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.

Online Identity Class: Spring 2009

Graphic syllabusAs I did last semester, I am currently teaching an undergraduate course focusing on online identity. Lest anyone be misled by that phrase, the primary focus of the course is in understanding how we construct our identities offline and how that has not changed very much with the introduction of the Internet and other electronic tools.  In other words, we begin with classic sociological ideas about identity from Mead and Goffman and we don’t stray too far from those ideas even as we explore mediated communication and specific tools like Facebook and MySpace.  The class only lasts for a half-semester (8 weeks) so we touch on a lot of topics without having the time to explore them in any real depth and that sucks.  I hope my students leave with the big ideas and maybe a few of them will have discovered some new ideas to continue exploring in the future.

The syllabus for this semester’s course is here.  I haven’t changed the course dramatically from last semester but I have added two assignments, changed some readings (with more changes to come as new materials are released or discovered), and rearranged some things.  The graphic at the end of the syllabus (the thumbnail at the right) should help explain the general layout of the course and its interdisciplinary nature.

For those who are interested, the formal course goals are for students to be able to:

  1. Recognize, understand, and describe some reasons and motivations, particularly those related to self-identity, useful for understanding behavior common in online environments, particularly social network services.
  2. Evaluate media reports, writings, and discussions of online communication for rudimentary levels of accuracy, bias, and overall quality.

The general landscape surrounding the topics in the class hasn’t changed much since last semester. I still don’t know of any book that would be appropriate as a text and I’m happy to crib together the reading materials.  If I had to select one book, it would definitely be Palfrey and Gasser’s Born Digital as it gets the closest to having the right mix of breadth, depth, and pragmatism; we read two chapters out of the book but that’s all we can do right now.  I will be very interested in reading Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out: Living and Learning with New Media when it’s published to see how it might fit in to a class like this one.

Online Identity Course: Lessons Learned

Several days ago, I submitted (and then corrected) final grades for my undergraduate online identity course. I am planning to teach the course again next semester and I’ll certainly be making some changes based on this first semester of the class.

First, Clay Shirky’s right: the first challenge when working with young students in discussions about their use of the Internet and other technologies is to help them understand just how different their uses of these technologies are compared to previous generations’. For many of the youngest students, cell phones, MySpace, and wireless Internet access have almost always existed and they have always been part of their lives. While for many of us these technologies and the ideas underlying them – flexible and changing ideas of privacy, incredibly public and intimate expressions of identity, and indexable, searchable, and permanent artifacts – are new and world-changing, for these students these ideas are old-hat and completely non-notable. Next semester, I need to work harder at the very beginning of the class to help my students understand how new and unexplored all of these technologies are for all of us. I’m not quite sure how to do that and figuring that out is my homework during the holiday break.

The final assignment elicited some surprising insight and ideas from my students. In a nutshell, they were to make policy recommendations for the use of social networking services (SNSes) for either a college admissions office or a company hiring new college graduates. The recommendations spanned the entire range of potential recommendations from “they must investigate the profile of every applicant” to “they can never investigate the profiles of applicants” with varying levels of quality support and rationale for the recommendations.

The most surprising and interesting recommendation, submitted by a few students, was that applicants should be able to decide whether or not their SNS profiles are fair game. That is not a recommendation I had anticipated and the justifications were very interesting. Essentially, these students really grabbed hold of some of the ideas we discussed and read that related to the active role we can take in shaping and understanding how we are presented and described online. I haven’t quite figured out how practical the recommendation is when scaled up to institutions or corporations that have thousands of applicants but it’s a great answer for this final assignment and it shows a wonderful grasp of some very important ideas.

I wish I had more time to tackle ideas of privacy and context.  That’s something else I will see if I can work into the course next semester although I am not very hopeful. Given the length of the course, it’s impossible to even touch on every important and interesting topic. I hope to expand the course to a full semester and teach in one of our living-learning centers next year with the hope that will allow me to add these topics and have enough time to explore them.

Online Identity Course: 2 Weeks In…

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a new half-semester 2-credit undergraduate course I’m teaching here at Indiana University. As promised, I’ve uploaded the class syllabus.

The class has met four times over the last two weeks (it meets twice a week).  It’s still too early to tell how the class is going and how much my students are getting out of the class.  Part of that is directly related to the design of the course as it’s front loaded with sociological material (Cooley & Goffman).  It’s deep, challenging material and it’s hard for some of my students to see where we’re going and how this material relates to the Internet.  “We’re getting there!” I promise them and I hope they believe me because we really are getting there.  And even though I hate that we’re running through these ideas so quickly and doing them such injustice (One day for Cooley’s Looking Glass Self?  Two days for Goffman’s ideas regarding impression management? Are you kidding me???) I believe very strongly that this will pay dividends when we get into the rest of the material by providing crucial and useful lenses and frameworks for us to use in thinking, reading, and talking about online behavior.

I try to keep this blog professional and not spend time discussing my personal trivia and emotions but I have to confess that I’m very excited to read my students’ first assignments which are due on Monday.  I’ve collected feedback from them in class so I am confident that most of them are on the right track and they’re “getting it” but you never know for sure, particularly when you throw a new instructor teaching a new class (with new, untested assignments) into the mix.

As this class continues, I hope that I’ll gain insight into my students’ beliefs and behaviors regarding online behavior and identity.  More importantly, I hope that I’ll be able to make use of and share those insights here.

New Indiana University Undergrad Course Exploring Identity and Communication Online

This semester I’ll be teaching EDUC-U 212 Virtually Real: Myths and Realities of Online Identities. It’s a 2-credit class for undergraduates that is scheduled for the second half of the fall semester. I’m still finalizing the syllabus and I’ll make it available here when it’s finalized.

In the class, we’re going to explore how youths and young adults use online tools such as Facebook and MySpace to explore and exhibit personal identity. It’s a short course so it will be very focused on identity, mediated communication, and Social Network Sites (SNS). Although it will be firmly grounded in theory and current research, the class will have a very practical bent as students should leave the class better prepared to understand not only their own online actions but also some of the forces shaping those actions. At the end of the class, students should be able to:

  • Recognize and describe ways in which people present themselves online
  • Describe properties of online communication
  • Describe and critically evaluate popular views and (mis)conceptions of online communication and behavior
  • Make thoughtful, appropriate, and practical analysis of and recommendations regarding young adults’ use of online communication tools

For those interested in the gory details, we’ll be using Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life as the primary touchstone regarding identity and how identity is performed. We won’t have time to read more than a chapter or two but it’s a very insightful book with powerful but accessible ideas. We’ll also spend time looking at Suler’s Online Disinhibition Effect. Although I perceive some significant flaws in Suler’s ideas (there’s a strong feeling of determinism from which I instinctively cringe) it’s an accessible summary of some important ideas. We’ll also be looking at some of the current research regarding SNS use among youths and undergraduates.

Interested IU undergraduates should be able to sign up for the course using OneStart. If you have any trouble signing up for the course or if you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at

Edit: I’ve received a few questions and it may be helpful to answer them here, too. The class is scheduled to meet on Mondays and Wednesdays from 5:00 until 6:15 in Foster SH021. The section number is 33403. And you don’t have to be an active user of Facebook or MySpace to enroll in and benefit from the class assuming that you have some knowledge of those tools and how others are using them.

Update: I’ve uploaded the syllabus.