Journey to Classroom Blogging

I’ve been away from the blog for almost two weeks (directing a program, teaching in another, having one’s father land in the hospital, and struggling to meet a publication deadline all make it very difficult to get to the blog–though taking a break is a good thing–letting the field lie fallow, as it were, makes it more fertile) and have in that short time accumulated a list of topics on which I’d like to blog over the next few weeks/months, topics ranging from what teaching Dave Hickey Air Guitar in particular– will bring my students (what will they say about his take on art and the Academy?) to responses I’ve been getting from artists about blog overkill. But those will have to wait for another post.

Héctor Vila keeps exhorting me to talk about my journey to blogging, because to paraphrase him speaking to me: “That’s what’s interesting, that’s what’s important about what you’re doing and needs to be put out there,” and it’s bothering me enough now–I’m seeing it now, or admitting it–that I’m going to explore that journey a bit here, as a start to a longer essay, perhaps, on the non-techie classroom teacher’s adventures in technology. And since I never got around to writing an “About” page, this will serve as one, just as it will also, I hope, serve to point to some ways we might consider our relationship with technology as we unleash it in our classrooms.

The part of the story that everyone loves to hear because they can indentify with it has to do with my humble beginnings as an out-there classroom technology user: Three years ago practically to the day, I went from zero to “a bit of technology” in the classroom. I wasn’t looking for technology, I wasn’t looking at it–it wasn’t even on the radar screen until I had what turned out to be a fateful dinner-party conversation with one Héctor Vila, who was checking out classroom blogging as one of the tools that might enable creative teachers to do more of the things they were trying to do while acknowledging, facing, the time and place we live in: a world saturated with technology.

I get into it a little in my BLOGTALK paper–here’s the excerpt:

2. The Reluctant Evangelist: A Teacher Comes to Blogging

A lecturer in the Writing Program and English Department at Middlebury College, I have degrees in art history and literature; I have no formal background in rhetoric and composition, in education theory, in communications, in media studies, in cyber studies or in technology. I teach such courses as Contemporary Ireland Through Fiction and Film, Introduction to Creative Writing, Writing Across the Arts, and The Writing Process. I am a successful, competent classroom teacher of many years, comfortable in her liberal arts setting and confident in her course content. Until I brought weblogs into my classrooms, I was also a reluctant user of technology. I was under the impression that technology would serve as a distracter, a shiny and compelling tool that seduced students into mistaking superficial research and handsome-looking essays for deep, sustained inquiry.

What could possibly possess me to consider incorporating weblogs into classrooms that are already productive? In a word: students. Described elsewhere in some detail (Ganley et al, 2002, 9), I have observed a growing cultural divide within my students who, on the surface, appear unchanged in profile over the years: Middlebury students are almost without exception affable, hardworking, and highly accomplished. They are eager to please and eager to succeed. They come to class prepared to perform: to listen, absorb, discuss, produce what they have learned. In many ways, they are ideal students.

However, I have noticed an unsettling trend: just as the world outside our doors is becoming increasingly volatile, the work of my students is becoming more predictable—not less accomplished, just comfortably, dutifully competent, as if they sit in boxes to think in boxes, boxes equipped with a set of clear instructions to follow and with direct lifelines to the teacher. They rarely make an unchoreographed move. Yet outside the classroom, these same young people are engaging in the “dynamic staccato dance” of Instant Messenger interaction and its playful, emergent vocabulary and grammar; they are experimenting with images and video and sound files within their own personal computing spaces (Ganley et al, 2002, 9). On the one hand, they crave clear parameters and easy-to follow rules on the road to the all-important academic success; on the other hand, they are cobbling together inventive pastiches made-as-they-go with cell phones, digital cameras, mp3 players. They are connecting with the world and one another; indeed, if “the aspiration of our time for wholeness, empathy and depth of awareness is a natural adjunct of electric technology,” (McLuhan, 1964, 5), they are seeking it online and out of class.

Whereas their out-of-class actions are efficacious, having an impact on their immediate environment, their actions inside the classroom remain performances for the teacher, for evaluation, cheerfully undertaken because that is, after all, what one does in a classroom: listen to the teachers. But what do they really take from these classes? What do they retain months and years after the experience? In focusing their gaze on the teacher, they often do not know one another’s names: the word community to describe the grouping of individuals within the classroom is becoming a misnomer. But is it not too easy to blame the students and their machines? After all, has not school taught them to train their eyes on us, the experts, the authorities, more than on themselves and one another and what they are trying to learn? They are behaving themselves impeccably, as directed. And year by year, with each successive class, the chasm within them widens. They inhabit discreet, parallel worlds kept quite separate from one another. Am I unwittingly encouraging my students to adopt split personae a la Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? Am I contributing to a new kind of digital, cultural divide? (Thorne, 2003, 2; Lankshear and Knobel, 2003, 1) How can I get them to bring that inventiveness, that energy into the classroom, and how can my demand for deep, sustained inquiry aid their personal growth?

To return some of that liveliness to the classroom and at the same time to foster clear, critical thinking means more than pulling into the classroom their own media: the internet, the chat, the phone and the digital camera. Equipment, gadgets, technology on their own are mere distractions if there is no clear and necessary relationship established between them and the situation into which they are introduced. Incorporating these platforms and tools as a means of working towards a fully integrated educational experience requires re-envisioning the entire classroom experience. The work has to have relevance to their lives; it has to matter. To matter, the work must have an impact on the world the students inhabit; each student must feel essential to our endeavor. It means efficacious learning achieved through turning the classroom over to the students and demanding growth in return. To steal from the architects, we dare explore how form follows function, how our methods and structures grow out of our inquiry to suit it. To do so necessitates building a bridge between the classroom and the real world, through authentic activities, “which are usually project-based, and the complexity of the activity represents the kinds of tasks that are often undertaken outside the classroom” (Halvarais, 2004, 2-3). It means infiltrating the students’ natural habitat—communication technologies—to accomplish these goals in the liberal arts classroom.

To introduce social software in the classroom, the students and their teacher must work as a social entity, as a collaborative linked to and communicating among themselves with the world. Such transformations take time, and indeed over the course of three years my students have experienced an evolving, gradual integration of weblogs into my courses, from an initial first use of the medium as a simple course management system to individual student weblogs linked to a course weblog, and finally to a single collaborative public MOTHERBLOG, to which we all contribute, and for which we are all responsible. The weblog is at once backgrounded as invisible mechanism for course activities as it is foregrounded as locus, as space for collaboration and connectivity. The weblog itself becomes Lévy’s knowledge space (Levy, 1997, 5); blogging becomes a new form of communication that facilitates efficacy and emergent behavior within the classroom.

The technologically-challenged teacher learns to adapt as she adapts the weblog to suit the needs of the course; after all, “weblogs are not special because of their technology, but because of the practices and authorship they shape. And it is a practice that will require a weblog author to be ‘connected’ to process, discourses and communities” (Wrede, 2003, 2), which in turn forces the teacher to listen ever harder for correspondences as she learns to conduct this unruly, unfinished, evolving learning experience.

I thought the section pretty much covered it until today when HV told me that I had touched upon only the coming to technology, not the full effect of integrating it, what it entailed outside the classroom in order to make it work inside the classroom. Yes, I was a creative, daring teacher who had always been willing to try out just about anything in my classroom if it had a chance to engage my students effectively with their learning. That is one of the characteristics possessed by all those who truly integrate technology into their classrooms because it might just help make the classroom a better place for the students and then for the world. That’s a necessary given. But it isn’t enough; it ain’t the whole story, and that’s the very part of the story I need to consider.

So here’s my confession though it might well turn many teachers away from technology altogether:

Incorporating technology into the classroom is not a kinda, sorta, maybe thing–as Hemingway said about prose, it’s “architecture not interior decoration.” For the teacher it means sitting inside the process of being and becoming and acknowledging that the building is unlike anything we’ve ever been in. Everyone knows that reading or writing (or whatever it is that we do) on a screen is not the same as on paper–but we teachers don’t spend enough time thinking about what impact that has on our teaching. We are so cavalier in our desire for ease and speed–

Using technology in our classrooms thrusts the teacher, whether she likes it or not, into an ongoing, at times mystifying learning process: there’s a learning curve involved here, for thoughtful integration of the computer into our classrooms demands a willingness to understand the relationship of cyberstudies to critical pedagogical and social theory; it takes a teacher who is willing to invest a considerable amount of time and effort into getting to know a world heretofore unknown to her. She has to play around; she has to ask questions; she has to fumble in the dark. It isn’t about asking the technologists to do it for her so she can get to the teaching. She’s gotta venture down the road herself. Otherwise she might unwittingly do what was done unto her a bit earlier this evening: a Powerpoint presentation delivered by the Driver’s Ed teacher at her daughter’s high school. Slide after slide saying things such as #10 Say goodnight; # 7 Question and Answer Session; #3 Thanks for Coming!– Why did he need technology at all? To give us something to look at? To have something to do with himself while he spoke? Because it is expected of us now? It was thoroughly depressing. If we depend on technology as a means of teaching and learning–if we use blogs in our classrooms, for example–we have to think about what exactly they are and what they mean if we are to have any chance of steering the course of technology integration into higher ed classrooms.

Right now, if truth be told, I’ve virtually embarked on my own graduate program of study into art and technology, cybertheory, hypertext theory, not to mention understanding research on communities. This isn’t Kansas anymore, Toto. Where’s my Heaney and Toibin, my McGahern and Boylan, I ask myself at times. Things were a lot easier, certainly, before I mucked about with computers in my work, things were simpler. I’m feeling like Brendan the Navigator, if I stick to my Irish imagery, and thanking my lucky cyberstars that I’ve spent some time puzzling out those celestial bodies for the ways they let me read them as a kind of map across the ocean.

And honestly, I can’t pull out a nice, neat proof to support my contention that my students are better off using technology than not, but I do know that it’s helping me to challenge them to examine any smug certainty they might be harboring about how the world is and how we might express our sense of it. I sure do know that it is testing me, forcing me to reflect, to put my beliefs and gifts as a teacher on the line day after day, and I know that my students are excited about having an opportunity to do something a bit different from what they do in other classes, to do something that seems to mean something out there in the world, at least for a moment.

So, here I am, on the brink of starting a new semester, once again scratching my head and saying how did I ever get here, in this place where I’m as likely to check out a new art website as I am to read a new Irish story, knowing that I have to keep up with developments in cyberspace just as I have to keep up with new novels coming out of Ireland. You don’t just pull a chapter of Ulysses in to the classroom without trying to understand what the heck’s going on in it yourself, after all.

And so I read Lévy and Lessig, Johnson and Murray, Ascott and Rheingold; I pore over Bernstein and Landow, Bolter and Weinberger. I present at blogging conferences, and at digital storytelling workshops; I mess around with multi-media tools and mapping applications; I think about mo-blogging and streaming video into collaborative web projects. I talk with colleagues; I blog my as-they-form thoughts. That’s excessive, probably, but it gives me a firm ground on which to stand as I, a non-techie teacher, experiment with the frontiers of teaching with technology.

And yes, it means that in the class we discuss how technology is mediating our work, and so, yes, we read fewer Iirsh novels in the bargain. But I am a big believer in less is more if what we’re engaging our students in is an integrated, powerful learning experience–and to do that we have to grow, we have to be challenged: learning is not learning if it is static, yes?. I haven’t seen anything that makes my classroom as rich as does the interaction of blogging, digital multi-media work, asynchronous discussions, face-to-face classroom meetings, reading, writing, thinking, playing with the computer in that mix. And so, I’ll keep educating myself, puzzling it out as I go. Pretty obvious, yes?

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2 Responses

  1. just to let you know — you are educating the lurkers too. I am indebted to your personal, professional quest more that you will ever know.

  2. > pour over Bernstein and Landow, Bolter and Weinberger.

    Not that I mind one bit, thanks, bit I believe you want to pore over us. After which, you might want to pour yourself a stiif drink.

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