The Dossier and the Run-away Horse and Buggy

Two true stories here. These two stories relate to my job as a teacher educator. You see, writing a promotion and tenure package “aka dossier” is expected when you reach your fifth or sixth year at a higher education insitution. It’s basically a reflection on your time spent at the college, and this mulitmodal composition is focused on persuading your division chair, the committee on promotion and tenure, the provost, and the president of your value to the college in three areas: teaching, scholarship, and service. After all of these people review the dossier, letters are written to the president regarding their review of your tenure and promotion package.

In public education, my tenure came after my third year teaching. Basically, if you were breathing, you received tenure…that was my experience. In higher education, that is not the case. If you are not promoted, you find out in December and then you begin looking for another job. You can stay until spring, but you will not return to the college in the fall. During this time of working on the dossier, I found the other “true story,” a personal narrative that I wrote during SVWA@BC, a writing academy for teachers that we used to host at Bridgewater College.

First, the dossier, which is due tomorrow. I have watched others go through this tenure and promotion process over the years, and many have ranted on social media about how much of their life they lost with hours and hours, days upon days, encumbered in promotion and tenure justifications. Others I have observed to be downright stressed. I will say that it has consumed me. Here are three instances to prove it:

  1. I was at a conference last month and when I walked by a closet that said “wiring closet,” I thought it said “writing closet.” I actually walked back into the building because it seemed odd that a college would have a writing closet. That’s when I saw my misread.
  2. One night, there was a man, a very tall man, in a black trenchcoat with a hat at the foot of my bed. I could not see his eyes; I even think his back was towards me. He would NOT leave. I threw my lamp at him and missed. My husband said something like, “Look, just leave.” He woul NOT leave. It was the most vivid dream.
  3. On my last bike ride, a car passed me with the license plate CPT BOSS. I read that as Committee of Promotion and Tenure Boss and thought of my provost.

That said, I forged ahead, and like anything that seems big and scary, good is in the midst. I think this process is healthy for these reasons:

  1. Reflection is good. We encourage reflection in teaching and learning, and I know that I will be a better teacher having gone through this process. I’ve read all my course evaluations, analyzed my teaching methods, and I know steps to take to become a better teacher. We can always do better.
  2. I found an article that I was published in 2017 that I never put on my curriculum vitae.
  3. It motivated me to update my websites (Academia, Linkin, ResearchGate, this one).
  4. Finally, I found a personal narrative I had polished for publication that was written during a writing academy with teachers that I have not found a home for yet, so I am going to put it here for now. True story.

Owned the Road

The horse barreled out of the gravel driveway ahead, kicking up the dust that lay underneath. He turned toward our minivan as we headed to church on Dry River Road, sleek coat glistening with dew in the morning sun. The stallion’s bulging leg muscles galloped as the gap between us narrowed, buggy rolling roughly behind his hind quarters. Nostrils flared as he pressed ahead, reminding me of Disney’s Spirit running free on the Plains. Seemingly without the confines of reins, he was capturing the freedom he longed for. Opaque, black blinders forced his eyes to focus on the road ahead, diverting him from honeysuckle lined fences, telephone poles, mailboxes, and front yards of country houses. He owned the road that we visited this Sunday morning, and as we met for the face to face passing I thought the owners must be late for church. The quick acceleration and intensity of this horse was not the norm. Looking inside the buggy to make the usual eye contact and greet the driver and passengers, I lifted my hand from the steering wheel and waved at no one. The horse and buggy clambered past us, hoofs clipping along on their own accord.

Disbelief danced in Grant’s eyes that briefly met mine. In our house, we did not teach our children that a horse goes “Neeeiiigghhhhhh.” Instead, in cadence to the beat of horses’ hooves, we made clip clop sounds between our tongue and the roof of our mouth, clip clop sounds that we hear daily on West Dry River Road, “Clip, Clop, Clip Clop, Clip Clop.” The clip clops were behind us now, making a sound as they passed that was faster than we ever mimicked, and I wondered if Grant was predicting the unforseen possibilities that could come of the runaway horse and buggy. What if it reaches the S turn? What if it makes it to 257? What if it collides with a car? When and why will it stop?

            After anxious chatter, we agreed we had to do something.  Our children, Katrina and Patrick sat buckled behind us in the built-in child seats of our 1997 Plymouth Voyager named “Plumpy,” an eponym for the Candy Land character.

“Where are we going?” Katrina asked as I turned our old van around in the same driveway from which the horse had barreled.

            Grant looked back at her, “We’re going to stop that horse!”  The magnitude of his answer filled the car with silence as I floored the gas pedal.  I thought if we could just get around it, then I could stay in front of it and slow the van gradually to stop the horse. This all played out nicely in my mind, but after several attempts to pass, I began to wonder. The horse consistently veered into our lane as I tried to pass, forcing me to drop back. Finally, there was an opening on the road, and I put my aggressive hat on. I passed it, and started the plan, keeping my eye on the rear view mirror and making the horse stay behind me. Within seconds the horse seized an opportunity of a window he found, and he became the aggressor, dashing around the side of the van as I tried to slow.

             Reaching the end of Family Farm Lane, our driveway, made this adventure feel even more bizarre. We were heading away from church, and Katrina and Patrick’s silence was not the norm. It is likely they were watching, as I was, another unusual sight. At the foot of our lane sits the Rhodes’ two-story brick house. In their yard, a neighbor dressed in his Sunday best was flagging us down.  This man was a horse trainer in the community, but I did not know this as his eyes met Grant’s as he signaled us to stop. His black fedora and crisp white shirt told me he was from the old-order Mennonite community, and I had a hunch that he had somehow caught word of the horse’s flight. I slowed and he pulled open the dented sliding door and hopped into a squatting position, grasping firmly to the inside handle near the roof. He left the door open. His swift mount into the car revealed his fitness, and I guessed he was in his late 30’s, not too much older than Grant and me.  “Catch that horse,” he said.

I floored it and noticed that when I turned my head to see him, Katrina and Patrick were sitting wide eyed, soaking it all in. We tried our best to chase the horse down fearing the large S turn that was soon ahead. Our mission was to stop that horse before we got there. If the horse reached the S turn first, it was surely not going to stay in his lane, and that could mean tragedy.  As the gap narrowed between us and the horse and buggy, I heeded the horse trainer’s terse words, “Drive up beside it.”

“Okay,” I said. Pressing down on the gas, I positioned us beside the horse. Its blinders kept us out of his vision, but I knew he had to hear and feel our presence. His brown hair, black mane, and undeterred rhythmic hindquarters paralleled our van.

“Closer… closer,” he said. First, I fixated my eyes on the road ahead and then, with a fleeting glance that showed asphalt, hooves, spindled wheels, and a runner, I inched closer and closer. My hands clutched the wheel, and I focused every bit of energy I had on control. The hooves on the pavement matched my heartbeat. Double yellow lines contrasting the black pavement whizzed by, and the horse’s stark, black mane bounced on and off of his strong neck.   I sensed my position was right, and like a skillfully skipped rock on a still pond, the horse trainer deftly leapt over and into the buggy. With my hands on the wheel, I drove speechless, as I saw him take the reins and take control of the horse.

What came next was as surreal as the takeover. I turned the van around, and within seconds I began shaking.

“You want me to drive?” Grant said with a grin.

“I’m good,” I answered, as I turned into a nearby driveway. That was that. We drove to church, business as usual.

That Sunday morning strangers worked together with adrenaline rushing. There were no stunt doubles, just neighbors compelled to solve a problem together. As I entered our Sunday school class, still shaky from the release of nerves, we shared our morning adventure. “What ifs…” were bounced around. What if the horse trainer would have fallen? “What ifs” can mean little or everything, I thought. No “what ifs” kept us from acting in the moment of need. That Sunday morning, I experienced what it was to just Be, to just Do.

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The Privilege of Mentors

I worked as an adjunct instructor at Eastern Mennonite University for 13 years, and as an adjunct faculty member at Bridgewater College for five years. Prior to this employment, I attended graduate school at a small, liberal arts institution, while teaching high school English and Photojournalism. Now, in my third year as an assistant professor of education at Bridgewater College, in Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, I am going on my 21st year of being steeped in the culture of two different independent liberal arts colleges.

Over this time, I grew to privilege nurturing a sense of community on the campus where I serve, by focusing on the individuals in my midst at any given time. I strive to lift up the teachers in communities connected with Bridgewater College, by collaborating in an effort to advance teacher education. I care for individuals and the community and shoulder the responsibilities that come with participating in a democratic society that fiercely protects the “equity of access to knowledge,” because I have been mentored at these liberal arts institutions by some of the finest people I know.

In the last two paragraphs, I used the pronoun “I” 9 times, but to be candid, it’s not all about me. Dr. Mark Hogan mentored me through my graduate program at Eastern Mennonite University, and his mentoring went far beyond being my advisor. Following graduation from the masters in education program, he mentored me by writing with me to submit an article for publication, and he nominated me to serve as an alumni on the Committee for Teacher Education at EMU. Later, when he moved to Bridgewater College, he invited me to employment opportunities there, he suggested I pursue my Ph.D, he served on my dissertation committee, and both encouraged me and challenged me from the start to the finish of my defense. I’ll always remember how he drove from Nashville, TN to Blacksburg, VA for the sole purpose of  hooding me at graduation. Dr. Hogan hired me as co-director of the Shenandoah Valley Writing Academy at Bridgewater College, and he poised me to be in the position that I am in now. As I sit in his former office, typing at his former computer, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the time he spent mentoring me.

Other fine folks have mentored me through the years, and I aspire to mimic their work ethic. Dr. Don Steiner at EMU invited me to serve as an adjunct, invited me to be inducted into Phi Delta Kappa, a local board on which I now serve, and challenged me with rigorous projects like taking a random sample of EMU’s Action Research Projects and reviewing them for writing quality based on the university’s rubric for writing standards. Dr. Cathy Smeltzer Erb trained me to serve as a university supervisor for student teaching by observing side by side with me in high school classrooms. She took the time to talk with me as my adjunct responsibilities increased to over half time, and I learned through her how to guide graduate students through action research, by attending to details, and providing feedback collaboratively with Cathy as I served as a teaching assistant in her Action Research class. Finally, Dr. Jean Hawk, who now serves as my department chair was once my graduate professor for multicultural literature. She shows me through her leadership how to work hard, think critically, and be aware of and sensitive to power differentials.

Parker Palmer (2007) echoed my feelings when he wrote in The Courage to Teach,

Looking back, I realize that I was blessed with mentors at every crucial stage of my young life, at every point where my identity needed to grow: in adolescence, in college, in graduate school, and early in my professional career. But a funny thing happened on the way to full adulthood: the mentors stopped coming. For several years I waited for the next one in vain, and for several years my own growth was on hold. Then I realized what was happening. I was no longer an apprentice, so I no longer needed mentors. It was my turn to become a mentor to someone else. I needed to turn around and look for the new life emerging behind me, to offer to younger people the gift that had been given to me when I was young. (pp. 25 – 26)

While these words resonate with me, what he says next is where I aspire to be each day,

Mentors and apprentices are partners in an ancient human dance, and one of teaching’s great rewards is the daily chance it gives us to get back on the dance floor. It is the dance of the spiraling generations, in which the old empower the young with their experience and the young empower the old with new life, reweaving the fabric of the human community as they touch and turn. (p. 26)

It is in this spirit that I strive to nurture future educators.

 

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What’s Next?

Nine years after The West Wing went off the air, I still find myself thinking about it a lot. I guess that’s the mark of a good TV show. One of my favorite recurring lines is Jed Bartlet’s “What’s next?” I love that a single question can ask so many different things — is Bartlet curious? hopeful? ambitious? or just tired of a conversation and ready to move on?

For the past year or so, I’ve been considering what’s next for me. I’ve been at Virginia Tech three and a half years, and before that I spent two years at St. Edward’s University. I’ve been lucky to work with wonderful colleagues and impressive students at both institutions. In a world where getting a tenure-track position in the humanities is often compared to winning the lottery, I hit the jackpot twice.

And yet, something wasn’t clicking. I was thriving in the classroom, having a blast working on digital humanities projects, and getting invited to guest lecture on digital pedagogy at other universities. But publishing single-authored research articles and monographs? Uh… not so much. I’ll save the story of my crippling writer’s block and imposter syndrome for another blog post (just kidding — you’ll probably have to buy me a burger if you want to hear that one), but suffice it to say that the divide between what I loved to do and what I needed to do to earn tenure seemed to be growing wider with each passing year.

What to do, then? Leave Virginia Tech for a smaller school with a greater focus on teaching? Search for tech-centric positions in industry or government? Become a full-time freelance web developer? Take up knitting and open an Etsy shop? My very patient wife talked through all of these options (and oh so many more) with me dozens of times, and we kept our fingers crossed that the right opportunity would present itself.

And it did. I’m thrilled to announce that today was my first day as the Director of Academic Innovation and User Experience for TLOS (Technology-enhanced Learning and Online Strategies), Virginia Tech’s learning technologies group. When I arrived at VT in 2012, I felt an immediate connection with many of the faculty and staff who conducted the “Faculty Development Institute” courses I completed during my orientation, and I’ve had the good fortune to partner with TLOS on several grants and DH initiatives. I’ve seen how powerful TLOS can be in building a culture of technological innovation on campus, and I’m excited to be joining that effort.

In my new role, I’ll be partnering with faculty across campus to ask “What’s next?” in educational technology and then develop sandbox and pilot projects that will help us answer that question together. I’ll also be working to improve the experience for faculty, students, and other stakeholders who interact with TLOS. (A new website, social media accounts, and some nontraditional storytelling experiments are all coming soon!) For the past decade, much of my research and teaching has focused on online communities and digital pedagogy, and I’m excited to be in a role where I can extend that work to the larger Virginia Tech community.

So what’s next? It feels great to have a new answer for that question, and it feels even better to know that I’ll get to keep asking it every day.

Shelfie

I love to see people find a book that they don’t want to put down.

In my first year of teaching, early 90’s, students seemed drawn to Paulsen’s, The River. The ninth graders enjoyed the survival aspect and small size of the book. I think it’s a timeless pick.

More recently, my son hooked my daughter and me on the Divergent series. My daughter is reading Allegiant, while I’m a step behind (which she loves) reading Divergent.

My son is now finishing up Dashner’s Maze Runner series. He asked his girlfriend to the middle school dance by putting post it notes throughout the book…WILL….YOU…GO…TO....THE ….DANCE….WITH….ME….? And loaned her the book. He got a YES.

 

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Blacksburg Road

I’m now in my third year at Virginia Tech, but about a year into the program our family of five had reason to drive from Dayton, Virginia to Virginia Tech so that my oldest could attend a weekend softball camp. Instead of traveling the most direct route, my husband said, “I’m going to show you the way I used to go when I went to Tech.” Exiting off Interstate 81 at the Salem, New Castle exit, I was happy to watch him reminisce. The drive is an experience that I continue to enjoy each Monday, if the weather allows.

Today, with blinding snow icing the fields, but the macadam spotless enough to take the chance, I made the choice to exit I 81 Southbound, and enjoy Catawba mountain and Blacksburg Road. This trip, I missed spotting the two statues of angels that people have placed in different spots among nature’s towering rock walls. They’re easy enough to miss; so if you ever have the opportunity to cross Catawba, be on the lookout for them. One tall male angel stands high on the hill on your right at the peak of a rock, just before you turn at the stoplight that leads to Catawba mountain. The second little cherub sits, yes sits, on your left on the second wall of rocks, half-way up the rock wall on a ledge.

Here’s what I didn’t miss:

I didn’t miss three deer, looking surprised at me as I rounded a bend in the road. I stared with mutual wonder into one’s brown eyes as the white tail triggered two more to set sail. The strong, slim muscles bulged under the sleek brown as they bounded up the hill, then over the fence.

I didn’t miss the horses, carefully blanketed by their owners in the fields. And I didn’t miss how the evergreens and rocks demanded attention in the backdrop of a winter wonderland. Spotty patches of snow-covered ice helped me to be more cautious and see more than usual.

As I drove, I thought about teaching writing and how students need to have time to play with words in the digital arena that absorbs the majority of their free time. Beyond texts and snap chats, they need to develop digital fluency. Last weekend my husband composed handwritten responses for four hours, (his choice over typing) for a national truck exam. He said he chose to write because he was afraid he would lose his ideas between their emergence in his mind and the keyboard. The keyboard somehow is a distraction in the flow. He was more fluent with a pen, could get all those ideas down on paper.

This experience aligns with Gallagher’s Literacy Stampede; to advance in the workplace, one needs to be able to write and write well. As I rounded the bends and looked for more of Blacksburg Road’s surprises, I thought about the need for educators to create that sense of urgency for digital literacy within the classroom. Troy Hicks’ and Kristy Hawley Turner wrote about that need in English Journal in July: No Longer a Luxury:  Digital Literacy Can’t Wait. What we need is a metaphor like Gallagher used with his students and the “Literacy Stampede,” except we need to create urgency within ourselves in regards to exploring digital writing opportunities. As I thought about this need for a metaphor, a rock fell in front of a sign on the next bend in the road.

The option to compose with a pen, in writing on demand situations, is becoming obsolete.

 

 

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An Orderly MESS

After spending the last week reading and being inspired by Murray, Kittle, and Gallagher, I think one of the aims of teaching writing and encouraging growth is to create an orderly MESS in the relationship between the writer and the responder:

Mine for the gold in writing, and talk about what makes it gold. Writing teachers often look for golden sentences, and the recognition of what is working in the writer’s craft comes with truly listening during writing conferences, and then taking the time to see if that desired communication is coming through in the piece of writing. Once the message is clearly conveyed, then the writer can further craft that communication to be effective and engaging.

Encourage growth in areas of strength. This growth can be nurtured by matching writing style with reputable authors. I will never forget when I shared my personal writing in front of a group of teachers during a Saturday seminar at the SVWA@bridgewater. The director of the writing academy said, “Jenny’s writing style reminds me of Willa Cather, in the way that she wraps the beginning back to the end.” This did a few things for me. First, I saw that what I had worked to achieve (coming full circle) did have an impact on the reader. Second, it made me want to read Willa Cather. Third, this type of focused feedback gave me confidence as a writer.

Serve others in the classroom via students’ writing strengths. Putting students in a leadership position that capitalizes on a writing strength is belief and trust in action. For example, if a student excels at using metaphors to connect with readers, then put that student in a position to give tips to others. Maybe this means sharing a couple pieces in front of the class and explaining the process. Maybe this means working one-on-one with another student to help them use metaphor in writing. Or maybe this means writing an article on using metaphors in writing and finding a place to publish this for an audience of peers.

Share your writing, not only with the class, but publicly. Most importantly, show the students each step of the work that it took to get you to that place of publication. This effort to show the many steps toward publication puts the emphasis on process over product.

How can we create this orderly mess? In 1993, I started with Rief’s guidance in Seeking Diversitybut Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them provides concrete examples of how to create order without stifling creativity. Likewise, Gallagher’s guidance in Write Like This can serve as a springboard to help toward creating a community of writers that both nourish and encourage.

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“Orchestrating from the Outside”

I have always wanted to write an I Am poem. In the past few years, I have seen successful lessons where teachers use this as a writing activity. Often, the I Am poem is coupled with Georgia Ella Lyon’s poem, Where I’m From. Students feel safe writing about what they know; they know who they are, and they want to write to learn to know more about who they are. Last Monday, in my first time co-teaching the evening class entitled Teaching Composition, I tried my hand at writing one of these formulaic, yet open poems, and then further experimented with sharing a Google document with the world. I AM learning with my students, and as Penny Kittle advises in Write Beside Them- You can’t just give teacher assignments “while you grade or take attendance. You’re either in the midst of composing with kids, or you’re trying to orchestrate from the outside.” She also adds that the first has been successful for her, but the latter, not so much.

 

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Snow days and reflection

At the NCTE conference in Boston, Tom Romano said that he switched up his writing routine this past summer. He took Penny Kittle’s advice and wrote first thing. He rose, wrote, headed downstairs for coffee, returned to his writing spot and wrote some more. THEN he had breakfast and hit the gym with his wife. He testified that writing first thing worked well.

As the snow is falling and my home is quiet (all three children needed their sleep after a day of snow tubing yesterday!), I was reviewing the syllabus for Teaching Composition and thinking about what Romano said. To let my last blog post hold me accountable, I’ve done well on my first goal for increasing my digital literacy capacity, but I’ve failed at my second. I look forward to “turning that failure inside out” this semester with Teaching Comp. and dissertating, and I plan to heed Romano’s sound advice. Routine is key. As Anne Lamott shared in Help, Thanks, Wow, she built in writing time just like she did flossing time. It’s time for me to develop a writing routine.

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21 More Days

The first day of school for my children is in 21 days. Our youngest will be a second grader, our middle son a middle school, seventh grader, and our oldest begins her first year in high school. One in each school. I will again travel to Virginia Tech for three days a week to work towards completing my Ph.D. in Curriculum & Instruction: English Education.

As I move into gearing up for the new school year, I am challenged by Troy Hicks and Kristen Hawley Turner’s July 2013 English Journal article entitled “No Longer a Luxury: Digital Literacy Can’t Wait.” The authors share what teachers are doing to kill digital literacy and then move to suggestions for increasing both our capacity and our students’ capacity in regards to digital literacy. One place to begin to increase our digital literacy skills is to read and respond to blogs, and a list of handy blogs for English educators is provided. I saved these to my “favorites” so that I could work on this area, and I will move the ones that speak to me the most to my Diigo account. This morning I read Will Richardson’s latest post and tweeted it out to my followers. His concern lies with assessment and electronic feedback, and based on Hicks’ and Turner’s challenge and Richardson’s concern, I aim to achieve two goals for this year regarding feedback and my own digital literacy.

1. I will strive to create meaningful, collaborative work environments where students can stretch themselves in the area of digital literacy. These environments will be structured in such a way that authentic, incremental, and formative feedback will be given among the group as well as from the instructor.

2. I will continue to blog monthly and will read others’ blog and share their posts or respond.

 

 

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Passing it on…

In March I wrote about the possibility that shared Google folders may have for public schools, and this month I had the opportunity to share Dr. Warnick’s  organizational system that he used in our Digital Self class. I put the folder system in place while leading 10 teachers enrolled in  SVWA@bridgewater, a writing academy for teachers that is directed by Dr. Mark Hogan, co-directed by yours truly and Dr. Alice Trupe, and brought to life by Dee Grimm, a National Board Certified high school English Language Arts teacher. Using one shared folder, that could be accessed by everyone in the academy, we disseminated information that we wanted to share. Then, each teacher-participant had a folder that was shared only between that teacher and the academy instructors. Participants uploaded writing to their personal folder and we commented on their writing for the first time through the Google document. I want to talk a bit about how this changed participant submission and feedback.

What I liked:

  1. It was nice NOT to have to pass the papers around from instructor to instructor. In years past we each took several papers and then passed them amongst us until we had read and responded to all of the papers, which required a checklist to ensure that each instructor read each submission.
  2. Participants received feedback as soon as instructors gave the feedback. This immediate feedback meant that they received comments at three different times, and in some cases they revised in between instructors comments, making for a piece that was attended to closely.
  3. Comments were more specific and authentic than attached comments. I looked back at my responses in years past that were typed and attached to the participant’s paper (we did not want to write directly on the students’ paper), and while they were constructive and supportive, the comments on the Google document proved more direct and meaningful. I was able to highlight the exact location and select “comment.” This created a different response than reading a paper and then going back to think about what to say in response on a separate piece of paper.
  4.  Participants could respond back to comments and select “resolve” to remove the comment from their paper. No need to feel the need not to write on someone’s paper with this option.
  5.  Participants could turn in their writing at any time. Some people prefer to work ahead and get things turned in early because their schedule demands it. The shared folder allowed for participants to turn something in early, and we, in turn, could read it earlier.
  6.  We practiced the remediation of print. Enough said. Remediation of print is a pervasive need.

Dr. Warnick’s work flow system was effective in the Digital Self course he taught last semester, and I liked submitting work and receiving feedback through our shared folder. I’m passing it on to teachers who have not used the shared folder option and Drive, because Google documents are already in use in many schools, they work to remediate print, and teachers who use Drive model organizational skills that adolescents need to practice.

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Facebook as Workbook.

I have fond memories of Facebook in 2004, when I first joined the service. My undergraduate university was in the first or second wave of non-Ivy League colleges and universities, and I was the 100th person at Purdue to create a Facebook profile, a fact memorialized in my Facebook userid number.

Facebook was crucial for helping me connect with students in my classes, especially my large lecture classes. Facebook had a Courses functionality built into the service; students would list their course names and numbers, which would be turned into clickable links by Facebook so other users could click through and see everyone enrolled in a specific course who had chosen to make this information publicly available on their profile. When I needed notes for a class or had a question about something that had happened during a missed lecture, Courses was there for me.

Back then, Facebook membership was restricted to users with verifiable .edu addresses. It took at least two years before my colleagues at the campus-wide IT group started joining Facebook in force. That was the first time I had to sanitize my Facebook profile. It happened again after I graduated from Purdue and came to Virginia Tech for graduate school. Again when people from my graduate program started to friend me on Facebook; again when I finished my MFA and went on the job market locally. And most recently, when I felt certain negative-impacting work-related situations were being fueled by information gleaned from, or even the existence of, my Facebook profile.

I even deactivated my Facebook profile for a course I took last semester; what was originally a two-week deactivation turned into several months. Other than Facebook Messenger and Events, I found I didn’t really miss Facebook after all. But eventually I caved, and I’ve been back on Facebook for almost a year now.

I find Facebook isn’t really fun anymore; sometimes it qualifies as “work” when professional colleagues contact me on the service with professional queries. I wish I could shut it off completely, but I am too addicted to the information flow that Facebook provides. Couple that with a Facebook page I help to maintain for one of my jobs, and I can’t walk away from Facebook, even if it occasionally hurts me by telling me I’ve missed a really cool party or that my ex got married (note: this really happened).

This is why I hide on Twitter. Somehow I think that’s safer than Facebook, even though I am more honest/transparent/edgy on Twitter than may be prudent.

Also: my dad is not on Twitter. Yet.

On being a weblogger.

I made this attempt to explain my weblogging on my main weblog, Girl in Black, a few weeks ago. But I’m only marginally okay with it.

I would trace my weblogging progression like so:
Girl in Black (main weblog) & 47901 (journalblog): 2000-2002
The Path of Wrong (semi-anonymous/private weblog): 2002-2004
Girl in Black (main weblog, repurposed as a photoblog/poetryblog): 2004-2007
@girlinblack on Twitter (microblog): 2006-present
Girl in Black (main weblog, resurrected): 2013-?

Running in parallel with that is my LiveJournal usage, all friends-only journals, since 2003. I am still semi-actively posting/reading on the second LJ I created, a permanent account, even though most of the people I know from LJ have moved on to other social networks. Those accounts have names which cannot be tied back to me whatsoever. I made sure of that. Very sure.

Why do I blog? First, it’s easy. Especially Twitter: sending off a text is so quick. When I spent my days and night in offices, firing up a Blogger post window was trivial. Once I figured out how to send photos from my smartphone in 2004, weblogging became fun for me again, and only when I started revving up the graduate school folly did that slow down.

Second: it’s fun to have an audience. I still have people reading me regularly who I met online in 2000. That blows my mind sometimes. The downside: I have an audience, and sometimes what I post sets them off (and not in a good way).

Third: it’s a way to keep the writing instrument fresh. Tweet composition really helped me hone my poetic line. I’m grateful for that. Ripping apart articles from my college newspaper also employed critical analysis for the lulz.

Fourth: it helps me to meet people! One guy stopped on a cross country trip from Minnesota to … somewhere, I forget, and hung out with me for a few days. That makes me smile thinking about it. I met lots of people from Purdue and Virginia Tech elsewhere thanks to my weblog and my Twitter feed. It’s like a digital calling card.

Fifth, and maybe final: I need an outlet for expression. Weblogging is one of my outlets. Sure, writing poetry is what I’m academically trained to do, but weblogging is something I trained myself to do while kicking around in academia. I can look back at my weblog/Twitter archives and remember things about my life when I was writing that I would not be able to remember otherwise. And sometimes I just need to nail down a moment in text and look at it later, with unbiased-by-time eyes.

On audience.

I will admit that having a “professional online portfolio” online makes me really nervous, as I have taken pains over the past few years to scrub as much of myself as I can from the Web for various reasons, none of which I am willing to go into here. I go through phases where I’m fine with what I have online, and then suddenly I’m less fine with it and go underground, taking down weblogs, hiding on semi-private sites, etc.

Another thing I’m prone to doing is scrubbing parts of my online self that I don’t want other people to see because it will cause RL drama. Taking down my weblogs in the early 2000s after they were found by work colleagues is one example. Restricting personal posts on a private website after someone from a previous life (mentioned in my mudder post) appeared on the site’s discussion board was another.

Here’s another from an hour ago: I have a private Twitter account with a handful of followers. Someone I know from Blacksburg who is not in town at the moment requested to follow it. Before I approved the request, I scrolled back through hundreds and hundreds of tweets to remove references to things I thought might damage his sensibilities.

I have written online for what seems like ever fully aware of the unseen “audience” and the upsides/downsides of that. I miss being able to write completely freely online. That’s one of the reasons why I keep making up new screennames completely unconnected with each other. I keep trying to get that freedom back. But it’s never coming back.

Affordances of Technology

We put the finishing touches on a group research effort today using Skype to touch base from time to time and collaborative writing in a Google document. It was nice to call and communicate via Skype if we had a question and write together to produce something that took months of preparation in our Qualitative research class. As we finished up, I was thankful for the affordances of the technology that allows me to be home with family yet still close to my classmates. When I refer to affordance what I mean is that the tool allows me to write or do something that I would not be able to do without the tool. These affordances of the emerging technologies also open my eyes to the potential for students to experience more than ever before in school.

There is another side to this experience of writing the paper while at another work site. I had the tendency to multitask and because the affordance of being able to be where I had other demands, it meant that I was not completely focused on the task of writing the paper. People needed me in the “other space” and before I even realized it I was checking an important Google chat that came in, setting up a student for a test, and then returning to my paper. In different forms this pattern continued. The paper received less of my attention than it should have, but then again, everything did. Multi-tasking is a myth. No one does it well. People only dilute the things that they do; something or someone suffers.

So what do we do about this dilemma? I think my answer would be to begin to draw boundaries better and talk about those lines.

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Final presentations.

I’m gonna liveblog some observations. Let’s see how this goes.

Comics presentation reminds me of a study I did over in ISE where I annotated an article in print, on a computer, and on the iPad. Maybe find that researcher’s name?

Student retention presentation suggesting using blog posts to identify at-risk students. Interesting.

Kairos presentation has some intersects with celebrity studies as well as rhetoric and performance studies.

Technical writing/LinkedIn presentation is going to be folded into thesis research.

Feminist Instagram presentation is way into visual culture & looks to find visual representations of third-wave feminism on photo-based social media. Nice.

New literacies research presentation looks at how teachers use writing instruction in the classroom. Love a Peter Elbow reference.

Veterans/PTSD social networking presentation touches on something that I never even considered.

MyFitnessPal presentation is totally relevant to my wellness interests.

Women in gaming presentation is very interesting and could easy earn its notoriety in flamewars if it gets posted online somewhere. Quote from preso after an f-bomb: “That’s not productive at all.”

Fan communities presentation is going to use Netnography to analyze some of the data. I should look into that book.

And finally, I gave a presentation about Twitter and micro-celebrity. Or something. I’m tired.

On using iPads in the classroom.

I’m a veteran of the Innovationspace’s iPad pilot program, from both the instructor and student perspective, and I’m not entirely sold on it.

After having an iPad for the better part of two years, I have to say that I love it. I love being able to call anything up immediately using the web browsers. I love being able to read and respond to email. I love the wide variety of apps. I love being able to write using my pal Justin’s Elements app.

But I don’t love the iPad enough to take it out of its case when I go home at night. My BlackBerry still rules my days and nights as my go-to communication device. Why hasn’t the iPad surplanted it? Would it have done so if I had one with always-on Internet through a wireless carrier like Verizon or AT&T?

One surprising thing I don’t love about the iPad: reading documents on it. I’ve found that I prefer reading printed matter over electronic matter (except for the BlackBerry, which I’ll get to in a second). For my IS Senior Seminar, some of the texts used in previous semesters were e-books only accessible through Scholar. Getting access to them on the iPad through Scholar was maddening. By the middle of one particular semester, PDFs of the readings were made available as a workaround (Spinuzzi term, what up fellow bus rider) for the inaccessibility of the textbook on the iPad.

One thing I’ve realized students don’t love about the iPad: typing on it. One complaint that I’ve heard repeatedly from students taking the IS Senior Seminar is that the iPad is difficult to type on. And yes, it is difficult when the iPad is in portrait mode. In landscape mode, I’ve found it to be more usable, but the lack of screen space to see what’s been typed is frustrating.

One thing everyone can agree may not be lovable about the iPad: it is a distraction device par excellence. iMessage, Twitter, Facebook, Angry Birds, you name it, there’s a distracting app for that. As someone who has both seen student distracted use of iPads and engaged in it myself, I’m not sure what can be done.

But I don’t expect iPads to disappear from classrooms because of too many people playing Candy Crush, that’s for sure.

Stalking My Former Self

Reading about social networks and online identities has gotten me curious about what insights might emerge from examining my old profiles from high school. When I was 15-18, I maintained profiles on Xanga and MySpace, which were left dormant at various points in the lonely avenues of abandoned cyberspace. Because everything online is permanent, I am able to cull through my old profiles like an architectural dig and remember what kind of online identity I was trying to shape back then (and how true it is to who I am today).

Let’s start with my MySpace profile. An important contextual element: I joined MySpace when I was 16 because the boy I liked (who would become my first boyfriend ever…and second and third, because apparently I didn’t know when enough was enough!) was on MySpace, and I wanted to flirt with him. When I first wrote my profile, I was crafting every sentence for an audience of one: I wanted that boy to like me, so I emphasized the parts of myself that I knew he would be drawn to (my sense of humor, my political savvy, and a put-on sense of ease, etc). While appealing to the tastes of a suitor is kind of Courtship 101 (at least in the mind of a high schooler who only has tv shows as a reference for how to go about these things), there is no doubt that a lot of the construction of this particular identity hinged on getting the attention of a “certain someone”. This reminds me of the  Danah Boyd, in The Networked Self, points out that many friendships that are confirmed in social networking environments are for political reasons. While an individual might rather avoid close ties with a person online, they associate with a certain person because it is the socially acceptable thing to do. Similarly, I think all content generated on profiles is, to an extent, political and filtered through the author’s perception of audience reaction. My profile being shaped to get the attention of my crush was political and calculated (or maybe just teenage desperation).

My xanga account was a collaboration between me and my best friend. We decided to make blogs to keep in touch with each other in high school (or…something….) and we made funny “About Me” sections and wrote ridiculous notes back and forth on these sites. If I remember correctly, we also desperately wanted to get the attention of a mutual crush (code named “Green Tea,” who makes star appearances in my posts…) and this was an effort to make a public but secret declaration of love. (15 year olds are weird. as. hell.) If you are curious, check it out.

I definitly think my xanga account is a representation of my relationship with my best friend, and a ridiculously fun reminder of what I was like as a freshman in high school. I’m surprised by how much I have changed (I no longer troll the local pool for cute guys), and I barely remember what half the inside jokes were between me and my friend. At the same time, I see how I reacted to problems then and now is similar, and how I wrote in journals then is surprisingly consistent with my current tendencies. This site– maybe all like it–serves as an archive of a certain moment in my development, and also an archive of how much and how little we change.

Now, I’ve made this site, a representation of my professional. academic, and sometimes personal self. I am proud of how far I have come, as a self-assured woman; as a writer; and as a savvy navigator of digital technology. This site has been cultivated intentionally, not to get a boy to like me but to share my ideas with the world.

To be continued…

 

Multitasking while studying: Divided attention and technological gadgets impair learning and memory

Slate: "Attending to multiple streams of information and entertainment while studying, doing homework, or even sitting in class has become common behavior among young people—so common that many of them rarely write a paper or complete a problem set any other way. But evidence from psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience suggests that when students multitask while doing schoolwork, their learning is far spottier and shallower than if the work had their full attention."

Brain, Interrupted

NY Times: "There’s a lot of debate among brain researchers about the impact of gadgets on our brains. Most discussion has focused on the deleterious effect of multitasking. Early results show what most of us know implicitly: if you do two things at once, both efforts suffer."

Freedom to Engage

As I was in the Happy Valley watching my niece graduate yesterday, I did, in fact, feel happy for her. I thought about how she must be satisfied with the effort she’s put forth and excited for her future. As she sets off for a contracted five year assistantship at U.C.S.D. to work toward her doctorate and conduct cancer research, it’s good to know that her cousins will be able to keep in touch with her through social media. And while social media will connect her personal world, I believe her professional learning community will grow exponentially. Shirley Malcom, the commencement speaker, said she runs into PSU alumnae throughout the world as she travels with work and service. It is likely that my niece will likewise become more Networked on and offline over the next few years.

As a mother, sitting with my three children during the graduation ceremony, I was grateful for the portable technology and wifi. I had given my two youngest children my iPad and they moved quietly between taking pictures and video of the ceremony, to playing Flow, to sharing ear buds and watching Duck Dynasty (oi vay!). With little encouragement, they took pictures when their cousin’s name was called and captured her as she walked across the stage. The technology allowed them to document, share, and be entertained in ways that brought peace not only to them but also to the adults around them. I thought of Turkle’s Alone Together. There were times we were alone together and that was perfectly okay.

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Why grad schools should require students to blog

Maria Konnikova: "Academia as a whole is still quite skeptical of popular writing and anything that takes time from *serious* academic pursuits.... It’s a shame—and it’s counterproductive. Instead of frowning upon blogging, popular writing, any intellectual pursuits that don’t seem immediately and narrowly academic, wouldn’t it make sense for academia to embrace it all—and embrace it enthusiastically?"

The Real Me

Fortunately, Doug Mack's story aout dating in the digital age *does* end well: "[T]he internet is both an unrelenting enabler and unforgiving archive of flaws. As a single 30-year-old in the era of online courtship, I’d been in similar situations before and, in fact, had often been unable to resist my own temptation to type names into the search box. Inevitably, I felt weird and creepy if I didn’t find anything noteworthy, weirder and creepier if I did. Things rarely ended well."

…And even more about “talking” online

I know I seem to harp on this subject. However, it is something that has been on my mind pretty much all semester.

At the beginning of the semester I viewed online interactions as bad, and here’s why: I lose some inhibitions. In person, I hate confrontation . . . so when I need to confront someone, or if I just need to say something not complimentary, I hedge. And hedge. And hedge. And I try to word it in the nicest way possible, but then it probably doesn’t come out clearly. But online, with that face-to-face interaction out of the way, I don’t tend to hedge (at least, not as much). This has gotten me in trouble at times, when I’ve dashed off a nasty comment on a Facebook post, or snarkily responded to someone in some other version of an online conversation.

But those interactions aside, I’m actually beginning to see the benefit of online conversation for someone with a personality like mine. I’m more assertive online. I’m also more honest with friends who send me writing samples or grant proposals for editing and/or review (though I believe that, for the most part, I am kindly so). I noticed part of this phenomenon back in 2008, when I was reviewing proposals for a federal anti-drug grant program. It was a blind review – I didn’t know who they were, and they didn’t know who I was. So I was honest. Fair, but honest. I pointed out the flaws in their proposals, praised what deserved to be praised, and gave recommendations to the program director for who should be awarded the grants. At the time I was simply surprised at my own professionalism. But I never really fully put it together (until recently) that this anonymity gave me boldness that I don’t otherwise have.

So, the anonymity online gives me confidence…online. I have been trying to think of how to translate that into “real life.” (Why hello, there, Turkle! Didn’t see you there…) At first, I placed the blame on others, annoyed by the fact that we often don’t respect each other’s area of expertise. And this is true. However, I can’t blame it all on them; I have to accept the fact that my own hesitancy (and, indeed, lack of confidence) is undermining my own authority. Online, I can say, “This is my experience. It has taught me ___. And from that, I can tell you ___.” And if I word it correctly, it will gain me respect, and my ideas will be “heard.” In person, those words (and my ethos) can be negated by my lack of confidence. (Hmmm…sounds like the canon of delivery?)

I haven’t yet figured out how to translate this online experience into the rest of my life, but I can at least say that I’m viewing online interactions a little more positively now. Because if I don’t let myself get carried away, these online interactions might just help build me a spine.

Singularity. Closer than We Think?

Tablet Accessory? A woman wears an EEG cap for a Sandia National Laboratories experiment. To use the mind-reading tablet below, people must wear an EEG cap, though a slightly different one that doesn’t require gel on the scalp. Photo by Randy Montoya from PopSci Magazine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As funny as this woman looks, she taking steps towards singularity as she is using this EEG cap to control her tablet with her thoughts.  Even though this contraption is not at the level of perfection required to be on the market, Samsung and its collaborating researchers are working hard to improve this technology.

Not only would this be an amazing and liberating tool for people who struggle with motor skills, but it will also allow for more ways of multitasking that we can probably fathom at this point. Here is MIT’s Technology Review on the product and the process.

 

 

 

Learning

This morning, I was seized by a whim to make myself a cup of coffee. It was only me in the apartment, so I just wanted a cup or two… not enough to fire up the entire coffee brewer. But as I pulled the french press off the shelf I realized suddenly that I had never made french press coffee on my own. Ever. And to that end, I’d never learned how to. What was I to do?

Modern-man as I am, I typed “How to make french press coffee” into Google, and the very first result (from www.howtobrewcoffee.com/french no less) gave me exactly the info I needed:

Medium-to-coarse grind
Water between 195 and 200 degrees F
Two tablespoons of grounds per eight ounces of water
3-5 minutes to brew

Along with a procedural list of steps, I had everything I needed. That was, until I realized that I didn’t have a way to measure ounces. Undaunted, I quickly Googled “8 oz in cups” and a handy-dandy volume conversion tool popped up with my answer already displayed. (after which I face-palmed the fact that I did not know that 8 oz is in fact one cup… an equivalency any baker worth his weight in cake should probably know).

I’m not going to lie: I made a pretty awesome cup of coffee. As I sat and enjoyed the fruit of my brief labor, I reflected on how empowered the internet via Google had allowed me to be. In mere milliseconds I had every bit of info I needed to get something done. It was all spelled out for me, black as coffee. Before this morning, I had no clue. Now, I can make it whenever I need to in the future.

I asked the internet how to make french press coffee, and the internet taught me how to make french press coffee. Huzza for the modern world.

But as I sat and sipped, I felt like there was something missing from my experience. Sure, I had more information now. I had the formula in my head “two tablespoons per eight ounces” and the new conversion knowledge “eight ounces is a cup.” And I had the rewarding experience of putting that information to work. So what was missing? I thought for a bit, and stupid as it sounded, I kept coming back to one single thought:

I hadn’t made a crappy cup of coffee.

With good information, I had done it right the first try. And while at face value such an outcome seems ideal, I realized that it was this lack of failure which I was feeling, and feeling negatively.

What I didn’t get to experience was the act of screwing up a cup of french press coffee and all the knowledge that such an experience would have given me. In the act of such a failure, there would have been a wealth of subtle bits of information not grasped consciously but absorbed unconsciously. In the back and forth of trial and error lay the possibility of more intuitive knowledge, a deeper mastery, a more comprehensive understanding of this mythical magical beast of french press coffee.

My discovery of perfect knowledge via Google did not lead me closer to any kind of mastery the way a failure would have. Had I experimented with the variables in this equation – the water temperature, the grounds to water ratio, the grind, the brewing time – I would have grasped not one useful set of variables to solve the equation, but a working knowledge of the equation itself; not just the elements, but the way the elements interacted together; not just a good solution, but a working understanding of why that solution was good.

The act of learning is not just receiving and assimilating a fact. It is also a discovery, a “working through” of the fact to the underlying process of how the fact works, how the fact is contextualized, and how the fact is connected to not just good information, but also bad information. To divorce the good information from all the bad information that provides its foundation is – with respect to mastery and real comprehension – to depower and devalue the very definition of knowledge.

The oft-lauded achievement of the internet and digitized information is that knowledge is now ubiquitous, easily available, and easily found. Even as I type and you read, the work goes on to reproduce, code, and index the entire library of human understanding. At no point in the entire history of mankind have we ever been this capable of sharing and producing information. It is a glorious age.

But there is something lost in this informational user-friendly omnipresence. I contend that just because information, and especially good information, is more easily found does not mean that we are all better equipped and more able, in a word “smarter” than we once were. Once the effort to obtain information has been reduced to its lowest common denominator, we no longer have to “learn” anything. We merely have to “look it up.” I did not have to “learn” how to make a good cup of french press coffee. I had to just look it up.

The ubiquity of online information and ease of use has re-inscribed us as creatures that have access to but no longer possession of information. Previously, I wrote of how we no longer own things in the digital age, but rather “stream” our possessions, and in so doing no longer pay for the right to own, but the right to borrow – the rights for temporary, mediated access. This paradigm extends to knowledge itself. The ultimate logical destination of this progression is us no longer constructing our own knowledge by way of experience, by experimentation, by learning. We only “access” information. We stream it from the internet. We no longer own anything.

Now that the supply of information is nearly limitless – indeed perhaps could be considered infinite – the demand for working knowledge may be waning. The premium seems to be shifting from mastery of knowledge to a mastery of the means of access to knowledge. In other words, it’s no longer a question of who knows more trivia, but a question of whose phone has fastest access to the internet, who has the best app, and who can use that app most effeiciently and effectively. The value has shifted from the content itself to access to content.

I’m not trying to devalue the usefulness and power of the internet as a tool. After all, it certainly gave me a great cup of coffee this morning. But we must be careful that the ease of access to and the ubiquity of information does not take the place of the process of discovery and learning itself. I feel it would benefit us if we keep a vigilant eye to how the Google search begins to take both the role and the name of “learning” as an action.

When “looking it up” relegates “figuring it out” to obsolescence, whole worlds of deeper knowledge – worlds created in self-actualizing, existentially fulfilling acts of productive failure – may be lost.

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my five minute brain dump about technology

Below is my five minute stream of consciousness on where I see technology being in grad school years from now, or perhaps not a new distance future?

What Would Graduate School Look like in a Technology-Rich Future?

 People are going to expect more and more from your time, because everything is can be done so much faster. The only problem I have is, I don’t have a good enough imagination to conceive of specific examples of making the writing and reading process quicker. I supposed that some sort of voice-to-text or thought process-text technology could make the writing process even faster than manually typing. For reading, would be too distant to think that we could just download material to our brain. Perhaps I just don’t’ know enough about the conjectures of technology to know whether or not that is actually a possible thing. But since grade school I remember people talking about, “wouldn’t’ be great if we could just learn by osmosis” and they definitely have that scene in the matrix. But then what is learning? What is it to “know” something if everybody can do it. Of course some people have those same thoughts now about the internet. People 20 years ago, if they wanted to learn something about the a random subject, like Buddhist colonies in Tibet, they would have to go to the “stacks” and hope that the library had a book on that subject. That person would then have to read that book, and to really know it he/she would probably have to find even more books, or perhaps even travel to that place. Now knowledge is available to everyone, well anyone that chooses to find it and put it up there, instead of looking at cat videos. And let’s be honest those cat videos are freaking awesome, and entertaining. What are we using technology for? I recently started to playing some dragon game. Who am I? But then I think that individuals understand knowledge, everyone can have it, but what we do with it will even further be reliant on a unique, creative aspect of it.

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