Diss Orienting

I am now a 4th year student in my program, which means I have completed all of my required coursework, proposed my research project and had it approved by a small group of professors (my committee), and am now collecting data that I will use to write my dissertation, which will basically be a book or a collection of articles.

Sounds simple, right?

Honestly, it is pretty simple, but like all simple things, it conceals a tangled network of social and material support systems, logistical acrobatics, and—for me—deeply felt and often painful emotions. I’ve been doing this academic thing long enough now to understand that there is nothing special about what academics do. It is a kind of work—like any other kind of work—that rewards some kinds of behavior and punishes others, that values some kinds of expression and dismisses others. Its impact on the public is minimal, for the most part. This distresses me sometimes. Other times, it is a comfort.

Anyway, I don’t mean to be a downer. I’m in one of those lulls where the work seems overwhelming, and the point of it is not too clear. This attitude comes and goes. I feel better when I’m actually collecting data, so today I’ll talk about that a bit. But first, the elevator pitch for my project:

I study high school students’ use(s) of technology for social and academic purposes, attending to the ways their composing practices in each context converge or compete with one another.

To do that, I observe two high school classrooms, survey all the students in those classrooms about their attitudes and beliefs about technology for social and academic purposes, and interview a smaller number of students in each class to get more in-depth and fine-grained descriptions of (what might be called) their digital literacy practices. It’s actually pretty fun. Students say (and do) funny and interesting and unexpected things. They have fascinating ideas about what is important and interesting (in life and regarding technology). I’m at home in those conversations, though I worry that I’m not asking the right questions or noticing the right things to produce the kinds of data I need to make the kinds of arguments that will be interesting/persuasive to an academic audience. I worry that I’m not really going to be able to say anything that hasn’t already been said.

And I guess that’s where the title of this post comes in. How I orient myself in the classroom as a teacher feels quite different from how I am orienting myself as a researcher. Navigating that new territory is strange, and I worry that I am not giving back to the community in a way that is satisfying (to me). When I think about how I might do that, I feel overwhelmed by the potential time commitment. I am currently a parent of two teenagers who go to two different high schools and a researcher in two (other) different high schools, and a student taking a history class with a heavy reading and writing load, and an employee with the Sweetland Digital Rhetoric Collaborative and with the Center for Research on Teaching and Learning, and a mentor to two undergraduates through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, and a co-facilitator of a Rackham Interdisciplinary Workshop. The time commitments embedded in all these things fluctuate from week to week, and they push hard against the dissertation work, which still feels dreamy and speculative to me.

So, I guess, if part of my project here is to track not just how I feel about the dissertation project (tired), but also how I am developing strategies to do the work—and it’s just work!(remembering that helps)—then right now it looks something like this:


I like to think globally. It helps me see that there is a light at the end of the project. But I also like to compartmentalize and rank my lists, breaking down the project into (more) manageable pieces. The next trick: managing the time.


How Narrative and Community drive tech adoption/adaptation

The night Vale logo - a crescent moon that makes up the iris of an eye against a purple background with the silhouettes of a water tower, telephone pole, mountain, and antenna in the foreground.If you live a significant amount of your life in social media (like I do), you’ve probably seen something cross your dash or pop up in your twitter stream about Welcome to Night Vale. No? Well, consider this a recommendation to go check it out. It is a 20-30 minute fiction podcast written as a community radio broadcast from a small town in the American Southwest that is crowded with a combination of the mundanities of small town life, an abundance of conspiracy theories, and a number of Eldritch horrors. Written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, it is beautifully narrated by Cecil Baldwin (the name of the main character and the actor who voices him), and it is posted on the 1st and the 15th of each month. You can find it here on iTunes, where it caught a good bit of media attention for leaping to the #1 podcast spot just over a year after it started.

I could go on and on about the things I like about Night Vale, and I invite you to feel free to talk with me about it if you decide you like it too. Seriously. I need discussion partners. But what I want to dive into here is not the awesomeness of Night Vale, but the way my introduction to it came through social media and developed my facility with that particular platform.

About a year ago, I wrote a post about how I didn’t quite get tumblr. I chalked my ambivalence up to a (generational) unfamiliarity and thought perhaps it had something to do with my preference for text as well, since I take tumblr to be a largely visual platform.  I still had a tumblr, and I checked it once a month or so when I felt “caught up” with my usual social media sites. On one of these drive-bys, I slowed down to look at some incredible fan art, and I thought, “I wonder what that’s based on?” About a week later, I checked back, and my tumblr feed was overtaken by cryptic quotes and great art, so I went looking for the podcast.

I sort of get tumblr now. I spent the next two weeks checking my dash every day, reblogging and following new people. I connected my tumblr to my twitter and pinboard accounts, and I had a fascinating conversation with a teen on an airplane trip to Austin who noticed Night Vale on my iPhone. She wrapped up our 40 minute fangirl conversation by saying, “I’m going to post about this on tumblr, and no one is going to believe me.”

When I think about my progression from an ambivalent, nearly scornful, attitude toward tumblr to a wholehearted embrace of the platform and what it offers, I think it’s fair to say that I adapted my internet habits and adopted new ones because I found a community of people making (textual, visual, musical) art around a narrative that I was interested in. My points of entry into myspace, livejournal, dreamwidth, delicious, pinterest, Facebook, twitter, and tumblr were similarly constructed around the twining ideas of community, narrative, and art/making. I think with all the conversations around the ways that social media and technology can leave us “connected, but alone,” it’s important to think about these communities of interest and how they support – well a variety of things, really, but especially the acquisition of tech savvy practices.

The teen I sat next to on the plane from Atlanta to Austin was going to stay with a friend she had met online. She described an incident at a fan convention where the people she was rooming with were talking about an amazing story they had read without realizing that she was the author. She had a brand new Homestuck tattoo, and she was concerned about the implications of Yahoo’s acquisition of tumblr and what it might mean for creators like herself. Her life online is clearly an important aspect of her identity, and she was shocked and delighted to find that that could be true for a 40-year-old high school teacher and PhD student as well. For all our common interests, I still had to ask her, “But how do you meet people on tumblr?” She looked at me, perplexed. I tried to clarify, “I mean, I can see how you follow people, and they follow you, and you use tags to find things, and link platforms to keep them easily accessible, but how do you start a conversation with someone?”

“You ask,” she said.

It’s not greatly different from how it’s always been done, or from how our conversation on the plane started, though it may not look the same. You have to risk and learn the appropriate code/cues and find compatible people and invest in them. You invest in a shared project, you learn the language specific to your shared space, and you invest in each other with your own stories. You build community; you build narrative; you build tech experience.


Negotiating Online Boundaries

“Mom, you just don’t get Tumblr,” my daughter insists.

She’s partly right. I have a Tumblr, of course, but I don’t use it much. Merlin can spend hours being alternately horrified and delighted by the parade of images at her fingertips. I’m easily bored with it. I thought, ‘Well, maybe I just need to take a lesson or two from an expert,’ so I wandered over to her page to check out what’s got her so enthralled. When I entered her email to find her, it automatically made me a follower so I could view her page, but it didn’t notify me on the screen. I scrolled through her posts, nearly had a seizure from all the animated gifs and decided that, all things being equal, I could probably stand not to engage on this platform, but in the interest of giving it a fair trial, I signed up to follow some education tumblrs and a couple of people my daughter follows.

Three days later, I had decided that there’s nothing I want on Tumblr that I’m not already getting elsewhere. By then, though, Merlin had noticed that I was following her and the vlogbrothers, and she pulled her father aside to ask him if he would talk to me about my invasion of her space.

I get it.

She’s thirteen, and she “gets” Tumblr, and she loves John Green, and in a real sense, those things “belong” to her. In her view, they do not belong to me, and my interest in them is suspect. Even though I recommended John Green to her, and I had no intention of spying on her posts, my accidental “following” of her Tumblr felt like an encroachment on her space.

In a horrifying reversal, I’ve had several online border disputes with my own mother. I write about things, and I post them, and sometimes I link to the posts on Facebook. When my mother has something to say about a post on my blog, she comments on the link on Facebook which drives me nearly to distraction. The personal and painful things that I sometimes write about in my blog posts are not read by the majority of my Facebook “friends,” so when Mom posts lengthy and personal commentary on them on my Facebook, I feel caught in a conundrum. On the one hand, my blog posts are haphazard, and the few interested parties like to be notified when I make one, on the other, I expect any specific or lengthy reaction to the posts to be routed through the blog itself or through private message. I use Facebook for “liking” and “sharing,” not necessarily for communicating.

So what space is mine and what is theirs? Merlin’s attempt to toss me out of her space produced mixed results. Her father insisted that one of us follow her on Tumblr because she is too young to have unfettered roaming rights online. I’ve quietly deleted Facebook links that generated commentary that I felt got too personal, but I’ve never attempted to have a conversation with my mother about it.

The metaphors of space tied up in conversations about the internet imlpy (to the capitalist mind, certainly) issues of ownership and property, of what is “appropriate” in a given “location,” with the boundaries (often imperfectly) agreed upon by the users. What are our territorial rights and responsibilities online?