Pedagogical Uses of Social Networking Systems

The Context: The following entry was written in response to a colleague’s question to the general faculty about the possibilities of using social networking systems like Myspace and Facebook in teaching:

I could envision lessons and activities that explore or study various aspects of social networking, but as far as actually using a social network environment to host class work, I tend to agree with my colleague Laurence: “there are some web platforms that may be better left to non-academic uses.” The social networks are where the “kids” hang out; there seems something invasive about “going there” as a class—kinda like bringing a class, uninvited, to someone’s party; it could work out okay, but it’s just . . . weird).

Aside from the question of how to use social networking tools in one’s teaching, I think the bigger pedagogical issue here has to do with broad matters of communication and rhetoric brought to the fore by the social networking phenomenon. Many media reports have sounded the alarm bell about the dangers kids expose themselves to in putting too much of their lives out there on the Web. We’ve long known of the danger of the Internet in terms of predators and children. Now, however, with young adults voluntarily publishing information about themselves (photos of drinking exploits at parties, for instance), the dangers have shifted somewhat from those involving personal safety to those involving professional liabilities (in presenting personal info that might make an individual less attractive to a potential employer, school admissions office, etc.).

What’s our role as educators in all this? Rather than foment the concern, I’d prefer educators show leadership and wisdom on this issue.

Specifically, I think educators—at all levels—should teach communicators (all students) the principles and practices of “effective communication.” Myspace/Facebook/etc. is giving us a marvelous “teachable moment.” I think we should take the lead and promote the study—and perhaps even the use of—social networking technologies (even if we don’t use such tools in our teaching). We should support and coach the responsible use of such technologies. In essence we should teach students how “to Myspace”—or at least help them build awareness of the range of communicative/social/personal/professional issues involved in putting one’s oar into the deep and sometimes turbulent waters of public discourse.

I make this proposal, in part, in response to the strong and growing move to curtail and control social networking—especially in high school environments. I’ve heard several reports by our student teachers and first-year teachers about (understandably) skittish administrators whose first impulse in such dangerous situations is one of censorship. It’s ironic; in higher ed, our goal is to stimulate discussion and critical thinking; we often lament our students’ inabilities in this regard—but, to be blunt, so much of the goal in earlier schooling centers on keeping the lid on “inappropriate” communication and critique; is it any wonder the kids come to us communicatively straight-jacketed?

But anyway, thanks for initiating this stimulating discussion [on the faculty listserv]. I see many ways the issues involved “connect.” I’m encouraged to think how a more open attitude about communication possibilities can empower us (the collective “us,” as scholars, as society’s experts in various types of communication)—and play to our strengths in terms of our potential leadership. Conversely, such openness may expose us to new situations where we will learn from our students. Some of us welcome such dynamics while others may be less comfortable with them.

In any event, whenever new technologies are involved, there will undoubtedly be “unexpected by-products.” I have a positive example of such a by-product from one of our student teachers last semester. The incident involved a student teacher who used Myspace to collect and share information about a high school student in her class who had died in a car accident over the Christmas break. The student teacher was able to gather many compelling artifacts from the student’s Myspace site. The student was a poet and artist. The student teacher was able to put together a soundtrack of music from the student’s favorite music, and create a slide show of words and images to celebrate the student’s life and help her classmates through the rough, early stages of grief.

I think there are various ways we in higher education can show leadership in “teaching how-to-Myspace” (if I may be excused using “Myspace” as a verb), but it starts with an open attitude and a confidence in/realization of our credentials to be the leaders. . . .

Avatars of the Word and Disintegrating Educations

Untitled Document

Our book club read Avatars of the Word by James O’Donnell, a classicist/techie/vice-provost,
who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.

Near the end of Avatars, O’Donnell made some points about the future of
higher education. Although I’ve found myself nodding in agreement through much
of the book, I took a little issue with some of his ideas about how we should
reform our teaching-learning practices. In particular, he mentions the need
for learning experiences in colleges to be relevant to or modeled on the kind
of experiences students will have as adults in the world: "the traditional
classroom is among other things a place for rehearsing behaviors of use in later
life" (185).

I do agree with this notion, but my encounter of it here has led me to a somewhat
tendentious quarrel with it, along these lines: Might we, through
such thinking, be overly fitting the purposes of college to the (superficial)
purposes of society? Might not one argue that, rather than provide
direct preparation, or “training,” for adult life, college should instead provide a
countering or corrective influence to adult life?

I’m thinking of an individual who has, in fact, made such an argument. That
person (no surprise here to those who know me) is Kenneth Burke, who in his
1955 essay, "Linguistic Approach to Problems in Education," describes
the purpose of education as a kind of "preparatory withdrawal" from
life in order to equip us for life. Burke’s notion stands as a kind
of counter-statement to O’Donnell’s view: Education should function, Burke implies,
as a thing unlike life (thus the withdrawal) that helps gird you for
the struggles of life (thus the "preparation"). We go to college to
experience something different than the kinds of things and ideas we
will experience as adults. In this view, college provides not only a "broader
context" to adult experiences but also functions as an antidote to them–a
"counter-statement" to the assertions, or pressures of life. College
might equip us for life by stimulating our imaginations to think in grooves
very different from those that are etched by the pragmatic purposes of career
and social involvement. This value of college, Burke suggests, might be connected
with experiences of mortification, humility, appreciation–I think he even calls
it the "fear of God," though in a very secular sense. So what of it?
What do we think of this notion of college as a place set aside to scare us,
make us tentative, slow us down in our assertiveness?

More than anything, Burke seems to be promoting a cult of "interfence,"
as a type of protection against the efficiency of easy certainties. This is
an ironic approach to education–education as a kind of systematic complication
of our knowledge rather than mere confirmation, expansion, or application of
it. There is another Burkean context that come to mind–his essay on Thomas
Mann and Andre Gide in Counter-Statement. There Burke is talking about
the writer’s "art," but the points apply readily to concepts of "education."

Burke’s celebration of the perverse conscientiousness of Mann’s heroes and
the decadent irony of Gide’s anti-heroes points to a curricular ideal in a would-be
school of "preparatory withdrawal." Gide’s approach to irony, for
instance, helps us to break the spell of the "adult world" and its
ready-made reality. Burke quotes Gide, whose autobiography speculates on the
creation of "a whole civilization gratuitously different from our own"

I thought of writing the imaginary history of a people,
a nation, with wars, revolutions, changes of administration, typical happenings….
I wanted to invent heroes, sovereigns, statesmen, artists, an artistic tradition,
an apocryphal literature, explaining and criticizing movements, recounting
the evolution of forms, quoting fragments of masterpieces…. And all to what
purpose? To prove that the history of man could have been different—our
habits, morals, customs, tastes, judgments, standards of beauty could have
all been different—and yet the humanity of mankind would remain the
same. (103)

From Mann’s conscientious attitude of "containment," we get a "sympathy
with the abyss," an orientation quite inefficient for "rehearsing
behaviors of use in later life." Or to put it more positively, what of
the notion of college as a type of a "magic mountain" experience?
One goes to the magic mountain to experience routines and purposes of a very
different pace, style, and quality than those afforded by the hustle-bustle,
work-a-day world.

College as a "magic mountain" may be a traditional idea, and one
might even cite conventional notions of higher education’s role to promote independent,
critical thinking. But Burke’s notions of "preparatory withdrawal,"
inefficiency, and irony imply a goal of discomfort for education more
than anything else. In summing up his analysis of Mann and Gide, Burke asks
a question that for me functions as a first principle for an educational program:
"Irony, novelty, experimentalism, vacillation, the cult of conflict—are
not these men trying to make us at home in indecision, are they not trying to
humanize the state of doubt?"

Anyway, what of this notion of college as a "magic mountain"–a place
to which we withdraw, so that we might gain the (often ironic) resources
to encounter (or simply counter) the shaping forces of the world? O’Donnell’s
statement (that I have pulled out of context for my own purposes) made me think
of all this–most of all, the quote below from the conclusion of the Thomas
Mann and Andre Gide chapter. Just change the word "art" with "education":

…society might well be benefited by the corrective
of a disintegrating art [EDUCATION], which converts each simplicity into a
complexity, which ruins the possibility of ready hierarchies, which concerns
itself with the problematical, the experimental, and thus by implication works
corrosively upon those expansionistic certainties preparing the way for our
social cataclysms. An art [EDUCATION] may be of value purely through preventing
a society from becoming too assertively, too hopelessly, itself. (105)

Schema Theory: Dr. Denner, Good Humor, and All the Schema In-Between

September 19, 2004

My most memorable lesson on schema theroy was taught by Dr. Peter Denner in 1980 (or thereabouts!) at Norhteastern University. I was a practicing (emphasis on “practice”) high school teacher at the time (at St. Scholastica Academy), and I had just returned to college to complete coursework and clinical requirments for teacher certification. Dr. Denner was a young professor out of Purdue, with lots of long-hair, energy, and motivational ways (mostly just excellent teaching). I needed some extra motivation, for I felt at the time, as some of my current students do now in regards to their own development, that the best way to perfect the craft of teaching was to take more English, not education, courses. But that’s another story, for another blog. This one has to do with schema theory, one of the great pillars of educational thinking in so many ways….

First, a little side-track on the wonders of this new technological age….

Let me tell the story of my reconnection with Dr. Denner. Here it is: Google.

For the past year or so, I’ve been thinking of culling lessons on key educational and English lessons. I thought: if my students and alumni had access to some kind of searchable, organizable database of important lessons, lesson plans, foundational principles of learning, English, and all related stuff…well, what a wonderful thing that would be…. Schema theory is such one lesson. It’s a paradigm-shifting lesson, out of which whole universes of pedagogical practice can grow. Healthy, correctly-pointing universes. Schema theory opens students to the processes of cognition in a sudden, easy, and robust way. Cognition—reading—understanding—as active, meaning making processes rather than passive, “recipient” processes: so much of high school language arts pedagogy can be built around these notions, particularly as they gain expression and application in reader response theory.

Whenever I had this “culling-into-a-database” thought—and the idea of using “schema theory” as the initiating lesson—my mind always shot back to that ed pysch course, my first teacher education course, taught by Dr. Denner. So, some weeks ago, when I was thinking of writing up my first schema story (in the form of a blog on the dog I met on my Baseball Vacation), I thought, “Hmm…I’ve got to get Denner’s schema story here first!” For Denner’s schema story was one of “those” moments in one’s education: the thing happens in class, and one is changed forever… Not always dramatically or in a life-altering way…. Sometimes it’s just some good learning….

I thought: Denner’s schema story had all the earmarks of “lore.” It was funny, compact, and crystal clear; it illustrated a fundamental epistemological mechanism with a kind of absoluteness. : “Hmmm…this has to be written up somewhere on the Internet.” So I turned to Google and did all kinds of searching—for ice cream, schemata, expectation, anecdotes—anything that could remotely identify and connect with the story. To no avail. Then: “I can’t find the story…maybe I can find the story-teller.” So I did a search on “schema theory” and “denner.” That search led me to a bibliography that referred to “Denner” as “Peter Denner.” That name didn’t quite seem right, though the subject of the article in the bibliography, “Semantic Organizers,” was definitely right up the ally of the Denner I remembered. (I think I thought his first name was “John,”—but I now think I was getting some cognitive interference from “John Denver”—but that’s another story…or is it the same one?). My next Google seach, “peter denner,” brought me immediately (feeling lucky?) to Dr. Denner’s CV and email address. And there it was: “1979-1982 Instructor, College of Education, Northeastern Illinois University.” But he left Chicago in 1982 for a position with the College of Education at Idaho State University, where he still works and teaches, now in a split capacity as professor of education and Assistant Dean of the College of Education.

So I had the email address. I thought: Why not?

Hello, Dr. Denner—I am a former student of yours, and I wonder if I might ask you a favor? First, a long-delayed thank you for your classes, your educational psychology course, in particular. It was 1980 or so, at Northeastern Illinois University. I was an uncertified high school teacher at the time, working at a Catholic school (St. Scholastica Academy). Yours was, I believe, the first course I took in my certification completion program. I did become certified as an English teacher, and eventually went back to graduate school, and now I’m a teacher educator myself, so I suppose I’ve become a type of colleague of yours. I’ve been at Saint Xavier University in Chicago the past eight years, serving as the English Education coordinator. Anyway, you shared a story in one of your classes that has stuck with me lo, these many years. It was just an example of schema theory. It was a narrative full of twists and turns, each one illustrating how much structure and meaning the audience of a story brought to the story-—sometimes to the peril of the intended message.

One thing I emphasize in my methods courses is the power of examples—and I cherish and treasure and store away and re-use the really good ones. Your story illustrated so well the way our expectations run ahead of the data we receive through real-time experience. You’ve got to remember this one. It was so charming and humorous. I don’t remember a lot of it—but I do remember there was a shooting of a gun…follow by the “victim” wiping water from his/her face. There was also an ice-cream sale script being used (or abused)… Does any of this ring a bell? Is this example written up anywhere? Can you help?

If not, don’t give it a thought. I’ve often thought the “idea” of the story is obvious enough, and with a little writing on my part, I could recreate a similar type narrative. But there’s something about the cherished stories of one’s formation—an implicit call to respect and preserve them just so. Anyway, I thought I’d ask. Thanks much!

Your admiring student—Angelo

P.S.: I found you through Google, and I enjoyed being able to read your CV, which thoroughly daunts me (at least insofar as my use of the word “colleague” above). You’ve been busy indeed, and no doubt to continued effect with your students and colleagues out west.

To make a long story short(er), I received a wonderful, inspiring response
from Dr. Denner, the relevant part of which is quote below:

I do recall the story I told, because in the early years I used it here also. These days, I mainly teach statistics, so I have not discussed schema theory for quite a while. The story I told was inspired by and adapted from an example of how schemata function in comprehension presented in one of the early (now classic) articles on schema theory. The reference is: Rummelhart, D.E. & Ortony, A. (1977). The representation of knowledge in memory. In R.C. Anderson, R.J. Spiro & W.E. Montague (Eds), Schooling and the Acquisition of Knowledge. Hillsdale NJ: Erlbaum. The essential lines of the story are there, but I modified them and elaborated on them for my own teaching purposes. On page 113, the lines are given as “Mary heard the ice cream man coming.” “She remembered her pocket money.” “She rushed into the house.” Later on page 115, when talking about unexpected outcomes, Rummelhart and Ortony (1977), give the example line of “She drew the revolver and shot him.”My version of the story went something like this: “Sally heard the ice-cream vendor.” Then, I would ask the class, “What did Sally hear?” The class would give answers such as a bell or music. I would stomp my feet and say, “She probably did not hear a sound like this, right?” The point I was making was how we use schemata to fill in default values that go beyond the information given (as Bruner said). Next, I offered the sentence, “Sally turned and ran back into the house.” I would then ask the class if that made any sense. The class would answer yes, because she needed to get her money or her purse. I would ask why? This exposed the implicit buy-sell schemata that was expected. I would also ask the class, “How old is Sally?” The consensus tended to be about ten years old. I next offered a third line and asked the class to interpret it. The third line was, “A short while later, Sally returned carrying her pocketbook.” Again, the class thought this made sense because of the implicit buy-sell schema. I would then ask if Sally wanted to buy ice-cream. I would also ask, “what kind?” This would illustrate that when the text does not specify, we are able to fill in the slots of the schema with high frequency default values (such as vanilla), or with our own preferences and thereby identify with the character by assuming that Sally would be like us. The next sentence I offered, was something like, “The ice cream vendor saw Sally reach into her pocketbook.” Then, I would ask, what was she reaching for? The next sentence was the twist. “She drew the gun and shot him.” At this point, we would talk about the schemata shift from buy-sell to shooting. We would talk about the slots in that schema and what was still missing (motive). I would ask again at this point how old Sally was. Usually, the consensus was much older now. We would speculate a bit about motive and then I would share the last line of the story. The last line of the story was, “And, the ice-cream vendor wiped the water from his face.” The class usually groaned. I then asked, “How old is Sally now?” We would then discuss how mystery writers try to get us to keep thinking inside the boxes of our schemata, while all the time leading us to an unexpected twist (although in retrospect there were clues along the way). Does this help? Feel free to use the story, although do give Rummelhart and Ortony (1977) credit for the examples (and me a little too for my adaptation and elaboration of them).

DNS, or I’ve got your number, or what’s in a name…

Server Admin Guy

Here in this inaugural blog on the newly-created category “Server Admin Guy”–the category that charts the ups and downs of administering a Debian
Linux server (this one at St. Odilo School)–I write a happy message to the
St. Odilo Technology Committee (Techcom). I give a final update to a week-long
process in bringing back network services, after a major SNAFU by SBC-Ameritech (they
obliterated the longstanding account’s static IP numbers).

To: Techcom (Saint Odilo Technology Committee)
SUBJECT: Final (??) Crisis Update

Less than a week after we lost our IP numbers (but not
much less), our system is back and just about fully operational.

There were many hurdles:

  1. Figuring out the problem was not our equipment: MAJOR
    , with these highlights: swapping
    our our server, router, cables, re-configuring bunches of things. Thanks, Bill
    Donegan, for carrying the backup server from the rectory to the school.
  2. Keeping our old IP Numbers: IMPOSSIBLE.
  3. Getting new IP numbers: NOT
    : Thanks, Frank, of SBC
    for staying on at work two hours after normal quitting time Friday night to
    re-configure our account.
  4. Getting new IP numbers to work: ALMOST
    : Thanks Al, for your weekend
    intervention to resolve some very mystifying account tie-ups and finding us
    the person (Guy) who knew exactly what to do to get our new numbers functioning.
    Al’s help cut at least two days off our network downtime.
  5. Getting our new IP numbers propagated throughout the
    worldwide DNS database:
    , as all indications were
    that the new info was being distributed, but apparently (after nearly three
    days of no change) was not. Thanks Ed, for directing me to the place we needed
    to go to get things fixed: Our domain name account with Network Solutions.
    Unfortunately, there is some kind of problem with our DNS server, such that
    it doesn’t effectively send updates to all the world’s DNS servers. In fact,
    my current theory (as validated by some googling) is that the notification
    our server is sending is correct, but the servers of the world aren’t understanding
    it for some reason. ("I’m not wrong, everyone else is!") But whatever–Ed,
    I found at our Network Solutions account a way to use their DNS server to
    propagate new records. So I sent that through, and the needed changes pointing
    people to our new numbers started appearing within a few hours. It’s not a
    solution that makes me perfectly happy (we really shouldn’t have to rely on
    Network Solution’s DNS server to propagate our change), but it’s perfectly
    effective. (Other googling, btw, inclines me to think that maybe our change
    would have gone through once our old records "expired" on the servers
    of the world–something that would have happened after seven days.)

Thanks Paul, for dropping by the house yesterday, as
you were girding yourself for phone battle with SBC to ask them for all kinds
of restitution. In the old days, it was called Blood Money. I think we’d settle
for some credit or free upgrades. Did you get any? (If not, we’ll settle for
the blood, right?) Thanks for your moral support over the weekend during your

Whew. Bye… –Angelo

P.S.: Pardon this Anti-Olympic Moment, but may I avoid
the fate of Phidippides who gave birth to the Olympic Movement by dropping dead
after delivering his joyous message, delayed by a 26-mile run from Marathon
to Athens: "We win!" [plop!]