The Psuedo-curriculum

I know this will be provocative for some of you but lately when I’ve heard people use the phrase “co-curriculum” I’ve silently translated it in my head to “psuedo-curriculum.” I’ll explain more below but understand that I am not devaluing out-of-class activities but expressing frustration that we don’t really value them.

My frustration here has been long simmering but two strands of experience and thought are mingling and bringing things into focus for me.

Continue reading The Psuedo-curriculum

Learning and Teaching Class: Trepidation and Thanks

As noted in a previous post, I’m co-teaching a class this semester. Specifically, I’m co-teaching EDUC-C 750 (Section 15753): Learning and Teaching on the College Campus with Dr. Joan Middendorf. I took the course two years ago and I’ve been working with Joan and her colleagues in our Campus Instructional Consulting shop for about 9 months so this is a good fit for me and a great opportunity.

Teaching a class about how to teach class is daunting. It feels like there is no room for error in a class like this because if we make blatant mistakes then it undermines our credibility in the very topic we’re teaching. I’m not sure if that’s something the students will immediately pick up on explicitly but I feel very strongly that it’s inevitable so Joan and I are going to address this on the first day of class. Not only will it address a real issue for our class but it will be good to model the kind of honesty and trust that is necessary for good teaching. Striking that balance – teaching the class while providing as good a model as possible of good teaching – will be stressful and demanding. But it will be a good challenge to face because it ensures that we will be very intentional and thoughtful teachers.

Teaching this class is also a wonderful opportunity for me and I am very thankful for it. Joan is a wonderful mentor who has been very open to my ideas and even criticism as we’ve planned the course. Despite the fact that her experience far outstrips mine, she has treated me as a respected colleague. Although I often defer to her judgment and experience, she welcomes my input even when I push back (hard) and not only explains her rationale (which is often why I’m pushing back – so I can learn from her!) but she often changes her approach based on my feedback and questions. I’m very fortunate to be able to teach a class with Joan, particularly one directly related to her experience and research!

Online Identity Class: Final Reflections

Graphic syllabusNote: As part of a College Teaching and Learning class in which I am enrolled, I will be reflecting weekly on the course I am teaching. I will likely withhold some details and information from these public blog posts to respect the confidentiality and sanctity of my classroom but I hope to be frank about my own actions and emotions as I teach this course for the second time.

I’ve graded the final assignments and submitted final grades (and made one correction to a final grade).  The class is over and I now have some time to try to see the big picture and reflect on the class as a whole.  I learned some very interesting things from reading the final assignments but I’ll save that for a separate post as that goes well beyond just this one course.

Taking the course as it was conceived and constructed, I am relatively pleased with how it turned it this second time around.  The material flowed much more smoothly this semester and that helped me keep the the ideas and concepts integrated as we changed topics.  Although I risked being repetitive, I constantly and intentfully reached back to material we had previously covered to tie it in with the new material and discussions.  That was a challenge for me at times but it’s a good challenge to undertake both for me and my students.  If it had been too difficult – if I had not been able to tie the ideas together on a regular basis – that would have indicated potentially severe problems with the design of the course.

Eliciting discussion was a constant challenge.  I attempted to meet that challenge by varying our activities.  I have a lot to learn about how to effectively use active learning activities, particularly those that employ different learning styles and engage more creative skills such as visual and physical skills.  In a course designed as this was (with a rather formal structure and flow), I would have liked to have employed more creative activities such as concept maps.  We made concept maps on the last day of the class as a way to reflect on everything we had discussed and learned and I was very pleased with the discussion generated by that activity.  It’s easy to blame the difficulty of engaging in discussion on the diverse makeup of the class and the general nature of U212 courses as nearly all of the students are in the course solely to pick up a few credits after having dropped another course.  It’s also easy to blame it on the fact they’re “just undergraduates” and discussion-based classes are relatively rare for many of them, particularly those still in their first couple of years.  There is truth in all of those reasons but I can’t help but view them as excuses.

Ultimately, however, I question whether the class was constructed in the most effective manner to help the students learn about identity and how it is being presented online.  Although I incorporated active learning and assessment throughout the course, it was still at its heart an instructor-led course built on the readings that I had collected and thought were interesting and insightful.  I am very inspired by the innovations of teachers like Michael Wesch and how he has structured at least one of his classes as student-led, trusting them to be not just students but partners in research and exploration.  I imagine that it’s difficult for most experts to put that level of trust in amateurs; even my language – “experts” vs. “amateurs” – betrays some of my emotions and difficulties.  But it seems like an incredibly powerful way for people to learn and I hope I can figure out how to integrate those kinds of ideas into my teaching.  I think it all comes down to trust: trusting that undergraduates can be mature partners in exploration and trusting that a class without a rigid syllabus stuffed full of pre-selected readings and content can be a meaningful learning experience.  Intellectually, I know that it’s not about content but about learning.  But that’s a difficult chasm to leap when almost all of my 20+ years of education have been content-centered.

I don’t know if I’ll want to teach this class again, at least in the near future.  Logistically, it’s been taught for two semesters and it appears that the powers-that-be want to keep the roster of U212 classes fresh.  Teaching is definitely good experience for someone aspiring to the faculty ranks but teaching undergraduates doesn’t carry near as much weight for me as teaching or working with graduate students since higher education programs only exist at the graduate level.  And as you can tell by my comments above, if I were to teach this again I would try my best to significantly change the structure of the course to make it less content-centered and instructor-led and more exploration-centered and student-led.

Online Identity Class: Week 7 (Final Week)

Graphic syllabusNote: As part of a College Teaching and Learning class in which I am enrolled, I will be reflecting weekly on the course I am teaching. I will likely withhold some details and information from these public blog posts to respect the confidentiality and sanctity of my classroom but I hope to be frank about my own actions and emotions as I teach this course for the second time.

Last week was the final week for this class. We spent the week ramping up for the final paper that is due on Wednesday during Finals Week. That paper, as described in the syllabus, is a brief policy proposal outlining the use of SNSes in evaluating applicants for undergraduate admission.

We spent Monday in small groups creating brief policy proposals for the use of SNSes in evaluating entry-level job applicants.  This is, of course, very similar to the final project.  The different groups came up with very different answers but they had pretty good reasons for their answers and we had a good discussion afterward about some of the contextual issues (historical, legal, etc.) that could come into play in a real policy proposal.  Of course, I also explicitly told them that they were not expected to account for those contextual issues in their final paper as we didn’t have time to discuss those issues in this half-semester course.  Overall, it was good practice for their final paper and I think that it got them thinking about the issues and the different angles one could take.

Wednesday was our last day of class and it was even more relaxed than normal as I brought in cookies and milk (I feel a little bit emasculated saying that but damnit I like to bake and I’m good at it).  One of my students also brought in some food he made which was very nice of him and very welcome.  We began the class by quickly reviewing the breaking news about NACAC’s just-released report “Reaching the Wired Generation: How Social Media Is Changing College Admission” (400k pdf).  This was an incredibly timely report as it discusses exactly what we were discussing and writing about in the final paper!

We spent the rest of our time in Wednesday making concept maps recalling and linking together the main ideas of the entire class. At the suggestion of one my colleagues, we began by making a list on the board of the main concepts we had discussed throughout the class.  As my students called the ideas out, I wrote them down.  I often asked for clarification or explanation to help jog everyone’s memory about the ideas.  I also prodded for a few specific ideas but overall I was very pleased with the level of recall exhibited by my students. After we had a good list, we then broke into small groups and created concept maps and then shared them with the rest of the class.  The maps themselves were not terribly good but they were (a) created quickly and (b) the first exposure many students had to the idea of concept maps.  Although the maps themselves weren’t very good the conversations before and during their creation were fantastic.  And that – recalling the ideas, grappling with them, and trying to see how they relate – was the point of the exercise.  The maps are just a side effect and an artifact of those conversations.

This week, I also had to deal directly with those students who had slipped behind in the class or simply never showed up.  I obviously can’t go into any detail about this but I am sure that every teacher shares my frustration in knowing that there are some students who you can not seem to help.  I know these students are adults and they need to learn to deal with the consequences of their actions (they’re all young, traditional students, by the way).  But having been there myself – young, naive, and listless – I am sympathetic and there is still some small heartache when I give them the poor grades they have earned.

I will write closing reflections later this week after I have received and graded the final assignments.  In the meantime, those who are interested in some of my personal reflections about this class are welcome to read the brief “Learning Essay” (13k pdf) I wrote for my College Teaching and Learning class.

Online Identity Class: Week 6

Graphic syllabusNote: As part of a College Teaching and Learning class in which I am enrolled, I will be reflecting weekly on the course I am teaching. I will likely withhold some details and information from these public blog posts to respect the confidentiality and sanctity of my classroom but I hope to be frank about my own actions and emotions as I teach this course for the second time.

In the penultimate week of class, we continued discussing the empirical research about SNS users and how the media portrays youth use of SNS and CMC.  One assignment – locating and analyzing three different media reports – was due this week.  I was also forced to make some decisions about readings, grades, and assignments that should have should have been made much earlier.

In Monday’s class we opened the class by viewing “Facebook Manners and You:”

Before watching the video, I handed out a “cheat sheet” with some of the properties and observations we have read about and discussed. As we watched the video, I paused for about a minute when each rule in the video was presented to allow us time to each silently reflect on how that rule interacts with, falls out of, or contradicts the things we had discussed and read about. After finishing the video, I asked my students to discuss their thoughts and observations with their neighbor (the classic “Think-Pair-Share” activity).  We then discussed our thoughts as a class (i.e. I asked specific students to discuss what they had discussed and we reacted).  This activity went very well and it drove home the point that these ideas and properties are all intermingled and messily connected as we never agreed that any rule was linked to only a few ideas.  It’s also a very funny and well-made video that was a lot of fun to watch.

I then asked my students to break in to groups of three to answer one question: Who are the people that don’t use SNSes?  Both of our readings for Monday – and each student only had to read one of the readings – focused on those people who don’t use SNSes and I wanted to ensure that my students were able to sort through the literature to paint a broad picture of SNS non-users. Given the incredible and still-growing size of the Facebook user base it’s easy to assume that all college students are Facebook users.  Given how similar in popularity Facebook and MySpace are among American youths, it’s tempting to conclude that all youths are using one or both services. But the digital divide still exists, there will always be people who choose not to use even the most popular tools, and even among SNS users the frequency and manner of use varies significantly.  So for all of these reasons and more it’s important to disabuse people of the notion that everyone uses these tools.

We also spent a few minutes on Monday looking at another critique of media reports about SNS use. Estzer Hargittai wrote a blog post discussing the media coverage about a recent Facebook study.  She was critical of the media reports and the research and several leading scholars (including Nicole Ellison, Fred Stutzman, and Barry Wells) posted comments, joining in on the fun.  This served as a great example of how to critically look at a media report given that the assignment that was due on Wednesday called for my students to do exactly that.  I didn’t expect my students to lay out the exact same kinds of arguments laid out by some of these scholars (“When I did my research last year, I didn’t find that!  I found that…”) but many of the criticisms were valid and ones from which my students could learn.  It was a very timely blog post.  Thanks Estzer and friends!

Wendesday’s class initially had four separate readings.  When I noticed the number of readings and the total volume of reading, I made the executive decision to immediately e-mail my students and reduce the readings by making three of them optional (what in the world was I thinking when I made the syllabus???).  In class, we discussed the remaining required reading, danah boyd’s “Why Youths Heart Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life.” This is danah at her best and if I were asked to recommend one and only one piece from this class for others to read this would be it.  She does a great job tying together many different threads, including historical arguments and ideas.

I also broached the idea of cancelling or somehow modifying the next assignment which is due this Wednesday.  In part, I am motivated to examine this assignment in part because I am sensitive to the schedule and workload of my students at this point of the semester (not to mention my own!).  Incidentally, this was on my mind in part because of a great book we read earlier in the semester in College Teaching and Learning, Duffy and Jones’s Teaching Within the Rhythms of the Semester.  However, this was largely motivated by own concern that we did not have time to adequately build up to both this assignment (linking earlier Goffman ideas with later SNS and CMC research) and the final assignment (a policy recommendation about SNS use in evaluating college applicants). I think our time is better spent looking ahead to the final assignment so I have made this next-to-last assignment optional.  Why optional?  I don’t want to catch anyone offguard who may have a lower-than-desired grade and deprive them of a chance to raise that grade since the assignment is in the syllabus.

We finished a bit early on Wednesday and I was so very happy that I had something up my sleeve just in case this happened (something I would not have had last semester when I first taught this class)!  To help my students understand that the properties and ideas we had spent so much time discussing and examining are not necessarily negative or detrimental, I showed them the video below. It’s a difficult video to watch but the point is that without some of the properties we have discussed, particularly asynchronocity and invisible audiences, we would never be able to understand what Amanda has to tell us about herself, others like her, and ourselves.  It’s hard to watch but it’s worth the payoff.

I didn’t have a chance to ask my students what they thought of this video but the room was dead silent as we watched this, particularly once we got to the part of the video where Amanda “speaks.”  I’ll ask them on Monday.  I think there’s a 90% chance that they were moved by the video and a 10% chance they thought it was absolute crap and a waste of time.  I hope they were moved as I believe that some of the things we do in classrooms should and sometimes must emotionally move our students (and ourselves).

Next week we wrap up.  We’ll build towards the final assignment and bring the class to a good close (something I failed to do last year and something that still bothers me).

Online Identity Class: Week 5

Graphic syllabusNote: As part of a College Teaching and Learning class in which I am enrolled, I will be reflecting weekly on the course I am teaching. I will likely withhold some details and information from these public blog posts to respect the confidentiality and sanctity of my classroom but I hope to be frank about my own actions and emotions as I teach this course for the second time.

We only met once this week as I spent most of the week in or traveling to and from the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) where I presented a paper (122 kb PDF).

For this one class, I asked my students to read boyd and ellison’s introduction to the Fall 2007 special theme of the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication focused on social networking sites (SNSes). I also assigned half of the class Bumgarner’s 2007 First Monday article and the other half Joinson’s 2008 ACM SIGCHI paper. The hope was that we could (a) use boyd and Ellison’s article as a foundational piece to understand SNSes, particularly their history and how (some) scholars define them, and (b) compare and contrast the two empirical Facebook articles to give us a good understanding of what people actually do (or “did” given the age of these articles?) in Facebook.

It didn’t quite work out as well as I had hoped it would work out. The first article was straight-forward but the other two articles were not as simple, particularly Bumgarner’s. I forgot how much of my own knowledge and background I take for granted as I was able to cut through all of the cruft in both articles to easily find the really interesting and meaningful information but I’m afraid that wasn’t so easy for my students. For example, I knew to gloss over the tables in the Bumgarner article that presented the factor loadings derived from his exploratory factor analyses but my students didn’t know that.  I think it could have gone better if I had done a better job preparing beforehand and giving my students some advice and guidance before having them read the articles.  I don’t think I would have cut out the articles completely as (a) they’re still useful, informative, and interesting and (b) it’s good to have challenging material as that is how you learn how to cope with and overcome the challenges. If I can figure out a good way to do it, I’d like to spend a few minutes this week going back over this material to reinforce it.

One interesting confluence of events is adding to the class and our understanding of the material. Last week, the media picked up on new research that found a correlation between Facebook usage and lower grades among college and university students. It turns out that this research is a poster session that was presented at the conference I was attending so I was able to (a) see the poster firsthand and (b) speak with the author. Most of the media reports are pretty far off the mark and we’re seeing some really neat reactions (to both the research as reported and the reports themselves) from scholars and experts. This is excellent timing as the next assignment in this class is to write about and critique some current or recent media reports!  I’m able to use these reports and discussions as real live and current examples of both how the media often get things wrong and how one can analyze and critique the media.  (Incidentally, the author of this poster session strongly encouraged the use of her research and subsequent media reaction as an educational tool to do these exact things instead of focusing on the results of what was really a small-scale one-off survey; Aryn was very gracious and my heart goes out to my fellow graduate student who unexpectedly got caught up in a small media-driven tempest-in-a-teapot.)

Online Identity Class: Week 4

Graphic syllabusNote: As part of a College Teaching and Learning class in which I am enrolled, I will be reflecting weekly on the course I am teaching. I will likely withhold some details and information from these public blog posts to respect the confidentiality and sanctity of my classroom but I hope to be frank about my own actions and emotions as I teach this course for the second time.

During our fourth week we explored two sets of properties that some scholars have identified as associated with mediated communications. The first set of properties is a set of properties identified by ethnographer danah boyd as associated with networked publics.  The second set of properties are those described by psychologist John Suler as associated with the phenomenon of “online disinhibition.”

On Monday, I employed an active learning technique described by some as a “jigsaw puzzle” activity.  My students prepared before class by reading one of four sets of readings (I assigned the readings, reminding my students both in class and by e-mail).  For each of boyd’s properties of networked publics – Persistence, Searchability, Replicability, and Invisible audiences – there was a different set of readings (specific details are available in the syllabus). Last week, I randomly and evenly distributed the properties among the students so they would know which set of readings to tackle for Monday’s class. In class on Monday, I created four groups of students, ensuring that each group had at least one person “from” each property. I gave each group a separate “case study:” sexting, law enforcement use of SNSes, recent research about the futility of anonymity in SNSes, and the MySpace pirate/teacher. Each group not only had to briefly discuss what they read before class but they then had to read about their “case” and discuss how each property impacted or played a role in that case. Towards the end of class, I gave them an example of what I expected on Wednesday (more below) and then ended a bit early to give them time to meet and plan for Wednesday.

Wednesday’s class was, for me, the easiest class session. When I divided the class into groups for Monday’s readings I also divided them into five groups for Wednesday’s activity. Each group was assigned one of Suler’s online disinhibition properties: dissociative anonymity, invisibility, asynchronicity, solipsistic introjection, dissociative imagination, and minimization of status and authority. On Wednesday, each group was to define their property, explain its significance, and then demonstrate or illustrate the property. I modeled the behavior for them on Monday by taking the property “minimization of status and authority” myself and presenting a few different ways that one could explain and illustrate it. Wednesday’s presentations were excellent and every group used great examples (four groups showed video clips and one showed several photographs).

I also took some time on Wednesday to revisit “replication,” one of the properties we discussed on Monday. I don’t think that collectively we did a good job discussing that property and I think that may have been caused by the fact that the property just didn’t really shine through in any of the cases we examined (which means I need to take a look at and possible change the cases if I teach this class again). I found some good examples of incidents where this particular property played a clear role and I hope that these helped us understand the importance of this property since I didn’t think that we did that on Monday.

On both days, the activities went very well and my students had very positive feedback about the activities. In both instances, however, I look back and believe that I could have done a better job in helping to tie everything together.  Both activities partitioned the material so each individual student was only directly exposed to part of it and I think that it would have been helpful to do something more deliberate and intentional to draw everything back together, especially for the online disinhibition properties. In fact, continuing to tie each individual topic back to the main ideas of the class seems to be something that I need to work on diligently throughout the course.

Next week we only have one class as I’ll be travelling to AERA to present a paper.  But we’ll be reading and discussing some great really great articles as we move on to Social Networking Services (SNSes) and I’m excited, particularly as some of these articles are new for this semester and I believe they’ll be very helpful and informative.

Online Identity Class: Week 3

Graphic syllabusNote: As part of a College Teaching and Learning class in which I am enrolled, I will be reflecting weekly on the course I am teaching. I will likely withhold some details and information from these public blog posts to respect the confidentiality and sanctity of my classroom but I hope to be frank about my own actions and emotions as I teach this course for the second time.

During the third week we began to transition from the traditional sociological ideas in the first two weeks to more modern ideas that directly grapple with the advancement in information and communication technologies (ICTs).  To make this transition, we read and discussed the first two chapters from John Palfrey and Urs Gasser’s excellent book Born Digital.

The first chapter of Born Digital discusses “identity” (I put that in quotes because the general idea is approached differently in this book compared to the authors we’ve previously read and discussed so this is a reinforcement – for myself, my students, and for you – of the idea that there are many ideas and conceptions of identity).  Before diving into a discussion of the material on Monday, I opened with 10 minutes of a video clip of John Palfrey, one of the authors, discussing the book and some of its premises (I meant to show a slightly different video that is higher quality but the video I showed worked just as well). The main thing that I wanted to get out of that video clip – aside from a general introduction of one of the authors and his point of view – is an understanding of how Palfrey and Gasser defined “digital native.” That’s a key idea in their book and their careful and explicit definition is a very important and interesting advancement in how we conceive of digital natives.  Unlike many who do not define what they mean with their use of the phrase digital native (an omission that often seems to be rooted in their own confusion and lack of rigor i.e. they don’t define it because they don’t have a good definition or haven’t really given it the thought and attention it deserves), Palfrey and Gasser explicitly define digital natives as those (a) born after 1980 (b) with access to and (c) comfort and knowledge of ICTs. This is an important definition as it (wisely) limits their discussion to a subset of the entire population of youths – those who are on the “right” side of both the digital divide (access) and the participation gap (comfort and knowledge).

To discuss the materials (remember, I lecture very rarely and only for short periods of time) I used an active learning activity that requires the students to focus on a small part of the reading they select and discuss. First, I had each student spend a few minutes silently selecting a short quote from the reading that spoke to or interested them.  Second, they broke into groups of 3.  Third, one person read their quote.  That person then sat quietly for a few minutes while the other two memebrs of the group reacted to the quote.  Finally, the person who first read the quote explained why they selected it.  The same process repeated twice so all three members of each group presented their quote.  Afterwards, we all came together and I chose a few students to read their quote aloud and share what they and their group discussed.  The exercise seemed to work well and when I explicitly asked for feedback about the exercise my students agreed that it worked well.  I tried to use a structured discussion protocol during the activity where I kept track of time and let them know when they should be moving on to different phases of the activity but that part didn’t seem to work too well as my students kept themselves on track well without my intervention so the protocol may not be necessary in the future.

The week’s second class focused on the information that is collected about us, stored, and made available online.  Palfrey and Gasser discuss this in their second chapter, “Digital dossiers.”  The activity I created for this topic was to break the class into three groups.  Each group had to answer an identical set of questions but each group had a different focus. One group focused on their grandparents’ generation, one on their generation, and the third on their grandchildren’s generation. The specific questions dealt with the type of information that has been, is being, or will be collected about people in that generation: who owns that information, how it’s made available, how that information is or is not linked together, etc. I hoped to motivate discussion and thought about how the information that is collected about us has changed and continues to change. Unfortunately, much of that information and activity lies outside of our individual control so it was a bit of a depressing conversation (I spent time talking with one group that finished early and I ended up talking about IBM’s role in the Holocaust and the historical role and rise of organized information collection related to national censuses, Social Security, insurance and pensions, etc.). This activity worked out moderately well in both my opinion and my students’.  I really like the general idea of the activity but it seems to lack some polish although I’m still not quite sure exactly what that polish is and how to apply it.

Next week we’ll move on from Born Digital to discuss some specific properties of mediated communications proposed both by communications researchers (boyd‘s properties of mediated communications: Persistence, Searchability, Replicability, and Invisible audiences) and psychologists (Suler‘s properties of online disinhibition: dissociative anonymity, invisibility, asynchronicity, solipsistic introjection, dissociative imagination, and minimization of status and authority).

One interesting thing that came up this week occured as a result of the feedback that I solicit at the end of every class period (the Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) mentioned in previous posts). On Monday, I asked my students to simply write how their views of identity have changed (if at all) during the course of this class. The responses to that question were, of course, interesting (and mixed) but several students also hinted at or directly mentioned how they were or have been restricting the information they post online because of fears about safety. I view a large part of this class and my role in this class as “setting the record straight” by introducing the good research that’s been done and contrasting that research with the common public perceptions, perceptions often created and driven by the popular media and press. So I used the first 15 minutes of class on Wednesday – after having read and digested the responses to Monday’s question – to discuss some of the research and realities of online safety and hazards. To do this, I showed a short clip from a 2007 panel discussion of youths’ online safety and spent a few minutes discussing some of that research. In addition to being an interesting discussion in itself, this should be helpful for my students when we more explicitly address the media perceptions and reports of online communication and safety in a few weeks.

Online Identity Class: Week 2

Graphic syllabusNote: As part of a College Teaching and Learning class in which I am enrolled, I will be reflecting weekly on the course I am teaching. I will likely withhold some details and information from these public blog posts to respect the confidentiality and sanctity of my classroom but I hope to be frank about my own actions and emotions as I teach this course for the second time.

The primary topic of discussion and examination during the second week of class was Erving Goffman and his ideas related to identity, particularly his idea of dramaturgy as expressed in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. As much as I would like to be able to read the entire book, we were only able to read the introduction and part of the conclusion of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.  To supplement that material, we also read the Goffman chapter from Allan’s sociology text Contemporary social and sociological theory: Visualizing social worlds.

Since these are sociological ideas, we should see them play out in our observable lives.  So instead of just reading about these ideas and discussing them (although we definitely did that, too), we watched some videos to see what ideas related to dramaturgy we could spot in the videos. On Monday we watched the first 15 minutes of the pilot episode of Scrubs. As this is the episode in which all of the characters are initially introduced to the audience, it’s rich in obvious interactions and symbols and easy to analyze. On Tuesday, we first watched a video related to Megan Meier. In addition to the obvious questions raised by the incident itself (hint: How was Megan able to be fooled into believing that a fictional person existed?  How was the reality of that character established and how does that differ from how we establish our own realities in mediated environments?), the video itself is rich in symbolism.  Moreover, it was a deliberate movement towards the online space, a movement we will be making in earnest during the third week.  We also watched two brief Monty Python skits – Army Protection Racket and Hell’s Grannies, both to continue our discussion of identity and to end the class on an up beat after watching and discussing the Meier video. In particular, I expressed my opinion that the reason why the skits worked as comedy pieces because they presented contradictory social and personal identities of the main characters, contradictions that are unexpected and so extreme as to be absurd.

Continuing on the idea that these ideas can be observed by each of us in everyday situations, the second assignment is due today as we begin the third week. I asked my students to observe people and their everyday behavior in a public place for one hour and write a description of what they see using Goffman’s ideas as a framework. This assignment is new this semester and it was introduced based on feedback and ideas generated during peer review of my class in Joan Middendorf’s College Teaching and Learning class taught earlier this semester. As it’s a new assignment, I don’t have any examples to share with my students and that’s a shortcoming. But I am excited to get these papers and discuss them in class later today as I am very hopeful that the assignment will have proven worthwhile and interesting.  I certainly believe that we’ve ramped up to it well with our readings, discussions, and videos.

The feedback I solicit continues to be very positive but I am still struggling to fully engage everyone in discussion.  I hope that will be easier as (a) we all get to know one another more and become more comfortable and (b) the material becomes more familiar. The nature of the class is that the hardest material comes up front and that has the disadvantage of making for a bumpy beginning with many students.  But it also has the advantage of us being able to continually revisit that material as we build on it throughout the semester and reinforce it.

This week we’ll finally move into the online domain and we’ll do so with readings from Born Digital, one of my favorite books focusing on these ideas. I still feel like I struggle to effectively engage the students and the material each day in class (I never use all of the class time and sometimes I feel guilty about that) but I am very excited about this week’s material even though I’m not yet sure how best to tackle it in class.

Online Identity Class: Week 1

Graphic syllabusNote: As part of a College Teaching and Learning class in which I am enrolled, I will be reflecting weekly on the course I am teaching. I will likely withhold some details and information from these public blog posts to respect the confidentiality and sanctity of my classroom but I hope to be frank about my own actions and emotions as I teach this course for the second time.

The first week seemed to go reasonably well and I think we’re off to a good start. Specifically, I was relatively pleased with the second day of class when we really began to explore the material in earnest as nearly all of my students seemed to have done the reading and brought their materials to class. This is an improvement over last year but I do not attribute this difference in behavior to a difference in the kind or quality of students. Instead, I attribute this change to the fact that I was explicit with them about the need to read before class and bring the materials since it took them a few class sessions to catch on last year. Directly, forcefully, and repeatedly addressing this point on the very first day seems to have paid dividends on the second day of class.

The first day was a typical introduction to the course and its content.  Instead of just reading the syllabus, however, we began with an activity intended to introduce the ideas of the course. Last year, I handed every student a piece of paper with all of the fields and options on a Facebook profile (name, sex, relationship status, etc.) blank.  This year, I brought large sheets of blank paper and asked 1/3 of the class to write/draw their MySpace profile, 1/3 to write/draw their Facebook profile, and the remaining 1/3 to not write/draw a profile at all.  They then used these to introduce themselves to the class and I used these as springboards to discuss how their profiles (or lack thereof) influenced how they introduced themselves, how the options in the software limited their choices, and how these profiles shaped their options for self-presentation and identity. While I enjoyed the extra creativity and expression allowed by this year’s exercise and I am very happy to have tried it, I prefer last year’s activity as it was simpler and it still got the point across.  I also think that some of my students may believe that their effort in writing/drawing their profile was wasted effort (and given the limited, one-time use we made of those documents I tend to agree with them).

For the second day, we discussed our first reading which was a chapter out of Allan’s Contemporary social and sociological theory: Visualizing social worlds, a sociology text book. The reading was an introduction to symbolic interactionism, the big sociological idea on which much of the class is built. We approached this discussion first by breaking into groups (I print little pictures on top of my handouts that indicate which group a given student belongs to; the theme for that day’s pictures was PacMan with some handouts had PacMan, some had a ghost, some had a cherry, and the others had a strawberry) and answering the questions on the handouts as groups. After spending time on that, we drew back together as a class to go over our answers and pursue further discussion. There wasn’t as much discussion as I would have liked in the groups or afterwards in the larger class and I’m not sure if it’s because they are all unfamiliar to one another, this is a different kind of class structure for them, or if there are other reasons.  I’m not worried and I think it will just take some time for them to loosen up, become familiar and comfortable with one another and with me, and figure out how the class works.

At the end of both classes, I conducted quick assessments (“Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs)” in the local parlance) of my students’ knowledge and comfort. The first day I handed out blank notecards and asked them to write what they expected to learn in this class on one side and any remaining questions about the class on the other side.  The second day I asked them take a few minutes to write down what they had learned that day.  Both assessments were anonymous as they’re not intended to be graded or part of their formal assessments. The assessments gave me a good look into my students’ heads and helped me understand better what they got out of each class and where they’re at with the material and the makeup of the class. The first assessment allowed me to quickly address (via e-mail) some lingering questions about the class structure even before we met for the second class session. The second assessment reassured me that despite our quick pace and the relative quiet of the class during our discussion they were really picking up the big ideas. More importantly, one of my students shared with me some very important information that probably would have been very difficult to share if I were not employing these semi-structured assessment tools and now I’m in a position to act and help this student.

Their first assignment was also due on the second day.  I asked them to:

Describe your own ideas about identity and how you understand your identity in a reflection paper of 1.5 – 2 pages. Your paper should answer questions such as (a) Who am I? (b) How do I know who I am? and  (c) How do others know who I am?  There are no right or wrong answers to these questions but to earn a passing grade for this paper it must be clear to me that your answers are honest and the result of reflection, thought, and introspection.

A few students did not turn in this assignment in the manner in which I specified so I’ll need to stress to all of my students how I want assignments to be handed in (using the “Assignments” section of our online course management system). More importantly, a few students did not turn in the assignment at all so I need to intervene with students quickly to find out what is going on and if there are ways that I can help them.