Category Archives: Domains17

Neither Locked Out Nor Locked In

I want to make sure before I begin that I extend my thanks to both Reclaim Hosting and the University of Oklahoma for organizing this event and for including me in it. Domain of One’s Own is a project that has consumed a large amount of my professional life for the last four or five years (and a large part of my heart and imagination for probably another 5 years before that), and building it back in the day with Jim and Tim at UMW was truly one of the most rewarding professional experiences I can ever hope to have. Moreover, seeing it flourish and grow and develop at institutions like the University of Oklahoma under the leadership of people like Adam Croom has been fascinating and humbling and richly instructive. I learn much more from DoOO and all of you who are involved in it than I can ever hope to contribute back to it.

As I’ve prepared for this talk I’ve been abundantly aware that I’m speaking to an audience that is different than ones I usually address about Domain of One’s Own. I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that this fact has been a source of some amount of stress for me — okay a lot of stress. There are people in this room whom I consider mentors and who’ve inspired me professionally for many years. Moreover, many of you have been involved in Domain of One’s Own for as long as, or almost as long as, UMW and I have been. You don’t need me to make the case for why Domains matters — presumably you wouldn’t be attending a conference titled Domains 2017 if you weren’t already convinced this project matters.

While I was thinking about what I could bring to the table here that would be new, I kept coming back to this nagging feeling I’ve had that we’re at an inflection point in this project. At UMW, we’re now four years into Domains. While I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished and hopeful about where we’re going, I also know that I increasingly find myself trying to understand Domains more deeply, particularly within the current cultural, political, and technical moment that’s happening right now — a moment that feels quite different from when this project began.

As you all know, I’m sure, the title Domain of One’s own comes from a long essay published by Virginia Woolf in 1929.

In A Room of One’s Own Woolf explores and defines what a woman in early 20th Century England needed to become writer — resources and a space of her own. When the idea of Domains was first born, back in 2007, it seemed fitting for us to suggest that a domain is what a student in the 21st century needed in order to be a digital citizen — a domain and space of her own.

Like me, Woolf also struggled with how to approach the topic at hand. Faced with the general topic of “Women and Fiction” she realized that there was no single, straightforward approach to take, she needed to somehow consider the topic from multiple angles, in an inextricable mix. And like me, she felt unsure that she would be able to provide a pat conclusion — a nugget of pure truth — that her audience could take away.

The title of my talk, “Neither Locked Out Nor Locked In,” comes from Woolf’s essay as well and I chose it because it captures a tension that I believe is inherent in a project like Domain of One’s Own.

How do we create a space within our schools (with all their political, technical, and institutional realities) that truly embodies a spirit of self-determination and agency for our students.

How do we free our students from the shackles of corporate and commercial Web spaces without creating some new kind of shackle?

And, how do web build a platform for the practical, valuable, discernible activities of building on the Web while also grappling to understand the Web on which we build in deep and discerning ways?

For me, the answer lies in pushing beyond the pragmatic and practical goals of the project where we often begin and end. And, like Woolf in a Room of One’s Own, I want to spend my time here dwelling on the the inextricable, in this case, why we in higher education must teach our communities to grapple with the Web in these deep and discerning ways — how the Web, and our culture, and our systems of education are bound up with each other and why they demand a particular responsibility of us.

And like Woolf I hold out no hope to myself or you that I will deliver a nugget of pure truth by the end of these 45 minutes. I expect I will raise more questions than I will answer and I will provoke more debate than I will resolve, but I hope that I will lay bear my thinking in such a way that you will find that provocation useful and that it will lead you somewhere useful.

ePortfolios

I’d like to start from a simple place, the place where, in fact, Domain of One’s Own at Mary Washington finally got off the ground at in spring of 2012. That spring marked the end of my participation in a working group on ePortfolios.

The charge for the group had been handed down by our Provost who, I believe, had attended some kind of higher education conference where he heard that ePortfolios were the “next big thing” and he was certain that we should be “doing them.”  Needless to say with such a strong and compelling charge our work was rich, nuanced, and valuable.

No, in fact we had spent close to 12 months simply circling around the issue of what an ePortfolio actually was and why we would want a system for creating them.

The teaching faculty in the room thought that they would like students to create an ePortfolio so they a could see a reflection of growth and development at the culmination of a course.

The faculty in the room who sometimes wore administrative hats wanted to see an ePortfolio system that would allow them to assess the work of a group of students within a particular academic discipline or program.

The College of Education faculty and administrators needed an ePortfolio because of increasing demands from the Commonwealth of Virginia to demonstrate students’ and graduates’ competencies.

Other administrators in the room wanted an ePortfolio system that would allow them to demonstrate our excellence as a University.

Oh, and some people also thought that perhaps it would benefit a student to have an online presence that they could create, develop, and take with them when they graduated from UMW.

At the time I liked to joke that if you had a meeting with 10 people about ePortfolios at UMW, you would walk away from that meeting with 13 different definitions.

It was, not surprisingly, a kind of frustrating 12 months.

My job, as the representative from teaching and learning technologies was to try and help translate the various needs of the participants of the working group into some kind of set of requirements, to research what tools and technologies could be tested or piloted to meet those needs, and to help facilitate those tests and pilots.

At the final meeting of that group, sometimes in spring of 2012, it became clear that while we had learned a whole lot about what ePortfolios might mean to us at an institution we were no closer to understanding how we could possibly settle on a solution that would meet the many disparate needs that had been expressed. In fact, it seemed ludicrous to try and buy or build a system that could do all these things since the very ethos of the “things” themselves seemed to be at odds: how does one give a student an individually-controlled space for reflection and growth while simultaneously using that space for institutionally controlled assessment and collection of data.

One theme that kept emerging again and again was the fact that many (but not all) of the kinds of things that we wanted to accomplish with ePortfolios we were already doing in other spaces. Namely, we were five years into our institutional WordPress blogging platform and we had begun to see students use this, sometimes unprompted, as a space for them to build out an online portfolio of their work at UMW.

At that final meeting while we talked around the topic of ePortfolios yet again, one administrator in the room asked, “given our current systems and expertise and resources, what could we do right now that would get at some of these goals?”

It was obvious that what we could do now was take the energy and excitement that was around UMW Blogs and push it further — give students their own spaces and more freedom.

A few other pieces fell into place: our CIO said that sure he could put some money to a pilot that did something like this. And the provost who had initially brought together the group to talk about ePortfolios? Well, he resigned.

Trojan Horses, Useful Symbiosis, and Considering the Pragmatic

Jim Groom has talked periodically about ePortfolios being a Trojan Horse that allowed us to pilot Domain of One’s Own at UMW. That sounds in some ways more dastardly and deliberate than I think what we intended.

I like to think that there was a kind of useful symbiosis that occurred. There was a conversation circling around a set of perceived needs and there were passionate, creative people at the school ready to push into some new territories. The confluence of these needs and this push allowed us to pilot Domain of One’s Own with a specific goal of helping students build out digital portfolios of their work. While that wasn’t the only goal we had, it was a useful goal to pin the pilot upon.

So why am I telling you this story? Perhaps because I imagine some parts of it might sound familiar to you: institutional mandates pushed from far above your pay grade. Working groups representing disparate needs and views trying to find common ground. Many hours of hard work on a project that is summarily dropped with changes in staffing and administration. These are challenges we all face (and will continue to face) at our institutions because this is how our institutions work. Part of what we need to do is find ways to create remarkable things out of these obstacles, and sometimes the Trojan Horse (or useful symbiosis) is the way to go.

But the other reason I’m telling you this story is because the Trojan Horse approach to launching DoOO at UMW represents a kind of pragmatism that I think we need to consider and unpack. On the one hand, attaching our project’s goals to a defined institutional need allowed us to move forward. We were able to secure both resources and support from important stakeholders by suggesting that Domains was a way to address some of the goals of the ePortfolio working group. If nothing else it was a way to demonstrate that something had come out of that year and a half of work.

The goal we were hitching our wagon to was also one that could be understood in pragmatic terms. Students should have a Web space in which they could publish their (best) academic work and they should be able to control that space and take it with them. In doing so, they would learn technology skills that were real and marketable. For a project, this is a clear goal with a clear set of objectives in terms of both student learning and student outcomes or products. It is fairly easy to talk to administrators about. It resonates with parents. It intersects with employers expressed needs. It is in many ways a win.

And, for the last four years at UMW it has been the primary way that we talk about and understand Domain of One’s Own. I suspect that at many of your schools it is a familiar message as well.

Bear with me as I now read you a long list of phrases:

  • create a digital presence
  • install popular open source applications
  • create your personal online presence
  • control your content
  • design and create a meaningful and vibrant digital presence
  • cultivate a digital profile for [your] academic and professional work
  • administer [your] own websites
  • build your own space online
  • develop rich personal teaching-learning environments
  • install many different applications for web publishing, community building, information management
  • [design] sites to house course resources
  • [gather] and [make] publicly available content
  • learn basic web hosting skills
  • create a beautiful website, a personal ePortfolio, or a blog

That was not actually a list I wrote — I’ve cribbed these from various Domains sites at some of our universities. And lest you think I’m picking on anyone here, the language we use at UMW is included in the list I just read.

Now perhaps your sitting there thinking about the list I just read and saying “Wait a minute. What’s wrong with those goals? They sounded perfectly good and appropriate and reasonable and honest goals for DoOO!”

In fact there is nothing surprising or inherently wrong about describing the activities of DoOO using any of this language — language that I would label “pragmatic.” DoOO is about building Web sites, creating a digital presence, learning basic Web skills, and sharing public content.

Just by doing all of these things, Domain of One’s Own is unique and special. I’ve spoken before and at length about the critical role that I think our Domains projects can play by providing students with open Web space upon which they can build and enact a digital identity for themselves. Prior to these projects at our schools this was a missing link in our technology chain of offerings. In fact, over the last two decades we have pushed students more and more into commercial, locked-down, proprietary systems that are divorced from the real world of the Web and frankly DoOo was a long time coming.

All that said, I believe we have to push beyond pragmatism now. I think it’s time for us to expect more of our Domains projects.

This past spring, I had the pleasure of speaking at Keene State College about Domain of One’s Own, and in that talk I laid out four key components of Domain of One’s Own that have recently helped me frame the activity of the project: Naming, Building, Breaking, and Knowing.

I believe there are opportunities with each of these to push beyond the pragmatic goals of Domain of One’s Own into deeper more reflective and more critical territory, and I’d like to talk through the first three (naming, building, breaking) fairly quickly. And then spend a longer time with you paying particular attention to the last one: knowing.

The Naming of Things

As we all know, the very first step in signing up for Domain of One’s Own is choosing a domain name. At UMW we have few restrictions on the choice of name and we offer suggestions to help guide students.

An overarching value we try to embrace when we talk about the domain choice is one of agency: participants should be able determine for themselves how they wish to be known and found on the Web. Our goal in this first step is for the naming to represent a moment of taking ownership: a consideration of what a thing is through its naming.

We should not rush through this conversation, suggesting that it is merely about the practical necessity of choosing an address for our Web site. Consider the heft of choosing a name in so many of our cultures and traditions. Certain religions believe that a name is an alternate representation of a living breathing person, or that names can be used to summon gods and to cast out spirits. In modern times, consider the weight new parents give to the choosing of a child’s name. Heck, I know people who have spent months picking out their vanity plates, which is a kind of naming in and of itself.

For our students, choosing a domain name is the opportunity for them to call something into existence, and the weight they assign to that act can help them to understand, ultimately, the importance of what they choose to create. Students who spend little or no time on this choice may see little or no value to what they place at that name; students who choose a name that is deeply reflective of who they are and what they would like to become may be more likely to see their domain as a kind of inhabitable space for them online.

The Building of Things

In addition to the domain name, the other fundamental component of Domains is the space we provide on an open source LAMP web server. We choose the LAMP stack because it is inherently open and portable. It is in this space that our students enact the most obviously practical goal of DoOO: building Web sites.

The building of sites is absolutely the core activity of Domain of One’s Own. When the project first started one of the things I would frequently say when talking to students about the web was that I wanted them to realize that the web was not something that happened to them but they were happening to. And I still believe this is an important message for our students to hear to and understand.

As I’ve already said this goal of Domain of One’s Own is enticing, resonant, and meaningful to so many of our students and faculty. They can wrap their heads around what it might mean to build something of their own at a domain they’ve named, and they can imagine how what they build might impact them beyond their time at UMW. And when I tell them that WordPress actually powers 25-30% of the Web, well that only makes the activities we’re asking them to engage in that much more tangible and relevant.

The Breaking of Things

It is impossible to work within these spaces and not, at some point, encounter breakage. I, myself, have broken Domain of One’s Own in the most awesome, spectacular, dramatic, and heart-stopping ways. 

When I’m talking to administrators or technologists or faculty who are new to the project this aspect is the part that terrifies them most. What about when things go wrong? What will I do? What will our students do?

Last summer someone posed this question to me at the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute: “What do you tell my administrators when they ask what happens if something goes wrong?” And I rather flippantly replied, “You tell them, good. It broke.”

My answer was flippant, but the truth is for those of us who live within Domains, we know that the breaking and fixing of things is where the most learning can occur.

Framing breaking in a way that learning occurs however can be challenging. There’s a temptation (I still fight it) to simply swoop in and fix something for a student or a faculty member because it’s easier for me to do that than for me to teach them how to do it.

At UMW, I direct the Digital Knowledge Center, a peer tutoring center for digital projects and assignments and one of the values we try to embody is not just helping students fix problems but helping them understand why things broke in the first place. To be cliche, every moment in which we walk a student through a fix is a deeply teachable moment — a moment not just to provide step by step instructions but to narrate for them what each step means. When we bring meaning to the breaking and the fixing we are pushing beyond the boundaries of the merely practical.

What do students really learn when they learn how to fix the things they’ve broken on their domain? They learn a bit about how their site actually works. About the interplay perhaps between script files and databases. About how DNS functions (hopefully once they learn this they will teach it to me, because dammit if I know). Perhaps they will learn something about how a hacker can gain access to Web sites and why there is a burden on those of us who create on the Web to also secure what we create.

BUT —  from there they can extrapolate this to the larger Web they live on. They learn that for all its power the Web can be an exceedingly delicate space where a single misplaced semicolon can bring down an entire online resource and where a single missed security update can bring an online service to a halt. They learn that the Web isn’t magical but rather carved out of code that is as fallible as the humans who write it.

The Knowing of Things

When we start down these paths — these more complex paths and conversations about what it means to name and to build and to break and to fix, we come to a far richer place than just a space where students can build beautiful, rich, powerful Web sites. We are in the territory now of not just naming or building or even breaking but the territory of knowing the Web.

So I’m a word person and “know” (like all words) is actually an interesting word.

If you go to Merriam Webster (everyone’s favorite dictionary these days because they know how to do Twitter so well), you’ll get a fairly straightforward definition:

  • to perceive directly, have direct cognition of
  • to have understanding of
  • to recognize the nature of

I would argue that the most important goal of DoOO is to help students know the Web according to these definitions — we want our students to have an understanding of how the Web works, and we need to think about how we teach Domain of One’s Own so that this is achievable.

I want to talk now about a few lessons that I think we can impart to our students on the path to knowing the Web.

WordPress As a Symbol and a Choice

At UMW, the vast majority of our students’ work on Domain of One’s Own happens within WordPress, and increasingly I admit I worry about this. Don’t get me wrong, WordPress is still hugely popular and as I mentioned earlier there are estimates that it runs close to 30% of the world’s Web sites, but our dependence on it bothers me for two reasons:

First, as Web technology goes WordPress is ancient. This past weekend it actually had it’s 15-year anniversary. In other words, it’s almost as old as a college freshman. In Web time, that’s really, really old. Meanwhile, new technologies are changing how Web applications are built, resulting in faster, more agile publishing platforms.

The other reason I worry about our dependence on WordPress is that we run the risk of recreating the very dynamic that Domain of One’s Own seeks to challenge — an environment in which we lock students into a choice we’ve made for them by default.

I think it’s important that as we foster Domain of One’s Own on our campuses, we continue to look at the technical horizons. WordPress won’t be the industry leader or standard forever, and we need to be prepared to support our students in whatever new environments emerge. In addition, we need to find a way to make Domain of One’s Own as flexible as possible when it comes to facilitating student choice and agency. 

In the meantime, I think we need to remember that while WordPress is powerful and fairly simple to use (the primary reasons we tend to depend upon it) it is also useful as a symbol of what is possible on the Web. Learning WordPress should not just be about learning WordPress — it should also be about all the tacit lessons that go along with learning how to publish online in an open-source Web application.

WordPress should serve as an exemplar with which our students can grapple as a way towards a deeper understanding. The things they learn to do in WordPress are generalizable to other systems and other online spaces: identifying an audience; honing a voice; organizing and architecting an online space; mixing media to create compelling narratives; considering the interplay between design and content; understanding how Web applications work “under the hood” and how databases and scripts interact; adapting sites to consider accessibility and universal design; connecting disparate online spaces so they relate to each other in synthesized whole; adapting a site as it grows and develops in new directions; responding to comments and finding other spaces and sites upon which to comment; learning how search engines rank sites and how those search engine’s algorithms impact the findability of their own site.

When we teach WordPress we need to push beyond the practical skills our students must know in order to make the application work and into this territory of generalizable knowledge.

How Search Works

How search engines work is a great example of one of the ways in which we can help students to better know the Web. So yes, of course, search is ubiquitous. We and our students search so much that we don’t even stop to think about what search represents.

But if they are learning how to build on the Web they probably need to know something about becoming findable (or unfindable) on the Web. And by extension they need to understand how the power behind that findability is impacting the course of human history. 12 months ago if I had said that, some people would have rolled their eyes at me, but I think it’s safe to say that in the last 9 months we’ve all realized just how powerful algorithms are in shaping the outcomes of our culture.

Here’s a story I like to tell about the power of search. Many of you probably know it, but it’s worth revisiting. Back in 2010, when redevelopment of lower Manhattan was still ongoing, a new Islamic community center has been proposed about two blocks from Ground Zero. The center was to include an auditorium, theater, performing arts center, fitness center, childcare center, bookstore, culinary school, art studio, food court, and a memorial to the victims of the September 11 attacks.  And it included a prayer space for the Muslim community.

As the project moved through the review process it began to attract national media attention, and the attention grew into outrage in certain circles. As this progressed, the project started to become know as the “Ground Zero Mosque.”

The name was a misnomer, though. The Center wasn’t really a mosque and it wasn’t really at Ground Zero. And the name glossed over all the other services and programming that the Center would have provided for the community at large.

Some main stream media news outlets sought to rectify this by directing their reporters to not use GZM to refer to the project. But it was too late. Because the misnomer has propagated so widely, it was now how people were searching for articles about it. To make their articles findable, news outlets had to use the phrase Ground Zero Mosque.

In this particular case, Google worked as a kind of amplifier of distortion. And make no mistake, that distortion has real, discernible impacts on public opinion. The narrative about the Center became divorced from the reality of what it was actually meant to me — and the propagation via search of language that reinforced those misconceptions was partly to blame.

In addition to talking to students about cases like these, there are a number of simple exercises that I like to do about search that help demonstrate its power — having students do a basic Google image search for terms like “doctor” “teacher” “baby” and talk about what these visual results tell us about the representation of race and gender in our culture for example. There’s an important conversation to be had about how much search is reflecting back to us our culture, our culture as it is represented on the Web, or a version of either of those that has been filtered through a human-coded algorithm.

Much like the conversation about WordPress can be generalized, the conversations about search algorithms are generalizable as well. I would argue, in fact, that the algorithms of the Web are one of the least understood concepts that our students know nothing about. We need to be talking to students about where these algorithms come from, how they dictate what we seek, and how they have the potential to control our reality.

Consumption/Creation

In the aftermath of the 2016 election there’s been lots of attention paid to the ways in which our students consume and digest information. It’s certainly become clear that we have a lot of work to do, and to anyone who wants to really think about this topic deeply I would point you to Mike Caulfield’s work.

When the conversation around information access, consumption, and sharing was unfolding between last November and this spring in my various professional networks, I struggled with trying to understand how these issues intersect with Domain of One’s Own. I don’t think we can divorce a conversation about how the Web works with the conversation about how we consume and propagate information on the Web — particularly when we’re realizing more and more each day that that sharing and propagation has a deep and resounding impact on our lives.

What I would like to suggest is that consumption and creation are two sides of a single coin and that we must help our students to understand this. On a very basic level this is about teaching our students why what they share matters — whether that’s on their Facebook feed, Twitter timeline, or personal domain. Each act of sharing that we undertake is a moment in a larger narrative that spreads throughout the Web, pointing people towards truths that may or may not be real.

One of the simplest ways to approach this topic is a discussion about social media sharing. A few years ago in a first-year seminar that I teach, I asked my students whether or not they fact-check the things they share or re-share on Facebook. For the most part I got a rather lukewarm reaction to my question. They didn’t seem particularly concerned with whether or not what they share is true or not; what they cared about was whether or not it told a good story. I challenge you to pose this question to the students you work with or to ask the faculty you work with to pose it.

If Domain of One’s Own is about educating more savvy creators of the Web than don’t we have a responsibility to teach them the ethical implications of creative acts?

Beyond Uniformity

My own history of the Web has walked a strange line between conformity and individuality. In fact much of my life can be described between these two concepts.

I actually grew up in a 1960s era “planned community” called Reston (in Northern Virginia) where there was a prescribed palette of colors that people could paint their houses. And I mean prescribed — there was actually a color known as “Reston Brown” that you could buy at our local hardware store.

The result of this conformity was actually quite lovely. Reston was aesthetically uniform, pleasing to the eye, well-balanced and well-maintained. The very proportions of roads to trees to houses to roads to shops to lakes was defined, and you could feel this proportionality living in the town.

My first real Web development job was as Web director at a university out West where it was my job to bring uniformity to the myriad of department and college sites across the school. I designed templates and systems and training for getting people to use those templates. I sought to shut down a startup culture at the school that was resulting in sites built with decidedly unregulated palettes and proportions.

Now I live in the country so that I never have to be part of an HOA. We mow our lawn when we darn well please and it would never occur to me to consult a community handbook before changing the color of my house. And I help support and administer Domain of One’s Own at UMW — with the baked in value of empowering students to create their own individualized Web presence, free from the shackles of Facebook’s templates.

You could say I’ve been converted.

Yet I still struggle with how to balance supporting a system as complex as Domain of One’s Own without dictating how people use it. My anxiety about depending too much upon WordPress is wrapped up in this struggle. For the last two springs, I’ve been involved in a group that meets to assess student domains in our history department and american studies program. The exercise is enlightening. We find that often we can learn more about the assignment that a student had been given than about the student herself.

If we want Domain of One’s Own to flourish as a space for student agency than we need to balance structured guidance with playfulness and empowerment.

We need to provide useful guidance. We need to point students in those directions where we think that they can be successful, by suggesting applications they should install and use, by offering ideas of what elements to include on their sites, by providing feedback as they explore their own digital presence, but after that we need to be able to step back and get out of the way.

Finding Our Metaphors

I’d like to return to the idea of knowing and what exactly the word “know” means. In addition to the definitions I already talked about the OED defines know as

  • to recognize
  • to perceive as identical with one already perceived or considered
  • to be able to distinguish.

The fact of the matter is that Domain of One’s Own is hard to know, and it is hard to teach. It is easy, in fact, to know and teach it when our focus is on the practical goals I’ve discussed earlier: choosing a domain, building a site, even fixing basic problems we encounter with the sites we’ve built. These are skills that we and our faculty, our administrators and our students can pin down. They feel tangible; they feel knowable.

But perhaps the real power of Domain of One’s Own is when we recognize that the naming and building and breaking and fixing are all symbols of something greater, something more powerful and more binding than just practical activity.

Im struck more and more that in order to dive into these deeper waters of Domain of One’s Own we need to find language that lets us do so, and for me that’s the language of symbolism and metaphor and even poetry.

Around the office back when Domain of One’s Own was still new we had a running joke about Jim Groom’s favorite analogy for Domains: “It’s like a house.” While I poke fun at Jim’s house analogy, I’ve come to realize more and more that these analogies, metaphors, and symbols are the way that we can come to teach the Web so that our students know it in the sense of recognizing it — distinguishing it, perceiving it in relation to those things already known.

This past spring, I had the pleasure of leading an independent study undertaken by Meredith Fierro, (who just graduated from UMW and will soon be working at Reclaim Hosting). Meredith created a short introductory video for Domain of One’s Own for us to show to all of our incoming students at UMW, and to create it she interviewed a bunch of people about Domains. I gave her some advice as she was choosing the questions to ask, most of which were designed to get people to talk about what DoOO is to them and how they think UMW students can use it. But I snuck one question into Meredith’s interview. It didn’t make it into the final video; it wasn’t really appropriate for the video she wanted to create for her project. But it was really useful for me as I worked on this presentation!

If the Web were a concrete space, what would it look like?

This is the question that Meredith asked, and last week I went back and pulled together the answers that all of her interviewees gave — these are faculty, students, and alumni of UMW. And also Audrey Watters, because when Audrey comes to visit your school and you’re working on a video about Domain of One’s Own, you’d be stupid not to ask her to sit down and talk to you about it. And now I’d like to show you just a bit of what they said.

Moving forward I would ask that we all think about sharing the language we use to talk about these spaces. What does the Web look like? What does Domains look like? What metaphors for teaching these things can we bring to bear upon the conversations we’re having in our communities and can those metaphors help us to unearth deeper, untapped nuances to how we inhabit these spaces.

Web Literacy/Cultural Literacy

So where does this leave us? As promised, I don’t think I’ve offered any pat conclusions or nuggets of pure truth. But I hope I’ve said some things and shown you some things that have provoked you in interesting or frustrating or curious or meaningful ways. I hope that I’ve helped you to know a bit more about what we’re doing with this project we call Domain of One’s Own.

I would like to leave you with this: For many years, I feel like when the conversation about teaching the Web in our curriculums came up, there was not so much a pushback as a shrugging of the shoulders. A sort of general sense that it didn’t really “fit” with what we do in college and university.

We were about established academic disciplines and approved research methods. We were about rigor and deliberation. Yes we were also about creative thinking and critical thinking and problem solving, but always within a kind of framework of the academy. Even our consideration of popular culture was within a rigorous academic discipline.

The Web seemed well. . .just there. Interesting, visually pleasing at times, weird, always expanding beyond measure, inscrutable, and a bit of an opiate of the masses. I mean, how could we take something seriously that had birthed lolcats? 

Can any of us say that anymore? This powerful, relentless presence has been growing and changing for 20+ years — and it is changing us and our perceptions and our access to truth and our ability to make our world a better place to live in. And all along, we’re actually the ones who have been growing it and changing it, bit by bit, domain by domain, site by site, service by service. With what we build and what we share and what we sign up for and what we search.

The time came long ago for us to have a conversation in our schools and with our students about what this all means. If anything, I worry that it may be too late for this conversation. As Audrey suggests in that video, it sometimes feels like the Web is being torn down to make room for a parking lot — its been consumed by huge corporate, locked down silos. And as UMW professor Zach Whalen states at the end of my video, the Web sometimes feels too locked down, too clean. I would argue that the places where the web still feels messy and chaotic? Those are also the places that are the equivalent of the dark alleys that Professor  Parrish Watters alluded to in the video. Is the Web now a space that is so intentionally controlled by commercial interests and vile trolling that we no longer have a chance of reclaiming it as a space of ideas, a space of expression, a space of possibility?

At my heart I guess I’m an eternal optimist. Because, honestly, these days I feel like if I don’t hold onto that optimism with a steel grip, my own spirit would begin to feel unreclaimable.

So I will say that I think we have to double-down our efforts to have these conversations, and we need a foundation for that conversation. A space in our discourse in which we can grapple with the relentless, marvelous, complicated, monstrous space of the Web. I think that foundation is Domain of One’s Own. Yes, let’s build Web sites, but let’s also make the world a better place.