Faculty Spotlight: Clayton Colmon

Just like traditional on-campus classes, Penn LPS Online courses emphasize communication and connection with instructors as well as peers. Our courses are designed and delivered by Penn faculty who bring years of teaching experience as well as professional expertise to the classroom. The Faculty Spotlight series aims to introduce you to some of the outstanding instructors who make our courses so immersive and effective. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Meet Dr. Clayton Colmon

Dr. Colmon is the Director of Curriculum Design for the Arts and Sciences Online Learning team at Penn. In this role, he works with instructors to conceptualize, create, and support educational experiences for Penn LPS Online among other programs. Colmon received his Bachelor of Arts in English and political science with honors from Rutgers University, and earned his PhD in English from the University of Delaware.

Colmon co-created the Certificate in Digital Strategies and Culture as well as the forthcoming Certificate in Social Difference, Equity, and Inclusion, and teaches several courses in those certificates, including DIGC 120: Digital Literacy & Cultural Change and DIGC 2600: Diverse Projects for Digital Publics. His upcoming course, DIGC 3200: Designing Critical Futures, was developed with a 2021 grant awarded by the Sachs Program for Arts Innovation.

Congratulations on the Sachs grant! How has this award supported you in designing DIGC 3200: Designing Critical Futures?

The Sachs grant has helped me carve out space for research, and to get resources for materials to pursue that research: subscriptions, books, access to films and a host of other media that gives me more context for design practices and discussions about futurism in various forms. I now have the chance to compensate a couple of folks who will join me in discussing topics like educational justice, mutual aid, cooperative non-profits, and capacity-building for community organizing work. Students are going to be listening to podcast conversations about world-building, reading short stories, talking about music. They’ll be invited to design their own creative projects, and I’ve been able to purchase software that will help me model what video design, audio design, and other creative processes look like behind the scenes.

The grant has also given me the opportunity to get some feedback: I’m taking a course about social justice in the curriculum as part of the Digital Pedagogy Lab, where I’ll get a chance to workshop projects, activities, and things like that. So that has allowed me to think about what else is possible outside of the traditional structure of online course design.

It sounds like there is some overlap between this Digital Strategies and Culture course and the kind of social justice topics that will be featured in our upcoming Social Difference, Equity, and Inclusion courses. What do these disciplines have in common?

You’ve caught onto my subversive plan from the beginning: to infuse conversations about social justice into all conversations about digital literacy and culture. Sometimes we think about technology as something that is other than us, and we go down the dangerous path of assuming that technology is objective, when in fact it’s informed by many of the decision-making practices and prejudices that have existed historically and continue to exist—in things like algorithmic bias. But the digital world is a space where we don’t have to replicate the same challenges and atrocities we’ve seen or experienced before. We can prepare digital users to be better informed about the types of changes they can make, and the type of worlds they could create by valuing and centering experiences that haven’t been centered before.

The Certificate in Social Difference, Equity, and Inclusion focuses a lot more concretely on the nuances and historical lineages of oppression, and gets into conversations about gender and race—including how we construct those identities and the narratives surrounding them. But I was not comfortable with co-creating or designing a digital culture certificate that did not have those same questions at its core, because I think those questions will help us survive what's to come.

Speaking of what’s to come—what is meant by the “critical futures” of the course title?

A critical future is one that interrogates how we imagine and shape a world that we want, including all the small and large decisions that go into making that imagined future a reality. Those decisions could be as simple as the types of information you choose to consume or pay attention to in this attention economy, or they could be something as profound as a radical life change—for example, if you are in actuarial sciences and want to pivot to urban infrastructure planning because you’re interested in creating a space where green infrastructure is more valuable than calculating risk for insurance companies or where people are actually insured access to clean air, clean water, and food.

So, talking about critical futures is similar to the way we talk about critical thinking and writing, where you are bringing self-awareness, intention, and context to the process.

Absolutely. A critical future is one that invites people to be reflexive about the decision-making practices that they engage in every day, that have a ripple effect on what will happen tomorrow or next year or in the next ten years.

The course description for Designing Critical Futures features a quote from Octavia Butler (1947–2006), an award-winning science fiction and speculative fiction novelist. What makes her work relevant to the course?

Octavia Butler’s work does a really exceptional job of getting people to look critically at humanity on this planet and to reflect on some of the patterns we have made throughout history. Her stories help us think about larger political decisions, smaller personal decisions, and some strategies for working with the challenges of an ever-changing moment. She writes about interdependence and mutualism, through stories that trace how people develop systems to rely on each other in ways that aren’t extractive. She invites us to embrace change as a constant, something we can’t avoid, and something that could help us make a better future.

And Octavia Butler's work was definitely transformational for me, personally. I have always been interested in science fiction and fantasy and these big epic narratives about creating new worlds and new forms of relationships in different societies. I loved the ways these stories invite folks to think differently about the world that we live in now, even if they are fictional. What I didn’t realize until I got to Octavia Butler’s books is that I didn’t necessarily see myself in what I was reading before. The first book I read by her was Dawn: the main character is a Black woman who survives a nuclear apocalypse, and there are other Black characters and people of color. That gave me a chance to see myself represented in a book, but also to see different representations of relationships both between human beings and aliens. And I thought, well, if this is possible, then I would love to study this. That’s how I got into my field of study in literature: Afrofuturism, dystopia, and utopia, which also connects to my interests in identity, sexuality, race, and class.

As an instructional designer, you’ve had a lot of experience developing new online courses in a wide range of subjects. Were there any lessons that carried over to creating your own course?

My instructional design role gives me a chance to work with faculty members on thinking critically about the classroom spaces they create for students: questioning some of the assumptions some of us make about learning in physical spaces as well as the foundational decisions we make within disciplines, such as what texts matter and what forms of research are permissible—and what forms of democratic participation are possible in digital communities. We even discuss what forms of agency can be supported for students who don’t necessarily have a desire for a traditional institutionalized education. Especially for Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences students, who come with their own wealth of experiences from different sectors: what could it look like, to honor that experience as a form of expertise?

So I want to kind of break the system of education, or at least any rigid connections we have to static grading systems, depersonalized rubrics, and hierarchical structures that drive a wedge between educators and students. These courses are for everyone. I think it's important not to put up artificial boundaries about who would be interested or wouldn't be interested in these courses, or who would do well in them. All of that is relative and contextual. Entering into the challenge can actually lead to transformative thinking. So I invite everybody to take these courses and I will learn alongside them. I’ll also encourage students to be creative and playful in the way they think about these topics.

How do you find ways to be creative and playful outside of the classroom?

Believe it or not, I garden. I am a Tree Tender for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, so I plant trees in Germantown and help maintain them. I am really interested in plants and the root structures that exist below the surface that we don’t necessarily see. This ties back to science fiction, because Octavia Butler was also into this stuff—the rhizomatic networks that connect people and allow us to share resources similar to the ways plants do. adrienne maree brown talks about this in her book Emergent Strategies.

What are some of your favorite digital communities?

This is going to be really geeky. I am really into different forms of urban infrastructure—I’m into urban gardening, but also urban planning spaces. So, I am part of a community city data forum where folks talk about different cities, the different projects that are going on there, the communities that are developed in those spaces. It's a bunch of people who are geeks about data and infrastructure and urban development. I'm also on Twitter, which is a delight. I mean, it can be depressing sometimes, but there are also spontaneous outpourings of joy. I also find a lot of research material there; people post projects that they're working on and websites that they developed or digital spaces that they've created. It’s a space where people develop different forms of relation that I'm really interested in.

Is Twitter a rhizomatic network?

It could be. Sometimes it feels that way.

Watch the video below where Dr. Colmon discusses the Certificate in Digital Strategies and Culture, creating inclusive digital communities and the skills needed to thrive in them, and also what to expect to gain as a student in the program.

If you’re having trouble seeing this video, you can watch it on YouTube.

To learn more about Digital Culture courses, read the Penn LPS Online feature “To thrive in the new digital landscape, you need to be more than just a user.” For Dr. Colmon’s advice on making the most of the virtual classroom or workplace, read the Penn LPS Online feature “Tips for remote working and learning.”

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