Author Archives: Amery Bodelson

So you say you want feedback?

Greeting, everyone! It’s weird how quickly this fall has flown by, and we’re looking at the holidays in a little over a week.

For my final paper, I chose to research more about the Millennial student, the digital native, and the types of feedback that they respond best to. I teach communication skills courses, and Turkle’s 2011 book Alone Together made me further analyze the students in my classroom and the way to best connect with them and help them learn. My abstract is as follows:

Today’s college students may enter the classroom physically or virtually. Because of emerging technologies, these digital natives, who are often Millennials, bring different communication habits and expectations to the classroom. For those who teach communication skills to college students to prepare them for the workplace and the world at large, it is critical to first understand these tech-savvy students and to give them feedback that will help them learn and improve. Because the modern-day classroom now involves various delivery methods, including video lectures, audio feedback, discussions, and phone conferences, to name a few, today’s educator must adapt different communication approaches best suited to those methods. This paper will attempt to answer the following questions: 1) What are the major changes in communication strategies and preferences for today’s college student (more precisely, today’s technical college student), and 2) How can communications educators provide better feedback to these students to help students improve their communication skills?

I love how research makes you question your own assertions and preferences. Before this research, I was admittedly in the curmudgeonly mindset that “Millennials these days need too much coddling.” Some research supports this, but with a better understanding of WHY they need more feedback, it feels less needy, and honestly, more reasonable.

Oprah

Courtesy of MakeaMeme.org

I came to better understand who the digital native-Millennial student is, why and how she operates the way she does, and what types of feedback she responds to best. I was able to remind myself that just because I was taught to do something one way doesn’t mean it’s the right way or the best way. So, I’ll be taking some of the research findings I learned through this final paper and employing them in my six classes this coming spring. My students will be getting more audio feedback, more specific feedback, more actionable goals, and more timely feedback. I’m not sure yet how I’m going to juggle all of that with six courses, four of which are writing intensive, but I did learn that audio feedback has some advantages for instructors, too, in that it takes less time and makes them feel more engaged with their classes and students, too.

ElffFeedback

Memegen.com

Overall, the research process reinforced the need to stay up to date on pedagogy, to keep learning and trying and growing. It’s something I try to instill in my students, and now I can speak from more recent, relevant experience with them about it.

Thank you all for your kind comments, suggestions, and posts this fall term. I hope you all have a fantastic holiday season and enjoy some much-deserved time away from studies and work.

 

Am I an Important Cultural Worker?

In Ch. 6 “Human + Machine Culture” by Bernadette Longo in Spilka’s text Digital Literacy, the definition of culture is easily broken into acts that include and exclude (p. 148). In order to feel part of a culture, whether that’s a college campus, a church, an ethnicity, or a city, one must draw borders and agree upon the boundaries of that community. This seemingly innocuous task is exclusionary. While it’s pleasant to believe in the democratizing force of the internet, we have learned in previous readings that the barriers to inclusion still exist, for rural areas, low-income areas, elderly populations, etc. From these last chapters of Spilka’s book we’ve also learned that cultural differences can exacerbate communication problems. Yet, we connect online despite these boundaries, contradictions, and limitations. Longo asks, “Can virtual social connections established within a human + machine culture satisfy our human need to connect with other people?” (p. 148). The answer seems to be no, not entirely, but they can alleviate some of those exclusionary tensions and we can work to draw a wider net around our culture(s).

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Cultural Communication Differences, courtesy of meetus@US

 

Longo also makes clear that as technical communicators or anyone who works with language, we have the “power to invite people in” because we are “important cultural workers” (p. 151-52). Because Longo deconstructs the idea that the online culture is universal or homogenous, she forces us to question how to make the communication tools we produce accessible to all in order to extend the cultural boundaries. As producers, we have the privilege and responsibility of deciding whose culture and knowledge will prevail, and historically we have erred on the side of science and logic do the effect of decimating other histories and cultures (p. 153). We prioritize the rational, the technique while subverting the imagination, nature, art, and pathos (p. 158). I went into the liberal arts because of those subversions, but I’ve immersed myself in logic, technique, and intent. Just as our society has evolved to prize the extrovert, the loudest, and most gregarious, it doesn’t mean that those people always have the best ideas. Does the same mentality apply to technical communication? Do we fall into the fallacy of doing things the same way because that’s the way we’ve always done them? I buck against the notion of free-flowing and “flowery’ help design menus but I’m basing that mostly on my own cultural training and preferences.

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Homogeneous vs. Heterogeneous, courtesy of Thesaurus.plus

I know I have been guilty of the worker (or user) as victim trope when designing technical documents in my early years (p. 159), but Longo illustrates that try as we might users will figure out their own ways to use our documentation, oftentimes not in the way we intended. People are ingenious and impatient. Doesn’t it behoove us to give them the benefit of the doubt, ask for their input, and design with their usability in mind rather than assume we know better than they do because we know more about the product than they (presumably) do? As usual, I will apply this to my current position as an educator. When I started teaching, I was terrified that students would ask me a question that I didn’t know the answer to and that I would have to admit that I didn’t know. I shake my head at how naive and pompous that now feels. Of course I don’t know everything, and my students’ experiences enable them to see content from entirely different perspectives than my own. Isn’t that richer? The more I’ve let myself stop being the primary keeper-of-knowledge and made my classroom collaborative and interactive, the more engaging it has become for all of us in the room.

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What it feels like during many mandatory professional development meetings (sitting and getting), courtesy of techlearning.com

 

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Control freaks unit!, courtesy of Psychology Today

I’m a planner and a bit of a control freak. I like to know what’s coming and I like to steer, but sometimes I learn more (and my students learn more) when we put the planner down and see where we end up. In Chapter 7: “Understanding Digital Literacy Across Cultures,” author Barry Thatcher asks technical communicators to return to the tenets of purpose, audience, and information needs, but also to organizational strategies and style preferences (p. 190). Perhaps that means that we have multiple forms of the same content but tailored to the audience. Maybe that means audiences can design the best content solution to fit their needs (though I don’t know how that’s engineered or executed well)? I am very much for examining our own cultural biases and ethnocentrism, but I acknowledge that it’s hard, dirty work. Just as jurors can never be completely objective (nor can any human being), it’s hard to set aside our own inherent cultural upbringing and fully understand or appreciate that another culture does it completely differently. Even as a I read the case study of the US vs. Mexican communication differences, I found myself automatically preferring the Western style. To me, it just made more sense.

Perhaps we start there. We stop to analyze why and to realize that people from other cultures feel equally justified in finding their way the “right way.” If communicating effectively came easy, we wouldn’t have to keep teaching ourselves how to do it. It doesn’t. Human beings are complex. Digital audiences are complex (p. 221). Blakeslee (Ch. 8) recommends we keep researching and applying what we learn, and we keep asking ourselves the hard, uncomfortable questions. That’s where the growth lies. As one of my favorite poets and late-great songwriters wrote,

“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in” (Leonard Cohen).

Teaching Take-aways Concerning Digital Literacy

 

CollaborativeWriting

Collaborative writing, courtesy of KQED

This week we tackled Chapters 3-5 in Spilka’s 2010 text Digital Literacy. Working backwards with Chapter 5: “Content Management,” the chapter’s author William Hart-Davidson reassures us that technical communicators should not be so fretful about their profession since the proliferation of content management in the digital age will make their jobs more valuable, not less. However, he shares that “in an information economy, more workers will write” (p. 129). So while content management will alleviate some of the fears of job loss that technical communicators face, they must accept that more people in their organizations will write. In some ways, this gives technical writers even more to do; as in, do they become the gatekeepers of all communication? Realistically, they cannot. With an already-expanding job description, technical writers cannot manage all the tasks of content creation plus content management in a silo or as a solitary member of the team. They need help, which is where educators can help to reinforce the need for strong writing skills, across disciplines. Quotes like those help reinforce for my undergraduate students that they all need better writing skills, no matter what profession they are going into. If “communication is why companies operate,” then all workers must be better communicators (p. 135).

Blackboard

LMS like Blackboard offer educators chances to act as technical communicators again. Courtesy of AppAdvice

As I read chapters 3-5 of Spilka’s Digital Literacy for Technical Communication (2010), I realized that as the instructor/content manager of multiple Blackboard shells for multiple classes, I am acting as a technical writer for the classes I teach. With a background in technical writing, I hope that I am skilled at thinking about usability, audience needs, and communication when I create those shells, but putting myself in the mind of a technical communicator can possibly allow me to see the areas where my students struggle, particularly important for online courses. In Chapter 4: “Information Design,” authors Michael J. Salvo and Paula Rosinski explain how “technical communicators are well situated to contribute to the development of information spaces and to advocate for users needs in emerging digital spaces” (p. 105). My primary job as an instructor is to help my students understand and apply content, so it is in my best interest and theirs to give more consideration to how they use our digital spaces. Much of what the authors cover in this chapter aligns with what we discuss when reviewing audience analysis and writing purposes. The same tenets apply to critical literacy.

Salvo and Rosinski made me ponder how I apply the notions of granularity, mapping, signposting, metadata, and pattern language in my classes. Over the last several years, our college has created and mandated a standard template that all instructors must use in designing their Blackboard (like D2L) shells. The left-side navigation is all the same, and there are standard buttons we must all use; however, we can customize the design (colors and flair) of the Blackboard shell, add buttons, and arrange the content within the shell as we so choose. When this change was first proposed, there was faculty outcry about academic freedom, but the changes were user driven. Our students had complained about the lack of consistency from instructor to instructor, course to course. Looking over the shoulders of students as they try to find information helps me see where more or fewer signposts are needed. The authors caution that we shouldn’t expect users to remember a virtual space’s ambience, so adding in additional maps and signposts could be helpful (p. 12).

Signposts

Signposts, courtesy of Hillcrest Primary School

Finally, with Chapter 3: “Shaped and Shaping Tools,” author Dave Clark highlights three main theories we can begin to apply to the “rhetoric of technology” to better understand it, or to assess the “broader implications” and “potential influence” that technologies have on how we communicate (p. 87). This chapter inspired me to create an assignment that asks students to analyze their expectations of, experiences with, and performance of a certain tool, say Microsoft Word or PowerPoint. I’ve formerly assigned a rhetorical analysis of a piece of writing, but asking students to perform a rhetorical analysis on a tool of communication may be valuable to them and could reveal some real benefits and issues with those tools.  

No doubt that new technologies and tools will carve new avenues of consideration for technical communicators and educators and will affect how we talk about and practice the rhetoric of technology. Just as the World Wide Web had to outgrow its ugly baby stage to reach maturation, all new tech tools will force societies to determine their best uses, standards, and rules. Again, the overarching theme of all of these three chapters seems to be to remain flexible and open to change, and to consider the hows and whys of what we do and how to do it best.

Aging Gracefully in Tech Comm

MiddleAge

Happy middle-aged people, courtesy of Daily Express

This past year, I turned 42, and I’ve had to start admitting that I’m now “middle aged.” Gasp. Forty was harder than I thought it would be, and I’m trying to age gracefully, but I hear poet Dylan Thomas’s ghost whispering to me, “Do no go gentle into that good night!” I get the same feeling every time I read about the evolution of the technical communication field. Practitioners and textbook authors seem positively anxious about what’s happening in the field, and I would argue unnecessarily so. Each field goes through growing pains, and as a former technical writer and a teacher of writing, I’m less concerned about what we call it and more concerned about what we do and how we continue to evolve gracefully within the profession.

When entrenched in any field of study or interest, it’s important to understand its history. The historical timeline that R. Spilka (2010) chronicles in Digital Literacy for Technical Communication covers some obvious changes that have occurred in the last several decades. Changing social norms, technologies, and business practices have had the largest impacts: more women are writers, more work is online, all technical communication work is done using technology, and as a result the skill set that technical communicators need has expanded. This is true of most professions. My mom taught in a two-room schoolhouse. She didn’t use a learning management system (LMS) to display course content or let students and parents review grades online. As a twenty-first century instructor, I use an LMS daily, most of my classes have computers, and we’re offering many more online courses. The profession changes, and so do we as practitioners.

When I graduated in 1999 and shortly after was hired to be a technical writer for an internet-based start-up company, I wished that my undergraduate degree had prepared me more for the technical aspect of the field. I had used Word to write essays, but that was about it. I had to teach myself some HTML, graphics, and the new-at-the-time RoboHelp program. Spilka notes that when the internet bubble burst a few years later, more employers were looking for the technical communicators who had those technical skills (p. 37). Teaching myself those skills was good for me. It made me more motivated and confident, but it would’ve been easier to transition quickly into the field with more computer software and technical skills.

At my first writing job, I was a lone technical writer in a group of computer software engineers. As I moved on to my next writing job, I would start to mimic some of the changes that emerged from Phase 3 to Phase 4, according to Spilka. In the early ‘00s as the Internet became part of our workplaces and households, my work broadened to include website copy, marketing brochures, both print and online, and working within a team of writers for multiple clients. By this time, the Internet and the websites on it had a less rinky-dink and a more professional appearance. Internally, we developed standards guides that we distributed throughout the company and expected everyone to adhere to. Rather than just seen as “translators,” we were included in design and

Google

Early Google landing screen, courtesy of Telegraph

marketing meetings. Quite honestly, I liked it better that way.

Spilka caps off the second chapter of Digital Literacy by writing, “technical communicators’ work is undergoing significant changes at a rapid pace” (p. 75). He later admits that all industries are.

No longer is it enough to just be a writer. Technical communicators (aka symbolic analysts) must be Jacks and Jills of all skills and must keep those skills up-to-date with the changing needs of the market–as must most employees in this information age. The largest take-away from these two first chapters is the need for technical communicators to keep demonstrating their value, and that means their dollar value. With the threat of downsizing and globalization, the author posits that technical communicators must muscle their way to mission alignment and administrative recognition. It seems like this shouldn’t be necessary, but I suppose it is. 

Spilka ends Chapter 2 with “While the period ahead may be at times unsettling for practitioners and educators alike in the technical communication profession, it also promises the kinds of challenges and rewards as such periods always yield” (78). That’s right, Dylan Thomas! We won’t go gently, but go we must.

Dylan Thomas

Seductive Dylan Thomas, courtesy of Literary Hub

 

 

 

P.S. Googling images of middle-aged people is an exercise in humility itself. It results in a lot of Truman Show-esque couples in weirdly smiling embraces.

 

 

 

DIY, with Help from the ‘Bots

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Stark wisdom, courtesy of imgflip.com

After this past seven weeks of reading, I’ve come to a “if you can’t beat them, join them” mentality about my involvement in the digital world. Reading Rheingold’s book Net Smart urged me to start using my social media platforms in a more interactive way, including creating my first Twitter account. To put this new digital immersion to the test, I thought I’d try to elicit some advice from Facebook friends by asking for allergy remedies. Pollen counts were high in Wisconsin this past week, and I was suffering, so I took to Facebook for advice. Because I so seldom post, I wasn’t expecting much of a response, but I had about 10 people comment. The jokesters in my life recommended scotch or gin with a dose of “wait it out”, but several other friends offered real advice and remedies. One such recommendation was the use of essential oils. Intrigued by that option, I decided to delve further by Googling “how to use essential oils for allergies.” This led to several DIY videos and articles.

Small-World Network, Old-World Coffee Klatch

By calling out for this allergy help, I was doing what Rheingold called collaboration and cooperation, “humans solv{ing} problems collaboratively” (p. 149) wherein “virtual communities are technologies of cooperation” (p. 151). I directly asked for help in an effort to learn something, knowing that small talk like this builds trust in this virtual community. I used my “small-world network” where network implies a “sparsely knit/loosely bound” community to seek advice. Twenty years ago, I might have asked two or three friends (aka coffee klatch) the same question face to face.

CoffeeKlatch

Coffee Klatch, courtesy of Hubpages

By asking my network, I received answers from Duluth and Houston, from men and women, from young and middle aged. I diversified my answer, and at the same time, I broadcast that answer to other people in my network or “personal learning network” (Rheigold, p. 229).

Using Rheingold’s analogy of “gardening” in the online community, I thanked all the contributors, responded directly to a few, and ignored the ones that were off-topic (p. 166). When someone in my network poses a similar question in the future, I will use my “social capital” and look for ways that I can contribute to the discussion (Rheingold, p. 212).

I know it when I see it, but who showed it to me?

Decades ago, the idea of obscenity or pornography was defined by a federal judge as broadly as “you know it when you see it.” As Christine T. Wolf writes in her June 2016 article “DIY Videos on YouTube: Identity and possibility in the age of algorithms,” online credibility is often judged this way by viewers, including me. My common sense credibility detection involves:

  1. How many views has the video gotten?
  2. How many subscribers does the video producer have?
  3. How is the video titled and tagged?
  4. How is the video shot (professionally/amateurishly)?
  5. How credible do I perceive the speaker to be? Does the speaker tell me?

Like the participants in Wolf’s study, I employed CRAP detection, but I didn’t give much thought to how or why specific videos appeared in my feed. She notes,

The particular mechanics of the platform — the how and why of what videos are presented to them — sink into the background. Given the central role media like these videos play in constructing notions of self, ability, and confidence, the seeming invisibility of the platform — particularly the algorithmic sorting that provides a heavily customized experience — raises concerns over the potential power algorithms wield in shaping social realities” (Wolf).

My “how to use essential oils for allergies” search resulted in videos by yogis, doctors (of natural medicine), beauty gurus, mommy vloggers, and people selling essential oils. I have a YouTube account, a Facebook account, and a Google account. Of course, my reading/watching habits are being shared across platforms. I would like to test what my search results would yield when I am logged out of all those accounts, on a public computer or friend’s computer.  I strongly suspect the results would differ.

Act, or Be Acted On

My biggest take-away from this week’s readings are the need to stay ever vigilant, skeptical, and curious. Rheingold’s closing remarks caution readers, “If you aren’t an actor in a democracy, you are the acted on” (p. 242). That applies to voting, consuming, and prosuming. I can use his advice to realize that even my search results are curated by invisible forces that I should consistently question. However, I’m also heartened by the notion that Web 2.0 is dismantling some of the hierarchies of knowledge that have been in place (Wolf). With YouTube, I can DIY just about anything I wish to. And it is building confidence. My husband and I have replaced a sink, fixed a toilet, and restarted a flaky water heater, tasks we probably wouldn’t have even attempted in the age before YouTube. That’s empowering. The next time a household DIY comes up, we just need to ask a few more questions as we evaluate the videos we’re watching. If nothing else, I might start doing a few out-of-the-norm-for-Amery searches to see if I can throw off the prediction-bots. 

“This Change Isn’t Minor, and It Isn’t Optional”: Becoming Multi-textual

Several years ago, my co-worker invited me to watch Daniel Simons’ “gorilla basketball” clip that Rheingold references in his book NetSmart (p. 45), a clip on selective attention that asks viewers to count the number of passes between basketball players. I watched the brief clip and didn’t noticed the gorilla. I was intent on the task I was given; I was selective with my attention. The same co-worker uses this clip in her College Success course to illustrate how we can tune into and out of the items we deem most important.

GorillaBasketball

Gorilla Basketball, courtesy of https://gorillabasketballvideoaln.wordpress.com/

We’re Being Augmented, not Damaged

The thesis of Rheingold’s first three chapters from NetSmart is that we can train and improve our attention, a task that will be necessary to thrive in this technology-drenched era. As someone who practices yoga regularly, I was eager to read more about how paying attention to my breath (something we do all the time in yoga) could help me  hone my attention even more. I also felt validated to read about “email apnea” because it’s something I have seen my husband do when answering work email from home; he momentarily stops breathing (p. 45). Mostly though, I was heartened to read that rather than harming us, digital media could simply be augmenting us (p. 40). The past several weeks’ readings have made me worried, but Rheingold’s book offers some concrete steps for us to facilitate the augmentation that is happening to our brains already–hopefully for the better. 

A Digitally Literate Democracy

These chapters offer copious opportunities for noteworthy catch phrases that describe our new world: “volume control,” “attention-deficit culture,” and “artificial sense of constant crisis” (pp. 55, 56, 57). We recognize these symptoms and look wearily at the repercussions they have on our ability to communication and connect. However, what made me the most hopeful was how Rheingold compared digital citizenry to literacy. We are not born readers, and even the great philosophers Socrates and Plato both feared “the written word and its effect on us”, particularly for its loss of control over knowledge (p. 60).

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Socrates & Plato

They feared that just because more knowledge would become available to more people that did not mean that the people would understood that knowledge. The owners of that information also lose their ability to translate the knowledge to suit their purposes. We see this today with our plethora of media options, cries of fake news, and echo chamber preferences. We know now that literacy was a democratizing development; I am hopeful that digital literacy will be, too.

Pay Attention: A How-To

We touch on the methods that Rheingold lists in Chapter One in classes I teach, and I’m happy to use the suggested toolkit in future classes and help students understand that there is a connection between mindfulness and improved grades (Hall Study, p. 68).

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  1. Be mindful by “paying attention on purpose” (p. 65).
  2. Ask, ‘Have I drifted?” (p. 73)
  3. Meditate (or at least focus on breathing) 10-15 minutes a day (p. 71)
  4. Give yourself meaningful chunks of time to focus on one task, uninterrupted. Turn off technology during that time (p. 75)
  5. Decide what types of tech tools you use at home, where and when, such as “no screens at the dinner table”)

Crap Detection, AKA Information Literacy

In my classes, I ask my students to be skeptical, not cynical. When they do research, I ask them to use a worksheet titled “CRAP,” which is an acronym for currency (how recent), reliability, authority, and purpose/point of view, which is precisely what Rheingold deals with in NetSmart’s Chapter 2. I’m happy to integrate the triangulation technique (find three sources that agree) to their researched assignments as well as some of the websites he recommends: https://www.snopes.com/, FairSpin, and FactCheck.org. He writes, “Information literacy is the answer to growing information pollution” (p. 89). This is a helpful metaphor to use, especially when he frankly asks, “How much work is it to check three links before believing or passing along information” (p. 91). It’s not, Mr. Rheingold. You’re absolutely right.

Participation Points

Susan Cain, author of the book Quiet about the power of introversion, admonishes educators who promote participation points that often go to the loudest students, not the most knowledgeable or most thoughtful. She must be excited by the potential that digital participation has for the quiet kids. Rheingold reminds us that “young people are using digital participation tools for learning and creating” not just socializing (p. 117). Need to learn how to fix your specific brand of toilet? There’s a YouTube video for that. Have a question about the Civil War? Google it. In the scant few decades that the internet has been alive, we have created an unimaginably large database of knowledge, accessible now and for free (mostly).

I’ve taught literature for several years, and it wasn’t until teaching it online that I fully got *almost* all of the students to contribute to the conversations about the texts. It’s entirely too easy to stay quiet in a face-to-face class. It’s pretty easy to let the loud or the smart (or in some cases both) kids who’ve read all the material do all the talking. The participatory culture of the digital world, while scattered and sometimes shallow, allows for instant depth and connectivity. Rather than read an article in the newspaper, drink my coffee, and forget about it, I can read the article, read about the author, click to find out where Azerbaijan is, and understand more fully why there are tensions there.

FCO 394 - Nepal Travel Advice Ed3 [WEB]

Where is azerbaijan? Courtesy of Google Maps

Rheingold ends the chapter with, “Attention literacy is reflection. Crap detection is analytic. Participation is deliberate” (p. 145).  Understanding the intention behind his NetSmarts will help us evolve into this more digital world and become better citizens for it.

Creating Agile Communicators: Teaching Writing with ICTs

This week we read several scholarly articles on the technical communication field, where it’s going, how it’s defined, and how it uses social media. As a writing instructor, my major take-aways from the readings by Ferro, Longo, Blythe et al, and Pigg include:

  • The need for more collaborative writing
  • The need to understand the importance of emergent technologies
  • The need to understand how writing will change because of those technologies
  • The “need for social and communicative agility” (Ferro, p. 19)

Ferro asks, “how do we teach students to write in forms that do not exist?” (p. 20), while Longo argues that “teachers must understand their roles as mediators and integrators of ICTs [information and communication technologies]” (p. 23). While I don’t specifically teach technical communication, this question and assertion can guide what I do in the classroom to ensure that my students are prepared to communicate well in the 21st century.

We can start by using the  ICTs that students use in their personal lives. As a department, we’ve recently struggled with how to address the issues of “fake news” and the broadening complexity of information literacy.

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Information Literacy, courtesy of Otis.edu

Now that ICTs allow us to tailor our news feeds to show only what we want to see, how do we promote a more comprehensive analysis of news and information? As teachers, we tend to shun the use of social media in our classrooms, but perhaps we are fooling ourselves while simultaneously doing our students a disservice. Recent links on this blog indicate that fewer students are using Facebook, but we why not integrate lessons using Instagram, SnapChat, or blogs? Some may bristle at the notion of interacting with students this way (it’s too personal, too gimmicky, too much extra work), and we will have to embrace that once we’ve finally figured out how to use a certain ICT, “those darn kids” will be on to the next one. However, incorporating more ICTs in the classroom could make the classroom more relevant to the current technological climate as well as help students become more agile in the future technological climate.

Using ICTs can help students understand the concept of audience better. Longo’s article “Using Social Media” emphasizes that users have become producers. One common complaint of composition students is that they feel their writing is “just for the teacher” and that the notion of a real audience is therefore false. If educators can create content that supplies student writers with a real audience (even better, a real audience of their peers) perhaps they will invest more in the content they create? If they are already composing SnapChat group chats and YouTube videos, asking them to write a five-paragraph essay for their instructor can feel archaic and pointless. By using social media, “we can design documents that are more explicitly responsive to audience needs” (Longo, p. 24). Using social media in the classroom provides educators a way to “recreate a professional setting where [students] learn about users directly” (Longo, p. 31). This real-life writing assignment provides immediate feedback for students from a larger audience and can allow them to carry that writing portfolio with them relatively seamlessly.

Using visuals is increasingly important in communication. Blythe, Lauer, and Curran’s article, “Professional and Technical Communication in a Web 2.0 World,” reports that surveyed technical communication alumni are increasingly responsible for visual communication (not just written communication). We are largely a visual society, and though the uptick in emoji use makes some of us nervous

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How far have we come? Are we just circling back around? Courtesy of Steemit

(me included), visuals help to contextualize the written word and ensure greater reader comprehension. The social media applications that younger people are using are more visual (Instagram/Snapchat), but visuals will not replace the written word. Learning how to use both well cannot be a detriment.

HieroglphHumor

Source: Medium.com

Students should practice critical thinking as often as possible. Blythe et al recommend that technical communication students should be “exposed to situations in which they must choose the best channels for communication”, that they should be “exposed to a wide range of technology that will facilitate that process”, and that they should be “versatile with multiple media” (p. 281). I’m no longer a technical writer, but one of my most bemoaned complaints as a new technical writer in the early ‘00s was my lack of technical training. My college classes taught me how to be a better writer, but I had to teach myself how to use the technology. Aligning technology with communication is training students, no matter what their final profession, to be skilled in all forms of communication: audience analysis, visual communication, and content creation.

Creating better communicators across disciplines serves all of us. As more and more of us become both producers and consumers (“prosumers”), embracing the changes in teaching and technologies keeps our work interesting and makes our global world a more interactive and understandable place.

Overwhelmed or Emboldened? I Choose Emboldened

Frankenstein

Courtesy of Amazon

This fall I’m teaching an online Introduction to Literature course. The first piece of fiction my students read is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a 200-year-old Gothic novel that asks the same question that Mary Chayko does in Chapter 10 of her 2018 book Superconnected: “what does it mean, really, to be human” (214). In a discussion board post, my students agreed on three major requirements:

  1. the desire for knowledge and learning;
  2. the ability to form connections with other human beings and show empathy for them; and
  3. the ability to feel intense feelings like love, faithfulness, rage, and vengeance.

Some critics believe Shelley wrote Frankenstein as a warning against the ever-reaching power of man. Essentially, they claim it is a treatise against the notion of “playing God.”  I ask my students to think about how Shelley’s monstrous creature relates to today’s modern advancements like cloning and artificial intelligence. Much of the content throughout Chapters 8, 9, and 10 of Chayko’s text made me feel anxious, hand-wringy. Then I came upon media theorist Douglas Rushkoff’s quote:

“Living in modern technologized times can be a shock to the system [. . .] the more we become aware of these challenges—economic troubles, climate change, wars, any of a host of social problems—the more we can become overwhelmed with the prospect of actually solving them” (Chayko, p. 215).

Yes! That’s how I felt while reading this week’s content. That’s how it feels right now when I go online or turn on the radio. A recent New York Times article, “It’s Not Just You: 2017 Was Rough for Humanity, Study Finds,” shared that reported negative feelings were at an all-time low across the globe (Chokshi, 2018). Quite frankly, worrying about internet surveillance is the last issue many people (including me), already tired, stress, and overwhelmed, want to add to their worry list.

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Kim Jong Un and President Trump, Source: Time Magazine

However, like many other big issues (greenhouse gases, suicide prevention, North Korea) that we individually can only do so much about, individually we can educate ourselves on these issues and talk about them with friends and family, or blog about them on platforms like this. We can pay more attention when headlines about “net neutrality” pop up in our Facebook newsfeed. We can read works like Chayko’s and try to answer the questions she asks. As people privileged to live in a technologically-adept and responsive society, we have an obligation to make sure these new advances that make our lives easier and more efficient aren’t thwarting the human rights of others, that they don’t do so already.

Mary Shelley warns of “playing God,” but we know since Frankenstein’s publication in 2018, we have seen advancements that would frighten and mystify her. “As science writer James Gleick looks at it, ‘We can be overwhelmed or we can be emboldened’ (2011, p. 419)” (Chayko p. 215).  I choose emboldened, with the knowledge that liberty isn’t free. As Sam Cooke puts it: “A change is gonna come.” We have to be ready for it.

Exploitation? Who cares? They like me!

 

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Sally Field’s 1984 Oscar acceptance speech

“Please like, comment, and subscribe to see more content like this.” I finish watching a YouTube video and click the thumbs-up button to show my approval. I scroll through the comments. I then flit through Facebook and Instagram, offering a few more “likes” and posting a picture of my cat. According to Mary Chayko, author of the 2018 book Superconnected: The Internet, Digital Media, and Techno-Social Life, I am contributing to the “participatory culture” of the internet age (p. 68) in which I prosume (produce + consume) content (p. 69).

My social media presence is small, but as I’ve liked posts, articles, and pictures over the years, I notice more targeted ads and sponsored posts. They certainly know I’m a woman of a certain age who likes cats, travel, food, and yoga. exhale-inhale-kitteh-yoga-cat-yoga-27239757In Chapter 4 of Chayko’s book, the author cautions that this free sharing of information is making corporations profitable while not paying consumers:

“As people contribute information to websites, blogs, and social media networks, they tell others a great deal about themselves and make quite a bit of personal information public without being compensated in return. Such data, in the aggregate, can make organizations and corporations very wealthy” (p. 68).

Our internet habits make large corporations money, but so did our TV habits and our radio habits before them. Buyer beware; viewer beware. At least now we have more say in what gets created.

Chayko asks if people are being exploited when they share personal, free information online so readily (p. 76). In a capitalist society, we’re driven by profit. Though cruising the internet and social media feel like casual, non-consumer activities, they’re not. The YouTuber we watch for fun is likely making a profit. The items they’ve chosen to talk about are probably profit-driven, based on viewer requests or brands scouting them. Like any form of communication, a tit-for-tat structure forms this “prosumptive nature” of the techno-social world. If you like my picture, I’ll like your video. If you ask me a question, I’ll give you an answer. While we’re not directly paying for our social media applications, we are paying with the amount of attention we give them. In the so-called “attention culture” of the internet, the amount of attention we give to a social media presence creates a currency in the form of attention paid (p. 76). This has become so important that some creators now pay for likes, comments, and subscribers: see Buzzoid or Stormlikes. We like attention, and we like to feel part of a community; social media gives us that.

“Those who communicated via these online networks very often came to feel bonded—like members of a community or club in which they were genuinely, often deeply, engaged. It was, for sure, a new way to initiate sociality ” (34).

To feel part of that genuine community, we gladly ignore exploitation.

As social media personalities become more well known, they have to become more savvy, too. Any why shouldn’t creators who put out strong content make money from that content? Many bloggers and vloggers lament the hours they spend writing, editing, and tagging their posts. They have to be skilled at technology, communication, marketing, branding, and research. Audience members are also pretty good at sniffing out phonies, and with the number of options available to click and find something new, content has to be good, or at least amusing. No matter whether we’re speaking through grunts and hieroglyphs or emojis and hashtags, we have a “timeless human desire to communicate with one another, to be seen and known and understood (p. 15). Social media and the internet allow us to do that every day, all day, if we so choose (which carries a burden of its own).

To stay part of this growing online community and attain the always-on attention we seek, most users overlook or ignore the very-real exploitative nature of this techno-social world. 

(While composing this post, a series of throwback songs popped in my head, including Madonna’s “Material Girl,” Diana Ross’s “Upside Down” and Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me”).

 

From Mommy Blogs to YouTube Vlogs

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Heather Armstrong (Dooce.com), courtesy of ProBlogger

I began reading blogs when I was a technical writer in Fargo, ND, in the early 2000s. Professionally, I followed some technical communication blogs, and personally, I read a handful of “mommy blogs”, one of which was the famous Dooce.com (Heather Armstrong), who has gone on to write several books about her experiences with mental illness and parenting. I still read a few of those lifestyle blogs, but many of the bloggers quit blogging after five years or so. I also had a personal blog for about six months where I mostly recorded my thoughts and observations for the day or week. I quit because it felt odd when people started commenting on my posts.

According to Nardi et al (2004), people are motivated to blog for five reasons: 1) to document their lives; 2) as a form of commenting on events; 3) as a way to process topics (catharsis); 4) to figure out how they feel about a topic (“thinking with computers”); 5) to build community with like-minded individuals (p. 43-45). My personal blog was a version of motivations 1, 3, and 4, and the other blogs I read were for similar reasons. I agree that these are reasonable motivations and that many bloggers touch on all five of those motivations at some point in their publication history.

When I began reading blogs, most of the bloggers posted at least several times a week. As their blogs grew their audience and perhaps the bloggers’ personal lives became more complicated as a result of that, their postings became less frequent, which is also a trend that Nardi et al (2004) note; they call it “blog burnout” (p. 42).

Nardi et al’s article “Why We Blog” was published in 2004, and a considerable change has occurred in that 14 years. Kissane (2016) chronicles the five most important trends in blogging include: 1) the end of the blogger and the advent of the influencer; 2) the size of posts becoming longer and more substantive; 3) removing or at least responding less to viewers’ comments; 4) incorporating more and better graphics; 5) measuring how long viewers stay on the site versus whether they visit the site. I definitely see these trends happening. Though I watch more YouTube now than I do read blogs, I hear more and more people refer to themselves as “influencers” or “creators.” Graphics have definitely become more elaborate, and I know that Google/YouTube provide tools for users to perform data analytics, which tell creators how long people are staying on specific pages or videos. I’m not sure I see the trend of fewer comments, but I know some creators choose not to reply to comments or even to block or remove distasteful content (troll behavior).

To have an online presence, be it blog or vlog, influencers must stay up-to-date on technological trends and essentially become mini producers. They have to know how to edit, tag, add music, know the rules around adding content (like music), keep on top of comments, police the comment community, and keep content fresh. Several of the big YouTubers have management teams, and more advertisers are recruiting these influencers to help sell products. That’s an entirely other can of worms regarding ethics and rules.