Being More Than Digital

Two passages I can’t stop thinking about, from Alan Jacobs’ “Attending to Technology: Theses for Disputation.”

On online discourse:

One of the best ways of evaluating written work is to begin with the question: What sort of response does this text invite?

On online commentary:

Our current circumstances call us to reflect on the way that the Internet enables amateur commentary — in both the best and the worst senses of “amateur,” and every other sense in between. The amateur commentator does not feel so strongly the impulse to novelty, which is not necessarily a bad thing. But the amateur commentator is also not vocationally committed to avoiding the defacement of that on which he or she comments.

While reading Jacobs’ essay, I couldn’t stop thinking about online teaching communities, and what we might hope from them.

What might it look for an online community of teachers to cultivate a culture of teaching? Could it be distinctive? Could it really leap from the online to the real world? Does it already?

(More, from Jacobs: “The digital environment disembodies language in this sense: it prevents me from discerning the incongruity between my self-presentation and my person.”)

My sense is that we aren’t there yet. The first obstacle relates to Jacobs’ first passage. An online community is, at least right now, a community of writers. What sort of response does our writing invite? I worry that our writing (our blogging) does not often enough invite commentary. Are the insights of the teaching community accumulating? Are they connecting, forming something greater than a collection of individual posts?

Is this a community not just of learning, but one that is itself learning?

(I remember once being told that a main function of the online math teaching community is support. That is, a place of empathy for teachers whose teaching finds no love in their schools and departments. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s certainly possible. A thriving community does not need to be a learning community.)

The second obstacle relates to something Justin raises later on twitter. “A local department has only a local culture to remember.” Is it possible for a community of teachers to really generate a local wisdom that isn’t actually local?

The third obstacle is digital culture itself. It’s tempting to think of digital culture as the absence of any culture, or at least there was a time when this was a pretty common temptation. Hopefully now we know this is not true, and Jacobs’ theses articulate features of this culture that could spell trouble for digital communities. The disembodiment of our words from our actions. The tools that we are granted — like twitter — and the sort of skitter-skatter attention they encourage. The smooshing of experts and novices that happens on twitter, which I think has the effect of encouraging us all to talk in confident, preaching, explaining tones.

With all of this, I’m still optimistic about our prospects. But reading Jacobs makes me think just how important it is to make sure that our communities are not just digital. All of our eggs should not be in the twitter-and-blogs basket, because we do not want to be constrained by our technologies. It’s important that we be something that supercedes any particular tool, and my optimism comes from the fact that this is increasingly true.

This is why, I think, Lisa Henry is a hero. Christopher Danielson too. It’s also why I am enthusiastic about the get-togethers we are planning in NYC this summer. I heard there’s something happening in Atlanta. In the Bay Area too? These are such good things.

If our community is more than digital, then there’s more hope that our digital culture can bend towards our needs.

4 thoughts on “Being More Than Digital

  1. Hi Michael,

    I really liked this article. One of my goals of Twitter Math Camp this year is to initiate a core group of people for whom the phrase Contemplate then Calculate draws in a shared face to face experience that enables us to be more specific when we talk to each other about our teaching.


    Liked by 1 person

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