Thought-Chain on Learning to Code, Credentialism, and Higher Education

We’re deep into our “Learn to Code” module in Applied Digital Studies. The students have all chosen a language (HTML/CSS, Python, JavaScript are the top choices), and chosen a platform (Codecademy is the big winner). For the next two weeks, their task is to regularly and systematically “learn to code” using the platform of their choice and then provide a critical reflection thereafter on the experience.

As I said in my last post, I want them to be critically aware of the narrative and methodologies informing and underpinning this whole “learn to code” ethos. Today, in class, we discussed Why I Am Not A Maker and Decoding “Everyone Should Learn to Code” (linked here to the version with annotations). We had a good discussion around gender in particular but also issues of race and class. Students had a particularly strong reaction to not being a maker, which lead to discussion not only of gendered work, but also what we consider making? Is folk art making? Sewing? Work created in mobile environments? All of these various forms of making carry racialized and gendered markers that then exclude them from the context of what a “true” maker does. As someone who has strong thoughts about affective labor and support roles, this was a great discussion.

(Not to mention what “Designed in California” means on all the Apple products.)

Simultaneously, I’m reading Tressie McMillan Cottom’s book Lower Ed (which is awesome and you should get it and read it right now). This intersected well with decoding the learn to code narrative. What are these new “credentials” that we are being asked to earn? Is “learn to code” the newest form of credentialism that has led to the rapid growth of Lower Ed (read the book)? I made a flip comment to the students, that actually, this was pressure *they* were facing, but that I was (currently) immune.

Except, I quickly interjected, I’m not. I had to “retrain” using a bootstrap DIY approach to move into ed-tech and faculty development. It wasn’t a conscious choice at first with the goal of changing careers (student learning FTW!), but that’s what it ultimately turned into. I taught myself (with the support of my larger social media network) or rather transformed myself into what I am now (Instructional Technology Specialist) who happens to get to teach Digital Studies. I shifted because I had to; the job market for PhDs in Comparative Literature was virtually non-existent (or, rather, good, stable jobs with benefits that didn’t treat me like an 18-graduate-credit-hour bag of meat, didn’t exist; I could have been an adjunct until the day I died).

This isn’t credentialism. But what is is the proliferations of degrees that now exist to “train” people to do the work I am currently doing. I was also just on a hiring committee for a new Digital Studies faculty member. The number of graduate degrees and degree specializations that now exist is pretty impressive considering jobs like the one we’re hiring for didn’t really exist 10 years ago when I graduate with my PhD (we had a MA with a concentration in Humanities Computing that was just getting off the ground). In ten or fifteen years, we have entire graduate programs, graduating students for jobs that didn’t even exist yet.

Communication and Digital Studies is a relatively new degree program here, and it is immensely popular, which is why we are able to hire a tenure-track person for the job. A job I wouldn’t come close to qualifying for because I lack the right credentials. It’s not a complaint, but rather a startling observation about the ability of higher education to actually respond to the demands of the workforce. It’s not all of higher education, but there are places where ver real change is happening in no small part because of the demands of the so-called marketplace.

Circling back to Lower Ed, I can’t help but see what is being described playing out in a lot of ways in higher education, while simultaneously, those arguing for more private, for-profit institutions say they can do better what we (supposedly) can’t: pivot and evolve, particularly given the demands of the workforce. But we have. And we are. We aren’t good at serving non-traditional students, lower-class students, students of color, etc, etc, etc. But. But.

We are not immune to the credentialism pressures. But also have found ways to respond and shift and change and evolve.

And we are in the same boat. I knew that already, and have known that for a while, but it was driven home, again, in my class yesterday.

Challenging the Narrative of “Learn to Code”

In DGST 395, we’re dabbling in coding. I wrote about the experience taking the course and “learning to code” last semester, and this semester, I decided to take a different approach. While we’re going to spend a few weeks on Nick Montfort’s book, I want the students to think critically about the rhetoric and strategies around the “learn to code” narrative that currently dominates parts of our cultural narrative.

Are the approaches effective? What are the implicit and explicit messages being sent by these initiatives/platforms/techniques? How do they work to erase other narratives?

I started by having the students brainstorm “places” where they could learn to code on the Internet. They didn’t have any trouble finding a long list of places online where they could learn to code (including books that could be taken out of our own library). They noted how much of the rhetoric is about how easy and fun learning to code can be.

And then I pushed them.

Well, what message does that implicitly send?

Could it mean that if it is easy and fun (and FREE!), then you should be doing it and if you’re not doing it then you don’t have any right to complain about your lack of professional/economic success or about the lack of diversity in tech?

I may have been a bit heavy-handed. But I wanted the students to think carefully about these efforts, about the narrative, about the messages we’re receiving.

We’ve started playing around a little bit, but next week, they’re going to “learn to code” on their own using one of the myriad of platforms and approaches they found. At the end of two weeks, they’ll be sharing they’re critiques. But I wanted to give them more grounding in various critiques than my slightly hyperbolic one.

I started with who I know best. Audrey Watters didn’t disappoint, with Decoding “Everyone Should Learn to Code”. I moved onto the next usual suspect, Model View Culture (RIP) who had a number of excellent articles tagged “Learn to Code.” I also found a piece from Mother Jones examining the phenomenon.

I took to my social media circles next and was gifted with a number of great resources:

I’d welcome any other suggestions people have as resources, particularly if they are platform-specific. Thanks!


This semester, I’m teaching DGST 395: Applied Digital Studies. It’s an upper-division required course for Communication and Digital Studies majors. It’s the first time I’ve ever taught this course, and the first time in a long time that I’ve been able to teach an upper-division course of any kind.

Given what’s been going on over the past few months, this course (and the other course I teach, DGST 101) have taken on an increased urgency. I’m working in an environment where the students are increasingly afraid and feeling unmoored. I can’t say that I don’t also share those feelings. I want to give them something to hold on to, to work in and work towards, to have them feeling empowered and informed.

But I also know that I need to push them and to challenge them. I have written before how I purposefully assign Afrofuturist works in my classes and theme them around themes like erasure, silences, and gaps, to get them to pay attention, to watch, to listen, to dig, to work at unlearning the loud, dominant narratives they have internalized.

I want to give them space and the tools and the knowledge to speak up, speak out, act, grow, and become good, if not great, citizens.

This semester, I assigned Binti, by . It is a short book, a novella, and a fast-paced read. It is a testament to Okorafor’s skills as a writer that she can build a world, multiple worlds in fact, in such a compact narrative. From publisher’s summary of the book:

Her name is Binti, and she is the first of the Himba people ever to be offered a place at Oomza University, the finest institution of higher learning in the galaxy. But to accept the offer will mean giving up her place in her family to travel between the stars among strangers who do not share her ways or respect her customs.

Knowledge comes at a cost, one that Binti is willing to pay, but her journey will not be easy. The world she seeks to enter has long warred with the Meduse, an alien race that has become the stuff of nightmares. Oomza University has wronged the Meduse, and Binti’s stellar travel will bring her within their deadly reach. If Binti hopes to survive the legacy of a war not of her making, she will need both the the gifts of her people and the wisdom enshrined within the University, itself – but first she has to make it there, alive.

I’ll put it bluntly: it is a girl with dark skin and dreads trying to make her way to one of the most prestigious universities in the universe. She is a genius, already a master builder of technology, and chooses to defy her family and cultural traditions to attend the university. She also must deal with the prejudices and stereotypes against her people specifically, and then humans more broadly.

This short, powerful book was the jumping off point in discussion erasure. It’s impossible to really discuss that theme as it appears and reappears in the novel without spoilers. Go, read it, read the sequel that just came out, and think about those things that are erased, elided, and forgotten.

Without spoiling too much, there is much to be said about naming a war-like alien race an allusion to a Greek mythological figure. I was proud of my students’ thoughtful discussions of the book and its themes, even if a) this isn’t a literature course and b) they weren’t that familiar with science fiction tropes, let alone Afrofuturism.

I then invited them to look for their own examples of erasure through/with technology. I started them with a number of examples taken from Model View Culture, as a way to start thinking about the erasure of race, gender, sexuality, disability, etc either through or with technology.

I was amazed, as always, with what they came up with. Beyond what they had already read about and the various iterations of those erasures, students found examples of erasure of Veterans, erasure of knowledge, erasure of language and culture, as well as various problems of representation.

We talked about tokenism, about preservation, about institutions and systems versus individual actors. They shared their own experiences of erasure, as well as they strongly-felt reactions to it. We talked about how erasure and misrepresentation wasn’t invented in the 21st Century, but how technology has worked to both to exacerbate as well as confront and counter these erasures.

There is another space and place to talk about my own erasures, but I really appreciated this exercise in being able to share various incarnations of erasure, and hopefully helping the students becoming more aware of what’s missing, and more critical of why.

One Last Post…

“I think I do overshare,” Fisher says. “It’s my way of trying to understand myself. … It creates community when you talk about private things.”

I wasn’t going to write another post this year. I thought I was done writing about 2016, and that I would start fresh in 2017, writing about going (once again) to the MLA conference. But then George Michael died. And then Carrie Fisher died.

And I read this.

I didn’t think the thoughts and feeling I had about the death of these two celebrities would amount to more than a couple of tweets. But the more I read and the more I thought about it and the more I allowed myself to feel, not just sad, but overwhelmed by the variety of feelings I was experiencing, especially as I read and relived the pieces of pop culture art they had produced, and how it shaped and continues to shape me, especially this year.

My love of Star Wars is well-known. But I think the loss of Princess Leia hit my daughter much harder. She, who was embarrassed when she was showed up at ballet when she was five or six, dressed at Princess Leia, while all the other girls were Disney Princesses, but who stood up anyway, and declared herself a self-rescuing princess. Who recognized right away that she was the one who saved the day when we first watched the movies.

No, what I am most mourning is Carrie Fisher, the witty, wonderful, articulate, doesn’t-give-any-fucks, writer. Her press tour last year for The Force Awakens was a re-discovery for me. I saw this interview and noted as I shared it on social media that I wanted to be Carrie Fisher when I grow up. She was open and honest and slapped down any criticism about aging or her weight. She also was a visible and honest advocate for mental health issues.

I needed someone this year who could show me that I could be myself – flawed, older, fatter, louder, over-sharer, struggling with mental health issues – and still thrive, and it was Carrie Fisher. I want to be Carrie Fisher when I grow up. So while Princess-cum-General Leia is the hero we need in 2016, Carrie Fisher is the hero I needed.

[George Michael] never, for one second, had street credibility, but he had something better: The outrageous confidence to always pretend like he did, in victory and defeat alike. They don’t make ’em like him anymore. They never did. He made — and remade, and undid, and reinvented, and for longer than anyone could’ve guessed survived — himself. – George Michael’s Outrageous Confidence

One of my first cassettes that I listened to until it wore out on my brand-new yellow Sony Walkman, the kind every swimmer had to have because it was waterproof, was Faith, by George Michael. I was 11 when I got that Walkman for Christmas, and the album had probably been out for about a year. I had seen all the videos. I already knew all the singles. And I loved the entire album once I was able to buy it.

The discovery of the album coincided with a phase of my own…self-discovery. Madonna had arrived in my life a bit too early, but Faith was a revelation to me as an 11-12 year old. It was the biggest album of the year, and I could quietly and privately, through my wonderful new piece of technology, listen to it as many times as I wanted to, just about whenever I wanted to.

When Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 came out in 1990, I pounced on it. It was a complete departure from Faith, but it was, again, the perfect album for my 13yo self. Freedom was a perfect song for me, at that time, as an emancipatory anthem for a girl trying to figure out who she was, but understanding it wasn’t what people thought she should be. This album was about as rebellious as I was willing to go, but it was just rebellious enough that I thought, maybe I’ll get through this.

The rest of the album is starkly sad, nakedly emotional, and fantastically poignant. Once again, I found myself alone with my Walkman, listening to the beautiful songs, allowing myself to feel profound sadness and longing, at that time, indeterminate and unfocused, but no less real and powerful. Now, now that I’m older, listening to the album completely wrecks me.

There is more to say.  I could break down each song on that album, line by line, in terms of what it meant, and now what it means to me. At the end of the day, that’s why Listen Without Prejudice is a more lasting album for me than Faith, but both had an important and lasting impact on me when I was growing up.

We’re born, we learn to be afraid, learn to be looked at, learn to be quiet, we bleed, we give birth, we age, we’re forgotten, and then we die. So much of what we encounter—marriage, raising children—is meant to hold us painfully still. Those who don’t offer gratitude for this stillness or choose to take control of their own movement…are punished, sometimes quietly and other times deafeningly…They’re marked as Bad, as Nasty, and maybe even Wrong or Unnatural. – Becoming Ugly

I read this post, Becoming Ugly, and suddenly the impact of these two death snapped into sharp focus for me. These were people who I admired at one point or another who were transgressive against the norms and didn’t give a fuck. At all. There were no fucks to give from either of them. At least not publicly. They stayed true to themselves, however imperfectly, and they inspired me, however incompletely.

I wrote, a long time ago, it seems now, a series of posts called Bad Female Academic. While it might now have meant it at the time, I wanted it to be a tentative, imperfect, incomplete attempt to be one of those Bad, Nasty, Wrong women I had long admired and admittedly feared.

I wrote one, specifically, called I Want To Be Bad, which prompted this response in the comments: “If you have to think and write about it this much, then you’ll never truly be “bad.”” Admittedly, painfully, that person was right. Too much of who I am is in direct conflict with being “bad” or “nasty.” But too much of what has happened to me has closed off “good” to me as a possibility.

Or at least, not “unbroken” or “unbound” or maybe even “pure.”

Both Carrie Fisher and George Michael, for me, represent the potential and possibility of being all of these things, at once, and at peace with those conflicting and conflated identities. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to give zero fucks, or be in a state of chill (or as that same commentator noted on how I’ll never truly be bad, “Bad boys and bad girls operate on an instinctual zen level of badness.”).

No, scratch that. I know for a fact that I’ll never achieve this “instinctual level of badness” (holy shit do I ever not miss my trolls over at IHE). But, what Carrie Fisher and George Michael achieved was a level of acceptance that I am still working on. They wore their, if not “badness” then at least their transgressions, the ones that they couldn’t help, the ones they couldn’t be bothered to hide anymore, on their sleeves, more proudly than I have yet to master.

That George Michael died, who had much to do with my sexual awakening, while at the same time dealing with a sexual assault that had happened a few short years earlier, and Carrie Fisher, who talks so openly about mental health issues in a year that I wrestled relatively openly with mine…So much that I haven’t even started to write about, so much that I have felt ashamed about for too long about myself.

Both of them embraced who they were, unapologetically. Maybe this year, 2017, is the year I finally figure out a way to embrace who I am, unapologetically. I might never be bad, but it’s a rebellious act to be able to be who I am without apologizing.

Blogging my way to the MLA (2017 Edition)

I have a strange relationship with the MLA, especially now that I am in an alt-ac position that doesn’t have anything to do (not really) with my original research and PhD. But I was invited to participate in the panel Working Out Loud: Online Identity Building, Digital Networking, and Professional Development, and then in the subsequent workshop, Going Public: Tools for Developing Your Digital Identity to specifically talk about blogging and social media use. Which, of course, I accepted, if only because I was going anyway.

The panels will be taking place back to back on Friday, January 6th, from 10:15am-1:15pm. The line-up is great, and it will be a lot of (dare I say it) fun, and I expect that I’ll learn a lot from the people there, because that’s what happens.

I say I have a strange relationship with the MLA, but I also have a strange relationship now with blogging and social media, which may lead to me giving a lot of advice that would seem to be at odds with how I blog and how I use social media now (versus how I used it way back in 2010 when I got started). But, I have to remember the advice I always gave when during the webinars I used to do on this very topic: things change, you evolve, your career evolves, and so, too does your use of the various platforms, as well as what you want to use them for.

So, consider this a trip down memory lane. With annotations.

My first brush with MLA social media was for MLA 2011. I had been on social media since March 2010, and had been slowly but steadily building a voice, a following, and a presence. I saw on the #mla11 hashtag a lot of discussion/debate around digital humanities. I followed a lot of digital humanists on Twitter (as they made up a not-insignificant proportion of academics on Twitter), and so I shared a post, in response, from the perspective of a contingent faculty member at an underfunded state institution, On the Outside Looking in on the Digital Humanities.

Now, the post itself had been written with the intention of being published with University of Venus, a group blog I was also contributing to. But because of the timeliness of what was going on, I threw it up on my own blog, and tweeted it out with the #mla11 hashtag. My traffic spiked, and for a short time, it became one of my most-read blog posts on the site.

I wrote a reflection on participating in #mla11 virtually, which caught the attention of the editors at ProfHacker, who featured my thoughts in larger post reflecting on social media use and the MLA conference. To be perfectly honest, I completely forgot that this had happened, but it helped my visibility tremendously. I had been on their radar, having been featured in their Teaching Carnival two months prior, in November and December. Considering I had only just returned to the classroom that fall, it felt pretty good to have my work and my words shared as a part of larger conversations.

I also wouldn’t even have allowed myself to imagine that I’d be writing for them one day.

The next year, I participated virtually yet again in #mla12. Now, though, my blog was living at Inside Higher Ed. When University of Venus moved to Inside Higher Ed, I was encouraged to move my blog along, too. Which I did. My audience grew, and so did my profile. I was even more committed to writing about job market issues, as well as contingent faculty issues, finding myself increasingly out of place in academia.

My new gig at Inside Higher Ed provided me with financial support to travel to one conference per year, and I decided that I wanted to use that support to participate, “in real life,” at #mla13. I had a panel accepted, Building Bridges within Digital Humanities, which was standing-room only (you can find a version of my talk here). I also presented on a continually theoretical DH project I wanted to develop around Dany Laferrière’s work, but alas, a 5/4 contingent course load and zero institutional support isn’t conducive to building DH projects. I reflected, as always in my blog, particularly focusing on meeting so many people I had come to know well via our blogs and twitter presence.

It was also the #occupyMLA conference, or at least the conference where it was revealed that it was an elaborate piece of netprov that I had unwittingly participated in. I wasn’t ready to talk about what happened, and a year later, on another panel at #mla14, I tentatively addressed what had happened, in my talk, On Using Digital Words, Creating Communities (see a full recap of the panel here). It’s a post that also examines one of my non-blogging experiences, back in 2009, when the MLA was still in December, and I was just about to get online. It’s a post that traces my involvement in the adjunct movement, how I found community there.

Ironically, it was also the conference where I ran afoul on social media in the eyes of some because of a frustrated tweet (I can’t find my original at the moment), calling out the lack of interest and attendance at a panel on part-time faculty issues. My profile at the conference had already been raised, being named one of the Four Scholars to Watch at MLA 14 by Chronicle Vitae (fun fact – only one of us is in a traditional academic tenure-track job now). Now, because of that one frustrated tweet, I was being attacked on social media. And, a new community emerged and supported me. We were legion; we were not alone.

At this point, I had been elected to the part-time faculty group, now contingent faculty group, and was finally ready to share an experience I had way back at the MLA when I was interviewing for jobs in 2007. It tied back to my activism and commitment to adjunct issues, before I even knew I cared about them. It was a hard and important piece to write.

And so an even funnier thing happened later that year: I was tapped to run for the eventual position of MLA President. I happened to have a PhD in Comparative Literature, where the majority of my published scholarship was on French-Canadian writers (and I had taught a French class), thus qualifying me to run that year as a “language” person. Needless to say, I didn’t win, but if I could for a moment, inspire someone who might not ever consider running to throw their hat in the ring, then it was successful.

I also suddenly found myself in an alt-ac position. So, going to the MLA was a weird and bittersweet in a lot of ways that year.

I changed jobs (again), making it difficult to attend #MLA16. I also stopped blogging at Inside Higher Ed, making it more financially challenging to attend as well. So I skipped. I went to New York City to celebrate my long-suffering son’s birthday. I barely paid attention on Twitter.

This year (ok, MLA2017), I’m back. I can drive to the MLA and come home in time for my son’s first-ever birthday party. I have been invited speak about blogging and social media and contingent faculty issues, as a mentor. A mentor. An expert. An invited expert.

I went to my first MLA almost 10 years ago, just another graduate student wearing a cheap suit trying to get a job. The only person I knew who was there was my supervisor. I never would have imagined that almost ten years later, I would be going back at the invitation of the MLA, to speak about social media, to talk about mentoring contingent faculty. I go back to the MLA with a calendar full of coffee and meal and drink and just-come-hang-out invitations. I go back to the MLA, having revisited those posts and those hashtags, in awe of how much I managed to accomplish, to do, to say, to see, to meet. Not that I have done much, but I have achieved more than I ever could have imagined ten years ago.

I hope to see some of you there. If not, I’ll be live-tweeting the whole thing.

Dear 2016

I’ve written this post, variations and fragments, bit and pieces, stops and starts, in my head over the past week. And when I open up the text box, it all melts away. The words refuse to be made concrete. The thoughts resist being articulated. My whole self shuts down at the thought of making sense of anything that happened this year. But my mind keeps trying, keeping me awake, keeping my heart racing, keeping me from focusing on anything else.

I sent Christmas cards this year for the first time ever. I used to give them out to friends at the holidays, irreverent jokey ones, that were just a simple (and cheap) way to mark the occasion. Being an academic was never particularly conducive to actually mailing cards: moving, poor organization, end-of-semester rushes…And besides, there was social media. Who needed a letter recapping the year? Look at my Twitter/facebook timelines.

But this year, this year I needed to reach out, I needed to write out addresses, sign my old, long-abandoned signature (Love, Lee) which I used to use to close out all of my emails (to friends), all my notes, all my letters. I needed to tell people in my own, imperfect way, that I was thinking of them, that I was missing them, that…

That I needed them, still, in my life.

Again, my words failed me in writing the cards. They are largely impersonal, largely general, largely not enough. I know that the simple act of sending a card isn’t enough, but I thought that maybe the gesture would help. This summer, I wrote (and mailed!) a long, heartfelt letter to an old friend I had lost touch with and missed desperately. It was, as most things I do, admittedly too much. And it was met with silence. I couldn’t risk that kind of vulnerability again, not at this point in the holidays, this point in the semester. And if I cannot be too much, then I am not enough. So I settled for not enough.

All I could come up with for most of the cards (which were perfect for me to send) was to tell people I missed them or was thinking of them and for 2017…to be better.

Maybe I should have instead wished for 2017 to be simpler, because this year has not been simple. 2016 has been a betrayal, in a lot of ways. Promises were not met or kept, lies, so many lies were told, what I thought I knew, what I thought I believed, if not evaporated, then became so intangible as to no longer had enough substance to provide any sort of anchoring.

Simple does not mean better; things can be simply awful or simply horrible or simply evil, but the simplicity is easier to handle, because it’s not untangling a mess of obscuring vines. But it is not a betrayal. It is what has been advertised. It is clear. It is simple.

Does it make it easier?

I do sincerely hope that 2017 is better. And for many of my friends, people I love, who had horrible things happen to them this year, I hope it is better, because easier may be out of reach. Collectively, we had many betrayals this year, losing those heroes and touchstones we looked to, making those personal tragedies seem amplified. And it is a mark of getting older, that friends’ parents’ health take turns for the worse, but when their child passes from the world, or gets so sick that you are rendered helpless… Others have lost a great deal over the year, if not everything. I have watched, largely helplessly, people I love suffer and at once endure this year.

My own personal tragedies were minor but also deeply private and personal; if anything, my year was marked by major public positive milestones (a book! a full year at the new job! professional recognition! started coaching swimming again!). But in those moments of personal, private, unseen betrayals and hurts, there were more friends than I ever imagined who reached out to me to tell me they loved me, and that they were there for me. I made more friends this year than I have in a long time. It is not a small victory, it is not a meaningless victory, to meet kindness.

I don’t know how else to write this post than to say goodbye to posts that remained unfinished this year. They represent the various states of unfinished that I experience this year. Maybe someone else can finish my thoughts for me. Maybe I just need to let go.

The first one was going to be titled “The Uncoolest Person in Indie Ed-Tech.” It is strange to start the year getting a shout-out in Audrey Watter’s invaluable Top Ed-Tech Trends posts (read this year’s posts right now; I won’t be offended). It’s imperfect, and there was going to be a forced comparison of myself to Jared from Silicon Valley, and I was still struggling with weaving in the series of articles dealing with how maintainers matter more than innovators.

Here it is:

In September, UMW announced Groom’s replacement: Jesse Stommel who left the University of Wisconsin Madison to become the new executive director of DTLT. (Stommel’s thoughts on “Leaving Wisconsin.”) Also joining DTLT: Lee Skallerup Bessette. With these hires, it appears that DTLT will remain a site of important, student-centered (feminist!) ed-tech innovation. – Audrey Watters, Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2015: Indie Ed-Tech

Last fall, I went to the dlrn conference which took place at Stanford (see my initial reflections here). Most people knew that I was going to be starting in less than a month at DTLT, original home of Domain of One’s Own. I knew that this was a “big deal” – I applied and accepted the job because of the work that was being done at UMW through DTLT. But once I got to the conference, it began to dawn on me just how big a deal it was.

Most informative was DTLT’s outgoing director Jim Groom and OU’s Adam Croom’s presentation on The Indie Ed-Tech Movement (full transcript of Adam’s part here). They compared the different indie punk movements to various Indie Ed-Tech movements and centers. It was a great talk. I love a good analogy and counter-narrative, and this one also provided a great framework for me going into this admittedly unfamiliar environment. It was raucous and provocative.

My talk, on the other hand, Embodied Staff: Affect, Gender, Status, and Work, was a quieter reflection, filled with images and analogies of knots and threads, frayed, dropped, bound, and untangled. Who does the care work? Who has a voice in these larger conversations? Who is allowed to be called an innovator? It was quiet, filled with more questions than answers.

The more I thought about it while I was at the conference, the more terrified I became. I wasn’t Black Flag, I was NKOTB who improved to Ben Folds. I was pop music and nerd rock. I was about to be invited to sit at the cool kids table, and I felt hopelessly ill-suited. I was the annoying younger sibling, trailing along, asking awkward questions, making awkward suggestions, and making myself just useful enough to be tolerated and then (grudgingly) accepted.

What, I thought on the plane ride home, was I getting myself into? And how, I worried, was I going to make it work?

I can’t help but notice, looking at the two presentations now, the gendered nature of our two talks, with my references to sewing and care, and Jim and Adam, comparing DTLT to Black Flag, when I put them together side-by-side. Their presentation was everything I had always wanted to be; my presentation was a reflection of who I am, the person I had long tried not to be. The person at the front of the movement, at center stage, was the one we always remembered, the one who brought about change.

Who were the people in the indie punk movement who helped get the guys on stage, from show to show, feeding them, making sure they maybe, from time to time, went to see a doctor. Maybe no one. But I doubt it. They were important, too. But history rarely has time for those who care enough to help someone else shine.

The next post was in response to swirling conversations around the role of the university and education and the liberal arts. I wanted to incorporate an image that has stuck with me over the years, Bethany Nowviskie’s Resistance in the Materials. To be titled, “Resistance in the Curriculum,” I wanted to write about how my colleagues and I resist certain twin pressures we face in our Digital Studies program to be both “practical job training” and traditional liberal arts. The resistance, then, is built into our curriculum, in how we teach the course.

I’m torn now, with how I wanted to end this post. After the election, I said a variation of the following to the students: We have done you a disservice. We sold you these courses on job readiness, or transferable skills, or maybe just that you would get to play with cool tools. Instead, we should be telling you what these courses can really do – see through the bullshit, resist the bullshit, strike back. The resistance, then, still is in the curriculum. Here it is:

In June, I co-taught a workshop on Digital Pedagogy at HILT, and I was grateful that we had a small group of participants who were all from teaching-centered institutions, and also in various stages of developing a program or track in Digital Humanities/Digital Studies. It fostered an environment that was devoted to co-learning and co-development on many different tracks and aspects of digital pedagogy.

One of the first activities we did was to define what digital pedagogy meant to us. You can see all of the definitions (along with the whole week-long course) on our course Google Doc, but the most provocative definition of the concept was:

Using technology as a catalyst to transform our teaching towards being process oriented, to think critically about tech, and doesn’t emphasize teaching ‘transferable skills.’

This, to me, is one of the core tensions in the intersection of digital pedagogy with digital humanities/digital studies – these are courses and programs that are largely built upon and promoted with the idea of helping students attain these “transferable skills” around technology and technological proficiency. Particularly in the battle over the relevance/irrelevance of a Liberal Arts degree, these kinds of programs (the one that I am a part of included) are framed as a response, criticized as a capitulation at best, a violation of the values of the Liberal Arts at worst.

But this is an oversimplification, of course, as most of these debates are, particularly as they play out in the media, providing a seemingly endless supply of click-bait, breathlessly prophetic, anxiety-inducing pieces that proclaim your child’s future will be forever in doubt if they do or do not choose the right major/school/approach/etc. Faculty are also susceptible, fearful that their livelihood, their raison d’être, their identity, will be devalued, defunded, erased, even more than it already has been.

The joke is that the academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so low, but for parents worried about their children’s future (me) and academics worries about their futures (me, again), the stakes are real and powerful and terrifying. Resistance, for me, then, is resistance to the narrative of fear, to being reactionary, to having my pedagogy dictated by these negative impulses, to taking that fear out on my students.

I learn very little anymore unless it holds some sort of practical purpose. I’ve tried. I seek out opportunities, usually, that will force me to learn something new, which, as an adult, involves my job. Because it’s not just that it’s practical, it’s that it also has to be necessary. In other words, I don’t do much learning “for fun” or “for the sake of learning” anymore.

One of the few places where what I needed to learn intersected with a joy of learning was learning new things because of my teaching. New classes brought up new challenges, new pedagogies and technologies saw me learn new skills. It felt necessary, to me, to start doing peer-driven learning and taking a more process-oriented approach. No one forced me to do it, no one except myself.

Well, and my students.

All of this is to say that learning for learning’s sake, for the fun of it, for the joy and intrinsic value of it, is hard. The narrative I briefly allude to above is powerful. It has pervaded our culture (some would argue it is the basis for our culture). When my students are confronted with my pedagogies of resistance, they themselves resist and even rebel. This isn’t how we learn, they protest. This isn’t what we signed up for. This isn’t useful. And I’m not alone.

It didn’t come as a surprise, but it was no less disappointing, to read the latest report from the AAC&U showing that transparency and a problem-centered learning approach works to help at-risk and/or non-traditional students in post-secondary institutions persist and succeed. This, in and of itself, is a good thing. I’m all for transparency! And problem-centered learning is a good thing! However, when they defined transparency, I was a little taken aback:

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As a faculty developer, this should be applauded as a best-practice starting point for every faculty member. As a critical digital pedagogue, this represents instead of a starting point, a closing off to possibilities, serendipity, creativity, and agency. These guidelines are in particular targeted towards those students most at-risk, and I have to ask, is this the best we can do? Is this, once again, taking away opportunities from them in the name of helping them? I have done all of these things while teaching writing at my former institution, a rural comprehensive university that served the poorest area in the United States, Appalachia.

It was doing exactly what is described in that box to the students who they say will benefit the most from me doing it that lead to my resistance.

Some would argue that it is from a place of incredible privilege to write something called (Higher) Education as a Bulwark of Uselessness. It is a provocation, to be sure, and I think a useful and necessary one, and I am grateful to Luca Morini for writing it. Read it alongside the annotations as well as Maha Bali’s thoughts. Think about your discomfort with what he is arguing here. This is another form of resistance, another tension, another way of thinking about what it is that we do as educators in higher education.

And so now we get to the point in the year where, well, the election happened.

I don’t do well with anger. I never have. I learned from a very young age that anger was a destructive force. Rather, it was rage, but it came from anger, and when it was unleashed, the damage that is left in its wake…

Those were lessons learned implicitly. Explicitly, good girls didn’t get angry. Actually, good girls didn’t do anything except be as placidly agreeable as possible, ideally happily agreeable, but placidly was good, too. The times that I did allow myself to get angry, or rather, I could no longer forgive/forget/explain away whatever litany of injuries…

There are a lot of ellipses. There are a lot of spaces and places and gaps and unfinished spots, especially around anger. This is a year where I dealt with anger poorly. This is a year that I have felt angrier than I have in a long, long time. There are too many spaces where I have remained silent for good reasons and for not-so-good reasons. An unfinished post, that was supposed to say so much, but in the end, said nothing much at all. I am still “Sitting with Anger” poorly:

I smell like cigarette smoke. I catch the smell at unexpected moments throughout the day, a reminder of the night before. Wine and bourbon and homemade cheese and bread weren’t enough, so we went outside and smoked a pack of cigarettes, and I sucked down each one, faster than the last, numb, so numb. We weren’t watching any of the coverage, opting instead for beautifully-shit documentaries of chefs and their stories. I was staying off social media, as well, but my husband, who is a political scientist, was getting texts from his friends and colleagues. We knew what was happening, even if we were trying to avoid it.

He, mercifully, didn’t tell me the results when he woke up early to catch his train. “Go back to sleep,” he said. I did, and I hit snooze so many times, because I was hungover from booze and cigarettes, because I didn’t want to know, really know, what had happened. I realized that I had to get my daughter to chorus and we were going to be late, so I rushed out of bed to wake her, and also why I didn’t take a long, long, long shower.

I burst into her room, trying to wake her, to reminder her we had someplace we needed to be. And she looked at me and asked, who won? Trump won, I told her, and I watched her face fall, and then screw up into a look of both disbelief and utter disgust. What if he does all the things he said he would do? she asked. What if he takes you away? What if he takes my friends away?

The best thing, I told her, was to be kind. Kind to her friends, friends who probably have parents who voted for Trump. Be vigilant and speak up against those who are unkind to others.

I smell the cigarette smoke on me. It lingers on me like the look on my daughters face. People come through the office in various states of shock, disbelieve, and sadness. We go through the motions of work, because we can’t imagine anything else. Or, like me, the thought of being home alone was just too much to bear.

I stay silent on social media. I am afraid that anything I say will ring hollow. My daughter is afraid, but others are more afraid, and have been living with this fear for a lot longer. I am not an American citizen, but I don’t have to carry my papers with me everywhere, because everyone assumes I am American. I have to remind people repeatedly, that I can’t vote.

I stay silent because I have friends and former students, from my former life, living and teaching in one of those places that went heavily for Trump. I am not surprised by the election results because I lived where I lived for as long as I did, and have listened and heard from too much of my social media circles, who are gaslighted, harassed, and hated.

I am angry at myself for being swayed by the media’s narrative crowning Clinton before the votes were cast. I am angry that my daughter, and too many others, feel afraid. I am angry that I am too afraid to say anything on social media. I am angry

There’s a line that keeps going through my head as I thought about writing this post. It’s from Casablanca:

I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

Every time I sit down to write, to address this year in any sort of meaningful way, these words, or some variation of these words, keep ringing in my ears. I’ve seen the movie many times, and I know the context of these lines, that then Rick goes off and (presumably) takes up arms of some kind against the Nazis. It’s not lost on me. But words…words have always been my arms, my weapons, my chosen means of resistance.

But I’ve been stuck.

The best I was able to do was a few weeks ago, writing about hope, or at least finding hope. I have to keep repeating this, by Elizabeth Mackinlay:

I have learned to leave my words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs in the stuck places in between, hoping that in their marvellous incompleteness, they do the kind of work intended.

The kind of work intended. I am not even sure anymore what kind of work I intend with my words, however incomplete or stuck they are. Two people, very dear to me, two people who know my words well, independently, told me that what I did best was write what was hard. I don’t know how I did that, and I’m not sure I know now how to do it again.

Tonight is the longest night of the year. Daylight will creep back into our days, slowly, imperceptibly, especially as the temperatures dip and either the clouds move in, or the sun provides no real warmth. But there will be more of it, starting today. I tweet just about the same thing every year on this day, reminding everyone of the days once again, starting tomorrow, overtaking the night.

This year, friends found love, had babies, published books, won awards, created beautiful art, found new and wonderful careers, graduated, love and wrote fiercely, and showed incredible loyalty to one another. If 2016 was a betrayal, it is not because of the people in my life. I only hope I can come through for them, one day, when needed.

The last piece of unfinished, unpublished writing is from my journal.

…while I have let people down (and I have let so many down), I have been there for others when no one else was or could be. Being too much can be a superpower. Feeling too much can be a superpower. Some wanted me to harden, to calcify. Better to be too hard than too soft. Safer. But somehow, it didn’t happen, despite the best efforts of others. I didn’t develop the armor it was thought I needed. Instead, I got softer.

There is strength in that softness. There is suppleness and smoothness, and a potential to keep reshaping. There is room for folding and unfolding. Unravelling and mending. I choose soft as my superpower.

Dear 2016, you did not harden me. You did not tear me apart, not irrevocably, and you did not make it so that so many pieces were lost that I became something I wasn’t. I will mend. I will hold space. I will not despair. Dear 2016, you taught me who and what matters to me. I was made for these times:

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.

Dear 2017, watch out, I’m coming for you.

Assessing Non-Traditional Assignments Design Sprint

When I advocated for this Design Sprint over the summer to be a part of our Digital Liberal Arts series, I envisioned the opportunity to bring in Fine Arts faculty to describe and walk other faculty through their process of assessing the kinds of work (art) their students produce. I thought it was time to have a productive conversation around “subjectivity,” assessment, creativity, and experience/expertise. I thought (and still think) that there are untapped opportunities for faculty from a variety of disciplines to collaborate on what assessment means and how we go about doing it (and, above all, why).

But then the semester happened, and things didn’t go as planned. The design sprint ended up looking quite different.

I started by asking, what *is* a traditional assignment? And while the various disciplines represented had different assignments that had been (and in many cases, still remain) the standard, they all shared one important commonality: they were all text-based.

These traditional text-based assignments have evolved over time (thanks to word processors and other technologies, they’ve gotten much, much longer), their modality has largely remained the same. The norms themselves, have been entrenched into our disciplines, reinforced implicitly and explicitly throughout our academic training.

Which is why it never surprises me when I ask the question, who taught you how to grade an essay (or whatever traditional, discipline-specific assignment), everyone looks blankly at me and shrugs. No one ever (or, depending on the discipline, rarely) explicitly taught us how to grade and assess what we are expected to grade and assess as TAs, as adjuncts, as junior professors.

And yet, we do it, and we’ve been doing it.

We know what a good traditional text-based assignment is in our discipline is because we have been normed into recognizing it. But we rarely take the time to sit down and reflect on what those norms are. Which is what I asked the participants to do next, list the “writing norms” and the “disciplinary norms” for their traditional, text-based assignments.

For the writing, there was the usual expectation of having a purpose or argument or thesis, supported by evidence, and presented in a way that was compelling, convincing, and made sense. It involved understanding the purpose and audience, and selecting the proper language level that corresponded with those twin influences (while admitting that for much of those traditional, text-based assignments, the audience was “the professor.”).

Oh, and following directions, which basically means, follow the norms.

For the discipline, it involved citation style; proper (or at least appropriate) theoretical or methodological approaches; understanding the proper use of primary versus secondary sources; and use of tables, figures, equations, notations, etc. Each discipline represented of course, had their own answers, but this encapsulates the general standards that each disciplines defines and reinforces.

The thing is about these norms is that they are, in fact, values. And the values themselves aren’t necessarily attached to a specific modality. At least, not all of them. Listing these values gives us an opportunity to re-evaluate what we think is most valuable in any given assignments, and allows us to start building a set of criteria that we can build upon when it comes time to assessing non-traditional assignments that are becoming increasingly common, taking advantage of the technologies that are available to us.

The biggest challenge, however, is admitting that we are all largely novices at this kind of work. No one ever explicitly taught us how to grade and assess each of our traditional assignments, but we have years of experience reading and writing these kinds of assignments ourselves, through our graduate school courses, our literature reviews, our own essays for courses, our research publications, our theses and dissertations, our exams, and our own grading experiences.

Just as we don’t expect a first-year undergraduate student to produce a publishable piece of work in our disciplines, we should not expect that we are as able and as confident in our work assessing the kinds of scholarship that now exist and that our students (and colleagues) are producing. We are novices, and that is a deeply unsettling position to find ourselves in.

Or, it can be deeply freeing. It gives us to opportunity to re-examine our values as educators, our values as practitioners in our disciplines, and our values when it comes to assessment. Because our experience and our expertise doesn’t just disappear, it just needs to be reassessed and realigned.

It can also be deeply humbling to assess work that we ourselves don’t feel confident that we could reproduce or do ourselves. We can turn away from that moment, or we can choose to celebrate it, that our fields are evolving and changing and growing. We can help our students understand the standards, norms, and values that have informed our disciplines and negotiate how these can be incorporated into the new kinds of work they are doing.

But it can only happen if we have that list of values, having gone through the process of prioritizing, so that when we open those files, those submissions, our students have produced for us, we feel like we can engage in the conversation that meaningful assessment requires of us.

We also talked about metacognition and reflection, and framing of assignments, but the purpose and timing of the design sprint was really about helping faculty get through the grading that they were facing right then and there, in this moment at the end of the semester.

I also put a call out on Twitter for resources, and this is what I got, as well as ones I knew of previously:

Finding Their Place on the Web: Ed Reform by Undergrads

This is a lightly edited version of a talk I gave at MLA 14 that is still seems relevant. 

In 2014 (or rather, in 2010 when I first created this project), doing a class blog is neither cutting edge, nor particularly revolutionary for many of us. For the students I teach, however, it was, in fact, an important and empowering act. I teach at Morehead State University, in rural eastern Kentucky, in the heart of Appalachia. The majority of our students come from our “service region” which includes most of the poorest zip codes in the nation. The region itself isn’t well-served, either, by technology; affordable high-speed internet is unavailable, if students are even able to purchase computers at all. Many of my students come from failing schools where technology is used only to drill for improving test scores, and curriculum is completely taken over to achieve these goals. Many of their teachers, as well, are ill-equipped to integrate technology into the classroom. A blog, therefore, for many of my students, is a radical act.

I aim, also, to make writing relevant for my students. Authors such as David Sobel (Place-Based Education), Georgia Heard (Writing Toward Home), and Robert E. Brooke (Rural Voices) emphasize the importance of integrating place-based learning into the writing classroom. We also know that writing in a more public setting improves the writing, and gives the students increased ownership in their work. But one thing that I have also learned about my students and where they are from is that they are often spoken about and treated as a “problem” to be solved. The recent SOAR Summit on and about Eastern Kentucky reflected that attitude in many of the tweets that were generated, as well as the press surrounding it. Youth, to look at the list of participants, were invited, but it certainly didn’t feel like they were welcome to participate. They are the ones who are leaving or coming back from college with few job prospects, after all. They are also the ones who are dropping out of high school at an alarming rate.

I challenged myself to figure out how to empower my students through using digital tools in a place-based assignment that also integrated our required textbook, Reading the World: Ideas that Matter. In it, there is a section on “Education” that include readings from Paulo Freire, Seneca, Richard Feyman, John Henry Newman, and Kisautaq Leona Okakok. I began the unit by asking the students to free-write on the question: Why does high school suck? For many of my students, this was the most they had written all semester on their own. Ten minutes stretched into 15 minutes and many could have probably written for the entire class period. This opening activity grounded their thinking about education in their own experience, rural or urban, and prepared them to read seemingly unrelated readings (to their own experience) with a critical view of understanding the purpose and role of education in their lives.

We debated the role of education (creating citizens, getting a job, personal enrichment, economic driver, etc), but also discussed how we learn. Students were then challenged to research current issues in education that they were interested in exploring, sharing their results with the class. We created an informal annotated bibliography/shared resource that students could pull from for their eventual “essay” which I called an op-ed. They then moved on to specifically looking for op-eds about education and education reform, to study form and content. Finally, we moved on to the assignment which was to write their own op-ed/blog post that addressed the one issue of their choosing that they thought was the most important.

I created the blog, Ed Reform by Undergrads, which the students would contribute to.

Many of them were excited by the thought that their former teachers may in fact read their missives on their educational experiences. Students combined their own experiences with analysis of national trends to craft reforms that spoke to the specific challenges they faced or saw their friends and family face. We worked hard to balance the passion they all felt about their subject with being able to communicate effectively to their audience. We asked questions about the best resources to support their arguments and position. And my students worked together to help each other do their best work.

The blog also served another purpose; the English 200 class that produced the blog consisted of second-semester Freshmen or Sophomores, so more experienced writers. I reproduced the same assignment in my Developmental Writing class, where they used the blog posts as models, and while they weren’t expected to publish their op-eds on the blog, they were expected to comment on the blog posts. I wanted to create a sense of community between the different groups of writers, and introduce public writing to my developmental writers in a more gradual and somewhat “safer” way.

The blog itself continues to generate traffic, largely because of SEO-friendly titles that the students came up with themselves: Why Homework Sucks, Why NCLB Sucks, Why School Lunches Suck (I seemed to have opened the floodgates with my free-write question…). But it is empowering to know that middle-school and high-school students both in the region and beyond are visiting this blog as a resource to inform their own ideas and arguments about their education. This is a place where students can speak to other students, to educators, to parents, to politicians, in a way that they did not feel they could before.

The blog, as well, for me, stands as a counter-narrative to the idea of lowered expectations that my students face, that they can’t “do” this kind of work, that it’s too dangerous and damaging to them, that we need to focus on the basics in private. As my own department looks to reform the Freshman Writing sequence, this blog stands as a testament to what they can do when given the opportunity to do meaningful writing. We find ourselves in a self-defeating cycle of lowered expectations: give the students less and less creative and innovative writing, and they will do poorly, causing us to create even more simplistic and stifling writing assignments. Our students can and will read Seneca and Freire, can and will understand them, and can and will write eloquently about them if only we help them ground the work in their own realities.

Learning to Code – Why Now?


This semester, I’ve put myself in the strange position of being a student again, in my colleague Zach Whalen’s DGST 395 class, Applied Digital Studies. It’s strange for a number of reasons (for me at least), least of all is being a student in the same space as students who either a) took my DGST 101 class last semester or b) are taking my DGST 101 class immediately before 395.

I can at least say that I’ve embraced certain aspects of being a student: I’m not quite as diligent at doing my homework, and I can still participate in small group discussion derailment like a pro. But while I missed the homework post talking about what I learned while group teaching The Peripheral (what I learned: it really helps to have a PhD in Comparative Literature and more than a passing familiarity with any given genre in order to be able to teach small pieces of a novel and then talk about them), this next assignment is, I think, a must for me.

We have to each, individually, write a manifesto about why we are learning to program.

This is the entire reason, for me, for taking this course.

But of course that needs some unpacking.

We’re using Nick Montfort book Exploratory Programming for the Arts and Humanities, and he says in his introduction that I don’t need a good reason for learning to program or to code; what book that teaches a language or a musical instrument contains such justifications, he asks? (None, that’s the answer.) I read that part his introduction and the snarky student inside me cheered: THIS IS MY REASON AND NOW MY MANIFESTO IS FINISHED: BECAUSE, THAT’S WHY. THE AUTHOR SAID I DO NOT NEED ONE.

The snarky student inside me likes to talk in all-caps. Also enjoys taking the easy way out.

This is where being a student gets complicated for me – to participate in the metacognitive aspects of this class (aspects that I encourage my own students to engage in) are exercises in vulnerability. And while I know my students can read my blog, where I’ve never exactly been shy about oversharing and making myself vulnerable, it’s entirely different when the probably of them reading my work because it is directly appearing in their field of vision.

(*Waves to the students*)

Now, I shouldn’t feel this way. I constantly and continually make myself vulnerable in front of the class; I make mistakes, I admit my own shortcomings, I share the things I’m not good at, that I struggle with, and those things that make me human (like Snapchat – they keep trying and I keep not getting it). But, I’m still in front of the class. I’m not worries about losing my position of authority. And this, honestly, takes away some of the feelings of vulnerability.

All of this is really a round-about way of getting to why I want to learn how to code, in particular, right now, in Fall of 2016, as an Instructional Technology Specialist focusing on pedagogy.

Because, as Montfort points out in the Appendix of his book, it’s easier to learn anything (but particularly coding) in a group. And for me, I need the group setting as well as the structure of the class. I’ve tried to learn how to code on my own for a while, even since I started dabbling in Digital Humanities four or so years ago, and I haven’t been able to, despite all the books and all the online courses and bootcamps and apps and opportunities.

It also doesn’t help that I haven’t been able to really figure out, for myself, why I should learn to code; I don’t have a project that required it. I felt like I needed to be “legitimate” in DH (building is a big deal in DH, for better or for worse), but that feeling of legitimacy wasn’t enough to push my to learn it on my own.

Which is a long way of saying, I want to finish what I started four-plus years ago.

I also believe that having a better understanding how our “black boxes” work, especially if I’m teaching Digital Studies, is important, and learning about code, if not learning everything there is to know about coding (in one language or another), is part of my job. I’ve written before about having enough of an understanding of coding as a form of empowerment, just one I haven’t really embraced as fully as I could or should.

I also want to better understand and communicate with my colleagues in DTLT who do know and understand code. I want to be able to “think computationally”, to push myself to learn not only a new skill, but a new way of thinking. The “hook” for me, particularly with this book is the idea of creative coding – I need some more creativity in my life, professionally and otherwise.

I’m at a crossroads, and I’m in a space where I can decide what comes next. Even if coding isn’t what’s next for me, I can put a period on something from my immediate past that never got finished. And, hopefully, it can serve as a kind of palate cleanser and create space for figuring out what’s next for me.

Why do I want to learn to code? Because.

Because I played with LOGO when I was in elementary school. Because I played with LOGIC on our family’s Commodore 64. Because I watched my dad copy lines of code form a magazine to inevitably make some transcription error that caused the program not to work, and because he didn’t understand the code couldn’t tell where he made the mistake. Because I learned HTML as a Freshman in college and then gave it up when I did graduate school because “playing on the Internet” would make me appear unserious. Because it’s about damn time.

Because I’m going to have to teach it next semester.

That seems like as good a reason as any.

Faculty Development for the 21st Century and Beyond

This is a talk I gave for a job interview almost two years ago. I’m still pretty happy with it, and I thought it was time that I share it here. 

I’d like to start my talk with a question, but perhaps not the question you would expect. My question, and how I am framing this discussion today belies my background teaching writing – it is a question about audience: Who does faculty development ultimately serve? The answer would certainly appear to be obvious, as it is right there in the title: Faculty, of course! However, I would point you to the mission statements of both Chapman University and of your own IETL.

To provide personalized education of distinction that leads to inquiring, ethical and productive lives as global citizens.

To promote the value and practice of excellent teaching that facilitates student learning.

I have a deep appreciation of both those mission statements as they focus on aspects of learning. And when we talk about learning, ultimately we must also think about the student. And thus when we talk about who we, as faculty developers serve, we can never forget that the student, along with their learning experience and outcomes, are ultimately who we all serve.

This tension can be best seen in the difficulty in the development of good Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (or SoTL). It was best articulated to me by faculty developers from the University of Wisconsin System who do a week-long workshop with faculty from across the state every summer, in order to facilitate the production of SoTL work. During their presentation at the POD conference in Dallas, they stated that the hardest part for faculty was turning their “teaching problem” into a “learning question.” Faculty development must always have these intertwined constituencies under consideration when working with faculty: on the one hand, you have the faculty who are sitting in front of you, but behind them, the students that they teach.

The university is a complex ecosystem where multiple parties work in a variety of ways to fulfill the goals of the institution. Faculty development is one piece of that ecosystem, much like the classroom, the lab, the library, the cafeteria, the admissions office, and other units on campus. There is an analogy that I like to use with my students when I am teaching them, and in particular when introducing a more active, peer-drive, project-based learning approach, an approach many of them are quite unfamiliar with and uneasy about. I took it from Douglas Thomas and John Seeley Brown in their book A New Culture of Learning, and it is the image of the Petri Dish.

What are Petri dishes used for? Experiments, where elements are added together, creating a nutrient-rich environment, in order for something to grow (or fester, as I would often joke with my students). What you add will be dictated by what you want to grow. And the growth is a complex process that does not always happen the way you planned. And what grows, when either expected or unexpected, can be quite beautiful.

I also like the image of the Petri Dish because it has clear boundaries, both in terms of transparency and in terms of boundaries. Good faculty development has clear guidelines, services, and accountability, while (as always) respecting the privacy and confidentiality of faculty members who visit us, while also always being encouraged to interact and play a role in sustaining and growing the “nutrient rich” environment. We need to create these safe spaces for faculty to come and learn and grow. As your Institute is a faculty-driven initiative, I have no doubt that you have strived to create such an environment, and looking at your poster presentation from the aforementioned POD conference, I see that you have grown something really special here at Chapman. But the landscape, the environment, will always be changing and evolving; it is up to the leader of the Institute to be able to react to these changes and maintain a place and a space for productive growth.

The Petri Dish is not a perfect analogy; no analogy ever is. One can read the previous slide as another analogy of the university and all the various units, with their own environments, growing on their own. There is transparency, but there are also walls, keeping the various spaces isolated from one another. This can be danger to creating proper conditions, when we cut ourselves off from parts of campus, or parts of the mission of the university. I return to the idea of student as being an important concern in our work as faculty developers. Faculty development, and an Institute or Center for Teaching and Learning, can move beyond the Petri dish, and instead be a place to integrate into the various ecosystems of campus.

So how do we create the proper conditions? I’m going to continue my talk with a story. My academic background is in Comparative Literature, so I’m drawn to the power of a story. I’m always looking for the narrative thread, the clever turn of a phrase, many possible meanings, intertextual references, and (as you have already seen) illustrative, if imperfect, analogies. About a month ago, my seven-year-old daughter made a skirt. I will admit to not knowing how to sew, how to read a pattern, or even owning a sewing machine, but about six months ago, my daughter started to ask about learning how to sew. Rather, she started begging me to teach her. So I began to put a plan into motion to help her achieve her goal of learning how to sew.

First, was to find someone who knows how to sew, as well as procuring a proper sewing machine. I began to work my social media circles to find the best resources to get started, both for her and for myself. Thankfully, my mother (who knows how to sew) was coming to visit, and was bringing a sewing machine as a Christmas present. My mother taught my daughter how to use the machine, and my daughter, in turn, taught me. We moved on to making a skirt, watching a YouTube video about how to read, pin, and sew a pattern. The day after watching the video, we started to make the skirt.

We quickly discovered that our scissors weren’t quite sharp enough and were too big for my daughter’s hands. It would have also helped to have a ruler. But we pressed forward, with my daughter and I trading duties. She even made a mistake and had to undo her work and start all over again. In the end, the hem wasn’t quite straight, but she wore it proudly on the first day of school, because as she said, that way, everyone knew it was special and that it was mine.

So, what was the point of this story? I think it illustrates, in a microcosm, what faculty development should and will look like in the 21st century. Much of it probably won’t surprise you. It looks shockingly like good pedagogical practice. Faculty development should be focused on process, not just results. Unlike the skirt pattern, faculty development, in fact all learning, isn’t nearly as neat and formulaic. It should be collaborative, and draw on the resources that are available to us. It also needs to be responsive to the faculty, the student’s, and the collective community’s needs, strengths, and motivations. We also need to have access to a variety of tools and resources in order for faculty to have a choice and use what is most appropriate. This ties into the need for faculty development to be community-driven, a model that you have already adopted here at Chapman. It also should be varied in its development method, taking a multi-modal approach. The workshop is just one way to deliver faculty development. And because we are focused on the process, productive failures (and reflection on them) are to be encouraged.

Again, none of this is particularly surprising. There is a nascent community here at Chapman, and until I understand it better, I hesitate to suggest prescriptive solutions (although feel free to ask about specific challenges or issues you are facing or are anticipating during the subsequent discussion). But I do want to introduce a few more radical elements to create a productive and sustainable environment for your teaching and learning community here through the IETL. Those elements are vulnerability, affect, and trust. The three, to me, are intrinsically linked. We cannot teach, nor learn, without being vulnerable, in admitting that there are things that we are not expert in, and that we need help. The willingness to be vulnerable and come forward asking from help is often a result of affect, of strong feelings towards either the subject matter to be taught, or feelings towards the students themselves, often both. These feelings can lead to research-based, sound solutions to whatever the challenge might be, but there must be that feeling that things need to change, strong enough to overcome the vulnerability. Finally, there must be trust, in order for the faculty to agree to work with you and each other in order to create and sustain the change.

As individuals or as peoples, by fighting for the restoration of [our] humanity [we] will be attempting the restoration of true generosity. And this fight, because of the purpose given it, will actually constitute an act of love – Paulo Freire

I want to end with where I began. I chose both my title and slide image because of the literary imagery they evoke: Don Quixote. Both Duck Dodgers and Buzz Lightyear can be read as contemporary reinterpretations of the infamous errant knight, tilting at windmills, imagining themselves guardians of a code and tradition or mission, one that we can see is incompatible with the reality of the world they are living in. I wonder if you can see where I am going with this. One could read the contemporary faculty (at least how they are portrayed in the media and elsewhere) as being engaged in a kind of Quixotic journey, powerlessly tilting at windmills, Cervantes stand-in for technological advancement, and guardians of The Institution. Perhaps some faculty even believe this of themselves! But who would these knight-errants be without their trusty side-kicks, their Sancho Panzas, their Porky Pigs, their Woodys? And if we truly believed that being a professor has become some sort of parody, then we wouldn’t have faculty development.

But I want us to sit with this potentially uncomfortable analogy for a moment. I put it here as a serious acknowledgement that the landscape of higher education, pedagogy, and teaching and learning has changed for faculty, and quite rapidly, over the past ten years. The changes in technology, in our students, and in our institutions, have been profound and, at times, bewildering. I include myself in this characterization, having taught at the collegiate and university level for over 15 years. I was Buzz Lightyear, blindly and not a little naively barreling my way into the classroom, just as my mentors and teachers had done before me. One of the reasons I got into faculty development is because I was left on my own to navigate these changes, and while I was successful, I knew that there had been too many missed opportunities. I built a virtual community and a body of knowledge, and I want to bring that experience and expertise to help build the IETL and the faculty capacity. I want to be a part of the community here at Chapman University, and I’d like to spend the rest of the time today getting to know you and your culture here. Thank you.