On Still Being an Academic

I wrote some pretty strong words last week about putting both the alternative and academic in alt-ac.

Now I’m living with the reality of putting those words, that ethos, into practice.

It’s been a while since I’ve really found a project I’ve wanted to sink my teeth into. Or rather, it’s been a while since ideas that I’ve been playing with for years (and years) and have managed to come together in a coherent way that might actually lead to something that looks like scholarship.

Except, of course, I have no idea what that means anymore.

I’ve started a bibliography for affect and emotion in faculty development. I’ve included stuff on affect, on critical pedagogy, on ethics of care, on gendered labor, on intimacy, on feminist praxis (ok, it’s not all on the list yet; I got lost in both the stacks and in the suggested reading algorithm)…I’m slowly making my way through it and it’s left me feeling largely…frustrated? Disappointed? Sad? Discouraged?

All of the above and more?

Maybe it’s because most of what I’m reading right now is peer-reviewed work that appears in traditional journals or by traditional academic publishers. So while the author talks about affect or intimacy, its done in such a way that sucks just about all the affect or possible intimacy from the piece. The theory is there, the experience is there, the analysis is there, but…there is something missing.

I want to do scholarship differently. I want to do it with feeling.

Another issues I’m having is that in these pieces N=1.

[Stop laughing at me. No, really, stop it. I get the complaint is rich coming form me.]

The issue I’m having is not that N=1 (because awesome starting point), but that it’s also the ending point. I have no problem at all with idiosyncratic research that starts from a personal vantage point, especially when it’s acknowledged. But it’s frustrating to see it be the end of the argument.

Actually, it’s not entirely clear what the argument in a lot of these pieces actually is.

So this is challenging me, now: what is my argument, anyway? And while I don’t want to write an academic essay (or book) because of the clear limitations of the genre, I don’t know exactly what I want to write or create.

But I *do* have a space here to think out loud about what I’m reading and thinking. So, here is the really bad version.

Feeling matters. Feelings are hard work. We ignore feelings because professionalism, quest for knowledge, neutrality, etc, especially in higher education. We at once don’t want to be feminized and devalued, but also need the work to be recognized. Because this work is essential, as educators, as faculty developers. There is also intimacy necessary for learning to take place. This is also hard work, that is equally, or even more, awkward and difficult. But it is also necessary (I would argue).

So then it becomes a question of how we do this work safely, effectively? How do we reward the work? How do we meet the feelings of our students, of the faculty that we work with, while also managing our own? How do we talk about the work in a way that does remove the feeling, the affect from the explanation? How do we ensure that it is, for lack of a better word, authentic, and not commodified?

Who am I writing this for? What would the point be in writing it? It can’t just be because of a hunch, one albeit that’s been stalking me for years. But as I make my way through the literature that I can find, I keep coming back to this idea that, what I want to read doesn’t exist, not yet. And I can’t be the only one who wants to read it, who needs to read it.

So I guess that’s why.

I guess I do have a new project. Form still TBD.

Putting the Alternative Academic Back in Alt-Ac

When I left IHE and started this new “blogging” space, one of the things I wanted to get away from was the reactionary hot-takes post that had fueled my writing for so long. I was exhausted from the cycle, which the inevitable counter-reactions I would get. I also wanted a space for longer, slower posts on whatever I wanted to write about.

And I think that I’ve accomplished that.

But sometimes, you just have to get back to your roots. Sometimes, you read something and you just have to bang out a couple hundred (maybe 1000 of them, because, I’m still me) in response.


I grew up in Quebec, where *everyone* smoked. We were one of the last places to ban smoking indoors at restaurants and bars.When smoking became increasingly taboo, it was also a marker of both class and language; the québécois working classes smoked. Most of my friends in college smoked. It’s not a coincidence that the majority of my classmates were from poorer, working class families and communities from across the province.

We also love our unions. Hourly smoking breaks were sacrosanct, a win for worker rights. Every hour on the hour, everyone would go outside for their 10 minute smoking break. I didn’t smoke, but quickly learned that these were spaces where community and connections were formed. We spent most of our days in our little cubicles working away, eating lunch at our desks, but every hour, we all got to get up and hang out, 10 minutes at a time. These same unions, of course, also led the charge to ban smoking in workplaces for worker health and safety, but still preserved the right of their members to have their smoke breaks.

So when I read this piece earlier in the year, it really resonated with me. Allow me to cite a large selection of the opening paragraph:

Anti-smoking legislation is, and always has been, about social control. It is about ratcheting up worker productivity and fostering class hatred, to keep us looking for the enemy in each other instead of in those who are making a killing off cigarettes and anti-smoking campaigns alike. It legitimates the privatization of public space, limits popular assembly, and forces the working class out of political life into private isolation via the social technology of shame. It whitewashes the violence exacted on the poor by the rich to make it all seem like the worker’s own doing. It is, in short, class war by another name.

The piece, and its arguments, came back to me when I read Alt-Ac Conversations and Social Media as the New Smoking, which, I think, equates alt-ac conversations on social media to those same smoking breaks we used to all take.

To which I ask, is that a bad thing?

Look, I remember being one of the only non-smokers at work, and so feeling left out and excluded from that community. Lunch plans and after-work plans and other kinds of machinations were made during these smoke breaks.

And that’s why on social media, I work really hard to be an includer, someone who wants to build the community. Because when I was alone and stuck and out of options, I found the alt-ac community. I found the adjunct community. We found spaces outside of the academy where we could talk about those things we were told we weren’t allowed to talk about or weren’t able to talk about. Graduate programs didn’t want to hear about alt-ac paths, because those were failures. Being an adjunct means no offices, no access to shared spaces, running between campuses where forming community was impossible.

So we took to Twitter. And blogs. And alternative publishing platforms. And even “legitimate” journals. There is not just a vibrant social media community, but a growing body of scholarship and writing about “alt-ac.”

Because we are academics. The term exists because we wanted to emphasize the academic nature of our work, even if we’re not in “traditional” academic roles.

Which is also why we go to conferences.

It takes a great deal of privilege to shrug your shoulders and admit that you go to conferences because you don’t know what you’re doing. But to then assert that it’s why all of us go to conferences?

I go to conferences because I am still an academic. I go to conferences because of the community. I go to conferences because I want to learn and participate in important discussions. I go to conferences because I want to make more visible the career path I ended up on. I go to conferences because I want to collaborate.

There may not be an “alt-ac” conference, but like Audrey Watters, I want to resist disciplining something that by its very nature is transdiciplinary. I don’t want to recreate the same systems that sought to exclude me and so many others, leading many of us to seek alt-ac work in the first place.

There is also the POD Conference. And ELI. And HASTAC. And DLF (seriously, a lot of these questions and hand-wringing we’re doing have already been done by librarians and they write really smart things about it). And AAC&U. This doesn’t even include disciplinary conference, like MLA and AHA, who are increasingly including panels and sessions on alt-ac employment. There is no alt-ac conference because increasingly, they are all alt-ac conferences.

I go to conferences because I have a tremendous amount of privilege in my job.

Trying to resist recreating the same systems of reward and privilege is why I still blog, why I haven’t given up twitter, why I write for alternative publications instead of traditional peer-reviewed journals. I believe being an alt-ac demands of me that I be an alternative academic in all of its forms, from my professional title to the ways I practice being an academic. I do the work that I do because I want to provide resources and opportunities and paths for those graduate students, adjuncts, and others who do not have the same level of privilege as I do.

The academy has long shamed the use of social media, of blogs, of alternate forms of scholarship, publication, and social gathering and organizing. We are not a discipline and we have resisted being disciplined. I firmly believe that we are also important catalysts for any real and lasting change in academia moving forward.

I know exactly what I’m doing. I’m being an alternative academic.

Friendship, Intimacy, Community, Swimming, and Twitter

While #Digciz is over, I want to put this out to share. This blog post is about making and breaking friendships and the intimacy of swimming and social media, and where I call home. I swear it will all make sense at the end. I write a lot of words. They always create something more meaningful, I promise.


This post has been sitting in my draft pile, unfinished, for a couple of months. I didn’t quite know how to pull all of the disparate thoughts and stories and feelings together into something resembling a coherent piece of something that people would read. But then, #DigCiz happened. And Domains 2017 happened. And life and conversations kept happening, and people kept writing like Amy and Kate and Adam and Maha have been writing about place and home and belonging and growing up and connecting and trying to build something in this world, digital or otherwise. Something worthwhile. Something sustainable. Something good.

I am a Canadian, living in the United States. I have lived in two provinces and four states. My kids were both born in different states, but spent their formative years in another, which is a different one from where they live now. No one asks us about our immigration status. Only occasionally does my accent mark me as someone who is foreign, and even then, I could be from North Dakota.

I was also born in the West Island, a cluster of English-speaking (or Anglophone) suburbs on the western part of the island of Montreal. Montreal is a multicultural and multilingual city within the larger province of Quebec, which is almost entirely French-speaking (or Francophone). Where we lived growing up, and my mother still lives today, in the same house, is on Iroquois and Huron territories.

I grew up during a time when the very question of citizenship, belonging, and rights were constantly being debated. I was a Bill 101 baby. I witnessed the Oka Crisis through the local news and listening to my parents. I voted for the first time during the 1995 Referendum. And then I moved out west to the province at the heart of the Reform movement.

If I tell a Montrealer I’m from Montreal, they laugh, and tell me I’m not a real Montrealer. When I tell a Francophone from elsewhere in Quebec that I’m québécoise, I am told, no, I am not a real québécoise (which has their own history and problems with concepts of “pure laine“). In Alberta, I was not Canadian enough.

I grew up in a place that I was constantly being told I was not home in. It took me a long time to hear and really understand why that was. But the place where I grew up, it never really loved me back.



So I’ve been on Twitter for more than seven years. My first series of tweets weren’t much, as I was trying to get my business up off the ground. My first blog post appeared a few weeks later. I tweeted 36 times in March. I wrote seven blog posts before the month was out. In April, I tweeted 455 times and wrote 10 blog posts. I discovered education Twitter chats.

I’m burying the lead here, as I am wont to do. I have been on Twitter for SEVEN YEARS. This is the longest I have ever been anywhere in my life, save for being on the same swim team for 13 years. While I didn’t move around as a child, I did continually and constantly change social institutions; after elementary school, I went to a completely different high school than all of my friends, then on after that to a different CEGEP, then on to a university in a different language for five more years, then off to do a PhD on the other side of the country for four years, changed countries and lived in Southern California for three years, Florida for a year, Morehead for five (long) years, Lexington for a year and a half, and now Virginia for almost the same amount.

At my peak, in 2013, I was averaging 2,880 tweets PER MONTH. I outdid myself in January 2014 with 3,295 tweets. My blog was now at Inside Higher Ed, and I’m pretty sure I was at my peak productivity for that space. I was also doing a lot of freelance as well as writing for Academic Coaching and Writing, which also involved working on my academic book. I don’t even want to think about the number of words I produced in 2013. I was doing all of this on top of teaching a 5/4 course load and being a parent to two kids under the age of 6.

Dear 2013 me: calm the f down.

I was writing like my life depended on it. And in a way, it did.


I didn’t have any friends in elementary school.

There was a thing that the kids used to do to me on the playground; I would approach them to see if I could join their game. Inevitably, one of them would look at me and say, “We stamped it, no more joiners” and then stamp their foot again, just to reiterate that I was not welcome in their games.

I was a weird kid, loud and awkward and brash and…basically a smaller, even more uninhibited version of myself today. But compounding that was an unstable home life that made it so that I never wanted to invite anyone over, and when I was invited over to other people’s houses, I would more often than not lie and say I wasn’t allowed because I didn’t want to risk a confrontation. I was nervous, avoided confrontation, until I couldn’t, and I would explode in ways that made it even more difficulty to connect with people my own age.

I was round and clumsy and graceless while the popular girls all did ballet and figure skating. I was a tomboy who couldn’t keep up with the boys so couldn’t play with them either. I chewed my nails and my cuticles so my hands looked like a mess. I spent a lot of time alone as a result, and thinking, quite deeply, that something was desperately wrong with me.

When I started swimming, it was yet another way that I didn’t fit in. My hair got to be messier because of the chlorine, and the smell stuck to me, no matter how often I washed. I was told for the first time that I was ugly. But the pool, the pool became my home. The pool was the place where I felt like I might actually belong.

Long before the Internet, I was well-acquainted with theoretical and metaphorical spaces becoming like home. A real place where you could be yourself, a place that would, however imperfectly, love you back.


 

There were two things that I felt, deeply and almost unequivocally, that I could do and do well when I was growing up: swim and write. I lacked any sort of confidence or sense of self in just about every other aspect of my life, but at the pool and on the page, I was unstoppable. I found family and community through swimming; I found my voice through writing. I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote and got on the internet and early messaging platforms and wrote some more. When I stopped swimming and really got online, I found fledgling family and community there.

And then I went to grad school.

That is a loaded statement. I can talk endlessly about how grad school socialized me to believe that I couldn’t write, that the Internet was a waste of time, that my worth was entirely based on my ability to publish academic essays, get grants, and a tenure-track job…So, between 2001 and 2008, I was singularly focused on the goods and goals that graduate school and academia set forward for us all, which I achieved, and subsequently gave up and moved to the middle of nowhere.

And then I got on Twitter and started blogging. Twitter became the new space for me to find myself and be myself. I often say that I was “built for Twitter” where I could manage (and in fact enjoyed) the firehose of my timeline, but also wired to be able to interact, converse, share, amplify, and just generally tweet out a stream-of-consciousness live memoire/diary.

But most of all, I could connect with and to and through my various interests and challenges. I found a wide variety of supportive groups of people who were interested in what I had to say, who wanted to talk to me, and who (this isn’t a small thing for me) seemed to actually accept and like me for who I was. For who I was becoming. For who I am. I had a chance to rediscover, remake, try, fail, try again, explode, cry, celebrate…I found a place where I could belong and not just be myself, but actually figure out who that person was, is, and could be.

That’s belonging. It’s not about being yourself. It’s about a space where you can become yourself.


No one really liked me on my swim team either when I started out. I was still the same weird kid that I was at school, but now I also displayed a certain level of confidence, if not cockiness, when I was in the water. And despite being bullied by the other girls on the team, there was nothing that was going to stop me from being a part of the team. I just outlasted them all.

I swore, early on, that I was going to a) persist and b) thrive at my swim team. And I was going to make damn sure as many people as possible on the swim team did, too. I cheered every single teammate I had on at a meet, and insisted that others do the same. I organized team outings to movies and bowling and arcades and even just someone’s basement to watch movies.

The pool was my house. I made it into a home.

Or at least I made it into a place where people felt like they were welcome and belonged. It was my community. It was our community. There was no “stamped it, no more joiners” on our team.

One of my favorite things about swimming – the only thing that mattered was how fast you were. You trained with people of different ages and sexes, and the only thing that mattered was if you could keep up. And when you went to meets, you all went together as a team. And you get to know the people on your team, you spend so much time together traveling to meets and training long hours at all-hours of the day.

You don’t know someone until you’ve seen them at 5am every day for a season. Or when you are all broken from a practice that didn’t go well. Or when you can’t take a deep breath because your abs hurt so much from doing inclined sit-ups holding 25lbs plates on your chest. Or when you shave each other’s backs before a big meet. Or when you finally win that big meet and hug and cry. Or when you’re on the long bus ride home after the big meet that you lost.

There was an intimacy there, with that team, with that group, in that community. Our team was a smaller community within the larger community of swimmers in the West Island (we tended to band together because we all primarily spoke English while the rest of the teams at big meets primarily spoke French. We also all lifeguarded together in the summers and went to each other’s high schools). But, even if we didn’t always like each other, we knew each other in such a way that we were community and within that community, we supported each other.


When you carry around a secret, particularly one that exists at home, one that you are ashamed and scared of and broken over, intimacy becomes difficulty, if not outright impossible. You are guarding yourself and your secret, and so there are parts of you that you never share, that you dare not share, that you are work to hide. But it’s always there, just waiting and wanting to be revealed.

And so, at least for me, I hid all of myself away, plunged myself into the pool, where no one can see you cry or hear you scream, and you can’t really talk to anyone ever except in clipped stories during short snippets of rest between intervals. But you still end up finding a closeness with your teammates, a closeness that being closed off in a lot of ways from everyone else allows you to feel somewhat human.

And slowly, you find a way to let the right people in (and sometimes the wrong people) to trust with your secrets, hoping that they don’t leave (which, sometimes they did and still do), but none of you when you’re in your tweens and teens are equipped to handle, so in the end, you all do the best you can. Sometimes that was enough. Other times, it wasn’t.

And sometimes it would go horribly wrong.

Those who know us the best have the greatest capacity to also hurt us the worst. This is cliché, but when you are in a community of people like a swim team and that swim team is mistaken for family, then the wounds compound. But, you are a team and a community and remember you are human and you make up (or you don’t) and you keep swimming and cheering and crying and hurting.


I’ve lived and learned and taught in places where I was a linguistic minority, a religious minority, a racial minority, and an out and out foreigner, sometimes all at the same time. If I wasn’t ever going to belong, not really, then I was going to embrace my strengths at not-belonging.

I’ll admit that even though I didn’t belong, I still maintained a privileged status. I’m still an English-speaking white woman from Canada.

Because of this (or maybe in spite of it), I was afforded in just about every instance a great deal of hospitality. I have been welcomed, if not outright embraced. But I also always remembered that I didn’t belong, and that I was going to be a good guest, for lack of a better word. I’ve always tried to remember my liminal positionality, that I was on the edge, in the process of not-becoming. My status was never going to change.

But I could change. I could be a good guest. I could receive the welcoming with gratitude. And I could work to be deserving of such treatment.

I also understood what it meant not to trust.

I’m doing a poor job articulating what these experiences of not-belonging have had on me. On what they have meant to me. Trauma put me on high-alert, but the search for belonging, for a safe intimacy, for trying to understand where and how I might fit somewhere in the world, when it all feels like jagged edges…

Empathy. That’s what I gained. Listening. Amplifying. Protecting. Learning and learning and learning. That’s my job as an outsider who also still has a whole lot of privilege.


I dove into Twitter the way I dove into swimming.

I didn’t intend for it to become my new figurative home, but I found that it provided much of the same things swimming did for me. When I got on Twitter, no one had yet said, “stamped it, no more joiners” and instead I found pockets of welcomeness.

We shared our professional successes and failures, as well as our personal ones. We shared what we ate for lunch. We shared TV show viewings. We shared resources and research and thoughts and ideas and questions. We whispered our greatest hopes and dreams and fears. We shared vulnerabilities. We defended each other. We supported each other. We would rise up to defend, gather around to protect, lift up, lie down, hold space.

We shared secrets that finally needed to be spoken.

We were all, of course, older now, and while we experiencing things together, we found ourselves sharing previous experiences, and coming together over those shared histories, shared traumas. Suddenly, we weren’t alone as we once were. Those hurt secrets we all kept, they came rushing out, 140 characters at a time, sometimes explicitly, often implicitly. We see you, we hear you, we believe you. Words we had longed to hear when we were younger, words we still needed to hear today because the traumas don’t stop happening when we “grow up.”

It was a different intimacy, one that was beautiful to watch flourish. We all lived our life in various degrees of openness – groups, communities, networks – together. Somehow the disparate interests and my idiosyncrasies were allowed to come together in this space, through words, in a way I had never experienced.

We built something, something meaningful. I remembered the lessons. I had to pinch myself every day that I was a part of all of this, a welcomed part of it. So I kept welcoming. I kept including. I kept reaching out, and every time, I found someone, something that reached back to me. Through words, we brushed up against each other, and we stayed and talked and laughed and loved. We loved in the space, and, however imperfectly, in a lot of ways, it loved us back.


When I went away to college, I tried swimming, but the team…the team was closed off to me. Part language, part level, part exhaustion, this team wasn’t a community, but a group of swimmers who happen to all attend the same university. I wasn’t fast enough to be tolerated. But really, there was nothing there to be a real part of.

Something changed. It wasn’t swimming that had changed. The place changed. The people changed. The expectations changed. And I had changed, too. I didn’t want to be a swimmer anymore, so closely wrapped up in who I had been before, and I wanted to be another person. I changed languages. I gave up swimming. I had to answer, who was I if I wasn’t a swimmer? Who was I in this new place and space and time and language?

It really wasn’t that surprising that ultimately I studied translation, wrote about an author being shaped and re-shaped in a different language, in different cultural situations, at different historical moments. That I was interested in immigrant and migrant writers, particularly ones who wrote and re-wrote their life story over and over again.

It wasn’t until I did my PhD that I found a swim team again. It got me through one of the roughest years of my time at the school. Somehow, I could be the person I had become, in a place where I had always felt at home. I could be all the things – PhD, teacher, coach, soon-to-be-wife, teammate, friend – all at once. How do you write back in the part of yourself you never wanted to leave behind?


I have been struggling for the past 3000+ words to articulate a feel I’ve had about Twitter and blogging and social media. Here, finally, it is: lately, I’ve found Twitter to be kinda like when I went away to college and tried to keep swimming. I reach out, and not as many people reach back. The platform changed, the people changed, I changed, and somewhere, I don’t feel like I’m welcome anymore.

Welcome to the club, right?

I miss friends who aren’t there as often anymore, given how toxic, corporate, algorithmic, surveillance culture, reactionary it has become. I miss people, I miss conversations, I miss pieces of myself I don’t want to put there anymore. I miss being naive about the space, because of course it never, ever loved everyone back, and outright hated large populations.

Bonnie Stewart, a friend from Twitter, from the Internet, from the serendipity of the platforms, from the electronic words we wrote and became real for each other and to each other, one of the many, many, many I have made, has written much more extensively about this unease I’ve been feeling.

None of this is new. I’ve been sheltered from it, largely, and then started sheltering myself. Twitter and social media are addicted to outrage, feed fake news, populated by malicious bots…The list goes on.

In academia, we see the outrage cycle continue to spiral faster and more furiously than ever. I wish I was better at sociology, to make better sense of all of this, but I’m tired and wary and reeling. The platform has changed, the people have changed, the historical moment has changed, I’ve changed.

Who am I if I’m not @readywriting anymore? Where do I live? Where do I belong?


So, what, if anything, does all of this have to do with digital citizenship? Consider:

When you’re hurting, when your entire sense of self and life narrative are built around being wounded and the resulting sense of outrage, it’s far easier to block someone or avoid engaging them than it is to have those difficult conversations, especially around triggering topics. It’s more comfortable to disparage someone than actually engage them or attempt to arrive at a bridge of understanding.

Attacking others is about finding sense of power in a society, in a moment, where powerlessness is real.

How do you help people become better digital citizens when the feelings of hurt, of not-belonging, of rootlessness and powerlessness are real and infiltrate our interactions in these spaces? How do we become citizens in a place that both does and does not exist, in both a literal and a figurative sense? Online is real life, but physically unrooted, in a time where we are feeling vulnerable and placeless and hurting? In other words, where are we supposed to be good digital citizens?

How do you convince people to stay and work to make it better? Where do you go instead? How do you keep a spirit of openness alive when everything else is closing in? How do you make a better place when the place itself is set up to turn any efforts against you?

How do you convince people who historically didn’t have to work at being a “good citizen” that, yes, in fact, you do need to work at this for the collective good?

How do you build anything without trust? How do you gain trust without intimacy? How can we nurture intimacy on and with platforms built with the opposite aim?

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. I don’t even know how to answer them for myself, as I figure out what’s next. My narrative tells me I need to dive into the next pool, invest in the next community, the next no-place for home. I’m not so sure anymore.

Maybe staying in one place, as futile as it may feel, is the right answer. For now.

It’s Not Who You Know, It’s How You Help Them

I was invited to Georgetown University to give a talk on my experience with and vision for Digital Learning. You can find the slideshow at http://bit.ly/DigLearnHelp and the text, mildly edited, is below. 

Good morning. Thank you all so much for this opportunity to share my approach to and experience with digital learning. In case you’re not sure who I am, my name is Lee Skallerup Bessette, perhaps better known to some as @readywriting on Twitter. But more on that particular piece of my biography in a moment.

The title of my talk today is “It’s not who you know, it’s how you help them: Digital Learning as Human-Centered, Open, Collaborative, and Affective.” The first part of my title comes from my own take on something my grandmother used to tell me: “Lee,” she would say, “it’s not ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.’ It is rightfully, ‘it’s not who you know but how you use them.’”

Does the inspirational poster treatment help?

What I’ve learned, it’s not who you know, it’s how you help them.

I come here today not to offer solutions to problems you don’t even know you have with my visionary vision of digital learning, but instead to make the case for a shared, established perspective that builds strong stewardship in order to resist those forces that would seek to radically disrupt, and thus dismantle, what we value most.

Having said this, allow me to shamelessly pander to this particular audience by using Randy Bass and Bret Eynon’s vision for digital learning, put forward in their recent report for the AAC&U, Open and Integrative: Designing Liberal Education for the New Digital Ecosystem, as the framing device for the rest of this presentation. In it, they identify four essential elements for digital learning: Learner-Centered, Networked, Integrative, and Adaptive. It’s a “learning-first” vision, as opposed to a “technology-first” vision, something that as a long-time educator I heartily embrace and endorse. But, I have some important rejoinders to their four elements, informed by my own experiences in digital learning.

Learner-Centered/Human-Centered

My first experience with Digital Learning was when I started my Master’s in early 2000 (I don’t know if that makes me old or young). I completed my BA at the same institution where I was doing my MA, in a small program that was forward thinking if not in its pedagogy, but at least in its methodologies and subject matter. I had learned in a class during the first semester of my BA (1996) how to hand-code in HTML in the name of future employability, while the professors in our department had just received funding for an early Digital Humanities project, putting a long-standing print bibliography into a database that would be accessible online.

One of my professors, who knew about my extra-curricular efforts to put our student newspaper online and to organize the students to lobby for curricular reform of our undergraduate program, as well as my work term writing for the “intranet” publication of a government agency, approached me about how to incorporate “discussion boards” into his graduate-level classes. He wanted to “flip” the graduate seminar, so to speak, with summaries of the articles assigned for that week and questions on the works of literature shared on the board before class, with preliminary discussions and first impressions done prior to meeting. I thought it was a good idea, but had no idea how to actually make a message board, but I could, at least, help him get set up a site (we all got our own tilde sites) and get started.

Looking back, that was my first experience as an academic technologist.

The professor, who ended up as my MA supervisor, ultimately was interested in harnessing this new resource that “all the kids” were using and talking about to improve his teaching. We now see this idea as quaint, as not really innovative–the discussion board is dead, long live blogging, the twitter chat, or snapchat stories!–but it was innovative when he was doing it, in fact tremendously so, all the more because he chose to do it in a public setting (this was also pre-LMS domination), with his students’ learning experience at the forefront.

His efforts, moreover, also presumed all the students had ready and reliable access to the internet. We had brand-new computer labs in our building, available (as far as I can remember) 24 hours a day. I spent a fortune on my own computer when I started college, with residence having just been wired for what was then considered “high speed” — it wasn’t dial up. When I moved out of residence, three of us shared the bill for dial-up access (and access to my computer) in our apartment. I had no trouble completing this part of my coursework on time and with few problems (unless I got a phone call while I was trying to submit my work, losing it all because the Internet cut out and had to start again because I wasn’t smart enough to type it into a Word document first. Early Internet problems).

I remained blissfully unaware of the impact such demands may have had on some of my classmates with less resources, whether monetary or temporal. Many came from more rural and remote areas of the province, and were looking to avoid “the big city” by going there. My friends and classmates were the children of small-town teachers and nurses, factory workers, farmers, miners, fishermen (and those associated with those industries), mechanics, construction workers, small local business owners, etc. These were not the same professions that my suburban high school friends parents had: engineers, doctors, vice-presidents, executives, lawyers. Many of the other students worked part time. Many of them had child-care responsibilities. Many couldn’t afford their own computer or internet access.

Fast-forward almost ten years.

I am now teaching at a regional, rural state institution whose service area represents some of the poorest zip codes in the country. Now, the impact of the digital and economic divide is obvious, at least to me: students who can’t afford their own computer, have no internet access at home because their town is too remote, can’t afford unlimited data on their phone, which is slow and unreliable anyway. The intervening ten years have not been kind to the economy of the region and most of the students are working multiple jobs to make ends meet for themselves and their extended families, not to mention deep cuts to the university’s budget from the state, impacting the infrastructure of the institution, both digital and otherwise. To be student-centered in this environment is to make the digital optional, which is what I did in my peer-driven learning approach to teaching. The philosophy, not the technology, motivated my pedagogy, a philosophy I see reflected in your own Inclusive Pedagogy initiative.

The students, I decided, deserved better. The students, I discovered, were better. Rather, I didn’t discover it, but had my suspicions reinforced section after section, semester after semester, by the students in my courses who rose and surpassed the challenge I placed in front of them, which was to take ownership over their own learning and build something, digital or otherwise, that had meaning. The industriousness they had learned and practiced and honed their entire lives outside of the classroom were being put to use inside the classroom.

I blogged openly about my peer-driven learning experience with my students, whose work they shared in varying degrees of openness themselves. I quietly built a reputation among the students and some faculty members as someone who was trying something different and a little radical with my gen ed writing courses, courses that had, in theory, been standardized within an inch of their pedagogical lives as a requirement of accreditation. I started a faculty learning community around the approach, spoke at numerous national conferences about what I was doing, and ended up being selected to participate in the campus’ President’s Leadership Academy, the first instructor to be chosen.

And this is where being student-centered comes up against the hard reality of a system that is not human centered. As a non-tenure-track faculty member, my contributions were largely ignored, if not outrightly dismissed, while my position within the university was contingent, a fact that I was reminded of in both implicit and explicit ways. While I was being celebrated outside of the institution for my DIY pedagogical approaches and hacks to make technology accessible to both myself and my students in the classroom, I hit up against the institutional and professional limitations of receiving zero support for and recognition of my efforts.

I know that I wasn’t alone in those frustrations. The data is clear that visible minorities, women, and those with disabilities are systemically excluded from the ranks of the tenure-track, and they are denied tenure at a much higher rate. The same obstacles that “non-traditional” students face exist for the majority of teaching faculty at these institutions. Resources and support for faculty are unevenly distributed, often setting us up, if not for failure, then at least for a road that is unnecessarily more difficult.

No one should have to do it by themselves. No one should have their contributions marginalized or erased because of their job title or identity. No one should look up from their teaching to realize that their best isn’t enough for the students but that there are no more resources, personal or institutional, to do any better.

We need to be human-centered if we are to be successful in being truly student-centered.

Networked and OPEN

In 2010, I got on Twitter and started a blog. Here is a short version of this story: I would not be standing here in front of you today if not for Twitter, for my blog, for what I learned through my network, for the support that my network has given me.

When my words on my blog were nothing more than frustrations and bluster, people still read me, encouraged me, gave feedback, and (most shockingly, to me, anyway) provided me with a larger and larger platform. Ultimately, I went from a personal Blogger blog (I know, not even WordPress!) to University of Venus to InsideHigherEd to ProfHacker, with stops at Women in Higher Education, Hybrid Pedagogy, and others outlets along the way. My words have been shared, amplified, shaped, reshaped, quoted, criticized, inspired, and raised more than a little ire on and through my network.

When I decided to try peer-driven learning in my classroom, it was because I had been inspired by so many educators and pedagogues on Twitter, and I knew that I had a support network. We shared resources, we shared our successes and failures, and we emboldened ourselves to push our pedagogy in new and unexpected directions. I learned how to listen on Twitter through these and many other interactions, a skill I keep bringing back to my classroom and in my role as a faculty developer and technologist. I was able to connect directly with people like Cathy Davidson–whose book, Now You See It, set in motion my journey to peer-driven learning–and participate in a larger conversation around pedagogical and technological changes in education.

When I realized I was woefully underprepared to teach First-Year Composition, I co-founded #FYCchat. Inspired by the education chats and hashtags that were largely targeted towards K-12 educators, we decided to start one of the first twitter chats targeted at educators in higher education. I learned a tremendous amount from those weekly chats, and from the people who participated, gaining insight, knowledge, and more than a few assignment ideas. The chat, which took a hiatus when both founders moved into alt-ac positions and no longer taught First-Year Composition, has recently been revived, allowing for a new network of instructors and graduate students to learn from one another and build a learning community.

When I decided to move into faculty development, it was my network that stepped up and stepped in to mentor me, to help me transition into a new career, and find me my first job. Everything I know about faculty development and educational technology–their intersections, their implementation, their perils, and their potential–I know in no small part because of my network. I learn and keep learning from them to this day. I take that knowledge into my classroom, into my meetings, into my interactions with faculty. My network pushes me to be better.

This is the idealized version of networked learning – supportive, responsive, just-in-time, multimodal, personalized, meaningful, relevant, and above all, effective. But I didn’t create my Twitter handle and my blog and this network just appeared. It isn’t who you know, it’s how you help them. I built up my network, tapping into existing networks, bringing disparate resources, sources, and people together, over the years by continually asking myself, how can I help them? How can I add value to this network – contribute, amplify, connect, share, listen, support?

There is no network without trust. There is no learning without trust.

I earned the trust of my network. And I trusted them.

No person was too small to engage with, listen to, amplify, introduce around, connect. Virtually no idea was dismissed outright, but instead met serious engagement grounded in respect. No “crazy idea” or dream or goal or aspiration was ever met with anything except the word, “yes,” and *exclamation mark*. No outrage was illegitimate and unwarenting of careful attention and empathy … Except if they were violating the safety, respect, or space of others in my network.

I always tried to be the person I wanted to meet and be connected with in my network. And it wasn’t always and still isn’t perfect, but I own my mistakes, my missteps, my human moments, and try to learn from them, to be better.

Trust. Generosity. Transparency. Openness.

We cannot have systems of learning, digital or otherwise, without these pieces. Networks are not neutral, and can be manipulated, can become closed systems, impenetrable and hostile to “outsiders”. Openness, then, is a key criterion that must always be remembered and emphasized as we build our networks for and about learning. Openness about our own privileged positions within that network, and the work we are doing within them. Openness about the shortcomings of these networks, as well, as we confront these baked in inequalities. Openness to make the opportunities we are building available and accessible to more people, while also being open about the ways our networks cannot and will not solve every problem or serve every student. The point is not to be defeatist, but to remind ourselves again and again that the process is always iterative, and that we must keep working to maintain, to improve, and thus to sustain our work.

Integrative and Collaborative

I strived to make a difference for the students in my classroom, but very quickly realized that my efforts were always going to come up short. Every time I told my students, you will never take another class like this again, it broke my pedagogical heart a little more. I had long realized that to make a difference, you have to engage at the system level; this understanding lead to my involvement as an undergraduate student in programmatic reform, becoming Graduate Student Association President during my PhD, and working on behalf of adjunct and contingent faculty, which included unsuccessfully running for President of the Modern Languages Association.

It also led me to faculty development, where I saw the potential to really make a systematic impact in the academy. My experience in the classroom, alongside my experience with and through my network, and my writing about pedagogy specifically, but higher education more generally, helped prepare me for the challenges that I would face. However, changing your classroom practice, which challenging, is nothing compared trying to implement and scale the kind of change we want to bring to our institutions

At the University of Kentucky, I had the privilege of being a part of the e-Learning Innovation Initiative or eLII (which just so happens to be the first name of the President of the institution). It closely resembles the Initiative on Technology-Enhanced Learning here at Georgetown, but our focus was more narrow, looking to expand the number of online and hybrid courses and programs. eLII was a collaborative initiative between the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching (CELT), which is where I worked as a faculty developer, and Analytics and Technologies. We reported to the Office of the Provost, while AT reported to the CIO.

Faculty could apply to move their courses online or into a hybrid format to alleviate space and other resource concerns, or move entire programs online. The proposal of new programs, specifically graduate programs, was also encouraged. When a proposal was approved for funding and other support, a team of faculty developers, educational technologists, project managers, and analytics staff were formed to assist the faculty. We worked collaboratively with faculty and administrators on every aspect of the planning, implementation, and assessment.

The programs and courses we worked with were cross-disciplinary and encompassed every aspect of the student experience. From a general education “creativity” courses in dance and theater, which were challenging how we defined “seat” and “face-to-face” time in order to increase enrollment while maintaining a high-touch experience through a hybrid delivery, to a new online graduate program in Historic Preservation, to gateway courses in Math and Engineering, we collaboratively devised a variety of solutions to whatever obstacles we faced.

This included engaging in a number of design thinking exercises to ensure we were able to think past what we had “always done” or get over “that’s impossible” mindsets. When faculty in a program could not conceive of any way to move their program online successfully, we engaged them in an exercise called “Head, Hand, Heart” which allowed them to identify the strengths of the program, as well as identify opportunities that only exist when in an online environment.

When faculty couldn’t imagine not lecturing over powerpoint slides, we shared the appropriate research on engagement with video in online classes, and then a number of design thinking exercises and technology parades to think differently about content delivery. Among other things, this led to the purchase and building of a Lightboard studio so faculty could create a much more authentic lecture video.

Another component of eLII was a cohort model of faculty development, which started in the Spring with a three-day Innovation and Design Lab and followed up through the following academic year by monthly meetings of faculty learning communities that were formed during those three days. We also had two larger events at the conclusion of the Fall and Spring semesters, where participants would share their progress via lightning talks.

Now, that was the model. But as it often happens, the reality was much more complicated. A number of faculty couldn’t make the inaugural I+D Lab, and thus became what we called the 1.5 cohort. Rather than participate in an intensive and coordinated series of talks, workshops, design activities, and team-building exercises, leading to the creation of organic, interest-driven FLCs, this group instead attended a number of disconnected workshops and webinars throughout the academic year and were artificially placed in learning communities that made little sense beyond their availability. Their satisfaction with the program, and their progress on their initiatives were far behind those faculty who participated in the cohort model as it was intended. Instead of collaboration and community, we had individual dissent and dissatisfaction.

The operationalization of the I+D Lab specifically, and eLII more generally, was complicated because of the disparate offices who were tasked with working together to make it a success. Faculty answered to chairs and deans, while we answered to the Provost, and our colleagues in instructional technology and institutional effectiveness answered to the CIO. And we all answered to the Board of Regents, who were concerned about the resources being put into eLII in an era of decreased state support and funding. We all often had very different goals for our participation, and those goals were sometimes at cross-purposes.

When the second iteration of I+D Lab was in the planning stages, we took the feedback seriously and worked to improve the experience and effectiveness of our programming. First up, no .5 cohort – we made it clear in the application process that faculty had to be available for the three-day program, or would have to defer to the next year. Second, we had to find a way to work better, together, in offering a more integrative and active experience for the participants. We worked in more free time for the faculty to get to know one another, as well as introduce a number of “unconference” type blocks, where faculty could choose what they wanted to learn and/or discuss. The one advantage of the 1.5 cohort is that we had A LOT of workshops we could offer on short notice, developed in response to the need of that group of faculty.

But, the most important thing, for me, was making sure that those of us tasked with coordinating and then facilitating the event felt like a team working for a common goal and purpose, that everyone’s strengths were best utilized, and that everyone felt like their contribution was valued. With our director travelling internationally, another key team member taking a new job, and another undergoing major surgery, the task fell to me to make sure that I+D Lab happened. When a colleague who required a great deal of planning to deliver a workshop kept having their workshop topic changed, I worked with them to figure out how to adapt and adopt existing materials while also easing their anxiety around not having enough time to plan properly. When another colleague was being marginalized in the process and having their work overlooked, I spoke up and worked to ensure they were included and recognized, while also encouraging them to keep coming up with innovative ideas that I knew faculty would receive positively.

I knocked on doors to check in, I closed doors to listen to concerns, I connected people and made sure they were heard and understood by one another. I managed expectations and calmed panicked moments when logistical challenges inevitably arose. I won’t say the event went off without a hitch, because no event ever does, but it did go better than the previous year, and we got largely positive feedback from the faculty.

I brought all of these lessons with me to the University of Mary Washington. I was particularly excited to come to UMW because of the Domain of One’s Own initiative, a truly (and I don’t use this word lightly) innovative development, one that was on the cusp of being more fully integrated into the curriculum and student experience. The opportunity to work in a collaborative and forward-thinking unit such as the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies, in concert with the Digital Knowledge Center, a peer-tutoring service that helps the students do the digital projects we at DTLT help the faculty develop.

I’ve led a few initiatives while I have been with DTLT. I introduced the idea of the “design sprint” as a way to combine the power of design thinking activities in a more compressed timeframe, given the restrictions on teaching-intensive faculty’s time. This was a piece of our larger series of programming this past year around the Digital Liberal Arts. While each session was integrated with the larger theme of the Digital Liberal Arts, and the individual monthly themes, they weren’t integrated enough into a larger initiative to be truly successful, at least for now. They are a new and unfamiliar concept for our faculty; we know workshops don’t “work” and I wanted a more active, immediate, and relevant form of faculty development, but faculty expect the workshop model. Call it another “Cohort 1.5 lesson.”

More successfully, I coordinated the development of a series of “adaptable learning blocks” to help faculty more smoothly and successfully integrate DoOO into their classes. This isn’t the technical aspect of getting started (we have how-to documentation and the DKC for students for that), but instead helps faculty to engage their students with the deeper philosophical implications of owning one’s own domain and building their digital identity. A number of faculty are currently piloting it here at UMW and elsewhere in the community of universities doing a Domains initiative. I am looking forward to workshopping, remixing, and expanding the modules at the Domains conference this June. We are always ensuring the work we are doing here at DTLT is open and available and transparent, for the benefit of our faculty and beyond, particularly through our DTLT blog, which I also coordinate and edit.

But I am most proud of the work I just completed chairing the Working Group on Advanced Digital Fluency. Our new strategic plan at UMW calls upon the university to “Incorporate digital fluency in the curriculum, either as part of general education or by enhancing the digital content within major programs. The Teaching, Technology, and Innovation division will design a plan in AY 2016-17 to guide this conversation.” I was tasked, then with chairing the group, as well as writing the report, which I just submitted at the end of March.

Since August, a group of 12 faculty from across the disciplines, librarians, and staff have been meeting first to define what advanced digital fluency even means, and then to decide how best to integrate it into the curriculum at UMW. I can’t share too publicly what we came up with, but I will say that it is “a phased approach to fully integrating advanced digital fluency across campus.” This was not an easy task; there wasn’t even agreement initially that this was what we should be doing. But through a number of design thinking exercises around our values at UMW and how we view digital fluency, we settled on a definition and a strategy that made everyone on the committee, dare I say, happy.

This report is, in my mind, potentially the most impactful and important thing I have written in my career. The opportunity to help shape the future curricular direction of the institution, with the incorporation of skills and capacities that I value and have tried to embrace and embody as a teacher and an academic technologist, is why I moved into a “staff” position. I am also proud that I was able to achieve consensus on a difficult and charged subject; faculty are rightfully suspicious of broad curricular reform edicts, and “the digital” has long been a point of contention for faculty either lamenting “kids and their gadgets these days” or seeking to resist what they see as administrative meddling in the name of “efficiency.”

And our new UMW President cited it.

I was able to meet the members of the committee where they were, so to speak, in regards to what they knew and understood about digital fluency, and really listened to their concerns, both explicitly and implicitly stated in meetings and privately with me. I made sure that I used the strengths of others on the working group to facilitate certain discussions and activities, in order to decenter myself while also allowing members to feel like they had more ownership over the process. For example, I tapped my colleague Martha Burtis to facilitate a discussion of the various implementation models, as she had much more knowledge and experience with the institution than I had and thus could engage more meaningfully with the models. I also used my years of teaching rhetoric and composition to develop a rhetorical strategy in the report that addressed the concerns of the various working group members, while also keeping an eye on the primary audience (for the moment) of the report, the Provost and the President.

I have long understood the importance of taking an integrative approach for any pedagogical model to be effective, digital or otherwise, but the digital demands of us that we also take a collaborative approach in said integration. That collaboration cannot just be between faculty developer or academic technologist and faculty; I have also learned how to move effectively between the various levels of university necessary to effect change: the administrators, the faculty, the staff, and the students. If you don’t have strong buy-in from all four of these groups, no plan, no matter how great, will ever work.

Adaptive and Empathetic

I have taken an…unconventional approach to my education and to my career. I chose, as a native English speaker, to attend a French university in my home province during a charged political time for my BA and MA. During that time, I got online, as well as taught ESL to francophone teens in the summer (and even taught them how to create their own web pages! In English!) and TA’ed for ESL classes at the college. I then moved across the country, “out west”, to do my PhD, and then changed countries to start my career. My first job here in the States was teaching freshman composition and developmental writing as an adjunct at Cal State San Bernardino, a Hispanic-Serving Institution. I got a tenure-track position at an HBCU. And then spent time at the aforementioned regional institution serving the poorest zip codes in the country. I got back online. And then I moved into faculty development at a flagship R-1, then at a liberal arts college.

Y’all, I can *adapt*.

With each move, each change, and each new environment, I learned so much, and I carry those lessons with me wherever I go, ready to make even better adaptations than I have before given the situation that presents itself to me. As often as I say, Yes, and! To a faculty member or student, I just as often find myself saying, I don’t know, but let’s find out!

This, I know, is not the natural state for most academics, and even less so for the institutions themselves. We are built to be skeptical, to move methodically, to preserve the permanence of Knowledge and the institution. This, then, becomes one of the biggest hurdles to working with faculty and instituting large-scale, integrative change. It is why we are still struggling to admit and graduate greater numbers of non-traditional students, even as we know that this is where our future students will come from and to achieve the sustainability we need to ensure our “permanence.”

It’s not who you know, it’s how you help them.

While I was at the University of Kentucky, I got to work with a faculty member in the Law School who wanted to change the way she taught Introduction to Criminal Law. There was a classic case that law schools across the country typically used, and she wanted students to embody those various roles in the case, to understand the complexity of the law, defence, and judgement. She also wanted to ensure that students could write according to new ALA standards, so an online role-playing strategy would seem to be appropriate.

Together, the professor, her research assistant, and I developed the game The Extraordinary Saga of Brooks, Dudley, Parker and Stephens: A Substantive Criminal Law Game using the WordPress theme Ivanhoe, developed out of UVa. We worked together over the course of the semester to learn the theme, develop the pedagogical strategies, as well as support materials. Ivanhoe not only facilitated role play, but integrated a reflective and metacognitive element to the procedure; you had the space to share WHY you made the decisions you did. The game was largely a success, and the professor and her research assistant have now presented this approach at a number of conferences and published their findings.

This entire endeavor was an epic win for a number of reasons – the law school did not traditionally come to CELT for pedagogical assistance, nor were they known for their innovative approaches to teaching and learning, let alone the integration of digital tools and strategies. The school itself was more “adjacent” to the university rather than fully integrated into the larger campus, as many post-graduate schools often are. And there was resistance from her colleagues, from the administrators, and the students themselves. The professor had faced discrimination as a POC in the law school, and whatever she did was put under increased scrutiny. And, as she often to put to me, “I’m just no good at this technical stuff.”

But she had keen pedagogical instincts and an open mind. And we were successful beyond our expectations (although she knew, from the beginning, that if this worked, it could be a game-changer for how criminal law was taught). But one of the most important things I brought to our interactions was patience and empathy. I had to understand the obstacles she faced for this project to be a success, and helped her write the corresponding narrative around the game to make the case to her colleagues and supervisors.

While at CELT, we also noted an important change in the faculty we served; traditionally, we saw faculty from a handful of disciplines, typically in the humanities, social sciences, and a few of the sciences. But with our increased presence due to eLII, we saw increased interest from an unexpected place: the medical and medical-related fields. Medicine, nursing, dentistry, public health – they were starting to attend our workshops in increasing numbers. In response, we started to reach out and talk to their chairs and deans to understand this shift. Turns out, important changes in accreditation either had or were about to take place that required a shift in their pedagogical approach. We not only changed when and where we offered our workshops, addressing the erratic and irregular schedule that these faculty-practitioners had (they all worked in the University hospital), but we had to fundamentally re-think our approach for this new audience. They were crunched for time, and needed fast solutions they could readily implement. And they responded to evidence. The rhetorical strategies we had been using went out the window, and we aggressively worked to create programming that better fit the needs of those working in the hospitals.

At UMW, we are lucky in a lot of ways, in that, institutionally, we have largely embraced a digital approach to learning. Largely. There are always hold-outs. And the biggest challenge we are facing right now is to “level up” with DoOO – the new strategic plan calls for all students to be introduced to the initiative. How do you take a program that was opt-in and sometimes seen as a “niche” project to a campus-wide, required initiative? We have a number of positives – successful faculty who can share their stories, inspiring and informally mentoring other faculty. They are the champions of DoOO. But that doesn’t cover everyone.

One strategy was to develop the modular building blocks that help understand the philosophy that drives DoOO. Another still was to organize a day-long event in concert with Alumni weekend, highlighting successful alum who got jobs through their digital presence, as well as alumni who do hiring, talking about the importance of digital fluency skills. We are collaborating with the DKC to build awareness with the students and staff who work with students.

But ultimately, it’s empathy that will help us to adapt to the needs of the faculty, students, and administration of our institution. It’s hard, it’s time consuming, and it’s difficult to scale, but it is what will inform whatever other strategies we develop, because it will be focus on the community we are a part of, reacting not just to their stated needs, but the reasoning behind those needs. If faculty are hesitant, why? If students aren’t enthusiastic, why? One reason we know that students aren’t as bullish on DoOO is because they often see it as just another course requirement, rather than a potential site of experimentation and play. And I suspect that same element is at work with some faculty, who see this as yet *another* demand on their time and curriculum. But we will need to listen deeply to hear how faculty want to be helped to achieve the goals of the university. And then help to make that argument to those who hold the purse strings to make those things happen.

So if the challenge is that faculty (and students) see DoOO as an add-on instead of as an integral and integrative initiative, then the framing needs to change. DoOO is one tool (or even many tools under one umbrella) that can implemented in myriad situations, and we need to determine what are the situations that faculty care about so that we can help them to see the purpose of DoOO within a larger, integrative frame. And it just so happens there’s this report on advanced digital fluency that is potentially coming down the pipeline, a problem or issue that the faculty do, in fact, care about, and that DoOO is one tool that can help them achieve their goal of helping the students become more digitally fluent. That re-framing of the challenge, alongside how to approach it, can help us rethink the faculty resistance to the issue, as well as inform how we move forward.

And may we also be mindful of our roles in the process, and why, ultimately, what we do is so important.

Conclusion: Moving Forward

To be honest, I wasn’t sure, at first, how I was going to wrap everything up. There is, for me, always more to say. I joked on Twitter as I was writing this that people just needed to stop writing awesome things for, like, ten days, so that I didn’t have to constantly revise, or rather add, to this talk. But sometimes, there comes across my field of vision a piece so egregious, embodying the antithesis of what I, as a critical digital pedagogue, hope to embody and practice, that I HAVE to respond. And I’ll share my albeit abridged (and sanitized) response, because this is how I tackle most challenges, be them intellectual or otherwise.

There’s an article in the most recent issue of Educause Review about how Blockchain will fundamentally disrupt and revolutionize all of higher education, including pedagogy. The details were a little unclear, but what it came down to was a) eliminating the lecture and b) freeing born-leader, self-motivated students from the entire experience of higher education to begin with. We need, as the authors put, to get out of these students’ way. We must ensure that these “roaming autodidacts” to use Tressie McMillan Cottom’s term, slide through the college experience with the least resistance possible.

My blood pressure spiked. As Audrey Watters points out repeatedly, these “roaming autodidacts” are not the typical student, nor are they necessarily who we should all aspire to be, especially given the Silicon Valley mindset and California narrative. The new “typical student” is being underserved by traditional higher education and outright exploited (seriously, read Lower Ed) by these same narratives of disruption Audrey talks about in her writing about ed tech and venture capital.

I needed a way to articulate the frustration I felt with the article. I remembered the words of Mike Caulfield, who I have long read and admired as an educational technologist and learning designer. When he talks about just about anything (the Internet, online learning, digital polarization, design), he comes down to this point: “The excitement here is in building complexity, not reducing it.” I want to get in the way of the self-motivated born leader.

Simultaneously to me working through these thoughts, OER17 was taking place and this tweet crossed my stream:  

 

The presentation, written by David Kernohan (and then shared on his site), says much more articulately what I was trying to do here, and draws this conclusion: “But the will is as important as the tool. And teaching roaming autodidacts the will to collaborate, corroborate and develop as a natural everyday response to a primary source is the next great task of the open movement.”

There is a tension in ed-tech and digital learning between “wanting machines to help us do what we have always done, just faster or more efficient” and “wanting machines to completely and fundamentally change what we do.” Or even, break something that is already broken. Digital learning, for me, is less about disrupting the system, than building meaningful complexity to better challenge and engage students. It is both “what we have always done” and fundamentally changing how we do it and who we can do it with.

As I’ve alluded to before, our institutions specialize in complexity, for better or for worse. Often, admittedly, for worse. But ultimately, I think those elements that can make the institution complex in productive ways – empathy, collaboration, human-centeredness, openness – are what will help our students the most moving forward. We can use “the digital” to accomplish these goals, creating complexity not in the institutional gatekeeping, but in the learning and scholarship that takes place.

Name-dropping aside, what I did in response was draw on my network and the knowledge and insight I’ve learned from them to understand and map-out a challenge. Rather than a top-down, disrupt everything “solution,” I have sought and hopefully provided a more nuanced reaction that indicates multiple paths forward while taking into consideration the complexity of the system, including the people in it. Sharing those preliminary (albeit imperfect) thoughts here is a part of that process, too, in order (hopefully) to provoke more conversation and (more importantly) action towards a better set of questions, and thus a better set of solutions.

It’s not who you know, it’s how you help them.

Thank you.

Remembering Spring

I don’t remember last Spring.

I don’t remember noticing the change in the weather, the grass turning green, the trees blooming, and the leaves coming out.

What I do remember is slowly falling apart, and then all at once.

I remember being with friends, thinking to myself, I should be happy, and so I acted happy. I remember always feeling despair most of the time instead. I remember feeling like a raw nerve, exposed. I remember feeling like I was watching myself fall but couldn’t stop it or call out or even articulate what was happening.

I remember finally noticing that I was falling into darkness. And I remember being paralyzed by that realization.

I remember one year ago, I realized that an abusive ex had been following me on Twitter for a while and I hadn’t noticed. How did he find me? Wait, I know how he found me, why was he looking for me? How did I not notice? I had already blocked him on Facebook, years before, but I hadn’t been paying as close attention to my followers list on Twitter. He stole a large piece of my past. He had no right to my present.

He stole it anyway.

I remember trying to hold it together in front of my son and other dance moms. I remember turning the shaking inwards so that it felt like my insides were going to dislodge from their rightful places in my body. That trauma still felt fresh, that tearing, all the subsequent betrayals…I turned it all inwards. I imploded. And then I started really shutting down.

I was already barely hanging on.

I wrote that this whole thing came without warning. This moment, this was a warning. I didn’t want to hear it, I didn’t want to break again over this.

If it hadn’t been this moment, which accelerated the fall, it would have been another one. Less than a week later, I was on the floor of husband’s former office, in the same building where I used to teach my classes, at the same institution that had treated me like garbage, that had worn me down for so many years, having been tasked with cleaning out his tenure binders, throwing it all away. The inward shaking returned. His tenure, that I always will feel conflicted about, now up to me to clean up and toss aside.

Things I should have been “over”. Things I needed to just “let go” of. Things that I should have “moved on” from.

Things that reminded me that I failed and kept failing. Winter had been about immediate failures, personal and professional. I was flailing and floundering and trying too hard and wanting things too much, in a battle against the fall. But the past is never past. It was like poison I could never get rid of. I was poison.

I remember taking bath after bath after bath, wishing the water would swallow me up, would wash away my existence in the world, like marks in the sand at the beach. High tide could come and sweep me away, smoothing over my footprints with each subsequent wave, and I would just be gone. Maybe if I spent enough time in the bath, I would dissolve in the water and be sucked down the drain or evaporated into the ether.

I remember thinking, it would be better if I was gone.

I don’t remember much about what happened outside of me from those moments on. I don’t remember Spring. I don’t remember any blooming, I didn’t remember important birthdays and other milestones, and I didn’t care. I didn’t care and I couldn’t understand why it mattered to anyone that I cared. Worse, there were moments when I would have brief moment where I could look outside of myself, but saw how I was failing everyone, so I would retreat, again.

This year…This year, I noticed Spring. I noticed the trees and the grass and new music and people and…that I am feeling things. I was in a mundane moment, a moment that a year ago were the worst – the drive to and from work. I would cry the whole drive into work, and then cry the whole drive home. That space in my car, alone, thinking, over-thinking, spiraling, trying to steel myself for what I had to do to get through whatever piece of my day I was on my way to face.

I was driving home, I think. I was coming around a corner, coming up on the YMCA where I would be coming back to coach in a few short hours. The window was rolled down, the warm air was blowing through my hair. I had the music blasting, and I was singing along, while also going over the routine for once I got home to feed and get the kids where they needed to be. I was thinking about coaching that night. I was looking at the trees. I caught my breathe.

Was I feeling happy?

Is this what normal feels like?

I don’t remember the moment when I realized that how I often felt wasn’t “normal”. I’m sure it was one of the many moments of ostracization in school or at swim team or even at home when I shared how I was feeling and what I was thinking and was met with blank stares, derision, dismissal, mockery, or denial. I struggle to maintain friendships because I am always fearful of the moment when I become “too much.” I am wary of moments of happiness because I am always on edge, waiting for the next moment that will take it all away and pull me back into the hole of my own self. I struggle to remember what the positive feelings, real positive feelings, feel like. The memory of their absence is too strong. The feeling of helplessness, of loss of control, of powerlessness in the face of my own emotions, my own reactions to life, my immoderate inner-voice…

I was stopped at a red light, and I closed my eyes, for a moment, so I could try to remember it, that feeling in that moment. I was calm. I was, for the most part, under control. I was happy, but not in a manic kind of way. There were anxieties, but they weren’t overwhelming me. I wasn’t shaking internally. The sun was warm on my face. The music made me smile a little. The day, far from perfect, made me smile a little more. The rest of the day ahead, I was looking forward to.

I was trying to remember Spring, commit it to memory. That it exists, that it is possible, that it can happen. Winter, sometimes, just lasts longer and can be harder for some of us. But Spring comes.

 

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 hypothes.is 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!

Erasure

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.