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.


8 Responses to “A résumé of one’s own”

  1. December 11, 2012 at 7:13 am

    What puzzles me most about Professor Groom’s initiative is why he believes that universities have a role to play in providing students with “a personal web space”. People — especially young, computer-literate people — have so many options for developing their on-line identities and profiling their work. Aside from the most obvious, like Facebook and Linkedin, look at what you’ve done with your WordPress account — a combination blog, resume and archive. Would universities really be bringing something new to the party? Or just jumping on the bandwagon?

    • December 11, 2012 at 2:36 pm

      I think the initiative is partially to expose students, young people, to options other than corporate owned spaces like LinkedIn or Facebook. Stephen Downes wrote a long time ago about the value of having your own website, with your own control over it.

    • December 11, 2012 at 6:53 pm

      I guess some of the selling points are (a) the space is ‘permanent’ (but whether more so than Facebook is debatable); (b) the space is more unstructured and thus apt to inspire thought and creativity; and (c) the space affords (theoretically) more opportunity for interlinking with the academic community. I suppose from the university’s end it also holds the potential of keeping some alumni more engaged with the campus. But in truth it is competing with Facebook and LinkedIn, and whether most students would avail themselves of this space, especially in the long term when those competing spaces vie for their attention, is doubtful. So the ‘permanence’ is very questionable. Then again, if 5% or 10% of the students truly engage with the space during their four years or so, then perhaps it’s deemed a success.

    • December 11, 2012 at 7:12 pm

      Absolutely agreed — there are a number of platforms available to create an online identity. But isn’t the point of higher education to teach students critical thinking skills, and to open their eyes (and minds) to new possibilities, such that they can improve themselves, their communities, and the world around them?

      As I understand it, the Domain of One’s Own project isn’t about reinventing the structure of the web. It’s about improving student literacy in a number of areas. Just because a person is facile at uploading pictures to their Facebook account doesn’t mean they know how to register a domain name, or sign up for a hosting account. Just because a person regularly posts to a public Twitter account doesn’t mean they have thoroughly considering the potential consequences of their actions. What constitutes “computer literacy” is changing — it’s not just about knowing what buttons to mash or where to click anymore.

      Computer literacy, and internet literacy more specifically, includes thinking critically about our online self-presentation, or lack thereof. This critical thinking includes thoughtfully choosing platforms; if privacy is important to you, for example, Facebook may not be the best option. If you want to have full control over the way your online presence looks, WordPress.com may not provide enough theme options. If you’re a graphic artist, LinkedIn may not offer the portfolio tools to show instead of tell visitors about your work. The framework we use to present ourselves speaks as loudly as the content; the medium IS the message.

      Ultimately it’s up to students to choose for themselves how and why to present themselves online, yes, but universities absolutely have a role to play in helping them develop awareness of these questions, and the tools to think critically about their choices moving forward. Not having an online presence is as much a choice as having an online presence. Whatever choice a student makes, it should be an informed, well-reasoned one.

  2. December 11, 2012 at 2:27 pm


    I appreciate this post because it helps define the contours of the project for me a bit better. I really don’t know where this leads, and the question of online identity can quickly become a brand-driven reality. I particularly like this comment:

    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?

    For me the question is how do we engage the idea of online identity as greater than the omnipresent vision of branding? Might there be a more authentic vision (and I understand how problematic a term like authentic might seem from a comic book character edtech person 🙂 ) wherein an academic community can support and encourage students and faculty alike to enter into a discourse around their professional field, hobbies, and/or passions. I am wondering if a space that students are asked to consider and experiment as an intellectual and personal journey of sharing and reflecting through on their learning might lead to some interesting possibilities. We’ve had some greta success with this with UMW Blogs already, and I think what Domain of One’s Own adds to this discussion, if anything, to talk to the ShatteredAccountants points, is the ability for students to have a deeper understanding of how these services and the corporate exchange in data during our moments shales them in ways they can;t control. I appreciate the candid feedback because it helps me further fine tune a vision that is still very much emerging, and the fact that it remains deeply uncertain is why it is attractive to me, which may be a psychological issue 🙂 Thanks for coming and engaging the ideas, but more than that sharing back your response to them.

    • December 12, 2012 at 5:10 am

      Thanks, Jim, for your thoughtful, nuanced response. Certainly A Domain of One’s Own would provide far more scope (and potentially far more authenticity, as you point out) than the confines of Facebook or LinkedIn. And I suppose if there’s some structure and guidance around students’ Web-publishing activities, whereby they can enter into it more deeply, more aware, and thus learn more from it, then it has marvelous potential. But if it’s a free-booting “here’s your webspace, have at it” approach, then of course the risks stand to outweigh the benefits. We’ve all witnessed young people behaving regrettably on Facebook. And indeed, a program like ADOOO holds the potential for students to experience a richer, more meaningful Web.

  3. December 11, 2012 at 6:08 pm

    It’s a pleasure to discover your blog, Larry. I enjoyed some time going through some of your previous posts, I hope you will continue to share your reflections here more often in the future.

    You make strong points on the question of whether by embracing certain technologies and practices we are indulging a “crass distraction”, and it is definitely very healthy to question whether by “fetishizing” student work we are merely promoting our “universities as career engines”. I don’t see how anyone engaged in this field can avoid those concerns.

    I’m tempted to push back a bit on whether Jim is himself conflating questions of “online identity” with “self-marketing” as cleanly as you suggest. I think there is room for a lot of critical engagement and reflection in these spaces as well, as you demonstrate with this post. I think the desire to see online expression move beyond self-promotion is precisely why scholarly communities need to assert themselves here.

    You aren’t the first person to poke at the “mutual admiration society” vibe certain sectors of the ed tech scene give off… indeed, you use far more polite language and tactics. The risk of having fun (like Jim is with those “testimonials”) is that we all have a different idea of fun, and that can put people off…

    Hopefully you found the day as whole worth your time. We really were pleased to have you and your peers in the Library with us, and can only hope for more engagement. If you have thoughts on how to make these sorts of conversations more useful I hope we can talk about that.

    @shatteredaccountant – It’s true that people today have no shortage of places to post stuff. The problem with Facebook, LinkedIn, et al is that their primary purpose is not to provide us with useful platforms. They are designed to gather personal information and media from us, which they then package up and sell to their true customers — advertisers and market researchers, etc… This presents all sorts of practical problems (can I link to something you posted on Facebook three years ago? is there even any way I can search for it?), as well as ethical ones. As an aside, when I first read this post, I was treated to an ad depicting a smirking Stephen Harper giving thumbs up for some “debt reduction” service — http://tinyurl.com/ao4lt7u Speaking for myself, it’s seeing interventions like that which motivates me to take steps to promote a different model of online ownership. I can only hope that higher education sees this as a mission worth embracing.

    Thanks for starting my day off with such a bracing and thought-provoking critique. I’ll be reading and clicking.

    • December 12, 2012 at 6:06 am

      Brian, I never said nor (I believe) implied that Jim was conflating online identity and self-marketing. I did suggest that a wide-open program providing webspaces to everyone could be interpreted that way by students already heavily invested in their FB profiles, and thus the university could be seen as condoning the grooming of online identities. So, much depends on how the program is rolled out, how it’s supported, and how well it’s integrated with course activities. As I said in the column, “perhaps it’s the language”. Terms like “online identity” and “portfolio” are heavily freighted. And it’s possible that a 30-minute spiel at a conference is too small to do justice to all the ethical and pedagogical niceties of such a program. I wish Jim could have expanded on those aspects, but he did do some of that in his response above. I’m aware of how Facebook et al exploit their users, and alluded to the selling of our data in the column. I hope all the students at MWU know, too, and appreciate what they’ve got (though the tug of the FB community will always be there). As for mutual-admiration societies, as I said in the column, every sphere has them (and libraryland is no different), It may have been the “communications” aspect of the conference (e.g., the cameras if not a political purpose) that brought it to the fore. If I hurt anyone’s feelings, I’m truly sorry. But it was fair comment. This blog, in fact, is “a space of my own”, a place for reflection, a place to park an online resume (which I generally forget to maintain). If any readers do stumble upon it (and I’m always surprised when they do), then I trust them to know that I don’t support Stephen Harper or seedy debt-reduction scams, and I’m not beholden to them. They just pay the rent. 🙂

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