Tag Archives: reading

I am a Networked Individual

I’m reading two books right now, swapping between them for an occasional change of pace:

Product DetailsPersonal Connections in the Digital Age (DMS - Digital Media and Society)

Networked: The New Social Operating System, by Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman, and Personal Connections in the Digital Age, by Nancy Baym.

They’re great. I’m only a couple chapters into them, but so far they’re offering interesting analyses of how personal connections operate in a hyperdigitized world. Best of all — neither of them are condemning digital media, nor are they lauding digital media. Instead, they’re providing nuanced descriptions of what it means to be a “networked individual” (Rainie and Wellman’s term) in the 21st century.

What I think I love most about reading these books at the same time is how similar their arguments are, despite the fact that their authors come from different disciplinary backgrounds. Barry Wellman is a social network researcher whose work I am coming to know well as I learn more about social network analysis. Nancy Baym comes from communication studies and the humanities, and spends her first chapter analyzing popular media artifacts in order to argue that there are multiple ways of perceiving how technology impacts us (or how we impact it, or both, etc. etc.). But they’re both arguing that today’s digital media aren’t making us better or worse people, but networked individuals. Rainie and Wellman give a description of networked individualism. Among other things, networked individualism is characterized by a world in which:

  • Many meet their social, emotional, and economic needs by tapping into sparsely knit networks of diverse associates rather than relying on tight connections to a relatively small number of core associates
  • Networked individuals have new powers to create media and project their voices to more extended audiences that become part of their social worlds
  • The lines between information, communication, and action have blurred
  • Networked individuals use the internet, mobile phones, and social networks to get information at their fingertips and act on it, empowering their claims to expertise (whether valid or not)
  • Networked individuals can fashion their own complex identities depending on their passions, beliefs, lifestyles, professional associations, work interests, hobbies, or any number of other personal characteristics
  • The organization of work is more spatially distributed
  • Home and work have become more intertwined than at any time since hordes of farmers went out into their fields

…and so on. Many of these descriptions of the networked world in which we live resonate with what I have found in my work with teachers and with what I have found in my personal life.

For example, I recently got a smartphone. For someone so interested in the role of digital technologies in teachers’ lives, it was long overdue. The smartphone has done nothing to me (what Baym would call technological determinism), and has not caused me to take on the characteristics of the technology to which I am (or am not) tethered. But it has made more obvious to me the degree to which I am a networked individual — my home, work, friend, and family networks intertwine in multiple spaces online. As Wellman and Rainie describe, my lines between information, communication, and action are quite blurry when I see an article, tweet it, talk about it on facebook, or blog about it here. I have many “sparsely knit networks of diverse associates” that cross the country and the globe, from India to Korea, from Colorado to Georgia, from my larger networked ties in Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan, which expand and contract with the movements of individuals from far in my past to very much present, to my familial network, which touches the Pacific and the Atlantic.

These books are giving me things to think about: both my own networked individualism and the networked worlds of my future research participants, not to mention that NCTE proposal on networks I’m piecing together with a friend right now. More on this later, I can assure you. For now, I’m taking my networked self to tutoring.

More on Stories

Gotta keep this one short, but I wanted to post an update on my resolve to reintegrate the creative into my work with high school kids… see previous post.

A few of my tutoring students, in particular my 10th graders (and a couple ninth graders, and one eighth grader) have been grappling with texts that contain ambiguity. In particular, we’ve been reading The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Additionally, my eighth grader and I just started The Life of Pi (I had to justify the hours I poured into it over break, after all) and my tenth graders read it in school. I brought Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif” to the table this week. Each of these texts contains some form of ambiguity, but each in a different way. In Handmaid’s, we’re left wondering about the fate of our main character and the role of her lover, Nick, in that fate. In Pi, we’re left to grapple with the role of the “real” in storytelling, and we’re left wondering (sort of) which is the “real” story of Pi’s survival. In “Recitatif,” Morrison messes with the mind of her reader by leaving the two main characters’ races ambiguous, forcing the reader to examine his or her own racial prejudices in the process.

My students have blogged about their love, or hatred, of ambiguity. See Christy’s thoughts on her blog. This post too.

We have discussed the role of ambiguity in our sessions.

And now, they will do their own creative writing and incorporate an ambiguous element that allows them to communicate a theme of their choice.

Never done this before. We’ll see how it goes. Will keep you all posted.

I Knew It! Or, Why Stories are Awesome

Did you know that our brains are wired to listen to stories and get all lit up and excited like those MRI scans you see of people listening to some concerto? Well, I did. But here’s an awesome article that discusses this phenomenon far more articulately: “What Listening to a Story Does to Our Brains.”

This comes to me via The Paper Graders who got it via a Penny Kittle Tweet. The Internet is almost as awesome as stories.

I’m going to veer off now, but I swear I’ll come back. I love my partner-in-crime, spouse-extraordinaire, and fellow amateur chef to death, but there is one area in which we differ drastically: he does not read novels. I do. I love novels. I read novels regularly and tell myself it’s because I have to do it for work, but that’s a total lie. I’m currently catching up with the rest of the universe and reading Life of Pi, which is amazing. He, on the other hand, is perfectly capable of reading a good novel (he did over vacation, as a matter of fact), but when it comes right down to it, his storytelling, storyreading, and storylistening preferences are simply different from mine.

All of that said, our relationship revolves around stories. We spend our evenings telling each other stories. Stories about our day. Stories about our lives. Stories we’ve really told each other over and over again but that don’t ever get old, because we love them so much. Stories about who we are. Stories about who we want to be. Stories about who we will someday be, and who all the people in our lives will someday be with us.

Ever met a 5 year old kid? (if your answer is no, crawl out from under your rock.) They’re the same way — only they’re obsessed with that one picture book you swear you never want to see again or that one story about Uncle Joe that you swear isn’t funny but they swear really, really is.

In other words, just because my husband doesn’t read stories in novel form doesn’t mean he doesn’t love stories. He talks all the time about whether or not he can “tell a story” with his science. I don’t really understand his science, so I don’t really know what that means, but I’m pretty sure if he “had no story,” none of the other scientists in scientistland would care at all about his science. The story gives it life, gives it a purpose. Right down to the most “objective” thinkers, we all love stories.

I do the research I do because I love listening to people’s stories and then weaving them together to tell another story, incorporating them into my own stories, and reimagining my work around their stories.

Allow me to quote Mr. S over at TPG:

Humans are fundamentally narrative creating machines. It is how we grapple with the world around us, our experiences, that which we generally call reality, pretty much everything. We process the world in the form of stories. Stories that we make up to make sense of our own lives, stories we make up to make sense of other’s lives, stories we make up to share our ideas. To the extent that a particular human gets good at the skill of constructing narrative he or she gets good at operating in community with other humans. And becomes good at dealing with him or herself.

So why is the story-ness being sucked out of education? David Coleman and other CCSS advocates argue that we need to take all those useless stories out of our classrooms and replace them with good, hard, expository texts. That writing narratives gets kids nowhere. That reading them gets them even more nowhere (or something like that).

It depresses me, but I see this shift happening in my own teaching and tutoring — one of my students came to me with a narrative assignment that got her so excited, we spent two sessions staring at it, revising it, and reimagining it together. I’ve never seen this kid revise like she did in those two sessions. I’ve never seen her so excited about writing. The experience made me realize how little creative energy students are getting at school — and, apparently, from me during tutoring. Shame on me. With this drive to be more able to “argue academically,” we’ve (I’ve) apparently forgotten that good argumentation relies on stories. I knew it… once. Did I really forget it? Forget what an integral part of education storytelling, storymaking, and storyreading is? That many stories, in fact, are making an argument. Carol Jago says on commoncore.org:

Across the nation, teachers say “I don’t have time to teach literature and literary nonfiction anymore” Why? Because the focus turns to the behaviors that students need to perform on assessments. What’s wrongheaded about this is that, with every fiber of my body, I know that the best prep for any kind of assessment in reading is to read and that students who read 20, 30, 40 books a year are probably going to have a pretty good vocabulary, understand complex syntax, and know what to do when they meet challenges in text.

The real heart breaking part of this though, is that the students who find themselves most often in the classes that are literature lite [and] reading lite, are those students who are most disengaged from school. So what are they experiencing? They experience a content-free curriculum. And the result is that instead of what we hope is a meaningful day in education, it’s meaning-less. And so it reaffirms these students’ belief that school is about nothing. English– that’s about commas and stuff– and that is the opposite of what those of us who love literature, love teaching students about literature, and love engendering those rich conversations about literature, would love to happen.

If we suck the stories out of classrooms — just like if my husband were to suck the stories out of one of his papers about proteins and stuff — nobody’s gonna care, least of all a roomful of teenagers. It’s time to make sure that we’re spending our time thinking about the stories we tell, where they take us, and where they come from. This doesn’t mean we need to read more novels. That decidedly would not have worked for my husband, who hated Beloved as a kid (but didn’t hate 1984, from what I can tell) and finds stories in other places. But it does mean we need to make sure that schooling doesn’t lose its creative edge. Even science tells a story.

I’m going to start with my own teaching, and go from there.

Some Pressing Questions About Literac(y)(ies)

A friend of mine, Sheerah, who is in a course I’m taking on literacy and literacy studies with Anne Gere this semester, recently posted on our course blog a number of questions that have been weighing on my mind lately, too. I want to post a few of her questions here and invite some conversation about how we talk about (and teach) literacy and how we might go about addressing questions like Sheerah’s (because I know teachers all over our country share her concerns… I do).

In her post, which is here but you might not be able to view it depending on my prof’s settings, Sheerah asks some huge questions. Here are a couple of them:

If “multiple literacies” are the way to go, then does that mean it is not a problem that my seventh-grade student ‘Vanny’ has difficulty comprehending a text that his suburban counterpart ‘Cody’ could comprehend in first grade—that is not a problem? That is not an injustice? Vanny can read receipts! Therefore, who cares if he can’t read Mrs. Frisbee and the Rats of Nimh.

I think Sheerah, here, is frustrated that in all our talk about valuing students’ out-of-school literacies, we sometimes forget that there are in-school literacies that, though “schooled” literacies that probably won’t matter much (if at all) in students’ lives outside of school, are still literacies that are valued in our society and that “get students places” in life (according to my privileged version of what “success” looks like, anyway). This goes for texts, too. Sure, kids might be reading lots outside of school, but does this matter if the valued genres and texts in school are vastly different? Well of course it matters. Of course it’s an injustice that Vanny is in such a different position than Cody as he enters 7th grade. But what does this mean for literacy teaching and learning?

I think Sheerah voices a challenge for us here: when we talk about literacies, what do we mean? What does valuing multiple literacies look like in the classroom? How does valuing multiple literacies help (or hurt? or limit? or enable?) students? I think it’s easy to say that we need to value students’ evolving literacy tasks and skills, but what does this mean in a system where some students come from markedly different backgrounds than others, have more opportunities to read books and other texts, and struggle with the literacy practices that other students grow up engaging in? And what does it mean that we live in such a system that, no matter how much we clamor in our research, still values traditional literacies over the emerging and dynamic literacies of today’s youth? And because questions always beget more questions, here’s how Sheerah concluded her post:

What is the solution? Can we use literacy to enact social justice—both at the level of government/policy and at the level of the classroom? If so, how?

She talks in her post about her experiences as a teacher in the Bronx, where students struggled to understand the texts that they needed to understand in order to pass through the system. We have been reading Catherine Prendergast’s book, Literacy and Racial Justice, alongside the work of scholars like Deborah Brandt, Brian Street, and Shirley Brice Heath, among many others. The conversations in class have gotten intense. A couple weeks ago our discussion nearly brought me to tears — we were examining standardized comprehension tests from the NY Regents Exam, and the cultural biases were both obvious and disgusting, and reminded me of the wall against which I rammed my head for three years as a middle- and high-school teacher, trying to challenge the system and never feeling like I succeeded.

Sheerah asked some important, and thought-provoking, questions in her post, and I share her frustration as a fellow former teacher and as someone who is passionately dedicated to questioning and challenging scholarship in literacy studies and education. But with such systemically sanctioned obstacles in the way, I often feel pretty hopeless. I’m wondering if any of my readers have some answers to her (and my) questions, some musings, or some revolutionary work or teaching they can share to lift our spirits!


Alvarez’s Butterflies

I just finished reading In the Time of the Butterflies and I have that feeling when I finish a really good book where I’m sorta lost for a couple of days because I wish the book hadn’t ended.

I’m reading it with one of my tutoring students right now, and so needed to get through it pretty quickly, but that was not a problem. The story takes place in the Dominican Republic, of course, and chronicles the lives of the Mirabal sisters — not the real ones, but the fictitious ones of Alvarez’s imagination. The girls are legends in Dominican culture; they were the martyrs of Trujillo’s 31-year regime, murdered on their way home from visiting their husbands who were in prison for political activism. That much of the story is true. Alvarez includes a note at the end of the text saying that though the story is based in the reality of the Mirabal sisters, the girls in the story are creations of her imagination. She argues that only through fiction could the girls’ story come alive again — much of their past is unknowable except through the eyes of their only surviving sister, Dede, and the Mirabals of legend are too difficult to make whole because they are too deified, and thus unknowable.

If you’re looking for a book to read, read this one.