Friend-like Entities

It’s no secret that I’m a fully-fledged, all dues paid up, member of the “uses social networking” club. Good heavens, after all, I have a paid account on LiveJournal, I’m a “pro” on Flickr, I’m on Facebook, Twitter, and more recently on Pinterest. I have a Tumblr account I never use; I’m on Google+: you name it; I’ve tried it. But my use of these services varies, and has shifted over time, and the relationships I’ve developed over the years have shifted as well. The other week, when my dog Robinson died, I had 44 comments on my Facebook post about it, 15 on LiveJournal, and more than 250 people at least viewed my WordPress post, although only 4 or 5 left comments. Three people even responded directly to Twitter, even though Twitter is considerably more ephemeral than any of the others. All the comments meant a great deal, and since then, as I have before, I’ve been thinking about the nature of all these online connections.

Susan Orlean, whom I follow on Twitter, once used the term “friend-like entities” to describe her Twitter followers, or the people she interacts with online. To her, I guess I am one of those: I follow her on Twitter, and, via her Twitter links, I read her blog for the New Yorker; I’ve responded to one or two of her posts, but she does not follow me, nor, I imagine, would she care greatly if I were to stop following her. Indeed, I’d be greatly surprised if she knows I exist. I follow several famous authors online if they post things that interest me, but although I suppose I was chuffed when Neil Gaiman “friended” me on GoodReads (oh yes, I’m on that, too), I do not consider him a “friend” any more than I imagine he does any of his thousands (millions?) of followers. Many people, especially real or would-be celebrities, use social networks more as a kind of publicity than as a form of friendship; their posts are mostly outward facing only. Although they have hundreds, even thousands, of followers, they themselves read and respond to only a small number. And it’s those reciprocal relationships that really count, that can be considered more than “friend-like entities.”

I started blogging seven or eight years ago, because I planned to make some of my students do it and thought I should do it too. My first blog was on LiveJournal, and, because I had no clue about “friending” people or attracting attention in any way, absolutely no one read the first several months worth of posts; I might as well have been writing in a private journal. And then someone who was a colleague in the English department at the time, more web-savvy than I, to whom I had mentioned my blog, friended me. And I went and looked at his “friends” and “friended” a couple of them, and then I started searching under my own interests and discovered more people, and then people started finding me through the friend network and things grew from there. Only that first colleague was someone I knew in real life, although later another colleague and now great friend hooked up with me, and a couple of students found me.

Over about the same period of time, I developed a network of contacts of Flickr, in much the same way. Someone made me a contact, greatly to my surprise, and I started following people whose work I liked, and people started following me, and so on. Flickr is a much bigger and mostly considerably less personal network than LiveJournal, although I now have several people that I would consider “real” friends through being contacts there.

The people on LiveJournal are mostly in the nature of what might, in times past, have been “pen friends,” though I could never keep up with letter-writing as I do blogging. The core group tends to be people with whom I have a number of interests in common and who now know quite a bit about me and my life. My writing on LiveJournal is personal, often locked or “friends only”; I don’t really feel comfortable having colleagues or students read my LJ posts without my permission. I have met several of my LJ friends in real life, and almost without exception have bonded instantly with them – after all, we already know eachother well through our writing. There are some people who follow me on LJ that I would not be interested in meeting, but I have no problem with them reading my personal writing perhaps for that very reason: that I am very unlikely to run across them in person. It’s strange that I feel less comfortable with people I know in real life as acquaintances reading my very personal posts than I do having complete strangers read them.

Facebook is another world altogether, in many ways less personal, though I have the widest range of relationships there. Facebook has become a kind of “one stop” network. Among my Facebook friends are some relatives, a few of my closest real-life friends, a lot of LJ friends, including all but one of those I’ve met in real life, quite a few Flickr friends, none of whom I’ve met in real life, several old school friends whom I haven’t seen in years, quite a few ex-students (but no current ones), and a wide range of colleagues from work, including my boss.

So what does all this add up to? Something, I would argue. These are more than just “friend-like entities.” Flickr and LiveJournal gave me a way to connect with the outside world in the tough years when I was caregiving my mother and hardly left home except to go to work. My friends on LiveJournal helped keep me sane then, and helped me through the lonely grieving process after my mum died. Now, even though I have a much richer and more fulfilling “real” life, those LiveJournal and Flickr contacts remain and continue to sustain me. I may have never met Emily or Julie or Francesca or Sherwood or Jeremy or Leslie or Criz or Terry, but I’d like to. It pleases me greatly that ex-students on Facebook pop up to tell me that they think about me when they read something or announce proudly that they’ve published an article. I enjoy sharing teaching ideas and jokes with my colleagues. It meant something to me that forty-four people sent me virtual hugs and sympathy on Facebook when my dog died. It means something to know that someone might notice if I didn’t post for a while, or that someone stops in my office to check that I’m ok because I posted that I was blue one evening. They may be in a virtual space, but these are human connections.

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The Kremlin Ate My Homework

As anyone who knows me, or who follows me here, on Twitter, or on LiveJournal (ssh!), will know, I make my writing students write blogs. I have sound reasons for doing so, both pedagogical and idealogical: blogs force students to consider their audience, create a sense of community outside the classroom, and expose weaker students to the work of excellent students. I also believe strongly that we as educators have a responsibility to expose students to the medium that is already ubiquitous and is likely to become only more and more important over the next decade.

I did not realize that we would also in a small way be carrying the flag for freedom of speech.

My students post their blogs in LiveJournal. LJ is the blog I learned to use first – when I started blogging six or seven years ago, LJ was the “cool” blogging platform. Now the cool kids are on Tumblr and the “real” bloggers are on WordPress, and when LiveJournal got “sold to the Russians” a whole lot of people jumped ship to DreamWidth, an LJ clone, or at least set up mirror blogs there. But there’s still a core group of loyal LJ users: writers, artists, members of various fandoms, interesting people. My friends are there.

I put my students there because it is dead easy to use, free, and, when I first started doing this, advertisement and spam-free. Sadly, those last things are no longer true. The ads have come in the way ads have come on almost all the social software sites these days. And the spam has grown along with a huge and mysterious user base of … Russians. Which brings me to the Kremlin.

Over the last couple of weeks, LJ has been down a lot of the time. People complained, muttered, set up DreamWidth blogs, muttered some more. And LJ announced that it was fighting denial of service attacks. And we all thought “huh – serves them right for starting those stupid games, trying to be like Facebook.” And then we heard that it was likely that the ddos attacks were coming from the Kremlin, and everyone’s attitude changed.

Apparently, LJ is not only the most popular blogging platform in Russia, it’s the only blogging platform in Russia. And it’s being used not only by a bunch of Russian teenagers writing about Twilight but by those who would speak out against the mass corruption in the Russian government.

That’s why it’s under attack.

And that’s why we need to keep using it, help keep free speech alive.

And if one of my students is late with a post? What a perfect excuse!

Celebrating my Students’ Blogs

My first year Creative non-fiction students are asked to write blogs. Part of the purpose of using blogs rather than a more conventional “journal” or just individual homework assignments is that the blog is public. They can read and comment on one another’s work. They can see the best, and I find that they work hard to outdo one another and themselves. Their work is, in a word, awesome. I am so proud.

With their permission, I’d like to open a window on my class blogs. They blog anonymously, linked to a list in our password-protected class site – we all know who the authors are, but you won’t.

The first assignment was to write about the nature of “truth” (what is “creative” about creative non-fiction?) Here is one response

Then we started working on description, and their task was to write about a place they knew well and visited frequently. Lots of varying responses to that one; I loved this one about Island View Beach and this one that turned into a ghost story.

Another week we did interviews, then I suggested that they might like to try writing about themselves in the third person. They had a lot of fun with that

Then, they were asked to write about someone they’re close to, if possible with a photograph.

Maybe the most difficult task so far was the “braided essay” – focussing on structure and weaving together several different types of writing. These were based on a class where everyone brought “treasures” and there were many possibilities for how the students tied them together. Here’s one I loved
And another one.

I hate to limit this post to only a few entries – there were so many others I could have chosen, and there is so much talent in my class. But this will give you a taste of the exciting work that my students are doing.

The Great Blogging Challenge

Okay, I’m taking part in Nablopomo (National blog posting month) as part of the November Writing festivities. I’m going to try to post an entry every day, and my participation is dedicated to raising money for the United Way. I’ve challenged the students in my Creative Non Fiction class to take part, and I pledge $10 for every student who will commit to at least 10 entries in their blogs in the month of November. Let’s see how much money we can raise for the United Way!!

metaphor week

Mist is when the sky is tired of flight
Mist is when the sky is tired of flight (mark 2)

November is Writing Month

I’m participating in National Blog Posting Month. I may do my daily postings on my “other” blog, the one I don’t make public to everyone, because it’s easier to write personal stuff every day! However, if my students in Creative Non Fiction take up the challenge, I shall post in here as well.

If you are going whole hog and participating in NaNoWriMo you might like to try the great word processing program for writers, Scrivener. They have an offer especially for participants where you can use the latest version for free for the whole month of November and get a hefty discount if you succeed in the 50,000 words. Everyone can get 20% off by using a special discount nanowrimo code.

Good luck to all marathon writers of whatever persuasion. Lots of writing must be a good thing!

Sunday Rant – A Plea for the New Media

Are there any Math teachers out there who still refuse to use a calculator? Who still use a slide-rule and memorize times-tables?

To me, that’s the same as the way many of my colleagues, not just in my department, but everywhere, seem to be in a state of denial about the importance of new developments in web technology to what and how we teach.

I admit that I was an early adopter; I jumped all over the web when it was all server-based and clunky and before YouTube and Twitter and Facebook and Wikipedia. And I can understand that anyone whose first contact with all this was back then when it was server-based and clunky might have been put off wanting to try it again. But still.

One of the most valuable benefits of all the new Web 2.0 social software sites has been the ability to develop world-wide networks sharing information, pedagogies, material. Well, at least, for some. In vain, I’ve been searching for my “PLN” – my personal learning network. Oh, there are academics and professionals out there. Historians appear to be all over the web – medievalists for gosh sakes! Librarians are all over it. K-12 people are all over it. Writers – mostly working writers rather than writing teachers – are all over it. ESL teachers are all over it. So my Twitter feed is full of historians, librarians, K-12 and ESL teachers, and some writers and ed-tech people (though many of them tend to focus rather too much on the technology and not on the content). But where are the college or university level writing teachers? The literature profs?

A large part of it, I think, is workload. Many of us are just so busy that the thought of learning something quite new is daunting.

But – pssst – guys! This stuff is EASY. If you can use Microsoft Word, which you all can, you can do this.

But another large part of it, I think, and here I may be in danger of stepping on some people’s toes, so forgive me in advance, is … elitism. Snobbery.

There’s this perception that it’s all brainless and shallow and produced by and for the unwashed “masses” and is therefore beneath the notice of those of us who read the Globe and Mail (paper edition) and read only Booker prize nominated novels. It’s all about dumbing down and reduction and therefore should be resisted with all our intellectual strength. Oh, yeah, our kids are all on Facebook and into that Twitter thing and writing fanfiction, but there’s no need for us to dirty our hands with it…

But you know what? There’s some brilliant stuff out there! Denying that it’s there is like refusing to watch any television because much of it is stupid. Don’t dismiss as silly the “Twitterization” of literature – think about its potential for our teaching! The new media is not about the death of literacy and critical thinking, it’s about the growth of universal literacy. It’s about the ability to collaborate and share and create and publish at a rate unimaginable even ten years ago. It’s about recognizing that the ways we read and write and publish are changing and are going to change even more – and it’s going to happen probably within our professional lifetimes. We are going to have to rethink our ideas about copyright and – yes – plagiarism and originality. Students are going to need the critical skills to help them wade through the information overload, to help them sort out good from bad. And, just as the birth of the calculator meant that students no longer had to waste their time doing the “grunt” work of mathematics, so, potentially, does the new media technology mean that students can concentrate on higher thinking skills: synthesis, critical analysis.

But only if we teach them how. And we need to know the tools ourselves before we can teach our students.

ETA: look what appeared in my Twitter feed, quite by chance, just after I posted this: