On Beauty and Classroom Teaching

On Beauty and Classroom Teaching

The “crisis in the humanities,” whether unprecedented and dire or perpetual and overblown, plays out as a controversy over how long people like me will have a job, and whether we’ll be missed once we’re gone. But it also has subtler and more immediate effects on how we understand and talk about our own work on a daily basis, under the shadow of these dark predictions. This essay is not about the corporatization of the university or the terrible contingency of academic employment (covered from many angles here in Hybrid Pedagogy); rather, it’s about what gets left out of the conversation — or, worse, out of our teaching — when so many of us feel the roof over our heads is threatening to cave in. It’s about beauty.

Beauty is at the heart of the humanities: we spend time with our students gazing at slides of beautiful objects, helping them craft beautiful conclusions to their essays, deconstructing the influence of gender stereotypes and body politics upon notions of beauty, and analyzing philosophical theories of aesthetic judgment. The experience of a great class discussion feels, to me, much closer to beauty than to the mere satisfaction of time used well in the pursuit of learning outcomes. But to name it as such in our current climate feels odd, even dangerous.

In fact, there are many reasons for beauty to flee the scene. On the one hand, precarious terms of employment and the need to justify our disciplines point us academic worker bees towards describing our work in market-friendly terminology such as “effective” (with the occasional, and now obligatory, nod towards “innovative”) rather than using supposedly softer, vaguer concepts such as beauty. On the other hand, in the midst of the current and highly necessary explosion of attention to identity, language, and bias, talk of beauty can quickly be associated with injustices such as the well-documented bias towards people perceived as more physically attractive (in the parlance of our era, this is now called “beauty privilege”). The “war on beauty” in the academy actually began decades ago and in tandem with critiques of the canon — those works of art and literature, mainly written by white men, considered so timeless and incontestable in their beauty that they retained a near monopoly over the “great books” in most disciplines, even as the faces and backgrounds of the students encountering them changed dramatically.

In a set of lectures at Yale in 1998 — later collected into the book On Beauty and Being Just — Elaine Scarry, an English professor at Harvard, set out to prove that beauty could in fact be rescued from these incriminating associations. In her analysis, the self-aware perception of beauty (which is different from the problematic ways in which beauty circulates as a commodity) is not an unthinking act of bias but rather a complex process of discovery, error, and revision.

“To misstate, or even merely understate, the relation of the universities to beauty is one kind of error that can be made,” Scarry writes. And while her own book dwells more on literary works, paintings, and gardens than the classroom, there is no better place to make beauty of the kind she describes than in a classroom. Beauty isn’t just the window-dressing of academia, the leafy paths and grand architecture (whether stone-and-ivy or glass-and-steel) of our campuses. It is central to the endeavor, and, once brought into the light, a powerful organizing principle of teaching and learning:

Beauty is why we teach, and how we learn. I remember reading the philosopher Michel Foucault for the first time, and finding his ideas so challenging and compelling — so beautiful, really, in their explanatory power — that I could not help but think of them as I sat in classrooms, navigated the dining hall, or exercised in the university gym. After Foucault, my world was teeming with micro-practices of surveillance and normalization, meaning that my own perceptual processes had been altered to include micro-practices of surveilling the surveillance all around me.

As educators, we choose the discipline, topics, and texts we teach based not only on our interests, but also on the beauty we see in them. We teach at our best not when we conceive of ourselves as lecturers delivering content, but when we invite our students to explore with us the internal logic, complexity, and beauty of the subject matter we teach, whether it’s organic chemistry or the contemporary Japanese novel. Scarry writes that the fundamental reaction people have to beauty is to seek to replicate it. I could not help but do it when Foucault was prompting me to re-map my world, and none of us can help but do it when we are teaching what we love. To want students to read something and then think differently about the world is to want them to find beauty in a text and replicate it at moments when they are not reading the text. (Insert “conduct an experiment,” “have a conversation,” “perform a monologue,” or any other pedagogical technique in the place of “read something” in that sentence, and the same holds true.)

In a course about children’s rights that I am currently teaching, I had my students read Ivan Illich’s classic critique of compulsory schooling, Deschooling Society. We then made two visits to a local democratic school, Philly Free School, where we saw a learning environment with no curriculum or classes, no rule by adult teachers or administrators over students. As I write this, my students are at work on an assignment responding to the question “What should a school be like, and why?” — a prompt I have encouraged them to answer by drawing up blueprints for a school and explaining what happens in each room, creating a website for a fictional school, or even writing a letter to our college’s president outlining a vision for our institution’s future. In this triad of activities — reading Illich, seeing some of his ideas reflected in the space of Philly Free School, and finding their own setting (real or imagined) in which to articulate what it all means to them — the students are reenacting the model of encounter, recognition, and replication that Scarry finds in our most life-changing (and, in her words, “lifesaving”) experiences of beauty.

Beauty is critical. “Beauty has a built-in liability to self-correction and self-adjustment,” Scarry argues, pointing out that when we are wrong about beauty, and then realize our error, we experience it as both memorable and profoundly disconcerting. The lecture classes I often attended as an undergraduate at a large research university, though rarely models of great pedagogy, worked best when they produced this kind of crisis in my classmates and me. Watching art historian Vincent Scully weep underneath a projected slide of a Frank Lloyd Wright building, hearing Russian literature scholar Vladimir Alexandrov uncover the life-and-death stakes embedded in what seemed like the most boring sections of Tolstoy’s War and Peace: these were experiences of wonder and productive shame. They left those of us in the audience with the sense that we were walking around missing things. Beauty wasn’t just going to deliver itself to us — it demanded that we think, feel, and find our way towards it.

To the extent that we are all looking to cultivate critical faculties in our students, is it possible that beauty, which Scarry shows can “bring…us into contact with our own capacity for making errors,” is a better tool than the poor grade that students “earn” for errors in understanding? I offer students unlimited opportunities to revise their papers for me — and the chance to replace their old grade with a new one every time they do so — in order to stress that recognizing our errors and “self-adjusting” them is more important than rewarding quick understanding and penalizing slower understanding.

Beauty is integrative. There is a scene in Hayao Miyazaki’s animated masterpiece Spirited Away in which the film’s protagonist, a girl named Chihiro, boards a train with rails that run just under the surface of the ocean. Chihiro and her companions share the interior of a train car with shadowy, semi-transparent travelers who say nothing as they slowly gather their bags and disembark. For a long time, I had nothing to say about the scene except that it was lonely and beautiful, and felt like a slow punch in the gut. Years later, after a lot of time and reading — including from sources that had nothing obvious to do with an animated film — I eventually came to see the train scene as of a piece with other things Miyazaki was saying in Spirited Away about alienation, labor, and the worlds of consumerism. But the punched-in-the-gut feeling was the unavoidable first step in this integrated understanding, and the reason I felt the need to return to that scene over and over, and from multiple angles.

As the American Association of Colleges & Universities states, “There is a growing national emphasis on fostering undergraduate students’ integrative learning through multiple forms of engaged educational experiences.” In practice, this means faculty are being encouraged to provoke those moments where, for example, a student realizes that the tensions between republicanism and popular democracy, introduced to him in an American Politics class, actually provide a lens for his sociology research into online communities for gay youth. It used to simply be assumed this kind of thinking was taking place, in coffee shops and late-night dorm conversations between students. But according to the current thinking, integration needs to be taught, or at least intentionally prompted.

Connections, even quite sophisticated ones, are made through the senses and emotions, especially when they are activated by beauty. Whether in pocket notebooks or Instagram feeds, we can now pick and choose from various forums where we create integrative streams of images and reflective text, poetry and political argumentation. It thus seems strange that so many integrated learning schemes present themselves as portfolios collecting only those acts of writing already marked off as an “assignment,” walling off intellectual production and ignoring the connective power of the sensory, the sublime.

In an article about teaching middle school English under the Common Core, Claire Needell Hollander writes, “The basis for higher-level learning — for philosophy, psychology, literature, even political science — is the emotions and impulses people feel every day. If we leave them out of the picture, reading is bled of much of its purpose.” This is even more true about integrative learning: for students to do the cognitive work of linking the scientific concepts they encounter in biology to international relations or to a musical idea, they must have some emotional investment: some tie of feeling that binds their experiences. What if, instead of the dry “reflections” they are sometimes asked to write to accompany their electronic portfolios, students were asked to reflect on moments in their learning — or their college experience more broadly — when they felt that punch in the gut of the sublime (or when they felt angry or hopeful, ashamed or dignified)? In a Beauty Portfolio, a Revelation Portfolio, or a Portfolio of Loss, how might a student come to organize, connect, and even gain some critical perspective on her college experience? Perhaps giving students the space for this kind of integration would even prove superior than demanding that they spend the final days of every semester cramming content into their heads to spit back out on an exam, or rushing to complete research papers that they will deliver into a professor’s inbox and never hear about, or engage with meaningfully, again.

Beauty demands attention to particularity, context, and diversity. Scarry’s own epiphany about beauty came when she realized, after a lifetime of thinking that palm trees were ugly, that she’d been wrong. The ugly palm tree in her head “was a composite palm that I had somehow succeeded in making without ever having seen, close up, many particular instances.” This example is an instance not just of the critical thinking that can occur when we are wrong about beauty, as described above, but also of a particular type of error that beauty must confront if it is to be aligned with justice rather than injustice. The making of a composite out of fragments of information — filling in the gaps of our ignorance with our own projections — is, of course, the essence of stereotyping.

It is all the more significant, then, that it was a single, specific palm that showed Scarry she had been wrong about palm trees: “When I now say, ‘Palms are beautiful,’ or ‘I love palms,’ it is really individual palms I have in mind.” Likewise, when we want people to expand the horizons of their empathy — to see new forms of identity and experience as real, complex, and beautiful — the sharing of composite narratives or “big data” seems to fall short. In fact, sometimes statistics, for example about black Americans’ experiences in the criminal justice system, can actually be funneled back into previously held beliefs; our brains are amazing machines for the reconfiguration of new facts into preexisting narratives.

By contrast, a student who finds specificity and beauty in the Quiché language of the Maya may wind up, over the long term, more attuned to their struggles for justice in Guatemala than the student who is told of their oppression in a monolithic narrative — or worse, subjected to photographs of Maya children, deprived of the particularity that makes them beautiful and transformed into another anonymous example of the “poor child who needs your help” that still plague the visual landscape of humanitarianism.

The further I get into the writing process with students, the clearer it becomes that the best and most beautiful version of one student’s paper is not the same as the best and most beautiful version of her classmates’ papers — that the beauty to be found there is a complex dance between my assignment and the student’s own emergent voice. When a student really “gets it” — by which I mean not simply that she grasped the course content, but that she found a way to make it her own in writing or in speech (to replicate it on her own terms) — that moment is marked not merely by the satisfaction of an expectation fulfilled. It’s beautiful. It is as if something present but not yet visible in the early versions of the essay has now emerged, full of colors and moving wings — ready to go out into the world. Scarry spends a portion of her book exploring the connection between beauty and greeting; but as a teacher, I often experience the beauty of my students’ writing as a fond farewell.

Lately, after class, I’ve taken to gazing at the chalkboard for a minute before I erase it. The scribblings I see are messy, incomplete. They are the product of many minds working independently, bumping into one another briefly, and then departing again—making something that seems only to exist for a moment, though in reality we will each be replicating and reenacting it in different ways during the next hour, or a decade from now. “When you make an error in beauty,” Scarry writes, “It should set off small alarms and warning lights.” Not to recognize the centrality of beauty to classroom teaching, and then seek to make it happen over and over again, is to let all the shouting about a crisis drown out the sound of that small alarm.

Hybrid Pedagogy uses an open collaborative peer review process. This piece was reviewed by Rebecca Halpern and Elizabeth Lenaghan.

[Photo, “CRISIS?”, by Luis Reina licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.]

I appreciate the agility available to the digital academic, but there is something a bit fun-house about all of this to me.  Every day as part of my work as a college English professor and department chair, I encounter scores of new people in the digital space.  We have exciting conversations about teaching and learning; we are shaping a new kind of work in higher ed.  

I also encounter several different versions of myself. Read More

Learning as Weaving

Learning as Weaving

As educators, we want to teach in ways that support our students to be the best that they can be. We yearn for the lightbulb moment. We are so proud of them when they surprise us. We scream as loud as anyone when they break a record. We live vicariously through their successes. But in the contemporary, connected world the ability to stand out from the crowd is becoming more and more difficult. We want our students to stand on the shoulders of giants, but that model is pretty unsteady. Maybe the key is to teach them to collaborate — to weave a web, strong, networked, and expansive. Perfect for catching the elusive creature that is new knowledge.

Students bring a large array of interests and expertise to classrooms, but often these ideas are laid aside in the panic to ensure curriculum requirements are met, and often complex ideas are tackled through direct or scaffolded instruction. I have done this myself. But as Chris Friend and Sean Michael Morris have written, we are obliged to include students in the learning process and let them try to mix it up with the experts. To learn from each other and to become experts themselves. Isn’t that the point of learning?

But where to start? How can teachers capture and utilise the rich and random knowledge students bring with them?

One idea is to begin to think of the classroom as a web of knowledge and relax into the students’ divergent ideas. To disrupt the linear, curriculum-oriented approach to learning.

Teachers are creative and sophisticated facilitators of learning, but they are trapped in a logic of conformity enforced by performance and competition expectations. Unfortunately, when the majority of education research is contextualised in classrooms it is difficult to differentiate between the results of curriculum implementation or the messier and more nuanced enactment of learning. Social media provide opportunities to  investigate learning outside the classroom using data generated in relaxed environments. By observing people as they learn through online activities, I have begun to question whether we truly understand just what learning is. The way teachers are trained to organise curriculum and pedagogy doesn’t seem to fit neatly into how people are learning (at least in online contexts). A couple of online experiences have led me to these questions about the present construction of schooling.

Webs of knowledge

I have recently been involved in a relaxed scholarly conversation with Deborah Netolicky and Helen Kara. Helen, Deborah, and I do not know each other outside of Twitter and our WordPress blogging accounts. Deborah and I live in different locations in Australia and Helen lives in the United Kingdom. Recently, Helen challenged me to write a blog from a #blimage, (blogging about an image) the brainchild of Steve Wheeler. The image was a photograph from Helen’s garden of a spider web, pictured here.

Photo of intertwined spider webs by Helen Kara

I wrote a post about the messiness of research. I thought out loud about how the web is a truer representation of how knowledge is accessed than the linear representation in most published research. In my post I challenged (as per the linear rules) Jenna Condie with another image.

That was supposed to be the end of the thought. But Deborah jumped in (not out of the blue, out of the network) and wrote a post about the spider web. Deborah wrote about how technology is being used to connect educators all over the world, particularly through Twitter and blogging. Deborah’s post inspired me to write another post about the image. I wrote about how we tend to still think of knowledge as linear despite decades of online connectedness. I explained how I was pleasantly surprised by Deborah’s breaking of the #blimage rules and mused that there needed to be more of that in education.  My post inspired Helen to join in too. Helen wrote about positive disruptive practice and that privileging print media is not doing research any favours. Jenna has not yet posted, but is keen to discard her allocated image and also draw inspiration from the spider web. Each participant broke the linear rules of the exercise and started weaving a circle of networked learning.

I began wondering what would happen if many more bloggers wrote about the same image. What type of knowledge could we begin to generate as a relaxed networked collective? Wikipedia is an excellent example of knowledge curation as a networked collective, but there is a strong possibility that social media, like blogging and Twitter, can help us make new connections between old ideas. The beauty of the above interaction was in its randomness. Each participant was inspired to write a new blog post because they wanted to and enjoyed the ideas.

How could this experience translate into education? What might student experts look like in an educational context? The following example is from an empirical study that is informing how my thoughts about this question are continuing to develop. The students participated in a very informal and voluntary capacity to help me develop a curriculum that better targets their needs. I don’t yet have the answers, but this study has helped me to confirm my belief that social media are a good place to start looking for them.

Using the web

Social media can teach us more about how people learn by participating in online learning activities but also by noticing how people interact and react to educational experiences. These networked collaborations can inform our pedagogic practice. The first rule of good pedagogy is knowing your students and how they learn. Social media provide new avenues for exploring that learning because we can watch it happen and develop over time (while the users are frequently posting).

For example, in my own research, I collected the Facebook status updates of first year university students to write a more targeted transition curriculum. I didn’t form a group, formulate questions, hashtag or even interact with the students beyond recruitment. I just wanted to know what they had to say, uninterrupted and raw. I watched them for a whole year as they learned to become university students.

I didn’t find anything revolutionary, but I did find that there were aspects of the transition process that were underrepresented in the research. There were slight misses in how universities were understanding the transition milestones. For example, traditional transition research situates orientation weeks as a time of loneliness. Some transition research that utilizes the online realm has shown that while students are alone, they are constantly in touch with family and friends as they explore their first days at university. What my research adds is that family and friends are deeply involved in secondary school students’ transitions to university. They provide advice, encouragement, and meetup opportunities continuously throughout the first weeks. This involvement drops off as the students settle into their routines and develop relationships with students in their classes, but outside-campus, online support rarely disappears. A further example is that transition research (in Australia) has suggested that early and low stakes assessment in the first year is a way to give students success and encourage them to stay at university. What has been largely missed in the tertiary assessment literature is that the students are looking for the value of their assessment. In fact, students are considering the value of their university education as a whole, whether they are considering the necessity of attending lectures or searching for the best coffee on campus. I’m hoping that better connecting those understandings between the policy makers and the students will lead to much more successful first year university transition experiences.

The beauty of my study was twofold. Firstly, the students helped weave a curriculum. No longer were the policy makers and researchers the only ones deciding what was important to know about transitioning to university. The students had a stake and a say in it. Secondly, I was able to watch students naturally learn without ingrained structures imposed by the industrial education system.

The potential for finding out more about how humans learn by using social media as data is very exciting for education researchers. More than any other technology has done before, social media provides examples of small- and large-scale interactions that can inspire face-to-face interactions in the classroom, the school, the community, the nation, and on the international stage. They can show us that some of the most intriguing ideas are not dictated by a curriculum. Most importantly, we can’t explore this learning unless we do it, engage in it ourselves, try it with our students, have successes and failures, and continuously reflect and refine.

Education technology must not be seen as the easy solution for finding new knowledge or new solutions to old problems. Anyone that has run group work in their classes knows that great collaboration is not the product of where desks are placed in a classroom but in the task given and the expertise brought to the table. By the same token, Twitter and blogs are not the solution for learning, though they have the potential to be a great vehicle for it.

The two examples above provide the basis for my ideas about what learning looks like. Learning is much messier and dynamic than scaffolded, compartmentalised education policy would lead us to believe. In classrooms, keeping on topic and task is an important structural and behavioral expectation. Random thoughts are actively discouraged. I believe that we need to start paying more attention to the random thoughts because when learning is conceptualized as a web, rather than a line, randomness becomes more meaningful.

Weaving webs in the classroom

Social constructivist trained teachers have experience in guiding collaborative problem solving. But instead of scaffolding the pathway to expertise, why not allow students to pursue their interests in a topic and then look for ways to synthesize what each student brings to the table? Effective collaboration is not about having students work together to find one solution to a problem, but rather having individual experts engage with  authentic problems and suggest real solutions, while understanding the complexity of getting there. Diversity of learning preferences, socio-cultural backgrounds, and learning abilities could effectively be catered to by allowing students to pursue their own expertise and contribute that expertise to solving a problem. Each student could also have a sense of success through their enactment of expertise.

John Hunter is onto something with his World Peace Game. He asks students to solve real world problems. He works on the principle of “out of the mouths of babes” and waits for that wisdom that only the young can provide. His only role is to facilitate rather than guide the learning. Imagine if this type of learning tool was done online between schools on different sides of the world. Imagine the differences in solutions that could be found through the differences in culture. Even between English speaking cultures.

There are lots of educators, like John Hunter, who are breaking down disciplinary walls and looking for new solutions to age old problems by accessing the diverse expertise of students. I believe that the more we compile that expertise, the more we’ll come to see that the future of learning looks more like a web. Educators that build webs of knowledge are the ones who will inspire generations of knowledge weavers, not just knowledge collectors.

Maybe my readers would like to write about the spider web and see what knowledge we can weave together. While we are weaving, let’s think about what we are doing and learning to see if there is anything that can authentically transferred into classrooms. The best way to develop pedagogy and be critical about it is to try it out yourself. Have a go and be inspired like I was.

Hybrid Pedagogy uses an open collaborative peer review process. This piece was reviewed by Elizabeth Lenaghan and Sean Hackney.

[Photo, “Surprise Ice”, by Carmen Jost licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.]

Digital writing – in my understanding, the act of creating texts or other products through digital tools which are designed to be shared with readers via digital means- diverges significantly from the private hand-written journaling I did for years. From my laptop and occasionally from my tablet I draft texts which I primarily publish immediately … In both cases, these texts are out there for anyone and everyone with reasonably free internet access to see, read, and also ignore. ~ Sherri Spelic

Digital Writing Month 2015 is entering its first few frenzied, frantic, fanatical days, and immediately upon entry into November the questions arise: what is digital writing? who reads digital writing? who authors it? where does it end up? For the last four years, we’ve been asking these questions alongside participants in this month-long MOOC-like thing. And this year is no different.

Except that it’s very different.

Where Jesse Stommel and I ran DigiWriMo for three years, each time adjusting course to explore new waters of collaboration, massive writing, and the nature of text, image, and sound online, this year our exquisite colleagues Maha Bali, Sarah Honeychurch, and Kevin Hodgson have taken the helm… and they’re directing us into new waters indeed. Never has Digital Writing Month been this international, this focused on issues of identity, inclusion, and voice. Our brave new leaders are bringing us closer to the issues of global digital writing than ever before. Read More

“It makes no more sense to wish for age than to fear it.” – Gloria Steinem

When I entered my Introduction to Women’s Studies class in the fall of 2014 and saw an “older” female student I thought ‘Oh good, she will be more focused and will do well in the class because she is older.’  At that moment I became very aware of my thought and my very next thought was ‘That was ageist.’  As educators we must continually self-reflect on how we perceive student abilities based on their age-range, and yet there is very little scholarship that discusses pedagogical practices which might encourage or steer us to think about ageism within our classrooms.  When topics surrounding ageism are considered they are more likely to focus on old(er) people, rarely touching on notions of ageism moving in both directions, affecting young(er) and old(er) people.  In addition to ageism being a marginalized topic within the classroom, pedagogical philosophies are also lacking in discussions of ageism within our teaching practices.  To date most of the research concerning ageism in higher education discusses how to teach students about ageism with little discussion about how to reduce ageism inside the classroom.  When pedagogical practices that explore ageism are brought to our attention they also often focus on old(er) individuals.  Both young(er) and old(er) students can experience ageism; therefore as educators we need to consider our entire student population in order to create new spaces for thinking about the larger spectrum of ageism within our classrooms.  I feel a combination of critical and feminist pedagogies can prove useful when thinking about reducing ageism in the classroom, regardless of the age of our student populations.  

Through a combination of pedagogical practices we can learn how to be self-reflexive and critical in our teaching, reducing ageism within our classrooms, helping to shift discourses about age, and challenge notions of authority and power within spaces of higher education.  Specifically, by applying a combination of self-reflexive critical and feminist pedagogies in the classroom we can begin to carefully assess our role(s) as educators, and how knowledge and authority can reproduce ageism within our classrooms. Self-reflexivity concerning assignments, activities, lessons, and prejudices that we all carry into the classroom concerning both younger and older students can help to alleviate ageism in the classroom, and ultimately impact larger social constructs concerning age in higher education. Read More

A complete transcript of this episode is available.

In November, Digital Writing Month returns to give participants a lively, supportive, and massively collaborative environment in which to think about, work in, and play around with all forms of digital writing, including text, audio, and video compositions. Learn more at the Digital Writing Month website.

How does working together, you know, work? What are the promises and pitfalls of collaboration, and how can we prepare ourselves and our students for successful collaborative activities? When collaborative projects get crazy, messy, chaotic, unwieldy, or just too darn complex, how can we still manage to navigate them? In this episode, I explore those questions and attempt not to solve, but to understand. Read More

“The problem is writing articles instead of making sure the articles actually change the world.”  —Martin Bickman, “Returning to Community and Praxis”

I’ve been writing all my life, as my mom often reminds me, but I didn’t start thinking of myself as a writer until I started writing publicly towards the end of my PhD. Writing publicly, whether on my blog, over here, or in other journals and magazines, has transformed my identity and my practice in unprecedented ways. And yet, I ask myself, what the value of all this is.

I started writing as therapy for myself, (an outlet for the writing muscles I had honed by writing regularly in order to finish a dissertation while raising a toddler); a selfish endeavor. But then people started to respond to my writing, and I started to hope that my writing would become praxis: an ongoing process of reflection influencing action (my own, and others’) which I then reflect upon, and so on. Is it too naive or idealistic to want all my writing to advocate for social justice in some way, to have an impact in the world beyond words on a screen?

I find myself in this strange situation where my social media participation (my tweeting, blogging, cMOOCing and virtually connecting) has helped me become a relatively well-connected open scholar with an international network of peers with whom I learn constantly.  And yet, locally, where it should matter most, I have had no deep influence on education in Egypt such that I still struggle with how my own child will be educated in this country that I love.

What do you do when you know you live in a country that has deep and complicated educational problems, problems you would someday like to contribute to solving, but you know that your ideals may be too radical to directly change the system from a policy level, on a large scale. What do you do, when you cannot sit quietly, and yet you are a mother in a largely patriarchal society that limits your mobility to make a difference when your child is so young? When writing is one of a few outlets you have? Is this writing therapy? Praxis? A way out of oppression? A numbing force against your oppression? All of the above?

There is a saying by prophet Muhammad about responding to injustice we encounter or when we see something we believe is “wrong”. Roughly translated:

“When one of you sees a wrong, you should correct it with your hand, but if you cannot, then with your tongue, but if you cannot, then with your heart, and that’s the weakest form of faith.”

Modern interpretations use “tongue” interchangeably with “words”, so this encompasses speech and writing — any form of “voice” or “expression”. I interpret this to mean that if we can’t go out and make a difference in the world by physically going and correcting all the wrongs we see, when we can’t directly control them, then we should at least speak out against them, advocate for justice, strive to influence, and so on.

Teaching is another form of voice. I hate that saying, “those who can do, those who can’t teach” because it ignores the long-term impact of teaching. When we do something we influence the moment we are in; when we teach, we influence a future, and when we write, we have potential to influence a broader group of people we may never ever meet, people who may read what we have written as interpreted by someone else, or read our own work long after we are gone, if we are lucky enough. Being an academic mom in a patriarchal society such as mine means I am limited in how much physical presence I can have locally, regionally, and internationally. But It does not limit my capacity to think and write whenever I have free time, so that’s what I do. I write to give voice to my thoughts, but I also write to speak out against injustices against myself and others.

But still, writing or teaching for social justice is not praxis; advocacy alone is not praxis enough for me. One of my most popular articles was about critical citizenship and the role of higher ed in promoting it in Egypt. And yet I am surrounded on a daily basis by uncritical citizens of all ages who cannot have empathetic conversations across political and ideological differences. It makes me feel frustrated and helpless.

Our own teaching is action by simply what we do in the classroom with our students; this is part of our “real” world (as Valerie Robin suggests). For teaching to be praxis, we need to constantly reflect on what we are doing and why we are doing it and what kinds of effects we are having on the world by the ways we teach and what we do. Writing helps. But is that enough?

Reflecting on this piece of writing as I type these words is a kind of praxis because it makes me question every piece of writing I do and every act of teaching — to challenge myself to think of its usefulness in the world beyond the cathartic or therapeutic value it creates for me, both personal and selfish. I think of this piece I wrote about my experience of having a face-veiled student in my class — what started as sharing a personal experience but ended up making readers question their own prejudices and ended up making me question my own beyond that particular instance. I think of many of my research projects and movements I take part in initiating. They sometimes start out as selfish endeavors but often end up as ones meant to make an impact in the world, however small.

I realized something about myself while writing this. When I first graduated from college (and even as an undergrad) I was an activist. Just not a reflective activist. Sure, one of the NGOs I volunteered heavily with had a mailing list and we had a lot of discussions beyond the actual on-the-ground work we do, so it was not unreflective action, but the action was not as reflective as it should have been, for me. Maybe I was younger, and now I am just more mature. Maybe my current life circumstances (especially parenting) give me more space to write and much less space to act, so I am justifying this for my own self.

Or maybe my writing is praxis of a different kind. Maybe, as an Egyptian academic in the small-ish circle of critical digital pedagogues, I am influencing a much wider circle than I could have beforehand. Maybe my combination of privilege and oppression is a blessing, making me an “elite of marginals”. Maybe contributing a postcolonial perspective in global discourse is praxis (e.g. consider tackling MOOCs from a postcolonial perspective). It seems rather counterintuitive, but for me, global and regional recognition bring me local recognition that opens up doors for me to have an impact here. But is it enough?

I hope to be taking my writing and teaching more towards praxis in the future, influencing my daughter’s schooling whenever I can; taking my students towards working with authentic communities so that what we create in class can benefit those beyond the class, and taking the learning I gain from my digital and social media interactions back into my local context.

Because here it is: Writing publicly enables connections. Connections between people, between ideas, between action and reflection. And all of these have potential for praxis.

If our teaching, our research, our writing seeks to understand the world as it is, this is not bad, but it is not praxis. But if our writing works on the world by striving to challenge it, to change it, to influence it, our writing can be praxis. And writing about teaching helps push the boundaries of what teaching can be and do beyond the limits of immediate influence and power.

There are no guarantees. When we connect, there is only potential for serendipity, as Alan Levine recently said in a hangout. Jeff Merrell recently wrote that “the important stuff is what happens in emergent, organic form.”  We just need to be more intentional about it, opening up and creating opportunities and space for more emergence. We need to embrace what comes, make the most of the hand we are dealt.

Is it enough? It will never be enough because there will always be more to do. It will never be enough because we will never, as individuals, be able solve every problem we care about. But as we connect, we widen the range and depth of our capacity to individually and collectively make a difference. And it still would not be enough, because the more you learn and know, the more you realize you don’t know.

Writing has been central to my survival — and to my praxis — and I love opportunities to encourage others to write and find ways to make writing (particularly writing in public) useful for them. Like encouraging teachers to blog their reflections (this one is about teaching Islamic history in the wake of Isis!) and anyone to blog to support their lifelong learning. I believe everyone has great ideas inside them and that writing has potential to make a difference to many of our lives, even as we take (measured) risks and make ourselves vulnerable. But also, having voice is not enough unless someone listens. Which is why I am delighted to help facilitate Digital Writing Month this year, which can hopefully provide a supportive community for exploring different ways of using the affordances of the digital to express ourselves.

Let’s continue having conversations not only about how we write, but why we write, and how to make our writing more meaningful in the world. You are welcome to join Kevin Hodgson, Sarah Honeychurch and me this November as we co-facilitate Digital Writing Month. Subscribe for updates and add your name to the roster.

Maha Bali is a Hybrid Pedagogy featured columnist.

[Photo by Hairy Migrant licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.]

When I first proposed the research title “Editing Chicanas,” one of my mentors, Alice Gambrell, commented that it was a good title, partly because it prompted such anxiety. I was surprised, as anxiety wasn’t what I had intended. I was referring to the act of editing — how was this anxiety-making? As we talked, I realized she was thinking of the act of being edited. Being edited, like the process of peer review discussed so well by Sean Michael Morris, is generally intimate, sometimes to the point of violation. Academic editors often serve a gatekeeping function, one that can allow them to define, or help define, a field of study. While writing, especially its myth as a solitary act of creation, is examined, deified and debunked, editing, so central to publication, is rarely discussed. The history of the book is figured as a triad relationship between authors, publishers and readers, with the role of editorship either subsumed under publishing or left invisible. Yet my research on the relationships and writings produced by Chicana print cultures demonstrated that editorship and editors were and are frequently a catalyst for writing and the “making” of theory. Editors can serve as gatekeepers, yes, but they also solicit writing, contextualize it, help refine it and, ideally, put it into conversation with other voices. Read More

In November, Hybrid Pedagogy begins a new iteration of our Digital Writing Month (#DigiWriMo) event — a 30-day adventure through the world of digital narrative and art. It’s free, open, and created for any skill level. Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris first started the event in 2012, and ran it again in 2014 with Chris Friend. This year, we — Maha Bali, Sarah Honeychurch and Kevin Hodgson — are excited to be co-facilitating the month, coming to you from Egypt, Scotland and the USA, respectively.

Would you like to spend a month experimenting with new forms of writing, or even just focusing on writing goals you have for yourself, amongst a supportive community? Would you like an opportunity to get inspired by other digital writers, and learn about different forms of digital expression? Would you like to find collaborators for your digital projects?

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Today scholars walk a difficult line when choosing how much time to spend gaining traction within their institutions or growing a reputation online. In many cases these approaches can build on one another; for example, one can gain more citations for papers by promoting them via Social Media networks. Nevertheless, while individuals who are visible online may become influential in their field, they can struggle to quantify this in a form which their institution can respond to. They can also find that the flexibility of time and place which the Web affords does not bring freedom or balance, but simply pushes them to work outside of their contracted hours as they struggle to stay in the socio-intellectual flow (as described in Bonnie Stewart’s scholarship as a techno-cultural system).

On the Web, there is a close coupling between the individual, their persona and the information they consume and produce. This stands in stark contrast to the traditional discipline of academic writing and publishing, which requires the extraction of self, even as the credibility and status of the author is still paramount. When we talk about content, therefore, we are also talking about identity. The Web is breaking down the academy’s desire — and ability — to present these as distinct. Content and identity have always flowed into each other, and this is only becoming more the case on Social Media where the root organising principle promotes the person or identity as constructed by content, shifting the emphasis, as Lawrie Phipps points out, from institution to individual.

Networked practices such as blogging, social media use, and participation in digital communities provide an opportunity for individuals to make their identity broadly visible without the mediation of traditional publishers or their institution. These modes on online engagement have been described as Resident in that they involve the individual being present, or residing, to a certain extent online. This is in contrast to Visitor modes of engagement where the individual leaves no online social trace. These new, Resident, forms of agency and online participation are repositioning institutions within a larger, more open, knowledge production landscape. Individuals are increasingly aware, via the opportunities provided by Resident practices on the web, that they do not have to sacrifice as much personal agency to the institution to gain professional credibility as they might have done in a pre-Web era.

The Resident Web

The potential for connectedness, generated by the practices and places of the Resident Web has created a situation whereby individuals can now consider how to accrue traditional institutional and/or online currency, both of which can lead to forms of credibility. The close coupling of content and identity, and the extent to which that coupling is visible, is the heart of what makes online currency distinct. We need to recognize that the Web is a place where people express their identity/personae to build social/professional networks. When someone is followed on Twitter, it can be as much for the the way they behave — how they project character and a kind of persona — as it is for the information they can provide. In fact, the persona someone projects on Twitter can influence the extent to which what they have to say, or the information they highlight via tweets and retweets, is valued by their followers. It is the difference between “I follow X on social media” and “I read X’s article in that prestigious journal.”

Cristina Costa points to the networked web as a catalyst for change in scholarly communication, the formation of scholarly networks, and ultimately, the practice of academia. New forms of scholarly communication and networking, manifested as digital tools, practices, and places such as blogs and Twitter, create a tension between the struggle to establish one’s bona-fides in traditional ways, and taking advantages of the benefits of new modes of credibility, many of which are expressed via the Web.

In some senses Resident practices online engender new ways of being an academic rather than simply doing academia. Many people working within these emerging forms of scholarly communication are not necessarily senior scholars in their field. Some do not have traditional credentials such as PhDs. Pre-tenure scholars, or individuals who are not anywhere near the tenure track (eg, “alt-ac” individuals, individuals who focus on teaching and learning as their primary academic agenda, or people working in their fields for private industry or the government) are often those who are most visible in exploring the more Resident aspects of digital tools and modes.

New Forms of Resident Online Currency

Here we argue for the transformative potential of the participatory Resident web even as we acknowledge its role in reinforcing traditional, or institutional modes of power and privilege. Those with strong institutional voices can simply have them be amplified on the open Web. But those without voice might have more of a chance to acquire influence under this new model. Early career academics take an interest in, and attempt to professionalise, the Resident Web in part because it is a new space they can assert themselves in. They can see that the roles they have been assigned within the traditional system require playing a long game, one which is crowded with people lodged in positions of power. The potential of the Resident Web to facilitate collective action, to host communities of practice that can destabilize the gravity of institutions in favor or more grass-roots groups of practitioners with their own values and ideologies. It can also simply re-create the institution (and all of its structural proclivities) online. This is the case of Wikipedia, for example, where we see the drive to control and retain power recreating a similar hierarchy of gatekeeping and policing as an entrenched university. As George Santayana wrote in 1905, “revolutions are ambiguous things. Their success is generally proportionate to their power of adaptation and to the reabsorption within them of what they rebelled against.”

There are a variety of Resident Web practices that people engage in when generating new forms of currency that can yield credibility in various contexts. Individuals become “trusted sources” outside of their institutional affiliation by having a visible and quantifiable amount of social capital, generally expressed in terms of followers, likes, comments, and so on. Currency in these new modes is linked to notions of what Stephen Downes and George Siemens call “connectivism,” or building knowledge as a collective endeavour. Such new currency accrues to individuals rather than institutions, and individuals gain the quality of being “credible” by engaging actively and openly with relevant discourses — and occasionally, irrelevant or ‘off-topic’ ones, as individuals who are perceived to be too narrow in their expressions or interests may not be seen as trustworthy as those who reveal themselves to be complex in their interests, talents, and failures.

Acquiring currency can be about whether a person is perceived to be vulnerable, not just authoritative, alive and sensitive to intersections and landscapes of power and privilege: As Jennifer Ansley explains, “In this context, “credibility” is not defined by an assertion of authority, but a willingness to recognize difference and the potential for harm that exists in relations across difference.” In other words, scholars will gain a form of currency by becoming perceived as “human” (the extent to which ‘humanness’ must be honest self-expression or could be fabricated is an interesting question here) rather than cloaked by the deliberately de-humanised unemotive academic voice. This is perhaps because the absence of physical embodiment online encourages us to give more weight to indications that we are assigning credibility to a fellow human rather than a hollow cluster of code. We value those moments where we find the antidote to the uncanniness of the disembodied Web in what we perceive to be indisputably human interactions.

Recently, polarized positions over the potential value and dangers of Resident Web practice have started to mature into a more balanced discourse, with the risks of selling your “self” online countered by the potential for increased agency. It nonetheless remains crucial to consider the implications of becoming visible online when such visibility largely takes place in online platforms run by multinational corporations. People’s experiences of the web operating in a different manner to the traditional academy are still occurring within a cluster of online institutions. It is naive to assume that any given place we attempt to generate currency, either on or offline, is inherently more or less benevolent than another.

Agency via the Resident Web and the Structure of the Academy

The Resident Web makes visible the ways that the Academy works and has always worked. Knowledge has always been socially negotiated, the production of it embedded in the identity of scholars and these new modes make that undeniable. As a bastion of knowledge and truth, the traditional academy feels it shouldn’t have to connect in a human manner, this de-humanized approach is emblematic of the purity of truth the academy claims to own. Some within the academy might also consider that if it’s possible for a non expert to understand, certain knowledge loses its value. Engaging with the Web in Resident mode breaks the authority and formality of the publishing cycle and calls into question the aloofness of the academy and its socio-cultural role. It is no longer the case that inaccessibility is a measure of credibility. Being accessible, comprehensible and reachable is where credibility now lies, because of the expectations embedded in practicing openly on the Resident Web.

Scholars are no longer solely dependent on institutional markers to be a visible, credible practitioner. It is possible to be an independent, networked intellectual and scholar via the Web. In the industrialized, commodified model of intellectual labor that has come to dominate late 20th and early 21st century academia, the focus has historically been on producing units (articles, books, grants awarded, etc.) to be consumed rather than on forming the relationships and networks from which work can emerge. This now needs to be reconsidered as the Web influences the academy to re-position itself within a larger knowledge landscape in a more connected manner. The academy can no longer simply serve its own communities in the context of the networked Web, and it is under increasing cultural pressure to reach out and appear relevant. The web breaks us out of a product-centered publishing cycle and allows us to become part of an ongoing flow, in which knowledge is perpetually negotiated within networks.

However, the predominant response of the Academy to the Web has been to remain in a publishing or ‘broadcast’ mode in which content is shared but with little expectation of contact (for example, Open Educational Resources or the mainstream MOOC). Nevertheless, some of the more successful MOOCs in terms of numbers have a clearly identifiable author/designer or, in the case of connectivist MOOCs, a charismatic leader. Here again we see evidence of the shift in emphasis online, away from the academy, towards the individual. In the case of connectivist MOOCs the individuals at the helm tend to be connected to educational institutions in some form but this is a secondary factor when considering the course’s currency.

We are not suggesting that the new currencies and opportunities for agency available on the Resident Web are going to inevitably circumvent or flatten existing academic structures and hierarchies. The high-visibility, easily Google-able, ‘celebrity’ academic sits between these extremes of incomprehensible authority and accessible but unimportant material, and highlights the tensions. In this case of the highly visible or celebrity academic the academy recognises the benefits of the visibility and influence but also looks down on being populist, and recognisably human. These tensions now need to be negotiated by all scholars not just those who make radio or television appearances. It makes a difference where a scholar is starting from, and what hierarchical structures they are embedded in. Who you are in (or beyond) your institution, what privilege you do or do not have access to, all of these factors have an impact on what choices you have on the Resident Web, and what the results of exercising agency might be.

As the locus of agency shifts towards the individual, the Academy is struggling to reframe its relationship with employees. The tacit institutional assumption that the Web (and digital technology more generally) means that work can, and will, be undertaken whenever necessary — here we see the pernicious effects of ‘flexibility’. There are also many examples of institutions attempting to control and appropriate currency generated by individuals in the Resident Web which is centered predominantly on their capital as a scholar rather than their affiliation to a particular workplace. A good example of this is some institutions attempt to police the focus of Twitter discourse by staff members or even claim that they own an individual’s followers.

Certainly in an era of ubiquitous online access, ascribing when the individual or institution owns intellectual capital can no longer be demarcated by notions of 9-5 working hours or location. Definitions of credibility are now being influenced by notions of openness, immediacy, and convenience, characteristics that are important to individuals evaluating the quality of sources, both people and content, they search for on online.


The Resident Web is kicking down the gates of the Academy, repositioning it in a new scholarly landscape in which content and identity are closely coupled. The currency of dehumanised paper-based paradigm publishing is being reframed and, to a certain extent, devalued by the connectedness, immediacy and social nature of the Resident Web. While there is a recognition by many institutions (and governments) of the increasing value of online currency there is still a clumsiness and lack of understanding around the concurrent increase in individual agency. Institutions that are agile enough to respond to online currency and agency will see their reputations improve and influence increase.

As scholars we need to put aside anachronistic notions of knowledge being produced by epistemologically neutral machines and embrace the new connections between credibility and vulnerable humanity which the Resident Web brings. In tandem with this, as institutions we need to recognise this shift by negotiating the new forms of risk online and supporting increased individual agency without reneging on our our responsibility to protect and nurture those in our employ.

Hybrid Pedagogy uses an open collaborative peer review process. This piece was reviewed by Chris Friend and Katheryn Wright.

[Photo, “Tightrope walker cat”, by José Manuel Ríos Valiente licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.]

As I’ve said before, pedagogy is praxis, at the intersection of the philosophy and practice of teaching. Digital pedagogy turns that thinking toward digital platforms and communities. It does not instrumentalize teaching into a set of things we do, and it does not atomize the digital into a series of tools. While I am not averse to teachers and students developing new literacies, I don’t think the answer is mere tutorials, but rather balancing the how of digital tool-use with the whether and why. There is currently a surfeit of professional development opportunities that focus almost entirely on the how of teaching — on best practices at the expense of pedagogy.

When we launched Digital Pedagogy Lab, the on-ground institute and online courses, our hope was to create a space for thinking through pedagogy and teaching as intrinsically, not just instrumentally, valuable. This Summer, Kris Shaffer taught our first online course about the “Flipped Classroom.” I just finished teaching a two-week intensive online course on “Teaching with Twitter.” Our next offering, “Learning Online,” will examine a broader and somewhat more abstract set of concerns. This course, taught by Sean Michael Morris and myself, will be less about teaching and more about learning. The focus will not be on best practices for online teaching, as so many similar courses are aimed, but on thinking about and talking through how we learn online.

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The semester begins. Servers everywhere fire up. And students across the globe introduce themselves in discussion forums. In Canvas, in D2L, in Blackboard, in Moodle. Teachers from every field, students of every subject — from mathematics to Russian literature, from astrophysics to marine biology — spend the first days or week of an online class saying hello. “What are you studying? Where are you from? Do you have pets / hobbies / recreational activities? Include a picture!” For five years as an online English instructor, the first week of class meant the monotonous drone of my keyboard clicking away as I typed furiously responses to each of my 120+ students. One-hundred and twenty hellos. One-hundred and twenty ways to welcome learners to the semester.

But does the discussion forum really do the work it’s supposed to, that we hope it does? Jesse Stommel and I observe:

“Instead of providing fertile ground for brilliant and lively conversation, discussion forums are allowed to go to seed. They become over-cultivated factory farms, in which nothing unexpected or original is permitted to flourish. Students post because they have to, not because they enjoy doing so. And teachers respond (if they respond at all) because they too have become complacent to the bizarre rules that govern the forum.”

Instead of becoming the thriving, intersectional space that a physical classroom can become (under good stewardship), the discussion forum too often limps along through the term, a repository of half-thought essays pried from the overtired minds of students who, if they have a community of learners, find solidarity away from the screen rather than within it.

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And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

When, exactly, do we want less eroticism? ~ Geoffrey Sirc

If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution. ~ Emma Goldman

This essay explores boundaries: the artificial peripheries demarcating the disciplines we practice; the arbitrary conceit of teacher and student occupying different but conjoined spaces; the troubling assumption that selves and desires can be partitioned. We seek to explore the possibility of introducing a practice of queerness into teaching composition while resisting the temptation to crystallize such an approach into pedagogy or definitive best practices. In this process we acknowledge the disciplinary complications of frequent “turns” in attempting to find a definitive, all-purpose pedagogical model, while also examining how queer practice has been obscured and/or subsumed by social justice concerns and our aversion to causing risk and potential disaster in the classroom and/or the lives of our students. Our endeavor proves complex and even confounding because it requires resistance to the impulse to seek or offer prescriptive advice and then apply it. Our open invitation is to dance alongside us with the complexities and uncertainties of thinking and practicing queer in composition, relinquishing any imperative to operate in conventional, expected ways or to offer concrete suggestions.
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Situating Makerspaces in Schools

Situating Makerspaces in Schools

America’s obsession with STEM is dangerous, Fareed Zakaria warns us, and our hunch is that most readers of Hybrid Pedagogy would tend to agree. We, Colin and Josh, certainly do. But the conversation that typically follows that headline rarely seems productive: a turf war for institutional priority and students’ time drawn on traditional disciplinary lines. Even when STEM advocates throw a bone to the value of creativity by adding “A” for Arts (making “STEAM”), the pendulum still swings, and the conversation never seems to advance.

At the same time, “making” has turned into a “movement” and makerspaces are popping up in communities all around the US. A makerspace is a hub for invention: high-tech tools (laser cutters, 3D printers) and low-tech tools (cardboard, duct tape, sewing needles) sit side-by-side for anyone to access and use. Imagine some combination of a woodshop, a tailoring shop, a robotics lab, a kitchen, a media production suite, an art studio — then mash them together in a culture that celebrates creation of all kinds.

Makerspaces don’t fit our traditional expectations of school, but here they come. The emergence of makerspaces in schools is in part due to the fact that they have been riding the wave of popular momentum behind STEAM. But this partnership between STEAM programs and makerspaces is limiting. The ecologies of STEAM and the ecologies of making overlap — but they are not the same thing. STEAM is about blurring the lines between disciplinary content; making in schools is about a learner-directed, hands-on approach to learning and knowing.

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Rationalizing Sisyphus

Rationalizing Sisyphus

The words of one of the bleakest authors on the human condition adorn coffee mugs and motivational posters, his hopelessness twisted into inspiration for those on the neverending search for the right formula for success. This is a great misunderstanding.  Perhaps he would find this all ironic, but to Samuel Beckett there was no solace in failure, no celebration of failure as a stepping stone to success.  Rather, there was an acceptance of the Sisyphean struggle to translate the human condition beyond the intangible.  Beckett’s engagement (to the point of obsession) with failure was due to an inextricable belief that failure was permanent in his condition.

This is not Samuel Beckett as sold to us by Elon Musk and Richard Branson and Timothy Ferris, quoting the initial lines of Beckett’s novella Worstward Ho as mantra:  “Ever tried.  Ever failed.  No matter.  Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.”  The historical Beckett, for whom failure was not a roadblock on the path of progress but rather an individual road of personal potholes, has been diluted to the self-help Beckett, who vanquishes the failure villain in the name of individual exceptionalism.  

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The other day, a first-grader whom I tutor in reading explained to me his understanding of a dictionary, which he was just learning to use: “It’s what people used to use to find things without googling them in the old days before people had Google.” For a kid who had never known life without search engines, this was a pretty good explanation: a dictionary = analogue Google. As I told this story to friends, some of whom study the history of the book as a physical object, they were amused but also a little saddened. Sure, it’s always a bit of a downer to realize that your youth counts as “the old days,” but a deeper source for their melancholy lay in nostalgia for things like dictionary skills contests, where elementary school students would compete with one another to see who could look up words the fastest. The conversation turned towards a broader complaint about what gets lost amidst all the gains promised by the digital technologies that not only complement, but often replace, the technology of the codex and the research libraries that contain them, exemplifying how education and technology are not always conjoined for the best interests of students and teachers. While the uncertain fate of the codex at libraries around the world is of vital importance, I’m interested here, however, in the way nostalgia – arguably the least progressive and most politically suspect of affects – can incite critical reflection in the classroom, particularly around questions of technological change and environmental destruction. Read More

Pedagogy is not reducible to 140 characters. Pedagogy is, in fact, not reducible. However, it can (and does) happen in spaces as small as 140 characters. Pedagogy looks to the larger philosophical implications of teaching, but begins at the level of practice in the smallest maneuvers — the smallest gestures. What we ask to be called. Where we sit in a classroom. The online platforms we decide to use. The first word of our syllabus. A single tweet.

I signed up for a Twitter account in 2007, shortly after the platform launched, but for years I didn’t occupy the platform personally, but only as a tool for teaching. I started by using the platform once or twice a semester for an assignment I call “The Twitter Essay,” which remains one of the most successful activities I’ve done with students. I since experimented with other ways to integrate Twitter into my face-to-face, hybrid, and fully online teaching.

Starting in just under a week, I’ll be teaching a short, intensive online course focused on Teaching with Twitter. The course is part of a series of professional development opportunities emerging from the educational outreach work of the Hybrid Pedagogy 501(c)(3) non-profit. The courses in this series are small with reduced rates offered for adjuncts and students.

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On Friday, September 4, 2015, Hybrid Pedagogy hosted a one-hour #digped discussion on laptop policies: the issue of technology-use limitations common in course syllabi. Those limitations operate at the intersection between technology and pedagogy, and this episode of HybridPod continues the conversation about Digital Pedagogy started in the previous installment, Digital Pedagogy, Part 1.

Many teachers prohibit the use of technology in their classes, occasionally forbidding laptops and frequently forbidding cell phones. These bans are generally called “technology policies”, but that name ignores the fact that the ballpoint pens and bleached-white papers our students otherwise use, as well as the chairs in which they sit and the windows out of which they stare are each another form of technology, created by humans as a tool to help make life simpler and more productive. Why are they not banned in “technology policies”, too?
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Teaching is hard. Teaching well is really hard. This paraphrase of Jeff Daniels’ reflection on the difficulties of writing is not an adage, but it should be. Teachers are often conflicted by this not-so-glamorous truth about our craft and everyday experience, and this unease may turn into caution/dread at the time of putting together our teaching portfolio (whether for a job application or for a promotion). As standard feature in academia’s employment and promotion practices in undergraduate institutions, particularly within the humanities and social sciences, the teaching portfolio is meant to comprehensively showcase how good we are at what we do. It surely seems the least place to confess how hard we find it to do it well. But that’s exactly what applicants should do.
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Let’s stop talking about “students” as some undifferentiated mass or referring to “my students,” a phrase that smacks of proprietorship, and start giving them credit by name for the work they do and the knowledge they create. George Oppen made the bold statement in 1968 that new knowledge “could” be made — new thoughts invented — by anyone, a claim that flew in the face of a postwar world already burdened by history and racing to new levels of specialization. I am making a similar statement when I say that knowledge comes up, it doesn’t always trickle down, and that’s the way it ought to be. Teaching is about give and take, active dialogue, making knowledge, and welcoming new thinkers into the world of ideas and problems.

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After including the Generative Literature Project in my Experimental Writing course during the Fall 2014 semester, three senior undergraduates remained mesmerized by the perceived novelty of a generative, digital novel. For the following semester all four of us shared our frustrations, questions, and perplexities, which later drove our inquiry into the nature of the novel in its digital future. Many of those started as definitional questions around the confines of a novel while some others were reactionary, addressing why many are fearful of literature’s migration to digital platforms. As it turns out, much of the criticism we read to spur thought on our questions addressed materiality of the codex in conjunction with literature’s responses to digital technologies. We each read from a corpus of essays I chose and students augmented. With each week of reading we all wrote responses to the ideas we encountered, compiling and rearranging them as our collaborative essay developed. Each section of the essay had a “parent” author that worked to consolidate, develop, and edit more heavily than others in the group. This final segment of our four-part series considers how the generative nature of the Generative Literature Project affects the genre of the novel, namely the murder mystery.

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The Trouble with Frameworks

The Trouble with Frameworks

Using frameworks to study the social world is like looking at a still image through tinted glasses — making our perspective limited and color-blind — when the reality is complex and dynamic with colors and sights and sounds and smells and subtleties that cannot be captured in a frame. Frameworks attempt to make chaos legible, but by doing so, they can distort our perspective on the chaos, often reducing it into something unrecognizably neat and comprehensible.

The trouble with frameworks is they are someone else’s frameworks. I speak not out of arrogance that my ideas are better than someone else’s, but out of recognition that another person’s frameworks are built upon their context and assumptions and worldview — they may not transfer well to other contexts, they may not fit my worldview. From a postcolonial perspective, one can look at frameworks as the imposition of a dominant lens of looking at the world, distorting the perspectives of those re-applying them. Read More

“The proliferation of the digital may feel like an invasion at times (and at times, it is), and so it is in our ability to choose — to decide, decipher, discern — that our power lies, not in a bull-headed commitment to ignore the digital altogether. That’s a desert island mentality.” ~ Sean Michael Morris, “Digital Pedagogy: A Case of Open or Shut”

There’s no easy way into a discussion of laptop policies. The relationship of laptops to classroom work is frustrating at best, incendiary at worst. Even if you jump in with a wink and a smile, reactions are quarrelsome, feisty, or flatly hostile.

Jesse’s seemingly coy response to the online debate about laptop policies opened some floodgates and led to a sprawling conversation on Twitter.

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“Do not worry if you have built your castles in the air. They are where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for teaching with technology, and the decisions about what the right tools are depends as much on the job as it does the laborers. While the challenges posed by the pursuit of praxis-oriented pedagogies may vary greatly depending on educational content and context, we are all affected by the growing mediatization of daily life. The vocational promise of critical digital pedagogy is evident, but how will it be realized? In other words, how do we tone down the hype and get to work realizing the praxis of digital pedagogy?

After spending a week at the inaugural Digital Pedagogy Lab institute, I find myself inspired by the assortment of amazing people committed to developing critical pedagogies. There were a lot of people sketching out plans to build their own castles in the air, and that planning entailed a lot of tinkering with digital learning tools. Our designs may have differed, but together we worked on the common challenge of how to craft effective pedagogies in today’s increasingly networked society.

Digital optimists assert that the tools will make us more democratic, flatten social hierarchies, and make knowledge more accessible and engaging. Meanwhile, digital pessimists worry about the lack of privacy, the substitution of information for knowledge, and the loss of social skills and face-to-face interaction. While neither perspective is wholly (in)correct, both fail to fully explain the opportunities and challenges posed by the digital turn. That is why I have responded to the “polemics of techno-optimism and techno-pessimism” by making the case for technorealism. Read More

#GenLit as #Netprov

#GenLit as #Netprov

Hybrid Pedagogy Publishing is our experiment in longer-form work related to critical digital pedagogy. For the past year and a half, Hybrid Pedagogy Publishing has been providing editorial and technical support to the Generative Literature Project, which is producing a crowdsourced, gamified digital novel about a murder. Hybrid Pedagogy is publishing a series of weekly updates and reflections about the project, collaboratively authored by several of the student and instructor participants. This week, Mia Zamora and Matt Jacobi discuss the relationship between the Generative Literature Project and networked improvisation narrative, or #Netprov.

Our reflections on the #GenLit project have brought to the foreground some new writing practices that are necessarily shifting our evolving understanding of writing process.   In many ways this work makes a case for a more expansive sense of what writing might entail in the 21st century.  One way to consider a new frame for writing process is by thinking of writing-as-making. The digitized and computational environments of our new mediascape have inherently expanded our understanding of what it means to compose. In cases like the Generative Literature Project, students have come up with innovative ways to harness the affordances of a digitized environment to envision their own creative compositions.

Photo by Giulia Forsythe on Flickr; licensed CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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After including the GenLit Project in my Experimental Writing course during the Fall 2014 semester, three senior undergraduates remained mesmerized by the perceived novelty of a generative, digital novel. For the following semester all four of us shared our frustrations, questions, and perplexities, which later drove our inquiry into the nature of the novel in its digital future. Many of those started as definitional questions around the confines of a novel while some others were reactionary, addressing why many are fearful of literature’s migration to digital platforms. As it turns out, much of the criticism we read to spur thought on our questions addressed the materiality of the codex in conjunction with literature’s responses to digital technologies. We each read from a corpus of essays I chose and students augmented. With each week of reading we all wrote responses to the ideas we encountered, compiling and rearranging them as our collaborative essay developed. Each section of the essay had a “parent” author that worked to consolidate, develop, and edit more heavily than others in the group. This third of four parts explores how moving the novel from the codex to the digital file displayed over the Internet significantly alters the paratextual features of the novel.

Part 3 — Paratexts in Writing Generative Literature

Literature, like any other cultural expression, reflects the culture that produces it. The text is of that moment and that place. Our current time and place is a digitized, mediated, global space that has so frequently transgressed the boundaries of individual genres, media, of nations and even individual identity itself. Transmedia storytelling oversteps divides between novel and video game, for instance. Academics and cultural critics like Jonathan Alexander and Brooke Gladstone take up the graphic novel as form for informing or teaching the public. Social media practices (not to mention NSA information gathering practices) relocate or blur the line dividing individual and group identity. The computer’s ability to process and produce any number of media (verbal, aural, video, visual) as our functional and defining tool of the era is our model for life. And so, border transgression has become the norm and our culture more bravely steps into the no man’s land between previously upheld categories.

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Working in/at Public

Working in/at Public

Digital Pedagogy Lab held its first institute from August 10-14, 2015 in Madison, Wisconsin. Hybrid Pedagogy sponsored two Fellows to the Institute: Robin DeRosa and Stephen Barnard. The article below is a contribution from Robin DeRosa in response to the Institute and the complexities that Critical Digital Pedagogy raises.

I’m on the plane flying home to New Hampshire from Digital Pedagogy Lab. There’s wifi you can buy on the plane, but I’m going old-school and invoking a time when being 30,000 feet in the air meant you could work in digital isolation. Honestly, it’s not going well. I already miss the #digped hashtag, and the frenetic and hailing way it pulled me away from my own perspectives into richly distracting and challenging new ideas. It’s always tough when we try to reduce the complex of networked communication into the thesis-driven form of an article or summary blog post. But I want to try to offer some thoughts about where we (and it’s a sweeping “we”: on-site participants at the institute; those who Periscoped in or attended Virtually Connecting sessions; hashtag tweeps; friends and colleagues; and readers of this article) might go — where we might need to go — in order to extend the reach and impact of the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute and our own understanding of critical digital pedagogy.

I want to start by talking about one of the keynote addresses from the institute, by Professor Sara Goldrick-Rab. Actually, she wasn’t formally a keynote speaker; it was more like she popped in and talked off-the-cuff with our track for an hour. But sometimes a keynote is born in retrospect, and by the time she finished, it was clear to me that I’d just heard something around which my entire institute experience would cohere.

The story of the professor who sent out one tweet that crossed over a line — and how that tweet turned a tidal wave of ire against her and against the professoriat in general — is one that will be familiar to many of you already. Because of this and other high profile cases in the news, we’re aware of the risks that we take when we, as academics, venture to speak out on hot-button issues. What was lost on me until I heard Goldrick-Rab tell her own story start-to-finish, though, was that she is not fundamentally an activist for free speech or tenure protections. She is an activist for public school. I think the load of vitriol that conservative networks dumped on her through the course of the year has less to do with her twitterrata than it does with her research and policy agendas, which clearly aim to open higher education to a broader public. In this way an irony emerges, as her “public” engagement is what seems to sabotage her work for the public good.

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Hybrid Pedagogy Publishing is our experiment in longer-form work related to critical digital pedagogy. For the past year and a half, Hybrid Pedagogy Publishing has been providing editorial and technical support to the Generative Literature Project, which is producing a crowdsourced, gamified digital novel about a murder. Hybrid Pedagogy is publishing a series of weekly updates and reflections about the project, collaboratively authored by several of the student and instructor participants. In this installment, Matt Jacobi and Mia Zamora reflect on the process of creating a character profile for Mike Sterling to support the class’s collaborative mission of bringing to life the character of Dr. Rachel Behar.

Mike Sterling, by all accounts, is a mild-mannered small business owner who lives and works in Theopolis, Maryland, not far from the esteemed college of the same name. Mike runs a small bookstore, which he inherited from his late aunt, specializing in old and rare books. He has a golden retriever named Duck whom he tries to take on runs in the mornings, but he usually ends up sitting on a bench in the park and throwing things to the dog for half an hour before going to open up the shop. The thing about Mike, and Duck, and Theopolis, is that they’re all fictional. Mike, and a cast of other characters who are part of the Theopolis College community, are all products of student work in Mia Zamora’s Writing Electronic Literature course at Kean University, as part of the Generative Literature Project.

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“It’s time to embrace our very human inefficiencies.” Audrey Watters struck a post-digital note as she wrapped her opening keynote on the first day of the Digital Pedagogy Lab 2015 Institute. She reminded the audience that teaching is affective labor, that it requires heart, patience, diligence, and creativity — things which technology fails in its attempts to mimic — and she asked, “What happens to love, to our soul, to our labor as we digitize the world?”

The Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute took place August 10-14 in Madison, WI. More than 75 participants joined three tracks — Praxis, Identity, and Networks — to explore what happens when teaching and learning meets technology. Although educational technology is not new, the Institute asked attendees to step away from their assumptions, to return to “square one” in their approach to digital pedagogy, and to inspect their own role as learners in digital spaces. We expect that many blog posts, articles, and videos will rise up from the work of the week. For now, we’ve collected here the Institute’s keynotes.

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After including the GenLit Project in my Experimental Writing course during the Fall 2014 semester, three senior undergraduates remained mesmerized by the perceived novelty of a generative, digital novel. For the following semester all four of us shared our frustrations, questions, and perplexities, which later drove our inquiry into the nature of the novel in its digital future. Many of those started as definitional questions around the confines of a novel while some others were reactionary, addressing why many are fearful of literature’s migration to digital platforms. As it turns out, much of the criticism we read to spur thought on our questions addressed materiality of the codex in conjunction with literature’s responses to digital technologies. We each read from a corpus of essays I chose and students augmented. With each week of reading we all wrote responses to the ideas we encountered, compiling and rearranging them as our collaborative essay developed. Each section of the essay had a “parent” author that worked to consolidate, develop, and edit more heavily than others in the group. This second installment of four catalogs four major traits of digital narratives we found in play with the Generative Literature Project. Beyond building a catalogue of traits, we compare the Generative Literature Project to other new media texts and look ahead to what this project may look like and how future readers might perceive it.

Traits of the Digital Narrative

The codex form is far from a stable state, but is instead a part of the evolution of humans externalizing their thought. The book is part of humanity’s “becoming,” but we’ve reached a stage where technological revolution, information, and the digital have overflown the book’s border. We don’t imagine the total encyclopedic book anymore, but are becoming more open to the idea of a linked, international prosumer who reads/writes on the Internet. The ready connection and cohabitation of words, image, and sound on the computer too no doubt engendered our increased awareness of the limited expressive capacity of linguistic signs printed on a codex page. Geoffrey Brusatto argues that digital media has altered how the reader interacts with the text. Now the digital reader handles information non-linearly and actively searches for specific information (295). The reader defines his or her own path in the reading and so is less of a passive consumer. This takes the reader (assumed to function by moving linearly through a text) and turns him or her into a user who navigates more like one travels through a dictionary.  In fact, Ellen Lupton states that users want to feel “productive” rather than “contemplative” (295). This is an interesting binary. Are action and thinking then opposites? Perhaps we do both, and maybe a reading experience can exist on a sliding scale. Espen Aarseth has a sliding scale for narrative versus ludic features. Maybe we need to chart the novel based on reader action versus reader thought.

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From Monday, August 10, through Friday, August 14, 2015, Hybrid Pedagogy hosted Digital Pedagogy Lab — a five-day practical institute that explores the role and application of digital technology in teaching. To celebrate, this episode of HybridPod explores the idea of “digital pedagogy” and asks what it actually is.

Advances in digital technology have become commonplace to the point of being routine. We regularly hear of new developments in hardware, software, or system designs that influence how things get done in modern life. More significantly, though it sometimes seems no less frequently, we hear about major changes in entire industries brought about by the influence of digital technology. For instance, according to Tom Goodwin, senior vice president of strategy and innovation at Havas Media: Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. (You may have read those comments as they initially circulated on Facebook.) Encyclopedia Britannica, long seen as the standard source for general-knowledge reference material, published its last print edition in 2012, but its content has been available online since 1994. Print-based phonebooks are still produced in many places…but when’s the last time you used one? For that matter, you probably know a few people who no longer have a landline phone (I’m one of those people). In each of these cases, the shape and nature of an industry has been redefined because digital technologies rendered the old way of doing things obsolete.

When something “goes digital”, the way we work with that thing fundamentally shifts. With analogue photograph, an image was recorded on film, and the results couldn’t be seen until that film was developed. One-hour photo processing was a big deal. But with digital photography, an image is captured by computer circuitry, converted to zeroes and ones, and saved to a file. Film developing is mostly a historical relic. With analogue writing, text was recorded on paper, with ink or graphite bonding to the surface. The writing was done by hand or by typewriter, and once something was written, it had to be physically manipulated — think white-out, scissors, or erasers — to be changed. But with digital writing, text is captured by computer keys (or speech recognition), converted to zeroes and ones, and saved to a file. Correction tape and carbon paper are mostly historical relics, to say nothing of scribes. With analogue teaching, classes were… classes were… Hey, wait a second. Have we moved from analogue to digital teaching?

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Exploring Innovation

Exploring Innovation

The 21st-century faculty member is faced with a challenging task.  Content must be relevant, experiential, and engaging for the 21st-century learner.  As such, this places an onus on classroom creativity and innovation.  Hybrid pedagogy has become an avenue for multifaceted instructional strategies and interactive instructional design theoretically enhancing the best of both the physical and virtual classroom spaces.  As administrators clamor for relevance in an evolving education landscape, the concept of a learning space that combines the on-ground and online classroom is appealing.  As an Instructional Designer for Online Projects, and an Assistant Professor, I have a stake in two camps. I am at once an “IT expert” (or that is what I keep hearing, whether or not it is true) and a faculty member. Within each role I have the opportunity to address a variety of audiences, primarily on the subject of teaching and learning.

At a recent meeting I posed a variety of questions to faculty as we strive for classroom innovation. The presentation to faculty was simple. It began with an overview of our technology resources including Moodle (our LMS), the One Button recording studios, a new licensing agreement with Microsoft where our institution can use Skype for Business and Microsoft Video, etc. The presentation then shifted from a here is what we have available “tone” to that of concern. I listed for attendees a variety of questions I often receive from faculty members when I do individual consults centered on moving a course or program online. Faculty, in a variety of contexts, will often ask these questions:

  • Can Moodle handle 2-3 hour recorded lectures? (As an aside, no, the 2-3 request is not a typo and occurs frequently)
  • How do I scan graded papers into Moodle?
  • How do I replicate class discussion?
  • How do I manage seat time/attendance?
  • How do I integrate ____ technology?

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When one is overwhelmed, as everyone must be from time to time, by a sense that School is too firmly implanted ever to change, it is helpful to contemplate the political changes across the globe that were until recently considered quite impossible.” ~ Seymour Papert, The Children’s Machine

In truth, it hardly bears saying any longer: school must change. To pretend otherwise is to ride a wild unicorn into the rainbow sunset of a world where standardized assessments lead to a fuller mind, where grades are — instead of dismissive of inherent learning skills — representative of who learners are and what they bring to their own efforts, and where the increasingly autonomous LMS is a benign wizard with the ability to make each and every learner more fulfilled, more successful, and more empowered. That, however, is not the Education we occupy. In our Education, it is yet possible to turn a blind eye to the pervasive nature of the digital in our own and learners’ lives. It is yet possible to create online courses that are little more than Powerpoint slide decks. And it is yet possible to assign for students measures of success that have no bearing whatever on their capacity to learn on their own, to invest in their interests through connected networks of friends and peers. Our Education resists change, even while our culture has the digital in every corner.

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Hybrid Pedagogy Publishing is our experiment in longer-form work related to critical, digital pedagogy. For the past year and a half, Hybrid Pedagogy Publishing has been providing editorial and technical support to the Generative Literature Project, which is producing a crowdsourced, gamified digital novel about a murder. Once a week for the next several weeks, Hybrid Pedagogy will publish updates and reflections about the project collaboratively authored by several of the student and instructor participants. In this third installment, Mia Zamora and Matthew Jacobi reflect on how they learned about, reacted to, and grew from this project.

Photo from Mia Zamora
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This piece is being published to coincide in real time with Adeline Koh’s keynote at Illiads 2015

On a walk last week, my husband asked me what I was going to talk about for the keynote that I’m giving today. I responded that I wasn’t sure yet, but I was considering whether I could fit an activity or two in so that I wouldn’t be droning on at my audience for an hour. His response: “I wouldn’t do that. They are inviting you to show off your expertise. Doing activities would be a cop-out.”

In some ways, my husband was correct: keynotes have an expected format, and that format is to lecture to — or at — one’s audience, to showcase one’s supposed brilliance. Yet everyone who has given serious thought to the mechanics of traditional face-to-face pedagogy knows that the lecture format can be highly problematic. Lectures are non-interactive, meaning that there is little way for lecturers to know whether they are getting across what they intended. Indeed, lectures have sometimes been called the “spray and pray” method: you scatter the seeds of your own knowledge in the hopes that they will actually take root in the audience. Jared Stein notes that this is a “lossy” form of education, using computing terminology to call attention to the great loss of information that occurs during transmission from speaker to learner. Lectures, he says can implicitly “encourage students’ passive acceptance of concepts, or worse, fail to change pre-existing misunderstandings by not directly challenging biases or interpretations.” Indeed, according to a recent study published in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences, passive forms of instruction result in failure rates 55 percent higher than those of active forms of instruction. All this indicates that activities are not cop-outs but actually a good presentation strategy and good pedagogy.

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The serpentine struggle to make a living wage as an adjunct in academe is far from over, and higher education is losing world-class instructors and original contributions to research in the wake. The ivory tower is crumbling under the weight of contingency, and students are suffering the consequences of corporatized higher ed. Increasingly, the commodification of higher ed demoralizes students. With skyrocketing tuition, additional fees, and instructional cuts that impact the quality of education, more and more students question the market value of their degrees, too. Is a four-year degree worth a lifetime of debt and lottery odds of job placement?

Former student Don DuPay tells me candidly:

As each term starts and I join the long line of students waiting for services like funding information, I start to feel like I am enrolled in Walmart U. ‘Take a number! Next! Please wait behind the line for your turn.’ Yes, I feel like a commodity. Then when classes start I realize I am taught by the ‘other’ commodity, the underpaid adjuncts who do all the work. I get an education, yes, but sometimes I feel like I’m waiting in line for a burger. And fries.

DuPay paints a clear picture of what higher ed has become: “Walmart U” funded by federal and private student loans that turn many students into default debtors to the tune of $1.2 trillion in national student loan debt. And Don’s experience is not unique; rather, it’s the new norm. In fact, he knows he will die a debtor. It doesn’t have to be this way, and if more of us demand quality and affordable higher ed, they’ll supply it. So demand it.

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After including the GenLit Project in my Experimental Writing course during the Fall 2014 semester, three senior undergraduates remained mesmerized by the perceived novelty of a generative, digital novel. For the following semester all four of us shared our frustrations, questions, and perplexities, which later drove our inquiry into the nature of the novel in its digital future. Many of those started as definitional questions around the confines of a novel while some others were reactionary, addressing why many are fearful of literature’s migration to digital platforms. As it turns out, much of the criticism we read to spur thought on our questions addressed materiality of the codex in conjunction with literature’s responses to digital technologies. We each read from a corpus of essays I chose and students augmented. With each week of reading we all wrote responses to the ideas we encountered, compiling and rearranging them as our collaborative essay developed. Each section of the essay had a “parent” author that worked to consolidate, develop, and edit more heavily than others in the group. To open our four-part essay, we share our reflections on the theories that supported our thinking.

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This piece first appeared on Educating Modern Learners.

I want to talk about Ferguson. We need to keep talking about Ferguson because if these past 12-24 months have taught us anything (if we have been paying attention) it is that this isn’t going away. If not Ferguson, then about Sandra Bland. If not Sandra Bland, then about Samuel Dubose. If not Samuel Dubose, then Charleston. If not Charleston, then McKinney, Texas. Or Eric Garner. Or Tamir Rice. Or Trayvon Martin.

I could go on. To list all of the racially-motivated killings and other acts of aggression would fill this space, and do nothing except further numb us against this daily reality. And if it didn’t, it would make many of us extremely uncomfortable, confronted with our own privilege and our own complicity.

As educators and school leaders, we can no longer hide behind the privilege of “not knowing.”

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I am a big fan of those educators who have learned that you can use these tools, together with critical thinking, as a means of empowering students to take on their own learning. ~ Howard Rheingold

What Makes an Effective Teacher?

A lot has changed in K-12 education over the last five years: new state standards, new standardized tests, new requirements on teacher evaluations, and more integration of technology. A major challenge to discussing these changes is that everyone seems to have an opinion about what needs to happen in order to improve K-12 education. These well-meaning opinions come from parents, policy makers, educators, students, etc., but, more often than not, they miss the point.

I am honored to teach high school English. As an English teacher, my classes offer students an opportunity to engage big ideas and essential questions that they may not encounter in other courses. For example, within the discipline of English Studies, because of the texts that we read and write, I have a natural opportunity to tackle with students John Dewey’s points about “the democratic ideal.” Dewey emphasizes that the democratic ideal — arguably the point of education — is for a student to “refer his own action to that of others, and to consider the action of others to give point and direction to his own,” and by doing so, dismantle “barriers of class, race,” etc. It is important that this tenet of critical pedagogy stays at the forefront for teachers, but unfortunately the time needed to reflect on such things is often pushed aside for what in the moment seems more pressing, like grading papers and responding to parent emails.

Yet, If K-12 teachers make a decision to approach teaching from a perspective of critical pedagogy, as a heuristic to working out their teaching philosophy, Dewey’s words will remain a powerful influence amidst the daily grind of teaching. Critical pedagogy necessarily introduces students to nuance and complicates dichotomous thinking. In addition, with access to digital technologies that can find and curate different perspectives at the click of a button, it is especially important for students to learn to critically engage multiple points of view. It is the teacher’s responsibility to create an environment where the exchange of ideas is productive. I would argue that this is where seeing teaching as an art is crucial. This is messy work…the work of effective critical pedagogues.

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Hybrid Pedagogy Publishing is our experiment in longer-form work related to critical, digital pedagogy. For the past year and a half, Hybrid Pedagogy Publishing has been providing editorial and technical support to the Generative Literature Project, which is producing a crowdsourced, gamified digital novel about a murder. Once a week for the next several weeks, Hybrid Pedagogy will publish updates and reflections about the project collaboratively authored by several of the student and instructor participants. In this first installment, Mia Zamora and Matthew Jacobi provide an introduction to the project and discuss how it is “generative” as that term has been understood with literary studies.

There is much buzz (and perhaps, confusion) about the notion of “generative literature.”  It is indeed a specific form of literature which challenges some aspects of classical literature.  Frequently associated with the power of the machine (read computer), generative literature is often understood as the production of continuously changing literary texts by means of some set of rules and/or the use of algorithms. From Sanchtv, CC BY-NC-ND Our computers are most certainly capable of generating unexpected ambiguous lexia. There is no doubt today that machines have the capability of producing provocative text (think twitterbots, stir fry mash-ups, digital mad libs). Philip Galanter defined generative art as “any art practice where the artist uses a system, such as a set of natural language rules, a computer program, a machine, or other procedural invention, which is set into motion with some degree of autonomy contributing to, or resulting in, a completed work of art.”

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Teaching Digital Wisdom

Teaching Digital Wisdom

Eliciting both passion and bloviating, the topic of appropriate technology use in the college classroom is sure to spark lively conversation among college instructors. While more and more institutions are requiring at least some use of course management tools like Blackboard and Moodle, instructors still can decide whether to incorporate technology and digital pedagogy into their classrooms. Some choose to give traditional lectures and allow their students full use of laptops and the Internet (see David von Schlichten). Others allow no laptops or cell phones in the classroom (see Hinda Mandell).

Because I study technology and new media, colleagues will often ask about my classroom practices. Their initial questions, though, are exactly that: about practice rather than philosophy, about what rather than why. This serves as my public contribution to the technology-in-the-classroom conversation, though hopefully a contribution supported by more evidence than a typical professorial water cooler conversation (or, I suppose, “coffee pot conversation” may be more accurate in practice). I aim to suggest a pedagogical approach to technology and the classroom that does not stop at whether or how students may access digital devices in my classroom, but seeks also to address why it is important that students critically engage these very questions.
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The Twitter format lends itself to excitement, leaping out, connecting with people over content, not into content, and offers opportunities for people to make what they want of out of journal article reading. It’s one of the reasons the activity has always appealed to me; it fits my desire to DO things with articles, and it makes them seem like they should be accessible, like what would be in a book club on the weekend. It breaks down the distinction between being a learner and scholar for sure. (Laura to Simon, in the #TJC15 Twinterview)

For a lot of reasons, the types of learning and knowledge valued in our world are diversifying. Networked participatory scholarship, which is increasingly carried out on social media platforms such as Twitter, provides opportunities for alternative forms of academic expression: those that do not necessarily fit traditional academic criteria but fulfil professional and personal needs of faculty, students, and researchers anyway. The Twitter Journal Club (#TJC15), an open, unstructured, academic reading group found on Twitter, provides meaningful learning experiences while embracing the holistic and messy nature of learning. Within this space, we — Laura (the group’s creator) and Simon (a frequent participant-observer) — have found room to breathe as well as opportunities to care, in terms of emotional and intellectual engrossment, relational and personal interest, and kindness and mutual respect. As such, we find this alternative, digital approach to academic reading one that engages its participants in uniquely creative, playful, and human ways of learning even as it augments and challenges traditional academic practice.
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Perspective in Motion

Perspective in Motion

What do we mean when we use the phrase, “in the real world”? As many of us are in a state of transition between school and work, styles of work, or a balance of both, are we living a less real life if we don’t work for a corporation? Indeed, the different ways humans interface with the world is hybrid. The column below is an inquiry into the meanings of culturally problematic phrases like “the real world,” and “proper use of time,” and the ways these interplay. It will ask questions concerning digital humanities, critical pedagogy, and agency. It is an exploration, a discussion, and a journey. Join us.

I realized today why I love podcasts. Listening to an episode of RadioLab called ‘Living Room’ as I made breakfast, I learned about a woman who became obsessed with watching her curtainless neighbors across the way. I was captivated. I was captivated because I am so very curious about the lives of others – the way people spend their time, the things they value, their unique experiences, the people they chose to love, the jobs they have, and the ways they feel – all of it different from my own life. It’s how I know I belong in academia. While exploring my own shifting mind, a career in Humanities allows me to study the perspectives of others, all the while expressing my own ideas so that others too might get a shift in perspective. It is because of this that I began this column by asking three very different people, “How does your training (vocational, traditional, etc.) inform the way you spend and/or value your time?”

In the introduction to the series attempting to answer the question above, I express my disdain about the phrase ‘the real world’ and the divide between the ‘in here’ of academia and the ‘out there,’ outside the ivory tower. I see a shift in the way the Western World views communication and valorizes experience, and I admit that though “I apologize often, I’m not sorry at all. I chose to live the life of an academic. I have been in a cubicle, wearing a power suit, finding ways to make my job more stimulating lest I should run out the security doors of the building screaming. As a result, I have developed a deep curiosity for the lives, jobs, and value systems of others.” And so I set out to investigate the perspectives of an underwater construction worker, a new public school teacher, and a university lecturer who has also lived as a ballerina, and a lawyer. What I got were three worldviews that were so different from one another, the process of writing this column has changed me.

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This post originally appeared on HASTAC on June 18, 2015.

I’m often asked why I start with pedagogy, given the larger institutional reforms and social ambitions that HASTAC and the new Futures Initiative program advocate. If your goal is equality in a world where inequality is structural and violent and pervasive, you can at least start with your classroom as a place in which to model a better way. Rather than feeling overwhelmed and oppressed by the unfairness of the world, be an activist in the realm where you have control. You can change to a pedagogy of liberation today. These four ways are all simple to implement. And if you make sure to add “meta-cognition” — you discuss with your students what it means to change power relations when you have the opportunity — you also instill learning and life lessons that persist far beyond your classroom.

Remember:  your students have had at least twelve years of practice/indoctrination in mastering the formal education methods where hierarchy and control displace all the complex, experience-based, interactive learning methods (i.e. the kind we all use in our lives outside of formal education when we really want to learn how to do something). Because they have been rewarded for credential-centered and teacher-centered learning in school, some will think you are trying to get out of work or pulling a fast one by having them do the thinking and taking responsibility for their own learning. So I typically note that these are extensively researched theories, practices, and methods designed to help students learn not for the test or the grade but for the best possible retention and application of complex ideas that they will use in this class, in other classes, and in their lives beyond school.

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Librarian as Outsider

Librarian as Outsider

Academic librarians are worried about power. And powerlessness. They are particularly concerned with the way power dynamics shape their identities as educators and inform their pedagogical capacity.

Recent library scholarship has introduced a number of compelling arguments for pedagogical alternatives to what Freire calls the “banking concept of education,” which conceives of students as passive “receptacles,” teachers as “depositors,” and knowledge as capital. If James Elmborg’s seminal 2006 article Critical Information Literacy: Implications for Instructional Practice is any indication (it’s been cited more than 250 times as I write this), the banking concept of education doesn’t work for information literacy instruction. Elmborg begins his article with a problem and ends it with a challenge: “the real task for libraries in treating information literacy seriously lies not in defining it or describing it, but in developing a critical practice of librarianship — a theoretically informed praxis.” This is a daunting task, particularly considering the logistical reality of information literacy instruction, which typically happens in ‘one-shot’ library sessions. While a “problem-posing” approach is difficult to achieve in the context of the one-shot, a critical approach is not just an alternative but an imperative.

Here’s why.

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I am not a scholar, at least not in the traditional sense.

Almost 5 years ago, I wrote How Highered Makes Most Things Meaningless. It also appeared on Inside Higher Ed. It remains one of the most-read pieces on my old blog. And even though I don’t post there anymore, my old Blogger site still receives over 2,000 hits a month. Five years later, I’m still left wondering whether the work I do online counts. It matters, but does it count?

Recently, William Thomas, Chair of the Department of History at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the John and Catherine Angle Professor in the Humanities and Professor of History, offered a typology for digital scholarship. He breaks it down to three types: Interactive Scholarly Work, Digital Projects / Thematic Research Collections, and Digital Narratives. What strikes me in these categories’ descriptions is that they are all still deeply embedded in traditional forms of scholarship and scholarly expectations: theory, rigor, methodology, evidence, citation.

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On June 29, 2015 at the ISTE Conference in Philadelphia, Audrey Watters spoke on a panel called “Is it Time to Give Up on Computers in Schools?”. The transcript of her speech can be found here. Below is the longer speech she prepared for the occasion, which she offered to Hybrid Pedagogy to publish.

Last year, Gary Stager joked that we should submit a proposal to ISTE for a panel titled “Is It Time to Give Up on Computers in Schools?” No surprise, it was rejected. But this year, he submitted again, and the very same proposal was accepted.

So here we are today, making the case for why this whole education technology thing has gone alarmingly off the rails and it’s time to scrap the entire effort.

ISTE is, of course, the perfect place to deliver this talk.

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Upholding the Hidden

Upholding the Hidden

Our choice of words is never value-free. Language runs deep in us — setting the perspective of our daily lives and prevailing attitudes. In educational environments, “a lot of what upholds our standards of industrialization is the way we speak.” As a socially negotiated product, language includes the acts of connotation and implication, whether intended or not.

In establishing learning spaces, educators have the opportunity to communicate to learners a mindset of intention, autonomy, and control. Moving into, around, and back and forth between learning environments built by physical space and learning environments built by hidden ones and zeros requires transitioning — much a matter for language and its influence on inner thought.

For learners, the essence for commanding and construing a personal learning environment is the ability to anchor shared activity to personal choices and context. If educators want to take education beyond simply rebelling against a centralized past, the challenge then comes in helping learners realize the need for the ability to construe their own environment, and then helping learners acquire these skills. In each program, system, process, platform, device, technology, element, or medium that learners employ to tailor surroundings to suit individual learning goals, there lie hidden obligations that need to be made explicit in order for learners to become autonomous and intentional. As Marshall McLuhan once stated, “the hidden aspects of the media are the things that should be taught…when these factors remain ignored and invisible, they have an absolute power over the user. If you understand the nature of these forms, you can neutralize some of their adverse effects and foster some of their benevolent effects.”

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We are two critical pedagogues who are also faculty developers, trying to create space for conversations interrogating dominant approaches to faculty development.

Faculty developers support the growth and continuing development and evolution of faculty in their roles as educators. But, what we (Maha and Lee) are addressing in this column installment is the nature of how faculty development is delivered, if “delivery” is even the right term at all. Can we encourage critical pedagogy within the current system(s) of faculty development within the institutional structure as it often exists? What are the underlying values behind how faculty development is often approached?

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This July we are launching Digital Pedagogy Lab Courses, a series of professional development opportunities for educators, librarians, technologists, and instructional designers.

Our project has had many starts. We have started it over and over again during long walks, late night discussions, pacing in parking lots, sudden text-message chats. As with teaching and learning, Hybrid Pedagogy itself is iterative. At the core of every iteration, though, is the commitment to educational outreach, to helping teachers and learners navigate, employ, resist, and understand their work in physical and digital classrooms.

The journal was born from questions that rise up when we consider what happens to critical pedagogy in digital, or digitally-influenced, environments — where does agency arise; where does learning happen; how does the digital change or reinforce traditional student and teacher roles and power dynamics; how is our humanity subject to or amplified by the digital; what becomes of scholarship; what does access mean, and how does it affect learning; what do we (or can we) do with the wild innovative possibility of the Web within the architecture of academic institutions.

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