When Students Do Something

This blog was inspired by a tweet I saw several days ago, and a few more I’ve seen since…

Well, that’s how this blog was meant to begin. More than six months later, I’m at long last getting around to finishing it. The final catalyst for this post was an email I recently received from a former student that blew my mind (be sure to read ’til the end), but let’s start with the initial inspiration, the tweet below…

This invitation resulted in three Communication students – two undergraduate; one postgraduate – meeting up in a scenic reserve close to Deakin University’s Melbourne Burwood campus. A series of Twitter and Instagram posts that followed revealed that Marnee Kaspersson, Krystal Alexandra, and Tia Kwan used this opportunity to take some great photographs for their websites and social channels. In doing so, they continued to build their professional-personal brand and – just as importantly – fashioned a story of initiative, creativity, and teamwork they can reflect back on and relate to others for years to come. This was during Week 1 of Trimester 1, 2020.

The following week, the campus shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

All of this played out in the early weeks of March. Now it’s mid-October. As it turns out, the delay has been well worth it, and when you read the stories that follow I’m sure you’ll agree. I’ve changed my mind about the title of this blog a few times (I’ll come back to this later), but no matter what it’s called, the key message is going to be the same. And it’s the most important message I can ever convey to students moving through and beyond units I teach: Keep learning.

Mourning a Lost World

The story above might make a number of students – and teachers – lament the ‘lost opportunities’ of 2020. Many will imagine the peer friendships that never developed in campus corridors; others will ponder how many faceless Zoom participants became lost in the isolated wilderness of ‘Emergency Remote Teaching’. I don’t want to underplay the challenges that everyone has faced this year, but there is another side to all of this.

Social and digital media have long offered endless possibilities for people to connect with each other, build community, and foster learning. Admittedly, teachers play an important role in setting up environments where genuine and productive connections are made more possible, but encouraging student agency doesn’t push students anywhere outside their comfort zones unless students push themselves. I talked at length about these and related themes from a Digital Learning perspective in a recent podcast interview, but let’s stick with student stories here. They’re the more inspirational ones, after all (as the engagement with this tweet highlights)!

Being visible and active online is difficult for most people at the best of times, and 2020 has seldom been described as ‘the best of times’. And yet there have been so many sparks of imagination, resourcefulness, and courage on display this year, which have led me to collect the following examples (among many others) of students doing something to make themselves stand out. And they didn’t need a physical university campus to do so.

The first story makes this point perfectly given that it actually took place before the campus closures. In a unit called Gamified Media, I encourage all students to make and share a 20-30 second video to introduce themselves to their peers. Even though this directly informs formal assessment, the majority of students opt not to complete this task. Of those who do, most will make a quick speaking-to-camera video (which is more than adequate). And in one case, Brandi Jeffers made this:

This video was tweeted exactly half-way through the first seminar I was teaching on the Monday of Week 1. I was displaying the unit hashtag search results on the class projector when it fortuitously appeared. I still remember letting the video play through a few times as students watched, leaving them perhaps a little intimidated but I had the sense a great deal more inspired. The video made clear that participation in the networking and learning of the unit (and others like it) doesn’t hinge on access to the campus. Brandi lives in Adelaide and studies in a fully online mode, which will likely mean she will never meet any of her Communication peers or teachers in person throughout her degree. To me, this video screams ‘And that’s a problem how???’

Every now and then I see students looking to go beyond a unit hashtag and build communities of their own. The next story is an example of exactly that, when Olivia Blair posted this to the Twittersphere:

Olivia typically studies on the Burwood campus, but a key point here is that using social media wasn’t just beneficial because that physical setting wasn’t available; trying to locate people for the above venture among much more select seminar groups would be nigh-impossible (and likely very awkward)! The interest expressed by a number of people in replies to the above tweet was promising, and I’m sure the validation of finding peers with a common passion was one of the best motivation boosts Olivia received that day. I’ve also seen Olivia experimenting in brilliant ways over the past year with the affordances of TikTok – a platform most students are reluctant to try out despite its emerging influence in the storytelling arena, and explicit inclusion on a growing number of internship and job descriptions.

A sample of Olivia’s TikTok work @livloveanime.

Throughout 2020, I’ve heard heaps of discussion in formal and informal settings about how to get students connected to each other; how to build community and belonging; how to combat the ‘isolation problem’. I’ve just joined a research group on the subject, and am regularly asked to speak on the theme at one event or another. I’ve often surprised audiences with tales of students instigating the making of their own networks. In Trimester 1 of 2020, for instance, a large group of students enrolled in Making Social Media started a direct message chat group on Twitter, migrated this to Instagram, and then (when they maxed out the capacity there) moved over to Facebook. This had nothing to do with the teachers involved in the unit. And when faced with the prospect of no more Thursday evening Zoom sessions, six Cloud students decided to continue without their tutor via video chats and a new hashtag.

This highlights better than anything else that there’s no point relying only on the teacher when, after 11 weeks, that teacher’s not going to be there. Before I get to my last story, let me expand on that theme, and talk about why I almost called this blog something else…

It’s Not My Job To Care

In recent weeks I’d been planning to call this post ‘It’s not my job to care’ – a clickbait-ey title, to be sure, and one I decided wasn’t likely to really guarantee any extra visitors, so I canned it. But the reason I wanted to use this more provocative name is worth explaining here, and underlines the crucially important message of this blog.

Over the years I’ve increasingly fought and taught against a perception that any unit of study or a complete degree could ever be sufficient to guarantee employment. I’ve had numerous graduates talk to students at careers forums about their journeys as industry practitioners, and shared similar tales in plenty of videos and podcasts. All of these stories highlight the importance of learning by doing and lifelong learning, but I’m always looking for new ways to convince people of this. So I thought I’d approach it from another angle…

A panel of Communication graduates speaking to students at #CommCareers2019

As an academic, my annual workload is split very specifically between teaching, research, and service duties, to the point that every hour of my working year is literally allocated to one responsibility or another. Any workload system of this nature tends to be controversial, but whether the planned allocation matches the actual implementation is of zero interest to me here – you’ll seldom find me complaining, as what my job allows me to do is awesome.

The main point of raising this is that after teaching 700 students for 11 weeks in Trimester 1 of this year, the structure of my allocated time obligates me to very quickly reorient myself to teaching another 400 students in Trimester 2 just several weeks later. And the pattern continues from there… In a sense, you could almost say that it’s not my job to care what happens after Week 11. Could I even posit that it’s my job not to care, I wonder?

I don’t know if this sounds provocative or common sense, so let me make a few more observations. I’m frequently asked by individuals to keep them in mind for any industry opportunities that arise. In some instances – more often than you’d probably think – I’ve even been asked if I could help find work for an individual, if not give them some paid work myself. These moments stay with me, as they underline the necessity of me finding more compelling ways to make clear the fundamental lesson that people need to put themselves in the position to take advantage of luck.

Photo by mauro mora (free use via Unsplash)

Don’t get me wrong: I keep my eyes open for every opportunity available to help students, and (despite some semi-apocalyptic notions of what 2020 has beheld) have helped secure paid work and other valuable industry opportunities for over a dozen people over the past month alone. But those opportunities come down to luck just as much as any others do. In the end, units, degrees, and teachers only have so much value to offer; far more valuable things often come from going beyond the formally mandated, bare minimum requirements of assessment. This brings me to my last story.

Recently I received a 1,250 word email from Emma Synan, which she has kindly agreed for me to include here. I don’t apologise for the text-heavy section that follows; there was little I could edit out without losing some of its brilliance. Emma had studied a postgraduate unit called Social Media Content Creation a little while ago. She clearly enjoyed the unit, but as she (and I) discovered, the best stuff by far came after it. While Emma’s email was longer than many essays students submit, I read it with increasing excitement and astonishment.

Shit, maybe I do care after all!! 😦

A Final Story (for now)

Hi Adam, 

I hope you’re doing well.

I wanted to share my experience over the last couple of months after completing your class ALC708. 

I feel as though I got so much out of this unit. I loved the practical and real-world assignments, but not only that, I felt my confidence grow. The biggest thing I think I got out of the class was that the worst thing that could happen is someone could say no… And I would survive and be able to seek out the next opportunity. Since completing your class, I have been putting my hand up for all sorts of things, and so far, to my shock, no one has said no!!!! 

During the trimester break, I found myself seeking out opportunities to grow my experience and knowledge. With everything that’s happening in 2020, I found it hard to get an internship. I know my biggest barrier to gaining employment is my lack of industry experience. I was tired of getting knocked back from internships, so I started to look at businesses where I believed I could impact. 

I started at my local gym. They had a new program called Coaching Zone, which is an add-on for members who want to do personal training but can’t afford one-on-one coaching. They had invested a lot of money into this program, including a renovation and extension of the gym floor. 

The program was great, but the gym was shooting themselves in the foot by not promoting it. They where primarily promoting on Facebook and in the gym when their target audience was people aged 20-30. I ended up talking to center management and wrote up a social media plan. I took photos and videos for them to use on Instagram. I showed them how to schedule posts on Hootsuite and how to connect with their audience (e.g. by creating recipe videos in the Taste style and how to shoot inside a gym with really challenging lighting). I learned so much from this opportunity, and it was something I just put my hand up and created myself. 

Another opportunity I created was designing a logo for a local community initiative. After noticing a flyer placed in my parents’ letterbox in South Gippsland about a power share initiative, the first thing that stood out was their shocking logo in the shape of a triangle with what looked like three clip art images. The logo was hideous and looked unprofessional, especially when you were trying to convince the community to invest thousands of dollars to install solar panels on their roofs! 

I jumped on Canva, designed six logos for them, and then emailed the group’s organiser. I explained why they should consider a new logo, what design elements featured in each logo I designed, and how these elements could benefit their brand and communicate their messages to the community. I wasn’t expecting this to go anywhere. I just wanted to have a go and chuck my hat in the ring. To my surprise, I got an email back and they decided to use one of the logos I had made and asked me to change some of the colors slightly! I was wrapped that they were using my design!  

About two weeks ago, I was on the phone with my mum, and she was telling me about the book my uncle is currently writing on Irish immigration and settlement in Gippsland. It’s just a small historical book whose readers would most likely have a connection to this history. She emailed me the cover design, and I thought maybe I could have a go at it. And that is what I did. I had some photos already in the area and began to photoshop a couple of images together. I then jumped on InDesign and made a few drafts of a cover.

Last night I emailed them off to my uncle. I was not pushy here. This is family, and this book must be like his baby, given all the research and time he has put into writing it. I didn’t want to come in and be like, hey, your cover is trash, use mine! I knew I had to be careful so I just sent them and said, hey, have you considered laying out the cover like this? I explained how it made it more visually interesting, why I had chosen particular colours, and the benefits of creating more opaque images.

To my surprise, this morning I got a call from him. He loved the covers and wants me to refine a couple of them for him to use. So now, I can add book cover designer to my resume!  

After your tips on improving a resume, I decided to re-do mine completely. I started with designing one on InDesign. I did this because I thought it was also a way to show off and highlight some of my skills right away and hopefully make my resume stand out over other applicants. I also created an online folio of my photography work and included a hyperlink to my folio on my resume. I worked hard on my personal brand. I put into practice your tip on every time I log onto Twitter to make an effort to comment on something or create content myself. I also provided links to my YouTube channel, where I have uploaded videos such as pieces to camera and videos that highlight my photography skills. 

In mid-August, I applied for a Social Media Coordinator role at David Jones. I knew I lacked the experience that other applicants might have. I’ve never had a social media job before, but it was what I was working towards. I know I can do this job if I am given the opportunity. The job is to schedule posts for their social channels, create content (e.g. Instagram stories) at events, coordinate and organize monthly photoshoots, and work with influencers to promote David Jones’ business objectives. 

From my knowledge, they got close to 300 applicants for this role. So far, I have gotten through 3 interviews and have been told that they have narrowed their search down to me and two others. If it wasn’t for ALC708 and your tips I would never have made it this far. So I wanted to say a HUGE thank you. I really enjoyed your class, and you are probably one of the most passionate teachers I have ever had.  

Thank you again for all I have learned in your class this year. And for even taking the time out of your day to read this essay of an email! 

Kind regards, 

Emma

* * *

At the time of writing this, I don’t know the outcome of Emma’s job application. And I knew as soon as Emma gave me permission to use her email that I was going to leave the question open anyway. Because for anyone reading this, the outcome isn’t important. Either way, this is a success story – a series of success stories – that will never really end and will give rise to who knows how many unpredictable and valuable opportunities in future years.

This only happens when students go beyond the confines of what a teacher tells them to do throughout 11 weeks.

When students make their own stories.

When students do something.

mic‘ by Robert Bejil (CC BY 2.0)

Featured image: Photo by Alejandro Alvarez (free use via Unsplash)

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