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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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