Networking for Nerds

Help me dream up an assignment that asks students to uncover the working communication channels scholars and other professionals use.

January 21, 2016

So, I’m getting a course ready for spring. It’s one I’ve taught for several years about how information works for juniors and seniors who are thinking about grad school or working on a senior capstone project and are nerdy enough to want to take a course like this. The thing I get stuck on every year is trying to create a situation that puts students in touch with a network of scholars working on the things they are interested in. Sometimes they get a glimpse of these communities in the course of their research – they start to refer to important contributors as if they’re on a first name basis, they know what schools of thought major scholars belong to, they have a crude map of where disputed territory lies – but I want them to get a sense of how these conversations unfold in real time and where they happen and what they’re like before they become fossilized in journal articles or book chapters. I want them to learn how to find a way into these communities, if only voyeuristically for now. I’ve tried things like asking them to find and follow an academic blog or to give academic Twitter a whirl, but it hasn’t really clicked. They haven’t seen a connection between those informal communications and scholarship.

Bumbling around, I came across the idea of a Personal Learning Network or PLN, which seems to be big with teachers. There are countless websites explaining how to create your own PLN, mostly using social networks and online tools. A related concept is the Personal Learning Environment or PLE, which seems to have been born at about the same time we started talking about Web 2.0. A simple understanding of this concept is the capacity to set up a web-based presence that gathers information tailored to your interests. It was trendy enough to warrant the Educause “7 Things” treatment back in 2009, but that introduction recommended using tools like iGoogle, which folded in 2013, and my Yahoo, which apparently still exists but . . . well, it’s Yahoo. I wouldn’t count on it.

From my shallow exploration thus far, these it seems these personal networks don’t involve libraries at all, or even people unless they’re online. What I want is something a little more diffuse. Who are the people most actively exploring the area you’re interested in? Where do they talk to each other? Is there a society or organization that they belong to? Do they present at conferences? Hang out online in more informal conversations through blogs or Twitter? Who funds their research? What are the burning questions in the field right now? Where are the fault lines?

One of the assignments I’ve used in the past and will probably continue involves interviewing a researcher, and often students come away from that with some sense of how this all works (and how it works differently depending on discipline and personal preferences). They also write a literature review, which I try to model as a way of mapping out the different approaches to a given question and revealing patterns (not the “this is the story of how I found my sources” narrative they so often start with). Now if I can just add another piece of the puzzle, some kind of prompt that asks them to identify key people, organizations, and communication channels . . .

This won’t be easy for them, because they aren’t experts – nor am I, not in their subject areas. But I think I’m going to try because it seems like an important part of the way we get and share information that isn’t revealed by throwing words at a search engine or database.

Has anyone created an assignment like this? Do you have ideas to share? How do you keep up and keep in touch with your disciplinary community?


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