Tagged curriculum development

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Participatory Culture and Distributed Expertise: Breaking Down Pedagogical Norms or Regulating Neoliberal Subjectivities?

Kimberly Mair, University of Lethbridge


While participatory pedagogies and inverted classrooms contest the norms and forms authority that operate in the conventional classroom and attempt to respond creatively to the challenge that Web 2.0 presents to higher education, they may also reinforce the requisite affect and rhythms of production that are characteristic of flexible labor. Drawing upon observations from a course on digital culture delivered in an inverted and participatory classroom, this article discusses the effectiveness of experiential, decentered, and collaborative classroom environments for meeting the demands of early twenty-first century higher education but examines contradictions inherent to these critical pedagogies. This paper argues that the intensive labor and constant affect-based interactions that participatory pedagogies demand may inadvertently undermine their critical force by enacting forms of neoliberal governance. The discussion concludes with provisional thoughts about how to navigate these contradictions by building a critique of the pedagogy into the course structure.



Critical pedagogies that emphasize performative and participatory activity are effective in breaking down and contesting the norms and forms of authority operative in the conventional classroom that otherwise tend toward passive absorption and recall on demand. The move away from both older banking (Freire [1970] 1997, 61) and newer information exchange models in education is even more urgent when we take seriously that “knowledge and information in their exchangeable form are easily accessible on the internet and Wikipedia,” an observation that prompted Groot, Pape, and Vilvang (2015) to ask: “What, then, is the singular project of higher education that stands out from a mass of knowledge traders?” (1). For them, that project would entail the generation of “movements of thought,” in which “it is not a stable piece of information that moves from point A to point B” (1), but one that engages directly the problem of “how to make different modes of thought resonate, how to think with another thinking” (2).

In preparation for a third-year undergraduate course entitled Digital Culture and Society, I attempted to shape its curriculum into a metaphorical platform for experiential engagements that would disrupt conventional assumptions of the economy of knowledge in the classroom by positioning the students as collaborative knowledge producers who each bring plural knowledges into the space for reworking, rather than as receivers of ostensibly crystallized, knowledge. Since I gave the course a thematic focus on Participatory Culture in Web 2.0, I wanted its form to make operative the social processes of concern in the course, such as shifts in communicative practice and values, the withdrawal of the singular author or originator of knowledge claims, and so forth. Making such processes operative indeed made space for “movements of thought” (Groot, Pape, and Vilvang 2015, 1). I noted how easily the values of critical pedagogies, such as those central to the inversion of classrooms, synthesized with the unique concerns of the course topic of digital culture, as these are in many ways consistent with the emergent norms of Web 2.0 culture and its “central cultural logic” of sharing (Shifman 2014, 19). Yet, over the duration of the course, I became aware of inherent contradictions in the participatory and performative potential of inverted pedagogies.

Concerns have been raised about inverted models, particularly in the context of fiscal pressures on education that may emphasize technology as a solution to increased demands with fewer resources, while de-emphasizing the value of immediate engagement with instructors. As Harden (2015) has observed, however, the critical focus of inverted models does provide “means for educators to resist that outcome” (378). Perhaps this danger pivots on where the imperative to invert classrooms emerges, with the institution or with the educator, and whether it is administratively or conceptually driven. But, my immediate concerns depart from the possible administrative exploitation of what are meant to be critical learning models that, done well, are usually more, not less, labor intensive. That these learning models are more labor intensive, not only for faculty but for students as well, is my point of departure. With the learning strategies and forms that my course implemented, student labor was both extensive and sometimes invisible as work. I argue that, as much as these forms rework and disrupt conventional classroom practices, they may inadvertently contribute to the regulation of subjectivity in preparation for entrenching flexible labor arrangements. Following this, I will conclude with a brief preliminary reflection upon how I have attempted to activate this critique as part of the content in a subsequent offering of this course. Before developing my critique, I will situate my discussion in the course’s pedagogical underpinnings.

Participatory and Web 2.0 Cultures as Content and Pedagogy

The course’s thematic focus on Participatory Culture in Web 2.0 culture followed Henry Jenkins’ work in both of its streams: fandom studies and participatory classrooms. Henry Jenkins, Wyn Kelley, et al (2013) advocate the “participatory classroom,” which acknowledges the emergent shift from the expert paradigm of one-directional knowledge transfer to a collaborative model of knowledge production known as distributed expertise (188–189). Distributed expertise anticipates that each participant has knowledge and experiences to contribute. It favors course designs that enable and encourage the active mobilization of each participant’s expertise in both learning and teaching, although the latter often occurs through informal mentorship—a central value of some fandoms [1] and one that is consistent with the positive popular discourse of so-called Web 2.0 culture generally.

The respective characteristics of Web 2.0 culture and participatory culture overlap but are distinct (Hadas 2009, 1.2). Web 2.0 culture denotes the practices that emerge from the platform infrastructure of the Internet that provides sites to be filled with users’ content and generates sharing and interactivity that the read-only websites of Web 1.0 were not equipped to support. The ideological promise of Web 2.0 culture, however, recasts consumers as participants and creators and, therefore, it elides the distinction between producers and consumers (Hadas 2009; Jenkins [1992] 2013). More significantly, the discourses that surround Web 2.0 culture suggest a democratic communicative sphere by emphasizing its ostensible decentralization. Tim O’Reilly, who acknowledged the “interactivity, flexibility, and participation” (Coleman 2013, 207) of platform-based applications on the Internet by proposing the name Web 2.0, stresses its potential to foster “collective intelligence” (Hadas 2009). Web 2.0 also purportedly has the capacity to endow the speculative “noosphere” of the fused global mind (Manivannan 2012) with a “perfect memory” (Mayer-Schönberger quoted in Manivannan 2012). Tensions reside here due to the broad signifying force that the name Web 2.0 has taken on in a “constant conflation” of technologies and practices that “obscures the sociology and history of some digital projects” (Coleman 2013, 208). While the appeal to the supposed decentralization of Web 2.0 is often challenged (Mayorga 2014; Shifman 2014; Lanier 2011), Coleman asserts the distinction between “corporate-owned, proprietary platforms” and free software development or collective projects (208). So, while the promise and potential of so-called Web 2.0 cannot reside above critique, Coleman reminds us to give attention to which efforts and technologies we mean and how they operate “ethically, politically, and economically” (209) when we use this term.

The concept of participatory culture, however, speaks to long-time fandom practices, involving both affective and critical reading (Jenkins [1992] 2013, 277–278); the production of “borderlands” between texts and everyday life (3); cultural activism; aesthetic production that blurs the creator-consumer distinction; and the making of alternative communities (278–282). It long precedes the advent of digital platform infrastructures, but its characteristics overlap with the creative, non-hierarchical promise of the Web 2.0 culture of sharing. Jenkins and Kelley, et al (2013) outline the characteristics of a participatory culture as follows: “low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement”; mutual “support for creating and sharing”; “informal mentorship”; members’ belief that their contributions are significant; members’ feelings of social connection that extend to contributions made by members of the group (8).

In several respects, contemporary understandings and practices of participatory culture, now extending to more anonymous and ephemeral digital communities, rely upon the technological infrastructures of Web 2.0. Paul J. Booth’s (2012) study of video mash-ups forwards that today’s remix culture relies heavily on the use and re-working of different texts and genres to produce cultural “rupture” (5.4). In the context of the digital sphere and its reconfigurations of communication, participatory culture promises to re-work cultural logics and social arrangements, giving the impression of control to participants who make up networked communities. This control, however, is highly dependent upon the digital spaces in which activities occur. Financial and digital capitals, as well as membership in new social arrangements, are unevenly distributed (Mayorga 2014).

Having made this distinction between these overlapping concepts, I will elaborate how they inform and mirror my pedagogical assumptions in the design of this course. Like digital spaces and networks, classrooms are marked by uneven distributions of various capitals, and while a participatory course design does not level this terrain, it does make interventions into models of teaching that appeal to the image of a knowledge economy. As with Freire’s critical use of the word “banking” to describe one-directional teaching strategies, a course that is designed to participate in the knowledge economy assumes its material in terms of units possessed by teachers or books, consumed by students, and then exchanged for credit in examinations and assignments. A course that approximates a participatory culture emphasizes experiential learning by having students engage directly in the processes relevant to the course topic rather than primarily consume course materials that explain them. By focusing on processes, knowledge is then understood as ways of thinking and making rather than information or facts that are today readily available, and even debated, without classrooms of higher learning.

In this course, students’ experiences were supposed to be much like those in Web 2.0, as students ‘shared’ their ideas and took control of their activities through the collaborative production of their term projects. Groups were also to approximate participatory culture by fulfilling the characteristics outlined above. Although I assigned scholarly literatures, the experience of working in this way was intended to be a central ‘text’ of the course by which emergent social arrangements, communicative practices, and values in digital culture could be felt and negotiated rather than merely read about. Finally, this pedagogical approach assumes that learning is not an interior process but happens through active meetings among thinkers, objects, and environments. Having elaborated the critical pedagogical assumptions that draw from inverted models as well as from the scholarship on participatory classrooms and distributed expertise (Jenkins and Kelley et al., 2013) that guided the development of this course, I will provide some details about it before moving on to my critical observations about the contradictions presented with this approach in terms of its inadvertent complicity in preparing students for neoliberalism’s flexible labor arrangements.

The Participatory Course and Fan-Fic as Scholarly Activity

I responded to the official course title of Digital Culture and Society with a thematic of participatory culture, using scholarly readings to emphasize the following in the content: oscillations between materialization and dematerialization (Hayles 2012); new modes of communication; emergent norms and values; and new forms of subjectivity that are tension-ridden between, on the one hand, Barry Wellman’s concept of “networked individualism,” concerned with self-branding and production of social connectivity and communion, which is often used to describe contemporary social production (Shifman 2014, 30, 33–34), and, on the other hand, the economy of unreality that David Auerbach observes on 4chan message boards, which minimizes identity, trading subjects for knowledges and experiences (Manivannan 2012). In the course’s formal organization, I primarily used an inverted, or ‘flipped’, classroom model. I did minimal lecturing each week. Lectures focused on the most challenging aspects of theoretical matter in scholarly literature, and students were required to engage with learning materials and do preliminary work outside of class. Given its thematic, the course was participatory in its content and form. Mirroring the conceptual content of the course, students engaged directly in creative fan culture production in collaborative groups online outside of class time and face-to-face in the classroom over a period of three months.

Fandom production that values free space to create resonates with the ways in which communication ideally occurs in Web 2.0. The perceived gap between students’ routine communication practices and the scholarly conventions expected in the academy has perhaps never been greater. Instructors can build upon the ways that students communicate, and students can also be positioned to see how their communicative practices implicitly cross into scholarly conventions. I suggest that fandom practices, such as fan-fic, offer a productive meeting ground. Fandom strategies displace the authority of primary texts and offer creative license to students making their own texts using informal types of citation through intertextuality. More crucially, fandom strategies encourage active reading and re-writing practices that extend or question, fill in gaps, and posit cultural critiques of dominant narratives (Jenkins [1992] 2013). I used fan-fic prompts from the second class meeting on to unsettle classroom routines, initiate collaborative work, develop relationships, and explore assigned texts.[2]

The novel S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst (2013) provided a common point of departure for the collaborative projects. S is an example of an ergodic novel because it requires unusual and laborious reading practices. It was particularly relevant to the course because it demands reading practices that mimic and amplify the non-linear experience of reading online, while calling for supplemental searching that crosses into other media external to the book to meet its intertextual knowledge requirements. Yet S also exaggerates the sensorial experiences of reading a material, hardcover book. The book is heavy, difficult to handle, and its specifically placed interleaved objects will fall out if the reader is not careful with every movement. The pages are artificially aged and seem to have been treated with the subtle scent of old books. Its content is broadly concerned with communication technologies and reading as authorship.

The students’ ongoing task was to work intertextually between scholarly literature, the novel, and their experiences of participatory culture in various modes. Many of their assignments, including the central collaborative project, demanded that they relinquish attachments to individual ownership and authorship of their production. In a limited sense, their contributions were ideally anonymous, as on 4chan, but not quite, obviously. I gave no specifications about what the final products should be. In terms of content, they were simply instructed to respond to S., while drawing from the conceptual materials in weekly academic readings. Evaluation was process-based and focused on groups’ routine practice of the principles of a participatory culture, as observed on their discussion and planning blogs and in participatory group time, for which they had between fifty and one hundred minutes per week over the term.

In addition to the attempt to subvert conventional authority emanating from the instructor and from assigned texts by animating participation in active knowledge production and contestation, the submitted assignments were creative, and relied upon popular cultural texts as well as on experiences. One aspect of Henry Giroux’s notion of border pedagogy as a “counter-text” (1991, 52) to traditional forms of pedagogical authority involves the treatment of official texts and popular cultural texts—not as the conduits for knowledge transmission, but as objects of study in themselves. Border pedagogy also enables students to “create their own texts” (54) under “conditions that allow students to write, speak, and listen in a language in which meaning becomes multi-accentual, dispersed, and resists permanent closure” (52).

The participatory modes operating within and outside of the classroom produced a high-level of solidarity among the students, and fostered intense friendships among many of them. Of the six groups, social connectivity was indeed achieved in all but one group that organized their activity with a means-ends logic. Having individual work from the students in the course from which to draw comparisons, the scholarly and creative quality of the works produced were, in most cases, higher than what would have been produced by individuals, as they were marked with the different strengths and interests of each group’s various members, which had dialogical mobility within the strongest groups over the duration of the term.

Despite the successes of the course, it became evident to me that the participatory modes of learning embedded into the course design presented inherent contradictions. While the pedagogical practices associated with distributed expertise and participatory collaboration break down the norms and forms of authority operative in the conventional classroom, they also appear to contribute to the regulation of subjectivity in preparation for immaterial and flexible labor arrangements. I observed that these strategies encourage practices that are consistent with the policy and human resource buzzwords of “creativity,” “participation,” and “community” that art historian Claire Bishop notes have been borrowed from 1960s discourses and deployed in service of self-sufficiency in the so-called “new economy” (2012, 14).

Do Participatory Classrooms Produce Post-Fordist Laborers?

Alexander R. Galloway has argued that, in post-Fordist arrangements, we can no longer distinguish between leisure and labor activities. Drawing upon Galloway’s observation, as well as Tim O’Reilly’s uncritical concept of “algorithmic regulation,” which denotes a process by which algorithmic adjustments respond to immediate data that evaluate whether algorithmic outcomes are aligned with preferred ones, Steve Holmes (2014) addressed the practice of bitcoin mining as a “hybrid game-like” environment that directly “participate[s] in structures of knowledge/power” that appropriate not only game play, but also browsing activities, social media posting, blogging, and so many of the routine activities that many of us do in daily life. He shows how these leisure activities are submitted to the surveillance of algorithms and become acts of immaterial labor that convert “play into [someone else’s] profit”. Holmes’s aim is to extend critiques that focus on game play that simulates other environments to show that “global communications networks have converted all of space and time to gamespace” and produce a sort of “algorithmic subjectivity” that responds to neoliberal demands both economically and at the level of conscious desires. It is a surveilled and regulated subjectivity, but it gives the appearance of individual agency. While we learn from Holmes that the mining of crypto-currencies brings into sharper focus the relationship between leisure and labor—a relationship which is more subtle in the context of browsing on Google Books, being engaged in what Mayorga (2014) describes as the “playful labor of participation in Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms,” or even in gaming where informal markets flourish—this presents an intractable contradiction to the subversive potentials of new modes of communication in digital space, as well as to the emergent values that are associated with these modes.

These participatory and inverted pedagogical tactics also creatively blur the lines between leisure and labor for students. While this animates the class and the course material, it also normalizes patterns of self-exploitive labor (Bishop 2012, 236) for the precariat of the new economy. Related to this, the participatory principles of social connectivity and mutual valuing of contributions make affect, an integral aspect of what mobilizes the emergent flexible immaterial laborer, central to the student experience. When the collaborative groups achieved strong social connectivity, something that could only be accomplished through sustained attention to the building of relationships, their work sometimes appeared less like work and perhaps felt like mere play or social activity. Sometimes, their work took the form of care and mutual support, as a couple of students encountered personal life challenges and sorrows over the course of the term, which seemed to become part of the groups’ interactions. Given that the participatory form of the work was so relationship-based, personal grief could not be tidily externalized, as it is in most conventional classrooms. At the same time, the digitized, inverted learning arrangement that supported these participatory collaborative projects could, in fragmentary and undifferentiated time-space, intrude upon the most precious aspects of whatever could be said to be left of personal time or existence in always unanticipated moments. As Italian Autonomist scholars have been warning, work time in post-Fordist arrangements is increasingly separated from the physical laborer: “When we move into the sphere of info-labor, Capital no longer recruits people, it buys packets of time, separated from their interchangeable and contingent bearers. De-personalized time is now the real agent of the process of valorization, and de-personalized time has no rights” (Berardi 2009, 192). But, while time is separated from the physical laborer, work is not. The present structure of labor, Marazzi (2008) observes, is one that aims “to fuse work and worker, to put to work the entire lives of workers,” including or especially their “emotions, feelings, their after-work lives” (50), under the relentless demand for the worker “to respond to unforeseen and unforeseeable situations, emergent situations, those situations which make any sort of planning impracticable, assigning a central role to occasionality” (51).

I saw students attempting to respond to the paradox presented by the simultaneous separation of time and fusing of work. It was common for students to log on to group blogs well into the night to produce complex contributions and detailed, personalized, and affirmative responses to other contributions that had accumulated over the day. This was, after all, what I had hoped for, but I did not anticipate the ways and extent to which it would draw students into the temporal rhythms and the hijacking of care that is characteristic of the new shape of labor. Alternative pedagogical models are indeed grounded in critical perspectives, but the practical effects of their forms may support kinds of learning and practice contrary to the critical spirit of such models.

Bishop (2012) observes similar political ambiguities in the rise of post-studio participatory art since the 1990s. Some of the observations that Bishop makes about participatory art resonate with the kinds of pedagogy I am describing. She notes that both contemporary participatory artistic and curatorial production re-work conventional ways in which artistic production and consumption have been conceived; involve “post-objects,” which are situational, process-based, and conceptual; and disrupt the positions of artist and spectator to make all positions into those of participation (2).

Participatory and creative pedagogies can make similar interventions into knowledge formations. First, participatory classrooms overturn the expert model of knowledge production that assumes only an elite few possess knowledge to be imparted to others (Jenkins and Kelley, et al 2013). Second, these pedagogies involve process-based collaborations that are assumed to translate into flexible skills and knowledges that extend beyond the classroom context, rather than conventional pedagogies that focus on completed assignment-objects. Third, in some ways, they flatten and disrupt the positions of instructor and students and make them all participants (with the significant exceptions of course design and evaluation).

On the surface, these interventions into the dynamics of one-directional models seem positive, but Bishop argues that artistic practices are increasingly blurring with those of formal social institutions under the demands of the current neoliberal political context of fiscal austerity, privatization, and individualism. She considers how public arts funding criteria, coupled with the receding of social institutions, has meant that art is increasingly evaluated and publicly supported in terms of its achievement of a desired “social task” previously pursued by social services agencies, education departments, and so forth, rather than by its achievement of formal aesthetic properties. One of her concerns about the assumption that artistic production ought to fulfill social tasks is that it relies upon “‘post-political’ consensus” (277) to legitimate art. Bishop remarks that:

this is a story that runs in parallel with the rocky fate of democracy itself, a term to which participation has always been wedded: from a demand for acknowledgement, to representation, to the consensual consumption of one’s own image – be this a work of art, Facebook, Flickr, or reality TV. (277)

Similarly, participatory pedagogies and their collaborative assignments may rely upon a student-driven consensus that hastily resolves contradictions (Marlow 2012), erases dissent, and produces difficult contributions as refuse rather than as potential generations of “movements of thought” that provoke us “to think with another thinking” (Groot, Pape, and Vilvang 2015, 1-2).

Activating Critique within the Course Structure

Having acknowledged the unwitting complicity of this course design with the regulation of “good” neoliberal subjects, the outstanding task is to discover how to turn that complicity into an object of critical interrogation, without losing the animating potentials of alternative learning practices. This is one of the ubiquitous tensions that university workplaces present to instructors: how to assert a boundary between work and life while still activating your care in your work. For instructors, one way of activating care (but not necessarily boundaries) is to experiment with learning models, but when that experimentation seems to support the most exploitative aspects of contemporary work conditions in the structure of student learning, this calls for further intervention. A possible route for navigating this contradiction would be to retain the form of the course but to activate the critique within its content—it is after all inherent to the topic of digital culture—to prompt engagement with the ways in which the course has enacted forms of neoliberal governance and normalizes flexible rhythms of labor.

In a more recent iteration of this course, I incorporated this critique by assigning texts that underline the connections between digital leisure and flexible labor to show how activities in the course participated in the simulation of neoliberalism that Holmes discusses. For instance, since collaborative groups communicated outside of class time using a free blog platform that featured advertising space, which would be populated if their sites attracted enough visitors, they were prompted to consider how their posts to each other could make profit for other organizations. Further, not only did groups use texting and social media to keep in touch between meetings, several incorporated Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram into their final projects. All of these forms of communication, whether used instrumentally or aesthetically, provided opportunities to examine the production of value and leisure-labor blur, as well as the de-differentiation of labor and subjectivity in new flexible forms of production.

Relative to the students in the first version of the course, for whom I initiated the critique only in the closing reflections at the end of the term, students in the second version, for whom this critique was part of their curriculum, seemed unmoved by it. The first class was reflective about the critique; the second class seemed to ask: So what? Many of the latter stressed the convenience of working in groups using plural digital platforms, even when their communications and work unpredictably crossed well into the evenings and weekends. It is unclear what contributed to the difference in the responses, other than that, in general, the first class was more diversely digitally immersed and thus more attuned and invested in the implications than the second one. While student life is generally marked by fragmented time, the force of the critique relies upon students to imagine their indefinite futures structured by this de-differentiation between labor and affective subjectivity. Yet, this de-differentiation may be pervasive enough that it now appears neutral. If so, this neoliberal commonsense poses a unique challenge to animating this critique.

If flexible forms of teaching and learning respond to the demands of early twenty-first-century education by engaging emergent modes of communication and production, they also enact the “friendly” relations of power of those modes, which are affect-based and threaten to exploit students’ social bonds or to coerce students into performing bonds that they may not feel. Perhaps this critique of the pedagogy could be forceful if it were initially displaced from the students’ immediate experiences by putting the fictional novel and fan-fic writing exercises to use. Since the critique is also relevant to the protagonists in the novel S, it could be explored creatively through collective writing exercises that respond to key moments in the narrative. In a follow-up reflective exercise, students could be prompted to examine the similar structure of their own activities in the course. While it may seem counter-intuitive to build in a critique of pedagogy as it is delivered, it offers a rare experiential opportunity to examine contemporary neoliberal conditions that seem natural and convenient.


This work would not exist without the highly engaged students of the Digital Culture course. I wish to thank the University of Lethbridge Teaching Centre, especially Victoria Holec and Bernie Wirzba of the Learning Environment Evaluation Project. Finally, I am grateful to the editors and reviewers for constructive suggestions and feedback.


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Berardi, Franco “Bifo.” 2009. The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy. Translated by Francesca and Giuseppina Mecchia. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).

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Booth, Paul J. 2012. “Mash-up as temporal amalgam: Time, Taste, and Textuality.” In “Fan/Remix Video,” edited by Francesca Coppa and Julie Levin Russo, special issue, Transformative Works and Culture 9. http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/297/285

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Hadas, Leora. 2009. “The Web planet: How the changing Internet divided Doctor Who fan fiction writers.” Transformative Works and Culture 3. http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/129/101

Harden, Joel D. 2015. “Learning without Sages?: Reflections on ‘Flipping’ the University Classroom.” In Neoliberalism and the Degradation of Education, edited by Carlo Fannelli and Bryan Evans, special issue, Alternate Routes: A journal of critical social research 26: 376-389. http://www.alternateroutes.ca/index.php/ar/article/viewFile/22327/18119

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Jenkins, Henry and Wyn Kelley, eds. 2013. Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick in the English Classroom. Edited with Katie Clinton, Jenna McWilliams, Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, and Erin Reilly. New York and London: Teachers College Press; Berkeley, CA: National Writing Project.

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[1] Hadas has challenged the simple conflation of participatory culture and fandom by acknowledging multiple logics in fandoms. Notably, Hadas has observed a discourse of “organized-community” that appeals to “the rhetoric of private enterprise and stresses the importance of norms and standards” that stands in contrast to a discourse of “free-space” that calls for constructive and supportive contexts for production and mentorship (1.2).

[2] The second offering of this course included exploration of the similarities and differences between these strategies and academic conventions.

About the Author

Kimberly Mair is Associate Professor of Sociology and a Teaching Fellow (2016-17) at the University of Lethbridge, Canada. Her research is concerned with the aesthetics of communication and social theory. Her book Guerrilla Aesthetics: Art, Memory, and the West German Urban Guerrilla was recently published by McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Online Discussion Boards as Identity Workspaces: Building Professional Identities in Online Writing Classes

Patricia Boyd, Arizona State University


This article analyzes the ways that online business writing courses can provide effective opportunities for students to learn to professionalize themselves.  Arguing that business writing classes should emphasize critical identity production and reflection, I describe two assignments I give students that ask them to engage the course material as professionals practicing business writing rather than as students learning how to write like professionals.  I draw on G. Petriglieri and J. Petriglieri’s (2010) concept of identity workspaces to argue that online writing courses should become these kinds of spaces in order to best prepare students to be professionals in their fields.


Business writing textbooks do not often discuss constructing and reflecting on professional identities. Nor, based on the kind of assignments typically given in business writing courses, are these concerns foregrounded in many assignments. Students are told to imagine themselves as HR representatives, CEO’s, business managers, but they are not taught how to enact professional identities in various business scenarios; instead, even in problem-based learning, the main focus—sometimes the only focus—is still on the communication process (if not genres of business communication), and not on reflecting on what it means to be a professional writing for colleagues or clients. Yet this sort of reflection not only helps students become better students and learn the material more deeply, but also helps them transition successfully into their future professions. Making identity construction an explicit part of the curriculum, then, should be an important goal for faculty, as it facilitates our students’ critical understanding of not only what activities they will engage in as professionals, but also how they may make sense of those experiences within the context of their professional development (Ibarra, 2004). Doing so prepares them to take on professional roles by trying out identities in a safe environment in order to learn the principles of and processes for identity construction that they will need on an ongoing basis in their professional careers, especially when they are transitioning into their professional careers (Ibarra & J. Petriglieri 2010; G. Petriglieri & J. Petriglieri 2010; Sutherland & Markauskaite 2012).

Online discussion boards in writing classes can help achieve these goals.  Although discussion boards are not new technologies in writing classrooms (or in educational spaces in general), in this article I argue that we can put them to a new use, rather than just having them replace in-class discussions. I explore how instructors can deliberately structure online business writing classes not only to facilitate student engagement with the kind of writing they will need to do in order to be successful in business environments, but to practice creating new professional identities and reflect on the ongoing creation of these identities. Drawing on G. Petriglieri & J. Petriglieri’s (2010) concept of identity workspaces, I contend that business writing faculty should make critical identity production and reflection essential components of our course goals, and I show how discussion boards can help us accomplish those goals. Through ongoing public, threaded engagement, discussion boards provide a unique space where students can learn the process of identity construction and receive feedback on their rhetorical moves. Thus, we can use discussion boards in ways that make identity production a central part of our curriculum.

In order to build my argument, I analyze two course assignments that I use in my business writing classes to illustrate how online discussion boards can be important and effective identity workspaces. The two assignments I describe help teachers by showing them how to determine what knowledge about professionalization / professional identities students already have and also help teachers create student-centered classes that will help students learn from each other about how to become professionals. Further, the assignments also allow teachers to help students learn the digital literacies that will be important in their construction of professional personas. As we shall see, what is unique about these assignments is, first, my approach to the content in the discussion boards, because I draw on the core components of identity workspaces and, second, the use to which students then put the information. Instead of the discussion boards ending with the online conversation, they lead to the creation of documents that require students to try out the professional identities. These two components make discussion boards less a replacement for class discussion and more a space for the enactment of the complex process of identity construction. 

Production of Professional Identities: Identity Workspaces Online

It is widely accepted that professional identities are based on “the various meanings attached to oneself by self and others” in professional arenas (Ibarra & J. Petriglieri 2010, 11). These identities are constructed in relationship to the “social roles and group memberships a person holds (social identities) as well as the personal and character traits they display and others attribute to them, based on their conduct (personal identities)” (Ibarra and J. Petriglieri 2010, 11). Identity work is “people’s engagement in forming, repairing, maintaining, and strengthening or revising their identities” (Ibarra & J. Petriglieri 2010, 10). It helps people understand what is expected of them in the professional role, thus a “primary goal of identity work . . . is acting and looking the part, so as to be granted the claimed identity” (Ibarra & Petriglieri 2010 12). While identity work is important at all times because it helps to sustain “one’s sense of personal agency, continuity, and self-esteem” (G. Petriglieri & J. Petriglieri 2010, 45), it is particularly important at times of transition—between school and a job, between one position and the next, or between one company and the next. When individuals are required to perform new identities in order to be successful in their new roles, understanding the principles of and reflecting on the process of identity construction are crucial for an individual’s long-term success (Ibarra & J. Petriglieri 2010; G. Petriglieri & J. Petriglieri 2010; Eliot & Turns 2011).

While workplaces do sometimes help employees adopt the necessary identities required to be successful in their particular jobs, they do so only for the specifics of their organization. Further, G. Petriglieri & J. Petriglieri (2010) argue that for business employees, the process of how to successfully do identity work was once taught by corporations, but with the changing business climate, employees are often no longer learning how to successfully adapt their identities in companies (52). Educational institutions also seem to be lacking in providing students with the general principles about how to create professional identities. For example, Eliot & Turns (2011) show that engineering programs do not provide explicit opportunities for helping students connect their learning to their sense of themselves as engineers. Based on their studies of engineering programs, Eliot & Turns (2011) found that those schools focus on professional activities and networking and less on understanding what it means to think and work as an engineer. “Sense-making,” a term they take from Ibarra (2004) which involves connecting assignments and learning to develop their sense of themselves as professionals, rarely happened in any explicit way in the engineering curriculum they studied. In a similar vein, G. Petriglieri and J. Petriglieri (2010) found that business schools rarely teach these transitional skills. These schools tend to focus on teaching what to know (i.e. the knowledge and inquiry that is important to the field), not on how to be a professional, showing a belief that identity work is not seen as an important part of business school curriculum. They contend that if business schools—and we can extend their argument to other types of departments and units—were to make identity work more explicit, students could learn the principles of how to become professionals and professionalize themselves on an ongoing basis throughout their careers, which could help them be more successful in their careers.

Creating identity workspaces can help to make identity work more explicit for students and help teach them the necessary principles they will need to be successful in their professions. G. Petriglieri and J. Petriglieri (2010) contend that identity work helps students “present a polished, decisive narrative of where they came from, where they are, and where they want to go” (56). They argue that identity workspaces provide students with a “coherent set of reliable social defenses, sentient communities and vital rites of passages” (44, italics added). Social defenses are a set of collective agreements, familiar habits/practices, and common discourses that provide a sense of security, and like personal defenses, help individuals and organizations adapt to change.  Because they make the strange familiar, social defenses alleviate the anxiety associated with new situations and help students “develop through their work” (47). Although social defenses can limit possibilities for the future because they sometimes encourage people to resist change, “they help individuals to organize their experiences coherently in a way that is tolerable and socially legitimized” (G. Petriglieri & J. Petriglieri 2010, 47). The second aspect of identity workspaces, sentient communities, are systems that focus on meeting the emotional needs of members as they make transitions, thus working to create a sense of connectedness and belongingness which is, they claim, important in the process of identity work. Sentient communities can be either macro- or micro-level social networks that last short-term or long-term in which individuals try out being a professional before they are actually a full member of the professional community: “This fantasized belonging reassures such students that they have a future identity, even though they are far from acquiring it fully” (G. Petriglieri & J. Petriglieri 2010, 48). In sentient communities, individuals can receive support from others who are in the same position as they navigate the tricky process of transitioning into new identities. The third aspect of effective identity workspaces is rites of passage. As mythic, universal processes, rites of passages enact the transition from the familiar to the new. Rites of passage are “spaces in which individuals, with the assistance of elders and peers, can shape and discover who they are—or, better yet, who they are becoming” (G. Petriglieri & J. Petriglieri 2010, 48). Instead of just reflecting on or imagining the role of the professional, individuals actually transition into the role of the professional through well-marked, socially accepted tasks/events that serve as evidence of the transition. “Rites of passages are enactments of a social systems’ current mythology (Campbell 1972), ideologies and values (Trice & Beyer 1984). Through them initiates do not just learn the cultural narratives that sustain the social group they are about to enter; they become part of those narratives” (G. Petriglieri & J. Petriglieri 2010, 49). Through rites of passage, individuals develop into professionals and are recognized as such by others through their performances. While there is certainly a consolidation/coherence found at this stage, this is not the end of the process, since there will always be further adaptations that will be made and future transitions that will need to be made. Thus, it is crucial for individuals to continually reflect on the transitions, even after coherence has been found again. When individuals experiences all three of these features—social defenses, sentient communities, and rites of passages in their environments–they can effectively negotiate and reflect on the identity work that helps them actively create and reflect on professional identities rather than just completing assignments (G. Petriglieri & J. Petriglieri 2010). These three aspects teach students the principles of identity work that they can use on an ongoing basis in times of professional transition.

Online course environments can be constructed as identity workspaces. As I show in the next section, online discussion boards can provide students with a space to practice the identity work that is an important part of their professionalization. I outline and analyze two assignments I give students in my online business writing classes. These assignments ask them to use online discussion boards to reflect on the process of professionalization, ultimately producing documents that require them to present themselves as professionals and making the process of identity construction a more central part of their learning.

Comparison of Academic Writing, Writers & Identity to Professional Writing, Writers & Identity:

Overview of Assignment:

This discussion board assignment occurs in the third week of the semester of my upper division business writing courses, which are mostly taken by juniors and seniors from the business college at my university. Students are asked to compare the writing they have done in their other, more traditionally “academic” writing classes (e.g., history or first-year writing courses) to the kinds of writing they have done in business courses or business situations, and the writing they imagine that professionals in their chosen future professions might do. This assignment not only asks them to compare the kinds of writing in terms of generic conventions (e.g., research paper versus business plan), but also asks them to consider the different audiences writers address and the strategies they must use to most effectively reach those audiences. As the discussion progresses, students begin to discuss the identities associated with the various writing tasks, comparing what it means to write as a student and what it means to write as a business professional.  At the end of the discussion, students are asked to write a formal email to a novice in their profession about the differences between traditional academic writing and writing done in the career for which they are preparing. In this email, students position themselves as professionals, drawing on what they learned from the discussion board interactions.

Social Defenses:

This discussion board assignment aligns with G. Petriglieri & J. Petriglieri’s (2010) concept of social defenses because it provides students with a sense of security, starting with a topic that they are familiar with—writing they have already done. The type of thinking they are asked to do is familiar as well—comparing and contrasting two types of situations. This type of assignment is particularly suited for a discussion board because as students make their ideas public they can see others’ interpretations of the different kinds of, and different approaches to, writing. In a final course reflection, Allison commented that it was useful to see other students’ views of academic writing because “I have never been all that good at it, so reading other people’s thoughts gave me different ideas about what good writing is. I learned things from them. And I also saw that other people struggled like I did.” Thus, she had her perspective socially legitimized, which is an important part of social defenses. Further, discussion board assignments like these can establish a common language that sets the tone for the class. All of the students had participated in first-year composition and could relate, to some extent, to the kind of assignments and experiences that their peers had had in those courses. Susan wrote: “I particularly liked the personal autobio paper we wrote in 101 because I got to write about myself.” Alex agreed with her: “we wrote one of those, and it was my best paper in the course because I really enjoyed writing it.”

G. Petriglieri & J. Petriglieri (2010) argue that an important part of social defenses is to help students “organize their experience coherently in a way that is tolerable and socially legitimized” (47). The discussions helped students accomplish this goal. For example, in a discussion about citing sources, Lucy writes, “I don’t think I will need to cite sources in business writing. People will ask for sources if they want them, so what I learned in English 102 isn’t applicable.” Steve countered this by writing that in his workplace “we have to cite where we got our info and document the info with statistics, so Eng 102 did help me.” And Marilyn wrote: “I think it depends on the job you work at.” In this discussion, the students tried to connect what they learned in ENG 102 (the research paper class) to the new material they are faced with in the business writing class and might face in their future careers. Steve drew on his work experiences in order to make sense of the two types of writing, trying to build a sense of coherence, while the two other students drew on their academic writing and speculation about possible workplace needs. The discussion shows that students tried to adapt to the change by organizing their experiences into a coherent framework that made sense to them and their peers.

While this type of discussion could be done in a face-to-face classroom, completing it online means that students can engage with more perspectives than they could in a traditional classroom. They can also guide the online discussion more easily than an in-class one, thus making the class more learner-centered, which can encourage students to take more responsibility for their part in the discussion (Hall & Davison 2007). Also, reflection, which can often deepen students’ understanding of the subject matter (Hall & Davison 2007, 167), is facilitated by the discussions being online. Reflection is not just about “mere description of events and experiences” (Ahmad & Lutters 2011, 4); students should be able to synthesize the new experience and knowledge and be able to relate with previous knowledge, forming a current perspective towards an issue or phenomenon” (Ahman & Lutters 2011, 4). Online spaces like discussion boards can encourage this kind of reflection because they are more student-centered and because students can take more time to think about their posts and responses (Rollag 2010, 502).

Sentient Communities:

Although it is difficult to achieve a great depth of community in one semester (Ma & Yuen 2011), discussion board assignments like the one I describe here can help build sentient communities, ones that through collaborative interaction can create a sense of belongingness and connectedness. Andrea, who had taken a different version of this same course taught by another instructor but had dropped it, wrote about the importance of feeling a sense of connectedness:

In the other course, what was seriously lacking was a connection with my professor and fellow students. In my personal opinion, I feel the only way you succeed in an English class (and it certainly helps in other fields as well) is feeling comfortable enough to speak freely with your professor (and your peers). There were times when I felt overwhelmed but everyone spoke to me like I was a person, rather than simply text on a computer monitor. That I sincerely appreciate. And that was a key reason why I was successful in this class. Usually I prefer to take English classes in person because of a lack of human communication, but connection through things like the discussion boards helped me.

Clearly, Andrea felt that a connection to and a sense of belongingness in the class was an important part of her success in the class. And she was not alone in feeling a greater sense of connection. In their final course reflections, other students in several of my courses reported feeling that they knew their peers in their business writing course better than they knew their peers in their face-to-face classes because they got to engage with each other on an ongoing basis in the discussion boards.

The specific topic of the academic versus professional discussion board played a significant role in the students’ feeling of connectedness. Not only did they discuss the kind of writing they did, they shared the way they felt about it, thus creating a space to have their emotional needs met, a central feature of sentient communities. For example, in one of his discussion board posts, Victor wrote, “I get frustrated because I never know how to start when I’m writing a paper, but when we wrote the first report in here, it was easy to start.” One of his peers responded by asking, “Why do you think it was easier? Did you understand the assignment better or was the assignment easier? Or did you like it more?” to which Victor replied, “Not easier . . . I just felt more comfortable writing it and liked it more.” In a similar vein, Jeremy described his frustration with writing reports to his manager: “Oftentimes I don’t feel I can fit what I need to say into the space he wants, but still he wants an extremely small and concise report at the end of the night.” Nancy empathizes with him, asking, “Can’t you ask him if the reports can be longer? It sounds like he’s being unreasonable.” Both Victor and Jeremy shared their feelings about writing situations and interacted with their peers about their emotions, which can help build a sense of connectedness between peers—a connection that can be relied upon later when they work on more complex identity tasks, when feeling part of a community is particularly important in helping each other develop, reflect on, and receive feedback about identities (G. Petriglieri & J. Petriglieri 2010).

Further, in the email assignment that follows and is based on the discussion board , students are provided with an opportunity to begin to imagine themselves in new roles by acting as professionals writing to novices. By providing a description of what professional writing is and how to become a professional to a newcomer to the field, students are testing out or ”fantasizing about” a new identity (G. Petriglieri & J. Petriglieri 2010); they are practicing being an expert. For example, part of Jack’s statement to a novice explains how documents are written in the financial field:

When writing as a business professional, you will have to write financial statements that a company produces yearly. These statements include footnotes and summaries about the information the company is putting out to stockholders. The footnotes are less than a page long, even though they are talking about millions of dollars and thousands of hours of company time. This is one type of professional writing you will have to learn to be successful in the field.

In his description in which he provides insider information, he positions himself as a professional who has full knowledge of the genre conventions and thus clearly shows he has begun to negotiate a transition from student to professional.

Again, these discussions could be had in a face-to-face environment, but online discussions provide students with an opportunity to engage with a greater number of peers and have their experiences validated and shared, a move that helps build an important sense of community. Online discussion boards are excellent places to build this sense of community because they can provide a higher level of interactivity and collaboration than face-to-face discussions (Brindley et al. 2009). Slagter van Tryon & Bishop (2009) found that online discussions were important to students because they can experience multiple perspectives of others which helps them develop their own views more thoroughly. This engagement can help students’ success. Gallagher-Lepak et al. (2009) point out that “evidence is accumulating in support of a positive correlation between sense of community and student engagement and persistence, course satisfaction, and perceived learning” (133-134). Further, Zhan et al. (2011) found in their comparison study that students who participated in online discussions performed better in the course overall than students who did not engage in discussion boards in the classes because they had deeper engagement with the material on an ongoing basis. Online communities, therefore, can play an important role in students’ success in courses and can have a significant impact in helping students create professional identities.

Both of these assignments—the discussion board and the email to the novice—can help teachers create an online environment that helps students thoughtfully create professional identities. The discussion board provides teachers with a fairly simple technological framework that helps them determine students’ current perceptions of professional identities and knowledge of the process of professionalization. While teachers could get some insights into this information through in-class discussions, the online discussions are unique because the teacher witnesses how the students’ conceptions develop in an in-depth way as they engage with each other, since the discussion happens over time, across more than one class period. A discussion board also readily lends itself to the construction of a student-centered learning framework. If teachers emphasize students’ conversations as the heart of the discussions, then students learn from each other, rather than through the traditional instructor initiated and led discussions that are all too prevalent in face-to-face classes. Discussion boards constructed in this way can lead students to help each other learn and expand their understandings about professionals and professionalization.  This set-up lends itself to a more learner-centered classroom environment that encourages students to take more responsibility for their learning and become professionals as they engage with their peers and write to the novices in their fields.

Personal Brand Assignment:

Overview of Assignment:

For this assignment, students are asked to create a personal brand statement that they then post in the “Background” section of their LinkedIn page. Before and after creating this statement, they interact with their peers in discussion boards in which they reflect on the process of creating a coherent professional identity for themselves. In the first discussion board, they reflect on the purpose of personal brand statements and experiment with possible ways of presenting themselves; in the second discussion board (held after their personal brand statement has been written), they analyze the effects of their rhetorical choices on creating a particular professional image. In both discussion boards, they receive feedback from multiple peers who, through their comments and discussion, help the authors negotiate the transition from student to professional.

Rites of Passage:

This personal branding assignment is a potential way for students to integrate different experiences in their lives in order to create a coherent professional identity. This practice of creating their identities online is a form of rites of passage. G. Petriglieri & J. Petriglieri (2010) identify three phases of the rites of passage:

  • isolation from the old way of life;
  • introduction into a liminal, unfamiliar space; and
  • re-integration into society as a new identity.

Asking students to engage with each other in the discussion boards with the ultimate purpose of producing a document for a social network engages them in the rites of passage by moving them away from the known—i.e. the classroom situation and the role of student. Then, the discussion boards and the multiple drafts of the personal brand statements provide them with the opportunity to exist in the liminal space that comprises the second part of the rites of passage, and that requires experimenting with multiple representations of their identities. Doing so online means that they have ready access to experts (teacher) and fellow travelers (peers). After experimenting by writing multiple versions of the branding statement and receiving feedback (along with seeing multiple versions of their peers’ statements), they then consolidate their experiences into a coherent identity and present it in a public online social networking site (LinkedIn), thus re-integrating as a new professional who is not just observing or imagining being a professional but is actually acting and being acknowledged by others as a professional. The personal brand statement, then, as a concise yet comprehensive statement that presents a summary of the person as a professional, helps change the individual’s presentation of self from student to professional. Posting their personal brand statement online helps them move their professional identities into a virtual arena, a rite of passage into the professional Web 2.0 generation (Greenhow et al. 2009).

For example, Ted’s original personal branding statement gave specific instances in which he solved complex problems while working with his brother on construction sites. He also told personal stories about school projects he completed and listed academic achievements that involved using the same skills. In his original statement, he even chose to include that he played competitive piano and violin. In his reflections on his personal brand statement, he wrote that he was trying to overcome the fact that he was so young by emphasizing all he had achieved. However, in his final personal brand statement, he realized that he did not have to justify his age. He chose to find the commonality amongst all of those experiences, draw them together and use them to present himself as a professional. His second personal branding statement was as follows: “I am strong at solving complex problems, simplifying situations in order to understand how to successfully move forward in them.” His revised statement, which he posted on his fledging LinkedIn page, condensed those individual experiences into a professional identity that he then used to create a public professional persona for himself.

Further, in Laurie’s original personal branding statement, she described specific work situations she found herself in and what she had done in them. However, she did not situate herself as a professional, but as a college student who was working part-time jobs. For instance, describing her experience at one part-time retail job, she wrote, “I completed all the tasks that my supervisor told me to while I worked my shift.” This statement suggests that she did her job, but did not take any initiative and did not necessarily see herself as a professional in that environment. The more she progressed through the business writing course, received feedback from her peers, and wrote documents that encouraged her to position herself as a professional, the more she shifted from seeing herself as just a worker to seeing herself as a professional. In comments about her personal brand statement, several of her peers commented that she was selling herself short by presenting her experiences in a limiting way and suggested that she emphasize how she contributed to the company. Drawing on her peers’ comments, she consolidated her retail experiences and foregrounded what she could bring to a company: “I am a young professional looking to bring new and innovative business products and strategies into being in order to benefit the company and its customers.” Her statement presents her as a professional who has much to contribute rather than just a part-time employee. In the final course reflections, Laurie wrote that “at first, I saw myself as a student, but as the class progressed, I started seeing myself as more of a professional.” This shift becomes evident in the changes in her personal brand statement.

Online discussion boards can also be an important part of rites of passage because they are effective places for students to receive feedback from fellow travelers as the unfamiliar is explored (G. Petriglieri & J. Petriglieri 2010). When the student leaves the familiar—student—and ventures into the unknown—professional—and enters into that liminal space, it is important to have ongoing supportive feedback about one’s forays into the unknown. As Labrecque et al. (2011) show, all too often one’s own interpretation of a personal branding statement differs from others’ perceptions of the branding statement, so it is crucial to receive feedback from others before posting their brands online. Online discussions are useful because students receive feedback from multiple fellow travelers who are negotiating the same task and are familiar with the goals and challenges of creating a digital identity. The online spaces help students learn more strategies for building successful identities that will help them in the future when they find themselves in transition (Eliot & Turns 2011).

For example, in Michael’s original personal branding statement, his “personal mantra,” as he called it, was the statement “conquer the grind,” which he told his audience was based on a quote from a high school football coach. Comments from his fellow students suggested that recruiters and future employers would not care about his high school experiences and might, in fact, see a reference like this (and especially a quote from a coach) as immature. One peer stated that “an inspirational quote from someone else isn’t what a personal brand statement is about.” After reading the feedback, Michael revised his statement to “I will conquer whatever the day brings to me, no matter what the challenge,” without stating where he derived the idea from. In his reflections in the second discussion board, he stated, “I kept the ‘conquer’ part, but took out the quote to sound more professional since my peers said it didn’t sound right. I really didn’t think about how a quote from my coach would seem unprofessional.” In his description, he transitioned from presenting himself as a student to positioning himself more professionally, based on the comments from his peers.

Another example comes from Rose’s personal brand statement. Her first one was short: “I am a creative, reliable worker with a passion to lead.” Her peers commented that the word “passion” did not seem professional and that her description was too short and generic, suggesting that it did not give a good sense of how she stood out from others. One student asked, “what do you mean when you say ‘reliable?’ How are you more reliable than others?” In her revisions, Rose took some of their suggestions, expanding her descriptions and directly addressing their questions about what made her stand out: “I am a strategic, problem-solving person who is dedicated to leading my team to success. I stand out from the rest because I am consistent in my work, and I always strive to be better than the rest. I am a creative, reliable worker with a passion to lead.” However, she still included her original statement. In the second discussion board, she reflected: “I felt my first statement captured who I am and did sound professional. I would stand behind it and send it out. That’s why I didn’t change it.” Both Michael’s and Rose’s examples show that students reflected upon their peers’ comments and used them in their own work to consider how to professionalize themselves.

While the personal brand assignment could be turned in to the teacher and/or given to one or two peers, discussing it on the discussion board, receiving feedback from multiple peers, and then presenting it on LinkedIn with the possibility of reaching a wide audience helps students transition from apprentices to professionals by not just completing an assignment but by assuming professional roles in professional arenas. The discussion boards provide a starting point for the more complex identity work and digital literacy skills students will need in order to create successful professional online personas. Completing this work online is beneficial because students get to join a professional community and publish their new professional identity in a very public and socially valued way. Online representations of self have become increasingly important:

The creation of online personal Web sites and social media profiles have flourished as the Web 2.0 environment offers tools that simplify these processes and encourages user generated content . . . With technological barriers crumbling and its increasing ubiquity, the Web has become the perfect platform for personal branding. (Labrecque et al. 2011, 38)

LinkedIn is becoming a highly used social networking tool for job searching and networking, so creating a digital presence there is crucial to a professional identity in the Web 2.0 generation (O’Murchu, et al. 2004; Skeels & Grudin 2009; Thew 2008). Through this assignment, students learn digital literacy skills that they will need to create a successful online persona. An important part of a rite of passage is that newcomers are actually a part of the “cultural narratives” that sustain a community and there are expert witnesses to attest to their transition into the body of these narratives. Posting digital profiles onto LinkedIn and building a network there publicly achieves this goal in an online environment.

These two assignments—the discussion boards and the LinkedIn Personal Brand statement—provide teachers with the opportunity to encourage students to carefully and responsibly construct online professional identities. The discussion boards lead to the production of another more public, higher risk document. This process makes the set-up of the discussion boards crucial because it uses discussion boards to help students explore professional identities.  Teachers can use these two-part assignments to help students learn the digital literacies they will need as they progress in their careers. Starting with the discussion board is a good jumping off point because the readership is confined to the membership of the class, making it a safer environment where they can try out multiple approaches without fear of negative impacts on their future careers. Then, once students have honed their self-presentation  in the space of the class, they can feel comfortable making that presentation of themselves available to a wider public. Structuring the assignments to move from a limited-audience class discussion board to a public-audience social media space, therefore, helps teachers facilitate students’ careful and responsible production of a professional online identity.


Discussion boards can be constructed to be identity workspaces that allow students to practice the important processes of identity construction that they will need in order to transition into new roles in their careers. As I have shown here, making identity work an explicit part of our curriculum can be a useful way to help students learn to professionalize themselves. In my business writing courses, my discussion board assignments ask students to enact and reflect on the creation of professional identities in order to learn not only the material that professionals write but also to learn how professionals create themselves as professionals. Doing this identity work online in identity workspaces like the ones G. Petriglieri & J. Petriglieri (2010) describe provides students with many benefits, such as engaging with multiple perspectives, receiving ongoing feedback, and practicing needed digital literacies. They give and receive useful feedback about their experimentations with professionalizing themselves, and they are provided with a public arena in which to post their newly developed professional identities. When we use discussion forums and other online spaces in this way, we teach them skills they will need now as they transition from students to professionals and in the future as they transition to different roles in their careers.



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About the Author

Patricia Boyd is an Associate Professor at Arizona State University.  Her recent work includes research on blogging in the writing classroom, encouraging students to create themselves as “writers,” and analyzing the role that celebrity endorsements shape the identity of the celebrity, not just the consumer.

Integrating Digital Media at the Programmatic and Institutional Level: Building a Humane Cyberinfrastructure at the Bard Graduate Center

Kimon Keramidas, Bard Graduate Center


Living during a time of profound change can be at once exhilarating, inspiring, alienating, and frightening. With the new comes possibility, but also uncertainty. That is the reality of the information age and the increasing presence of digital media and interactive technology in our daily lives. It is even more so the reality in educational institutions where experimental, innovative thought often makes strange bedfellows with disciplinary orthodoxy and tradition-bound deliberateness. This article is a discussion of how we balanced these tensions in the process of implementing digital media at the Bard Graduate Center1 (BGC).

Guiding Principles and Institutional Specificity

At the BGC, our integration of digital technology has focused on the evolving demands and interests of our community. Rather than equip a lab that was aimed at certain predetermined digital practices, such as data mining, geospatial mapping, or textual analysis, we envisioned the Digital Media Lab2 (DML) as a space that would provide resources, knowledge, and support for technological experiments that would emerge from research projects and pedagogical practice already in development at the BGC. We focused on working with faculty and students to determine how digital media could best enhance their existing projects rather than initiating unprecedented and perhaps unwelcome projects. We did this by using successful projects as models to hold up as proof of concept to the uninitiated and uncertain members of our institution. This approach has made the work coming out of the lab more relatable and accessible to the community as a whole, and as a result has increased the rate of adoption of digital practice throughout the institution.

From laying the foundation for our digital media initiatives to equipping our lab and working with our institution’s different constituencies, we have learned a number of important lessons about simplifying an institution-wide transition to new digital technologies. As I detail how we went about establishing the DML, I will reiterate that understanding the community’s needs and providing the software, hardware, and human resources necessary to allow those projects to flourish, has been key to our successful integration of digital media throughout the BGC. From the beginning we have endeavored to develop a more humane cyberinfrastructure, one that provides our institution’s humanistic scholars with the technology, knowledge, and support to rethink their projects and experiment with new approaches.

A humane cyberinfrastructure

What exactly do I mean by a humane cyberinfrastructure? Let’s start with the term cyberinfrastructure. The final report of a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded workshop on the incorporation of cyberinfrastructures in social sciences defined the term as “the coordinated aggregate of software, hardware and other technologies, as well as human expertise, required to support current and future discoveries in science and engineering.”3 In this sense, cyberinfrastructure is compelling as it implies the thoughtful aggregation of cutting-edge technology with human expertise, clearly paralleling our goals in the DML.

But as Patrik Svensson points out, “much discussion of cyberinfrastructure is technology-driven, data-driven and structural-level.”4 Svensson is wary of adopting a science-and-engineering mindset in the consideration of a possible humanities cyberinfrastructure, warning that mapping structural and epistemic modes from these fields misses the point of the specific type of work done by humanists.5 We therefore expanded our research infrastructure cautiously as we kept in mind this disconnect between the possibilities of cyberinfrastructure and the manner in which it is implemented, and the danger of mapping cyberinfrastructures onto humanities research in a way that simply mimics work done in the sciences and engineering.

This brings us to the notion of a humane cyberinfrastructure. At one level the term “humane” evokes the humanities and distinguishes the specific humanistic approach we have taken in the DML. However, in the case of the DML, “humane” additionally connotes the sensibility that determined not only the design of the space and the technological capabilities of the lab, but also our approach to people as they experienced those technologies.

The use of the word humane comes from Jef Raskin, one of the creators of the original Apple Macintosh, and his play on the concept of human interface design in The Humane Interface. Raskin says that that “if a system’s one-on-one interaction with its human user is not pleasant and facile, the resulting deficiency will poison the performance of the entire system, however fine that system might be in other aspects.”6 While Raskin is specifically calling for a corrective in the design of human-computer interfaces in software and hardware, his notion of what deficiencies will cause a software or hardware system to fail also hold true for the development of cyberinfrastructure, whether it is in the sciences, social sciences, or humanities. For Raskin, successful interactive systems pay heed to the human factors of user experience, and he states that “an interface is humane [Raskin’s bold] if it is responsive to human needs and considerate of human frailties.”7 It is this humane sensibility and focus on responding to human needs that we have kept as the core of our methodology in establishing the DML.

Making sure that we have been humane in establishing the Digital Media Lab as the hub of our new cyberinfrastructure has allowed us to provide both a space for experimentation and innovation and one that welcomes equally eager early adopters and those with apprehension over the changing role of technology in the academy. Such a consideration of the gamut of potential users is particularly important in attempts to encourage work with digital media throughout an institution. Skill levels, commitments, and even insecurities can vary greatly across a community, and these factors strongly influence who chooses to participate and who does not. The more humane the system, the more readily it can respond to those frailties, and the less likely it is to poison the project throughout an institution.

Laying a foundation

At this point some specific institutional background would help. The BGC is a research institute in New York City that is home to a graduate program in Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture. The four-story BGC Gallery puts on approximately four exhibitions every year. Additionally, the BGC publishes a wide range of texts including exhibition catalogs, a scholarly journal, and a book series. As the range of possible experimentations with new media across all three areas of the institution—academic programs, exhibitions, and publications—has became more apparent, the BGC determined to create a dedicated space to promote and support new initiatives in digital media across the institution. I was hired as a full-time staff member to conceptualize and implement these initiatives.

In 2009, the BGC opened the Digital Media Lab to provide a place where students, faculty, and staff could come for assistance in incorporating digital media into research projects and course work. That first year was critical in establishing the lab within the culture of the BGC and setting the tone for generating interest among both the most eager and most skeptical audiences in the institution. During that time, we carefully considered the role of institutional history in shaping how the DML would function.

We made sure to situate the DML within the preexisting programmatic structure—and culture—of the BGC as we planned how best to incorporate digital media throughout the institution. We knew that it would be important to have a well-defined understanding of why and how we wanted digital media implemented into our curriculum, and this understanding continues to affect our approach a day-to-day basis. At the BGC, our goal is to train future scholars, curators, collections managers, etc., and that education takes priority over the training of our students as filmmakers, web designers, or database programmers. While we wanted to open up the possibilities of digital media to the community, at the same time we wanted to keep our focus on the content and methodologies of our field and not aim to provide the type of education one would be more likely to find in a media arts program.

To this end the new technologies we made available in the lab were meant to support and enhance the institution’s preexisting missions. Software packages such as the Adobe Creative Suite appealed to our focus on material and visual culture as well as design history, while the integration of platforms such as Omeka and the wiki hosting service Wikidot.com allowed us to experiment with digital publication and collections management practices relevant to our focus in museum studies. Prezi allowed for new modes of classroom presentation, and when paired with Google SketchUp, it provided students, faculty, and staff with a new set of tools for experimentation with visual prototyping and spatial design for projects in our galleries. These tools were all chosen to emphasize preexisting modes of practice from across the institution to ensure their relevance was apparent.

The Assistant Director for the Digital Media Lab, along with two work studies, is readily available to answer questions throughout the week, and the lab is open whenever the building is. The lab was designed to mirror BGC’s core pedagogical values: small classes, readily available faculty (achieved through a 50:15 student:teacher ratio), and intimate educational structure. The staffing and availability of resources in the DML reflect these values. This accessibility and support has made the lab a familiar place, allowing students the freedom to experiment and feel comfortable taking risks with new technologies.

In addition to fostering an intimate academic experience, the BGC is heavily invested in academic rigor and intellectual depth. We therefore take a highly critical stance toward the integration of digital media to ensure that the technology and media support that rigor and depth rather than replace it. We encourage the use of tools such as Prezi and wikis for student projects, but only inasmuch as they add to the quality of work and are able to provide analogues for traditional armatures of scholarship (such as footnotes and bibliographies). While we are excited about the possibilities that digital media provide for the expansion of scholarly practice, we discourage the use of these new media for the sake of surface-level aesthetic enhancements to traditional modes, such as the research paper. That being said, we understand the potential for new tools to enable new modes of interpretation and presentation that in fact expand the rigor and depth of work being done. To that end, the lab encourages students to experiment with different technologies and to develop a digital information fluency that is both relevant to their specific projects and applicable to the myriad materials, applications, and platforms now available  to help them find information.

Staying within our academic mission, encouraging a sense of institutional intimacy, and maintaining high academic standards are not particularly unique positions, nor are they so outlandish as to provoke much discussion. But they are the kind of positions that provide us with a healthy critical stance and programmatic self-awareness to make informed, appropriate decisions in developing our cyberinfrastructure. Working from a foundation such as this is critical for any institution considering how to integrate digital media successfully into its curriculum. Unless the use of media is fundamentally tied to faculty goals for the program and clearly defined to students as a logical extension of the core tenets of institutional practice, the integration of digital media has the potential to cause disillusionment, alienation, resistance, and fragmentation within the institution’s population. It becomes inhumane and prone to failure. Digital media are new, and with newness comes apprehension. That apprehension is best treated with conceptual clarity and the language of logical evolution rather than revolutionary calls to arms and disparagements of traditional practice. Clearly and repeatedly communicating an understanding of programmatic foundations can do much to assuage apprehension and uncertainty.

Determining Resources, Developing Strategies, Working with Users, and Enacting a Humane Approach

Having laid out the history of the BGC and our general attitudes toward digital media, we can now get to some of the specific strategies we employ at the BGC in order to ease faculty, students, and curators into the use of digital media. The challenge for us with the introduction of the Digital Media Lab was to implement digital media into the curriculum quickly and pervasively but at the same time organically and voluntarily. The BGC, despite an inherent interdisciplinarity and investment in experimentation and innovation, in general remains a relatively traditional and conservative institution in research and pedagogical practice. That is of course changing with our new publications, faculty-led focus galleries, and digital initiatives, but when the project began three years ago, Photoshop, Powerpoint, and Word—hardly cutting edge technologies—were the primary digital tools in use. There had been only a few experiments with course software (Moodle, a blog or two, and a few custom-made HTML course sites) and very little use of social media, digital design, or video/audio editing tools anywhere in the institution. This provided us with an opportunity to start virtually from scratch, but also meant that we had to earn buy-in from faculty and provide entry points for a student body not necessarily armed with technical proficiency or expertise.

Equipping a digital media initiative

While it is important to plan and think about approach, personalities, and implementation methodology, there comes a point where one needs to make real, strategic decisions about the resources required to successfully equip a digital media initiative. At the BGC, we have approached our acquisition of both hardware and software with very clear goals that would allow us to provide a flexible and powerful computing environment without spending wastefully. By coupling a successful project with a sensible approach to resource acquisition and allocation, we hoped to be more secure in continued funding and openness to expansion into more initiatives in the future.

One way we have found a focus for equipping our digital media initiatives is to allow the intellectual questions asked by our community to drive our tool acquisition. We began by complementing more expensive foundational software suites, such as Microsoft Office and the Adobe Creative Suite, with a range of inexpensive entry-level tools and platforms, such as WordPress blogs, Wikidot.com wikis, Omeka, Google SketchUp, Prezi, and iLife. This range has allowed us to provide options and examples without committing to expensive systems that can require extensive external support, such as Blackboard. Additionally, it allows our students and professors to freely experiment with different tools and find what is right for their project. Furthermore, we have focused on using Internet-accessible tools that allow faculty and students to complete work from virtually anywhere so that they are not tied down to the lab and can collaborate asynchronously and remotely. In this sense, the DML is not a physical space, but rather extends out to these networked platforms and allows for online and hybrid activity. From these initial starting points, we can decide to spend more money on more elaborate software if projects demand, and be better equipped to make the right purchasing decision when the moment arises.

In addition to providing this range of software, we wanted to make sure that the hardware we put in the DML was powerful enough that the only limitation new users would face would be their knowledge of the tool and not the capabilities of the computers being used. We aimed at relatively high-end computers so that there was less likely to be frustration with the speed of processes or their ability to run resource-demanding software, such as the applications in Adobe’s Creative Suite, smoothly.

We purchased primarily iMac and Mac Pro computers8 with robust processors, large screens, and extensive memory. Macintoshes were chosen for a number of reasons: (1) they were the only computers that could easily run all three major operating systems (OS X, Windows, and Linux); (2) the majority of our students had familiarity with OS X and Apples in their personal computing life; and (3) while anecdotally more expensive, they actually provide higher performance over a longer period at an equivalent price to computers with similar capabilities, making them a cost-conscious choice. The Macintoshes have suited our needs well, as they have reliably handled a wide range of use and provide sufficient processing power so that the students rarely if ever voice frustration with their functionality. All software is updated approximately once a monthly to ensure that bug fixes and optimizations are applied, and when a machine is acting peculiar or sluggish we correct the problem as soon as possible to maintain the DML’s reputation as a reliable computing space. These specific hardware choices and maintenance practices reinforce our humane approach, as we limit the possibilities for the system to fail through neglect or lack of attention to user experience.

As the DML has matured and the projects increased in scope, ambition, and specificity, we have made purchases that respond to specific project needs and provided new platforms to support experimentation related to our program. We purchased a NextEngine 3D scanner and a Makerbot Replicator for investigations into digital materiality and acquired lab licenses for Google Earth Pro and Oxygen XML Editor to prepare for future projects involving geospatial mapping, interactive timelines, and textual encoding. In addition, we have expanded our web hosting capabilities to respond to a number of projects across the institution and are for the first time working with an outside developer in our focus galleries who will work with students and faculty to actualize projects currently beyond the technological scope of the DML. All of these steps forward are meant to enhance our cyberinfrastructure in a way that responds to immediate needs and future possibilities and to help reinforce a sense of security that the lab will develop in accordance with the cumulative interests of the community.

Along with computing power, platform flexibility, and infrastructure responsiveness, it is important in the early stages of a digital media initiative to consider the relative comfort level of different communities in your institution and pay heed to the needs of the learning community. Not all affordances can be made for every student or faculty member, but providing comfortable spaces and modes for people to work within is crucial to building up institutional momentum and encouraging individuals to take the bold step of going beyond their comfort zone and experimenting. If provided with options for experimentation, sufficient computing resources with which to work, and support for both technical and conceptual questions, the end result is often work that goes beyond what you may have even imagined their projects could become. Stay prepared and nimble for the inevitable technological change, and remember that while frugality is important one also mustn’t skimp on functionality as you risk limiting experimentation, creativity, and innovation.

Strategies for encouraging digital work

Faced with this newly equipped cyberinfrastructure, we adopted a few specific strategies for encouraging use of the lab and expanding the range of tools support. As mentioned above, our selection of digital tools was to be determined by the needs of the community. We eagerly sought out and looked to respond to faculty who wanted to try new research and pedagogical methods that took advantage of the resources provided by the lab, but the institution was not intent on mandating the use of any particular tools or even promoting a preference for particular platforms.

At the outset we were uncertain as to how much participation we would get from faculty and students, but fortunately nearly a third of our faculty expressed some interest right off the bat and we were quickly using blogs, wikis, audio/video editing suites, new presentation software, and even computer-aided design tools in course work and in the development of long-term research projects.

During these initial migrations by our community toward certain types of digital tools, we generated two doctrines for the DML. The first doctrine is: scholarly and pedagogical questions should determine what tools are used and not vice versa. The work at the BGC remains grounded in a humanistic approach to the asking and answering of questions. While the tools that we use enable us to answer questions differently, they should not predetermine the types of questions we ask. The digital is only a new approach to our discipline and not a new discipline in and of itself.

When students or faculty come to me or Professor David Jaffee, our Head of New Media Research, with an interest in digital media, the first thing we ask them is what questions are they asking and how do they envision their teaching or research project. By listening closely at this stage, visualizing ideas through pen and paper mock ups, and talking through work flows and types of materials, we find digital solutions with no predispositions as to what tools are best suited to each project.

A research project may work best on FileMaker Pro to allow for customization and robust searching or it may be best handled using a wiki so that many people can easily access and contribute information. A digital exhibition may be best designed using a database-driven platform such as Omeka or a bespoke HTML site may allow for easier introduction of multimedia and customization of presentation and style. A course site may work best as a wiki for the collection of files, images, and collaborative compositions, or it may work best as a group-authored blog with students crafting a voice and contributing at regular intervals over the course of a semester. Whatever the situation, the question comes first and the tool second.

The second doctrine we have adopted applies to the types of tools that we choose: tools should have low barriers of entry and shallow learning curves. This mentality was born out of (a) our desire to not be a media arts program, and (b) the fact that the majority of our students are with us for only two years. It has however proved essential to our understanding of how to generate interest quickly and make digital media pervasive across our institution. One undeniable reality of working with academics and digital media is the general apprehension caused by not understanding how to use a tool. The best advice I received at the beginning of my time at the BGC was that, in general, professors are used to being “the smartest person in the room.” Learning a new tool can be extremely disempowering to people accustomed to this position, and if the introduction to a new tool is not handled properly the resulting alienation from digital media can be very difficult to repair. So the tools we choose have been purposely selected for their low barriers to entry—meaning that they are relatively accessible and somewhat familiar upon a user’s first experience—and shallow learning curves so that the user can notice marked improvements in their skill early and often enough that they feel comfortable and capable using that tool.

These two doctrines, which put institutional imperatives and user experience first in our digital media practice, are representative of the strategies we employ to establish a humane cyberinfrastructure. They ensure that the DML responds to the demands of the scholarship throughout the institution, and that the intellectual priorities of the lab are aligned with those of our community. They also allow people working in the lab to feel like capable contributors to the evolution of the lab and its increasingly important role in the life of the institution.

Working with your constituents

Outreach and communication are crucial to making headway across a broad range of institutional constituencies, no matter what the size of that institution. Students and faculty with packed schedules might be reluctant to put learning new and unfamiliar digital technologies on their daily radar. Understanding the varying conditions that members of your community operate within is particularly important as you try to generate interest and enthusiasm in experimentation. Most of the work of integrating digital media successfully into curricula is done in managing institutional politics, nurturing individual projects, and assuaging fears and apprehensions. Acting humanely and approaching your community as a collection of individuals each working with technology differently rather than as a homogenous group of digital media users will ultimately prove to be more important than the choice of tools and methods of implementation.

One of the best ways to plan for how people will take to digital media is to consider what their expectations of the academic experience are. Often there is a preconceived notion that younger faculty will be more eager to work with digital media than older faculty because of the assumption that they are more likely to have used digital media in their personal lives. But what often turns out to be the case is that faculty who are comfortably tenured are more likely to take the risk of doing their work in a digital format, meaning that many junior faculty are loath to experiment in their research, publication, and pedagogy.

There is also a misconception that students, who are increasingly immersed in a media culture at a young age, will eagerly embrace digital projects. In fact, many students are tied to a relatively orthodox view of what is expected of a student. In our program this means being able to use a word processor to write papers and Powerpoint to create presentations of images. The prospect of working outside of that framework, especially when the digital is considered above and beyond an already rigorous course of study, frightens many students away.

Overcoming these attitudes requires a careful demystification of technology, an active support program, and a clear explication of the added value of using digital media in scholarly work. When developing new projects, create parameters that are achievable for the students, but that still show off the value of using media. Ensure that the faculty see experimentations with digital media as a logical progression in their research and pedagogy and not an external imposition they are being forced to cope with. In order to accomplish these goals, we work closely with our community from both the top down, getting the faculty on board creating assignments and projects that require digital media, and the bottom up, getting students excited about digital media so they will encourage faculty to allow them to integrate digital media into their course work.

Getting the faculty on board is of particular importance because they can set expectations for digital media projects and determine the standards for successful digital work. This lends credibility to the projects and shows that the work being done is sanctioned and promoted by those in positions of authority. As more faculty have used wikis and blogs in their courses, we have seen those tools become considered standards rather than outliers in the practice of the institution, which lowers the barriers to entry for integrating other tools that are more creative and expressive. Our dean has also paved the way by encouraging faculty to work with digital media, making digital formats an important part of our journal and book series, and even experimenting with digital formats in his own research and publication.9

Just as the faculty and administration can set standards and provide validation for the use of digital media across a curriculum, students can provide impetus from below by finding new uses for tools and sometimes making unexpected steps forward in integrating digital media. Three encouraging developments from our second year came out student enthusiasm for using digital tools. The first development was the use of wikis for thesis research by a number of students. Rather than use traditional notebooks and Word documents, these students had begun tracking materials and research information on their own wikis because it made it easier to show their work to librarians, because they were more confident their material was backed up and secure, and because the wikis ensured that their work would be accessible via the Internet when they did not have their own computers handy.

The second development began when one of our particularly digitally fluent students who had dabbled with Prezi began to show the tool to a number of students during classes and in the lab. Another student picked up the tool and became the on-campus guru, showing it to other students and creating rich Prezis full of audio and video for a number of our more digitally notable classes. These Prezis made their way into a number of our salons (which I will describe later), and as a result of the students’ interest in the tool, Prezi is now more readily accepted as a viable option for the many projects that require the presentation of visual materials.

The third development has been the increasing use of wikis as courseware. Early on, the wikis had been successful in a number of classes, but during our second year there was a sudden surge of interest from the faculty, most notably from a number of faculty who had been uncertain about using digital media in any fashion. We discovered that the students had come to prefer the wikis as method of accessing readings and receiving course communication, and they were asking professors who did not have course wikis to set them up. The combination of a grassroots request from students and a willing faculty response is ideal in integrating digital media into curricula. It represents a shift away from the external impetus digital media initiatives usually hinge on and shows that once tools have penetrated the community enough, they come to be viewed as valuable in and of themselves and not because a particular individual is encouraging people to use them.

However, all this institutional and grassroots interest is for naught if systems are not easy to use and supported properly. By monitoring challenging projects and tending to the most tentative individuals you can solve problems before they generate dissatisfaction and become deterrents to further digital work. Projects should be well supported and platforms should be well explained. I can’t say enough about the value of offering workshops and taking the time to provide individual training and advisement to faculty and students before, during, and after projects. It may seem an obvious statement, but many institutions choose to implement tools and then provide insufficient or poor support, dooming the tool to failure and creating resentment that takes a long time to repair.

Along with supporting those projects that come about on their own, it also helps to stay one step ahead of your community’s interest in digital media. Waiting for people to come up with projects on their own will slow the process of integration. Seek out those individuals who may not necessarily be thinking about using digital media in a course or project, and talk to them about their options. Also identify students and faculty with media experience or interest in digital design and encourage them to think about alternative approaches to their work that take advantage of these interests. These individuals are important in setting precedents for adoption by the community as a whole. As their interests and skills become known in the community, these early adopters will also help make digital media a standard rather than an exception within the institution.

Objects of Exchange: Putting a humane approach into action

For an example of all these strategies and mindsets in action, let us look at the digital media tool most used across the BGC, wikis on the Wikidot.com hosting service. As we considered how to support courses with digital media, we knew for certain that we were not interested in, nor were we big enough to require, a large learning management system such as Blackboard or Moodle. Systems such as these were too expensive and/or too wedded to pedagogical approaches that were not being practiced at the BGC.

Initially some of the professors at the BGC expressed an interest in using WordPress for course blogs, but after some initial attempts were not happy with the interface or with an information management system that did not align with the way they approached their small, seminar-style courses. I had dealt with similar questions and concerns as an adjunct teacher prior to working at the BGC and had found the Wikidot wikis a useful solution because they allowed me to (a) build a course site without the restrictions of a learning management system, (b) avoid the management issues of a self-hosted MediaWiki installation, and (c) not have to do the work necessary to custom-build an HTML site for every course. So, as more professors expressed an interest in digital course sites, more of them were willing to experiment with the wikis, and I was able to provide them with examples of my own work and pedagogical strategies for implementing the wikis to the specific needs of their courses.

The most successful implementation, and the project that really convinced the BGC community of the viability and relevance of digital media, was a course and exhibition development site for one of our focus gallery courses. Focus galleries are single-room, faculty-led exhibitions that develop mostly out of faculty research but also through course work completed by students. The wiki for this particular exhibition, Objects of Exchange: Social and Material Transformation on the Late Nineteenth-Century Northwest Coast, used the wiki both to organize course materials and student work and as a makeshift database for the catalog material and wall labels that the students were composing. Syllabus materials, along with audio files, images, and videos were all hosted on the wiki for the students to access. In addition, each in the exhibition (of which there were approximately thirty) had its own page with an image and a fillable text template included wall label information, bibliographic references, links to other relevant objects in the exhibition, tags, and a comment section for the student and professor to communicate with one another.

To our good fortune, the impact of the wikis on Objects of Exchange went beyond simply providing a platform for collaborative communication and resource gathering. Professor Aaron Glass, who led the project, found that the wiki’s tagging system revealed unexpected new connections between the objects. Since these types of connections were the focus of the exhibition, Professor Glass was struck by the similarity between the logic of the database underlying the wikis and the logic of exhibitions themselves. The tagging taxonomy allowed us to add a tag-based interactive touch display to the exhibition, and Professor Glass and I co-authored a chapter of the exhibition catalog that discussed the emerging place of digital media in exhibition development and the role of the DML and its resources in changing exhibition practice at the BGC.10

The success of the Objects of Exchange wiki provided an example of how digital tools can be valuable as both pedagogical platforms and as tools for organizing resources. This project was critical to the uptake of the wikis and the initial successes of the DML because it provided a model created by a faculty member and used by students, and because it was not directly related to a course about digital media or led by one of the previously recognized digitally savvy members of the community. It made using the wikis seem within reach of anyone at the BGC, and as more people saw the potential of these tools, more of them began to ask about using the wikis as courseware, to organize research, or to plan an exhibition.

One of the reasons that everyone at the BGC was able to see the value of the Objects of Exchange wiki was because of our deliberate effort to show as many people in the institution as possible how the tool helped with the process of research and teaching. In a discussion that parallels Raskin’s, Donald Norman in his book The Invisible Computer writes that “human-centered development requires three equal partners, three legs to the triad of product development: technology, marketing, and user experience.”11 If the DML is in a sense a new product that we are trying to convince a community to use, then after setting up the lab (technology) and endeavoring to be humane (user experience), the next step was to publicize our successes (marketing). We aimed to make the lab and its potential more familiar to our community. The newness of digital media means that for the most part people either will not seek out tools on their own or are unsure where to start looking for new ideas. This is especially true for students and faculty who are often overwhelmed with the projects they are working on as it is. Therefore, we have made a concerted effort to make visible to our community those projects that most successfully represent the scope of work that can be accomplished by integrating digital media into work across our institution.

Along with my constant proselytizing, orientations, and frequent spontaneous conversations, an important way that we have increased visibility has been through salons that we hold at the beginning of each semester to present successful digital works. These presentations have included course and exhibition wikis, student use of databases and wikis for thesis research, short films and Prezis made by students to present materials gathered from field trips, digital exhibitions designed in Omeka, and three-dimensional virtual galleries created for an exhibition design course. For one project, an HTML website entitled Visualizing Nineteenth-Century New York12 that was produced almost entirely by ten students with little previous web experience, we even had a launch party to highlight not only the final product, but also the work the students did while developing the site and the experience they gained in the process.

These showcases have been most important in bridging the gap between those who know the tools but don’t know specifically how the tools would fit into other people’s work and those who know they want to explore the digital but don’t know what tools are out there or how they could use them. In order to bridge this gap, people must be shown projects that they can understand that showcase how successful projects make use of different tools. In this way they can both better understand how the tools work and imagine how they might expand their work into the digital realm using those tools.

Where We Have Arrived and What This Can All Mean

In the three years since this project began, interest in the lab and in exploration of different tools and methodologies has increased at a rate that, to be completely honest, has far exceeded our initial expectations. The wikis quickly became the courseware of choice, largely due to student interest in and use of the wikis, and each course by default now has a wiki setup for it. They have also become an integral part of focus gallery development as faculty and students have followed the model of the Objects of Exchange project to use them to gather, collate, and edit the vast amount of materials and research each project requires. In addition, these sites are used for administrative purposes throughout academic programs. One of the long-lasting benefits of the widespread wiki use is that the wiki code our community has become accustomed to through use of the Wikidot platform has allowed us to begin having conversations about other types of computing languages, providing an important intermediary step for those individuals interested in HTML, CSS, and even PHP, Javascript, and Actionscript.

Prezi has also become highly visible as its ease of use in positioning textual, visual, and even multimedia materials in an easily editable and navigable infinite two-dimensional canvas has suited many different types of work done at the BGC. Students use Prezi most obviously as an alternative platform to Powerpoint to create class presentations, but the tool has also found uses as a thought mapping tool and an image management platform, in the creation of a collaboratively edited visual syllabus, and in the prototyping of interactive media meant for viewing both online (websites and student digital projects) and in our galleries.

Along with Prezi and the wikis, the general activity in the DML includes a wide array of projects and applications. Video projects have become increasingly popular as students look for new modes of expressing themselves and faculty challenge them to consider how digital media are best suited to presenting their scholarly work. Two courses have approached these videos differently, one using them as thought essays and the other encouraging a more documentary style, but both produced excellent results that left students eager to engage with video as a medium.  FileMaker Pro is used by many people looking to build custom databases for their research, especially Ph.D. students with slower–paced, long-term projects. Omeka, which students use in classes and for individual projects, has become an increasingly important tool and is the platform we are using for an archive of digital student work that is currently in development. This archive will be a place where we can catalog and store the variety of different digital projects done at the BGC, while also creating a repository upon which professors can build websites and presentations when showcasing their pedagogical practice.

Our first digital-born qualifying project

Perhaps the most significant achievement of the past year was the completion of our first digital-born qualifying paper.13 This project put many of the strategies, doctrines, and methodologies we had developed to their most extreme test, and posed a challenge to the synthesis of technology and human factors. Most other work done through the DML had been related to individual research or coursework as special projects, and not tied so directly to the mandatory qualifications of our degree. But in the case of a qualifying project (QP), we knew that it was of the utmost importance that the first digital-born project meet a few conditions.

First of all, while the student would have to be digitally capable, she would most importantly need to demonstrate the ability to produce highly rigorous academic work. Professor Jaffee and I were keenly aware that if this project failed academically it could set a bad precedent and discourage future digital projects. Secondly, the student needed to understand that the completion of this project would require work above and beyond the level expected for a traditional QP. Introducing digital features would not reduce the expected page count of the project, and those digital features would necessarily require more labor and design concerns than traditional QPs. Finally, she needed to ensure that the digital aspects would be perceived as necessary to the project, not as frivolous and cosmetic. It needed to be digital-born and constructed in a manner that was irreproducible in non-digital media.

We were fortunate to have a student, Caitlin Dover, come to us whose project not only met all those conditions, but who had also been involved in a number of our most developed digital projects, including the Visualizing Nineteenth-Century New York site and the video documentaries produced in Professor Jaffee’s course on twentieth-century material culture of New York. Caitlin created an interactive Flash project14 about the design and culture of telephony in the United State in the first half of the twentieth century. Her project integrated a gallery of navigable images and films with relevant essays. There were multiple points of entry to each media object that allowed for a nonlinear experience of all the materials, and animations that highlighted and connected different relationships between each of the media objects.

The final product was of the highest quality and is something that we are proud to show. But the challenges of such a project ended up being very real. Caitlin exerted an enormous amount of effort in learning Flash from scratch while simultaneously researching and conceiving of the project, and the quality and amount of work she accomplished was not something that many of our students could have duplicated. I was also able to dedicate more time to helping Cailtin than would have been possible if multiple students had been working at the same scale. Lastly, the project did raise questions about the assessment of digital versus non-digital QPs. The work was of high enough quality that there was no question that Caitlin would receive a passing grade. But it did raise questions among the faculty as to the how to compare such a work to a twenty-five-page printed document. It really was a question of apples and oranges that we were not completely prepared to handle, and if the quality of the work had been more suspect could have caused tension within the institution.

In a sense, Caitlin’s QP is a clear example of how far we have come, but also how far we have to go. On the one hand, there was little faculty resistance to the possibility of a digital-born QP, and they were interested in Caitlin’s endeavor, eager to see what her work would look like, and in the end impressed by its design, functionality, and academic content. On the other hand, there remained this question of assessment that reinforced the strong sense that we as an institution and across the academy are in the midst of a contested transition. They want to participate in that transition and for change to happen at the BGC to occur on their terms. For this reason, we continue to proceed with caution in these more sensitive areas, tempering excitement and possibility with carefully planned strategic decisions that consider the human factors that come into play when trying to institute such cultural change. It sounds cliché, but good things can come to those who wait, and considering the rapid developments that our humane approach has engendered so far, we are willing to allow those more difficult transitions to happen on a timescale that more healthily matches our community’s needs.


Our methods of integrating digital media into the curriculum at the BGC have worked in a specific place at a specific time and in that respect they are unlikely to be completely effective in all circumstances. Questions of scale, resources, and personalities make each institution unique, and that uniqueness always plays a significant role in transitional periods as a community reacts, resituates itself, and prepares to move forward under a new set of conditions. So perhaps the most important lesson that this article can convey is that no matter how much planning you do, it is always prudent to allow the community to find its own way through the transition period.

For those of us who are excited by and look to engage with digital technologies, it seems almost a fait accompli that these tools have value and should quickly find their way into pedagogical practice. But, as mentioned above, educational institutions are often full of very smart people who may not necessarily share that opinion wholeheartedly. The real challenge in digital media initiatives, therefore, does not lie in the implementation of the right software or the purchasing of the right hardware, it consists of creating an environment where the apparent value of these technologies can become known, accepted, and embraced.

As you think about your own plans for integrating digital media at the programmatic and institutional level, remember that programs and institutions are made up of people, and it is ultimately their enthusiasm for these new tools that will lead to their successful adoption and integration. That is why it is important to focus on human expertise and to adopt humane practice, because it is the people in your institution who need to be convinced that this is a project that is relevant to them and to their work, and is ultimately in their best interests.


Boyer, Mark, Caitlin Dover, Aislinn Hyde, Matthew Keagle, Michelle Messer, Rebecca Mir, Ruth Osborne, and Miranda Peters. n.d. Visualizing Nineteenth-Century New York: A BGC-NYPL Digital Student Exhibit. http://resources-bgc.bard.edu/19thcNYC/.

Dover, Caitlin. 2012. “Making Connections: Visualizations of American Telephony, 1900–1949.” New York: Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture.

Glass, Aaron, and Kimon Keramidas. 2011. “On the Relational Exhibit in Analog and Digital Media.” In Objects of Exchange: Social and Material Transformation on the Late Nineteenth-Century Northwest Coast: Selections from the American Museum of Natural History, edited by Aaron Glass, 215-225. New York: Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture. ISBN: 9780300174427.

Miller, Peter 2011. Miller’s Peiresc Research, February 14. http://peiresc.wikis.bgc.bard.edu/.

Norman, Donald A. 1998. The Invisible Computer: Why Good Products Can Fail, the Personal Computer Is so Complex, and Information Appliances Are the Solution. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. ISBN: 0262140659

Raskin, Jef. 2000. The Humane Interface: New Directions for Designing Interactive Systems. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley. ISBN: 0201379376.

San Diego Supercomputer Center. 2006. “NSF Workshop on Cyberinfrastructure for the Social Sciences, 2005 — About,” 2006. http://web.archive.org/web/20060105171914/http://vis.sdsc.edu/sbe/.

Schnapp, Jeffrey, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, and et.al. 2009. “The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0,” June 22. http://www.humanitiesblast.com/manifesto/Manifesto_V2.pdf.

Smith, Kathleen. 2009. “Q&A with Brett Bobley, Director of the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities (ODH) | HASTAC.” HASTAC, February 1. http://hastac.org/node/1934.

Spiro, Lisa. 2012. “Getting Started in Digital Humanities.” Journal of Digital Humanities, March 10. http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1-1/getting-started-in-digital-humanities-by-lisa-spiro/. ISSN: 2165-6673.

———. “‘This Is Why We Fight’: Defining the Values of the Digital Humanities.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold, 16-35. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2012. ISBN: 9780816677948.

Svensson, Patrik. 2011. “From Optical Fiber To Conceptual Cyberinfrastructure.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 5 (1). http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/5/1/000090/000090.html. ISSN: 1938-4122.

———. 2010. “The Landscape of Digital Humanities.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 4 (1). http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/4/1/000080/000080.html. ISSN: 1938-4122



About the Author

Kimon Keramidas is Assistant Director for the Digital Media Lab at the Bard Graduate Center where he is responsible for the development and implementation of digital media practices across academic programs. His research focuses on digital media through the lenses of political economy and sociology of culture, and he is currently working on a book project about contemporary corporate theatrical production and a gallery project on the materiality of computer interface design. Kimon received his PhD in Theatre from the CUNY Graduate Center where he also completed the CUNY Graduate Center’s Certificate in Interactive Technology and Pedagogy.



  1. Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture site, http://bgc.bard.edu.
  2. Bard Graduate Center Digital Media Lab wiki, http://dml.wikis.bgc.bard.edu.
  3. San Diego Supercomputer Center, “NSF Workshop on Cyberinfrastructure for the Social Sciences, 2005 — About”, January 5, 2006, http://web.archive.org/web/20060105171914/http://vis.sdsc.edu/sbe/.
  4. Patrik Svensson, “From Optical Fiber To Conceptual Cyberinfrastructure,” Digital Humanities Quarterly 5, no. 1 (2011), http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/5/1/000090/000090.html.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Jef Raskin, The Humane Interface: New Directions for Designing Interactive Systems (Reading, Mass: Addison Wesley, 2000), xix.
  7. Ibid., 6.
  8. We have one Dell workstation to run Windows-only hardware and to provide a station for those people who feel most comfortable with a PC.
  9. Peter Miller, Miller’s Peiresc Research, February 14, 2011, http://peiresc.wikis.bgc.bard.edu/.
  10. Aaron Glass and Kimon Keramidas, “On the Relational Exhibit in Analog and Digital Media,” in Objects of Exchange: Social and Material Transformation on the Late Nineteenth-Century Northwest Coast: Selections from the American Museum of Natural History, ed. Aaron Glass (New York : Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture, 2011), 215-225.
  11. Donald A. Norman, The Invisible Computer: Why Good Products Can Fail, the Personal Computer Is so Complex, and Information Appliances Are the Solution (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1998), 40.
  12. Mark Boyer et al., Visualizing Nineteenth-Century New York: A BGC-NYPL Digital Student Exhibit, n.d., http://resources-bgc.bard.edu/19thcNYC/.
  13. At the BGC, students submit a qualifying paper as one of the requirements for the MA degree. This paper is approximately 25-35 pages in length and is developed out of a paper previously completed for a course. Most qualifying papers are still submitted as printed documents.
  14. Caitlin Dover, “Making Connections: Visualizations of American Telephony, 1900–1949” (New York: Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture, 2012).

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