Monday, May 23, 2011

Coaching Rachel to Connect

Rachel Rueckert
One of my very fine students, Rachel Rueckert, is currently in India conducting a field study. She's not new to blogging, having kept a great blog about her prior experience doing a field study in Ghana. But this round, we are focusing more on helping her to CONNECT, one of the three vital principles of digital literacy. I wrote her a long letter about that subject today, and I think my current students could profit from the principles she is applying right now

Hey, I am going to write you every Monday at least. I'd like you to be on a more regular schedule to stay in contact with me as part of the Digital Culture class. 

-- I'm glad to see you focusing on consume/create/connect both in your recent post and in your "blog intent" page. That intent page is a good idea and one I will recommend to students. 

--Your last blog entry was from last Tuesday, nearly a week ago. Let me know if conditions don't allow more frequent blogging, but I'd really like to see you writing more briefly and informally (not that you can't write at length occasionally). Keeping your content fresh is part of staying connected. Think in terms of providing regular updates, rather than fashioning formal content all the time. Even a snapshot with a caption would be enough for some posts. Keep the stream alive.

--I have been reading through the extensive blog bibliography that you put together over the last months. It's great! I didn't have your new blog on my Google Reader until after you'd been posting those book entries, and so hadn't read them. This made me realize an important point worth emphasizing: You should do backlinks to your past work often (as you did so well in your various conclusion posts following your Ghana field study like this one). It often happens that people experience your blog just in terms of the most recent post or two, not realizing that you have tons of past content waiting to be discovered. Well, make that existing content easier for people to find by linking back -- to posts/books in your bibliography, and to your Ghana blog (and whatever else seems appropriate). I'd like to see you reading your current experience in terms of the reading you've recently done.

--Go to your Ghana blog and write an entry at the top that tells people you are concentrating your blogging on your current blog (as my other student Emma has done with her blog)

Post to other students' blogs
I saw that you've started commenting on my students' blogs from my Eng 295 course. Thanks. That's one good way to connect. You are doing that mostly as a favor to me (and them). But you should think of other students with blogs with whom you could have constructive conversation. Obviously, you could comment on the blogs of other students in India, but what about those student blogs for people researching or writing about things you are researching and writing? Spend some time looking for people with blogs that compare with your current focus. I don't know if you are using Google Reader to bring in your blog reading into one place, but that's a great tool for doing so. You can end up glancing over 20 or 50 blog feeds, then winnowing that number down as you start finding the ones that interest you most (and whose authors respond to your comments on their blogs).

Socialize through Goodreads
I am going to refer my students to your bibliography tagged posts on your India blog as an example, and your enthusiastic post about Goodreads from your Ghana blog. I know you love Goodreads, but are you using it to connect with other people on your current project? Assuming you've put all those books featured in your bibliography posts into Goodreads, you could start seeing just who has been reviewing or commenting on which of these books, and then try to engage them on some level. For example, I note that you have Phillip Lopate's anthology of personal essays on your "to read" shelf in Goodreads. When I pulled up that book in Goodreads, I found all kinds of reviews, some of which were pretty current. One person, Emily Johnson, not only reviewed the anthology but individual essays within it just a year ago, and she is likely to be interested in some back and forth on that book. Similarly, Lopate's book appears on various book lists, or you can check out the "related books" feature in Goodreads. These could take you to people who are sharing your interest in writing right now. The same could be done for any book.

I'd like you to read the part of my post about getting out of the Google and Wikipedia rut in which I discuss using the social features of Goodreads. Then see what you can do to figure out ways to connect your current experience with your reading and with readers invested in the books you are reading. This starts to be fun, once you begin.

Research and engage stakeholders
Are you having Your Own Private Educational / Life Experience? Don't let your blog become a self indulgence (that's stated too strongly, but I'm trying to get your attention). You have to constantly ask yourself, "How is this relevant and to whom?" And then you need to chase those people down, interact with them, and take them back to your blog. I'm going to quote what I told Matt Merrill when he wrote reporting about the blog he's using in connection with the documentary he's doing in India: need to start cultivating a readership for your blog (which is going to be a way of priming the pump for the audience for your documentary). Spend some time thinking about who is going to care about the issues you are exploring, or who cares about this from a film angle, or whatever -- and begin writing posts to appeal to such stakeholders in your project. You should sit down and talk with Kristen and Rachel about the principle of "connect" that I have taught them. This is not something that you do once your film is in the can and then you consider distribution or exhibition; no, you have got to start investing in your audience (and start marketing your creative process) immediately.

Next time I want you to report to me on people you have reached out to to read your blog, comment on it, etc. As you start thinking in these ways (of an actual, invested audience), then you will find that this affects how you blog and how you plan your film. And that will be very good.

Engage friends and family
Every time that you make a blog post, you should post a link to that post on your Facebook account (and I'd say also mention it on Twitter if you were using it). When you comment on your link within Facebook, ask people to visit your blog. Or better, ask them a question. And if people in your social circle begin to respond to the link within Facebook, respond to them, always providing a link back to your blog. Try to get people already invested in you personally to consider investing more focused attention in your current project and experiences. Yes, I'm telling you to market your learning to your friends. Don't spam them, but use the natural updating that is legit inside of a social network like Facebook as a way of drawing others into your experience. Tip: Don't be afraid of posting links to some of your back content, too.

Refresh and recycle your content
In the same spirit as my recommendation to do back links, think of other content you've created and find reasons to post it. I am specifically thinking of that Prezi that you used as part of your presentation at the Inquiry Conference back in March. For that matter, if they have put up the video recording of the conference, you should post a link to that as well. Embed the Prezi if you can. That may all seem to be about your past experience and blog, but writing about it in your current blog will give people a reason to see what other work you have done, and will allow both you and them to make connections that do exist between your two field studies experiences. (Oh, and you should write an update within the post you did in your Ghana blog about the Inquiry Conference, including those links).

Make (some) email content public 
Email is a relic of the print web -- it uses a paper metaphor even though it's made of bits. What do I mean by this? Well, letters are private correspondence, and we continue to speak privately about many things that don't need to be protected in this way. One of the principles of digital culture is to make your thinking and creating as routinely public as possible. In short: every time you write an email that deals with the content of your research (and isn't strictly personal) -- heck, even when you do compose emails that are personal in nature (but not TOO personal) -- ask yourself, "Is there any reason why this can't be posted on my blog?" Kristen Cardon recently posted some content she'd at first just emailed to me up on her blog. It was a bit scary for her, putting herself out there like that, but I think drafting publicly is generally the best idea, and so don't keep such drafts hidden away in an email. Whenever I find myself writing online, as I am now, I try to think of how this content I am producing could have a life beyond simply its initial purpose of communicating with its receiver. Since I'm teaching the course on online writing right now, I realized that most of what I'm saying to you is very applicable to what these students are learning. In fact, you have become a great current case study of applying the principles of online communication. So, I hope you don't mind me posting this online! 

That's enough for now. I look forward to watching you connect more purposefully in the near future.


  1. As an update, I recommend looking at Derrick Clement's post about how he got word out about a recent review he posted: "Different Format; Different Audience".

  2. Thank you for the advice! It was a very helpful email, and I hope to make the changes soon.

    I'm running out of Internet time, but I'll check out that link you posted from Derrick Clement when I get a chance.

    Hope all is well.