Archive for December, 2012


A résumé of one’s own

“All of them hurry to Bath, because here, without any further qualification, they can mingle with the princes and nobles of the land. Even the wives and daughters of low tradesmen, who, like shovel-nosed sharks, prey upon the blubber of those uncouth whales of fortune, are infected with the same rage of displaying their importance… The husband, therefore, must provide an entire house, or elegant apartments in the new buildings.” Tobias Smollett, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, 1771.

Last week I attended a conference at which an excited man from an East Coast university extolled the benefits of giving every student a personal webspace on which to forge his or her own “online identity” and “personal learning network”.

This “pedagogy of uncertainty” (so labeled because it’s unregulated and entails a modicum of institutional risk) encourages self-discovery among students, said the speaker, Jim Groom. He’s director of  Teaching and Learning Technology at the University of Mary Washington, in Virginia, where he has implemented such a program, called A Domain of One’s Own.

Perhaps because it’s still evolving, Groom has been at pains to define the program’s benefits, describing it variously as:

  • “heady stuff… a conceptual shift in how we think about controlling data, syndicating content, aggregating ideas, and, more importantly… empowering faculty and students alike”; or,
  • a “digital social security number of sorts, a tolken [sic] that is secure and frames a context digitally that was heretofore not only been [sic] unnecessary, but unimaginable”; or simply,
  • “a personalized portfolio of their work”.

It also fosters a richer understanding, he told the conference, of our era’s most pervasive medium:  “How can we think critically about identity on the Web if we don’t inhabit that space.”

It was hard not to agree when he put it that way, and in fact some learning theory does support having students publish online in various forms, which is why legions of teachers have been doing so. However, I had to wonder: self-discovery or self-indulgence? Critical thinking or crass distraction? I’m sure much learning can come from this initiative, and that it fits admirably with the current zeitgeist, and yet it gives me pause. Perhaps it’s just the language used.

In fact, I recall a similar concept from one of my grad courses in educational technology — the instructor posited that people would be better off if technology existed for tracking and storing everything a person does, so the true sum of all his minor achievements might be leveraged for career advantage.

In another course, though, I was told to beware of the false promise of ‘technolust’.

But come to think of it, faculty routinely do track and store their activities as part of the academic enterprise — every little community service, conference or webinar attendance, in hopes that listing these activities in their annual activity reports will improve their prospects for promotion or tenure.

Groom pointed out that young people engage in image-grooming on Facebook and the like anyway, but he likened that to “sharecropping”, insofar as corporations own the content and can whisk it away (or sell the data) at any time.

But isn’t shaping an online identity what corporations themselves do obsessively? So, does grooming a personal Web identity turn a person into his own spin doctor, not to mention a mirror-gazer unduly concerned with appearance?

I know I run the risk of sounding like a harrumphing, hidebound stick-in-the-mud, pining for a mythical time when kids were, gosh, just kids. But it did used to be the case that students merely stuffed their typewritten assignments in a forgotten desk drawer, if they kept them at all. In a pre-looking-glass world no one cared about your long-ago minutiae — and really, I doubt anyone does today. So why are we fetishising these things, implicitly telling students that their “portfolios” will matter? Because it reflects well on universities as career-engines?

But what do I know? The world has whirled on its axis. I came of age when young women wore shapeless dresses and no makeup as a matter of pride. Today, campuses are fashion shows and female students would-be sexpots. Boys pump iron. Campus events feature German cars and local radio stations, but nothing deliberately political.

Groom fits this vibe better than I do. He uses a comic-book-superhero avatar, speaks in a steady stream of movie references, peppers his writings with high-wattage expressions (“excited”, “blown away”), and runs a sidebar of “testimonials” adjacent to every blog post. (Ed tech, like many spheres, can be a heady mutual-admiration society, as the conference bore out.) So let’s drink deeply of the Domaine de Moi-même, or whatever vintage (in new bottles) we’re tasting this week. After all, it’s empowering, whatever that means.

Indeed, it’s a pedagogy of uncertainty.