How I poisoned a student and got away with it: The Story of @FauxTheMan

A lot of my teaching focuses on encouraging students to think about – and practice – how to use social media actively, strategically, and effectively. Over the years, I’ve experimented with different strategies to help enable this. In 2014, I introduced a character students themselves came to call ‘Anti-Adam’, whose cynical appearances on camera discouraged the ‘real me’ from having any hope that students would leave behind their passive ways and participate in online discussions, debates, and creative media-making.

Anti-Adam 2.png
Anti-Adam provides one last rant in the final meLecture of 2014.

The playfulness with my identity(s) was well received, though it’s impossible to say just how much of an impact this strategy had on tempting students to move out of their comfort zones. Anti-Adam essentially took on an infrequent ‘cameo role’ and there wasn’t really any way that his two-dimensional persona could be interacted with. I also needed to carefully balance how much ‘negativity’ I included so as to not disillusion people further and produce the opposite effect than what was intended. When refreshing my learning materials this year, I was even more intent on enticing – provoking – greater and better online participation, so I tried something else…

FauxTheMan
Twitter profile of @FauxTheMan

FauxTheMan was born on 13 March 2016, when I summarily  took over my partner’s unused Twitter account (because I didn’t want to have to get another bloody email address) and created a sixth profile for myself, transforming a then blank persona into an only slightly less blank persona. Faux sported no profile picture (at least for a few months), had included a somewhat vague bio that left everything to the imagination, and followed Hulk Hogan – and only Hulk Hogan bro! His role in the first several weeks was to contribute sporadic tweets to the unit hashtag that left much to be desired from a teacher’s perspective – and no doubt in the eyes of his peers as well. On a few occasions, Faux crossed the line from being uninterested and disengaged to being rude and offensive to me (that is, the teacher me). To get a better sense of what transpired, the following 5 minute clip (3:20-7:58) from the below video offers a summary of Faux’s early days, when the content of the unit focused on the issue of online identity:

Before creating Faux, I had been tossing the idea of a fake student account around in my head for a while, but the actual process was as much spontaneous as it was planned. As with so many other things when being creative with digital media, Faux organically grew in response to the reactions of students. I had assumed that once he had helped communicate the message of what not to do on Twitter, Faux’s ‘presence’ in the unit would dissipate as the trimester moved forward. But this was not to be the case, as Faux took on more functions over time – even if he just helped me promote learning resources in a slightly different way…

Faux ended up providing me with an ideal outlet to provoke more student activity – both by showing what was possible, but also by showing how things could be done better (by doing them badly). Nonetheless, it felt like an almost natural development that Faux would himself improve and actually replicate the desired learning process in doing so. A growing stream of videos from Faux helped me supplement my more ‘official’ teaching videos with on-the-spot productions that exemplified the ease and accessibility afforded by contemporary digital media culture (i.e. my smartphone).

Faux’s confidence grew to the point where he even started demanding to be included in what I called ‘Digital Media Snapshots‘, weekly videos designed to guide students through the various topics and assessments. As engagement with Faux grew, he took on a kind of ‘underdog’ persona that set student against teacher, reinforcing a key message that genuine learning environments don’t require the teacher to be omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. Student agency is crucial, and while the entire Faux scenario was obviously fictional to all involved, making a clear-cut distinction between that and ‘reality’ would be simplistic. Given that some ‘real’ students took the time to parody Faux with selfies or video mashups, it doesn’t really matter where inspiration comes from – as long as it comes.

The antagonism between Faux-me and Teacher-me was exacerbated toward the end of the unit and eventually came to a head in the final Snapshot video, when my faux-sore throat led to the final symbolic gesture of the ‘students’ replacing – and being – the ‘teachers’…

Of course, I’m not advocating the essential erasure of the teacher’s presence here – that wouldn’t be a wise career move – but this and other teaching experiences have solidified in my mind the increasing need to reconceptualise the role of the teacher in a media-saturated 21st century. Teachers won’t disappear, but they do need to ‘come back’ in a different form (or different forms) to continue to engage students living in a time-poor and attention-poor society. What those forms are will depend on the subject area, student cohort, and broader context, but the main point is that those new forms are different.

As we approach the end of our story, it’s important to point out that Faux did realise the error of his ways and I finally got to poison a student.

But at the same time, Faux’s very last appearance in the unit below might well be a better note to end on. For me this convergence suggests the sentiment that a student needs a teacher might well need to be balanced with more emphasis on the teacher needing the student. My future teaching plans – which will no doubt develop as organically as before with the help of students and probably shouldn’t even be called ‘plans’ – will seek to put that age-old distinction of ‘student’ and ‘teacher’ to the test even more. In the meantime, I’m glad that Faux will be coming along for the ride. He’ll no doubt be around next time. He actually has to re-enrol anyway.

He’s too busy being a pain in the arse to do any assignments!

Epilogue: I hope that ending didn’t make it sound like I had discovered the blurred boundaries of student and teacher on behalf of those enrolled in the unit. Through their own critical thinking and creative practice, they were able to discover that all by themselves…

Trollmania Brother. Trollmania indeed.

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