual. I want to make my conference experience visible to the virtual participants, while also making space for them to produce their own collective focus during the discussion. And I want to achieve all that while being mentally present during conference sessions and also fully committed to the streaming discussion. So far, I’ve not quite mastered how to do all that. As a virtually connecting session approaches, I notice that I get nervous: will I be able to round up the on-ground participants elegantly? Will the hangout initiate smoothly? Will our conversation develop naturally out of the collective sensibility of the conference as well as of the virtual participants? How can I invite virtual participants into conversations that feel ongoing among the on-ground attendees with as little repetition as possible? How do I enjoy my own conference-going fully, while also adhering to the preset Virtually Connecting schedule? This last is one of the most challenging aspects of being a buddy: you have to interrupt your own conference to help others connect in. But, so far, that complexity has yielded enormous benefits for me. And, more importantly, I get to feel that I’m giving back to others by bifurcating a bit of my own conference time by linking multiple communities together. It’s one of the most rewarding and exciting aspects of these last few conferences I’ve attended, and I look forward to becoming better at it.

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Learning Outcomes: a tense contradiction

A few years ago, as I was preparing my tenure dossier, I had occasion to reread years of student evaluations. My former approach to evaluations had been to read them immediately after a given course, to focus exclusively on any negative comments as indications of where I need to make changes for the future, and then to file them away with a shiver.

But this time, for whatever reason, I was able to read students’ comments more responsively. This time, I noticed that among many comments which described positive learning outcomes there was a common theme: students referred fondly to experiences in which they worked actively on an extended project during which they got regular formative feedback from myself and others. They often, in fact, referred to the labor of such projects as fun! Wow, what could be better?

My students manifested awareness that learning, as the word’s progressive verb form indicates, is a process rather than a conclusion. Even on end of semester evaluations, they weren’t thinking about learning–successful, memorable, productive studies, anyway–as finished, like small packages tied up with bows.

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Instead, the learning experiences they remembered–in other words, the ones that stayed in their minds–were processes with high and low points. Experiences with duration, not momentary enlightenments.

Learning outcomes. Have you ever noticed that the phrase is a contradiction? “Learning” is an ongoing, progressive verb. “Outcomes” suggests an endpoint. Even our familiar lightbulb, that symbol of delighted cognition, is either on or off, as though learning was a binary status change, from unknowing to knowing.

And who wants that? Why do we constantly talk about measuring learning outcomes as though such a thing might indicate a positive (or negative) value. To me, any operation or exercise that stops the learning is counterproductive. I want my students to leave my courses ready and eager to continue learning! Such an attitude doesn’t indicate a failure (not enough outcome) but rather a success. So when a student tells me a couple months after she graduates that she has “been adding to that blog” she began in my class–that’s the best possible “outcome” of all. What is the word for an outcome that is itself a continuing practice?

Since that realization, I have tried to foster learning experiences in my courses rather than assessable products, a shift which has, paradoxically, produced ever-improving student work but also—and more importantly, I believe—durable learning collaborations and happy memories, all nurtured by digital connectivity.

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On Being: #ConferenceBuddy at HASTAC2015

Yesterday, on the final day of HASTAC 2015, I joined an online hangout as a “conference buddy” facilitating discussion between two other HASTAC participants, Mia Zamora and Ana Salter, and a number of online friends, Maha Bali, Rebecca Hogue, and others. (View the hangout here.) I’d participated in this kind of informal virtual conference chat once before, at #et4online, but this time I acted as the convener, bringing together the conference attendees in a quiet space so that we could chat with those participating from elsewhere.

It was fun! And, beyond fun, this kind of informal, small group chat between live and virtual attendees has the potential to transform conferences in dramatic ways, I think. Already, many conferences are offering opportunities to attend virtually. (See HASTAC’s live stream  here. Wouldn’t it be great if all conferences offered this freely?). Often not all sessions are available in this format, though, and, of course, virtual attendance yields reduced participation options. I learned a lot from my co-panelists Alex Galarza, Janet Simmons, Bill Pannapacker, and Jacob Heil. You can see our panel stream here:

Even without the ability to watch a live stream, I often follow conferences by surfing their hashtags. I LOVE it when speakers share their slides via Twitter (sorry, folks, I didn’t make slides for this presentation, but search #diglibarts for a great Twitter stream from the panel). With the slides and a couple active tweeters in the audience, following a session on Twitter can be almost as good as being there in person. I have even asked questions through tweeps in the session audience.

The aspect of conferences that I most value is these informal conversations, the connections that begin as shared interest during a talk, followed by a hallway chat and exchange of Twitter handles. Often this will mean meeting someone whose article I’ve recently read, or want to read. I love these opportunities to talk with others who are deeply engaged with the same questions that occupy my attention–or new questions that I should be thinking about!

And this finally explains why @bali_Maha and @rjhogue’s concept of virtual “conference buddies” seems so very valuable to me. While access to live streams of formal talks is wonderful, I learn and grow much more from interactive discussions rather than from listening to a lecture, no matter how brilliant. Being a virtual conference buddy means that even when I stay home, I can have the opportunity to interact with presenters in smaller, intimate settings that foster lively discussion.

Interacting online is never quite the same as chatting over cups of tea. But when the virtual discussion includes 6 or 7 engaged, fascinating people, talking about things they really care about, relaxing in a quiet corner in the midst of a busy workday or a frenetic session schedule, then it’s pretty darn close. All we need now is the ability to enjoy virtual tea.

Learning Subjectives: Joining #rhizo15

I have been looking forward to #rhizo15 for a few months now. I was traveling during the last round of #rhizo, but I keep seeing people I enjoy using the hashtag, so I’ve been chomping at the bit to join in! Despite that enthusiasm, though, I am coming to the party a week (or three) late, since April truly is the cruelest (grading) month when you teach on a north american semester schedule.

So I am DELIGHTED to see the first prompt: learning subjectives.

Okay, honesty gut check moment: delighted is the second thing I felt. The first was confused. Was “learning subjective” a term I should be familiar with? Was I about to be exposed as a fraud, a dabbler in pedagogical theory rather than an expert? That kid in class who didn’t do the homework? Someone who doesn’t know the terminology?!

Then–after reading Dave Cormier’s introduction–then I was delighted. “Learning Subjectives.” Of course! What a great term/idea/reversal/introduction!

Learning subjectives encapsulates my reason for joining the #rhizo15 party: it’s where the cool people are. My goal in joining #rhizo15 had always been to get to know more people, to share ideas, to widen my learning network, to benefit from others and to articulate my own ideas about teaching, and thereby to learn from and for myself, as well. In other words, my motivation to participate has been about the “subjects” rather than the “objects” of learning.

And this realization has caused me to reflect on a formerly unexamined assumption I had about students at my liberal arts college. Students choose classes because of the classmembers all the time. Sometimes they choose based on the professor. Sometimes it’s based on a friend who is taking the same section. Sometimes their choice is based on what other students have said about past versions of the class. Bottom line: student class choice is heavily shaped by a network effect. (This may not be true of larger institutions; but at my 1,700 student college, everyone really does know everyone, at least by reputation.)

So, a new learning subjective for me: how do I line up my learning subjectives with my students’?

Making Jane Austen: 3d Printing, Digital Commonplace books, and Reading Realism

Fall semester has just ended, my desk is piled with papers to mark, and I find myself procrasti-planning future courses. I’ve been re-reading Paula Byrne’s The Real Jane Austen, a biography written through traces of material culture extant from Austen’s life and featured in her novels. As others have written, Byrne’s biography is an innovative approach to understanding Austen, and reads like a “delightful rummage through a Regency chest of drawers” (Looser). Such an approach offers a sense of intimate access to the writer’s lived experience, an achievement that makes reading the biography both satisfying and self-aware of biography’s generic voyeurism.

Byrne (writing for a generalist audience) reads Austen’s life through material objects–such as an Indian shawl, her famous writing desk, her topaz cross– from her life and her books. Eschewing the traditional chronological approach, Byrne offers new insights into Austen’s experience by historicizing and contextualizing the objects that Austen interacted with, often by connecting Austen’s personal experience to world events through materialist history. Byrne’s approach is fascinating, though at times a bit too quick to draw conclusions from limited evidence.

I’ve been thinking since first reading the biography that it would be the perfect choice for an undergraduate course in Austen, since the biographical chapters would sync up beautifully with the novels, and offer arguments and insights to test out through close reading and research. And this morning, I just had a realization: what about adding in a making component to the course? If realism is the attempt to represent common experience by remaking it in fiction, then what better way to study Austen’s realism than by reversing her fictionalization, and making solid the objects from her fictional and historical worlds?

In my previous version of my upper-division Jane Austen seminar, I taught students to “dance like Jane Austen,” following the guidance of Cheryl Wilson’s article on dance in the classroom. Students loved it so much that we transformed our final into a ball–literally. Students created period-appropriate invitations, reserved a ballroom on campus, secured funding through student government, researched, created, and hosted card games for non-dancers, performed  their “accomplishments” for guests (including playing violin, reading an Austen-inspired story, and teaching us all to how dress appropriately), and, of course, danced like Jane Austen. They also made food (from white soup to bread pudding) and generally exhibited their learning by inviting faculty and other students from across campus to learn about Austen by dancing, eating, listening, and playing like it was the eighteenth century.

That was the funnest course I’ve ever taught. The project–student-inspired and student-organized–brought the class together with a common mission and goal, and turned reading and studying into a joyful celebration. I hope future classes will want to do the same!

That experience–in which students’ final projects became their research and writing about their material contributions to the ball–motivates my interest in teaching Austen through her material traces. The next course could include:

1. 3d printing or handcrafting objects from Austen’s world: Byrne’s chapter on the ivory miniature suggests likely objects for printing, and we could also potentially make miniatures of the Barouche, the writing desk, the bathing machine, etc. Additionally, we could hand craft silhouettes or vellum notebooks.

1a. I might even ask ALL students to make a silhouette of a loved one in class as a way to begin the semester?

2. Make and play games: 18th century card games, baseball, even other childhood games.

3. Dance and dress: Dancing we can do; students are always fascinated by the clothes, and I’d need to think more about that. Costumes are not easy; for our ball we offered gloves for dancers who wished to be woman-identified, and cravats for man-identifying guests.

4. Materiality of the book segment of the course: last time fabulous Whittier College librarians Mike Garabedian and Becky Ruud brought an early edition Johnson Dictionary along with many 18th century texts to class, for students to handle and explore in order to understand the material experience of reading in Austen’s time. The class also did a “reading and writing by candlelight” exercise which was fantastic; I’d like to develop this segment more. (Whittier has a first? edition of Cowper’s poem The Task, which is too long to read, but which would be useful in thinking about home decor (sofa) and modes of thinking/living.)

5. Digital commonplace books: last time, students created and constantly updated digital commonplace books on Tumblr. This assignment met with varying levels of success. Some were brilliant, some were largely reblogs of images and gifs from Austen films. Very few completed the close reading portion of the commonplace book assignment.

6. To essay or not to essay? That is the big question. Maybe a multimodal essay instead, where students could include images, hyperlinks, text, and film clips alongside their research into their chosen object of interest.

6a. Another option for a project would be to turn the tables, and ask students to choose an article from their own lives that embodies a surprising conjunction of ideas, and then write their own personal (digital) essay about how that object represents an aspect of their character. That would be an interesting way to begin to defamiliarize the concept of “character.”

7. Object of Student’s Affection: final project could be for students to select an object from Austen’s novels or letters (or films? hm…), “make” it (digitally or handcraft or 3d print), and write a research paper about how its material history opens new insight into one or more novels.

8. I need to think through how I’d integrate Austen on film into the class. This is ALWAYS a big deal when teaching Austen, as the films can be such powerful filters that reading the novels pails in comparison to their interpretive power.

8a. Maybe focus on the LBD (Lizzie Bennet Diaries) and the creation of character in the staged reenactments by a single, carefully chosen article of dress (the hat, the bowtie, etc.) This would get to both FID as a style in the written novels (I see LBD’s reenactments as a theatrical version of FID) and also the costume question and the film issue…

Well, I have too many ideas and only a year to plan them! Note that I don’t yet have access to a 3d printer, so that would be a first step if I pursue this course concept. So, friends and readers, what do you think? Suggestions please!

Cool Stuff #TvsZ Players Made

#TvsZ 6.0 is in its final hours, but I can’t help stepping away just to record a few–sadly few!–of the many amazing media artifacts that players have created in the past few days. Here’s a sample, and there’s much much more. What a wealth of imagination, creativity, collective learning to use new tools, networked knowhow, and sheer fun! Enjoy.

Here’s an amazing visualization of the #TvsZ interconnections, via TagsExplorer:

http://hawksey.info/tagsexplorer/?key=tvbeo85W6xazf7j9avk-fTA&sheet=oaw

A metaphor to bring all teams together:

 A flipbook to gather team #dragonboVine’s cartoons:

http://online.fliphtml5.com/segh/zike/#p=18

A flipbook to gather the missions and artifacts players created:

A team manifesto made by #teamtech:

A #danceparty video (shared, not made, but still cool):

A #teamdragonbovine cartoon #myth:

The #TvsZ website:

http://tvsz.us/

#TvsZ Scoreboard:

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/10PSq6x_odnBadSHvMmjgY9pstrb0ziEnSbDsPRsjG4k/edit

One of the development documents we used to build the game:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/11G38qtUwDWoCleqZWGbPpVOBapXEp4-5tCiYmuSxuE0/edit#

And here’s a quick, informal post-play discussion among the leaders for #TvsZ 6.0:

https://plus.google.com/hangouts/onair/watch?hid=hoaevent%2Fcrq4kn47bmmdk6496st78rmckn0&ytl=rBiNLboYLBc&hl=en&t=39.813