As I’ve blogged about before, I’m teaching a course on digital identity this semester. When the course was scheduled, I was really excited. Talking to students at UMW about digital identity has long been something I find incredibly rewarding. I feel like I have a fair amount to share on the topic, and it’s always incredibly cool to have students share their own thoughts about the formation of their digital identity.
I think one reason that the course subject resonates so deeply with me is that I’ve long felt that the formation of identity (of all kinds) is a profound piece of the undergraduate experience. I don’t know that we talk about that explicitly very much within our traditional curricular and academic practices (or maybe we do and I’m just not part of those conversations), but we in DTLT (and the faculty we work with) definitely talk about it WRT digital practices and pedagogies.
So, teaching a course that was entirely framed around digital identity seemed like such a rich and exciting opportunity.
We’re a little more than half way through the course, and some things have gone fabulously. I have a great (albeit small) group of students who frequently contribute to very rich and nuanced conversations in class. I’ve been pleased with how the conversations we’ve had seem to build upon each other, and I think that I’ve seen them begin to develop richer, more nuanced, understandings of the meaning of digital identity and their roles within digital communities and spaces. It’s a fun process to see unfold.
But, on other fronts, I feel like I’m failing a bit miserably.
Not surprisingly, a key component of the course is actually asking students to create (and inhabit) their own identities. This is done primarily through having them purchase their own domain and build their own site within that space. I ask them each to install WordPress and then explore the possibilities of that environment — by installing plugins, playing with themes, and, MOST importantly, developing their presentation of themselves and inhabiting the spaces they’ve created.
I know I shouldn’t be surprised that this can be a struggle (We use this approach in ds106, and, certainly, not every student gets it everytime), but I feel like this should be intrinsically appealing to them! And, to a certain degree, I think they really DO appreciate the opportunity to build their own site and make it their own.
But the inhabiting of that space is a struggle.
Blogging is a key component of the course — I expect my students to use their spaces to share their thoughts on the readings we’re doing and the conversations we’re having. I expect them to read and respond to each other. I REALLY, REALLY want to read what they are thinking. And I REALLY, REALLY want them to read what each other is thinking. I want them to feel empowered by this opportunity. And I want them to feel inspired enough that they can’t help but want to post and share and commune.
To that end, I started the class by taking a somewhat, I guess, “liberal” approach to the blogging component. I didn’t want to prescribe a number of posts or comments. I didn’t want to dictate how often they should post or how long those posts should be. I didn’t want to tell them what they should or shouldn’t include in a post or what kind of voice is “appropriate” for them to use. After all, this is a class in digital identity! I want them to explore that for themselves!!
So, here’s what I put in the syllabus about blogging:
This includes your reflective topic posts and technology assignments. It also includes your commenting on your classmates blogs and posting about other things of interest to you. Think of your blog as an extension of the community of the class as well as a place to carve out and explore your own identity. You will have explicit things you need to do in this space, but I also expect you to “inhabit” it. You will receive an explicit grade on each of the topic discussions and technology assignments. In addition, twice during the semester, I will be reviewing your blog presence holistically and considering how well you are exploring and owning this space.
I wanted to carve out a loose framework for them to understand the role of blogging in the course. But I didn’t want to be so prescriptive that they felt like this was a mere “exercise” — something that they needed to check off of their list once a week (or however frequently).
My framework has been something less than a roaring success. By spring break, I began to think that maybe they weren’t understanding what I meant when I said “inhabit your blog.” Posts that were required weren’t materializing, and more exploratory uses of their spaces were few and far between.
We talked about this frequently in class. I tried to explain my expectations in as many ways as I could.
After spring break (last week), I decided to try a different approach. I gave them some explicit blog assignments and deadlines. This didn’t work either.
We were supposed to have a conversation tonight about a lecture that the class attended last week. Each of them was supposed to blog about it before tonight, and I even went so far as to ask them to discuss at least three things they learned from the lecture in their posts. Only a few students completed the assignment.
I came to class tonight feeling disheartened. I decided to mix things up and I threw out the discussion idea and gave them a group “field” assignment. I’m hoping this will mix things up enough and might open up some creative gates and get them thinking differently.
I had to preface this by explaining to them why I was doing things differently and why we weren’t having the talk we’d planned on having. I feel like it seemed like I was trying to give them a guilt-trip or shame them. I’m really uncomfortable with that. Much like parenting, I don’t think guilt or shame has a place in teaching.
I’m left wondering if the problem is me. Have I failed to express my expectations clearly enough? Have I been too loosy-goosey, kumbaya about the whole blogging thing? Am I asking too much? Am I not modeling enough or well enough?
I think my students like the class and are engaged in the topic, but, for some reason, I can’t seem to get that to translate into meaningful discourse in the space that is the illustration of what we are investigating — their own personal domain.
I’m struggling with whether to publish this. I know that my students will likely see it and read it, and I don’t want to add to any sense of guilting or shaming — certainly not publicly. But I also believe in transparency and shining lights in the dark corners of our classes. And, most importantly, I believe in asking for help.
I should also come clean and note that I’m sure a large part of my frustration comes from the fact that I am, by profession, and instructional technology specialist! I’m one of those people who works with faculty to help them figure out how to use these digital approaches in their classes. On a certain level, I feel like I should know the answer! But, of course, it’s never that simple.