About Renee Ryan

Advisor | Educator | Reader | Writer | Friend

I Share Therefore I Am

Screen Shot 2013-04-22 at 6.32.48 AMFor many people my age, the idea of describing my day to day activities can seem like narcissism  taken to extreme. Did I even want the constant up-to-the-minute updates of what my friends were doing? The hoarding friends on Facebook, or followers on Twitter, held little appeal to me. That is, until I started tweeting and posting. It wasn’t long before I found the omnipresent knowledge of my friends (and I use that term loosely) lives intriguing and additive. Equally appealing was writing the perfect post that resulted in “likes” before my fingers left the keyboard. Someone just read this, and liked it. It is not lost on me that I’m behind a screen and the connection at most is transitory and perhaps even superficial, but it’s there. And yes, I know there are a billion users.

My number of friends grew quickly and I had people from my elementary school years that I hadn’t seen in 40 years. Then I realized that more friends equaled more stress in some ways. I had to shift through comments and posts and photos of people that I wouldn’t like in “real” life. Why was I spending my morning coffee time on their political rants and raves? I started “unfriending” in earnestness especially during the campaign. Aside from the occasional “Way to Go Obama!” post, I shy away from politics and religion on Facebook. I don’t need mass numbers of friends. I’d rather connect with those I care about.  And my kids have finally “friended” me.  I’d like to think that Facebook and Twitter have made me “cool” and “hip”, but in reality, my kids have gotten older and have less to hide from me.

Master of Your Universe


Sifting through the sheer volume of material – good, bad, useless, tasteless, or otherwise – is a daunting task. It is even difficult to keep track of what I post, save, download, and view. Yet the computer is the largest component of my personal learning network. This is part of a trend that began with simple innovations like personalized start pages, RSS aggregation, and customizable widgets, the personal web is a term coined to represent a collection of technologies that confer the ability to reorganize, configure and manage online content rather than just viewing it. It is now easy to create customized, personal web-based learning network — a personal web — that explicitly supports my social, professional, and learning needs. My online material can be saved, tagged, categorized, and repurposed without difficulty and without any special knowledge of how web pages are put together. In fact, the underlying technology that supports the web has all but vanished and all that is necessary is to know is which tools to use, and any task — from creating and distributing content, to organizing one’s personal and professional time, to developing a library of resources that constantly refresh and update themselves —becomes point-and-click trivial. The vast collection of content that makes up the web can be tamed, filtered, and organized, and anyone can publish as much or as little as they wish: the web has become personal. Is this important to me? Yes, because I was not an early adapter. I hobbled into the information age with nothing but a desire to be better connected. It is now possible for those of us who previously had nothing but a library card to be as well-informed as Bill Gates. (On a side note, it’s sad that I can no longer reference Steve Jobs in the present.) I like being able to tame part of the world wide web into my own personal learning network because without a way to control the flow, it can quickly become a beast of technology that is more scary than helpful.

Party of One


It’s a great time to be an introvert. I can do almost anything from behind my computer screen. What Amazon doesn’t have, I don’t need. There is no need to fight the crowds, germs, and teenagers at the mall. It is my opinion that the mall is in a state of socio-economic decline and those with computer access do not need to spend an afternoon under its artificial lights. I am happy at home and I do not apologize for it.

It hasn’t always been this way though. I haven’t always been comfortable with my introverted self. I knew I was an introvert from a very young age when I was the happiest alone with a book or scribbling in a notepad. In school, I didn’t talk much and became known as “soft-spoken”. (This term is still used to describe me.) High school completely drained me and the thought of extracurricular activities was not an option. I tried to be more outgoing. My best friends were outgoing and they carried the conversations and social obligations. Perhaps, I thought hanging out with extroverts would rub off on me, like it was something I could change about myself, a habit that would become a part of me if practiced on a regular basis. It never happened. As I’ve aged, I’ve become more efficient at adopting an external persona that I use professionally. I have good social skills and I’m not morose or misanthropic. A casual acquaintance may not necessarily view me as an introvert but it lurks behind a tired smile at the end of the day.

Extroverts dominate social and public life though and that tends to make me a little bitter. In our society, being an extrovert is considered desirable and a mark of confidence and leadership. Being a “people person” is a compliment and happiness is too often associated with gregariousness. Extroverts come fully to life around other people. I think about Bill Clinton and his success in politics. The man could talk his way out of anything and make lifelong friends in the process.

So what does it mean to be an introvert? In its modern sense, the concept goes back to the 1920s and the psychologist Carl Jung. Today it is a mainstay of personality tests, including the widely used Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Introversion does not automatically mean that you are shy. It merely means that you find people tiring.

In contrast, other people energize extroverts. My mother is your typical extrovert. If she’s left alone for over ten minutes, she is reaching for her cell phone. I don’t think she’s ever had a thought that she hasn’t shared. I, on the other hand, need time to recharge after being “on”. If I don’t have that time then my body reacts through exhaustion, anxiety, and sleeplessness. And as awesome as it is to be able to order books online, there are plenty of negatives in today’s digitally connected world that makes it difficult to be an introvert. As Nancy Baym writes, “The continuous relational accessibility enabled by mobile phones thus keeps local peers and families more tightly independent, but can also come to feel overwhelming and imprisoning for that very reason.” Between my cell phone, (calls and texting), my iPad (instant messaging), and my laptop (email, work and personal), I am continuously connected. Just knowing that my “alone” time is prone to interruption is not as relaxing as pre-technology days. Yet, I stay connected for my grandmother is 98, my daughter is pregnant, my sister is widowed, my son lives in Florida, the reasons are many for not unplugging. Part of today’s brave new world is learning to balance the good and the bad and finding more time and opportunity for unconnected solitude. And for introverts, this is not a choice but a necessity.

Building Digital Footprints from Birth

Seamless pattern with foot stepsResearch shows that the trend is increasing for a child’s digital birth to coincide with and in may cases precede their real birth date.  Almost 34 percent of children begin their digital lives when parents upload their prenatal sonograph scans to the internet. 81 percent of children under the age of 2 have some kind of digital profile or footprint. This digital history will follow the child for the rest of his or her life. My pre-1980 birth date means I do not share my advisees’ lifelong history with digital technology and while my grandchild will have a digital footprint from (or before) birth, I do not. My daughter and her husband recently announced that I would be a grandmother. I’ve already seen a sonograph at 7 weeks. My daughter attached it to a text and sent it to me. When I was pregnant with her, sonographs could not be done so early. Now, you can see the fetus when it is nothing more than a mustard seed. This child’s life will be fully documented in a digital manner. How do I feel about that?

As a cool grandma, I like the idea of being able to pull out the virtual wallet at any time to show pictures of my grandchild. I also like the idea of being able to share these pictures with family members that are not close. We were face timing my son when my daughter told my husband and I that she was pregnant. He was able to share in the moment from Gainesville Florida. He felt as if he were there and that’s something to praise about technology. In fact, when Kaleena and John told us they were expecting, she was videoing me on her cellphone. She has that thing in front of her face so much that I didn’t even realize what she was doing. It is now on Facebook and my “Oh my God” moment is there for all her friends to see. On a side note, I had looked much better earlier in the evening before I exchanged my suit for a VT sweatshirt with no bra.

So what do I think about my new grandchild’s digital footprint or even the ability to have one? My family calls me an optimist and perhaps I am; because I think that the positive impact of digital technology is one to be celebrated. Though part of this brave new world may be scary, parts of it are beyond what I could have ever have imagined and I’m thankful.

Why College Students Need LinkedIn

LinkedIn-Offices-1In A Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites, LinkedIn is described as social network site with a professional orientation. In this online environment, people create a self-descriptive profile and then make links to other people they know on the site, creating a network of personal connections. This is a great tool for professionals and because I’m in Dr. Warnick’s The Digital Self class, I immediately created a profile and started adding connections. Wow, I immediately starting getting views. What a great tool and why hadn’t I done this before? But wait, can’t it be a great tool for college students as well? I thought this an original idea, but a few clicks in google revealed that others had had the same thought. I realized that with more than 175 million members, students not using the site are left out of the professional loop. They need to connect with professionals throughout their college career and not a few months before graduation looms over them.

I now see it as my mission to tell our students about LinkedIn so I’ve decided to offer an information session with free pizza to get them to show up. I found a great website called Smore to create my flyer. Then I scoured the internet for information to share during the session. This is what I came up with:

  • Join LinkedIn and create a complete profile. This is your chance to distinguish yourself from others. You are given an opportunity to provide details on why this school, why this job, here’s what I learned etc. Weave a story of yourself, we’re all unique.
  • Post a professional looking photo of yourself. This is not Facebook. Keep all pets and weird friends out of this photo. You should be alone and dressed appropriately, as if you were interviewing for a job.
  • Get recommendations on your profile. Not the one-click endorsements, but the recommendations that take someone a few minutes to write. If you’ve finished an internship, ask your supervisor. It’s best to do this on your last day in the position. If you haven’t had an internship, then ask a professor who saw you excel on an assignment, an advisor who can speak to your diligence on your plan of study, your boy/girl scout troop leader, the reverend of your church, a friend of the family, the manager of the grocery store where you bagged groceries. All of these folks can speak to your character and work ethic.
  • Go to the advanced search on LinkedIn and start connecting with professionals and business people in the area you want to work. Our department has an Advisory Board of Alumni who are the heads of some of the biggest construction firms in the industry and they’re more than willing to help. Ask them where they see opportunities. Ask them where they’d start if they were in your shoes. Tell them the truth – that you’re honored to get feedback and counsel from them and that you look at them as someone you’d like to become. Who wouldn’t like to hear that?

I know most students think that because they already have a Facebook page, they are doing sufficient social networking. I must remind them that most employers don’t troll Facebook looking for job candidates and it will look good  if employers can find them on LinkedIn.  They will stand out from the competition if they create a LinkedIn account. I’ll share an update on this post after the information session.





The Past Predicts the Future

Development of Wireless Telegraphy, Scene in Hyde Park. “These two figures are not communicating with one another. The lady is receiving an amatory message, and the gentlemen some racing results. 1906” This steel engraving from 1906 accurately predicts the future by showing a couple using “wireless devices” over 100 years ago. It is amazing how not only science fiction books but even cartoons from the past have correctly predicted the future of technology. The most accurate part of this illustration is the prediction of the people sitting right next to each other but communicating with someone else. Sound familiar? (oddities of life)

In Personal Connections in the Digital Age Nancy Baym writes that communication technologies have long been represented as a source for stress of families. The telephone was first seen for its potential to “enable” the wrong kinds of sociability across age, class, and social lines. It was also feared that the telephone would replace visiting. The television, as well, evoked concerns. A 1962 New Yorker cartoon showed a husband and wife seated across from each other at the dinner table. His face was buried in the newspaper while she watched a television depicting a couple sharing a romantic dinner (pg 35-36).

These concerns are not new nor are they substantiated. Technology will cause our social skills to change but most of us are able to make the new media make sense and use it to enhance our personal and professional lives. New technologies will always bring with it new anxieties but recognizing that the fear of the new is merely masking ago-old concerns, we can move into the future with anticipation.

Another Thing to Love About Zappos

Yes I’ve always loved Zappos. What’s not to love. Basically every pair of shoes that I own come from the giant online retailer. The question is, “Why am I a valued customer?” Do I love them for their great shoe selection or is it something more? What makes them great as a company and why have they succeeded while others have failed?  Early on, Tony Hsieh and his team sat down and figured out who they wanted to be — and who they didn’t want to be. It’s one thing to write down a manifesto but to actually live it daily, that’s the secret to success.

I decided that if I’m going to take my blogging as a serious endeavor then I needed my own set of core values. And this wasn’t as easy as one might think. I wanted values that I could encapsulate into my everyday life, on an off the page.  The following are what I chose:

  1. Focus on the content. I will make each word count. Hemingway comes to my mind as a writer who best represents this value.
  2. Be positive. Not negative. I will say what something is rather than what something isn’t. 
  3. Voice matters. I will stay true to myself and treat my reader as a valued friend. 
  4. Cultivate lifelong learning. I will never stop needing to know. 
  5. Make a difference. I will remember that every single one of us has the power to make a difference. 

What are your core values? 

The Setup

Who are you, and what do you do?

I’m an academic advisor for the Department of Building Construction at Virginia Tech. My interests include the use of ePortfolios as an assessment and reflection tool in higher education and digital storytelling as a narrative means to establish connections within first-year college students. I’ve recently finished a MFA in Creative Writing and Children’s Literature and I’m a two-time winner of Hollins University Shirley Henn Excellence in Creative Writing Award and finalist of the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Award. What’s exciting to me is how the power of story speaks to both parts of the human mind – reason and emotion. I plan to use this in a first year experience seminar that I’ll be teaching fall 2013.

What hardware do you use?

I have an iMac with a 24-inch screen in my home office, a MacBook, an iPad and iPhone 4. At work I use a Dell PC but after I complete my FDI workshops, I will have a new MacBook Pro for the office.

And what software?

I still use Microsoft Word instead of Pages because I work on files from work at home and it’s easier. After I go to a Mac at work though, I may switch to Pages. I prefer Keynote to PowerPoint and run Adobe CS 4 on my MacBook and CS 5 on my iMac. I like Photoshop and can do a little with inDesign but haven’t mastered Adobe Illustrator. I’ve designed a couple of webpages using HTML but that’s been a couple of years ago and now I feel that I’d have to learn it all over again. Technology moves so fast and it’s definitely a use it or lose it skill in many aspects. I use Facebook to keep up with friends and family and Twitter and LinkedIn for professional networking. I use WordPress for my blog and have a Tumblr account for motivational quotes on writing and creativity.

What would be your dream setup?

More bookshelves. I am happy with my hardware and software setup. I will never go completely digital because I love the look, feel, and smell of books around me. Some of them are a bit tattered from numerous hands and readings but that only serves to give them a character that you can’t find on a screen. I do read some on my iPad but digital books that I purchase are mostly non-fiction, reference types that don’t hold the same degree of intimacy as poetry or a favorite novel.


Reflections on All I Do Not Know – Twitter

I’m only two-weeks into the course, The Digital Self, and my head is spinning with the realm of this new “networked” life. I thought I knew all about the digital era and social networking sites. Facebook and I go way back. And last week in class, I identified myself as part of “the early majority” of users of the internet revolution. Yet after this week’s reading, I realize the more I learn about the digital world, the more I don’t know. One such example is Twitter. I’ve spent hours this weekend traveling through Twitterland and still remain a bit perplexed. Please tell me that Twitter is more than a giant popularity contest gone viral. You may notice that I’m trying hard to retain the bitterness that I’m still at 12 followers while my fourteen-year-old nephew has over 300.

I digress. I can admit when I am wrong. I’ve learned that Twitter is more than people posting about what they had for lunch. A recent study by GlobalWebIndex reveals that Twitter was the fastest growing social network in 2012. And as organizational sociologist Ronald Burt tells us in our textbook¹, “network brokerage is about building connections across different social circles to provide more exposure.” I am now following 148 people and 98% of those people are connections outside my social circle. Social media may be a new territory for me but it is one I will map out in my destination to be more successful and knowledgeable in my career.

¹Networked: The New Social Operating System, by Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman. MIT Press, 2012.