In praise of lowly, unpurposeful and random activities

I begin with the belief that effective, playful, interesting communities that people want to participate in are derived from bottom-up practices and are based around negotiating the contingencies of everyday life rather than the application of some grand plan. To make lasting and important connections between individuals there has to be a sense of luck and decision, i.e. that “chance and love” stuff that Dana Heller wrote about in her post. Without these elements of discovery what we are left with are the impositions of others that quickly devolve into obligations. You may get a lot of "work done" on deadline — an obliged professional always does — but those connections will have little chance of sustaining themselves beyond their initial assignments. Such are the thankfully brief lives of "task forces" and "blue ribbon committees." When developing any community, whether it be through Mediacommons or another online space, this should be kept in mind. 

I say this thinking about the  community of scholars with whom I engage, very few of them whom I "chose." The same holds true for my research, where my initial intentions were much more influenced by classes I happened to take than the line of research I  wanted to engage. Remember that saying from graduate school about roaming the stacks? “It isn't the book you are looking for that will change your dissertation. Instead, it's the one next to the one that you are looking for that will change your dissertation.” The organization of the library — the arrangement of books by subject matter — is the kind of pedestrian planning of serendipity that elevates scholars and knowledge alike. The only people that notice if it isn't there may be the librarian, but they put those books back on the bookshelf with the purpose that one might converse with a larger, older community of ideas. 

Like Dana Heller, I, too, have fretted over this question of how to make an online scholarly community. That word, "community," bothers me. In the modern American context community is abused and is all too often used in conjunction with others to form phrases such as “community living", "home owner's communities", or "campus communities". When I see these terms my skin crawls precisely because they include the promise of a commons that may be pleasant but is often anything but diverse, let alone fun. The administrative declaration that we create community is a thinly veiled call to a common set of standards with which we can work on "together". Worse, this "together" tends to be the first step into the elimination of eccentricities and contesting visions. At the same time it simply makes for more work. When community becomes obligatory, then community becomes an obligation, i.e. another job I would rather not perform. It's this vision of community as some sort of planned "togetherness" that Jane Jacobs, the great critic of twentieth century urban planning, derided when she noted that, "'togetherness' is a fittingly nauseating name for an old ideal in planning theory. This ideal is that if anything is shared among people, much should be shared" (Jacobs 1961, p. 72). For Jacobs this kind of obligation to share drives cities apart because "where people do share much, they become exceedingly choosy as to who their neighbors are, or with whom they associate at all" (Jacobs 1961, p. 63). 

Jacobs' remedy for this kind of obligatory togetherness was to point out how modern cities that so many  "master planners" wished to “rationalize” worked because the very inefficiencies the planners hated were the  things that created community. Walking from space to space, not getting everywhere quickly and running into people you hadn’t plan to meet constituted the world of "lowly, unpurposeful and random contacts”, the everyday assemblies of congested urban cores emphasizing pedestrian culture, densely concentrated four and five-story buildings with mixed uses. For Jacobs, it was out of the efficiency of swift, simple and often forgettable associations that happened in places Greenwich Village or Boston Commons that "the small change from which a city's wealth and public life may grow" (Jacobs 1961, p. 72).  Planning community has much more to do with planning for moments of chance and kismet than planning how to "work together". When we walk across a campus and through our hallways we spend a lot of avoiding running into others, some of whom are the sources for happiness. Many times it is that person who you had forgotten about that provides you that joke, smile or passage you use to get through your day. 

The closest thing I have to a virtual sidewalk or hallway for my scholarship exists in my daily interactions with Facebook and Tumblr. Jokes, memes, rants, clips, exhibits of digital banality, may be a virtual sidewalk of insignificant displays, but they have made my academic life more playful, enjoyable and interesting than any conference or colloquia. They have also garnered me a few friends that I wouldn't have had while helping me sustain connections with others that I might have simply forgotten. Not that conferencing and twenty minute presentations accompanied by bad sandwiches, coffee and the occasional piece of fruit aren't important. They are. Yet every grad student knows these formal presentations and placements can never take the place of sloppy thinking and laughter generated at a pub table or a party when it comes forming community. The reason for this is the same reason that Jacobs valued cities. When you leave a focused presentation and go to out into the general public you encounter “interweaving of human patterns” with “people doing different things, with different reasons and different ends in view” (Jacobs 1961, p. 229). As scholars we should be encouraged to leave the egos we invest in our "work" behind and think about all of those other people and their intentions on our campuses, online and in other spaces in a search for connections, discovery and new bonds. To put it simply, when it comes to the community of an online space, a sidewalk or coffeehouse, it can never really be about you. In the case of community it must always be about the people around you. 

Works Cited

Jacobs, J. (1961). The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York, New York, Vintage Books.


Tim's insights about "obligatory communities" points toward the challenges that instructors face when attempting to define and encourage community in the classroom.  One pedagogical approach to encouraging digital community amongst students is through the use of blogs and requiring, or "strongly encouraging," students to read and respond to each other's posts.  Requiring students to interact with each other in this way, of course, raises concerns related to the authenticity of an instructor-initated community, especially when a grade creates incentive.  As such, I've been thinking (and writing) about defining community in terms of networked knowledge societies as opposed to community defined in terms of a sense of belonging and connection and the extent to which students might benefit from being obliged to participate in a knowledge-based community.  I  also think it's worth thinking about how Castells's (2011) notion of a "network theory of power" relates to instructor-initiated communities in which students are required to participate.  Castells addresses the power differentials inherent in digital and networked communities and contends that networks are constituted, in part, by the "programmer" and the "programmed" (p. 781).  Castells further notes, "How different actors program the network is a process specific to each network. ... Therefore, power relationships at the network level have to be identified and understood in terms specific to each network" (p. 776).  In light of this theory, we might see instructors as the programmers and the students as the programmed and question the implications of this hierarchical power structure underlying and informing the communities we attempt to construct through various digital mediums we use in our teaching.

Castells, M. (2011). A Network Theory of Power. International Journal Of Communication (19328036), 773-787.


I like this post as there is a lot here to deal with re instruction and community. As a media scholar I am always troubled by what we are possibly leaving behind when a new media presents new opportunities. The key issue for me has to do with the refined practices of audiences and producers are all too often jettisoned for shiny new ideas. For example, the local newspaper has been essential to the communication of less-than-sexy but important ideas such as infrastructure maintenance and development. Legislation is passed that says hearings about "Issue X" and the like must be published in these papers for good reason: historically these were the public forums of record. However, as this habit has slipped and been replaced by RSS feeds full of "What-I-am-interested-in" news rather than that mundane stuff that keeps my city clean, educated, healthy, etc., I wonder how these local communities are networking their knowledge. The same issues come up in other discussions. For example,  see neighborhoods that are disrupted by gentrification and local neighborhood elders are displaced, with the community losing their "institutional memories" as a resource. The material gains made in these neighborhoods are often outweighed by other losses such as families with children and a multiplicity of cheap rents, both of which can be seen as sources of innovation and experimentation that can lead cities into new futures. But I digress...

About teaching blogging: jeez that demands its own set of conversations. 

I am a big believer in serendipity, but I do wonder how to channel that in online spaces. Facebook, Twitter, and Tumbler conversations obviously do turn into scholarship and communities, but they are a lot different from a conversation in the halls at school. For instance, I posted a link to a slate article about how uneasy the job of a professor is on my Facebook wall. It was lambasted by a college friend upset at academia because he has had a hard time finding productive work in this economy. While parts of that conversation might have been productive, it was not the conversation I would have had discussing the article in the halls or at the pub. On the flip side, fun academic communities like When in Academia depend on a certain level of anonymity that wouldn't exist in person and a community leader. So, how do we balance serendipity and structure?

I agree, the value of having conversations about a topic you are interested that has nothing to do with your take is invaluable. When I was a grad student a very popular professor decided to leave our department despite the fact that he could have gotten just about all the money and resources he needed to do his research. His reason was the competing institution had colleagues he could have conversations with about his research and vice versa, which he noted was a rare and much more valuable thing than money or time to write and research. I didn't rally know how rare and valued that would be until I started to teach. Although I rarely talk about my research at ODU because so few people study popular music, I do have great conversations on media which is a real first and has smoothed out quite a few other bumps I have had here. It's great when people listen to me, even better when I listen to them because that's where the learning can happen. In almost all cases I think that's the key: listening and not really making it about you and your work. 

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