(On tech & teaching) Early adopting faculty, late adopting institutions

This coming Winter I will be teaching my first fully online course. To prepare, I decided to attend some of the Moodle workshops during Fall in-service at my university. While my initial purpose was narrowly drawn to learning how to get my course up and running, this orientation also introduced me to a parallel digital institution which I had only vaguely been aware of before.

Ironically, I think my lack of awareness is not due to a lack of interest in or resistance to online communication and social media, but because, relatively at least, I have been an early user of such tools for my classes. I have, for over a decade now, been trying out, and putting into practice, a variety of resources on the public web, from my server space at the university to blogging services and sites like Pinterest, in support of my courses. I haven’t needed prompting or significant investments in support and infrastructure from my university to engage with students digitally.

After the introductory workshop I attended I immediately began thinking about whether I should be making use of my university’s official digital spaces. I did, immediately, fill out my online profile pages, which, too, I did not know about. For whatever reason and to whatever effect, administrators at Western have encouraged faculty to go online, and have slowly built an architecture that makes it relatively easy to do so, but use of these resources has largely been left to individual faculty, or faculties, to decide. Not surprisingly, this has clearly resulted in an unevenness to what, notably, students will find from professors when directed to sanctioned spaces online.

Beyond populating my profile pages with information, I have, for the moment, decided that, I will use the formal online infrastructure primarily to direct students to my more public presences, and not in place of those resources.

I would be lying if I claimed that inertia and my sunk investment in my existing workflow had no role in this decision, but I have more substantive reasons for this choice as well.

As I’ve already implied, “WOU Online” and the university “Portal” system are both variations on walled gardens, with the former being more open than the latter, but still fundamentally designed to be accessed by those with WOU ids. There’s a philosophical aspect to this, I prefer not to treat my teaching materials as proprietary, even in a de facto way, but also a practical dimension.

One of the tools in Moodle I’ve thought most seriously about trying to use right away is its functionality for assignments and grades, which can allow for an essentially seamless process of submission, assessment and feedback, and posting of grades. After giving this some thought, I decided that my current system for electronic submission, which involves students sending me their work via e-mail attachment and me uploading assignments into Google Drive, had at least the advantage of not requiring students to login to Moodle before submitting their work.

This would not be an issue if my course resources were all being collected and distributed via WOU Online, but they are not, and that’s where the walled garden concern matters. I don’t want my syllabi and other materials behind a wall and I can’t see sending my students behind the wall to perform certain operations when everything else we do is located somewhere else on the public web. Some of my students have a hard enough time tracking the online syllabus and the class blog. I can’t see asking them to also go to this other, largely disconnected, space, too. More broadly, it is now easy for students who are inclined to do so to find me and my courses online, and equally so for those already at Western and those thinking of attending, not to mention having my materials accessible by others more generally. It is a small matter, but right now my course resources also serve a public service function that would be largely lost by moving my materials into the more “secure” spaces at my university.

I don’t want to give up the resources I’ve cultivated on my own, not only because of their open and public natures, but also because I have more control over the look and feel, content, and structure of what I currently use online than I would if I were to shift to places like WOU Online for communicating and interacting with students. This is most true for my faculty website, which I built from the ground up with the help of Anne-Marie, but even services like Pinterest and Vimeo are more “design rich” than are the institutional alternatives.

I know that Moodle is more flexible than the basic set up available in WOU Online and that if I wanted to I could dig deep into how to customize, but I also think that, ultimately, I would still have to work in an institutional frame and that there are inherent limitations to using a set of tools envisioned specifically for “course management” and not more broadly for communicative purposes.

A very small minority of students the past few years have assumed my courses would be “in Moodle” and some have been critical of my not being there. Now I have course shells set up to reach those students, as well as an active profile in WOU Online. It may be that at some point I will be compelled by student expectation to move more of my course resources into Moodle – the leader of the orientation I attended told another attendee that he thought that students would soon expect to be able to track their grades online via Moodle – but until I know more about what I might be able to do in these kinds of institutionally managed spaces, and am persuaded by their advantages, I am inclined to keep communicating via the public web. I can see where Portal and WOU Online would appeal to faculty who have been reluctant to move their course resources online, at base, all you have to do is fill out forms to use these tools, but for someone like me, these UIs compel compromises that I’m not prepared to make until I can see clearer advantages to doing so, both for myself and my students.

Notes towards season two of THE BRIDGE

I’ve enjoyed the first season of The Bridge on FX, but as others have also argued, notably Alyssa Rosenberg at Think Progress, the show’s creators, Elwood Reed, Björn Stein, and Meredith Steihm, and their collaborators, have split their narrative between a conventional serial killer story and a sprawling, multi-layered exploration of a place, or, maybe, places, depending on how you want to look at the border and at El Paso-Juarez. I think the series has been at its best when pursuing the latter, and at its least interesting when following the former. During the middle part of the season, from about episode three, “Rio”, through episode eight or nine, “Vendetta” and “The Beetle”, I looked forward to watching The Bridge as much as I have any show this year. Since revealing the identity of the killer, however, the series has moved strongly in the more generic direction, with this week’s installment, “Old Friends”, being especially undistinguished in terms of plot and story, albeit still strongly acted.

(Spoilers to follow)

Rosenberg articulates the tension between the show’s narrative forks well in this passage from her review and recap of “Vendetta”, referring to the revelation of the real suspect as a fairly stock white guy ex-cop:

 I think The Bridge might have been able to earn this revelation if it had spent a season or two on a more prosaic but infinitely more interesting project, sketching in the details of the societies and economies of both Juarez and El Paso. When the show gives us hints of that, as was the case in tonight’s glimpses of Graciela singing and drinking with a group of musicians on a streetcorner, or its quick sketch of Santi Jr. and his role in Juarez, it’s always the most interesting part of an episode of The Bridge. A show that was more willing to be slow, like The Wire, might have set an entire episode at the party Daniel sent Adriana to attend, an interesting freebie of a story that she’ll now turn into a blockbuster, and would have handled the characters such that it made sense that their presence their and all of their interactions during the evening felt like one of those magic paintings when it finally becomes clear. But The Bridge is so unfortunately tied to its central murder mystery that it can’t afford to linger too much.

As the series has made clear, this region has no shortage of crime, from smuggling people to gun running, drugs, and murder of the non-serial variety (though, as shown in “Maria of the Desert” what constitutes a serial killer is a matter of perspective), which could make for interesting opportunities to show border crossing, cooperation and friction, but without relying on the kind of sensationalism or master-minding (to crib from Alyssa Rosenberg again) that has driven this season’s primary investigation.

At this point it is tempting to compare The Bridge to The Killing, another series that began promising much in terms of story and place before taking different, less interesting turns instead, but I don’t think the comparison is apt (and, significantly, has become less common as the newer series has progressed).

While the backlash against The Killing is often pegged to the lack of closure in that show’s first season, for me the series had degraded long before that finale. It took only an episode or two beyond the premiere before it became evident that there was little consequence to setting the story in Seattle. I can’t think of a single notable character introduced in season one, or two, for that matter, whose reason for being wasn’t directly related to the murder investigation, and virtually all of those were presented as either suspects or accomplices at some point. Ultimately, The Killing showed little in the way of world building, no matter how many grey skies and how much rain and water appeared in the backgrounds and establishing shots. By the time season one was ready to conclude, an answer to the question, “Who killed Rosie Larsen?”, was about all the series had left (well, that plus Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman).

By contrast, The Bridge already includes critical elements that are, at most, only tangentially related to the serial killer and that suggest future plans that are more about context and less about plotting. This season will clearly only scratch the surfaces of characters like Charlotte, Steven Linder and Fausto Galvan. Local press, on the El Paso side, have already been successfully incorporated into the story world, and through Adriana the series also has at least one well-realized character who effectively lives on both sides of the border.

While there is room for growth – we’ve been shown little about the command structure of law enforcement or how the agencies networked along the border might be entangled around more mundane issues and cases; similarly, government figures, live ones at least, have been, essentially, absent, and I think that the series would be enriched by having counterparts in Juarez for Daniel and Adriana – there is also a structure in place to accommodate such growth. So, contra The Killing, as The Bridge winds down its first season, the main mystery is its least interesting aspect, and the promise of a wider, richer narrative remains authentic, if still less than fully realized.

Of course, having a serial killer driving the narrative machinery is not, in itself, a problem, but thus far the producers and writers have been unable to ground David Tate’s actions with the same sense of place that infuses other story lines and characters. There are nods in that direction, notably in the way that the tragedy sparking Tate involves figures from both Juarez and El Paso and also the fluidity of the border, but, at the moment, these seem incidental rather than integral to the plot.

At the Television Critics Association, Meredith Steihm and Elwood Reid indicated that their plan for a second season does not entail another serial killer story. While that only goes to what the season won’t be about, the most obvious alternatives, threads that are already embedded into the narrative, point to criminal enterprises that should present greater possibilities for place-based storytelling than has season one’s serial killer.