Monday, April 23, 2012

Who's Your Friend?

"Legend and Landscape in Brittany, France"
I don't have the brevity of wit to truly engage in Facebook, but many a day has been brightened by a comment from a Facebook friend, or by thinking about Geoffrey Chaucer's take on Facebook, and so I feel, well, friendly to it. I'm using it to advertise my upcoming eco-criticism Winter Term trip to Brittany (huzzah!), and will use it to post updates and questions, conversations and more as we consolidate our group (24 students thus far, so we are a go) (huzzah! huzzah!). I've also decided to use it for some collaborative writing amongst my students. They are working in groups of 2 or 3 for their "Monsters and Marvels" manifestos (or, as one student said, "Monsterfesto"). Hybrid, collaborative writing of declarative statements bolstered by original sources both visual and textual seemed much more fitting than the classic term paper for this class. The students were initially appalled, but are warming up to the idea - especially, it seems, after I introduced the Facebook assignment. Facebook groups have all of the features that I wanted to encourage collaborative writing: first of all, you can set a group to "Secret," so that the students can work just among themselves. And then: see those tabs at the very top? "About" invites them to collaboratively write how their three monsters interact; "Events" asks them to isolate the (trans)formative events in their monsters' existence; "Photos" is the art history hook; and "Docs" is just that: this lovely simple format space where each can write 750-1000 words by Tuesday at 10 p.m. - the content there is driven by the intersection of the Events and Photos they've chosen. What I like best is that I left the role of "Posts" open and that has proven to be where they're doing their thinking. One group has posted no less than 20 comments today back and forth, exchanging citations, reworking language, directing each other to a cartoon about Host Desecration (!) (from Russell's Teapot, but I can't find it on the web - they're so much savvier than me!). It was a steep learning curve for me, but I love their level of engagement. And I somehow like the idea of their posting comments to each other as part of the working process better than thinking of them isolated staring at 1/1 of a blank Word document (although that, of course, has its value). The one strange thing I do need to register is how we all gain access to each other's work. The students have all had to "Friend" each other, which is fine - they did it without blinking. But I've had to "Friend" (in that Facebook way) all of my students, something I have assiduously avoided doing because I just don't want to know what they're up to on Facebook. No matter, I just won't look - no curiosity, no time. Furthermore, in order to make myself and everyone else comfortable with the whole process, I found myself saying to my entire class, "Once this project is over, I will de-friend all of you." Seems so unfriendly! But we can re-friend (oh my God, the language!) each other on the side, later, after they've graduated. As weird as the language is, I like this idea of a suspended community, gathered together out there in Facebook for the next month, creating hybrid texts, exchanging ideas, and being friends.

P.S. I end every evening I can by reading the latest from the blog In the Middle, a constant source of inspiration. Tonight's is especially wonderful and reveals the exciting and productive reaches of a collaborative academic community of friends, as well as the warmth that Jeffrey Cohen brings to collaborative endeavors.

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