Decades of Play with Digital Technology #CCCWrite

This marks my third blog post for the Reflective Writing Club sponsored by the Online Network of Educators. The writing prompt asks us to reflect on the impact of digital technologies, specifically:

  • Compare your current professional experiences with your professional experiences at the beginning of your career.
  • Discuss how digital technologies have impacted what you do professionally and how you do it.
  • Has your professional identity shifted at all as a result of the emergence of digital technologies? What about who you interact with and how you interact with them?

Because I have so much to say about this topic, I am only focusing on the first bullet… And yes, I am starting at the very beginning of my journey with technology because how I learned is important to how I teach.

My relationship with computer technology began in the late 80s when my father brought home an IBM computer that weighed roughly the same as I did at the time. Instead of the vivid blue graphical interface of today’s Microsoft Windows (version 17 or whatever), our IBM ran through DOS prompt commands. At the age of 10, I was typing out elaborate lines of code to eek out line drawings and shapes that were reminiscent of Spirograph creations, and I loved every minute. My parents never reaped the rewards from the computer. Their technological prowess peaked with the VCR and even then their knowledge was limited. To this day, I am the one who programs their cell phones and accesses information from the Internet for them. My father, who operates high-tech farm machinery, cannot master home electronics.

Like few children of my generation, I had the opportunity to grow up with computers and, therefore, had a natural affinity for them. I bought my first computer before I bought my first car. I built my first website on this computer, discovered alternative music before Napster became illegal, typed the first of pages of the novel which would later become my master’s thesis in fiction writing, and kept in touch with friends via email (there was no Facebook at the time). A few years later, I would build my own computer from scratch with the help of some computer engineering friends.

The most important skill I learned from my technological endeavors is discovery through play. I became a graphic designer mostly through hands-on, trial and error training — much like those early days of writing code under a dos prompt. I remember the first week of my internship at a newspaper, trying to figure out the logic of QuarkXpress. In my interview, I said I could do page layouts, because the best professional advice I ever received was to always say “yes.” Luckily, years of trouble-shooting made me a bit of a software interface savant. Three years later I was the periodicals editor at a liberal arts college, overseeing all the publications and running my own freelance graphic design business on the side.

Even after I abandoned graphic design to become a graduate student in English, I still found value in my technical skills. As I moved from my master’s in fiction writing to my doctorate in rhetoric, I found myself continuously drawn to new media ecologies. I became fascinated by the cultural ramifications of search engine algorithms, the phenomenon of “going viral,” and the potential for online activism. These explorations of the relationship between composition, rhetoric, and technology are what gave me an edge when it came to job applications. It also led to the completion of my Ph.D.

When it comes to reflecting on my professional experience with technology, there really is no then versus now, as much as there is a layering of literacy. While we have many more apps and programs today, these apps much more graphical and user friendly. Plus, most come with Youtube tutorials. I really value those early years where I needed to figure out the inner workings and logic of a program on my own. In my New Media Writing class, I refer to Henry Jenkins’ proposed new media literacies, which includes the concept of play: “the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving.” I do not teach specific pieces of technology as much as approaches to using technology.

As an academic, what I have gained over the years is a deeper understanding of how the medium and tool shapes the message. As we move into multimodal digital composition, technology becomes a co-author of our productions. We build webpages with templates. We make presentations with a set selection of designs and features. Technology determines where we can publish, which determines how large our audience will be. This is all endlessly fascinating to me.

I look forward to continuing to build my relationship with technology, as I continue to build my professional network. This is currently what is new to me. Networking, offline or on, does not come naturally to me.

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Hashtagging a National Dialogue

While hashtags on social media can be overdone commentary (#yolo, #blessed, #tbt) or topical aggregators (#poetry, #healthyrecipes, #diy), they also can give individuals access to an international dialogue about an issue they care about. The questions of what means to be patriotic, how we should protest injustices, and how we should express political discontent all were linked by one hashtag over the weekend, #takeaknee.

Why this is important is because our articulated experiences say something larger when they are aggregated with others in the public sphere. In The Public and Its Problems, Dewey states publics form when individuals gather to discuss adverse effects to government policies and activities:  “Indirect, extensive, enduring and serious consequences of conjoint and interacting behavior call a public into existence having a common interest in controlling these consequences” (126). One could argue that hashtags call a public into existence.

I would like to take a moment to highlight the variety of perspectives present, which enriched and deepened the conversation that began when Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem. Eric Reid, one of the first to join Kaepernick in his protest, stated in the New York Times, “After hours of careful consideration, and even a visit from Nate Boyer, a retired Green Beret and former N.F.L. player, we came to the conclusion that we should kneel, rather than sit, the next day during the anthem as a peaceful protest. We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.” The protest, of course, being against police brutality against African Americans.

This protest was partially reawakened by President Trump’s remarks at a rally in Alabama.

Of course, much of the contentious debate centered around using the national anthem and the flag as a means of protest.

flags

It also tied today’s protest other historical ones.

It contained the voices of vets:

If we approach these conversations, not to reaffirm our own beliefs, but to listen to the varied experiences of others, we can deepen our understanding of an issue and develop a course of action or at least develop the empathy to have a meaningful conjoined conversation rather than isolate ourselves in echo chambers. Unfortunately, we are now hashtagging our filter bubbles and missing out on the true dialogue needed for a functioning democracy. In response to #takeaknee, the #IStand hashtag was formed.

 

 

 

When you look at these two opposing conversations together, I see the positives and negatives behind taking such a controversial means of protest. On the positive side, the protest has garnered much attention and it is a peaceful means of protest, as opposed to a torched march. On the negative side, it challenges a dogmatic belief, which people want to defend. And through their defense, their beliefs become further entrenched and the possibility for productive conversation lessens. This, of course, is frustrating.

We cannot ignore these conversations. My newly minted 9-year-old son came home from football practice Monday night scandalized by the actions of the NFL. Even at the third- and fourth-grade level, they play the national anthem before the games and stand respectfully. Rather than force my own perspective on the protest, I tried to explain both sides of the issue to my son, so that he could both understand his teammates desire to stand and also support those who may choose to kneel. At this point, I feel the most valuable civic skill I can teach him is to understand multiple points of view, not just mine. However, it can be difficult at times to listen in the inflammatory world of social media.

Curating New(s) Literacies

When I first began researching social media, I picked up Howard Rheingold’s book Net Smart, which covers the skills needed in order to communicate, network, and cultivate an identity online. One of my favorite terms he uses is the word curate— essentially the act of choosing and presenting information discovered online. I’m returning to this term in order to consider how to teach news literacy in the upcoming semester. While the class could go through the usual process of evaluating credibility and verifying facts, I want to make this lesson more applicable to the ways in which we share information every day, which is not in academic research papers. I want us to become more critical curators.

Twenty years ago, trusted print and broadcast journalists curated content for us, not only at the national level, but also at the community level. Increasingly, those small papers have shrunk and merged. In Michigan, the distinct identities of many news organizations have morphed into the large networked space of Mlive. If you follow them on social media, you are as likely to see a national news story on some salacious story in another state (children in cages, gruesome murders, etc.) as a local story. We have filled this dwindling of community news with other filters we identify with, such as media personalities and particular civic and political organizations/groups.

It’s important to distinguish between media personalities and news reporters, which is one part of critical consumption. While all news stories are filtered by the sources selected, the use of quotes, and the arrangement of information, reputable reporters seek out those closest to the story and who have the highest level of expertise and work to portray those viewpoints fully and accurately. A good news story also is balanced and told without revealing the reporter’s individual stance.

One of my stronger students this past semester chose to write a paper on fake and misleading news. In one of his examples, he mentions news coverage by Nancy Grace. At this point I stumbled and questioned him, as Nancy Grace does not deliver news coverage as a journalist, but gives opinions on news events as a commentator. Commentary is not news reporting, even if it is on CNN. In newspapers, opinion pieces are easily identified in their own sections. On cable news stations, the lines between factual, impartial news and commentary are often blurred. Even more dangerous is the fact that these news stories are tailored to audiences of a particular viewpoint, who are unlikely to question information that mirrors their beliefs.

On a smaller, but perhaps more influential level, our news is also being filtered by our social media circles. Each of our friends and liked pages and groups perform curation. While we are most familiar with how individuals curate their statuses and photos to present the most attractive aspects of their life, the non-personal information they share is also a form of curation. In fact, even liking and clicking a story drives the attention information receives. We make stories go viral, we make fake news profitable, and we shape how search engines rank information sources. Maria Popova argues that we have become moderators, sifting through the heaps of information and choosing which ones to shine a spotlight on. It’s a weighty role we have all unknowingly taken on and most of us do not have the skills needed to do it well.

In the composition classroom, we spend most of our time preparing students to enter the conversations of their discipline. However, we do not spend enough time preparing them to ethically drive the attention economy and critically consume and curate information. Here are the resources I am drawing from as I move towards making a paradigm shift:

Truth, truthiness, triangulation: A news literacy toolkit for a “post-truth” world

Verification Handbook

Stony Brook Center for News Literacy

Fake Or Real? How To Self-Check The News And Get The Facts

Different Media, Different Reality

When as a young adult I pursued the field of journalism, I did so with the feeling that I would be positively changing the world through what I felt I did best, writing. The program at Michigan State University was highly regarded and tough. Much like in other journalistic programs, we were expected to report with a hundred percent accuracy. An error resulted in a failing grade automatically. No sources were unnamed, and our personal opinions were set aside. Tomorrow in my composition class, I am showing a movie set in this time period, Spotlight.

This our movie serves as a bridge as we shift from our problem-solution essay to a pop culture analysis. Right now, our news media landscape is being put under the microscope, or more accurately the relationship and distinction between news and partisan propaganda, which has become blurred in the world of social media. From Hillary taking out hits on people to Donald Trump winning the popular vote, conjecture, conspiracy, and misinformation have populated my Facebook feed from conservative friends and family who are sick of “mainstream media.”

We do still have factual media that strives to give full accounts without bias. However, unless you take the time to examine their sources, understand how to evaluate data, and confirm the facts, you will not be able to tell a partial story from a complete one. Informational literacy is a must-have for all citizens. I try only to read long form journalism on complex stories, such as Benghazi, because I need the full scope, not a blurb about some recent finding or one individual’s opinion or account. These deep investigative pieces still exist; however, less and less newspapers have the funding for them and more and more people are seeking out “fake news” that makes money off of their confirmation bias.

Why is this a problem? Without a common foundation of news, civil discourse is impossible. We do not have the same frame of reference. Many times, when I am having discussions, I simply have to stop them and ask that individuals send me links to where they have gotten their information. Without that, I do not even know how to participate in the conversation.

Right now, these different realities created by different news media have created a dangerous world for a number of minority groups. When local news reports on hate crimes, in the comment sections, people claim they are staged or agenda-pushing propaganda. Somewhere, a rumor has taken hold that anything bad that happened at a Trump rally or in the name of Trump was “planted by a Democrat.” The people protesting are not just concerned citizens, but “professional protesters.” Where does this come from and why to people assume this is real? Is it simply more convenient to believe this? I want to see factual evidence. If you are turning a blind eye on a hate crime, you better have some solid proof.

The effect of fake news and partisan opinion masking itself as news means we can no longer have a productive discussion about politics and social issues. We need the type of work provided by investigative journalism teams. This is why I am showing Spotlight, so we can return our attention to those who are doing good, ethical work for our public sphere and turn our attention away from those who are simply making money off our clicks and shares.