A New England Collegial Conference

By Kellie Deys, PhD and Jim Deys, PhD

Nichols College prides itself on its dedicated and engaged faculty—faculty whose focus is on teaching and the development of each student. Given that we love being in the classroom, we appreciate conferences centered on teaching pedagogy and praxis. These conferences offer opportunities for professional development as we share our experiences and perspectives and learn from colleagues.

The New England Faculty Development Consortium is an organization which sponsors two such conferences a year. As a “not-for-profit regional organization dedicated to enhancing the professional development of faculty and administrators committed to excellence in teaching and learning,” the NEFDC provides a collaborative and supportive environment. Incorporating workshop style sessions, NEFDC conferences emphasize practical application with tangible outcomes. We have been fortunate to attend and present at the NEFDC fall conferences for the past three years.

nefdcOn Friday, November 13, 2015, The New England Institute of Technology in East Greenwich, Rhode Island hosted the annual fall conference. This year’s theme was “Reclaiming Innovation: Promoting Student Ownership of Learning through Social Media.” As educators, we know that social media is ubiquitous. The looming question is: How do we incorporate social media into our classrooms effectively and purposefully to enhance learning?

The keynote address, delivered by Justin Reich, carefully considered how to “give students control over the means of their intellectual production.” Reich, the executive director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab, infused humor into his presentation, offering case studies in an accessible manner with clear analysis and takeaways. His talk set a strong tone for the conference—encouraging faculty to be creative and ambitious with social media, while also concentrating on the process of learning, not just on the content intended to be learned.

While there were many excellent sessions with creative applications of social media in the classroom, we found that our presentation was unique in asking both instructors and students to critically analyze the constructs of social media. Our presentation, entitled “(De)Constructing Identity Through Social Media” focused on questioning how and why we use social media. Our abstract neatly sums up our presentation:

Social media offers the potential for creative modes of learning that address the changing needs of students. Too often, though, students do not consciously reflect on the implications of social media. Asking students to analyze the conventions of social media, we aim to understand how/why we engage in this mode of communication and identity building. Ultimately, we hope students become better critical thinkers by analyzing how identity is constructed through different social media, and, as a result, engage more purposefully with social media and their own learning. We will share adaptable assignments aimed at deconstructing the functions of social media.

We could have easily discussed our pedagogy and the resulting exercises and assignments for the whole session. But, the goal of the conference is helping colleagues with practical application. So, we began by explaining our pedagogical orientation towards social media and our reasoning for analyzing the constructs of social media. Because social media is so naturalized in our culture, particularly for millennials, we contend that we must neither dismiss its importance nor simply adapt it into our classrooms to meet student expectations. Rather, we value developing a critical consciousness towards it.

We shared two primary assignments: the first is a paper assignment; the second is an in-class exercise. The paper assignment, which is more specific, asks students to analyze celebrity culture by choosing one form of social media and reflecting on how that social media creates and perpetuates the notion of celebrity.

The in-class exercise is broader in nature and developed for a rhetorical analysis unit. The exercise asks students to look at Instagram and Twitter (amongst other social media) to consider how identity is shaped, performed, and presented in these sites. We asked our attendees to engage in the exercise as do students in our classes, using computers in the classroom lab to analyze different social media sites.

Our group of attendees’ consensus was that such an analysis is valuable for faculty and students. Most participants expressed that they could incorporate our exercise into their classes. One participant noted that “there is so much to breakdown and analyze.” One of the groups barely progressed beyond the main page of their chosen site because they were examining in such great detail.

In presenting to other teachers, we strengthened our exercise and assignment. The attendees shared insights and suggestions, ideas for us and others, and brainstormed possibilities for variations on these exercises. As we have in the past, we left the NEFDC energized; presenting at such a collaborative conference challenges us in all the right ways. We look forward to next fall’s conference.

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