Social work scholars and personal learning networks


I recently decided not to apply for a certain academic position because of a policy banning the use of laptops in the classroom. Although I recognize that laptops in class can be problematic, I believe the answer is to move forward, not backwards. I don’t think I could work in an environment that is not open to discovering how new technologies can enhance the educational experience instead of hindering it.

The above video follows directly from my previous post, Nobody ever told me that I’m responsible for my own learning! It introduces the notion of the personal learning network (PLN) as applied to students.

What’s a PLN? I want to begin by talking about PLNs for social work scholars. To state the obvious:


Social work scholars are responsible for their own learning

Older social work scholars remember using card catalogues in the library to look up information. I have sat down at the computer with more than a few of these colleagues to help them understand how to access the new technologies for library research, because we are all now responsible for keeping up with an ever-increasing amount of information. Today, you cannot keep up with your field without using these electronic databases.

But there’s an even more dramatic shift happening right now, in 2009.

First, knowledge is becoming democratized. Anyone can start a blog and build a readership. Anyone can post a video on YouTube. Conversations are happening everywhere online — and they’re happening across all kinds of boundaries. It’s a very exciting time to be an academic.

The second trend is that the amount of information related to your field continues to multiply — it is not limited to traditional academic sources and it is constantly bubbling out in real time. Traditional sources cannot stay current enough. (See Gideon Burton‘s controversial post on traditional academic publishing in the digital era.)


Then how do I keep up? Help!

You need a personal learning network. It’s a way of engaging with the flow of information out there and filtering it so that you don’t get overwhelmed. A PLN helps you to keep current in your field by creating a network of people with whom you regularly exchange information and ideas. The best way to explain a PLN is by presentations like the one above, or the 15 minute video below.

<Click the link to view the video>

Building Your Own Personal Learning Network from Carl Anderson on Vimeo.

The idea of building one’s own PLN should be an exciting one for social work educators, because in our field, we are always drawing on our networks of resources, collaborators, and partners. Whether we are researchers or practitioners, we are experts at building networks.We have the skills already to build our personal learning networks… except for the technologies part. But that part can be learned, step by step.

(Actually, I’m no expert at this. I’m learning it from my colleagues in other disciplines — such as Alec Couros from the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina. )

People like me are going to be the ones to help our colleagues acquire proficiency in these new social media. (I know how computer-challenged some of you are. You don’t have to hide it from me.)

I want to become part of your PLN. Most of all, I want to see you get excited about how natural a fit these new technologies are with social work values. Social media are about relationships. They are about giving and sharing and contributing. They make your world bigger and at the same time friendlier than you thought it could be.



© Silvia Straka and A Just Society, 2008.


“Nobody told me I’m responsible for my own learning”


You think it is self-evident that university students take responsibility for their own learning?

Um. No. It’s not.

Last year I taught third year social work students in their field practicum seminar. One of the important goals of this seminar was to encourage peer learning and peer support. All 20 students were also doing their first field placement.

I spent an enormous amount of class prep time designing creative and participatory activities. Students were participating in their small groups of 2 or 3, but very reluctant to speak in front of the group of 20.

Now these are social work students – they have to be able to speak in front of groups. It’s part of their job.

After 6 or 7 weeks, they were still not participating. I needed to understand why.


Students talk about their lack of participation


One day, right in the middle of an interactive activity, I sit down. I stop everything. I can’t go on this way.

I’m not angry with them. But this is a very painful process.  So I do what I should have done a few weeks earlier. I tell them:

This is a seminar based on group participation. But most of you aren’t participating.

I’m not blaming you. But I honestly want to know: Is it something about my teaching? Are you not following me? Is there a problem with the content? Please talk to me.


More silence.

Finally, a student timidly volunteers,

“We didn’t understand what a seminar was. We thought it was like a regular class. Nobody ever explained that to us.”



Culture of passive learning

Another student adds:

All our lives we have sat in a class while somebody lectures to us. We take notes. We’re supposed to understand and remember what they tell us. We get tested on it. That’s what we think university is about. That’s our experience. Nobody ever told us that we were responsible for our own learning.

Then others say:

It’s a culture shock, being in a seminar and being told we’re responsible for our own learning. We need time to figure out how to do that.


OK, now I’m officially in shock. And my syllabus makes a loud cracking noise and falls in shards around my feet.

But I’m adaptive, if nothing else. I quickly realize that before I can go on with the topic of reflective practice, I have to help them learn how to take responsibility for their own learning. You can’t teach reflective practice very well if nobody is reflecting on their practice!


Shifting students into active learning

During the next month, I took time during each class for activities explicitly dealing with active learning. We talked about fears, barriers, supports to active learning. I also kept making links to practice – a professional needs to be responsible for her own learning.

To my delight, it worked! Ironically, this was their first experience of reflective practice in community.

In the final exam, I asked them to identify what was the most important learning of the year. One student wrote:

The most important thing I learned was that I am responsible for my own learning.


© Silvia Straka and A Just Society, 2008.

The pressures and pleasures of publishing



Book review: “Publish and flourish: Become a prolific scholar”

Thomas Basbøll at Research as a Second Language just published a review of Tara Gray’s new edition of her book Publish and Flourish: Become a Prolific Scholar. Here is some shocking information about how much time scholars actually spend in writing:

[Gray] cites research by Robert Boice to make a very instructive point. If you ask a researcher how much time they spend working, they’ll say about 60 hours, and they’ll tell you about half of that is spent on research. But if you get them to keep records of how they actually spend their time, you find that they spend on average 29 hours per week working, of which about an hour and a half is devoted to research. “So these faculty members were working 30 hours per week,” she concludes, “and worrying another 30.” According to Boice, of the 1.5 hours spent on research, a half hour on average is spent writing.

Half an hour a week spent on writing. That’s sad.

After reading this excerpt from the book, Publish and Flourish went to the top of my must-read list. I’m so excited about this book without even having read it, that I wanted to you a heads-up about it.


Now I want to share some of what I have learned about boosting my publications.


“Write from the first day of your research project”

Gray says to “write from the first day of your research project.” This has always been my practice.

Many scholars think about publishing as something that happens at the end of the research project. Because I see publishing as one way to broaden the research conversation, I take opportunities to publish at every step of the research process.

My doctoral research project originated in a community health care agency. I was working as a researcher partnered with a team of elder abuse social workers. These workers were looking for help in intervening with older women living with intimate partner abuse. My first literature review revealed that there was almost nothing written on the topic and as a result, we developed the research project that became my doctoral study.

The first article on this study was submitted before we even got the research funds. It consisted of my critical review of the literature, demonstrating the gaps and introducing our study. It got published in a leading journal in the field.

The second article was published while I was thinking about the theoretical framework for the study. Because the problem spanned two fields that did not communicate with each other (woman abuse and elder abuse), there was an opportunity for theoretical reflection that could help spark a new dialogue across the boundaries of these two fields. At the time I wrote it, theoretical thinking in the field of intimate partner abuse had stalled and I wanted to make a contribution to getting it going again.

Had I been a full-time faculty member, I would have published numerous other articles before finishing the research. For example:

  • an article on the new approach I developed to training graduate student research assistants
  • an article on the tensions of doing action research within the context of a major research project and a doctoral dissertation
  • the four keys to successful research-practitioner partnerships I came up with during my reflections on this project.

And that’s just off the top of my head. All these articles would be publishable and make a contribution to knowledge.

Of course, if you are a reflexive scholar, such ideas are constantly germinating throughout the research process.



I want to also talk about the controversial idea of academic blogging.

Blogging can help me to increase my publications because it requires the regular writing of mini-articles. It forces me to put emerging ideas into words and it allows me to get some feedback.

Through blogging the sometimes overwhelming task of publishing can be broken down into bite-sized pieces, until my thinking is clear enough to write the article.

Blogging nurtures my own thinking in some of the following ways:

  • Comments on my blog often spark my thinking into new directions
  • Reading other blogs in the field expands my thinking and exposes me to cutting-edge ideas
  • Making comments on other people’s blogs helps me make connections to my own work
  • Twittering helps me expand my academic network across disciplines and to nurture my thinking in unexpected places

Anything that nurtures my thinking ends up nurturing my writing.

Blogging and the use of other emerging media bring exciting opportunities for new ways of communicating our ideas.

(For additional reading on academic publishing and new media, I suggest you read Waking Tiger’s provocative post on Academic Evolution, as he challenges the status quo about academic publishing.)


These are two ways I have discovered to increase my writing and publishing. But I’m still a neophyte and would like to hear from others. I invite you to respond in the comments section.

  • What have your learned about how to increase your writing and publishing?
  • Academic bloggers: Does blogging increase or take away from your rate of publication in traditional journals?



Image thanks to iDream_in_Infrared

© Silvia Straka and A Just Society, 2008

Black, female, poor, mentally ill — and incredibly strong



Introducing Marissa

My friend Marissa is one of my heroes. She constantly demonstrates her strength of character, courage and intelligence, in the face of a very severe mental illness. She is an interesting person whose life experiences have matured and deepened her character. Mental illnesses often steal people’s lives, but Marissa fights back every day.

Having a severe mental illness means taking heavy medications with side effects. Among other things, her medications give her seizures so she doesn’t sleep well – and if she doesn’t sleep well, she is very vulnerable to a relapse.

Despite all her challenges, Marissa is an excellent mother who is raising her child in a very conscious and reflexive manner. She also is going to college, one or two courses at a time, and hopes it will be a good role model for her child.


Intersectionality: Race, gender, social class, and mental illness

In addition to having a severe mental illness, Marissa is a black woman, a single mother, and lives on government assistance. All these elements of social location interact with each other.

Lets look at some school-related issues as an example.

Her medications make it impossible for her to get out of bed in enough time to get her 6 year old daughter to school on time, which has caused many problems. And let me note that Marissa is sending her child to a school that — despite the diverse student population– only has white teachers.

In December, the teacher had the children write a letter to Santa  with their gift requests. Marissa was angry. This activity was a real set-up for a parent on social assistance. How could she live up to the expectations this teacher was setting up regarding Christmas gifts? But if she had gone to the school to complain, she would be an “angry black woman”. And remember, she’s already in trouble because her daughter is always late for school (although her daughter is at the top of her class).

Marissa, as a black single mother with a mental illness, is also very vulnerable to having her child taken away from her. It is no secret that child welfare systems are systemically racist and that black families are over-represented in these systems.


What happens if she has a relapse?

She recently had her first relapse in five years – a severe and paralyzing depression. Because it was over Christmas, she was unable to get hold of her doctor when she felt it coming on. By the time everyone got back to work, she was too depressed to reach out for any more help. Luckily her mother visited her, sensing she wasn’t doing well, and admitted her into the hospital. Although she is out of the hospital, she has lost custody of her daughter. We hope that as she stabilizes, she will be able to get her daughter back. The little girl misses her mommy and cries for her, even though grandma is very good to her.

Something is really wrong with this picture.


The need for community support

Marissa is not  a victim. She is an independent woman and proud of it. She has worked very hard to get to this place. But if she just had some better community support – not even an intensive support – a hospitalization could have probably been averted. If someone could help her solve everyday problems, like how to get her daughter to school on time, her stress would be greatly reduced. A month-long hospitalization is very expensive. An ongoing community support worker who would meet with her once every week or every other week is not expensive.

Does the system expect Marissa to do it on her own? Do they not care that a child’s welfare is also part of the picture – if mom stays well, the child stays well. It’s just easier to yank the child away from the single black mother when she is sick, than to make a small amount of effort to keep things on an even keel.

I’ve got practice experience and research knowledge about mental health.

But nothing makes a social problem come alive as listening to the experiences of people who go through it.


Additional reading:

Mothers with Mental Illness by the Canadian Mental Health Association

Parenting, special issue of Visions (BC’s mental health and addictions journal)

Willow Weep for Me: A Black Woman’s Journey through Depression by Meri Nana-Ama Danquah (book)

Depression and Black Women from The Best of Dr. Marvin (blog)


© Silvia Straka and A Just Society, 2009


Six ways to be an ally


I’m a white, middle class, highly educated, and cissexual woman. That’s a lot of unearned privilege. I just happened to have been born into a privileged family. I don’t feel guilty about my privilege, because I can’t do anything about it. But I have learned that others continue to pay the price for my privilege.

I hate injustice. And as a woman with a lot of privilege, it’s my responsibility to try to dismantle the systems maintaining this privilege.

Racism is not something that is the problem of people of colour. It’s my problem, too. And I’m part of the problem as long as I close my eyes to the ways I benefit from the racist structures of society.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned about being an ally to women of colour:

Accept your white skin privilege

Just accept the facts of your privilege. Don’t wallow in guilt. Don’t ask women of colour to help you feel better about being white. Don’t try to make up for it by being extra nice to women of colour.

Accept the facts. Then deal with them. Decide what you are going to do about them.

It’s not about you

As white women, we’re used to everything being about us.

I’m old enough to remember what it was like before the second wave of feminism. Women were dismissed, ignored, and invisible. For example, my sister was one of four women in her university engineering program. Some professors who believed women had no business in engineering would refuse to respond to the women in the class. They pretended they didn’t exist.

I wonder if women of colour experience white women in this way. Do we make them feel invisible? Dismissed?

Shut up and listen

Shut up and listen. Bite your tongue if you have to.

I remember running a workshop for graduate theology students on the women’s spirituality movement. I had the bright idea of encouraging male seminarians to attend and learn about this movement.  I explained that this would be an experiential workshop. The first thing the men needed to understand was that they were in women’s space.

But they couldn’t do it. During the small group discussions, the men kept dominating the group. We kept pointing it out to them. One man tried to sit on his hands and his face grew red with the effort of taking a back seat in this setting.

I wonder if women of colour experience white women in this way.

Embrace the discomfort

Deep down, a lot of white folks have learned to feel guilty about being white. We can be really uncomfortable with reality of our privilege and we wish to erase it. But wishing isn’t enough. And wishing can become a reality. In our discomfort, we make women of colour invisible again.

There are no shortcuts to sisterhood with women of colour. There’s a lot of history to undo.

So one of the hard things we have to do is embrace the discomfort. It’s uncomfortable to listen to the anger of women about racism. And even if we can stand to listen to it being expressed, we get really uncomfortable if we have to keep hearing it.

It’s uncomfortable to take a back seat to women of colour. It can be uncomfortable to enter the worlds of impoverished women, many of whom are also women of colour. It’s easy to judge their lives. It’s difficult and uncomfortable to try to understand.

I’m happy when I feel that discomfort. It means I’m uncovering more of my own racism and the ways that privilege manifests in my life. It means I’m getting out of my comfort zone.

Be reflexive instead of reactive

The more you recognize your privilege and the more you listen and embrace the discomfort, the more you will acquire the capacity to be reflexive. Reflexivity means that you make it a habit to reflect on your own social location and the social location of the other person. You reflect about how social power relations shape your reality and the reality of the other person. And, together with the other person, you work to co-construct a new reality.

Do something to create change

Remember — it’s not about you. This process is not about making you a better person. If you stop at the previous point, then you know it’s only about you.

To create change, you have to decide what action you can take in order to be an ally to women of colour.

One of my actions this week is to write this post.

Maybe your action will be to confront a racist joke. Or to join women of colour in an event or protest (if it’s OK with them). Or to read and promot the blogs of women of colour. Maybe it’s to notice that the teachers in your school are all white but the kids are very diverse – and work to change that. Or to make sure women of colour have a voice in your organization and that their voice is truly respected.

I am not an expert in being an ally. I continue to find ugly roots of racism and privilege in myself. But I’m working to heal myself and my world in the best way I know how. I might write a quite different post on this topic next year. This is where I am right now.

I invite your comments and feedback. This post will not be complete without them.

© Silvia Straka and A Just Society, 2009

Can Obama create social change?



Can President Obama create social change?

I believe the answer is no.

Don’t get me wrong. I adore Obama and I’m caught up in Obama-mania just the same as anyone.

I want to believe. I want to hope. I want to dream a new vision. I want to see things change.

It’s not about Obama. If anyone could be the catalyst for real change, it would be him. But no single person, no matter how gifted and powerful, can create social change.

Yes, I was glued to the TV on coronation – oops – inauguration day. Along with the rest of the world, I was weepy and inspired. But I also heard President Obama putting the responsibility for change back on the people. I wonder if they really heard him?

History has shown that social change requires people uniting for a common cause, against a common enemy. Inspired by Ghandi, Indians gained their freedom from British colonization. Under the moral leadership of Martin Luther King, African-Americans fought for equal rights under the law. Encouraged by the political reforms of Jean Lesage, Francophone Quebecers overcame economic and cultural oppression by Anglos.

Can Americans get past their hero  worship of President Obama and really pull together as one people?

He’s the latest celebrity, on the covers of all the magazines. America is having a love affair with the Obama family. My question is, “Do Americans get it that they will not be saved by Obama unless they decide to save themselves?”

Certain groups in U.S. society – the poor and the oppressed — are no doubt ready to work for change. But what about the middle class? And the elite?

The United States is a stratified society. Some groups have more privilege than others. Although many Americans would like to think they live in a meritocracy, the privileges attached to being white, or male, or able-bodied, or cis-sexual, for example, are unearned.

There is no merit in being white. It’s an accident of birth. White skin privilege is undeserved privilege. Unless white people actively take part in dismantling their own privilege, they continue, by their inaction, to perpetuate the racist structures of society. But it’s very difficult for white people to accept this fact. They think their tolerance and their good intentions are enough. It’s not enough. Social change requires sacrifice from all. Are white middle class people willing to sacrifice for the sake of those people who are marginalized in society?

So if the U.S. is looking to unite against a common cause, they first have to look within. The inequalities that are structurally embedded in American society make it very difficult for them to unite against a common cause. Are people willing to work to give up their unearned privilege so they can have a more just society?

If not, then the United States will remain split from within. The goals of the elite and the marginalized will remain at odds with each other. As Pogo said, “We have seen the enemy and he is us”. Until there is social justice, it will be difficult for Americans to unite and work for a common cause.

Yes, the middle class and the elite are hurting because of the recession. They are losing jobs and losing wealth. But the more privileged groups of Americans have always prided themselves on being rugged individualists in a capitalist society. The American Dream is an individualistic dream.

Given the nature of the American psyche, I’m not sure they are able to really fulfill the vision held out by President Obama. The “haves” in society are already feeling the pinch. They are going to hold onto what they have. It’s unlikely, in my opinion, that they will see the solution as opening their hands and joining them together.

I really hope I’m wrong about this.

© Silvia Straka and A Just Society, 2008

Teaching with Youtube


Note: This article is also included in the Teaching Carnival (February 2009 edition).

Last year I discovered that Youtube can be a great teaching tool, especially with smaller classes.

I was teaching a field practicum seminar to social work students. By November, I realized that I had grossly over-estimated their core knowledge about social work. I dramatically cut back on the amount of information I was covering, prioritizing depth (integration of course content ) over breadth ( getting a wider range of information).

Four weeks of the course were devoted to models of community practice. The readings went into excruciating depth on each model – I knew this information would all run together for the students. So I reworked the learning goals, deciding that I wanted them to understand the characteristics of the three models, when to use them, and the basic strategies associated with each. That’s all.

In the overview class, I gave them a summary sheet of the three models. Then I showed one video for each model, with class discussion after each one.

The first video was showed a community development project:

The second video showed a social action initiative:

The third video documented a social planning project:

After each video, we discussed:

  • what model was it?
  • what characteristics of that model did they observe?
  • what strategies were used?

The first class was so successful in terms of student engagement, participation, and learning that I taught the remaining three classes the same way.  It allowed them to see what community practice actually looks like, rather than reading about it in a book. We also drew applications between the classroom material and the work of their field agencies. Students expressed how much they enjoyed this method of learning about community practice.

My selection of videos was based on a few parameters:

  • I tried to use Canadian examples as much as possible,
  • Most videos were 3 to 5 minutes (short)
  • I tried to find projects related to my students’ field settings (e.g., youth projects, food security, housing)
  • A diversity of projects were selected for each model, to avoid duplication of content.

It’s not always easy to get good videos to show in class from traditional sources such as the university library. YouTube provides a new kind of teaching resource that greatly expands our options!

What are some of the ways you have used new media and technologies in your teaching?

© Silvia Straka and A Just Society, 2008