Some hipster-y Instagrams of adjunct-object feelings. I have no idea why there is a red plastic box of salt in the adjunct kitchen.
For my Summer Session II class, I wanted to add a social media/microblogging component. I’d used my University’s Blackboard Wiki in a previous class, but found the whole thing badly-designed. I was determined to step up my game in terms of social media integration, so I decided to test-pilot Tumblr. Students were required to post two assignments on the class Tumblr, but were NOT required to use the site in any other capacity.
1. Tumblr as the Class Commons
Tumblr became the de-facto landing pad for my class. Since I was in a smart classroom, it was easy for me to pull up announcements, tips, reminders or examples that I’d posted since the previous class--I usually opened class with the Tumblr. As opposed to Blackboard, Tumblr was a clean and publically accessibly interface. When updating my lectures, I often found it easier to put images and clips up on Tumblr than to hassle with powerpoint, and I could throw up last minute examples as they came to mind late at night or during class break. I can’t speak to how this compares with something like WordPress (haven’t tried it), but I like the simplicity of Tumblr’s post-types, the ease of pulling content from the Tumblr community, and the fact that students would have to engage a bit with the online community of Tumblr. Our class Tumblr was like a little hub in a much larger hive.
2. My Students Surprised Me
After I modeled the Tumblr as a place for posting class-relevant content, several students began using the Tumblr volitionally. They posted vids and images with a few keywords about how it might relate to the course, or linked to an example they brought up in class. When we went on a tour of the Met, students uploaded their cell phone snapshots, which enabled me to discuss works they liked by scrolling through the Tumblr. Naturally, some students participated more than others, but I’d say about 1/3-1/2 of the class used the Tumblr on their own, with no incentive. This was revealing, because several of my heaviest users were low-level in-class participators. The Tumblr became a space of serious engagement for those students who didn’t like to talk, and I was able to take that into account for participation grades. In short? They surprised me with their willingness to use the site, and the quality of the content they put there.
What Didn’t Work (Or, Lessons Learned)
1. Make Them Members
Because I didn’t go into the Tumblr with much of a “plan”, I fumbled a bit with how to manage a group of students on the site. First I made the site password protected, but some reported they couldn't access it with the password. I didn't have time to troubleshoot their problems individually, so I dropped that and tried to make them all become members, so they could access the Tumblr on their Dashboard. But then, because I’d also included a “submit content” option on the sidebar, some students decide to forgo setting up accounts and just submitted content that way. So I deleted members and let students just use the submit function. But the submit function isn’t as advanced as the Dashboard posting options, so there were inconsistencies that popped up which I still can’t explain: some students were able to submit directly to the Tumblr and have their content appear without being approved, while others had to be cleared by me. Students with Tumblr accounts had their names attach automatically, while other posts remained anonymous. Submissions were often poorly formatted, especially when students needed to compose more complicated posts (with links, multiple images, etc). I wound up having to re-format several student posts, particularly in the case where students posted a youtube link address, rather than having the option to embedded a video. These problems could have been avoided if they had access and training (see below) in the Dashboard feature.
2. Give Them a Tutorial
I rather dumbly presumed that, hey, my students are all “children of the Net”. I thought they’d acclimate quickly to this interface just like I did, and they could google for help. This presumption was a mistake on my part—because there’s more than one way to skin a cat on Tumblr, there’s also more than one way to make an ugly post, or a post that’s accidentally all HTML code. I didn’t forsee that they needed to be taught how to “Copy Image Location” rather than a Google image site address, how to link text, even to double check the site to make sure their content loaded. In short, the site was a BIT of a mess because I didn’t anticipate that they needed to be taught basic technical web skills.
In the future, I will require students to accept a member invite to the Tumblr, give a basic tutorial to Tumblr on the first day (with an instructional post for students who add the class late), NOT have a “submit” sidebar and require them to compose a technically correct post with a variety of content types (text, image, video are the most common). Barring my first-timer errors, I think Tumblr was a worthwhile addition to my class, has dynamic participatory potential, and I plan on using it in the foreseeable future.
1. Privacy—Student and Instructor
I’d originally set up the Tumblr to be password protected, but this was creating difficulties for some students that I didn’t have time to deal with, so I thought it easiest to just drop the password protection and make the whole thing public. However, I’m cognizant that students—and their writing—are identified by name. I’m not sure how to contend with this, and it wasn’t a problem I thought about when I threw the Tumblr together (not a topic really covered in traditional humanities pedagogy classes). I’m inclined to mothball this Tumblr because I didn’t take into account issues of student privacy, and try to come up with a more secure system for next time. Any thoughts?
If I use Tumblr for future classes, how do I manage these sites—does each class get its own secondary Tumblr (which could get voluminous fast)? Do all classes of the same course designation use the same Tumblr (presuming I’m not teaching multiple sections of a class in the same semester)? Is there any easy way for me to archive a Tumblr site for my own files, while deleting it from the net? For anyone who has used Tumblr for multiple classes, how do you manage these complexities?
A post has been a long time coming. This summer has been over-packed with excitement, opportunities, and good times, but it has also remarkably distracted me from the actual writing of my dissertation. I spent a week going through the Ken and Roberta Williams Collection at the Strong Museum of Play and then spent a week at Princeton University at the 2nd annual Princeton-Weimar Summer School for Media Studies (where I met the amazing Hiilei Hobart, Jacob Gaboury, and Dylan Mulvin). I'm effortfully pulling together a panel for SCMS 2013 on interventions within media archaeology, and prepping a paper for SHOT in Copenhagen this October. I just got interviewed about Internet Memes by an independent journalist writing an article for PCWorld. I taught a section of CCS101: Intro to Cinema and Media Studies, and have had a blasty-blast with my students discussing everything from Foucault to modernity to semiotics to Peter Lunenfeld's The Secret War Between Downloading and Uploading. I used Tumblr in class for the first time, and it's been a great success--students are always throwing up links, clips, quotes and images that remind them of course content. Tumblr is proving an amazing archive for our course investigations. I also have a few projects that shall remain top secret until further verification (so the 3 of you who read this blog, stay posted).
But throughout the summer, I was having a horrible time actually working on my dissertation. First I'd committed to writing a methodological article on a feminist materialist critique of media archaeology--but every time I sat down to do the lit review or aim my sights at Wolfgang Ernst, I felt myself getting sucked into a black hole of philosophical vitalism (a Bermuda Triangle of Spinoza, Bergson and Deleuze). I felt like I couldn't write anything without having the entire weight of continental philosophy in my back pocket (which, not being a philosopher by training, was presenting a problem). I felt impotent to even know where I could start, as I stared down the barrel of a 300 page project that loomed ominously empty on the Word document before me.
However, this summer I also got recruited to join a Feminist Writing Group organized by the insightful Laura Portwood-Stacer, who I met at Now! Visual Culture. "Feminist Writing Group?" my friends scoffed. "Doesn't seem like your kinda thing." I tend to be a little too aloof and much too cantankerous for such dynamics. I'm often the student who would sit in seminar and doesn't make a peep, and loathes the eyes of strangers on my work. But I volunteered some work for the second session, thinking it would be good motivation to get my Copenhagen paper written--and as a straight up history, I figured it would be safe and not too over-exposing. However, when my one-week deadline emerged, I was still days behind on having something to show. I couldn't bail on the group, but also knew I couldn't send a 4-page lit review and retain any self-respect. I hit the panic button, and emailed out the only other reasonable paper I had relating to feminism, a Feminist New Materialist Critique of Media Archaeology that I'd presented at the New School that past spring and planned on presenting at SCMS in 2013.
I spent the week on edge. This was intense theoretical work, couched in brazen, sometimes arrogant writing. I'd never exposed this to any of my professors, or anyone who even really had a background in feminist critical materialism (i've pretty much taught myself). I also, perhaps predictably, thought the piece was damn near perfect, and hadn't anticipated revising it much for SCMS. I was in a cold terror about what others might say, and nervous that no one would have anything to say. When the day of the actual group arrived, the group was almost twice as large as the first meeting, and all new people, and mostly university faculty (a "real world" step up from my grad student status, however much I take myself seriously).
I gave a stuttery introduction and prepared for the worst--and instead, lo and behold, I got the best. Not ceaseless praise or neck-wringing admonishments, but critical attention trained at making this work better while still highlighting what I did well and where I could push further. I've only occasionally ever received such honed, invested, and engaged feedback from peers or profs. And amazingly, this active, brilliant group of lady-minds managed to help me shed the cloak that had been holding me back from writing for almost two months. Stop trying to dismantle someone else's work. You know what you're doing, so just move forward with your own ideas. Show us what you're really capable of. When I woke up this morning, I could stop thinking--"what if I did this? what if I argued that?" Suddenly I realized the first chapter of my dissertation had been sitting in my Dropbox all along, just mangled into a bunch of different pieces I'd been too hesitant to pull together. I woke up at 8, was at the library by 11, and had my own intervention written by 12. By the time I tapped out for happy hour at my favorite bar, I had 17 pages of a chapter--cobbled, slapped together, in terrible need of stitching, but a start, with a clear outline of what I'm doing and where this project is going.
The mental deep freeze is over. I'm going to write this bastard. And all it took was showing my work to a group of strangers invested in questions of knowledge production, sensitive to the struggles of a grad student, but not willing to let something half-wrought slide by: a lesson in feminist orientations and co-relationality if ever there was one.