Actually those pills in the photo are jelly beans, so not really bitter. And I lacked a blue one. All in service of a metaphor, where, for a time, I had to question my beliefs / approaches to networked teaching.

There is not really a “last” chance. After this, there is some turning back. You take the green pill, the story ends. You go to the library, read papers, scribble in your notebooks or use index cards, get advice from profs on campus, and then type up the thesis. You take the Red (#resnetsem) pill, you stay in Networked Research Land and I’ll show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes… Remember, all I’m offering you is the network, nothing more.

This semester I have been teaching, at a distance, a seminar for students in the Writing Studies program at Kean University who are working this year on their MA Theses. How this came to be is another story, but typically we meet weekly or less frequently, me from Arizona (wherever I am traveling) on Google Hangouts, they in a classroom in New Jersey.

Because I am Not a Literature Expert But Know Many On the Internet, I decided to cast this seminar as a Research Networked Seminar (Hence #ResNetSem) where I hoped for us all to leverage what connected networks afford us.

The networked parts include:

The students all have plenty of experience using blogs in classes and twitter, as recently as last semester, they were all in Networked Narratives. This was not new stuff.

All along I have been trying to meet weekly with everyone to touch base. The technology that works well is … the telephone.

And there was more subtle connective efforts, where I reached out to colleagues by email who had expertise to offer the different projects (e.g. Kim Jaxon helped a student looking at DH tools, Laura Gogia helped another student with research methods).

Mia and I tried to facilitate interaction between our students in twitter and Slack, but the time difference, that her students were doing a one semester project and mine are on a two semester path, and just differences in their research led us to not try to force too much.

Then I was gone for most of November overseas, we did manage two meetings, and I left them room to pursue their research and project development.

pixabay photo by Hans shared into the public domain using CC0

The blogs went sputtering. No one used Slack, and I saw infrequent twitter activity. It’s not like my students were slacking, I knew from our conversations and communications they were thinking about their project all the time, shaping ideas, reading a lot, talking to each other and other profs.

I am responsible for introducing what turned out to be a slight distraction.

I have been planning, for my own networking and interests, to attend the OER18 Conference in Bristol (Mia and I hope to present on this seminar approach).

In October, I started thinking about the idea of finding a way for my students to go as well, present their work, and get an experience at an academic conference.

I was inspired by the heroic work of Laura Ritchie where her music students did their own fund raising to enable them to travel to California to meet with other students/musicians they have been working with over the network.

I wavered in the latter part of October; was I doing this more for me than the students? I decided in the last seminar session to put the question to them, let them decided. They were all enthusiastic, and it felt exciting to consider this possibility. I asked them all to submit a proposal for a poster session, just so they had the experience, not that it was required to be accepted to go.

This took a fair bit of coaching. They are MA students in an English Department, and know nothing of Open Education. Their projects are not specifically about OERs or Open Education. But this was my angle I used in helping them write:

  • They can talk about how the open networked practices we have done / will do will impact their research.
  • Since many of them are planning to publish part of their thesis online, they could talk about how their work is an OER, what open license it will carry.

They did hone their proposals well and made the deadline.

On my return in early December it was time to think and plan the fund raising. We’d have to be pretty aggressive to get enough to buy plane tickets early. I was still confident my network would be generous.

But I was also seeing that they were still shaping and defining the concrete parts of their projects. They all have great ideas, and had mostly gotten close to the boundaries of it, but there was a lot of work still to be done in planning, organizing, and starting to write. I had hoped to see more writing on the blogs.

It was in this state of concern with a close friend who asked me if the conference part was something that directly supported their thesis project or if it was a distractor. I had to admit, it was feeling like the latter, especially considering the logistics, organizing, poster preparation all in the same time span (now about 4 months) they need to finish.

And knowing from our conversations that they were all thinking and focused on their projects, I really began to wonder if all those things I introduced, were also more of a distraction.

Gulp.

So in seminar, I had my pills ready.

And we had a frank discussion. I got an impression they saw blogging as “a chore” and too much repeating of what they were writing elsewhere. One said the WordPress interface seemed to demand a lot of formality (I furrowed my brow). I sort of got an impression a lot of their other class blogging is more like writing assignments.

Some just said it was the pressure of end of semester. And the outfall of preparing the conference proposals.

They all seem to like paper notebooks.

I know they are all working on their thesis, and I told them I might consider “taking blogging off the table” (I got a little bit of pushback saying, “if I get started I might…”).

I did introduce my concerns about the conference, and fund raising, and we had consensus that it was something we should “take off the table”. I apologized. They said the writing of the proposal was a good experience, and offered to do something remotely or on video for the presentation Mia and I will do.

We decided to use the regular end of Spring Semester “Spring Symposium”, where finishing MA students share their work with friends, family, colleagues as a sort of “Conference of Our Own”.

The framework I had to keep in mind is that everything I plan needs to serve the purpose of the students getting to the finish line with their thesis.

I thought a lot about this. Was the whole networked thing a distraction? All my talk of the importance of reflective blogging, sharing, networking, was that under question?

Hmmm.

No.

I put the blogging back on the table, with some very specific things. I realized I was not asking for enough specifics in the blogging. And I’m the teacher, I get to make some rules.

I reminded them of the things we had done to connect with people beyond our seminar walls. And the notion of scholarship being a public act

Consider these reasons for blogging a thesis, all totally relevant for MA theses. Your work will eventually live in public view, so why not start now? This is not some arcane assignment task, a demonstrable ability to communicate ideas in public is a skill you will use and build from whatever you do beyond this experience.

Writing in public does things I am convinced are important both to this thesis and your futures:

  • It opens doors for connection, ideas, from outside. Even more than that, itr creates potential serendipity; I would not be teaching your class from my house in Arizona nor have gotten a paid trip to Australia, without having a blog presence. But beyond me, being a scholar means being a public communicator.
  • It makes you accountable for your ideas. Stating your ideas in public is fearful of you think of it being a means for people to criticize, but it also makes your writing and thinking stronger if you take a public stand.

And I detailed two specific things I wanted to see in their blog (one post on defining their working title, another as a reworking of their draft introduction). And… they ended up blogging a few more things.

This teaching is, at the same time, the most challenging and rewarding thing I have done. I fully believe in all the ideas and talent of my students, and they each have worthy and important projects.

And their blogs will show this.

My belief in them is so positive that I am planning my travel around the OER18 conference to return to New Jersey to be present in person for our Spring Symposium event. And… I will return two weeks later to be there for their graduation.

I ended up tossing another networked piece to the mix ;-). I want us to have our own online journal, so I set one up using one of my SPLOT tools, this is a preview of the Arganee Journal.

Preview of the Arganee Journal

The first issue will be ready later this month, and will include a “State of the Thesis” by each student, with their introduction, and draft outline, and their current literature review.

By April of 2018, this journal will feature short paper versions of all their theses.

Maybe the cover will feature red and green jelly beans.


Featured Image: The Twittermatrix Choice… flickr photo by cogdogblog shared into the public domain using Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication (CC0)

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Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.

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