Monday, October 31, 2011

Cosmopedia

“No one knows everything, everyone knows something, all knowledge resides in humanity” (139)


The idea of social networks have been connected to websites such as Facebook and MySpace since their origins, however social networks have existed long before Mark Zuckerberg and Tom Anderson launched their sites. Social networks flourished before the Internet was even publically available in the form of families, churches, corporations and institutions. These networks were limited, most importantly by geography. One unbound, and possibly the most interesting social network is a fan group. Fan groups are united by their passion for a common group, person or story, a factor that connects people regardless of location, personal beliefs, occupation or gender. What makes these fan groups so interesting is their collective strength as a body having a greater impact than it would as individuals.

Fan groups are more than simple collections of people who all enjoy the same thing. They are like the boy in the AppleBox commercial, an interactive audience, producing, distributing, publicizing and critiquing the distributed media. Writers for fan-based shows were quick to recognize the power and influence the fans have and would actively engage in dialogue with them through newspapers, mail, conventions and now the Internet. All of these components bypass geography allowing for the social network to grow despite the physical separateness. Fan groups became so influential that storylines were changed, series were continued and characters even changed their sexual orientation to meet the desires of these fan groups. This chapter suggests the power of the group to bring about change in the entity itself, however I find a slight flaw with this thinking because we have no way of knowing if the change is a reflection of what the group wants or what very vocal individuals want.

A second power of the fan groups is their collective body of knowledge. Through the Internet fans can easily access websites, blogs and wiki pages offering specific details of character’s lives or missed plot points of shows. Fans also have free access to ‘show off’ their individual knowledge. Jenkins analyzes this behavior and says that it reflects “not a pleasure in knowing, but a pleasure in exchanging knowledge” (139). If the pleasure were in exchanging knowledge why would this be considered showing off? If everyone knows it, there’s nothing to show off. Each member of a fan group has the option of feeding off the same base of knowledge yet individuals still pride themselves in ‘knowing the most’. This would speak to the exact opposite, that there is pleasure in knowing.

So how does this apply to the classroom? Good question.

In class we have been discussing the need for more academic collaboration and we have expressed frustration that students are refusing to be a part of the general conversation. While reading this article I was inspired by the Soap Opera fan clubs and how they functioned as the perfect example of collaboration. Soap Operas produce 5 shows a week, lasting anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour and have run for up to 72 years. (Guiding Light) This equals out to 18,720 episodes of information. This is why, as Jenkins explains, “the fan community pools its knowledge because no single fan can know everything necessary to fully appreciate the series” (139). Together they are stronger than their individual parts, as each person feels they have the right to contribute and partake from a very vast body of knowledge.

This kind of collaboration is what Levy describes as the “collective intelligence” or knowledge available to all members of a community as opposed to knowledge known by all members of a community. Collective intelligence creates a new kind of expertise, one that is dynamic and reciprocal. Typically expertise is contained within an expert, because all the knowledge required to become an expert resides in the same place or in the same person. Within a social community, the same level of knowledge is present, however it is spread out, yet just as easily accessible by some simple typing and the click of a mouse.

This has great potential in regards to our students. If these kinds of communities can function at the academic level our students can have complete access to this same kind of expertise. They too can become part of the social network that passes around information, shares ideas and establishes expertise. The problem is unlike the supposed active consumer in the AppleBox advertisement our students are not always aware of the choices they are making and are more often than not swayed into the decisions they do make by outside (sometimes negative) forces.

So how do we get our students to the place where they can be active members of this sort of knowledge exchange?

When I was in my junior year of college I had a professor tell me that if I wanted to do well in life I must question everything. Everything I see, everything I hear, everything I read. Each class we had to submit to her five questions from her assigned readings. At first I thought this was kind of a pointless exercise, however through her class I realized she was giving me a vital tool; she was teaching me to think.

In schools we are quick to harness students who ask too many questions because we fear they will eventually think themselves into rebelling. But by limiting these thoughts we are also limiting their potential to actively engage with the knowledge around them. Essentially we need to get our students thinking.

One idea I had was to assign a question journal for an entire novel. For each chapter students would be required to ask 5-10 questions about what they read. This activity does two things. First, the ability to ask questions about what they read places students in a position of authority where they feel they have the right to think about what and why things happen. Second, the practice of questioning will ideally lead students to a place where they are asking important questions and seeking out their own answers, i.e. critically thinking. Once they have found answers to their questions they then will have a platform from which to contribute to the community of knowledge and discussion.

Ø How else can we get students to engage with the community of knowledge?

Ø How do we get students to recognize their own passive stance in regards to knowledge?

Ø How do we prevent the same problems from happening?

o The voice of one becoming the voice of many?

o Or one dominate source of knowledge having authority over the other members of the network?

Ø If everyone has access to the expertise of the community, doesn’t that eliminate the idea of expertise?

Ø In regards to Kajder…What happens when her students take wrong photos or not exactly correct photos of the words they are attempting to define? A speaker is not the same as voice nor is a van of groceries cumulative. Thinking this is what these words mean could lead to some serious confusion later.


References

Boy on Couch: http://www.123rf.com/photo_6247930_cute-little-boy-sitting-on-the-sofa-and-watching-tv-with-a-remote-control.html

Jenkins, Henry. Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. New York: New York UP, 2006. Print.

7 comments:

  1. Hi Melody—
    Phenomenal posting skills! First, I wanted to mention that I have missed all 18,720 episodes of information on Guiding Light and am somehow okay with the fact that I am excluded from this domain. I sure hope I haven’t offended any of the GL fans out there. I am however, a fan of these kinds of communities and would agree that as teachers we should actively participate in developing strategies to integrate them into the classroom.

    You ask, “So, how do we get our students to the place where they can be active members of this sort of knowledge exchange?”

    I’d say, empowerment, empowerment, empowerment. I’ve had similar experiences, just as you had when you were a Junior in college. At the heart of these experiences, I think is that we knew we were actually able to question the authority of Earnest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or even Shakespeare (because someone in a position of authority told us we could). As soon as we developed questions, we essentially began to embark on a language hunt that was contained within this “semiotic domain” we were involved in in order to reach the answers or knowledge that we sought.

    I think that your “question journal” is a fantastic idea and I can really imagine the possibilities of this assignment. To add, I think that in keeping with the idea of “community of knowledge,” perhaps once the assignment is given, you could compile each student’s questions anonymously on one piece of paper and then distribute them to the class. In this way, you could point out the types of questions being asked and what type of answers ( or even further questions) these questions might lead to. Perhaps then, to take the assignment even one step further, you could have a class discussion of what the answers might be, only to have the students go back to journaling and reflect over a question that came up during or after class discussion. I see your “question journal” idea almost being like a live, in person blogosphere.

    I also see your point about how Kajder’s photograph idea could lead to some confusion. I think that what she was getting at though is a type of thinking that is important at any level of reading or writing, and that is associative thinking. Sometimes it’s hard to put into words what we are thinking, yet it’s even more difficult to construct it into an image. Or is it? I think that taking a “wrong” photo is could be a good teaching moment—it’s like a kind of “misreading” that perhaps is necessary when discovering the language that’s behind the associations. Along the same lines as your “question journal,” instead of asking why a student might have asked that particular question (even if it’s the wrong kind of question to ask), perhaps we could ask why the student has chosen a certain image.

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  2. Excellent post, Melody. I'm especially glad that you made Levy's work on "collective intelligence" a focus. For those of you who aren't familiar with Levy, you should check out his book (also quite prophetic in a Vannevar Bush sort of way).

    I want to address the following question you pose: "If everyone has access to the expertise of the community, doesn’t that eliminate the idea of expertise?" It's this question that disturbs many people, mostly academics or other kinds of credentialed specialists, because they assume collective intelligence undermines expertise. On the contrary, I would suggest that individualized expertise is vital to collective intelligence. The logic behind collective intelligence is that individuals contribute their own expertise to serve the common good, which, in combination with other relevant contributions from other relevant areas of expertise, serve to create an even more authoritative and capacious body of knowledge. Allowing more people access to this knowledge does not dilute it - in fact, I would argue that it offers more possibilities for growth. I think this is Jenkins main point about fans. If we continue to see them as amateurs, hacks, etc., we will fail to see the unique and important nature of their expertise and contributions. Jenkins elsewhere describes himself as an Aca/Fan, which basically means that he think of himself as both an academic and a fan. I appreciate his recognition of fandom's expertise, but I wonder if this divide between academics and fans is useful anymore. As teachers, I believe that we need to continue to fight for "access" to specialized knowledge. Much of this means that we demand that institutions be more transparent in their assumptions, methods, and goals. Otherwise, the Ivory Tower will continue to be inaccessible and ultimately irrelevant to many.

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  3. Alex already beat me to the punch, but I wanted to address the concept of there being a lack of expertise if everyone has access to the expertise of a community, wouldn't that destroy the very concept? My two responses to the question are 1) Who cares and 2) No.

    The first more indulgent statement is that I'm perfectly fine with expertise spreading throughout a community. By restricting access to content or knowledge, we are theoretically (theoretically since some people will never pursue these venues of discourse) cutting off people's access to potential enlightenment.

    I've often spoke of in class the annoyance that scholarly journals are not opened up to the public. Once I graduate from my Master's and I'm teaching in a public school, I'll no longer be able to get into JSTOR. Or Project Muse. It's a particularly suffocating feeling since I enjoy reading articles from them, and engaging in the dialogue in the venues I'm interested in.

    That's just my situation. Consider that there are people who have never been given access to these databases, to this knowledge. Doesn't it seem as though they should be given a chance to utilize this knowledge?

    It's a bit of a tangent but the anxiety can spread over into the concept of higher education as a whole, and ideas of how society should be structured. Madison (like I said, huge tangent) felt that the only way a democracy could work was with an *educated* public. Consider these avenues we cut off through academia, consider the rising fees at our own Umass (and if you're like me grab those socialist flyers and nod in agreement) and then really consider if we should be worrying about a lack of expertise as a result of democratizing content.

    I don't think so at all.

    The second point is that the diffusion of knowledge doesn't mean that we're all going to wield the content on equal fields. I can access physics journals, or partake in the conversation there, but I'll never be on the level of someone who can you know, actually do math. Access and mastery are two different things.

    I think one of the biggest fears is Jay's nightmare of a lack of effort being parlayed into laziness, instant retrieval and no memorization or appreciation. While I don't think that's a large enough drawback to cause me from charging forward into the digital democracy, it's worth mentioning.

    So, I don't care if it diminishes expertise in the sense that the "Masters" won't get to set on top of theory and journals any longer. It wouldn't be a shame at all if all the ideas being bandied about could be taken out of the strict routing system they're currently channeled through. If anything it could lead to others partaking in the discourse and as Alex has said throughout our classes: a validation of the humanities as a whole.

    (Great post, btw.)

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  5. "I appreciate his recognition of fandom's expertise, but I wonder if this divide between academics and fans is useful anymore. As teachers, I believe that we need to continue to fight for "access" to specialized knowledge. Much of this means that we demand that institutions be more transparent in their assumptions, methods, and goals. Otherwise, the Ivory Tower will continue to be inaccessible and ultimately irrelevant to many."

    Alex, I agree with that sentiment because if you continue to withhold information from a certain group of people it leads to disenfranchisement. But I guess what I'm most concerned about is the issue of undercutting the 10+ years of graduate studies that academics have spent working on. It seems if we break down the barrier between "academic" and "fan" we might also be watering down what it takes to push through a Ph.D. program. I'm not exactly sure what the answer is ... I'm not even sure if I'm right in this instance. Since I want to work toward a Ph.D. more than I want just about anything else, I tend to side with the perspective of my future academic self. People in the humanities try hard enough as it is to rationalize their area of study in our math-and-science-centric culture enough as it is. Why do we need to complicate that by breaking down walls between a fan who hasn't gone through the degree-specific rigors, and an academic who has?

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  6. Hi Melody!
    I’d responded to Alem’s post but now that I’ve read through yours I feel compelled to add my two cents. Your post was great and really got me thinking about how we can get students to add to collaborative communities and exchanges. I have to say, I’m not sure they are refusing to be a part of them as you mentioned, but more so I think they aren’t even aware of it. Are we even creating these collaborative opportunities? I’m not – not beyond class discussions in both large and small groups. I’m not sure this counts. I think if we posed the situation as an opportunity for them to learn and engage and question (and maybe have fun with it), they’d be all for it.

    Also – I’ve never seen a situation in my years of working with college students where “we” are quick to harness students who ask too many questions. Isn’t this what we want? We want questions, right? Well, I’ll say it – this is what I want. In my experience over the past few years at least, I’ve experienced the opposite. In an age of helicopter and hovering parents, many students don’t even know how to think or ask questions because they’ve never been asked to. The question posing lesson you learned in your junior year was crucial…and by your post I can see that it taught you a life-long skill. I think this is exactly what we need to pass on to our students. Teaching them to question everything, like you’ve mentioned, will hopefully encourage them to speak with authority even when they’re posing questions and apprehensively answering them. Doing just as your professor did – perhaps, in order to help students recognize their own passive stance in regards to knowledge, we give them opportunities to gain knowledge while modeling how to pose questions. Especially for those students who don’t believe they have the authority to question things…we need to give them permission to do so and show them how. Eventually, in theory, they’ll all walk away questioning everything, just as you did. This approach has definitely inspired me to think a bit harder about what I’m teaching my own students – am I teaching them to question everything?? I’m not sure…but I will now!

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  7. {As a side note, we continue to have discussions about why a degree matters. Does it help if we put it into a physical realm? For example, we pay doctors a high sum to tell us what is wrong with our bodies. We go to different doctors to hear different diagnosis. We trust doctors with our parents, our children, our health. We listen to their advice, some of us owe our lives to doctors. To medical science. To a degree that was both costly and time consuming. We’ve advanced as a society medically speaking, due to the efforts of doctors and scientists pursuing higher and higher levels of thinking. This is medical science. In the arts (to be specific humanities), we are clearly not talking health, life, or death. But we still should validate those who have put years of study and time into a pursuit of higher learning. There has to be a greater validation of these accomplishments. If the mind is a muscle, I’d like to think the strongest muscle has the greater position…}

    On another note: how do we get students to a place where they can actively exchange knowledge? I’m concerned that we are focusing too much on using technology to do this, when perhaps a simple email back and forth may do this job. Collective intelligence can be done at a table, with students working, and discussing ideas. The questions journal is an awesome idea. Actually, I’m interested in borrowing that myself!! I like the thought of my students leaving with questions. Sometimes I find that too often I’m answering questions that a little more thought may have answered. This creates a greater sense of independence in the student and allows for the students to take a greater role in their learning. Some of the best teachers I’ve had are the ones that did very little actual teaching, and instead relied on student led discussions. Sometimes (I teach middle school), a change in setting can produce a different dialogue. My kids wont talk about poetry in the classroom for too long, but the second I take them outside, they find endless things to talk about. They think they’re wasting time (and they are), but we still engage in conversation and write down important ideas, so my objectives have been accomplished.

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