How do we build digital cohorts and academic communities?
At the conclusion of our month long look at digital cohorts and academic communities, we learned a great deal about the differences between cohorts and communities, the fact that communities spread across any number of media, that participation levels change, and that communities take time to develop. Here is a visual representation of that project, show some of the many links between this excellent conversation.
Does building digital scholarly communities call on us to build new platforms? Or is it better to leverage opportunities on existing ones? Or simply let community form, in an unplanned fashion, whenever a kairotic moment strikes? These choices, of course, need not be so stark. But such questions do pose real, strategic dilemmas.
With Teaching Media, Julie Wilson and I started off solidly in the new platform camp. There didn’t seem to be any spaces ready to provide a durable, searchable repository for building teaching resources in an open-source fashion. And when the site first launched, we received excited feedback about the idea from all over. Hundreds quickly registered, but only a small trickle of users contributed.
So we tried another, complementary, tactic. We recruited an editorial board composed of talented grad students who created an edited section of the site. Here, the response from willing contributors was strong. Friends started a Teaching Media Facebook group. This group began thriving almost immediately.
This left us with some puzzles – like why have users seemed more willing to contribute to an edited site than an open one? Perhaps what we’re learning is that digital communities like this grow by building on the same social forces that propel our scholarly activity generally, such as the dynamics of existing social networks and the esteem of established cultural forms. We’re still hopeful about building momentum for the open-source side of Teaching Media, just trying to find new ways to align these forces with that goal.
I begin with the belief that effective, playful, interesting communities that people want to participate in are derived from bottom-up practices and are based around negotiating the contingencies of everyday life rather than the application of some grand plan. To make lasting and important connections between individuals there has to be a sense of luck and decision, i.e. that “chance and love” stuff that Dana Heller wrote about in her post. Without these elements of discovery what we are left with are the impositions of others that quickly devolve into obligations. You may get a lot of "work done" on deadline — an obliged professional always does — but those connections will have little chance of sustaining themselves beyond their initial assignments. Such are the thankfully brief lives of "task forces" and "blue ribbon committees." When developing any community, whether it be through Mediacommons or another online space, this should be kept in mind.
I say this thinking about the community of scholars with whom I engage, very few of them whom I "chose." The same holds true for my research, where my initial intentions were much more influenced by classes I happened to take than the line of research I wanted to engage. Remember that saying from graduate school about roaming the stacks? “It isn't the book you are looking for that will change your dissertation. Instead, it's the one next to the one that you are looking for that will change your dissertation.” The organization of the library — the arrangement of books by subject matter — is the kind of pedestrian planning of serendipity that elevates scholars and knowledge alike. The only people that notice if it isn't there may be the librarian, but they put those books back on the bookshelf with the purpose that one might converse with a larger, older community of ideas.
Like Dana Heller, I, too, have fretted over this question of how to make an online scholarly community. That word, "community," bothers me. In the modern American context community is abused and is all too often used in conjunction with others to form phrases such as “community living", "home owner's communities", or "campus communities". When I see these terms my skin crawls precisely because they include the promise of a commons that may be pleasant but is often anything but diverse, let alone fun. The administrative declaration that we create community is a thinly veiled call to a common set of standards with which we can work on "together". Worse, this "together" tends to be the first step into the elimination of eccentricities and contesting visions. At the same time it simply makes for more work. When community becomes obligatory, then community becomes an obligation, i.e. another job I would rather not perform. It's this vision of community as some sort of planned "togetherness" that Jane Jacobs, the great critic of twentieth century urban planning, derided when she noted that, "'togetherness' is a fittingly nauseating name for an old ideal in planning theory. This ideal is that if anything is shared among people, much should be shared" (Jacobs 1961, p. 72). For Jacobs this kind of obligation to share drives cities apart because "where people do share much, they become exceedingly choosy as to who their neighbors are, or with whom they associate at all" (Jacobs 1961, p. 63).
Jacobs' remedy for this kind of obligatory togetherness was to point out how modern cities that so many "master planners" wished to “rationalize” worked because the very inefficiencies the planners hated were the things that created community. Walking from space to space, not getting everywhere quickly and running into people you hadn’t plan to meet constituted the world of "lowly, unpurposeful and random contacts”, the everyday assemblies of congested urban cores emphasizing pedestrian culture, densely concentrated four and five-story buildings with mixed uses. For Jacobs, it was out of the efficiency of swift, simple and often forgettable associations that happened in places Greenwich Village or Boston Commons that "the small change from which a city's wealth and public life may grow" (Jacobs 1961, p. 72). Planning community has much more to do with planning for moments of chance and kismet than planning how to "work together". When we walk across a campus and through our hallways we spend a lot of avoiding running into others, some of whom are the sources for happiness. Many times it is that person who you had forgotten about that provides you that joke, smile or passage you use to get through your day.
The closest thing I have to a virtual sidewalk or hallway for my scholarship exists in my daily interactions with Facebook and Tumblr. Jokes, memes, rants, clips, exhibits of digital banality, may be a virtual sidewalk of insignificant displays, but they have made my academic life more playful, enjoyable and interesting than any conference or colloquia. They have also garnered me a few friends that I wouldn't have had while helping me sustain connections with others that I might have simply forgotten. Not that conferencing and twenty minute presentations accompanied by bad sandwiches, coffee and the occasional piece of fruit aren't important. They are. Yet every grad student knows these formal presentations and placements can never take the place of sloppy thinking and laughter generated at a pub table or a party when it comes forming community. The reason for this is the same reason that Jacobs valued cities. When you leave a focused presentation and go to out into the general public you encounter “interweaving of human patterns” with “people doing different things, with different reasons and different ends in view” (Jacobs 1961, p. 229). As scholars we should be encouraged to leave the egos we invest in our "work" behind and think about all of those other people and their intentions on our campuses, online and in other spaces in a search for connections, discovery and new bonds. To put it simply, when it comes to the community of an online space, a sidewalk or coffeehouse, it can never really be about you. In the case of community it must always be about the people around you.
Jacobs, J. (1961). The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York, New York, Vintage Books.
As a founding coeditor of the online-only media/fan studies journal, Transformative Works and Cultures, I was on the team that had to make many decisions to launch the journal. I was not initially behind the idea of creating a new academic journal; I think that journals that already exist should simply publish regularly. However, the Organization for Transformative Works, which publishes the journal, and Kristina Busse, my coeditor, convinced me otherwise. During the setup dialogue, I found myself becoming passionately engaged: we needed to create something cutting edge, something that would fill a gap, and something that the academic world would value. The things that I felt most strongly about were open access, link persistence, accessibility, and truly fair-use notions of reprint and quotation, which would permit TWC, unlike most other journals, to publish, for example, author-generated screen caps without obtaining permission from the copyright holder.
Most important to TWC's mission of building a scholarly community are its Gold Open Access status and its Creative Commons copyright , which work hand in hand to permit accessibility. Authors have to sign copyright over to TWC , but the copyright permits the document to be freely reprinted as long as no money is made. Authors can cross-post to their blogs, and teachers can duplicate the documents in course packets without asking permission or paying fees. Unlike scholarly documents hidden in library stacks or locked behind paywalls or embargo, TWC's documents are free and easy to get. TWC does not have a print or PDF component, in part because it permits color images, video, and music clips, so there's nothing to download. The text is fully searchable and available to all. In addition, TWC deposits its metadata using the CrossRef DOI scheme, thus ensuring persistent links and keyword searchability.
Related to access is TWC's software platform: we use OJS (Open Journal Systems), part of the Public Knowledge Project. This software is designed to permit open access to knowledge and research. Hundreds of academic journals in diverse fields use this software; what all have in common is the belief that academic knowledge is for everyone, not just specialists. It provides all the tools to walk the uninitiated through the production process, from submission to print. It links TWC to a community of other open access journals and symbolizes our commitment to OA.
The digital realm holds the possibility of providing open, unfettered access to information, but the academic world has a vested interest in policing it and marking its boundaries. Prestige and cultural capital leading to academic livelihood are at stake. The academy does not trust free and open access, conflating it with inferior-quality research (this is one reason TWC does blind peer review; this gold standard offsets the taint of online only). We discovered, to our dismay, that most scholarly databases, such as JSTOR, must vet you and invite you. Some presses won't send us books to review because they have a policy against providing books to online-only venues. We've had people decline to submit because essays published in TWC don't count for promotion or tenure at their particular institution; they need to submit to a better-established journal with a print component .
TWC is forging the way ahead in its attempt to create an online-based fan studies community centering on open access to peer-reviewed scholarly discourse, even though the infrastructure to support the digital world isn't quite there yet. We need scholars to prioritize sending work to open access venues, and we need to reward scholars with tenure and promotion for publications in venues other than print. We build digital scholarly cohorts and communities by freely exchanging information and by supporting models that permit this.
1. Gold Open Access means "that the author or author institution can pay a fee to the publisher at publication time, the publisher thereafter making the material available 'free' at the point of access" (http://www.ercim.eu/publication/Ercim_News/enw64/jeffery.html). TWC does not charge author fees, and all the production labor is volunteer. The Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License is explained here:http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/.
2. TWC's Web site explains why the journal, not the author, holds the copyright:http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/about/submissions#c….
3. I discuss this in more detail in an August 20, 2010, Symposium blog post entitled "Breaking the Primacy of Print":http://symposium.transformativeworks.org/2010/08/breaking-the-primacy-of….
Nearly three years ago, I co-founded teachingmedia.org with Tony Nadler. The site was constructed to host a wide array of teaching resources (clips, readings, discussion questions, assignments) accompanied by brief explanations of how they have been used in the classroom. To build the site, we spent countless hours learning Wordpress, thinking about organization, and experimenting with design. Ultimately, our main hope was to harness the powers of collective intelligence to lessen our teaching loads while invigorating our classrooms with fresh ideas and material.
We believed—and still believe— that Teaching Media has the potential to transform teaching, converting what is often experienced as thankless and solitary work into a dynamic collective endeavor. Realizing this potential however requires work on the part of the Teaching Media community. This work includes, at minimum, learning to use Wordpress and re-formatting one's favorite teaching materials for on-line publication. Of course, given our broader labor conditions these days, such little, tedious, and unacknowledged tasks might appear annoying, even daunting, not worthy of our time. Consider though the potential return for the community on these small, individual investments: an open, organized yet sprawling, searchable archive of our best ideas that can constantly inform and enliven, both enhance and reduce, our work as teachers.
I have been interested in the creation of online communities going on twenty years now. In fact, one of my grad student essays looked at the creation of queer communities in newsgroups—that was before the world wide web—both as an imagined community and for practical purposes (my research took place in the middle of the 1993 March on Washington, and carpooling and couchsurfing briefly dominated the groups).
After bulletin board, mailing lists, and a brief foray into blogs, I ended up on LiveJournal.Living in a place with no academic community—and little personal one—online friends and acquaintances have become my emotional and intellectual support system. It is as such that I can't separate out the personal from the scholarly or, in my specific instance, the fannish from the academic.
I entered media fandom as an active participant ten years ago after getting a LiveJournal invite at an academic conference, and for the past decade I have merged fandom and academia, writing about fandom, editing within fandom, and (I hope) giving back to fandom. I have met most of my academic friends through fandom and have helped create an academic infrastructure following fannish models. [If I weren't already approaching thrice the word limit, I'd talk here about helping arrange the 2007 Gender and Fan Studies Debate,the 2011 Acafan Debate, and cofounding and coediting for the past 5 years of the peer-reviewed Open Access fan studies journal Transformative Works and Cultures,as well as about using fannish infrastructure and interfaces to engage in peer review for several book collection, most recently, Louisa Stein and my coedited essay collection on Transmedia Sherlock, which we peer edited on MediaCommons.]
For me personally this means that I ask my fannish friends to comment on my essays (and they certainly are critical readers indeed) and that, in turn, I share all my resources, much of it from behind paywalls. I use fannish networks to bring together academics and academic networks to bring together fans. And for me, as an independent researcher, both are intimately tied together—whether I post a critical reading of a TV show on my journal or Antenna, whether I collect secondary sources for my friendslist or a colleague, whether I beta a fanfic or an academic essay—because I do both for free and for the love of it.
Which brings me to the central sticking point. I wholeheartedly embrace the fannish gift economy and its practice of paying it forward, but any attempt to map this onto academic practices ignores the question of labor. Fans write and program and edit for the love of it, but such a model is clearly not fully sustainable in an academic environment. Academia may be a passion and a calling, but it also is a job, and academic labor needs to be rewarded on some level. And yet, as others have noted, a lot of community building is not and cannot be measured accurately for T&P.
I want to suggest that the very aspects that can make virtual communities so powerful may also be the ones that prevent us from easily translating our online academic contributions into economic rewards. If we look back at the fannish model, it suggests that a system of reciprocity and help and support might indeed require a model of paying it forward. There are clear tensions within fandom about making fannish labor commercially viable, and these conversations are even more fraught in the places where academia and fandom overlap, where fannish love and academic success often push in the same direction but sometimes demand different actions and responses.
Then again, it might be useful to think of online community as similar to offline ones, the twitter convo or the brief comment on someone's blog not as an academic contribution per se but more akin to chatting about The Hour in the bar at the convention hotel and debating fair use defenses for You Tube takedowns with a colleague in another department. If we regard online textual engagements as ephemeral encounters, then maybe the rewards are not in getting a CV line but rather in finding like-minded souls and eventual friends—and just maybe someone to carpool and couchsurf with.
This question really irks me. To be honest, I have been irked by it since I was first asked to contribute a post, and I'm afraid I've annoyed Jamie by persistently asking her for a clearer formulation of the topic. But now that I've given it some thought, and eliminated other possible sources of irritation that I first needed to consider (eg., the syntax is confusing; the question is too broad; the question is really two different questions; I'm too busy for this; I'm too old for this, etc.), I think I may know the problem: the question is naive.
We do not build cohorts and communities, digital, scholarly or otherwise. Rather, they build us. They build the way we think—our sense-making strategies—and the way we formulate problems and questions, the way we go about seeking solutions, the way we do our work, the way we shape our pedagogy, the way we interact as colleagues and professionals. It's nice to think that our higher education industry, which has linked its fortunes to digital modes of content delivery and the management of learning outcomes, grants us agency in the building of cohort. But as I read the very smart posts that have been contributed by others to this topic, certain words tend to recur: chaotic, messy, unpredictable, complex, newness. In fact, it seems that we have yet to understand the ways that digitization may (or may not) enable us to build online cohorts and scholarly communities, and the reason may not be that we haven't talked about the problem enough in forums such as this one, or we haven't lived it long enough to feel confident in our abilities to grab the reigns of social media platforms and software designed to make us feel that we're driving the bus, making choices, and exercising autonomy in building our intellectual networks. Another possibility is that scholars and the communities that produce them are currently being remade by the economic stresses, technological solutions, and social stratification that are remaking the 21st century university and the academic administrative managerial class—the cultural laborers who will publish the great essays and books about digital cohort, and hand over all rights to digital libraries that will then sell our work back to the members of our cohort for a fee.
For literary scholars of my generation, the process of academic professionalization began in graduate school where we found one another as a result of chance, love, and politics. For the online students of today and of the future it will happen pretty much the same way, I bet. Very little, it seems to me, happens by design. And the design part is probably the least interesting of all for me. So maybe we should not ask ourselves how to build digital cohorts and academic communities. Maybe we should ask ourselves how best to intervene in the industrial processes that are slowly but surely rebuilding us.
In thinking about this month's provocative question, I decided to reach deep into the vault to draw upon my experience not only as an instructor in a digitally-minded department and institution, but as a student at the dawn of Internet onslaught and former startup entrepreneur. Building digital cohorts and communities is a multifaceted problem/issue that can't be addressed with a simple solution, and can be elusive in even the best conditions. I don't have a prescriptive answer, but I've identified several mistakes that I and many others have made in trying to create online communities,
Error 1: Build it, and They Will Come (h/t to Sam Ford and Shelley Rodrigo) . Both academic institutions and private ventures are quick to think of technology as a panacea, which often results in expensive but underused infrastructure. Online communities thrive when they are built around a specific and shared goal of some kind; the architecture is largely secondary. Academic communities need to identify and define the purpose of an online space, rather than expecting users to aimlessly wander in.
Error 2: Makers vs. Takers. Once built, an online infrastructure may not function as originally planned, and users might appropriate it for unintended purposes. The mistake that I often see is when the administrators start punitively expelling users in hopes of returning a space to its original designation. This is the worst thing they could possibly do. Online communities work best when the community feels a sense of ownership over the material and space. Private companies fail when they try to crassly monetize and commodify these spaces; academic entities fail when they try to exercise control over the space with draconian rules.
Error 3: Neglecting Culture. The founders of Reddit knew that the site needed to reach critical mass to attract users, so they relentlessly posted comments themselves to build a vibrant, discursive community. In other words, they faked it 'til they made it. However, the side effect of that was that they had a strong hand in developing the cultural norms of Reddit (one could argue that there is a distinct lack of norms). The point is, digital cohorts and communities need time and a few strong voices to develop a protocol for exchange—hopefully one based on respect, positivity, and honesty.
This fantastic series has focused on the development and cultivation of new online communities, a crucial focus for those of us working on new modes of scholarly communication. As Avi and Sam have already pointed out, if you build it, they will not necessarily come; even the best-designed platform requires significant social investment to succeed. We've wrestled with ways of creating that investment across MediaCommons's development thus far.
But there's a similar challenge to be found in introducing new online platforms into already existing scholarly communities. The members of those communities have reason to work together, but they're also likely to be well settled into modes of working already. The early adopters in these communities have their own blogs, their Twitter accounts, their other forms of digital collaboration; the later adopters have comfortable modes of sharing work with one another, too. So how do you persuade both groups — and everyone else along the technology adoption spectrum — to step away from their individual accounts and networks, to test out a new collaborative, community-oriented environment for doing some of that same work?
This is a question I've asked myself repeatedly over the course of the more recent project I've been working on, MLA Commons, and I'm not sure I've yet come up with a wholly satisfying answer. On the one hand, if you can provide an existing community with a better, more satisfying way of doing the work it already needs to do — better systems for committee work, for instance, or for other kinds of intra-organizational communication — some number of members will test it out. But on the other hand, a network focused on an existing community requires a certain critical mass of buy-in to become viable, and so reaching beyond those most inclined to play with a new system is crucial.
We're hoping to get early adopters to help us with outreach, by encouraging them to create exciting models for new ways of communicating via the Commons that others might want to follow. And we're also trying to recruit existing community leaders — the executive committees of our divisions and discussion groups, for instance — to use the platform in conducting their regular organizational business. And we hope that these beginnings might help that critical mass to develop.
But I'm also convinced that a platform like MLA Commons — or MediaCommons, for that matter — can only really come of age when some cluster of community members do something completely unexpected with it, when they do something that genuinely makes the platform their own. This new survey project may well be the start of such a coming-of-age for MediaCommons. I am hopeful that the many creatively inspired members of the MLA will similarly invent new ways to instantiate that scholarly community within its Commons. I look forward to being surprised by what they do.
In a perceptive article, "It's a Wonderful Block," about the little stretch of New Haven, Connecticut, that he calls home, Mark Oppenheimer ponders why successful neighborhoods "work." Engaging in a combination of microhistory and social psychology, he found merit in the diverse mix of people, of different ages, backgrounds, and viewpoints, knit together by the physical structure of overhanging trees and generous sidewalks and a commensurate, shared spirit. As Oppenheimer concludes, neighborhoods have a recognizable "feel," although one that is "both fragile and contingent."
Too often we imagine the digital realm as ethereal, otherworldly. But it's human beings all the way down. Humans are the true endpoints of the network, humans are the ones that have structured that network and written the software to do—or not do—certain things. As the social history of technology has shown, we can't discuss digital communities without discussing non-digital, distinctly human emotions. Any sound theory of community building must be built upon feelings from human encounters, online or off. And when we talk about human feelings, seemingly small actions, attitudes, and structures can have an outsized impact.
Technical and physical platforms can promote, or hide, certain kinds of behaviors and thus shape a community in positive or negative ways. Twitter, for instance, doesn't rub it in your face when someone unfollows you. That's not a random (non)feature; it was a decision that a human made at some point about the social cues of the platform, and many of these little elements of Twitter stand in distinction from the sidelong-glance social log that is Facebook.
Similarly, the structure of most scholarly society meetings provide other social cues for their communities. The raised podium, along with fairly few opportunities for in-person commentary, perhaps pushes scholars toward actions that would seem, in most contexts, not very neighborly. However, other parts of these meetings, like the cocktail hours, have more friendly, unifying agendas.
As Oppenheimer notes, successful communities have a higher prevalence of "sidewalk life," of frequent casual encounters, rather than a "backyard life" of independent existence with rarer and more formal encounters with one's neighbors. For those who want to build a community, enhancing the former through social and technical structures seems like a good place to start. The significance of apparently trifling tweets might be deeper than critics imagine.
At the same time, we should remember that it's all fragile and contingent, requiring constant tending by all members of the community.
When I had the pleasure of working with Kathleen Fitzpatrick and others on the Mellon-funded open peer review white paper during the 2011-12 academic year, it became very clear to me during our working group’s conversations that Kairos is a rare bird. I knew that the journal is odd in the kind of scholarship it publishes—scholarly multimedia—and I knew that its review processes were relatively unique—using collaborative, open editorial-board reviewing for all of its (now) 18 years. What I didn’t know was that most fields struggle to form the kinds of communities that Kairos reviewers, authors, and readers inherently bring with them.
Writing studies as a discipline values collaboration and studies how writing is never divorced from its discourse communities and contexts. As a subdiscipline, digital writing studies is all rather filled with cheery, happy people who are more than ready to share what they know about teaching writing with technology and are eager to hear how you do it as well. It’s all quite ridiculously wonderful. This field has had social and professional-development MOOs (not MOOCs, which are like the evil dopplegangers of MOOs) and listservs for as long as there’s been academic computing, and I have to remind my non-digital-writing colleagues all the time why Facebook (or listservs, or MOOs, or …) is so valuable to me: because my academic community has always resided in the digital ether. My entire professional life is in the tubes, and I have always known people I see once a year WAY better than colleagues in the office next to mine. Many of us, even introverts, know (through our research) that in order to make distance feel like presence, you have to put a little bit of yourself out there. We are naturally curious about technology, and because we all teach digital writing, we can usually put ourselves out there pretty effectively. In comparison, I’ve heard horror stories about other disciplinary listservs that berate newcomers (or even old-timers, for that matter). I’ve had it happen to me on a listserv outside of writing studies. Those berated often resign themselves to lurk, or unsubscribe due to the total lack of welcoming. I say shame on those fields and lists! (I think they are slowly, and stubbornly, starting to realize that lacking an online scholarly community translates to slow death in the field. But they’re going kicking and screaming.)
Drawing from the digital writing studies community, one would think it would be easy to find editorial board members for the journal who are as eager to mentor, share, and collaborate online as they are IRL. Yes and no. Centering a digital scholarly community around a longstanding digital journal has a certain sense of built-in-edness about it, and we are never short of scholars willing to be either editorial board members or, thankfully, staff members. These two communities serve different purposes for the journal but both need to feel like they belong in order to participate to their fullest. And creating community among these two groups involves way more work than I would have originally expected when I took over as editor in 2006. Here are a small set of obstacles to forming community in each of these groups and a few practices I’ve experimented with to ameliorate a sometimes laggard workflow. I offer these as personal reflections, and to show that even when it seems like a community should form on its own, all online communities need a little personality (and technological) TLC.
Kairos was started by graduate students, so we work to make sure all ranks of academia are represented in our ed board, whenever possible. Every year or so, we have some turnover in the board, as folks take on new projects, administrative work, dissertations, and tenure. When I became editor in 2006, I added several junior scholars I thought could fill in certain areas of weakness on the board. These were people I knew, trusted, liked, and socialized with at conferences. Some were introverts, but none were wallflowers, by any means. Yet, it felt like pulling teeth to get them to participate on our editorial board discussion list, where the 50 or so board members collaboratively reviews submissions (not usually all at the same time). In talking with folks privately, I discovered that despite their rising-star status in the field, they still keenly felt their junior-ness compared to established rock-star scholars on the board. (There are no divas in digital writing studies, though.) While I knew everyone (as is my job) and trusted everyone to implement the values of our field onlist, the junior scholars didn’t know everyone in the same way and, thus, were afraid of saying something embarrassing. Seven years later, we have the same problem whenever anyone new joins the board: New people will return their reviews to me, backchannel, and I’ll encourage them to send it directly to the list.
To work against this concern, I’ve asked for the requisite welcome and introduction emails when someone new joins, but that doesn’t really do the trick. I’ve discovered that reviewers have much better conversations when it’s only five or six of them talking in a smaller group rather than the 50 looming heads at the other end of an email. This splitting of groups works well when we have multiple submissions that need reviewing simultaneously. It’s just too much email exchanging hands when we do more than one review onlist, and that will often trigger Yahoo’s — yes, sigh — spam filters. Yahoogroups (which we've used since 1997) is, of course, a huge problem in our community-building equation; one that we’d been trying to work on with a recent NEH DH Startup grant, although the project has ultimately proven to be unsuccessful. Big sigh. But, like much of what Kairos goes through, live and learn. So: smaller team-building leads to better reviews. The complications of open review comes to bite us in the ass. But these are still collaborative reviews—a process I can’t ever us envision changing as it’s too necessary for scholarly multimedia.
It’s a much slower process to acculturate the board members than it is staff members, due to the bigger time-lags the board experiences between submission reviews. The staff, on the other hand, usually work together for months at a time during production. We do have two kinds of staff: Section Editors and Assistant Editors. I’m focusing solely here on the Assistant Editors, all of whom work under my direction to copy- and design-edit three issues of the journal a year.
This is actually a new process for us—having the AEs work directly with me—which we started August 2012. Previously, AEs were siloed in each section that they were assigned to, working under the section editors. We discovered that this split in responsibilities burdened the sections with too much work (both developmental and production), in areas they weren’t trained to do as writing teachers, and resulted in the journal not having a cohesive identity—in large part because the communities of each section had no reason to talk to each other. So, instead of one journal/staff community, there were seven. Now there are two: section editors and assistant editors. And every assistant editor gets the same training from me, so that the journal can be more assured of a cohesive identity, at least from the production end of things. (Simultaneous training is going on with the section editors, whose focus is now solely on developmental editing, which means they have more time to mentor authors than previously. A win-win for the journal, our authors, and our readers.)
We still have Yahoogroups email problems, so we mostly exchange emails using CC lines. (There’s a long, complicated, good reason why we don’t use a content-management system, outside the scope of this post.) To ensure that our copy- and design-editing processes are implemented systematically, which in turn increases the quality of the journal, I spend a good part of every year writing documentation about our editing processes, which the AEs use as a manual-like starting point. We are currently transitioning the document to a wiki, where it belongs, since our design-editing processes, in particular, change every time a new technology hits our doorstep.
There's approximately 75 of us: 50 board members and 25 staff members, spread out across the world. I feel like I've made progress with the board, but I still don’t think the AEs (or section editors) know each other well enough, and a big part of that is my fault: I’ve been so focused on getting the journal out the door on-time (August 15, January 15, May 15) for the last seven years that I haven’t had time to focus on community-building through social-networking sites or other media. I try to make sure we have parties at Computers and Writing (our mainstay conference), but on zero budget, that’s not always possible, and not every staff and board member can attend.
The still unbuilt hacienda
A dear mentor and editor asked me, a few years ago, when when I was going to be done with Kairos. Hadn’t I done everything I could do with it to make it really special?, she asked. I was aghast, not at the thought of leaving Kairos, but at the thought that we were done improving. I said no way, and then listed the 17 things I still want to do (in the next five years) to improve our sustainability practices, our workflow, our quality, and most importantly—because none of the other can be done without this—our community. So, until that day when I will have technological demensia and a young whippersnapper will take my place, or the Web will no longer exist in its current form so the journal becomes something other, or I decide (or am told by my Senior Editor Douglas Eyman) that there’s nothing left for me to do to improve the Kairos community (ha!), it's my job to keep it rolling. As you can see, there’s a lot of work left to do.
This response is co-authored by Ken McAllister and Judd Ruggill:
A short answer to the question about how to build digital cohorts and academic communities: They’ll emerge even without ambitious plans, repurposed MIL-SPEC hardware, and Kickstarter-funded software.
A longer version: Historically, academe incentivizes individualism and penalizes collaboration. Promotion and tenure, merit increases, puff pieces in alumni magazines—all tend to spotlight the person, not the people. Indeed, projects’ people are routinely and compulsorily scissored out of the group shot, casting each scholar as—to use David Ignatow’s phrase—“a crowd of oneself.”
But the academy has started to molt, to shed this skin. Continued erasures of human and material resources and escalations of research, teaching, and service loads are creating an environment in which eventually academics will be punished for not collaborating. There’ll be no way to do what needs doing without working together, without the synergy and economies of scale that digital scholarly communities enable. We won’t be able to publish enough to meet the ever-rising demands of P&T, we won’t be able to manage courses enrolling many thousands of students (and thus won’t be able to service our institutions’ primary bill-payers), and we won’t be able to maintain day-to-day departmental operations because there will be too few staff and qualified administrators.
So how do we adapt to and benefit from this change? Extant and emerging digital scholarly communities, plus the torrent of apps designed to facilitate collaboration and community building are two effective avenues. There is also faculty revolt—folks forcing the issue by hijacking the relevant committees and rewriting institutional policies governing research, teaching, and service so that collaboration is actually rewarded, not just tolerated (and certainly not punished). And then there are administrators’ potential largesse and vision, generally considered essential to rejiggering the rules of academic citizenship.
And if none of these blooms bear fruit in the seasons ahead? Not to worry: the transformation of higher education and its eventual and utter dependence on collaboration and digital scholarly communities is already a done deal. Thanks to the new math of higher education funding, increasingly the name of the game is teamwork. The solitary scholar—not the collaborator—will be the outlier: dubious, incalculable, and jobless.
We can’t wait.
I’ve followed this thread for a couple weeks now, and those of you who have posted make me want to examine WHY cohorts and communities matter in my academic/non-academic life (I don’t think the two are easily separated). So here is a case study of one person. First, cohorts and communities matter because they get me going each day and make me energized about my work – faculty cohorts; consultant cohorts for professional workshops; scholarly cohorts in my fields of specialization. I read and post to the list servs and blogs of these communities and talk f2f or digitally with individual members frequently. Another reason why communities matter is that they offer ideas, action buddies, and thinking spaces for particular issues that ignite me – cohort organizations such as CCCC, League of Women Voters, AAUP, and the Audubon Society. I go to these cohorts for advice, friendship, group power. A third reason for my participation in cohorts is that they help me build what I want to build. Program cohorts can design new degrees; distance education proponents can invent new delivery methods; believers in WID (writing in disciplines) can change university culture; experts in university-corporate partnerships can redraw boundaries. A forth reason for cohorts is that they help me evaluate and assess how I spend my time – peer reviewers of scholarly work let me know if I’m on the right track, and students who assess my courses keep them fresh.
It may seem that this post is looking backwards to the WHY instead of the HOW when it comes to building digital cohorts, and it’s true that some of my cohorts and communities are not digital, but many are, and all have digital components. I stay active in them because they give me insight into what I am doing and why. For example, they shine a light into black boxes of practice. When I’m co-authoring an article, my digital writing group lets me know who is writing each day and for how long and reminds me to analyze the data and write it up, too.
A take-away from my one-person case study is that keeping a community active (whether digital, hybrid, or f2f) depends on its exigency for its members. As for building a community, never underestimate the power of asking someone to participate, just as I was asked to write this post. Maybe it’s as simple as posing an authentic question and really listening to the answer. So here are my questions: Who might you invite to join you in one of your digital communities and why? I’m listening.
One of the greatest challenges facing the staff of In Media Res involves how best to encourage vibrant and productive comments to curators’ posts.
As others involved in digital scholarship have likely discovered, soliciting feedback on any website can be tricky. If you allow anonymous commenting, the discourse often degrades quickly, sometimes even becoming downright offensive. But if you ask commenters to post under their real name, submitting a comment becomes a sort of performance, a presentation of one’s best professional face to other scholars.
Thus while digital scholarship may remove much of the formality and bureaucracy of print-based scholarship, for many it does not necessarily relieve the anxiety that accompanies any public expression of professional work. Moreover, at IMR we strive to reach out to non-academic writers as well, so the scholarly pose in the comments can limit the appeal of the conversation by intimidating members of a broader public.
To counteract these challenges, we depend upon our curators to initiate the discussion in the comments, trusting they will create a space of openness for others who read the site. In accord with the sentiments Alisa Perren expressed last week, I have found that relationships established in the real world are often our best gauge for the activity level of a particular week. Moving forward, IMR hopes to incorporate a Twitter feed into the interface of the site since that space (and its 140-character limit) necessarily reduces formality and complexity.
Despite the efforts made thus far, there seems much as yet untapped potential for IMR and sites like it. Finding ways to translate our work for a general public while maintaining a level of professionalism and disciplinary engagement seems a continually elusive goal, even while technology promises to remove barriers and facilitate engagement.
While a doctoral student at Georgia State University, where IMR is housed, I served as an Associate Editor for two years. Having completed my doctorate, I now enjoy a position as a member of IMR’s Alumni Consulting Committee.
For example, one of our most successful weeks, in terms of the level of conversation generated, was the Popular Seriality week brought to us by a group of scholars working together in Europe through a research unitat the University of Göttingen.
“His music defines his heart / His heart defines his music.” –David Dondero, “Simple Love”
One of the central challenges for a digital scholarly community is getting a line on one’s fellow participants. We might like to think that all that matters is the ideas—that such a community will be a heady interchange of deep thoughts that will be bandied about and evaluated and responded to entirely on their own merits, with no regard to who the people are who actually articulated them—but that’s just not the way it works. So a corollary to the question of how to build digital cohorts and academic communities is this: How do we grapple with issues of identity in distributed communities?
As writing scholars, we understand that both our words and our selves are heavily influenced by others. Burgess and Ivanic have explored how we construct and perceive “selves” in writing, and Ivanic has discussed how writers construct a “discoursal self” in their writing by pulling from a range of acceptable personae in, say, academic discourse. LeCourt and others have stressed that such identity construction is a performance for a particular context rather than a static, one-time event. Let’s apply those ideas to digital cohorts and academic communities.
It’s important to recognize that in a distributed community, we aren’t limited to words when we construct our identities. In this era of social media, we might incorporate images—even fanciful and fictitious ones, as Megan Mize demonstrates in her piece, or humorous ones, as Danielle Roach discusses. Another option is music. The mix-CD or shared playlist allows us to craft a work that explicitly incorporates others’ utterances in an identity performance. The mix becomes a physical, portable representation of the author. Similarly to how readers construct a picture of an article’s author as they read, listeners will construct a picture of us as they listen to our CDs.
This is not really a new concept. Anyone who has made a mix for a potential romantic partner, agonizing over song choice and order, understands that a mix represents much more than a collection of songs. Mixes represent who we are, what we think is important, what feelings and thoughts and worldviews we privilege. Including Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” connotes a different person than including Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.” And when we create mixes for someone else, we weigh and measure those connotations, because we know that our listener(s) will use the mix to get a sense of who we are.
Many members of our graduate cohort made mix-CDs for each other the first summer we all met. Although the stakes for creating a grad-school mix may not be quite as high as trying to impress that special someone, we should recognize that we constructed discoursal selves in ways similar to those explored by Ivanic. Her focus is how non-traditional students construct discoursal selves that are acceptable in academia. Grad school also has acceptable identities, and consciously or subconsciously, we probably tried to align ourselves with those identities. Here, for instance, is my track listing:
1) "Music is My Hot, Hot Sex" by CSS
2) "Going to Georgia" by the Mountain Goats
3) "Furr" by Blitzen Trapper
4) "Home" by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes
5) "Buy Nothing Day" by the Go! Team
6) "Boyfriend" by Best Coast
7) "Hey, Snow White" by Destroyer
8) "While You Wait for the Others" by Grizzly Bear (Feat. Michael Macdonald)
9) "Walking Far from Home" by Iron and Wine
10) "Catcher Song" by Great Lake Swimmers
11) "Skinny Love" by Bon Iver
12) "Acid Tongue" by Jenny Lewis
13) "Someone Great" by LCD Soundsystem
14) "Sleepless in Silver Lake" by Les Savy Fav
15) "I Wish I Knew Natalie Portman" by K-OS
16) "A Good Name" by Shad
17) "Ring of Fire" by Social Distortion
18) "The Righteous Path" by Drive-By Truckers
19) "No More Workhorse Blues" by Bonnie "Prince" Billy
So what does this track listing say about me? Almost none of these bands are on major labels. Canadian bands feature greater representation than one might expect, a fact which probably references my liberality. Most songs hail from the alternative genre, and there are also several songs in electronica and rap, but despite my Canadian bias, Nickleback is not included. Artistic merits aside, that probably shows an aversion to more commercially successful artists, and perhaps an aversion to commercialism in general.
There are references to “cool” classics (“Ring of Fire”) covered by a punk band, a cool actress who appears in both big-budget and edgy movies (Natalie Portman), uncool singers (ironic Michael MacDonald) doing cool things (singing with an alternative band), anti-capitalism, and sex. There is a conscious and marked absence of Top 40 or commercial pop. When you listen to it, you’ll hear a variety of musical styles, but a common thread is good songwriting, especially on a lyrical level.
You can tell by this mix that I’m an NPR-listening liberal who views commercialism with disdain, thinks of himself as a connoisseur, and eats granola. You can also hopefully tell that I have a sense of humor and am not too gloomy. This identity works pretty well with an English doctoral program, where most people tend to be liberal and skeptical of commercialism, think of themselves as outside of the mainstream, are convinced they think about things a little deeper than the average person, and focus on texts that have depth. However, not everyone likes granola.
Certainly, a music exchange isn’t a vital recipe for success when establishing a digital cohort. But all of us who hope to be members of such a community DO have to engage issues of identity construction as we strive to be accepted and to have our words and ideas matter.
Burgess, Amy and Roz Ivanic. “Writing and Being Written: Issues of Identity Across Timescales.”Written Communication 27 (2010): 228-255. Print.
Ivanic, Roz. Writing and Identity: The Discoursal Construction of Identity in Academic Writing. Philadelphia: Johns Benjamins, 1998.
LeCourt, Donna. "Performing Working-Class Identity in Composition: Toward a Pedagogy of Textual Practice." College English 69.1 (2006): 30-51. Print.
‘Hey Peeps, Remember When…’: Social Media and Shared Experiences for Geographically Scattered CohortsCheri Lemieux Spi... — Old Dominion University and Northern Virginia Community College 3 Comments view
Prior to beginning the distance PhD program in English at Old Dominion, I had taken a few classes in online education and the facilitation of distance education for adult learners, and I had taught my own distance and hybrid classes. From those experiences, I learned that social presence was considered vital to distance education. Instructors usually strive to create spaces that will create shared experiences and collaboration between students. These spaces attempt to decrease social distance and help students to see one another as "real." Palloff and Pratt (2007) explain that this social presence is vital to student satisfaction in distance education. While I believed social presence was probably important, the tips for fostering such presence that I’d come across simply recommended things like introductory discussion boards for sharing personal notes (hobbies, background, etc.) along with an avatar to represent oneself. I have always struggled to make such activities authentic with my own students. They always feel similar to introductions on the first day of class even in person: everyone does them, but who remembers them? I wasn’t sure how much I thought social presence would really come to play in my learning at Old Dominion—after all, we’re graduate students here. I felt a bit like a contestant on some reality TV show as I began this program with an “I didn’t come here to make friends” mantra in mind. However, it soon began to become important in ways I had not expected and through activities not facilitated through our professors.
One way this manifested itself took place toward the end of my first year in the program. It all started with a simple picture. Megan Mize posted a picture (left) to Facebook and tagged four of her peers in it, along with herself. Her comment that accompanied the picture said, “Danielle, Cheri, Sarah, and I enjoy a nice batch of milkshakes (in my head). As…usual, Mark photobombs in the background, all blurry and with a fedora.” The setting of the discussion that followed this comment, however, was not in Megan’s head. Instead, Danielle, and Sarah replied to the post by adopting the personas of the individuals that have been tagged as in the pictures. Their discussion was typical of old photos that make an appearance on Facebook—they commented on their appearances and behavior in the picture. They, for those moments, became the people in the pictures and we reminisced together.
This first picture was posted in April of 2011, nine months after each of us tagged in Megan’s picture began the doctoral program. Over the remainder of the year, 27 more pictures followed that first afternoon of milkshakes. Through the posts of multiple students, we captured moments celebrating the end of term, singing around a bonfire, competing in some friendly cosmic bowling, flying kites together, etc. The times we captured revealed key moments in the development of a community. They represented occasions wherein strong bonds would begin to form and relationships would grow stronger.
Of course…they never happened. These bonding moments occurred before our group ever met in person—they happened to strangers and we only pretended to be a part of these moments. While we didn’t have access to memories from actual events, we established connections to one another while we responded to these images that chronicled our faux memories. An average of seven replies accompanied each image, with one post getting as many as twenty comments.
When this 2010 cohort first met for the first time in person at the 2011 Summer Doctoral Institute, we were able to start off where our Facebook memories left off. It felt, to me, like I was getting to see good friends for the first time in a long time—not for the first time ever. While I attended my other degree programs in person, I can honestly say that I have felt a stronger connection to my doctoral cohort than I did to the folks with whom I completed my prior degrees—even when I actually lived with other English majors! I have seen those of us from very different research interests come together and collaborate on multiple different projects. We continue to be incredibly supportive of one another as we move through varied stages of the program. Certainly we cannot say that the faux memories are the definitive social move that made our bonds form. Many other factors certainly contributed—personality of the cohort being a major influencer, I believe.
However, I do believe more happened by way of these faux memories than any of us recognized at the time. The experiences from this doctoral cohort seem to imply that community bonds can be built without traditional bonding experiences. The benefit of these nontraditional exercises is that they provide fertile ground for further engagement and cooperation that may not be possible without the bonds formed through the experiences.
Interestingly, we are not the first to use random images to foster bonds between those without access to common memories. TimeSlips, a program for dementia patients, also uses a collection of images of strangers to build bonds between patients and their loved ones. While the folks in these programs may not have access to the common memories they once held dear, they can benefit from the bonds that reminiscing provides through fabricating stories, collectively, with those they love. This program aims to improve the quality of life of dementia patients and serves to increase the engagement and communication levels of these patients with the staff with whom they work.
Perhaps to those outsiders viewing our Facebook feed—our “real” friends, our families, etc.—it looked as though we had lost our minds. We were grownups—academic, grownups—playing pretend. However, the question remains: if reminiscing upon faux memories does increase social presence within a community, can we tap into this potential for instruction? Could an exercise be developed that can program this engagement (successfully) into a geographically scattered cohort—or must such things develop organically?
Palloff, R. M.& Pratt, K. (2007). Building online learning communities: Effective strategies for the virtual classroom (2nd ed). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
A strong sense of community within a hybrid cohort can have a huge impact on collaborative work. Yet how do we foster that connection? Within my own hybrid cohort, a certain congeniality evolved concurrent to our studies. As we made each other laugh, were we simply goofing off? Possibly. Did that playful interaction support our scholarly productivity? Certainly.
Collaborative play via humor impacts the efforts of online communities, promoting networking and encouraging communication by decreasing the fear of judgment (Griffin 88). As more institutions conduct joint work online, a rapid style of witty and self-referential exchange emerges as an important strategy for fostering creative thinking. During the invention process, seemingly benign exchanges belie a complex social task. Participants often quickly transfer ideas, filtering through the safety net of wit. Simultaneously, participants demonstrate various types of knowledge through humor. Within a chat or a shared document, students offer ideas and critique, couched in friendly banter and witticisms, demonstrating their scholarly prowess while attempting to shield possible vulnerabilities.
In such situations, participants are typically unable to hide behind anonymity. One must then consider how this alters the use of humor. In the example of an academic proposal, are there high stakes for scholars who must identify themselves? Does humor offer a safeguard for potential missteps in the performance of academic prowess? The graduate experience is an opportunity to foster professional social networks that will extend into one’s academic career. Thus, friendships, or lack thereof, may have professional consequences. The act of collaborative invention may challenge such connections as students must offer ideas that may not yet be fully formulated, or provide constructive criticism in response to others’ work. This creates the necessity for careful negotiation by each scholar, in order to perform the task while retaining his place within the community.
Several theories begin to address the multifaceted aspects of humor and identity performance. First, one may turn to the sociolinguistic theory of “face.” In “Interpersonal Politeness and Power,” Ron and Suzanne Scollon define “face” as, “The negotiated public image, mutually granted each other by participants in a communicative event” (45). However, all communication carries some risk. In “Compliments and Politeness in Peer-review Texts,” Donna Johnson acknowledges the tensions inherent to the peer-review experience, describing it as a “face threatening act” or FTA (54). Her primary interest is in the function and formulaic nature of compliments in such texts. The compliment becomes a tool that enables colleagues to critique one another’s work while maintaining a positive rapport. In order to successfully resolve the tensions of involvement and independence, humor may serve a similar function, masking critique and therefore leading to community solidarity or even group hierarchy.
The complexity of graduate interaction online is apparent in a small case study involving four graduate students, myself included. Interpersonal dynamics influences their responses, yet compliments do not dominate the interaction. Rather, the participants use humor as a means of engaging one another while attempting to avoid “face-threatening” moments.
As the students work concurrently, differences emerge between the conversational tenor of the chat window versus the humor within the document. The difference implies that the students perceive these as distinct spaces on a single screen. For instance, the chat remains informal, sometimes going off topic, with the students rapidly responding. The students perform solidarity throughout the chat, with each claiming familiarity with one another. One states, “We’re fighting because we care.” Slang slips into the conversation, as another comments, “If we really pwned this thing, we would be recording what we’re doing RIGHT NOW. Metametameat” (Figure 1). The allusion to “meta” mocks an emphasis in academia for self-reflexivity. The ending typo “meat” leads to much ribbing from the other students; the self-acknowledged typo and the teasing following it are clear indicators of insider status and acceptance. Another example of a critique cased in humor appears when one student teasingly cautions another, “You can’t just slap the word ‘play’ on everything" (Figure 2).
The document itself is a complex creation. In order to clearly delineate each speaker, students selected colored fonts. Then, intermingled with the serious academic discussion is a heavy amount of playful conversation, much of which either works to build interpersonal connections or to mock generic conventions. The response time may be much slower within the document, with students responding up to days later when working individually. The humor remains informal, but is more directly focused on the work at hand than the humor in the chat. For instance, when one student asks if her ideas make sense, another responds, “A buttload” (Figure 3). The playful language softens the moment of vulnerability displayed by the first student. When one student pours several ideas out rapidly, another interrupts, “IM TYPING USEFUL STUFF HERE TOO,” to which the prolific student responds, “<—and you’re yelling it!” The exchange is concluded as the first comments, “Anything important needs to be in caps” (Figure 3). Here, one may witness the students riffing on formal elements of writing and the ways that it might be violated, while overlooking the domination of one student and the possibly rude interruption of another. Notably, the proposal in question was successfully submitted and presented at Computers and Writing 2012; this very article comes from the same collaborative exercise.
There are possible pedagogical implications for such a line of inquiry. Humor can serve many functions in the composition process, including: promoting community building, encouraging the exchange of ideas, decreasing the fear of judgment, allowing the creation of multiple spaces, permitting fluid constructions of identity, and enabling creativity and productivity. Notably, in academic work, the humor is often actively erased from the final product. The intentional effacement of invention humor adds to the academic performance, yet has negative consequences for our understanding of collaborative composition.
Finally, this brief example suggests another line of questioning. As these online communities, such as hybrid cohorts, share ideas and possibly values, does humor in the online forum become a homogenizing force? As seen with the theories of face and politeness strategies, humor can be one way to navigate potential social missteps. At the same, many of the examples demonstrate trends towards enforcing communal similarity. Thus, we must be careful not to overlook humor's function as it offers both the opportunity for creativity as well as the possibility for conformity in our online interactions.
Griffin, Jo Ann. "Exit Laughing: Persuasive Reform Humor of Three Nineteen- Century Women." Masters Thesis. University of Louisville, 2003.
Johnson, Donna M. “Compliments and Politeness in Peer-review Texts” Applied Linguistics. University of Arizona 1992: 51-71. Print.
Scollon, Ron and Suzanne. “Interpersonal Politeness and Power.” Intercultural Communication. Malden, MA: Blackwell 2001: 43-59. Print.
Passing Notes in Class: Collaboration, Community, and In-Class Synchronous Chat
I should begin this post by admitting that I originally presented on this topic at the 2012 Computers and Writing Conference. There, I was part of a panel with three of my PhD program colleagues (who will themselves be posting here over the next three days), a collaboration that was itself borne out of our interest (and delight) at the ways in which community formed and evolved in our own program. Those musings led us to try to extrapolate and complicate what we'd experienced. Our hope was to figure out how to see our small experience in the context of bigger things, in terms not only of our academic ancestors and academic descendants, of those who teach us and those we teach, but also of the very structures of "the classroom," "the academy," and even "writing" and "thinking" painted with the broadest of strokes.
For my part, then, the central question I tackled was this: How does synchronous digital chat alter the notion of a "live" classroom, and what might that shift afford students and instructors?
The "underlife" of a classroom has long been of interest to faculty, to highlight the ways in which synchronous chat works (or doesn't) in the digitized classroom. Articles like Derek Mueller's 2009 Computers and Composition article "Digital Underlife in the Networked Writing Classroom" moved that conversation along into the realm of the digital classroom, urging teacher-scholars to "take stock of the ways in which digital underlife is framed as promising and productive through curricular developments" (248-49). Though synchronous chat is certainly not the only species of digital underlife (or "backchannel," as some like to call it), it is perhaps the one that is met with the most anxiety, particularly as it occurs during class time and alongside the goings-on to the classroom "proper." However, I'm happy to report that there are many ways in which synch chat can, in most any classroom setting, create chances for collaborative composition and research, improve course efficacy and content retention, and build discourse communities within and beyond that particular course.
The "flood" (and intertexuality)
Especially in upper-level classes, where discussions tend to roll along quickly, many great ideas can get lost simply because, with so many people trying to speak, the conversation often moves on before a student can bring upgood ideas that come to mind (my colleagues and I affectionately called this the "flood"). With synch chat, students can still throw ideas out that might otherwise not make it to the surface of the oral class discussion, as in this excerpt from the synchronous chat stream in a graduate online writing pedagogy course (names changed, of course):
What often materializes, then, is a complex and multi-faceted para/sub-text that enriches the discussion without interrupting the overall flow of the class agenda.
In situations where technology makes life rough for a student or group of students, often the synch chat stream can save the day for everyone involved. If, for example, someone's video feed is choppy, that information can be conveyed and often handled via synch chat, empowering all participants with a "back-up" plan when primary means of communication falter.
Flattening the distance
In our program, about half the students attend class live on ODU's campus, and the other half participate via live 2-way audio and video, often from miles away. Synchronous chat augments the primary classroom "space" in ways that seem to melt away the miles; the small talk that happens in a face-to-face classroom ("@Cheri: love that mug" or "Mark, you shaved your beard!!") can circulate concurrent with the primary goings-on of the class itself, drawing students together and building more personalized networks within the classroom.
Make ‘Em Laugh
Even when students are behaving "badly" on synch chat, that isn't necessarily bad news for the classroom. Some instructors are unnerved when they get the sense that students' attention is directed elsewhere, and yet we can see, both with and without technology, that underlife has the potential, even when it IS distracting, to have a positive net effect on the course as a whole. A little deviance allowed from time to time offers just one more point through which students connect to one another and feel more a part of a community. So, even if every once in a while students are IMing each other with off-topic jokes or unrelated banter, perhaps the very levity of those moments, in some ways, reinforces overall student engagement with the course.
Some final thoughts
Used in conjunction with other tools that encourage more fluid conversation, synch chat can draw community members together. Its use can provide a solid undercurrent of useful information and enrich the circulation of ideas presented in other course spaces, affording both students and instructors a broader range of opportunities to create community that supports and nurtures scholarship and the pursuit of knowledge. So, instead of bristling at the impropriety of passing notes in class, perhaps it's time to embrace synch chat as a viable avenue for community-building in the classroom.
The question I was posed was “How do we build digital scholarly communities and/or cohorts?”
I love the topic, but how I hate and/ors! Whenever I see one, I want to pry it apart by its punctuation—rest on the “or” like a rock, and use that helpful slash as a lever to launch “and” far away.
Typography should work like that.
There’s never a real and/or. Communities and cohorts aren’t the same, and our strategies for building one may be inappropriate to the other. Let’s think of a cohort as a discrete group defined by its having shared—beginning to end, often enough—some (any!) common experience. You’re in, or you’re out, not even necessarily with awareness or meaningful consent. This works in medicine and demography, in pedagogical practice (welcome, class of 2016!), and in online collaborations just as in the Roman legions that lent the word. There’s a bright line around a cohort. A digital community, on the other hand, has porous boundaries. It must, because it is defined not by shared experiences or twists of fate, but by the value-set its members share. If not designed for openness, it’ll never coalesce.
And if you mistake a cohort for a community, be prepared: at some point it’s gonna die.
Shelley evoked Field of Dreams last week, so I'll go back to Costner: part of the problem of the "If you build it…" approach is that it adheres to the old "stickiness" model of success which says, "To build a community, you go create a platform, and then you try to get people to come to it." It's a solution seeking a problem.
After all, if this is an era of spreadability, we can't expect to tame "community" to exist exclusively at a particular place or platform. Instead (to use two buzzwords I've associated myself with in one paragraph), we have to think about a transmedia approach to community-building in the digital space. How do people move from in-person collaboration, to virtual projects, to online discussion, etc.?
The scholarly digital network is multi-platform, and it waxes and wanes, from Twitter exchanges that arise leading up to a conference to a Facebook posting about a media artifact that draws intense discussion among a scholarly network. When the time calls for it, there might be a dedicated scholarly collaboration (as, for instance, happened in fan studies with the "Gender and Fan Studies" series of conversations a few years back). And you have sites like MediaCommons providing a steady stream of real-time, relevant content that can spread through those networks.
We can't build a system of digital community that requires intense participation from everyone all the time. Likewise, we don't want to close our conversation off to an "exclusive" membership without porous boundaries that don't allow others to discover us and naturally come to join the conversation. What's worse, as is often the bigger problem with creating a gated community, we run a far greater risk: cutting ourselves off from intersecting with new scholars/approaches/ideas by not listening to what's happening outside our walls.
I don't come from a background in social science. But the requisite Ph.D. course in the major thinkers of the field Indeed introduced me to Mark Granovetter, who demonstrated the strength of so-called "weak ties." Granovetter proved that people that we only kinda know are often responsible for all sorts of amazing things in our lives: they help us get jobs, we take their recommendations on products, they subtly influence our beliefs. All this in 1973, decades before Facebook and Twitter.
Today, I rely constantly on the strength of my weak ties in the media studies community. Through the networks I've built, both via my personal account and the account for my blog, "Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style," I've cultivated massive networks of weak ties. In "Teaching Media," academics whom I've never met suggest readings and help me plan the last day of class. On Twitter, they provide history, details, esoterica, and comic relief. And I trust them: without my weak ties, I would've spent hours figuring out which episode of Entourage best exemplifies the specific sort of bromantic love I wanted to highlight. They also provide something that most of us sorely lack in our non-digital lives, namely, encouragement and support. Something about the internet — and weak ties — makes it easier to be sincere with each other.
In the end, these weak ties have made teaching in a department of two, four hours from the nearest media studies department, as rewarding as the halycon days of grad school, when resources were always just a door-knock away. Social media "guides" often discourage users from "friending" people they don't know. I get why. But friending, following, and otherwise cultivating weak ties via social media has overcome the strength of the most well-founded of concerns.
The day I realized that, for me, Facebook was not just a photo album or a daily reunion of high school classmates was mildly* life altering. ABD and needing a respite from thinking and writing in the cultural register necessary for a dissertation, I sought out alternative ways to discuss what I was trying to theorize. Discussing notions of acceptable Black womanhood, for example, began as as a more traditional conversation but exploded into a cacophany of Black women singing lines from their favorite R&B songs as a way of playfully engaging the "shade" thrown at us by mainstream media. I would keep posting and people would keep talking and at some point I realized that by turning my Facebook page into a discussion board of sorts, I unintentionally stumbled upon a place of community that reveled in what I will call "foolywang studies." Foolywang studies, characterized by a balance of droll humor and thoughtfulness, allows for conversation across a myriad of tones, vernaculars, backgrounds, and cultural specificities.
Here's the point: Creating a space to talk plainly and humourously about the issues surrounding our research is a key component to building a digital, scholarly community. My Facebook friend list, made up of those both inside and out academe, is a part of that community. Sharing links to articles is part of the process but more than that, having a smart and diverse cohort to partake in the foolywang with me and generating conversation around those issues is where the magic happens.
*Mildly life altering because I believe in constraining my hyperbole.
About three years ago, the Media and Cultural Studies program at the University of Wisconsin, Madison started Antenna, a massive group blog responding to current developments in media.
A motivation for creating it was that lots of people want to blog but can't maintain their own blog, and hence "the answer" seemed to be to provide a forum that involved enough people to allow them all the freedom to write when they want, but not to write when busy. Furthermore, we wanted Antenna to be open to instantaneous blogging, and thus we didn't want to plan too much, and hoped it would simply keep itself moving, with minimal prodding on our part.
Since then, we've had a lot of success. We've published over 700 posts to date, with almost 200 different writers, and over a million pageviews. Posts average about 150-200 readers each, though some peaked at several thousand. Our readers are mostly academics, but non-academics "tune in," read, and comment at times too.
The challenge has been making this work, as we've had to engineer far more than we'd hoped. Most of this work is invisible and un(der)valued, which leads easily to loss of enthusiasm and participation over time. Even the more visible labor (ie: the blog posts) is un(der)valued, meaning we've had to accept that we're usually #126 on any given writer's priority list, perpetually leaving us at risk of dropping off that list altogether.
So the question we're left with, and that I pose here, is how to make the labor "count," and how to keep and hold interest?
Cohorts, communities, peer groups. In thinking about Avi Santo’s recent post, I find myself excited by the possibilities of what a community or cohort might now mean for me as a scholar. Pierre Levy highlighted the “collective intelligence” of these communities—their ability to leverage the diverse knowledge and skills of many different people in order to generate some kind of new understanding or experience. This has always struck me as an apt description of what can and should happen among scholars. I believe in the power of crossing borders and boundaries, especially intellectually. In such an environment, scholars can share information and knowledge with others in their fields more effectively and quickly.
Just as important (perhaps more so), they can also share that information and knowledge with others well outside of their fields and disciplines. I am excited by the prospect of not just getting to know, say, a research team in astrophysics in the building across the campus. I want to know more about their work and how it might impact what I do in my own research, as well as ways my own research might positively affect their work.
But it goes further for me. I dislike intellectual boundaries—maybe “despise” is the better word. Like most scholars, I pursue my research because of a deep desire to constantly learn about something I find important. In my case, that is a rich interest in participatory cultures that use networked web applications to mediate their social and creative practices. One of the best ways I can continue that knowledge and learning is by crossing both disciplinary boundaries and workspace borders. I am a scholar, and I work as a User Experience Designer for a design and development company in Minneapolis. My scholarly community straddles industry and academia, and I relish opportunities to get my industry colleagues into a dialogue with my scholarly peers.
A perfect communicative technology, especially for holding meetings in digital space, would be transparent. The medium would create the feeling that everyone was in one room together. Current technology is far from such dreams, yet we have come to depend on such technologies for facilitating digital collaboration that transcends physical distances.
The MediaCommons Collective regularly utilizes such communicative technologies, which also means we regularly experience their limitations and ensuing frustrations. The Media Commons collective consists of graduate students within the Humanities and because The English PhD program at ODU is composed of hybrid cohorts, students attend class both on campus and at a distance, we have chosen to have hybrid meetings. Several distance students are involved in this project. To include their valuable participation in the project, we have decided on hybrid meetings. While our home base is the The Media Park, programs like Google Hangout and Adobe Connect are essential for our meetings.
Most of our meetings start with a 15-minute setup of everyone's video, sound and mic settings. Eventually we give up on the program we've chosen for the night in favor of the other. Adobe Connect boots members if the connection is slow. Google Hangout prefers to freeze the member's image in some grotesque composition one would never want another to see. Often discussion must be repeated for those online. Giggles abound.
Meetings in this context demand a high level of flexibility. The biggest problem with the technology we are using is that it isn't really built to do what we want it to, to facilitate hybrid communities. Our ambitions are not necessarily matched by the technology we have. While place and community are essential, digital communities are still dependent on the medium's limitations. Our success is contingent on our ability to work with and around technology to create productive spaces.
My initial inclination in responding to this question is to flip it on its head. This means that rather than addressing how we build digital cohorts and academic communities in (presumed) online spaces, instead we might focus on how cohorts and communities are dependent upon and energized by ongoing collaborative labor based out of specific, physical spaces.
Before attempting to build digital cohorts in my role as Coordinating Editor for In Media Res, I found it crucial to build an academic community from the ground up out of a defined place: my office at Georgia State University. Prior to agreeing to take the site over from Avi in June 2010, it was crucial for me to know that I had a group of graduate students with whom I could collaborate on building an a set of protocols and collaborative practices for the site. We had to work closely – both online and via in-person meetings – to do everything from brainstorming theme week ideas to developing templates for communicating with curators to creating training sessions for new staff members. (That is just the tip of the iceberg regarding what more than a dozen of us have accomplished over the past several years.)
Fortunately, several people in my department saw IMR as an opportunity not only to network with scholars, journalists, critics, and the wider public about topics of interest to them, but also viewed the site as a way to forge more meaningful relationships with each other. Thus to me, as important as IMR has been to me in introducing me to the ideas of individuals with diverse research interests around the world, it has been equally important in helping me cultivate deeper interpersonal relationships with librarians, filmmakers, scholars, and graduate students at my own university. In short, my experiences working on IMR indicate how utopian visions of large-scale digital interaction are fueled by the pragmatic efforts of smaller communities rooted in specific spaces and places. Further, these efforts must consistently be nurtured and supported, both institutionally and socially.
Since Avi decided not to channel the antithesis of Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams (1989), I will! With the prompt of "How do we build/maintain digital cohorts and academic communities?" (or I'll rephrase it as, "how to build a community of dreams?"), I can't help but respond in a practical way.
It is extremely difficult to develop digital community without first bringing together people through an event. Most of the digital communities I've seen flourish start with a group of people who came together for some scheduled event like a conference, workshop, or webinar. The events help the potential digital community to both identify individuals as well as exchange digital contact information. For example, CyberSalon, the Google Group primarily made up of faculty who teach with technology in the Maricopa Community College District, started from monthly socials; now some people are only active on the listserve (especially those who do not live in Phoenix) and others are active in both the digital and real-world spaces.
However, identifying a potential community, and swapping contact information, is not enough. For the community to actually grow and thrive, participants must be active in the new "space" after the original event. And since everyone is always already busy, the new community must be providing something that makes it worth the member's time. This next spring, one of my classes and I will be work on this digital community membership and activity challenge while developing the "ODU Learns" social media plan for Old Dominion University's libraries, Learning Commons, and Student Success Center. The various academic learning services want to develop digital community to support ODU student learning. For example, the Learning Commons staff can regularly post pictures of students studying and working in the Learning Commons on the ODU Learns Facebook page. The learning commons provides something the students "want," and students join the ODU Learns Facebook page community. Once students are a member of that digital community, the students will be more likely to find, and hopefully to comment upon, the academic information the ODU staff will also be posting in the digital space.
Presentation poster about CyberSalon; larger image available to view on Flickr.
Sometimes I feel like I'm an expert in how not to build digital scholarly communities. Or, at least, I seem to have been beating my head against this virtual wall for longer than most.In the beginning, I had grand aspirations for Screen-L and ScreenSite—founded in 1991 and 1994, respectively. I thought they would open new forms of academic dialogue in film and TV studies. My vision was that networked communication would connect scholars and students across great distances and do so instantaneously. There would be in-depth conversations about media theory and history, with no page limits or stuffy journal review process to constrain us!
The reality has been much more modest. As the years have gone by Screen-L has evolved into a place to post academic announcements rather than a forum for exchanging ideas. And ScreenSite's most recent incarnation is not much more than a link farm.
For those of us who have founded resources for media studies, the first challenge has been how to lure users to online creations that are new and different, and maybe a bit strange. And the second challenge has been how to motivate interaction among the participants. For a true online community is one where users share with each other.
My current thinking is that standalone online scholarly resources are doomed. Rather, we need to develop innovative ways of hooking into successful social media—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Wikipedia, and whatever the Next Big Thing might be. Integrative, interactive intertextuality is the future.
When we came up with the inaugural question to our MediaCommons Front Page survey on topics near-and-dear to the digital humanities I thought to myself “this one’s a no-brainer.” Indeed, I was so confident that I knew how to approach the question that I volunteered to go first. It’s not that I ever thought that the answers to how to build digital communities and cohorts were simple or straightforward, but I did feel strongly that my experiences co-creating projects like Flow, In Media Res and MediaCommons had prepared me to offer sage (or trite) insights like “Kevin Costner lied! They don’t just come because you built it” or “check your egos at the door! Digital communities work best when networked conversations eclipse cults of personality.”
But then pesky word placement did me in. Is the question: “how do we create digital scholarly communities and cohorts” or is it “how do we create digital communities and scholarly cohorts”? This is more than mere semantic chicanery. The first (naively) conflates two very different groupings under the banner of “the scholar,” while the second (again naively) distinguishes between a virtual community much broader than just scholars and a self-contained peer group made up exclusively of scholars.
The trouble is that I’ve always wanted membership in both. I’ve wanted to generate conversations both inclusive and exclusive; to find peers that I never knew existed and to exchange ideas with folks that would never once consider themselves “peers,” but nonetheless cross paths at the same digital hub. Ultimately, the answer hinges on how we define “community,” “cohort,” “peer.” We are at an interesting crossroads where peer boundaries are becoming porous yet for many of us the scholarly mantle remains an important mark of distinction. How do we participate in digital communities while retaining our affiliations with scholarly cohorts?
This month, MediaCommons takes on the question: How do we build digital cohorts and academic communities?
In The Wealth of Networks, Yochai Benkler argues that with today’s cheap access to computers and internet, “The removal of physical constraints on effective information production has made human creativity and the economics of information itself the core structuring facts in the new networked information economy” (4). The digital age is supposed to help us connect across distances to do things not possible before. As more of the work we do happens online and more universities offer online admittance, the creation and use of digital networks and technologies becomes increasingly more important. Yet these communities do not build themselves and even spontaneous communities require existing structures.
There is a great deal of theory on how networks and communities work. However, it’s always beneficial to see that theory in application. For the next four weeks MediaCommons has asked experts, scholars, teachers, and students to weigh in on the question of digital academic communities. Daily we will post short responses to the question of how these communities are cultivated, how we cross over into other communities, how graduate students in online and hybrid programs create community, and how we evaluate the successes and failures of these communities.
Many in our MediaCommons community have worked in digital cohorts and academic communities and we invite you to join our conversation through commenting and sharing links on the site and through social media. Our intention is that these short posts turn into much larger discussions with your help and insight. At the end of the month we hope to aggregate these into a larger document for use after the project is completed. To keep up with these daily postings, please like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter