Making Meaning

One of the things I love about my current job is teaching in our Learning, Design, and Technology MA program. Not only are the students brilliant, but I get to teach about Domains and creating their professional digital identity through their final portfolio and beyond. I really enjoy working with the students on helping them tell the story of themselves, taking into consideration what they did before they entered the program, what they accomplished during the program, and who they want to be moving forward. It’s a process I am very familiar with having done it myself. A few times.

I am reminded of this because of the publication of the book Critical Digital Pedagogy: A Collection. It is a collection of essays that have appeared over the years in Hybrid Pedagogy, and it includes one of mine, Social Media, Service, and the Perils of Scholarly Affect. I first wrote it a little over five years ago, when I was about to transition into my alt-ac role as a faculty developer, a few short weeks before I was to start. I don’t remember if I knew that I had the job when I wrote it, but I was clearly still frustrated by the feeling of being overlooked because my academic work took place in non-traditional ways and on non-traditional platforms.

Remember, I tell the students, the work you have done, even if it isn’t the work you still want to do, is a part of you. It reflects a set of skills, but also a mindset, a stage of your life, that is an important piece of who you are now, who you want to me moving forward. None of it is insignificant – it’s just how you shape it as part of your narrative.

I do an exercise with the students where I have them write everything they have ever done, everything they have ever built or written or contributed to, anything they had a hand in producing, in making it come into being. Throw up the resume and start over, start as far back as you can remember where you took the initiative and started doing something, anything. Nevermind what anyone else would think of it, if it meant something to you, or to someone else, then put it down.

I then have students organize the list into related groups of their choosing, as it looks right for their interests and experiences, and then into a kind of Venn diagram where things overlap into more than one group. It gives them a different way of visualizing their experiences, and can help show that seemingly disparate elements are actually related.

I look back on all of my blogging and realize, well, it might not have counted but it all mattered, even if I didn’t see it at the time. Every workshop I did (virtual or in person), every tweet (ok, maybe not every tweet), every piece I wrote and published somewhere online mattered. Even if I don’t want to revisit every single thing, it still mattered if only because it represents one more step towards who I am now.

Look to where you want to be, the work you want to be doing. How does the work you’re doing now, the work you’ve done before, help you get there? What is left to do in order to achieve the goal of your work? I push my students hard in a different way than their other classes. In their other classes, they look outward and read difficult theory and research, coming up with their own projects and research. In my class, there is almost nothing to read, almost nothing to produce other than a plan. But they have to look inward and search themselves. The class, like any course, is easy if they don’t put in the work. But once they start to, it becomes harder and harder for them not to stop and re-evaluate.

My ADHD brain loves serendipity, but also finding patterns, connections, the individual brushstrokes that created a work of art. I’ve spent so much of my life feeling like I was careening from thing to thing, project to project, interest to interest, but I’d like to think now it was my brain leading me to where I needed to go, the whole time refining what it was we wanted to do, what we were good at doing, what mattered most to us. I don’t see projects or hobbies or activities I’ve tried and abandoned as failures anymore, but as opportunities to get my head straight. Sure my attempt at rowing was a disaster, and I still can’t knit, and I only really baked bread twice, or that time I showed up for an open audition for Rent, and don’t even get me started on any number of research or writing projects I’ve started never finished…Wait, where was I? Oh, yes, my brain just needing to learn things the hard way.

But those experiences weren’t ultimately a waste of time and they all still mattered.

I guess I’ve grown up a little, and I’ve had more time and space to reflect on who I was and where I was, and what the work I did, work that felt meaningless at the time still nonetheless mattered. It all mattered.

I tell my students, you are more than your work, your job, what you do to pay the bills. It all matters, every part of you and what you do and what you are passionate about and what you have accomplished, large or small, matters. We work for weeks on these kinds of activities all in service of writing the simple, hundred-odd word “about me” that appears on their portfolio site. I want to know what they have done in terms of what it tells me about them as humans, not just employees.

I am trying to get them to realize something took until I was in my 40s, to help them see themselves differently than they’ve been told to see themselves. They have the ability to make meaning from their experiences, to control their own narrative, to highlight what matters to them, to see that it all, ultimately, mattered, but they can choose which parts mattered most.

I hope…I hope this helps you, too.

Photo by Artem Kniaz on Unsplash

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