Approaching the Workbench
Tools have been a part of my life for a long time, and they still are. My passion outside of teaching sits at a workbench in my shop: woodworking. It has not been apparent to me until recent years as a young teacher how much I consider my woodworking as informative to my teaching. My shop is filled with modern tools like a table saw, router, orbital sanders, compound miter saw, and drills; and, I have an extensive collection of traditional tools such as dovetail saws, chisels, files, hand planes, and countless pencils. Every tool serves a purpose in a process that creates a piece of fine furniture. Yet, every skilled woodworker will tell you that the real work takes place at the workbench, the place where the craftsman’s vision turns into a reality and becomes a magnificent work of art.
The tools in the shop will help create the finished piece, but without the craftsman grasping the tools at the bench and using them in an effective manner, the tool is only as good as the shelf it rests on. The longer you interact with your tools though they become a part of you, an extension of your body that doesn’t require you to consider how you are using the tool, you just use it. You manipulate the final product the way you envision it instead of manipulating the tool. But you have to know the right tool for the right job. Tools, or technologies, are ubiquitous in my academic work and teaching, but the more I perfect my craft I have to be even more conscious of when and how I’m using technology and how it acts as part of a system.
Considering Activity Systems
Before I even begin to teach students and have them consider technology and how it can impact their communication goals, I have to understand my own interaction with technology and the system in which I will become involved in with my students. Activity Theory (AT) is a very useful tool for me in teaching with technology because it helps me understand all of the stakeholders in a community or system, such as my classroom, and the connections we share with various tools and how/where breakdowns may occur. So, emulating Russell’s (2002) diagram of an activity system with points of contradictions (breakdowns), I illustrate an interactive system prior to planning a teaching unit (example pictured) to help me visualize my intended goals for my teaching.
As a teacher, I need to see a broad picture to understand a lot of concepts, so drawing on AT and visualizing various systems I am a part of helps me have a pre-reflective process prior to engaging with my students and technology. Normally I might only consider myself in relation to my teaching, but knowledge construction in the classroom is more created by the students with myself learning and creating knowledge with them. Traditionally, I have myself the instructor and carry my own set of goals and ambitions and face my own challenges in my personal life; my students all have separate goals from me and from each other and interact in a diverse group of social environments; but we all interact together in a singular environment, the classroom.
When integrating technology into the classroom, I have to consider the critical, non-human elements in the system: tools. Russell states that “[b]y focusing on various relationships among participants [in an activity system] and their tools, AT prompts us to ask better questions for designing distributed learning environments and understanding where and why they work or break down” (81). This concept and the diagrams I draw became my jumping off point in unit development and is the overarching theory that helps essentially hold my teaching goals and learning outcomes together. If I constantly think about where there might be breakdowns in the system, usually with technology, then I can plan for that and avoid any failures in my teaching design.
A Critical Approach
My teaching often revolves around this idea of digital identity. My goal is for students to learn how to understand the ways in which we develop our identities through the technology we encounter in our social lives. With that being the theme of my courses, I want my units or activities to reflect that objective and have students think critically about their social environment and how they interact with it. Duffelmeyer (2002) took this approach with technology through the lens of critical pedagogy. If students step outside of the environment and act as an observer of the world and technology in which they interact with then they can critically assess their relationship with that technology that has become a part of their everyday world, just like the craftsman not allowing his tools to become transparent.
A lot of my teaching engages students to consider visuals and how we interact with them as consumers so that we can learn to become producers. Following Stephen Bernhardt’s “Seeing the Text” (1992), even textual communication is visually constructed rhetorically. One of my favorite units I designed asks students to critically evaluate something they see in everyday interaction that might otherwise be passed by without any close observation: posters. Posters are all over campus, and this form of visual communication is a great space, I believe, for students to stop and take a closer look and critically evaluate this communication site. Posters are designed to persuade, advocate, or advertise; yet the ubiquity of them on a college campus most likely means students are paying little attention to them. By choosing this as a site for analysis, I am asking students to step back and think critically about what normally is taken for granted. This is important for teaching rhetorical concepts because it helps students understand how communication works in different social settings. But what does this have to do with technology?
I also want students to think critically about the digital environments that they socialize in. If I am going to ask students to search for visuals on campus and analyze them, I needed to find a platform for them to put those visuals so that they could share their understanding of their findings. Since the course is about digital identities, I decided the best place for students to post visuals would be on social media (more on this theory later). This is another way to introduce critical pedagogy because students often do not consider how or why they use social media and how they interact with it. When I ask students to post a picture of a visual they find and comment on it, they are learning how to negotiate the different identities they have as social people and academics.
Writing About Seeing
The course I teach is essentially a composition course, but ISUComm initiative to teach Written, Oral, Visual, and Electronic (WOVE) modes of communication presents different challenges for teaching composition. Are we teaching writing? If we think phenomenologically about writing, we can experience writing by writing about writing, especially through digital technology. And, as Scott Warnock (2009) suggests, writing is migrating online, so it seems like a logical space to think about how we interact with this technology because, as van Manen and Adams (2009) put it, “[o]nline computer technologies intensify the phenomenology of writing—they speed up, accelerate, compel, draw us into the virtual vortex of the experience of writing” (20-21). Yet, my teaching and theory focuses on visuals and not writing (as mentioned earlier, I see writing as visual communication), so what am I asking my students to do in a composition course?
What I believe I teach is a way for students to experience seeing through writing; that is, students can experience the phenomenology of seeing by writing about seeing. Sounds confusing, but the idea is that students use writing online as a tool to reflect on the things they see in their environment. In one of my graduate seminar classes, we did an exercise where we sat in a space and wrote online. We were writing about our writing, but the content of our writing about writing was what we were seeing. We referred to the position in which our bodies were, what the room looked like, and the different images we saw on our computer screens. There is a distinct deviation from writing about the act of writing and moving to writing about seeing. This experience led me to believe that my teaching can accomplish this phenomenon implicitly by having students reflect on what they see by writing online.
Hybrid Course Construction
A lot of writing and teaching is migrating online, and I have to consider as a teacher which environment I am best suited to teach in. In Teaching Writing Online: How and Why, Scott Warnock states that “ part of the Why [we teach writing online] is that we can place our students in a writing context in which they are comfortable, channeling their vast text production skills into a complementary teaching methodology” (xxii). I have no question that I should meet students where they are and teach writing in an online environment, but I also want to be available to students in an open, face-to-face environment where we can discuss writing and technology. So, I try to incorporate both displaced, online learning with classroom interaction. Yet, using online resources provided to us as teachers, such as Learning Management Systems (LMS), poses a different problem for me as an instructor.
Deciding Between the Pool or the Beach
One of the things that has resonated with me the most as a teacher is a metaphor that Quinn Warnick has used for online or digital learning environments. In describing LMSs, he makes a clear distinction between the orderly confines of a closed garden and wild prairies. An LMS like Moodle or Blackboard is a protective, neat, and structured environment where students are not vulnerable to any outside viewership. Wild prairies, in contrast, or open access systems like blogs or social media that instructors might use for students’ writing instruction allows any person online to be a potential viewer. This poses an interesting pedagogical question about students writing for an audience.
The friendly confines of an LMS keeps the audience as the instructor and maybe other students; the open fields invite any reader to the conversation the instructor and students are having.
This idea has influenced me in that I choose to situate some of my teaching within an LMS and social media. Going with Warnock’s call to “meet students where they are” I use public sites like Facebook because the majority of students are very familiar with Facebook, so why not have them critically engage in the spaces in which they dwell normally?
I love Warnick’s metaphor, but I think there are a couple of things missing from it that I want to consider in my teaching. First, the walled garden might imply the presence of a gardener (instructor) to tend the potential weeds (pitfalls) of the LMS; however, the wild prairie implies an adventurer wandering that might not have any sort of guide. It could be assumed that the prairie metaphor places the instructor alongside the student to brave the terrain together, but that loses some of the hierarchical function of the classroom that needs to remain in tact in some ways; students still want a solid authority figure to help them along when necessary.
The second problem with the garden metaphor is that there is an element missing: fun. While there is beauty implicit in both the garden and the prairie, it may not necessarily have an element of fun. The garden could be too stuffy and elegant, and the prairie could be too tiring and difficult to navigate. So I like to think of the different sites for LMS and online learning as a pool or the beach.
The pool has the safety of the confined waters and the lifeguard (instructor), but swimming allows enjoyment with limited possibilities of extra fun being a diving board or waterslide. This is similar to the tools and activities that could be used in an LMS where instructors have more control over the students and limited resources within the LMS. The beach on the other hand still has the lifeguard on duty (instructor), the expanse of the waterfront makes it more difficult to monitor every student; however, the ocean provides waves for surfing, sand for building castles, shells for collecting, deep waters for snorkeling, and much more. In essence, there is a lot of fun to be had while still having the presence of the protective figure.
This became the sole reason I choose to employ social media in my teaching. Why not allow students to share their experience on the beach with other people by posting school related activities on Facebook? During one of my class activities, people not in my classes were responding to my students posts on a Facebook page I set up to have a conversation of rhetorical construction of visuals. This poses an interesting dynamic for learning rhetoric of social media interaction while also including other people in the excitement and experience of the learning that students are engaging in.
Want to talk about my teaching philosophy?
Do you host a podcast or YouTube show about teaching and digital teaching tools? Are you teaching a course about digital or hybrid pedagogy? Send me a message and I’d love to share more about how I approach teaching, technology, and my favorite tools.