Fertile Learning Grounds: “Network Ecology Stories” and “Creative Vernacular”

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Bryan Alexander raises some really interesting questions in his latest post, “Web 2.0 Network Ecology Stories“, a post extended by Alan Levine this morning.

Bryan comments on how –in his example– digital photos posted to his blog become “microcontent connecting people along lines of shared interest, based on what Ton Zylstra calls ‘social objects.’ Very easy, fluid, direct.” And then at the end of his post he asks:

How are we acculturating these practices? Is this sort of social object networking part of information literacy, media literacy? How often does popular culture represent this practice in tv news, search scenes in movies? And academia, from scholarly bibliography practices to general pedagogy, from The Chronicle to advising grad students, how are we making, sharing, digesting such stories?

These questions, looked at from a slightly different perspective (that of a teacher designing a new first-year seminar for the fall about reading and writing contemporary creative nonfiction), open all kinds of promising avenues for my teaching. I want to think about how my students might examine and experiment with these new, truly dispersed yet interconnected narratives assembled bit by bit, one creator not necessarily even aware of the movement of his/her expression as it is connected to asynchronously, digested, reworked, and remixed.

Are Bryan’s and Alan’s stories pointing to emerging forms I can use, a new kind of renga, perhaps, Exquisite Corpseor Web 2.0 freestyling? Or do we take what we find and create new stories simply by isolating them within a new context, like Spencer’s “Found Fridays,” one of my favorite weekly blog-stops. The potential problems of “found” are raised by the recent article in Slate (Thanks, Hector) by David Segal: “Can photographers be plagiarists?” And this morning’s NPR’s Scott Simon piece about presidential hopefuls brings up tensions arising from stories popping up when least expected–politician stories have shifted due to cellphones and real-time citizen reporting (the two senators interviewed remarked on the disappearance of humor in speeches, the lack of substance as hopefuls grow ever more wary of how their words might come back to bite them). Incredibly interesting and important things for our undergraduates to be considering as they get ready to leave school.

I can see the class thinking about what someone like Sophie Calle might do with these new kinds of overheard and found stories. Or they might try out an Oliver Luker-esque use of ” the socialised internet for the development and presentation of contemporary art and literature” aiming “to establish a new curatorial discourse based on artistic working practices.”

Indeed, I’d like students to explore the role of what Jean Burgess calls vernacular creativity in their own lives and locales, and in their own creations. Why do spend so much time worrying about the evils of wikipedia et al and so little time thinking about the rich potential of discoveries online, of unanticipated learning that is as likely to be postiive as negative?

Perhaps, in mulling over Bryan’s questions and the creative possibilities offered us by our transparent connectedness to the world, we’ll try out some community collaborative storytelling such as compiled by a group in Northern Ireland, including my favorite, murmur.

Little did Bryan know that his post would help me in this work of considering the broad outlines of a learning experience for new undergraduates. Lovely.


4 Responses

  1. Hi Barbara, enjoyed this post and Bryan’s very much. An thanks for your very kind mention of the “vernacular creativity” idea in this context. I find the concept of unanticipated learning quite powerful in terms of the examples above–because it captures the idea of “unintended consequences” of ICTs. That is, the social uses of technologies–often mundane but with deceptively important implications–that are unanticipated in design. Which, of course, is the *real* reason that ‘openness’ is important as a design ethic, including educational design as much as the design of enterprise-based online networks and services.

    As you suggest,getting users (or students) to reflect on their own agency and the richness of their own everyday creative practice (which they probably don’t even understand that way) is a big part of amplifying the positive implications of these unintened consequences, I think.

  2. Thanks, Jean, for the response– I think a real problem in (American) culture is our outward speed and consequent lack of creative reflective space. We don’t even know how to be quiet, how to observe our surroundings and selves keenly enough to make the kinds of serendipitous connections and discoveries we’re talking about. A couple of posts ago (and in her part of our talk at ELI recently) one of my students and then a couple of her co-horts explored the reasons behind leaving blogging once they were no longer immersed in what they viewed as intensely new and riveting learning situations–their “regular” lives, they felt, weren’t really worth exploring in creative reflection. It’s not that I’m asking studients to sit around and navel gaze, but to see the possibilities in the small, in the unexpected, in the “found” around them, and to imagine their own part in the larger scheme of things. Just as our economies are built on principles of expansion and consumption, our classrooms are always pushing outward and onward at breakneck speed without giving our students and ourselves time to cogitate, to play, to mess around with that kind of unanticipated learning wherever it shows up. Perhaps I’ll make my fall course focus on the local, on the found, on the smallest discoveries and observations. And surely we’ll be checking out your blog.

  3. Hi Barbara

    you may have seen this in Harpers regarding Plagiarism –


    As we develop new projects in this edition of dispatx we are seeing the artists beginning truly to work alongside one another, a liitle like the ‘renga’ you mention (a new concept for me). Perhaps the question is not how the found in and of itself informs work, but how the knowledge of ‘potential finds’ (via Google, via StumbleUpon, or similar) might truly begin to frame work with a specified goal. How might we aim for a state without knowing what will make it up?

  4. Thanks, Oliver, for the link–and it’s good to hear from you. I haven’t yet read the Harper’s but do love the title and will get over there right away.

    Interesting questions you raise. That you keep your artists working towards the specific goal of your theme and the collaboration is essential, I think; you poets know, as do the architects, that imposing some limits, some constraints creates opportunities for discovery. I am reading a bit in spatial and architectural theory right now –Michel de Certeau and Elizabeth Grosz–and find their discussions of cities, language, virtuality touches upon similar questions.

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