Teaching with Domain of One’s Own

Domain of One's Own @ EmoryClasses start up again next Wednesday and it will be my fourth semester teaching Portuguese language and Lusophone culture in collaboration with Emory’s Domain of One’s Own project. The idea of this program is that each student, as part of learning to write and communicate, is also learning to manage their online presence by administering their own web domain. Instead of turning in papers that are only read by the instructor or posting to an online course management system that’s controlled by the instructor and owned by the university, students are publishing to the open web, taking into account the consequences of that kind of publication, and making their own decisions about what to do with the material after the course is over.

This last point seems especially important to me but has been the trickiest to manage in the real world. For the last few years Emory has used Blackboard as its main course management system. Unlike a lot of my colleagues, I feel relatively comfortable with this system. I used it for a Spanish writing course last semester where I didn’t feel my students were ready to share their work publicly, and I continue to use it even in my Domain classes for keeping track of grades and sometimes giving tests. (Over the next year we’ll transition to Canvas, which looks to be a more streamlined and intuitive system but essentially very similar.) One of the major problems with systems like this is that students often lose access to their work and the course materials at the end of the semester. This depends partly on the decisions an instructor makes but a lot of teachers don’t actively consider this issue, and I believe the default is for the course to become unavailable. At Emory, even instructors lose access to our own courses when they are automatically archived after two years. (There are ways of backing up the material but I haven’t been able to make sense of them.)

So, the beauty of Domain of One’s Own, at least in theory, is that a student owns their work, can access it at any time, decide to delete it if they’ve moved on in their thinking, or turn it into part of a portfolio showing potential employers or graduate admissions committees what they’re capable of.

The trouble, in my experience so far, is that students aren’t continuing to use their sites once the course is over. At the beginning of the course they pay $12 to register their own domain name (the way I registered katherineostrom.net), and Emory covers a year of domain hosting. To my knowledge this fee hasn’t been an issue in any of my classes so far — certainly it’s less than what they pay for textbooks in most classes. But a year later, when they get an email notification telling them to pay another $12 to renew for a second year, there may not be much motivation for them to do so. It’s not a large amount of money for most, but at this point it’s likely that they’re no longer in a Domain course and haven’t thought about their site in a long time. It’s one more thing to deal with at the busy beginning of the semester, and they might, very understandably, let it slip by.

word map imagining a central hub (janestudent.net) with subdomains for various projects.
“Anatomy of a Domain”: This is what I dream of my students doing.

There’s a lovely graphic on one of the Emory Domain documentation pages that illustrates how a student might make use of this domain beyond an individual course. They can use it to host sites or smaller projects made for various courses as well as hobby or activist sites, or links to their work elsewhere on the web. I’ve talked about this concept with students but haven’t seen any of them implement it. Students might be making websites for several different courses, but not all of them are part of the Domain program, so their other profs might not be talking about unifying their web presence, or maybe they are and students just don’t have time and energy for something that isn’t a requirement. Again, I think this is completely understandable. Heck, I’ve had katherineostrom.net for a year and a half and have done very little with it, other than developing sites for individual courses because that was the urgent priority.

At the end of last semester I talked to a colleague who was interested in having her students make websites as part of a course. I gave what I thought was a pretty good pro-Domain of One’s Own spiel, talked about how important it was for students to think about their online presence and develop a sense of ownership for their work and their learning. I also had to acknowledge that, when I tried to show the student sites from my first class using the project, there was nothing there. I also had to admit that it had taken a lot of effort and self-motivation for me to figure out how to use my own domain and teach it to students, and I recognize that won’t be appealing for a lot of faculty. My colleague decided to use a platform hosted by the university so that disappearing sites would not be an issue. I’m currently trying to figure out how I might preserve some of my students’ work even if they don’t decide to renew their domains.

My first post about Domain has focused on my main frustration with it, but now that I’ve gotten that off my chest I have to say I still believe in the program and am excited about teaching with it again this semester. It’s been great getting to know David Morgen, Heather Julien, and some of the other folks from the Emory Writing Program and other colleagues who teach with Domain, and I’ve been delighted by some of the work my students come up with. This semester I’m planning to try out a new infographic assignment in both (the third edition of) PORT 202 and (the first edition of) PORT 300W. Domain of One’s Own Writing Program Fellow McKenna Rose hosted a great workshop on how to teach this kind of assignment last semester, drawing from her experience having students make infographics about Shakespeare’s plays. I hope to write more about this soon.

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