Sunday, October 24, 2010

Technology and Research, Part 2: Tweeting and Blogging

Continuing my little discussion of the ways in which I've most recently been using online technologies in my daily research and writing habits, today I'm moving on to the complementary combo of Twitter and Blogger.

Since one of my goals over the past six to eight months has been to interact more with people who share my research/academic interests (outside of my graduate program), I've been doing more social media exploration than usual. A relatively recent major change to my online habits has been my increasing use of Twitter as a way of connecting with strangers and keeping up with news.

I operate with a kind of minimalism when it comes to technological tools--as I mentioned in a previous post, I tend to want only the tools I need, and only the tools that work. It's for that reason that I (and others) didn't start using Twitter until quite a while after I first looked at the site and logged on to create an account. I simply couldn't see any point; like so many people, at first I thought of Twitter as a useless stream of trivial chatter that would only further clutter my already-limited field of attention.

In spite of my own skepticism, at some point earlier this year I decided to try "tweeting" a bit more in earnest. Since that time I've decided that there are "two Twitters": the banal barrage of idiotic celebrity gossip and predictably dreary/melodramatic personal updates, yes, that Twitter does exist (of course!). But the flip side of it is a fascinating and wide-reaching series of exchanges, often with people I'd never have encountered otherwise; it's a stream of useful news and links that I couldn't possibly have rounded up on my own; and it's a means of responding to those things, and sharing my own, in such a way that the conversation continues and expands.

But it does take time to learn how to use Twitter effectively as a tool--assuming you know what you want to accomplish with it. At first, without a list of "followers" and with no sense of who else was using this tool and what they might be doing, I felt as if I was sending messages into the aether with little idea of "audience", tone, or purpose. Fortunately I had a few friends already tweeting busily, who helped set an example for me in terms of Twitterquette.

Among the more important things I learned was that while it's more or less true that the more accounts you add to your own list, the more "followers" you're likely to gain, the best way to get the most out of Twitter is by participating actively. For example, a means of navigating Twitter is through using "hashtags", or words/terms attached to a tweet with a # sign: e.g. #CdnPSE for "Canadian post-secondary education". You can "meet" other followers by using tags, and interact with them by "replying" to their tweets or by "re-tweeting" them (passing their content around). A system of crediting others is integral to all this; another aspect is that of suggesting users to other users (often with the tag "FollowFriday or #FF). I found that one of the biggest challenges here was feeling confident to interact with strangers, but once I was over that hurdle things became much more rewarding.

To sum up: I like using Twitter because it affords a form of participation in an ongoing conversation, but it's one that isn't limited to--for example--my Facebook contacts, who are an entirely different group. While on Facebook I keep things generally quite private, on Twitter I'm happy to see strangers adding me to their lists--unless they're bots or marketers. (Now the only thing I can't find, or haven't found yet, is the perfect Twitter client. But that's a whole different blog post...)

Tweeting got just a little bit easier a couple of months ago when (as mentioned in the previous post) also linked to the site, so now you can bookmark, tag, and send a link to Twitter--with a comment--all in the same pop-up window within your web browser (for Firefox, anyway). The other way I access the daily news is through Google Reader, so now I have a Reader-->>Twitter process that works pretty well for finding and reading relevant news, saving articles for later, and sharing them with people who are likely to want to read them.

And lastly, there's the blog. Even as an ex-zinester I've never felt comfortable writing blogs; the required regularity felt somehow journal-like, and I'm terrible at keeping journals. So I began, in fact, with a photo-blog that was at first a daily affair but eventually became weekly as the posts grew longer and often incorporated multiple pictures. A year later, after I'd managed to maintain Panoptikal and even pick up a few "viewers", I decided to incorporate my academic interests and my new Twitter habit by starting an education-oriented blog (the one you're currently reading), with the goal of practicing writing outside a formal academic context.

I've found that the blog is a great place to say something shorter and less formal than I would in an academic paper or presentation. It's a place to brainstorm without pressure, a venue for painting a small picture of my own views and for developing them further, and conversing with others about the issues raised. It's also something expressly public, so it's accessible for those who can't view journal articles or even private web sites where such conversations might happen in a more regulated environment (for example, Facebook). For anyone considering becoming an academic, the public nature of blogs can be a means of reaching a broader audience, of "engaging" multiple publics in the conversation about your research--and seeing immediate commentary. To keep building on that conversation, I embedded my Twitter feed and a list of links from into the blog's format.

At this stage you may be thinking--this sounds like a lot of effort; what's the point of all this reading and commenting and tweeting? The interesting thing is that I wasn't sure myself, for quite some time, why I was "doing all this". But I got more of an idea this past Friday when I got to sit in on a workshop run by Alex Sévigny, a friend who also happens to be a successful professor, a professional communicator, and a prolific blogger and social media buff.

The overall event, organised by Hamilton's Cossart Exchange, was ostensibly for graduate students who are interested in developing non-academic careers. But I think Alex's message was valid beyond its immediate context. His point was that for those people operating outside of existing/rigid employment structures, the process of "self-branding" (as unpleasant as it may sound) has become an integral part of professional success. Before social media, this was more difficult; but now that so many of us have access to social media tools, the opportunities have expanded dramatically. Development of an online "identity" or "face" helps you to make yourself known to potential employers and collaborators, and helps you connect better with those you've already met.

So it turns out that maybe there has been a use for all my blogging and tweeting, one beyond the immediate gratification of chatting with strangers about the things that interest me most. And here's the lesson for grad students: so many of us are spending too much time online anyway, we should really learn how to channel those efforts and make them count towards career-building (!).

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Down-side of Technology? On Class Time.

I want to raise a topic that of course has no easy answers, but which has been coming up quite a bit recently in my job as a teaching assistant for a lecture class of about 100 students. I know many others have discussed this too, so I'm just adding another thread to the long conversation.

Last week in class--in the lecture right before the tutorial I teach--I sat in the back row, as is now my habit, and a fellow TA sat next to me. In the second half of this particular class there was a film being shown. During the film, some students chatted, other used their computers to look at Facebook or other popular sites, and/or to chat online with friends (this they do every class), and hardly any of them took notes even though the film's content will be on the exam. From where we were seated, we could also see many students thoroughly tuned in to their mobile devices (Blackberrys, iPhones etc.).

The main reason that we were paying attention to this is that the instructor had asked the students not to use Facebook during lecture. Her reasoning, simplified, is that while it's more or less each student's personal choice whether or not to engage with the class (student responsibility), other students might be distracted by your Facebooking activity--so it is about respect for one's classmates, as well.

However, this logic has failed; in our class, it's not unusual to see students wearing their ear buds during lecture and watching videos on their laptops.

After last week's class we (the course director and TAs) had a discussion over email about how to handle the students' use of these technologies in the classroom. The question is both a pedagogical and a pragmatic one: what model of learning underlies our reaction to the students' "offtask behaviour", what will the reaction be? What is the next step forward from the argument about "respect" (such a painful position to abandon)?

To me this is not really an issue about the technology per se. After all, when students had only a pen and paper they could still indulge in the habits of doodling or daydreaming or writing and passing notes (as pointed out by this author). In our class, private conversations happen during lecture and there is laughter at inappropriate moments, showing that students either weren't listening or didn't care about what was being said. It's not that new technologies create rudeness or boredom; they just hugely expand the range of distractions in which students can engage, and they do it in a way that's difficult to censure explicitly (you can't take away a student's mobile phone).

Not only is technology not the only "culprit"--it's also not the case that all students who use Facebook or surf the web are "tuned out" of class; they may be looking up something related to the course, for example, or otherwise using technology to add to their learning experience. Pedagogically, there are many ways for instructors to make use of technology in the classroom--but I think it can only happen when students are already interested and motivated, and keen to interact in class.

A well-known example is that of a professor in the United States who collaborated with a class to create this video, one in which certain relevant points about technology and education are conveniently highlighted--even as students are engaging actively in the solution to their own problems (more info and discussion here). The video "went viral" on YouTube--providing a great demonstration of students and faculty engaging with the world "beyond" the university and doing it through making their own media content.

How can we create this kind of engagement, which has to come from students, not just from professors? How do we convey the "rules of the game", which require student participation, without being forceful, pedantic or dictatorial, without fostering resentment? It seems strange to ask students to participate in their own education.

I'm still a student myself--and I know I need to bring something to the educational equation (interest, energy, effort, attention, a desire to learn, a degree of self-discipline) or the result will be negative. There must be a balance of responsibility, between what the professor or teacher does--what the university provides--and what students need to do for themselves. Consumerist attitudes towards education (encouraged by high tuition fees) and the imperative to "edutainment" are skewing this balance as a marketised, customer-service model becomes more the norm at universities; yet so often in the past it has been slumped too far towards the weighty dictates of the institution alone.

As someone teaching--even as a lowly tutorial leader--my observation is that practices of "dealing with" changing student attitudes often happens through a kind of informed yet haphazard, everyday decision-making, through experiential negotiation of the common ground shared by ethics and praxis, driven by a need to act in the immediate present, to be proficient at teaching in a classroom. The loss of students' attention feels like failure of a kind, but what does one have to do in order to "succeed"?

And so to return to the immediate problem, what should my colleagues and I do about our "classroom management" troubles? Should technology such as laptops or wireless Internet access be banned outright from the classroom? Such tactics feel paternalistic. Are there other ways of working with students to create a better environment for interaction and learning, such as making rules and setting parameters? What about when students don't want to work--how do we walk the peculiar line between exercising "authority" and asking people to exercise authority over themselves?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Technology and Research, Part 1: My Obsession.

Perhaps it's my background in visual art that makes me more prone to this, but for much of my life I've been suffering from pack-rat-itis. For example, I still maintain (though adding less to it now) my large collection of clipped images and texts from magazines and other paper publications. I keep a stash of various art supplies and a stocked "toolbox" with everything from string to copper wire to paintbrushes and tape measures. I've acquired a collection of notebooks and sketchbooks over the years and I keep these as well, as records and notes about ideas and projects both finished and unfinished.

And yet there's a sort of competing tendency that keeps things in check: I'm also one of those people who loves the storage and organization section of IKEA, because I like the thought of keeping practical items handy in such a way that I can easily reach them and use them. I hate having mounds of stuff and no way to do anything with it; I dislike even receiving gifts if they have no useful purpose and simply require "storage" (sitting on a shelf). I don't even see the point of having two of the same kind of screwdriver. Periodically I "purge" my supplies (usually when I move house) to make sure I'm not holding on to anything completely useless. My need for workable space may occasionally collide with the squirrelly tendency, but usually the one cancels out the other.

These habits have been transferred, now, to the work I do researching for my dissertation and other projects. Not only do I stash books and papers; my computer "desktop" itself has become a version of the way I'd probably organise my apartment if it were possible--everything is kept filed away, labelled clearly and in embedded folders, but everything is kept. And I'm finally at the stage where this habit is starting to pay off: I have a searchable library of notes and PDF files to which I can refer while working on the next phase of my dissertation. It looks slightly over-done to the casual observer, but then what is academic work if not retentive?

The latest manifestation of all this, and one that has become like a third arm to me when it comes to online research, is the social bookmarking tool This little slice of magic won me over when I realised that all my current, browser based bookmarks--which couldn't be accessed from multiple computers--could be a) uploaded with minimal effort and b) tagged (categorised and labelled with key words), by me, in such a way that they would become useful.

Not only is a powerful tool for sharing things with others and seeing what others are reading; it is--more important to me--a means of creating a personal database of web-based content, accessible from any computer I happen to be using. Why is this desirable? Because I view the web as a major part of my research process, not only in terms of finding the materials I need (books, journal articles, etc.) and connecting with new people (including academics, writers, politicians and policy-makers) but also as a one-stop supersource for media content and information/commentary on current events--crucial to my interest in universities, post-secondary education, politics and policy, and the ways in which ideas about these things circulate discursively. also has some pretty desirable features that make it easy to incorporate into my daily news-reading habits. As I mentioned above, existing browser-based bookmarks can be imported, saving a lot of duplicated effort (I was able to use about 4 years' worth of saved links). There is also an extension integrating into your (Firefox) browser, so that clicking on a single button allows you to tag and comment on something before saving it to your account; the same extension allows you to search existing tags in a side-bar. The list of PSE links at the left-hand side of this blog page is channelled to Blogger from as well, showing only those recent links tagged as relating to PSE. As you can tell, the tagging system is key to the usefulness of, and I soon developed my own strategy for maximising the usefulness of tagging.

And while all this seems like a lot of work, it really isn't--compared to the ways in which it's paying off. During the York University strike over 2008-2009, I tagged/bookmarked over 300 news items--press releases, articles and blog posts--which I was able to use later for a media analysis that became a conference presentation. I've saved clusters of articles on a series of specific themes that will work as media case studies in the future (possibly for publications); one of these I've already used in a class lecture on Critical Discourse Analysis. And then there's the usefulness of simply being able to access "that article" that you read two months ago, the one about gender and accessibility and women's pay (for example), and bring it in to class or into a paper or blog post or--you name it. I see this not only as a way of keeping up to date with current developments in the "field", but also as a means of enriching what I'm writing by referencing a more diverse array of sources. is one of those Web 2.0 tools that makes me feel blessed to be researching in the Internet Era. And, I admit, it's also just a teeny bit enjoyable to be able to justify my storage and organization "habit" (hobby? Obsession?) as a means of actually advancing/enhancing my own research work.


Coming up soon, in Part 2: Why I like "Tweeting" and "Googling"...a few comments on the Internet, connectivity and interdisciplinarity.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Writing it Out

At the risk of drifting into the Dull Squalid Waters of Graduate Student Angst, today I'm going to talk about writer's block--possibly as a means of getting around it. Now that's creative! ;-)

In my case, getting stuck on process is something that often comes from insecurity, a fear of "acting" and "just getting things done"; so I've tried to work at my own writing strategies over the years. But this kind of detailed thinking-through and development of self-knowledge isn't necessarily something we see being explored in graduate school (for various reasons--see my previous posts about related issues), possibly because writing help and development are often assumed to happen during the student's coursework (unless there are no courses) or at the university writing centre. It may even be assumed that students should have learned how to write during their undergraduate studies, or that they "had to know how to write" to get in to grad school. Yet I've had numerous professors tell me that writing skills are a major problem even at the graduate level (where a whole new level of writing is required).

I was recently helping a friend, who is an M.Ed student and a good writer, to prepare a grant application--and I noticed that his draft had been re-written by one of his profs (rather than merely edited). I could tell from the language she'd used, compared to previous drafts he'd written; and because the language had changed, so had the project--into something he hadn't really "framed" himself.

As we went over this new, re-written draft, I helped him to replace language that seemed inappropriate by asking about the ideas behind, and impressions conveyed by, the words; we also "broke up" the seemingly polished structure of the writing by cutting, pasting, rearranging, and adding in points with no concern for cosmetic editing. We pulled out the issues that seemed to be central and made a list, starting over with a new structure and concentrating on telling a coherent "story" about the project.

It felt as if the real focus kept getting lost in all the ideas that were floating around--that was half the problem. But the real trouble for my friend was even more basic--he had been told to write something in a completely new genre, and offered almost no guidance. With many thousands of dollars' worth of grant money at stake (the Ontario Graduate Scholarship is worth $15,000 for a year, and Tri-Council grants offer more), writing had suddenly taken on a new and immediate importance, and there was little appropriate help to be found from professors swamped by similarly panicked grad students (a good number of whom have never heard of a "research grant" before their first year of PhD).

In the end it wasn't due to my teaching skills that we ended up making progress (if we did)--far from it, I'd never done this kind of work in my life and I had to think: how does one write? How do I write? After all, I was pretty much the only model I had to go on. I had never really thought about that uncomfortable process outside of trying to enact it somehow, as contradictory as it sounds. My friends don't usually discuss how they write, though they frequently bemoan the difficulty of it. I'd helped students with writing before, but there had never been time or space for such in-depth consideration. So the struggle for me was one of translation and negotiation, and fortunately what I did have was some experience with producing grant proposals.

This only made me think more about my own, current editing tasks--my dissertation writing and the papers I'd like to see published, in particular. I recently was forced to consider how much my process must have changed over time, when I was revising a paper written during one of my MA courses. The paper lacked the structure I would have given it if I had written it more recently--indeed, I'm currently re-ordering the entire thing such that the reader isn't expected to plough through the textual equivalent of an army obstacle course. My more recent writing is evidently more well-planned, as the other papers showed, but work from just 18 months ago still seems littered with tentative statements and unnecessary words, begging for a linguistic pruning.

And yet I can't remember ever having been told anything about these things--ever really learning them--other than perhaps by osmosis. This gives me some faith in the concept of a kind of gradual improvement with time and practice; but I still think it's the self-reflexive process of working with other people that brings real perspective and the motivation to actually consider one's habits and tendencies in more depth, with an eye to doing better (writing) work, and to working better overall.