Blogs and Being and Imagination

From Aaron Campbell, who writes some of the most thoughtful commentary on blogging and education that I’ve found out there:

“Traditionally in education, we have practiced acquiring knowledge as a possession, as if it were a commodity, convincing people that having more knowledge is optimal, thus strengthing the having mode. There have, though, been movements to overcome the having mentality, especially from constructivists and practicioners involved in alternative and holistic education.

I believe that personal publishing via weblogs and wikis on the growing social semantic web can be an excellent educational practice for feeding the being mode in young minds. The medium emphasizes process over goal, collectivity over individuality, decentralization over centralization, humanity over automation, authenticity over simulation, freedom over control, self-directed over teacher-directed, and the dynamic over the static. Furthermore, it can be self-reflective, potentially giving rise to insights into the socially constructed nature of self-identity.

Since schooling plays such an important role in social conditioning, it would seem urgent for educators to realize the truly educative and liberating potential of this technology and to start putting it to use. When learners are given the chance to join in the authentic and cooperative social practice of constructing knowledge in society, we are providing a new educational arena which encourages a participatory and potentially political orientation toward the ‘world out there’ – necessary for a healthy democracy. I can’t help but wonder though, whether our institutions of “learning” are commited to helping young people ‘know themselves’ or to merely condition them for a status quo existence, currently a predominant having mentality. What other ways might blogging in education contribute to shaping the person of tomorrow?”

I agree wholeheartedly with his vision and concerns. I wonder if our students, if enough of them come across a teacher here and there who is actively handing their education back to them in dynamic learning collaborative spaces, won’t they start demanding more of a say in other classes? I’ve had students come to me the semester following a class with me, confused and upset (with me as well as others) because a professor won’t hear of accepting a multi-media paper. Have I misled them, they want to know? Do they snap right back into the mold so many have carefully created for them? Students are only conservative (see yesterday’s post) because we’ve taught them to be that way, to want what we want, and what we want sure seems to them to be equated with ownership and having and their attendant status.

Will blogging reach the distant shores of the liberal arts institution in any significant way any time soon? Aaron writes as well as anyone I’ve read on learning and teaching and technology, but he teaches “Interactive Web Publishing”–The same is true for many of the other influential higher ed writers (Sebastien Pacquet comes to mind) He must get institutional support for exploring Web technologies in the classroom–it’s the subject of his class; whereas in my classes, it is not. People are already way overwhelmed with their responsibilities to take something else on. They have too much to cram into twelve-week semesters.

Indeed, it’s difficult to create an atmosphere of change, of openness, when new technologies are looked at primarily as accelerators of inquiry. When do we experiment just for the sake of the exploration? When do we take the time in our classes to let students muck about and see what’s out there in our subject area?

Yesterday Héctor and I met with Middlebury College’s, museum educator, because she was eager to hear more about the kind of multi-media collaborative work we do with students in the arts especially. She was looking for ways to connect what we’re doing with what she’s doing. She talked about how in this country we don’t teach students how to see, how to look, to take the time just to explore an artwork. We want them to skip right to information gathering and knowledge–so kids sure know about Van Gogh, but have they ever really connected with one of his paintings other than to say, oh yeah, this is the crazy one he painted after he cut off his ear? Or to give us brilliant formal analyses of the work? I have a friend whose most beloved art history professor in graduate school did nothing but traipse around the museums of New York with his graduate students and stop when he found something that piqued his interest or theirs. And then they looked. Deeply. And discussed what they saw. Together. Isn’t that what we do here on blogs?

Which brings me to the writings of Maxine Greene and her urgings to bring imagination back into the classroom–“Imagination must be released in all dimensions of education.” And as contrary as this may sound, (many people equating the quickness of blogs with superficiality, the anything-goes-medium with self-absorption) if we use blogs imaginatively in our classrooms, to link our students to themselves, one another and the world–yes, of course–but also to slow down and reflect, to post responses (text, sound, image, link) that get at what they see and hear and feel and imagine, we might indeed “feed the being mode in young minds.”

TIME, SPACE and the Edublogger

As the fall semester’s opening looms in the near distance, as summer deadlines line up at my door, as the Project for Integrated Expression students pack their bags for their Friday arrival on campus, and as I try to get to my new course blog, I find myself thinking about this blog and how it has given me the space this summer to ruminate on bloggy notions, to argue with blogger friends and colleagues, and to play around with some multi-media options. As I turn to the awZ: artswriting ‘zine blog‘ I’ll be torn about where to post my reflections, questions, narratives and essays–There? Here? Both places?

Clearly I don’t have the full interconnected blog system down–I’m not exactly sure where one blog will begin and the other end. I’m not sure I am envisioning the full potential of the spaces within the blog and between the blogs. Will I eventually have a handful of blogs in addition to my course blogs? Special topic blogs, project blogs–that kind of thing? The blog within the blog within the blog? I did a bit of sidebar blogging on my Contemporary Ireland Blog, called “BG Daily,” when the students took over the blog and posted their own entries to the homepage space.

I’d like to see more examples of higher ed blogs linked to one another, weaving a fabric of a single person’s oeuvre, in a sense, course to course, project to project, or community to community. Not just listed side by side or in some kind of table of contents but really linked, woven, referred to, used again through a living archive. I’d like to do even more of that in more own course blogs though my students have done a bit of it in all my classes, picking up threads from one another’s work and spinning them into something new, seeing the Web as “more complex, unpredictable and dynamic than any novel that could have been written by a single human writer” (Manovich, Intro, New Media Reader, 2003, 15) After all, what Robert Coover described in his NYT Book Review piece, “The End of Books,” in 1992 is still, I believe, true:

Writing students are notoriously conservative creatures. They write stubbornly and hopefully within the tradition of what they have read. Getting them to try out alternative or innovative forms is harder than talking them into chastity as a lifestyle. But confronted with hyperspace, they have no choice: all the comforting structures have been erased. It’s improvise or go home.”

I’ m trying, believe me.
I really haven’t yet figured out the spatial relationships or the potential for the image to supplant text. But it’s comforting to read that other bloggers are still feeling their way in the dark with their own questions of time and space:

Suw Charman, inveterate blogger who suddenly finds herself making her living blogging (her personal blog, Chocolate and Vodka”), and her professional blog, Strange Attractor), has had a few uneasy moments:

I am not the only person to deal with the fact that, at some point, your personal blog ceases to appear personal and starts to appear professional. At the beginning of the year Michael O’Connor Clarke went through the same thought process that I am going through now. Journalist David Akin has more recently felt the need to explain who pays for his blog.

My students do not blog long enough at a clip to feel that kind of metamorphosis (12 weeks unless they take back-to-back courses with me or with my close colleaguessince very few other profs are blogging in their classes around here.) This kind of blogging ends (unfortunately) for most, at the end of the course, a built in death notice, if you will

Suw also says, on “Feeding the Beast” post:

Blogs are the same, you have to figure out the boundaries of your comfort zone – how often to post, what to post, what style, how that fits in with your job and the rest of your life. Failing to find out where you’re comfortable will almost certainly result in a decreased desire to post, neglect of your blog and ultimately, its untimely death.

Balance. When the topic of the upcoming opening faculty meeting is “Time,” you know you’ve really got to see the value of blogging to stick with it, especially beyond the linklog kind of blogging. It takes time to develop a blogging rhythm, to know how deeply you want to delve into any particular topic, and therein lies the “Catch-22” for many erstwhile classroom bloggers–they don’t have enough time to give blogging a real go, to understand the need to integrate blogs carefully into the pedagogical framework of a course in order for them to have any significant value. It takes time. And good blogging, as Suw, points out, takes time.

PLAYING AROUND–DISCOVERIES

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Between the handy blog design tips on Mandarin Design and the addictive fun with random text design on TypoGenerator, even design -challenged bloggers such as yours truly can play around…on the weekend…when they should be writing papers…

What Kind of Medium Is This Anyway?

Ever since I read Susan Sontag’s New York Times Magazine article, “Regarding the Torture of Others,” on the picture-taking scandal in Iraq, I have found myself thinking about much of what she had to say, especially this excerpt: “a shift in the use made of pictures–less objects to be saved than messages to be disseminated, circulated.”

And I can see how that’s true–in as shocking a reality as soldiers photographing and sending pictures of torture that they themselves were committing, and as benign a reality as my daughters snapping photos with their camphones and sending them off to friends via email. I’m not sure that photos mean the same thing to them as they do to me just as I’m pretty sure I respond to pictures differently from the way my 86-year-old father does. I still don’t send a lot of pictures; I’m just thinking about getting a digital camera, and I consider the extra cost of sending images from my phone. To my children, images are a part of the natural flow of communication. As are sound files. And text. It’s all part of the conversation. But a separate part of the conversation–a quick, visceral part often.

Sound, text and image are still kept pretty separate from one another here on the Web except for illustration purposes on many blogs and websites, for instance. What’s taking us so long to figure out how to incorporate mapping or audio into our blogs, not to repeat the words but to provide a different experience, to tell a different story altogether? I think it’s something more than the clumsiness of the interfaces.

Artists have long inhabited these spaces: Stacie Cassarino, a young poet friend and colleague, has a painter friend who just finished a series of paintings in which she incorporated and responded to some of Stacie’s poems. I haven’t seen the paintings, but Stacie says they do something quite different from the poems themselves–they are not an echo.

Paul Matteson in his dance improv last week (see yesterday’s posting) danced while he read a short personal narrative from a piece of paper held in his hand and then had the audience shout out parts of the body for him to accentuate in his movement. And he had us sitting on the floor in a semi-circle hemming him in a very small space–he practically touched us as he danced. It worked. But what was it? Sound/movement/text/interaction :some kind of integrated performance art.

I’m scattered here, which brings me to the real reason I’m mulling over the question of images vs. text, what this medium is and does and what that has to do with communication and what I’m up to in my classes with blogs and multimedia narrative:

Héctor over on his blog, in email and in person has scolded me ( albeit good naturedly) during the past 48 hours for my narrow, misguided understanding of this medium–we cannot, he says, use the same terms or even make comparisons to writing, when we talk about what we’re doing on the Web. I’ve got to re-envision the whole deal.

Of course I resist that notion on some level, but I do know that all the thinking and hanging about in this cyberworld I’m doing, and these bits that Susan Sontag writes, and the experiments on here at such places as The Familiar Strangers Project and the accompanying Jabberwocky“mobile phone application for visualizing our urban Familiar Strangers” are leading me down the road towards what I am just beginning to grasp–what Paul Virilio in his essay “Speed and Information: Cyberspace Alarm” (Reading Digital Culture, p. 24) writes:

Cyberspace is a new form of perspective. It does not coincide with the audio-visual perspective which we already know. It is a fully new perspective, free of any previous reference: it is a tactile perspective. To see at a distance, to hear at a distance: that was the essence of the audio-visual perspective of old. But to reach at a distance, to feel at a distance, that amounts to shifting the perspective towards a domain it did not yet encompass: that of contact, of contact-at-a-distance: tele-contact.

But look at me, I’m still blathering on in writing instead of exploring the rich potential of the borders between word/image/sound. I’m still writing the old way for the new medium. It’s what Jay D. Bolter’s getting at, I think, when he says humanists have yet to take full advantage of multilinear narrative. We’re slow. I’m slow. I’m still not there yet. Not anywhere close. In understanding or practice. But I’m working on it.

Learning from Dance

Saturday evening I had the pleasure of attending the final presentation of the improvisation/modern dance intensive workshop my dancer-daughter took part in–I knew that I was in for the always-rewarding experience of watching Nora dance, but I didn’t anticipate having the evening illuminate some of my own thinking about blogging in the classroom.

Although I have never experienced first-hand (first-foot?) dance improv, I have for years watched classes and performances at Middlebury College led by Penny Campbell and Peter Schmitz, and so on some level I knew that improv was about feeling patterns, about awareness of spatial relationships, about discovering connections in the moment. Ha–see where this is going? patterns, relationships, connections.

Saturday, Susan Sgorbati, a dance prof at Bennington, opened the evening with a little explanation of what she’s up to in this work. She is collaborating right now with scientists in La Jolla and at MIT on emergence–what happens to organisms and biological processes when no one is the leader, no one is scripting the action, something dancers have long understood within their own work. As she talked, and then as the dancers danced, I kept seeing the improvisation unfolding on the floor in front of me as a visualization of what’s going on here on this blog, in my classroom, and out in the blogosphere. I kept seeing Steven Johnson’s slime mold, his ant colonies though the dancers looked nothing like either of those organisms!

In the O’Reilly interview with Johnson about emergence, he turns to blogs:

To me, the thing that has to happen to the individual blogs is that they’re still too centered around the personality of the blogger him- or herself. They’re still too limited to emailing the blogger, or a crude bulletin board. What I would love to see is, one way or another, by force of personality or whatever, to have these clusters of 100 or 200 or maybe 1,000 people who offered real contributions and collectively owned the thing

IN the two years since that interview, that’s exactly what’s happening through trackback and RSS feeds. In some ways, the blogosphere is behaving magnificently according to emergence theory.

But we just don’t quite buy it in the classroom yet. Why don’t we take the time to have our students interact with our course content and each other spontaneously? Susan Sgorbati used my daughter’s experience in the workshop as an example, explaining that Nora had a well-defined vocabulary of ballet, modern, jazz and hip-hop technique and choreography that she used and undertood, but what she didn’t yet have was a way to use this vocabulary to find her own dance, and to see what would happen when it was bumped up against other dancers’ and musicians’ idioms. She hadn’t dared let the rules go!

What I saw that evening when Nora danced her solo piece, was a whole new dancer. She broke through to a new understanding of the space of dance, of the silences and the jamming that happens between a dancer and a musician. At dinner afterwards she said that she had gained in those two weeks a new, deeper understanding of the processes and goals and possibilities of dance. Two weeks.

I want that for my students, too. I want them to feel their own, personal singular voice as writer and budding scholar and then explore how it interacts, intersects, connects with an outer world–the classroom community and the world beyond. This is how in 12 weeks our students can take ownership of their learning, and see how they have a meaningful impact on their environment–this is how they can learn far more than any combination of classroom discussions and lectures and traditional writing assignments. I’m convinced of that.

Blogging has a role to play in this new classroom: it invites the staccato dynamism of improv under the exacting, even skeptical, eye of the audience much as performance dance does. It invites interaction and community-building. It allows individual voice, and on a group blog, it demands collaboration. I see the group blog as one of those group improv pieces performed that evening, and the individual blog as Nora’s piece. The more the blogger listens to the other bloggers dancing on their keyboards, and the new media explorers, and the thinkers in their fields and then play with a snese of the spatial and thematic relationships the more interesting and useful the blogs will get.

There are differences, of course, too–important differences: whereas dance vanishes, leaving no outer trace after the step is done, blogging stays there, archived, to be returned to and connected to again and again. And we blogging teachers are lucky in this, for we can point to blog moments and say, here! Here, you’ve pulled us all in; here you have hit a chord–what is it and how might you hit another one? How will you keep that freshness and thoughtfulness?

I’m thinking of having my classes do some movement improv as a way into the blog and as a way for arts writers to understand a thing or two about performance. Gotta think more on how I might do that well…

Questions of Audience

Thanks to the generous coverage by Will Richardson, I now have 20 subscribers to this blog. It’s a funny thing, the question of readership, of audience, and how I feel about it for myself and this space, and how I feel about it for my students and their blogging. It ties in with what I was talking about in Friday’s posting about the New Localism and scaleability. It ties in with what a lot of us were discussing during Blogwalk 3 in Vienna. And it ties in with a central issue in my upcoming Writing Across the Arts course: relationships between writers and readers.

It brings to mind the question I get at conferences and in my own college halls about why I want my students to post their work to the world. Who indeed am I writing for? Who are my students writing for? Why is it that people abandon their blogs–is it because no one is responding? Is it because the responsibility for saying something meaningful gets to be too much? What does it mean to have readers who do not respond or do not link but merely read our writing in a medium that is all about the linking, the commenting? How does public blogging affect our whole notion of classroom community, of what constitutes a viable mode of academic discourse?

First off, I think that Will, in a remarkable discussion on his blog way back in March over the course of a couple of days, articulated an important distinction between blogging and writing:

Writing stops, blogging continues. Writing is inside, blogging is outside. Writing is monologue, blogging is conversation. Writing is thesis, blogging is synthesis…none of which minimizes the importance of writing. But it’s becoming more clear just what the importance of blogging might be.

If blogging is indeed conversation , then what we are we doing when we seem to be blogging into the wind, with little response from the outside world? I’ve thought about this a bit, and truth be told, after I’ve written something that pleases me here, that I think says something useful and the next day I find that no one has found it or had something to say in return, I feel a little let down. But not really. Not for long.

This blog is, after all, still fledgling–I’ve been using blogs in my classrooms for three years, yes, but I’ve only been going about my own personal/professional blogging for three months. And even though the fact that I am writing within a public forum that is unbelievably accessible makes it tempting to get sidetracked into a daydream about the many people reading this blog–ha– I do know that the primary conversation I am having here is with myself as a reader and a writer and a teacher. It is what my old fiction writing teacher David Huddle used to say about a writer’s necessary relationship with the writing: you write for the good of the piece first, then for the good of yourself, and third for the good of your intended reader. Blogging is a little looser than that, for I, at least, don’t attend to the writing in quite the same way as I do for a more static, non-conversational medium (i.e. print). The blog is a place for me to ruminate on what I read and what I’m thinking about trying out in my classes. As E.M. Forster put it, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” It’s a chance to synthesize what I read in the blogging world and push myself to learn and to grow as a teacher through this experience. And if I write for a sometimes phantom audience outside myself, well, the potential of having a readership beyond myself forces me to write to my best, to commit to what it is I’m putting down here, even in this informal, draft-like meditation. Above all, for me, it all comes back to my teaching–it’s about modeling and experimenting and experiencing–if I ask my students to blog and moblog and voblog and mess around big time with media, then, well I had better be doing it myself to feel the fulll effects of what I’m asking of them.

And the issue of audience is a major part of what we’re after in our teaching:
Ken Smith, as part of that discussion on Will’s blog, makes many important points about the intersections between blogging and audience, among them, this one:

And maybe that means that links are vital for new bloggers for a completely non-constructive reason. Instead of assigning students to go write, we should assign them to go read and then link to what interests them and write about why it does and what it means, not in order to make a connection or build social capital but because it is through quality linking (not the flaccid A-list stuff I spoofed above) that one first comes in contact with the essential acts of blogging: close reading and interpretation. Blogging, at base, is writing down what you think when you read others. If you keep at it, others will eventually write down what they think when they read you, and you’ll enter a new realm of blogging, a new realm of human connection.

Yes. That’s it. That’s why I insist that my students write publically. Colleagues frequently ask me why my course blogs are open to the public– some think it’s unseemly to post raw drafts to the world, even irresponsible for student work to be out there at all. I counter by saying that I am, after all, trying to teach my students to see writing as a process, and as an act of communication, a kind of call-and-response with what we read and hear and know. Within our class community, the foundations of which are laid from the first time we meet on the blog and in the classroom, we see the value of blogging as connective tissue, as a way to create Lévy’s knowledge space, his sense of collective intelligence–collaborative blogging does that beautifully.

But why extend our reach into the world beyond the classroom? How are we not adding to the noise on the Web? Well, we most certainly do add clutter to the Web because not everything we write is particaulrly interesting to anyone, even ourselves. But as Ken Smith points out, we can, even in 12 weeks, perhaps earn an audience. If someone out there beyond the borders of our class happens upon a student essay on Ireland, say, and comments on it, pointing out discrepancies with the facts, or another perspective on the events examined–wow–how fabulous! The students have to go back and rethink their arguments or their structure or their style. Feedback. Efficacy-in-action. Here’s an example of just that happening to my students last fall. Their writing about events and places of Ireland had an impact on someone who grew up in the village we examined.

One student, in her reflection a the end of last fall’s Contemporary Ireland course, said a good many insightful things about the value of the blog, among them:

“This class taught me how to say something meaningful, and how to say it well. Perhaps the moment the extensive nature of this class really hit me was when I was doing a google search for another project in this class. One of the first links that came up said “Barrie’s review of The Field.” I couldn’t believe it. I was on google. Something I wrote could be read by millions of people around the world. Then I got nervous. I hope that if anyone ever reads it they find it useful.”

So for my students blogging is about our small community, yes, but it also about the potential to have an impact on a larger audience as well.

But how large an audience do we want, do we need?

At <a href=”http://www.blogtalk.net”target=”_blank&#8221; Blogtalk Mena Trott told a story about her own blog and how she had set out to be an A-list blogger:

“I decided that I wanted a readership of tens of thousands. I had a goal.

So, I started my weblog, and wrote the sort of posts that made me a popular read. I wrote about my life, but not about any sort of details that I wouldn’t want my parents to read. I wrote with the clear understanding that Google and the WayBack Machine would hold me accountable for everything I said. I wrote responsibly and frequently and in little less than a year I had grown a readership of about 10,000-15,000 unique readers a day. “

Then she makes a discovery:

Well, it took a couple years to realize that I didn’t in fact want to write and reach tens of thousands. I wanted to reach 10 or 20 people, my close friends and family and a handful of webloggers I communicated with in real life (also known as friends)…
I wanted to reach a smaller audience, an intimate audience. Clay Shirky gave a talk at the first Emerging Tech conference in California and explained that on LiveJournal, a diary/weblogging service that has a fairly young user base, the average number of friends a livejournaler has is about 6 to 12. This amazed us since we assumed, that their behaviour and linking patterns would be similar to webloggers. Blogrolls tend to be long and visitor traffic is coveted. Communication in groups of 6 or 12 is easy to maintain. These magic numbers work online and offline.”

And this, in effect, is what I’m seeking–for myself and for my students, and here I finally get back to my previous posting about the New Localism: I love to read other blogs that make up discrete yet fluid communities–I don’t participate but I learn and then come back to my own blog and reflect on what I learn from them. Then if I keep finding myself drawn back to their blogs, their conversation, I start to trackback, or even leave a comment. But I don’t do so on the run. I don’t comment very often except on the bogs that form part of my working community such as Héctor’s blog because he’s a part of my blog/work/social community.

It’s a fascinating balance between the local and global promise of blogging: writing for the small group (and the self) while welcoming new members of that group and hoping for fresh insight from the larger audience. In my fall arts writing class we will be looking at audience from all kinds of perspectives, and we’ll be blogging about it for ourselves and for a largely unknown, invisible audience. And I am certain that this collaborative endeavor will help me think more clearly about my relationship as a blogger with the reader/writer self and the reader/writer other. Can’t wait!

Social Software and the New Localism

Lee Bryant’s Headshift points to an egovmonitor piece on social software in local communities, quoting:

…we are increasingly seeing social software being used for the development of voluntary, bottom-up social networks around the common interest of the locality. In short, the internet is becoming more local. At the same time, the demands upon councils are changing. The New Localism agenda reflects a growing consensus that the needs of modern communities cannot be delivered through centralist, ‘one size fits all’ approaches”

Exactly. Heed that, standards-based education advocates: “The New Localism agenda reflects a growing consensus that the needs of modern communities cannot be delivered through centralist, ‘one size fits all’ approaches.”

It’s what we’re talking about with blogs in the classroom–how their very mutability and the fact that they are socially based allow them to adapt to whatever learning situation we are in–bending to personalities, tasks, disciplines and goals–and move students to think in terms of community instead of in terms of self. The blog is a catalyst for emergent behavior in the classroom, and even though we rarely arrive at where we thought we were going, isn’t that the point when communities convene to discuss the pressures of development, say, or students explore contemporary Irish literature, or fifth graders engage with a local issue?

Ah, and that means, someone has to relinquish control…