Thursday, July 6, 2017

Space Oddity: Creating Identities in Physical Structures and Digital Realms

Last month, I officially made the move to work from home. I travel a decent amount with work, but the majority of the time, most of what I do is done in front of computer, with a pair of headphones and a mic on, multiple screens open – one usually to a live feed of a meeting, and my iPad propped up with 10 or 15 books open on various tabs. So when there was some shuffling of campuses, and because I had been working remotely for a few months, it was an easy transition to have me work from home. We locked in the VPN, got a soft line for my phone needs, and I was up and running in time for the 11:00 AM meeting. Barring a few Skype for Business calls dropping, it’s been smooth. I sometimes wonder if people can hear my pugs snoring when I’m on a call, but I just pretend that adds to the charm.

There’s only one thing that hasn’t been as smooth, and it, luckily, has nothing to do with work. It’s the room. I can’t seem to get the space the way I want it. My desk faces a huge window that catches the most beautiful morning light, but the other things in the room just aren’t working together. Something is off, and I can’t figure out how to fix it yet. Although it doesn’t impact my work, when I walk away, I’m constantly thinking about how to rearrange the bookshelf and the cabinet and everything else. I’m trying to create a space with a specific identity, but I don’t know exactly what kind of identity I need it to have yet.


About a week ago a friend of mine posted a ridiculous, terribly written article that was nothing short of an attack on higher education. The article had an obvious political bias and blamed universities for being too sensitive to students, faulting educators for, well, pretty much everything. Somewhere in the title, and throughout the piece, the author criticized the phrase “safe spaces,” saying that this need for safe spaces is “what’s wrong with this country.”  I can listen to almost any argument and empathize, but there was no evidence and no logical support. I don’t know why I read it, but it continues to bother me. Probably because I’d argue that creating safe spaces for students to explore and make mistakes is exactly what college is about. Students, in a lot of ways, form parts of their identities when they are in college, so having a safe space is a key aspect of that growth.

In fact, just today I was working with a faculty member who teaches a class on multicultural social work, and she stated several times that she wants the students to feel safe enough to know they can say the wrong thing. She’s creating this wonderful introductory exercise that asks students to reflect on how cultures perceive disabilities, and without that “safe space,” she knows we'd be doing a great disservice to those students.

Considering the physical space of my room and the created safe space for the students led me to think about our class and the way spaces and identities overlap in the physical world just as they do in the digital world. Over the past almost two weeks, we’ve all been exploring and creating digital spaces and each space, although unique, contains pieces of ourselves that transcend the various platforms. In the analytics class, one of the most powerful realizations came to me early on when we read about physical monitoring devices (like Fitbit) and how they are, essentially, our data doubles – these simulacrums of ourselves.* 

With that in mind, and considering this week’s discussion of PLNs and communities, I started thinking about how we all fit into digital spaces and how we craft identities that best conform to whatever role we hope to have. Even if we keep our actual identities anonymous, within just a few interactions, we can already see traits and characteristics forming with each tweet or blog. We don’t know each other, yet I could get pretty close to guessing who wrote which new blog based on voice, topic choice, tone… all the things that make up our identities.* And that is incredible to me.

In a way, all of these spaces are connected and revolve around this idea of creating identities. Whether we are trying to figure out why a bookcase seems out of place, why a friend posted an article, or why a student wouldn’t feel comfortable answering a question, there is something very personal and very deliberate about our spaces, and that doesn’t seem to change if they are for our eyes or the eyes of everyone in our network. 

Inspired by:

*Dennen, V. P. (2009). Constructing academic alter-egos: Identity issues in a blog-based community. Identity in the Information Society, 2 (1), 23-38. doi: 10.1007/s12394-009-0020-8 

*Ruckenstein, M. (2014). Visualized and interacted life: Personal analytics and engagements with data doubles. Societies, 4, 68-84. doi:10.3390/soc4010068

David Bowie’s "Space Oddity," which can be made loosely appropriate for most situations. 

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