Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Varieties of Connecting

As my students know, I'm constantly trying to drive home how critical it is to connect, and that this is perhaps the most critical element in the digital literacy triad of consume/create/connect -- or at least, that it represents the strongest departure from print-based literacy with its isolated modes of thinking, pseudo-audiences, and delayed distribution.

So I'm thinking a lot about connecting, watching my students work through these concepts, and trying it out myself in various ways. The tricky thing here is that in the digital age, much of the casual and informal connecting that we take for granted in social settings is extremely important. To succeed with more professional or academic kinds of connecting, we have to be more observant about social connecting generally (and sometimes independent of things digital). One area of connecting that I have found important is to think of media or content as a pretext for social interaction. I've talked about this previously in a post ("Consume to create"). It's the sort of thing I'm watching happen among my family right now while we are driving across the country.

The image that accompanies this post is a doodle that I composed on my iPad using the Gravitarium2 application -- something I might comment on when discussing "create" and not "connect," except that I was trading suggestions with my son, Lear, using the same app on his mother's iPad as we sat in the back seat while my wife piloted us in the dark between Omaha, Nebraska, and Des Moines, Iowa. Lear and I were connecting in an interesting way. The digital medium gave us something to play with, and something to share. He would change settings for particle numbers, speed, etc. and create an image quite different than what I was doing. "How did you do that?" I would ask, and he would show me.

It's a day later and I'm again in the back seat as we motor toward Chicago. Karen popped in the Adele CD and she and both sons instantly started singing "Set Fire to the Rain" along with Adele. Some fun family togetherness, mediated again by some media. A few minutes later Lear was using my iPhone to tweet about our stay in Ankeny, Iowa, and this led him to reading tweets from the Onion, which lasted us a good 50 miles as he told us stories about a remnant brigade of Red Coats plotting revenge against George Washington while building fortifications in a Wal Mart parking lot in New York. I love listening to my wife laugh. A few miles later, Lear is narrating to Karen why he likes Orson Scott Card's book, Xenocide, She is helping him with some of the Portuguese words and their pronunciation. Books can be very strong ways of connecting with others. We are listening to an audio book as a family from time to time on our long drive. It gives us something to talk about.

Choices to connect are also choices to disconnect. My goal this morning has been to read student blogs and respond to them. I really need to reconnect with my four students in India. But this meant I was not part of the Adele singing, nor the funny stuff Lear was reading from the Onion. Digital media often tend to be things that take us away from immediate social settings. This is as obvious as people wearing earbuds and not talking to each other, or the way that someone texting withdraws from present company.

How do we connect without disconnecting?

One solution is to detox from digital. I had seriously considered doing this during our month away from home. Why not give the iPhone and iPad a rest? Will the world grind to a halt because I haven't produced or published content?

The reason we found ourselves in Ankeny, Iowa, was that my wife had become friends with a blogger from that area and we wanted to get acquainted with her and her lovely family. Her name is Erin Kilmer, and my wife has gotten me reading her family-oriented blog with a gentle Christian overlay to it. This is a picture of "Squeezy," their darling two year old girl who entertained me endlessly at the Mexican restaurant, dissecting her chicken quesadilla while I asked Erin's husband about his divinity school program and what people from his religious training thought about using social media.

I'm big on authenticity, and I'm constantly worried that my own preoccupations with tech and media can threaten the authenticity of my human connections. It is both my religious conviction and my intellectual conviction that people come first. Without my wife's blogging, we wouldn't have these great new friends. My point: digital media become legit when they enrich personal interaction, especially the "we're breathing the same air" variety.

What does all this have to do with digital writing, the subject of this blog? Plenty.

Literacy today is not merely cognitive; it is social. There is no legitimate literacy today that lacks this element, and this is why I become so testy about those who are requiring students to isolate themselves during their learning and their writing.

And yet, I recognize that we have a ways to go to understand the varieties of connection and how and when they productively overlap. Should my student Rachel be telling the world -- in her academic blog -- about her boyfriend? She's just taking my advice (is it right?) to be real about her experiences and not be afraid to blog about what's really on her mind. This has colored my understanding of her report about a Tibetan wedding. I don't see why her personal investment in romance needs to be at odds with her academic role. In fact, it could fuel her interest (at least in some features of her field study).

Another student, Nyssa, was evaluating her efforts at connecting in my recent course. In Nyssa's post, she admits having done little to make the kinds of outside connections I had encouraged (to experts or others interested in her research topic). And yet, as she describes, she became very vitally connected to fellow students as she headed our editing team in creating our joint eBook. In fact, I was very impressed with how she helped out one student in particular, for which he was very grateful. Those broader connections are important, but more proximate connections within a group could be equally so. When I have taken students on study abroad in the UK, I've worried about how they stay within a social bubble of fellow students while "experiencing" a foreign country. On the other hand, in the digital age I think it is all the more important to learn close collaborative skills. The video I have embedded shows my recent group of students fully engaged in collaborative preparation for our recent webinar. There's electricity that flows within a well-formed group, the metaphorical sort that really does something. Isn't that a great form of connecting? See Rachel Ruekert's blog post in which she reflects on her small group of students with whom she experienced her time in Ghana. As she states, groups can be very important mediators of experience, and so maybe Nyssa's choice was the better one: it's better to construct a tight and productive small, local, personal group than to have a thousand friends on Facebook with whom you share the random link.

We have new varieties of connecting made possible via the online world -- varieties that are not all of the very loose sort I just alluded to. More on that later.


  1. "How do we connect without disconnecting?"

    Love it. It has been probably the hardest thing I’ve had to wrestle with here as I’ve tried to do more posting in the field instead of at the end like I did with Ghana. So I spend a couple hours in this internet cafĂ© getting my blog up to date, but what am I giving up in the mean time? What is going on out there that I am skipping out on since I am busy documenting it? (So yes, I think it is good that you spend the morning playing with Adele).

    Something else I want to mention—as great as it has been to start to get these more academic, professional contacts, the most rewarding experience I have had with connecting has been with my own family members. My blog has given me a great way to share a part of myself that I just never really could with my extended family. I’ve sent weekly emails home before, but the blogging medium has made connecting much easier. While it might not be the best thing to put on a resume and may not get me a job later on, this is probably going to be the most rewarding part of my connecting experience (http://rachelspassagetoindia.blogspot.com/2011/06/connecting-for-reals.html).

    PS- where do you find your awesome pictures?

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