“Students as Creators” and the Theology of the Attention Economy

I was struck this week by Benjamin Doxtdator’s latest post on showing students how to engage with social media in a way that subverts its purposes. On listening as an act of resistance. Of getting past glorifying connection as an end to that important question of purpose.  I wanted to jot down a few quick thoughts it brought to mind, all of them far less organized and insightful than Benjamin’s work. It also draws on work by Chris Gilliard and Amy Collier. I hope to offer it as just a piece of what I hope is an emerging critique of how connectivism and constructivism has been practiced and sold in past years, and how we might reorient and reposition it knowing what we know now.

The particular brick I want to hammer at today is our decade-long infatuation with “students as creators”.

I have become deeply skeptical over the past four or five years about the “students as creators” rhetoric. It’s not that I don’t believe that students shouldn’t create – my best and most rewarding projects have always been about students creating public work on the web that makes the lives of others better. I’ve also seen the immense joy and motivation that a maker lab can provide students. And my new push for info-environmentalism is centered in producing things that make the web a better place. I believe in making stuff, and still align myself with constructivism as a philosophy, most days of the week.

But the rhetoric around “students as creators” is unbelievably bad. It parrots all of capitalism’s worst theology: we want to make “makers, not takers”, we value “doers, not thinkers.” As I said a few years back, the idea that universities should value “producers” and push our students towards “production” is actually the least subversive idea you could possibly have at a university. The most subversive idea you could have at a university these days is that you might think a few connected thoughts without throwing them into either publication or the attention economy. That you might think about things for the purpose of being a better human, without an aim to produce anything at all.

Likewise, I sometimes think we’ve convinced ourselves that the attention economy, when implemented on top of open source, is liberating. And so we celebrate with the class when students get comments from outsiders, or have had their posts go viral. We talk about building identity, portfolios, public persona, getting noticed. We don’t realize that we begin to sound more and more like a LinkedIn marketing drone.

And I’ve come to think that, in today’s world, one of the most valuable lessons we can give to students is not “how to build their identity on the web,” but how to selectively obscure it. How to transcend it. How to personally track it. How to make a difference in the world while not being fully public. To teach students not just to avoid Google, but to use Google safely (or as safely as possible). To have them look at their information environments not as vehicles of just self-expression, but as ways to transcend their own prejudices. To read and listen much much more than we speak. And to see what is needed through the lens of privilege – teaching the beauty of deference to the students with self-confidence and social capital, while teaching marginalized students to find communities that can provide them with the self-confidence they need.

And in different contexts, of course, the same student may need both types of instruction.

This post is a bit stream of consciousness, and so I want to pose a question here. Which experience do you think is more educational:

  • A student runs a blog on open source software that expresses their opinions on selected chapters of Ready Player One – and gets a comment by author Ernest Cline!!!
  • A heterosexual cis student resolves (individually) to follow 20 trans leaders on Twitter and retweet two things they say a week (with the student possibly using a pseudonymous account not tied to their identity). Other students examine their own bubbles and do similar things.

Story number one is the sort of story I used to tell ten years ago at conferences (albeit about different books). But that was before the attention economy swallowed democracy and everything else. Today I’m far more interested in story two, a story that is about not producing, and staying relatively invisible.

Attention (and knowledge of how to get that attention) is still important, of course. But attention for what? For what purpose? I’ve moved from the question of “How do we express ourselves on the internet?” to “How do we be better people on the internet?”  Or maybe most importantly, “How do we use the internet to become better people?” Sometimes that involves creating, of course. But if we wish to do more than reinforce the rhetoric of the attention economy, we have to stop seeing that as some sort of peak activity. These skills aren’t a pyramid you climb, and creation is not a destination. Graduating a few more students who understand that will likely make the world a better place for everyone.


15 thoughts on ““Students as Creators” and the Theology of the Attention Economy

  1. I love this post, and I love the idea that we need to teach students how to obscure their identities, battle for control of their attention, to hack the user experience away from what the dominant culture demands.

    All this reminds me strongly of Alan Jacobs’ theses on attention and technology and the internet: http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/attending-to-technology-theses-for-disputation

    In my own attempts to recapture my own attention, I’ve found the work lonely and confusing. Nobody writes, practically, about how to do battle with the internet. I feel as if I’m scrapping together tools and trying to figure out a way to engage and learn in healthy ways. It’s not easy, though, and people get offended when you talk about it. (Some hear this as an implicit criticism of their online engagement, which I guess it might be.)

    So: I’d be very interested if you started writing up cases along the lines of this post, much as last year’s posts about going upstream and searching for truth in news.

  2. Love this post, Mike. Also thinking about the differences between “creation” and “production,” which seem usefully distinct as terms but maybe not in a way that I have fully explored yet. I am also thinking I have used “creation” as a way of explaining a kind of resistance to “consumerism” (not just consuming, but “consumerism” as inflected by EdTech sales and banking models of education), and how “creation” in that sense has been a helpful word for my pedagogy. But I am inundated with maker language and corporate lingo at my university, and really want to become more critical about how I am using all of these words. Thanks again.

    • This is a great distinction, and it’s interesting the ways in which the web sort of blurs that distinction.

      As an example, before work overwhelmed me I was working on a chintzy time-travel murder mystery, mostly because I wanted to get better at writing, and partly to retrieve an earlier version of myself which was very into creative writing. And of course it helped to imagine an audience and a goal. But the success of that effort of mine has nothing to do with publication or a TV series pickup, because those things are very rare. So I’m aware that the point of that is the ways it makes me a better person, just like the thing I loved about writing songs was the way I’d just go through the days hearing melodies and hooks in everyday conversations, and that was the biggest reward of writing music, what it made you rather than what you made.

      The web can be a bit confusing though, because publication is so easy and the rewards seem so obviously attention. I think without explicit guidance it really just has this incredible power to corrupt that. It’s like a world where everybody is on their second novel or sophomore album and undergoing reputational pressures — but of course without the monetary compensation those pressures usually come with.

    • (Also — additional thought: I do want to be clear it’s not so much “students as creators” as the way that rhetoric can drift into unexamined places. But I really do like the creators/producers distinction)

      • That’s an important clarification, Mike.

        I agree w/ actualham here on creativity. That’s one reason some of us have been working on digital storytelling for more than a decade.

        More to say later –

  3. As tweeted (please favorite it for my stats) (don’t) what you describe as hammering out solidifies so eloquently what has swirled in my gray matter about the way people advocate use of social media, blogging as “getting seen” or focused on audience.

    It’s really about knowing / operating from your motivations, and to me, if building audience, getting followers, building your reputation is primary, you are doing it wrong. Your goal in doing anything, producing, creating, sharing is in, as you say, making yourself and maybe others better people, and perhaps, increasing your capacity to have this capacity (waxing Engelbertian).

    Yet as humans we have this deep need to be acknowledged, to be affirmed, to be accepted, it’s small e ego needs and they are real. But the attention, the numbers of readers, the things that happen, IMHO should always be seen as a secondary benefit, a by-product.

    I cannot deny when I get retweets or comments it feels good (and when it doesn’t I wonder) but it’s an ongoing effort to keep the attention stuff as a bonus, not a reason to be doing any of this.

    Please applaud this on medium with as many claps as you can click (sigh)

  4. Ok still ruminating on this post. One question, what is the significance of a student editing Wikipedia? Is this creator or producer? “Getting seen” or contributing to knowledge?

  5. I appreciate the stream of conscious writing, because without it many interesting thoughts might be lost. I’m curious what your thoughts are with regard to web/digital/info literacy work done in the last few years such as Mozilla’s Web Literacy initiative (https://learning.mozilla.org/en-US/web-literacy/participate/protect/) and Doug Belshaw’s earlier digital literacies work. Was any of that pointed in this direction? I see mindful participation, such as the nuances of your #2 example, as part of a larger set of technology-enabled skills that would benefit many students in higher education. Frameworks aren’t the be-all-end-all but they do lend structure to a domain that can be sparse.

  6. This is all helpful thinking. I teach young students growing up in this “attention economy” and often, I frame my work as an ELA/Tech teacher as helping my young writers move from “consumer” (of something someone else has made) to “creator” (of original content.) The lexicon of Makers has certainly felt a little strange at times, and I say that as part of the Connected Learning MOOC community that had some Maker ethos at the very start. I appreciate your post for getting me pondering some things.

  7. A subtle and powerful post, Mike. Your point about listening is so important (and again I’ll point to the digital storytelling movement). I’m glad you risk and identify writing stream of consciousness style.

    A few thoughts.
    “we celebrate with the class when students get comments from outsiders, or have had their posts go viral.” True. Note the role played here in declining enrollment and increasing inter-institutional competition.

    “we value “doers, not thinkers.”” With one exception, this hasn’t been my experience with the students as producers model. I usually hear it as doing in addition to thinking, or fully integrated. The digital literacy work I and others did over the past two years w/NMC showed pretty clearly that production – when it occurred (see below) – was bound up with information and media literacy, both of which are devoted to critical analysis, obviously. This is also why some of us are fond of Toffler’s “prosumer” neologism.
    The exception is the divide between “making” and “studies” which I’ve seen at some institutions, especially liberal arts one. It’s an old idea, dating back to the rise of film studies, and holds that the two approaches should be held apart in curriculum and/or who teaches it and/or degree paths. There’s often a strong class element in this.

    About the rhetoric: I haven’t seen it matched in reality. Usually I find a campus with a few people advocating for students as makers, perhaps alongside a maker space. It’s not that widespread. Our 2016 NMC survey found this to be generally true as well. There are all kinds of reasons for this.

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