Chaos in the Classroom, Magic on the Blog

My class must look pretty nuts to many people who stroll by our door– we speed through the history of arts reviewing in fifteen minutes and then spend twenty playing with a few words. We talk a lot and laugh a lot. We argue a bit too–about what makes good reviewing and bad, about how Dave Hickeymanages to travel from the most conversational digressions to absolute stylistic virtuosity within a matter of a couple of sentences, and about what Nabokov is up to in his story “Music” and how his hapless Victor may well be the best reviewer of music imaginable through his visceral, deeply felt experience of a piece he cannot even name by a composer he doesn’t know. The details of the syllabus emerge as we go in response to the direction taken by the class writing and discussion. The group agreed to let me put togeher the readings and writing assignments only a week ahead of them, so I can capitalize on where they are in their development right then at that point in the semester. It’s a lot of work, yes, but already I see this improvisational method of teaching paying off (and I do take to heart something I learned from the dance performance I blogged a few weeks ago–that the improv artists are the most well-prepared of them all).

Five classes into the semester and the artswriting blog is not only up and running —THANKS to the fabulous skill and effort (and creativity and patience) of my colleagues, Héctor Vila and Paul Amsbary— already, even though I need to do some tweaking and posting of many of the web resources for the class to explore, it is inspiring my students to work beyond what they thought they could do in this genre. They are writing thoughtfully and artfully about themselves, searching for their subject matter, their voice, their form, and their media. They are not at all afraid of the five-blogs-embedded within the sixth phenomenon, and seem pretty excited about putting their work out into the world.

Perhaps I am seeing the first group of students to take my artswriting course who are true native speakers of computer media–many more seem to find mixing media a natural means of expression than, say, two years ago. They don’t mind responding to one another on the blog, and they are embracing the community-collaborative aspect of the course design. And they’re delighted to be stretching their creative as well as critical faculties, playing around with simple movies, with oranges and text, with poems mixing with prose. Now I see the trouble I’ve landed myself in–keeping up with them!

Next week we have Janet Murray visiting Middlebury for the Clifford Symposium, and our class to talk about the future of narrative. We will explore with her the ways in which our use of the computer changes stories, and changes the classroom narrative altogether. I am interested in how introducing this new means of expression into our midst also necessitates a repositioning of the teacher within the class, which means that the classroom story is no longer hers–or at least primarily hers.

The following evening Siva Vaidhyanathan will talk about copyright and copywrong–a topic that comes up daily in my classes because of our desire to respond to art by “entering” the art–using it in our responses, or cobbling together a response to an artwork from a collage of our own original work and that of others (duly cited, of course).

These are fascinating and essential arenas for our students to enter, to think about and discuss–as they try out new ways of “writing,” they need to ask what effects these changes are having on the old systems still in place. What, for instance, is the effect of using images as well as words–what do images do to the words surrounding them? I see my students and the remarkable crew inHéctor’s seminartaking on the challenge of working within a collaborative to explore the thorny questions of community, responsibility, activism and the complexities of this networked world. His fourteen students have forged such a powerful bond as a group, first online, then in an intensive one-week residential workshop (PIE) and now in the seminar that they are, in my book, working well beyond any group of first-years I’ve ever seen. Héctor works his magic, absolutely, and is reaping the rewards–they need no pushing to get on the blog and to respond carefully, respectfully, and fully–they call themselves on missing opportunities within their posts, even. I am floored and find it hard to believe that anyone looking on at this classroom hasn’t seen the effectiveness of such an educational experience. As Matt Jennings, editor of Middlebury Magazine, said to me after observing the class a few days ago, “I want to go back to school–to this class!”

More to watch on those course blogs — in fact, they’re proving much more interesting than this wee blog–because there are many voices being heard, they are taking on fascinating issues in the arts and communities, and they are experimenting with media. Stay tuned…

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