Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Trust, Building, and a “Personal Learning Network”

PLN? What’s that?

“Personal learning network,” you say.

Well, OK, but it feels a bit like saying that my legs are my personal locomotion appendages. They ARE that, of course, but the locution is off-putting and I’m not sure what’s gained by it.

But then I’m likely in a somewhat different situation from most of the people hanging out in this Connected Courses floating seminar. Though I once had a university post, that was long ago, before the web, though not before the Internet. I’m an independent scholar, not completely by choice, but the independence means more than that I’m not on a faculty somewhere. I also means that I’m free to go boldly where none have gone before and THAT, as much as anything, is probably why I’m not on a faculty somewhere.

In any event, the emergence of the web afforded me an intellectual life I thought I’d never have. Mind you, it’s still far from ideal, but I can meet people and get the word out and do so more effectively than I could from within the academy.

I’ve already written two longish posts about my online publishing activities, so I’ll try not to repeat much of that here. Publishing is a way of participating in an intellectual community or communities and the online environment has made that easier, more varied, and more fluid.

My first venture onto the web happened in the 1990s when I hooked up with Bill Berry to work on an online community initially called Meanderings, after an occasional newsletter Bill wrote, and then called Gravity. We decided “new savanna” would make a good domain name, as humankind got started on the savannas of Africa and now cyberspace represented a new savanna. Bill has retained the name, the remains of our work still exist there, and I’ve used the name as the name of my blog, New Savanna (which is where we are now). That’s the center of my online world and has been for the last several years. That name thus represents real continuity in my online activities, a philosophical and personal continuity.

Gravity was conceived as a hangout for people interested in African-American culture. We published monthly articles by members of the community, did collaborative coverage of the O. J. Simpson trial with Vibe Magazine, and had an interactive discussion area that Bill coded up. The venture lasted two years before Bill had to go back to work. I see him around on Facebook (FB) and have kept in touch with other members of that community in various venues.

I don’t recall the exact chronology and it doesn’t matter at the moment, but sometime after Meanderings/Gravity got started Salon Magazine went live and set up their discussion forum, Table Talk. I spent a lot of time in Table Talk, concentrating on a few discussion areas. There was a thread called Mysteries of Black Folk (aka Mo’Beef) where I spent time. Met some of those people F2F and remain in touch with some, again through FB. I also spent time in discussions of music and of film, and some other things here and there, such as the folks who discussed Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and set up The Phoenix Board when Table Talk went pay to play.

Sometime before the turn of the millennium, or at any rate, before 9/11, one of the ex Gravitarians, Michael Cobb Bowen, introduced me to Howard Rheingold’s Brainstorms, and I became an active member of that community. I’ve spent a good deal of time there, though more time in the first few years of the millennium than now. These days my major contribution to Brainstorms is to post photographs regularly, though I’ll occasionally make an entry in a personal diary there and I’ll comment here and there on other matters.

I met Howard there, and then met him F2F several years ago when he came to New York City (I live in Jersey City, just across the river). I have occasional communication with Howard outside Brainstorms as well.

None of this is particularly academic. The point is simply that I’ve meet people online whom I’ve kept in touch with over the years. We’ve done online projects together, and we’ve met F2F on occasion.

And I haven’t even gotten to the blogosphere yet. That’s when things really blossomed. I’ve already told that story in Academic Publishing, A Personal History, Part 2: To the Blogosphere and Beyond. Suffice it to say that I’ve done A LOT of long-form blogging over the last half-dozen years and participated in lots of conversations through it. And, yes, I’ve met people and established relationships.

At the same time I’ve also reached out to various academics and thinkers whose work interests me and exchanged papers and comments with them. After I published Beethoven’s Anvil, my music book, back in 2001, I entered into correspondence with the late Mary Douglas, who’d blurbed the book for me. She got me interested in ring-composition, to which I’ve devoted considerable effort. I was also emailing Charlie Keil, who’d been an intellectual hero since my undergraduate years. I struck up a correspondence with Michael Barrier, an independent scholar who’s perhaps North America’s premier historian of “Golden Era” cartoons and animation. And so on.

Over the past four of five months I’ve concentrated on the so-called digital humanities, doing extensive blogging in the area, having email chats, and I’ve finally started cultivating my Twitter account. I’d set one up several years ago, but never did much with it. But it’s a good way to keep in touch with these digital humanities folks.

The interesting thing, though, is that over the past two or three years the online world has become increasingly important to me as a way of keeping in touch with my local community. Several venues are involved, including, of course, Facebook. I find out about local events, but also share photos I’ve taken in the area.

So, yes, I’ve got this personal learning network thing going in spades. It’s inextricably woven through and through my online life. And, given that I am a thinker and writer, my online life is a major part of my life.

It is, after all, the 21st Century.

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