This question really irks me. To be honest, I have been irked by it since I was first asked to contribute a post, and I'm afraid I've annoyed Jamie by persistently asking her for a clearer formulation of the topic. But now that I've given it some thought, and eliminated other possible sources of irritation that I first needed to consider (eg., the syntax is confusing; the question is too broad; the question is really two different questions; I'm too busy for this; I'm too old for this, etc.), I think I may know the problem: the question is naive.
We do not build cohorts and communities, digital, scholarly or otherwise. Rather, they build us. They build the way we think—our sense-making strategies—and the way we formulate problems and questions, the way we go about seeking solutions, the way we do our work, the way we shape our pedagogy, the way we interact as colleagues and professionals. It's nice to think that our higher education industry, which has linked its fortunes to digital modes of content delivery and the management of learning outcomes, grants us agency in the building of cohort. But as I read the very smart posts that have been contributed by others to this topic, certain words tend to recur: chaotic, messy, unpredictable, complex, newness. In fact, it seems that we have yet to understand the ways that digitization may (or may not) enable us to build online cohorts and scholarly communities, and the reason may not be that we haven't talked about the problem enough in forums such as this one, or we haven't lived it long enough to feel confident in our abilities to grab the reigns of social media platforms and software designed to make us feel that we're driving the bus, making choices, and exercising autonomy in building our intellectual networks. Another possibility is that scholars and the communities that produce them are currently being remade by the economic stresses, technological solutions, and social stratification that are remaking the 21st century university and the academic administrative managerial class—the cultural laborers who will publish the great essays and books about digital cohort, and hand over all rights to digital libraries that will then sell our work back to the members of our cohort for a fee.
For literary scholars of my generation, the process of academic professionalization began in graduate school where we found one another as a result of chance, love, and politics. For the online students of today and of the future it will happen pretty much the same way, I bet. Very little, it seems to me, happens by design. And the design part is probably the least interesting of all for me. So maybe we should not ask ourselves how to build digital cohorts and academic communities. Maybe we should ask ourselves how best to intervene in the industrial processes that are slowly but surely rebuilding us.
Thanks for this reminder that this is not only an introspective question and for encouraging us to look outwards. Because MOOCs have been in the news, your question reminds me of the external forces working on scholars today, even in creating community in the classroom. Today, Inside Higher Ed has a piece on a failed MOOC class on, of all things, fundamentals of online education. The attempt to run 41,000 students through a course using googledrive as discussion boards is comical, but is certainly not the end of the debate that could lead to cut faculty and community along with cost.
As a graduate student, I am often overwhelmed thinking of the external factors that go into the communities I'm 'allowed' to build and how to continue to work and push back in that environment. The problem seems so big. I know, however, that this kind of work will be ever more important as time goes on.
Mostly Agreeing...With Some Reservation
Dr. Heller makes several good points here: one cannot force cohesion in a community, nor is there one strategy or set of practices that when replicated, will create community every time. Much of this conversation has pointed to haphazard, unexpected, unofficial moments that have led to a sense of community among various groups. Nonetheless, we can certainly strive to offer some infrastructure for encouraging engagement. After that, personalities, work ethic, motivations, and so forth determine the group dynamic.
What I find interesting is something that popped up in a prior thread and something Dr. Heller's initial frustration with the question made me return to: how does the desire to create a digital community affect participants outside of the digital space? Dr. Heller references her graduate experience: how is this changing for those who looked to replicate the traditional, face-to-face experience? That may sound negative, but the drive to create an egalitarian digital space may in fact adversely affect the on-campus experience. I've very much enjoyed my experience in a HYBRID classroom, with a group of folks dedicated to sitting in the same room as well as bringing in folks from elsewhere; I feel these are rapidly disappearing though. The question that sparked this debate points to that trend, as we are discussing "digital cohorts."
As students at all locations strive to support one another through these multitude of strategies, and students in the classroom become unofficial tech support, what starts to disappear is the actual classroom. Indeed, many professors offer the temptation of allowing all students to be at a distance, including the local students. Certainly it is a student's choice, yet such offers erode the local community. A recent course began with only two students truly at a distance, yet after a few weeks, only two students are electing to come to the classroom. The slide into digital feels inevitable, a losing battle for any who opted for a different experience.
Some celebrate that loss, but others mourn it, for exactly the reason Dr. Heller gestured towards: there is a lot of chance involved in socializing. I'm certainly not saying that cannot occur digitally; we've witnessed and wrote about such possibilities. However, being in person allows for more such opportunities (many of my distance colleagues have often lamented the lack of "hallway chatter" in their graduate experience). But when classes go digital, and more professors tempt students by saying, "Well, it's ok. You don't have to drive in" these opportunities decrease. From my personal experience, I've felt that a class that was fully distance lacked some sort of central cohesion; hybrid classes with folks in the room seemed to breed stronger ties throughout the community. So I'm wondering, what do others think?
Autonomy within the digital community
After a morning of mulling over your response, Dr. Heller, your final statement's implication of the academic industry is most resonant and (refreshingly) disturbing. Not only is it necessary to recognize the rhetoric of the academy but it is damnable to be satiated by the university's offerings and not venture forth to create communities beyond what Blackboard and other platforms provide us. What (very) little I've experienced does not seem to be a viable solution but instead a digital "thinning" of the student body that was once a considerable political force.
Hope might be found in that this rhetoric of disunification is being recognized and students of all levels are demonstrating a willingness to eschew the WebEx and Adobe Connect and construct their own platforms and modes. Furthermore, within these alternate modes, there is a greater allowance and appreciation for happenstance and glorious accident.
The digital community
I feel like one of the aspects regarding digital communities that is important to keep in mind is that much (if not most) of the community building can occur asynchronously. Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and Blackboard discussion boards act as mediums for the scholarly community in which distance students may paticipate (or not). I believe this can be both a strength and weakness as digital cohorts become more pervasive over the next decade.
These asynchronous communities offer a very easy "at-will" community for graduate students. They will be one more social networking site that the graduates will have to maintain, moderate, and establish identity. In cases of hybrid cohorts like ODU, there will be more opportunities for face-to-face interactions with local students through classroom platforms, but even that will be in a structured, "professional" setting. As Megan says, "hallway chatter" is difficult between distance students (although the occasional Google hangout can remedy that to a degree).
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