Taking Control of Digital Identity

My college freshmen, all 84, are deep into a study of digital cultures and digital literacies as we head toward Week 4 of our semester. I designed this first-year comp class so we could weave the practices of academic writing — research, citation, revision, editing, etc. — while also working toward, in a nutshell, simply being more awesome at using the web. I am deeply committed to cultivating the democratic potential of an open web, still believing in the possibility that our most marginalized students can be heard and their ideas amplified in ways that traditional distribution platforms make challenging, if not impossible, to access. My hopes for my students are the same hopes I have for my colleagues and friends: more opportunities to use digital tools to create rather than consume, more opportunities to share knowledge in order to be seen and heard, and importantly, more information and control over our digital selves.

We started our course with a look at the self, the selfie, and the quantified self, considering what we track and why, and perhaps more importantly, thinking carefully about how the information we collect about our quantified self enhances and troubles our lives. This past week, we shifted from what we track and how we curate (and how we don’t intentionally curate) our identities to who tracks us and how our identities are constructed by others. I invited our class to look closely at Google, Facebook, Snapchat, Blackboard Learn, TurnItIn, and many other platforms they frequent or are asked to use, and to think critically about the collection and control of their data. Borrowing from Morris and Stommel’s work, we are asking: Who collects data? Who owns it? What do they do with it? Who profits or benefits? What is left out of the results: what is hidden?

In just our first handful of assignments, students are taking up the messiness of digital culture and literacies with serious inquiries. The students’ insights — insights, in this example, into what it means to be tracked — are powerful. One student’s poem:

Do you know what it’s like to be monitored
Because of the color of your skin
To be monitored because
You don’t have the latest fashion
Or what about to be monitored
Because there’s too many of your kind in one setting
Don’t nod yo head like you understand my people’s struggle
because you don’t
You will never never be able to relate or fully comprehend the concept of

Almarie’s poem was in response to our first “make” assignment, which asked them to think about tracking and representations of self. Every two weeks, students are invited to create artifacts that represent the ideas we’ve been working through as a class. While there are many opportunities in our class to try out more traditional forms of summary, citation, and research methods, with the make assignment, students have full control over the product, the process, the materials, and the distribution of their ideas (a construct that I borrow from Jody Shipka; see “A Multimodal Task-Based Framework for Composing”).

Mason jar. Photo by Ariana Figueroa

 In our first Make Cycle, students created Piktocharts, films, mason jar art projects, original slam poetry, raps, and other forms of art. In describing her process, Almarie shared, “Honestly, the process of making the poem itself was not difficult, but there were so many ideas on how I wanted to address ‘tracking’ but [then] it hit me: Being black in America comes with monitoring itself. I thought about how they tracked MLK and others to kill the dream of hope; therefore, I decided to shine light on the topic. My hope when people read this is that they get a sense and understanding of how being black in America takes a toll on us. Thank You.”

Almarie created an opening in our class for further, deep conversations about race, class, gender, and the ways in which the intersectionality of these identities is experienced through our lives. As students read and annotated Audrey Watters’ “The Weaponization of Education Data” this week, they could easily connect to her rallying cry: to notice the ways in which their data can be used against them, often in the name of support for students. As my own university moves toward dashboards and alerts inside the LMS, a kind of early warning and detection system, I struggle to explain to well-meaning administrators how these systems have built-in ideologies that can hurt a student most in need. Quite frankly, I don’t need a system to tell me when a student is struggling in my class. That’s my job. It is also my job to reach out to a student, to notice when they’re struggling, and to ask if there is something about my structure or assignment design that is getting in the way. This invitation to tell me what is hard about my class most often leads to a conversation and a successful attempt at the assignment. Our responsibility as educators is to notice our students, and the LMS mostly obscures them. We also have a responsibility to increase student understanding of the way in which their educational data is used as both a gatekeeper and a gateway, and when to advocate for the latter.

I look forward to seeing what our class creates this semester. Soon, students will choose their own adventures, selecting an area of interest in digital culture that they want to pursue. They will compose and share the products of their inquiries with our class, and if they wish, with the public. I hope they can share their creations in an open web that nurtures a culture of kindness. And more importantly, I hope our students will ask more questions about who controls their digital lives.

Banner image by Kim Jaxon