On The Way To DPL #DigitalIdentity

It’s happening. Next week Digital Pedagogy Lab will commence. Participants across multiple time zones will be chiming into conversations from kitchens and living rooms, attending keynotes, workshops and their selected course. As circumstances require, we’ll be all online for this explosion of digital exchange and encouragement. The lab will be different this year and we’ll be creative in building the special world that has marked the on-site event in past years. In my corner of the DPL world, we’ll be unpacking, examining, then likely repacking Digital Identity for ourselves and each other. I’m hopeful and excited.

woman drinking coffee during daylight
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

I’m hopeful that I and my mighty cohort will develop a shared space that offers plenty of opportunities to speak up, share out, meet up and hear each other across varied media, time zones and modes of communication. I suspect that the variety of ways each of us is able to show up during the week will, in and of itself, give us plenty to think about in trying to get a handle on what digital identity is and can be.

I came across an example of inspired critical thinking in a short talk by Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom in which she dissects the cultural and political significance of the Harper’s Letter which made the rounds in early July, . #TheLetter as it was soon called on Twitter was signed by several prominent knowledge and culture producers railing against the toxicity of “cancel culture” and in defense of free speech (on their terms). There are numerous hot takes on the letter and its intent but for me it was Dr. Cottom’s analysis in conversation with radio host, Chris Lydon that sparked all kinds of creative thinking in its wake. Describing the relevance of social media in catapulting this debate onto center stage among the thinking class, she commented:

Social media, as we now know it, which is, let’s be clear, just because we can all freely participate in social media does not mean that it is a democratic space. So Twitter and Facebook for example are actually not the public square. It is just that, this is what the public square has been reduced to. They’re a new set of terms that have been introduced about how discourse will happen because platforms have incentives. They are there to make money off of our engagement and our intention and the platforms are designed to drive, aggressive interaction, because those are the types of things that drive people to participate in the platform, we become valuable to Twitter, when we are angry. It really is that simple. It is our attention that is being resold to advertisers. It is not the public square that we are seeing in Twitter. Pew data shows that fewer than a quarter of the American population are engaged in Twitter, even casually. This is not a huge swath of America, right. It is a highly self selected group of people who want to have a certain type of discourse. The problem that makes for a lot of academics and I think especially public intellectuals, is that we want to be in that space. It is a space designed for us! It’s text-based, is discourse based, but the terms of the space are just a bit too democratic for them to dominate the space the way they probably prefer.

In under two minutes, she offers us clear and accessible means to make sense of this portion of the online world many of us subscribe to, for better or worse. Particularly when we disagree with others on online platforms, we believe ourselves to be responding to that person or that group. Yes, and. As Dr. Cottom asserts, we are also responding to an environment that rewards our discord, that actually generates profit from and through every stage of outrage. Further, we may think we’re talking to our city, country or even the world, when in fact we are addressing a fraction of it, of which only a fraction of that fraction is likely to register our loudest cries.

For those of us who have willingly immersed ourselves in some form of digital media presence, it’s possible to overestimate our relevance. And when Dr. Cottom notes how traditional print-based public intellectuals may be experiencing the widening of the public discourse via social media as a damper on their assumed influence and reach, it serves as a tiny reminder that all of our efforts to speak and be heard on public channels are fundamentally about exercising power and agency.  So when we talk about digital identity next week, power and agency are the canvas upon which we will draw our maps of digital engagement and purpose.

In a structured dialogue with a colleague which I recorded in preparation for DPL, I responded to the prompt: “Tell me something you wish people thought more about regarding digital identity.” My response on the second round surprised even me.

“I want people to understand positionality…Now that more folks, I’m going to say white folks in particular, have learned to call themselves white and recognize that that’s a thing. That whiteness is a thing. We’ve always known that being male was a thing. And now we have to also recognize, oh wait, there’s a gender spectrum; that non-binary is a thing. So understanding positionality means recognizing, first of all, who am I? … What are my social identity markers?

I identify as a Black woman, American, cis-gendered, straight, able bodied and all those things contribute to how I move through the world, those are all lenses that I apply in the way that I see things, perceive things, the way that I respond to things.

So, I need, I really, really need people, especially online, when I engage with them to have some grasp of that; to understand who they are when they are speaking; from what position they are speaking.

For some that may sound like a burden, an extra set of things to think about, that perhaps gets in the ways of speaking more freely. If that’s the case, it suggests that it’s not a way that a person has ever had to think because they fell into the default or assumed group. Naming things is an act of power that takes some practice. In Digital Identity, naming ourselves, claiming our full identities will be part of what will allow us to more critically investigate the platforms and services that claim to want to help us in those endeavors (read:personalization).

Alas, I’ve invited a wonderful group of people to come talk about digital identity for a week. We’ll listen and explore, question and respond, create and convene. Digitally. In that unique space we’ll consider both who we are and who we think we are. We’ll try to come to terms with how different platforms see and treat us as users; that is, who platforms think we are and what they encourage us to be more of.

Joanne McNeil, author of Lurking: How A Person Became A User (2020) talks about the difficulty of describing the embodied fragmentation that is the internet. She writes,

…it feels like every user inherits a job, an unpaid library science gig, just for having to think about classifications and representation, the epistemic meaning of data and the written word and images. Identity becomes scraps of enterprise, content and dis-content, an unceasing whirl of desiderata and refuse. p. 6-7

There were are, people as users, users as people; amalgams of a gazillion data points over a lifespan – individuals with unique identities. “Scraps of enterprise…and unceasing whirl of desiderata and refuse” – this may not be the way we are most accustomed to seeing ourselves in digital environments. Yet in the massive churn of internet facilitated activity across the globe, in that context, the description strikes me as apt, although not especially flattering.

Our challenge in the coming week will be to make our power and agency tangible while simultaneously acknowledging stations of positionality along the way which necessarily will shift depending on the context. Seeing – differently, more consciously, generously; Listening – more intently, less defensively; Discovering – openly, bravely, collaboratively. I hope some -or even all – of this is possible in our cohort. That’s my excitement.

excited barefoot ethnic mother and cute girl doing stretching exercises together
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels.com

 

 

Too Real

Tomorrow marks the return: Return to school schedules, to the fellowship of colleagues, to the routines we teachers use to prepare the path we will travel with our students.

I look forward to the mass reunion, to the hugs, smiles, waves and quick catch-up conversations that remind us of where we left off. I’m prepared for the variety of meetings, large and small, in which my colleagues and I question, clarify and plan our first steps into a new school year. I have participated in this ritual over twenty times – always with variations – but in its essence it remains a kind of constant. At this stage of my career, this offers a certain degree of comfort, a sense of orientation. I know where things are. I am familiar with how things begin and how they are likely to proceed. I am a veteran. I belong here.

On the other hand, …

I fear the crush of speed chatting, the sense of overwhelm in the face of sudden exposure to too many elements at once. I worry about not being able to respond adequately, that my smiles may run out; that I’ll freeze up and wish I could run away and start again on another day. I know there will be meetings with too much information and not enough time to digest it so that my questions 2 days later will seem like stupid ones. In those meetings I will either talk for too long or not at all and it will never feel like I said the right thing. I will go home drained and nervous because maybe, after all, I don’t belong here.

These are feelings. They are mine. They are real and they are all over the place; never static.

At the beginning of his keynote at the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute, Chris Gilliard took some time to address a topic that had been on many participants’ minds during the week-long event. To a musical backdrop, he read a series of statements which were impactful and emotive even if you lacked the specific context they were generated to address. Particularly his first statement gives me pause.

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“being too real”

This is truly something to fear. And the more often I read the statement and listen to Chris speak it, the more deeply it reveals itself to me; where it fits in my story, how it relates to my yesterday, my now and my tomorrow.

“Being real” is something I can do quite well in my classroom with my kids. In the course of the school year my students will know me serious, silly, annoyed, patient, harried, calm, forgetful and attentive. They will see me perform miracles and manage epic fails. They will see all of my hairstyles and comment on them. They will ask me questions and figure out if I will respond with a question of my own, answer directly, tell them to ask a friend or just look at them and wait. By the end of the school year my students will have a strong sense of knowing me because I will have been real with them all along.

Being too real is more of an adult-adult conundrum. How I show up with and for my colleagues will have a lot of contextual dependencies. While I can and strive to be respectful and kind to everyone in our community, being real means that I can also be honest when things aren’t going so well, that I trust you enough to listen in a helpful way. Being real means that I can tell you what’s really on my mind with regard to a given topic and not fear your judgment. Being real means that I can tell you what it means to belong and not belong at the same time over decades in the same institution.

Yes, Chris, there are a lot of spaces in which I fear being too real. Overcoming that fear every day is my personal and professional development project for life. Thankfully I work with children who mirror that struggle in myriad ways and together we practice being real with each other day after day. Over time, they and I get better at it.

 

Games, Rules, Power and Play

While planning for my workshop Games, Rules, Power and Play, I stumbled upon many resources which I found helpful or entertaining or both.

Here’s a selection:

Deep Fun with Bernhard DeKoven

This site is a wonderful place for anyone interested in the lightness and wonder games can offer us. Besides offering a tremendous collection of all types of games for players of all ages, blog posts and articles provide encouragement and support in developing one’s capacity to engage in “deep fun.”  Really glad I found this!

In search of good word cloud creator I found this game site, ABCya!, aimed at elementary kids and was actually both delighted and challenged by some of the available games. Kid friendly interface. Yes, I would even share this with my own son. And the word cloud generator is awesome!

At Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute Vancouver I introduced the workshop agenda in the following way:

  1. We are going to play some games.
  2. We are going to take time to raise questions and offer observations about what we experienced.
  3. We will play some more.
  4. We will pause to question and reflect.
  5. We will need to wrap up and this may be hard because we’ll just be hitting our stride and having so much fun but even that part will have a playful element to it.

Given that, here’s my request of you:

Please let go of whatever notions you have about what a workshop at an academic conference can or should look like.

Let yourself play. Let others play. Let’s play.

Have the experience rather than theorizing about having the experience.

And we played:

This is my nose

Blah, blah, blah – in which pairs practice talking and listening to each other at the same time, changing subjects on the signal and continuing their partner’s line of conversation.

We spent a bit of time looking at definitions of the word game and considered the question: What do games offer us – as individuals, in groups, within a culture?

Ed-Tech Hyperbole (Using the attached word grid, players tried 3 versions)

  1. On your own- Come up with as many ed tech slogans as you can. (2 minutes)
  2.  Versus a partner:  Try to form a hyperbolic sentence that uses as many terms as possible but still makes sense.  (competing) (90 sec. )
  3. With a partner: Create 3 great slogans together Or create your own 100 word list for a particular instance (cooperating) (3 min)

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Reflection points:

Which version of play appealed most? How did you experience yourself in each of the game settings?

On the topic of power I offered:

This workshop is really too brief to try to address the many ways in which power is enacted, formalized and expressed in games and their structures. Rules provide frameworks for distributing power and authority. Players engage and may apply rules in any number of ways – strictly, loosely, consistently, haphazardly. How these variations are managed offer a whole other field to observe power relations in effect.

My request to you is to keep your eyes and ears open for power dynamics in this workshop. What have you observed in yourself and others? How might games in the classroom offer opportunities to demonstrate and discuss power dynamics in the group and in general?

And as predicted time was running low and we needed to wrap up.

We finished with a stand-up round of non-verbal feedback. Participants were asked to share their impressions of and/or response to the workshop by either humming or giving a physical representation (gesture, pose, movement).  A lighthearted conclusion to a playful and reflective meeting of the minds.

As facilitator I enjoyed the privilege of working with participants who made my job look easy-peasy. I do believe that game environments have a great deal to offer and teach us in a variety of contexts. Hosting this workshop was my way of sharing some gentle reminders that joy, fun and laughter have a place in serious learning at all levels.

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