If handing blogs to students means a shift in the way they write, then shouldn’t it also mean a shift in the way we look at their writing?

Why are we having such a hard time INTEGRATING rather than applying technology in all but a very few classes? — Perhaps because blogging seems not to honor the high-level formalized version of Bloom’s taxonomy that we’ve come to associate with “good college writing and thinking.” This isn’t any earth-shaking revelation. But it’s something I find myself talking to people about almost every day.

Dennis Jerz, in notes from a 2004 CCCCs presentation on the Forced Blogging Paradigm, mentions the tension between blogging formal papers and “real” blogging, which is of course more fluid, more improvisational than much of the writing assigned in classrooms.
With this tension comes the teacher’s reluctance to make or adjust to corresponding shifts in the entire classroom paradigm, in the role of the teacher.

In the 1970s and 80s, following the lead of Peter Elbow and Donald Graves , among others, we focussed on process–how to get ideas stirring and on the paper, how to infuse the process with energy and excitement. This kind of writing instruction is now limiting–we have to move beyond this now codified approach. Of course, detractors think that blogging embraces the messiness, the anything-goes-mentality, the very worst of the writing-process; and on first view, student blogging can be extremely undisciplined and informal, dynamically unruly in its humor and irreverence, its disregard for rules and conventions. Yup, this work unsettles just about everyone–still–teachers, administrators, parents and even the students themselves. We hand over the reins of our courses in large part to the students themselves. At least, this is my approach. And sometimes our students write downright incoherent entries due to a lack of simple copyediting , (take this recent one on my artswriting blog, for example). What do we do? Do we jump in and correct the mistakes, clean it up before the world sees and judges? Or do we wait to see what the class will say or do? Will anyone notice? Will anyone care? And if they don’t?

On the collaborative class blog, a doubly public space (student writing being thus published to the class community and to the anonymous blog-reading public beyond), we shift our focus to pointing out what is working and where, and what questions have been overlooked, or when a potential avenue has not been considered. We treat student writers as worthy and able contributors to the larger, historical conversation about our subject matter. And so (no matter how much we might want to from time to time) we don’t jump all over them on the blog. Or at least, we don’t ink up their writing. We keep them writing, joining the conversation, learning by doing, learning by reading, learning by making mistakes. To some it seems as though this slow-response mode means that we’re letting kids get away with shoddy writing. And once we add multi-media options into the mix–forget it, we’ve bought into the whole easy-is-best, lowest-common-denominator-works-fine American reality, our detractors worry. Parents worry. (I heard another set of them ask just that question this past weekend during a presentation of student multi-media work.)

And yet because the work is truly published, they do not ultimately get away with sloppy thinking or writing, except in the most informal spaces on the blog. They do not hide behind process the way many did in the 70s and 80s. They see all their previous posts and all those by their cohorts, and they learn from their mistakes. Right there in the open.

In a way, we’re returning to the old Socratic classroom ideal and also to the English system of the tutorial, saying to our students, “Go on–through the blog, check out the world and what’s going on; try out your writing out there. What kind of response do you get? And then in class and in my office we’ll talk about effective writing. We’ll put pressure on it. Then you’ll go out and try again.”

When I took a look today at some of the writing starting to open up on the artswriting blog–especially between writers–I see them loosening the chains, the fetters of AP English thinking and writing; I see them asking questions of one another to get them to push the writing along. Until they have something to say and feel that they’ve gotta say it, the lessons of sentence variety and structure and rhetorical grammar will not matter. Publishing raises the stakes; they want to move their readers, to entertain them, to educate them–they are writing for a real rather than a manufactured or nonexistent audience. They are writing with purpose and so begin to ask me questions in those f2f conferences about flow and style, about voice and humor, about the hows and the whys.
And then I make them read and emulate, and tear apart what they read from a writer’s perspective.

So I don’t use blogs in my classes for my students’ personal rants or diaries, but as a public space in which we must try to reach our readers and move them; we don’t want to contribute to needless fill in the blogosphere. We should want our writing to count, to matter, to move something or someone–every time–if we get favorable responses that strike us as honest and authentic, then we’ll know we’ve written well or at least not badly, and that writing matters, our writing matters.


People Outside the Classroom Don’t Get It, But the Students Do…

Blogging is too cool to be the stuff of the serious schoolroom, yes?
Making digital stories is no better than wasting time on yet another lame poster project in high school social studies class, right?

Funny question–have the people who feel this way ever blogged? Have they tried to manipulate the balance between image, sound and text as a means of expression? Do they blog regularly? Have they experienced the potential of what Ken Smith points out in his response to a recent conference keynote on his

Weblogs in Higher Education blog:
Genres to nurture fragments of insight. In this morning’s keynote talk at the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning conference (IS-SOTL), Randy Bass said that he and his colleagues at CNDLS (Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship) were looking for ways to use the web to help with the process of making new knowledge. He said that some familiar genres, like the scholarly article, can end up feeling flatter, less rich, than the body of knowledge, experience, and practice they grow out of. The articles also tend to lost track of some insights that arise during the process of inquiry. So, he said, he and his collaborators were looking for genres that could help nurture the fragments of insight that emerge during that process. Of course I thought about blogging…

This is, indeed, one of the reasons for blogging in the classroom–especially for undergraduates who are beginning to have real insight into their chosen fields but tend to be all over the place–they can put fragments out there, small attempts to articulate something they’ve observed. And little by little, because those fragments are gathered, archived and linked, they can assemble more extended arguments, narratives and syntheses.

Other reasons for blogging–and why it isn’t empty messing-around or a privileging of sloppy thinking & writing–that are showing up in my Artswriting class –and ones that people don’t always understand if they haven’t tried it out themselves:

–Blogs as places for informal writing and responding.
Blogs can free students to have conversations-in-writing about issues that matter to them (and to the course) but that they haven’t tested; how having those conversations promotes good thinking and good writing. Take a look, for example, at this blog conversation. The students are trying to convince one another and yet are willing to revise themselves as they go. Furthermore, the discussions, unlike on forums or discussion boards, are woven right into the larger fabric of the entire course conversation, represented by the full blog–in all its flaws and glory. Seeing the most informal, error-riddled improv prose side-by-side with formal, polished, even scholarly essays makes valuable points about various means of discourse and their appropriateness and effectiveness.

–Blogs as Virtual Knowledge Spaces Foster Co-learning
My students have started bemoaning the fact that now that they are immersed in the solo aspect of digital-story making, they miss having constant access to the processes of their classmates. They want to see behind the scenes of their peers works-in-progress. When they begin to falter in their own process, they boot up the blog and take a look at what everyone else has come up with in response to the assignment. They take inspiration from one another through the blog.

–Blogs as Teacher-Development Tools
That my students are feeling the lack of in-process pieces of the digital stories makes me have to re-evaluate what I’ve done and asked them to do. I see that I should have been asking them to post their works as they are being created. Why not have a soundless string of images embedded and then getting some feedback on how they’re affecting my viewer? I can revise my teaching as I go–this is hugely beneficial to my students, of course!

To be continued…

Students and Multi-Media Narrative

One of my students from last year’s Contemporary Ireland first-year seminar is runner up for Middlebury’s Ward Prize in First Year Writing. Amanda Tavel’s project, “From the Frontier of Writing”, on writers from the North of Ireland, is, I believe, the first web-based project to do so well in this competition.

I am delighted for her because she is a splendid and creative writer and deserves recognition for her work, and because she took some risks in this project. Many times students are so concerned about evaluation that they make decisions based on what they think will “play well” with the teacher. Of the three student works I nominated for the prize, Amanda’s was, on the one hand, the most conservative in terms of use of the multi-media Web medium: in essence she used links and embedded films and images into what otherwise looks quite a bit like a college essay handed in on paper (if you could hand in movies on paper, that is). But what distinguishes Amanda’s project from others, even those more daring than hers in terms of playing with the medium, is that she used digital stories in a way no one else has done around here: to interpret literature. She created a two-three minute film to interpret a Seamus Heaney poem. She also did a nice job of using links to fold in earlier work of the semester, her process, her reflection on the process, her classmates’ related work, and sources out in the world beyond the school. It is a lovely project, and it’s good to see that our school is beginning to value such projects as examples of exemplary writing.

Every little step…

On another note–
I now have a student research assistant (another one of our most creative and bold innovators) who is helping me look at how students at other institutions are using social software and multi-media applications in interesting, effective ways. I’d love to hear from anyone who reads this blog (if anyone actually does) who has students playing around with Web authoring to fulfill traditional assignments.

Moving Into Digital Storytelling

It’s midterm and my students are working through their scripts as they prepare to make digital stories to embed on the blog–it’s interesting how this is the first crop I’ve had in class who actually know (or think they know) what a digital story is. And they are bored by them–“the clichéd mix of image/voiceover/soundtrack” just isn’t interesting –they see through the hoopla of the “new” way of writing a story.

Now that digital stories are no longer new, no longer intimidating, my students are being more critical, asking tough questions about how if we choose to use image and sound in our authoring on and for the Web, they have to do more than recreate the text. They have to do something other than write the same story, with illustrations and cool music.

Touché! Although we hear the Tarnation-type stories about kids and iMOVIE, mostly we watch glorified slide shows of the same old story. My students want more–and some of them are graduating to FinalCut and Premiere; some of them are interested in using FLASH or in playing around with other tools and dreams. They are questioning, doubting, and demanding. They sense what Michael Joyce points out in his essay “Forms of Future” in Rethinking Media Change:

“The emergence of a truly electronic narrative art form awaits the pooling of a communal genius, a gathering of cultural impulses, of vernacular technologies, and most importantly of common yearnings which can find neither a better representation nor a more satisfactory confirmation than what electronic media can offer…There is astonishing creativity everywhere but there has not as yet emerged any form which promises either widely popular or deeply artistic impact.”

The important thing here, I think, is not that students making digital stories are doing something new, but that they are showing a new openness to experimentation, to re-seeing form and voice, perspective and language through this kind of multi-media authoring. No longer am I urging my students to consider others kinds of authoring in addition to the traditional scholarly essay –they expect we’ll do a little multi-media authoring in my classes, but they want it to do their ideas justice. A year ago, many of my students were tentative, clumsy, even, with the tools–now they want to make them sing and to be used for good reason.

I think this bodes well for this set of digital stories. Yes,it’s true, as Héctor points out to me on a daily basis, we haven’t got a clue what we’re doing with the intersection of these tools–it’s all a mess, but I am delighted by the messes my students are making. They are pushing themselves to make sense of this online authoring. They are pushing me to articulate clearly my goals for this work. And then there’s the issue of time and training–I’ve had to back away from Premiere for the whole group (being a MAC user, I just learned how to use it myself and thus have to depend on Paul to set up a workshop, but he’s swamped, and so I am back to iMOVIE). They help me slow down and take stock, to ask if this is the best use of our time. And I return again and again with the response–yes, sometimes it is difficult to see the value of something we don’t fully understand, but there’s no getting around the fact that this work brings together our classroom community, forces us to get out of ruts of thinking and expression, and lets us be playful and creative.

And so I turn to some tutorial sites that will enable them to work efficiently, to accomplish at least some of their ideas in far too short a time (they need much more time than I can give them just to muck about with the tools):

Some good, helpful sites:

Photoshop tutorials

Free Pics

Apple’s Tips on Making iMOVIEs

Mac Tips and Tricks

Free Sample Plug-ins

The Unofficial iMOVIE FAQs

Advanced iMOVIE tips

Australia, Canada, France Blogging

Once again I find myself turning to bloggers from across the sea as I seek to ground the art in the scholarship, and to break away from viewing authoring on the web as just a means of publishing the things my students and I could do just as well without the Web.

I turn a good deal to people I met at BLOGTALK2, including Lee Bryant and Suw Charman at Headshift, and Mikel Maron with his WorldKitin England; Ton Zylstra in The Netherlands, and from Canada, the inimitableRoland Tanglao and Cyprien Lomas in addition to Aaron Campbell and others.

But I find myself heading to Australia on most days, especially when I’m feeling a little stale, a little uninspired. Just look at the exhibition,Australia Culture Now 2004 when you need help remembering why you’re doing this in the face of a lot of resistance. Of the many bloggers down there doing interesting and fresh work, Adrian Miles is keeping perhaps the most interesting blog of allVideoblog:Vog.2, the first filled with exceptional insights into Web authoring, the second explorations into vogging. His article “Soft Videography” is a must-read for those of us interested in thinking about how authoring video for the web differs from that for the big screen. I am thinking of trying out with my students some of what he’s been doing–really creating digital stories in the Web environment rather than merely embedding “finished” products on our blogs.

And by way of Bryan Alexander (and orginally Jill Walker (in Norway) comes word of a new book on blogs (in America) from Paris, “The Mirror and the Veil…”. Looking forward to reading it.

These artists, thinkers, bloggers, voggers from around the world have me wishing I could take a semester (a year!) to travel about visiting their classrooms and their labs, adding an f2f element to the e2e reality.

Imagination, Experimentation and Budding Scholarship

I spent the weekend in New York City in a surreal blend of parents’ weekend and its crowds at Barnard, (which apart from the fact that Nora’s class is both far more diverse and far more female than any at Middlebury, felt an awful lot as though I had never left my own campus); intense shopping experience with two ultra-opinionated and experienced shopping daughters undaunted by shopkeepers or shoppers or their I-hate-to-shop mother in their quest for the one must-have thing, bizarre moments in our hotel that was like a Star Trek set from its fixtures, ceilings, rooms, lighting, music to its characters; and an extraordinary array of typical New York experiences with cabbies, restaurants, street moments, an almost all-Indian audience at Bombay Dreams, and a visit to Ground Zero…
I came away filled with awe at the compendium of human experience and interaction. How to capture it? Talk about multilinear narratives–talk about the stuff for a hypertext novel!

On the long car ride back north to the brilliant color of fall and the quiet of space filled with trees and fields rather than people and buildings, movement taking the form of leaves scattering like birds in a gust of wind rather than taxis and lights restless and darting–I thought about Janet Murray’s visit to Middlebury and her response to a student who asked about whether computers were taking away from books because they interfered with the imagination—she said that she didn’t believe in a moral hierarchy of media, that all forms had the potential to stimulate the imagination and to capture a piece of our human story.

And it reminded me of Maxine Greene and the many extraordinary and wise things she has had to say about imagination and the arts–take this exchange she had in 1999, for example, about the role of the arts and the state of arts education.

And now I also think about today’s wonderful new blog posting (his first post in a while, but well worth the wait) by Héctor Vila about how Derrida touched his life as a young scholar, and now how he uses the lessons gleaned from the philopher to teach his young student Emily about why technology:

Philosophically, Derrida and his circle were the theoretical foundation for my interest in computing in the humanities. If, indeed, the sign represents the present in its absence, then our “interface culture” is profoundly immersed in a metaphorical relationship with truth(s) because these only manifest themselves in metaphor, images that parade as the absolute. We look through signs–screens–and we work through signs–desktops–and we communicate through signs–IM, Outlook, Entourage. Ours is a world filled with unseen rules, hidden rules; rules that proport to make our lives easier, more sustainable and connected, more fluid. Seldom in this world of the bouncing curser are we in the present. We reside in metaphor. We are urged forward–add, edit…more…more…more: link, connect, network. Always network: at all costs network. Networking as a sign functions like this: we put something forth–say on a weblog–unsure and hopeful, with trepidations, but only to be reminded of the abyss that’s out there in the network, in the matrix. Herman Melville looked out into the deep, dark span of the ocean and saw nothing–only death; we look out into the foreboding span of zeros and ones and we see hope: images, chatter, pornographers, news. But if we look deeper, the notion of network as sign function resemble Melville’s menacing horizon: we too see the disconnectedness of our realities, the misfortunes, the superfluous gloss of deeply held convictions (these don’t really exist, except for programmers, do they?). So in answer to Emily–this is a start, anyway–“Why technology?” suggests that I have to find reasons for its existence; I have to find meaning where meaning is challenged by the vastness we experience in our anonymous networking; we have to find how be can Be in such an array of “differences.”

These three educators (all with long, enduring relationships with NYC) touch upon pieces of what I felt and witnessed in NYC and want to keep fresh for my students– the importance of reading the past while learning to see. They need opportunities to look and to imagine INSIDE THE CLASSROOM AS WELL AS OUTSIDE; to question, and then to play with these lessons and resist them, to turn away from them, even, as they explore their own ways of making the world, or talking back to it. This is the hard part, to get them to feel what Degas was getting at when he said, “Only when he no longer knows what he’s doing does the painter do good things.” And it takes a long long time to reach that point.

Going to New York this weekend has cleared my head, and given me some ideas about balancing the deep, sustained inquiry with the improvisational dance of ongoing discovery, of moving and emerging and becoming. And seeing how this medium can help us to express these multilinear narratives with power and iimagination.

Images, Words and Students Finding their Way

Four weeks into the semester now, and deep into the new Arts Writing Classroom Blog and it’s time to step back and take a look at what’s new, what seems to stay the same, and what I wish we were able to do.

Switching from Manila to Movable Type made for a painful transition–I knew the ins and outs of Manila, and after three years of designing blogs to suit the courses I teach, I was pretty happy with how they were working. I was comfortable using the blog as both course management tool and as blog, as place to stage discussions and for students to link to the world. The Old Arts Writing Blog contained over 1000 separate entries and who knows how many comments, links upon links. And as we all know, when a teacher believes in what she’s doing and is confident in her tools, well, it rubs off on even the most resistant of students.

My MT ‘zine-blog almost wasn’t… It took the efforts of several of us over the course of a few days to bring it to life, and since then has experienced all kinds of tweaks and adjustments to get it to work for us. It couldn’t look and act and feel more different from the old blog–I don’t think anyone would look at the new one and the old one side by side and conclude that a single teacher was responsible for the two (unless she had just had a life-altering experience or something…). But the new blog is beginning to find its way now–we’ve been patient and steady, calm and determined (all excellent qualities when appraoching classroom blogs, eh?) And you know, I quite prefer the new, organic shape and feel–the blogginess of the new version has freed up my students to dare play with expression more than they have in the past.

Being forced to switch blog tools has also made me once again question what I’m doing with blogs in the classroom and why, as has some blog reading I was catching up on this weekend. I came across Sebastien Fiedler’s post, “Mind Your Early Adopters?” in which he quotes a 2002 article by Carl Bereiter, “Design Research for Sustained Innovation”:

My own experience with innovative design research suggests that early adopters should be avoided whenever possible. They are the quickest to seize on an innovation, but they are also the quickest to abandon it in favor of the next new thing, and their approach to work with the innovation is usually superficial and unproductive. [Carl Bereiter]

Sebastien goes on to argue that,

“We simply do not allow for adequate timeframes when we implement and evaluate new practices and technologies in educational environments that have been shaped over centuries….and before a series of small improvements and innovations could really transform our existing practices the next big thing is already begging for attention.”

We do indeed need to think about the ramifications of moving impulsively and being seduced by the newness and by our own position at the forefront of a movement (if that is indeed where any of us sit). And on these web-based bully pulpits, we can be enamored of our own words whistling out there in cyberspace and think that we’ve hit upon treasure in our classrooms which to nurture and sustain we must then surely run on to the latest developments, the next big thing. As reflective researcher-teachers, we must continue to circle back and look at how what we do ties into our longterm educational goals. And I, for one, must always look at myself for telltale signs that what certain colleagues point to as my “exuberance” or “passion” for my chosen medium doesn’t run away with any sense I may possess. And so, moving to MT has helped me to slow down and examine choices and possibilities, and repercussions of wholehog bloggery on my course content and processes.

And yes, so I am an “early adopter,” and yes, I am continuing to push the medium — but for now, at least, I can say that my students have reaped the benefits of such a practice. Sure, colleagues, parents and others still wonder aloud whether webauthoring “waters down” the content, the depth of analysis, the elegance of the academic prose, the raison d’etre of a liberal arts education. Some wonder why I let the students flail about so much, discovering on their own, as a group, what good writing and thinking in our field is and what it means to write about art without sharing with them–yet–the wisdom of the great writers who have come before us. It really does take a strong commitment to the work and confidence in how the process works to keep moving against the tide of the traditional academic classroom. During the opening weeks of the semester, when I invite the students to explore as many ways of looking at art and writing about it as they can imagine, the work often verges on clichéd, superficial, facile thinking. And the teacher has to keep pushing and holding her breath while being careful not to privilege the BLOG (just for being a blog) over the deep, sustained inquiry of a “slower” engagement with the course material.

Reading in the New York Times Book Review yesterday Walter Kirn’s review of Douglas Brinkley’s edited Journals of Jack Kerouac, I was reminded of how sometimes bloggers can look rather Kerouac-ian according to the commonly held view of him being a ” halfbaked dopehead primitivist.”
As Kirn points out,

“The traditional rap against Kerouac–that he was a sort of half-baked dopehead primitivist who prized sensation over sense–crumbles on a reading of his journals. For every entry concerning a wild night out with his colorful cohort of insomniac poets, opiated philosophers and autodidact ex-cons, there’s a meditation on Mark Twain or a list of favorite Renaissance poets…He trusted, finally, in his own energy, but it was an energy produced from the finest sources: great books, adventurous friends, high moral purpose and wide experience.”

And that’s what we’re after here in a sense– now that we’re seeing interesting work appear on the blog, and evidence that the students are peeling back the thick layers of complacency and rule-following and good-student-reponses, I know that this approach works–they are learning to look, to see, to really see and then to express their ideas in language that is fresh and memorable. Blogging doesn’t cause those shifts, of course–it facilitates them through the ongoing, constant publishing, the linking, and the opportunities provided to move beyond language and the formal academic voice. Most of all the blog grounds and extends our community, keeping us connected no matter where we are and when we decide to see what everyone else is posting. The blog gets us to think about our work together much more often than the students are perhaps wont to do. It’s slow and uneven progress for sure. But I feel myself once again beginning to let out my breath. Little by little the writing is loosening up, the language comes to life, learning becomes a gas, class turns into something the students can’t wait to get to, and we’re all feeling the power of collaborative learning.

And so I’ll keep playing with the blog, trying to perfect my art of teaching with it-learning from my students, listening, and trying to maintain a balance between the thrill of discovery and the careful evaluation of the practice.

Art Outside My Window


No, Spiderman has not yet made an appearance at Middlebury nor have my students figured out how to scale the new-library walls; no, I’ve been receiving visits from soaring dancers this week as Project Bandaloop prepares for this weekend’s performances on the exterior of the new library as part of the celebration of its opening and the Clifford Symposium. The dancers smile as they twist and fly past my window, and I pull out my flippy phone and snap shots as I can, and then return to my computer, my books and my students, wondering if somehow I’ve chosen the wrong line of work–they are doing art and I’m not quite sure sometimes exactly what it is I’m doing…

Spending time these past couple of days with a hero of mine, Janet Murray, who is as warm and generous as she is brilliant and creative, and then listening to Siva Vaidhyanathan, has pushed me out of my own particular classroom story (fascinating as that may be to me) into the larger world of computer narrative and the culture of copyright. (The tension between the gifts, the stimulation of encountering the rest of the world via blogging and the teacher’s traditional experience of so often feeling locked into the demands of the particular classroom experience is another topic for a future blog post). And our own Héctor Vila had the pleasure of hearing his longstanding ideas and vision echoed by these groundbreakers. Exhilarating and exhausting couple of days. Much to think about and to try out in the classroom.

Indeed, the classroom, to be precise the Artswriting classroomwill benefit from what we’ve all taken in this week. I am struck nearly every day by how much more we imagine than we are yet able to deliver in this medium. I should be playing with imagery and sound here. I don’t like the way I write such long posts every time I sit down to the computer–ha– And I am forever making mistakes on the arts blog and cursing my weak Dreamweaver skills and lack of time to play around with Flickr and other applications that might well suit the kind of blogging my students are up to.

I need to tweak the art blog–adding a new couple of draft blogs (aptly entitled (fl)awZ as an interim place to post in-process writing for the students to respond to and revise before posting to awZ proper and yet also linking the draft blog prominently to the more finished version to enable those interested in our process to see it. Right now two of awZ’s internal blogs– Views & Reviews and Essays and Commentary are out of control spills. Drafts and revisions from fourteen students are thrown in here without much sense of organization.

A few students find the chaos absoutely exciting and liberating (can you tell, from their writing, which students these might be?), but most of them find it overwhelming. Of course some of what they are experiencing has to do with their desire for immediate gratification–the impatience we experience as things move ever faster (yup,the topic for another blog post–speed and expectations in the blogging classroom), but some of it is the fact that the nature of the blog is to create entries chronologically first, thematically as an aside. So–I think we’ve hit upon a solution with the new draft blogs for those two monsters. And the students are seeing the need to write better excerpts, better titles, to consider setting in place a rubric. They crave a bit of order, and are finding ways to accomplish it. I also think they will start responding to one another more, to engage in discussions, and to post spontaneously as they encounter art in the world.

Ah, we dreamed aloud this week of having a technology fellows program at Middlebury which would allow us to take a semester off to pursue some of this innovative application of technology in the classroom. I am falling behind…Bandaloop is falling past my window…time to get outside and watch the effect though I do love the intimacy of seeing the fragment, the up-close shot of one or two dancers. They are having such fun–laughing and grinning as they hang upside down, their heads inches from the unforgiving marble walls. They remind me to laugh, too, to PLAY with this medium if it’s the one I’m choosing as my means of expression, to be exuberant and serious all at once: to soar.

How the NYT Sunday Magazine and Students Presenting Multi-Media Web Work Are Getting Me Thinking about a Couple of Conferences

Today’s New York Times Sunday Magazine section is filled with thought-provoking articles about the Big Apple, in large part focusing on the city’s relationship with its art, artists and patrons. James Traub’s “The Stuff of City Life” struck me in particular, I think, because of conversations I have been having with close colleagues recently and because of a presentation of my students’ multi-media web-based work yesterday.
Traub attended the new Alexander Hamilton exhibition at the once venerable and now-gone-techno New York Historical Society, and wrote about how the experience of walking through the Beaux Arts mansion bedecked with important original documents on one wall and huge video screens on the opposite wall was intensely disorienting, especially since the exhibition was apparently poorly labeled and the video screens were filled with the obvious if not the downright ridiculous (the best part of the show was, according to Traub, the Acoustiguide). He goes on to write:

And these companionable places are about things; they are shrines to the particular and irreproducible object. And just as rootedness is a diminishing category now that practically anything can move practically anywhere, so an orientation toward things feels increasingly obsolete in our age of rampant etherealization. The object world has been disembodied and uploaded so that we may access it without standing in its presence.

(I would disagree–yes, indeed this has been done to the object world, but in so doing we have been forced to reconsider the object and our relationship to it, and thus we have taken new notice of the object world, sometimes rejecting it, sometimes embracing it, have we not? Choices are not inherently bad.)

And then at the end, he makes the following point:

There is something deeply meretricious about the notion that we have to choose between a market-oriented museum culture of the video screen and an elitist, pettifogging culture dedicated to the silent contemplation of dusty Eskimos or dusty paraphemalia of the founding fathers. It need not be so.

Yes! Traub is pointing at a troubling polarization–the worst of two ends of the spectrum that co-exist in academia as well. When people use new technologies and media poorly, those of us trying to use them well find ourselves having to explain and defend, explain and defend. But we are also forced to be at our best, to do exemplary work because we have such a long way to go to show how integrating technology into the very core of our pedagogy does not mean undermining the Socratic ideals underlying the liberal arts education but can enhance and extend those very ideals and goals while educating our youth in the new literacies of the world. Sure, some people will insist on throwing video and computer screens into museum exhibitions and classrooms just because someone thinks it will attract the crowd. But there are likewise people putting the big blockbuster paintings on the walls and the big deal classics in the syllabi to do much the same. It’s far too easy to be the gatekeepers against the evil of the new, the seductive, the reductive computer-produced endeavor.

I’m beginning to put together presentations for two upcoming conferences: November’s NITLE Annual Conference: Voyage to Ithaka:Technology, Collaboration, and the Future of Liberal Arts Colleges” in Chicago, where with colleagues Bryan Alexander and Bret Olson from Middlebury College’s Center for Educational Technology and Mauricio Trippfrom Wabash College, I’ll be presenting on integrating multi-media technology into the liberal arts classroom;
and January’s NCII conference in New Orleans, where with Héctor Vila I’ll offer a workshop on integrating blogging into the higher ed classroom. Watching five of my students present their web-based multi-media work to an audience of parents yesterday (being Fall Family Weekend and all), had me thinking about those presentations well before the Traub article landed on my breakfast table:

In introducing the students, I discussed the range of projects, from the personal to the artistic to the scholarly, and how each student had taken the tools and used them in ways I hadn’t anticipated, pushing past simple multimedia narratives to scholarly, image-rich hypertext and visual slam poetry. Apart from a couple of technical stutters, the hour-long showcase went splendidly, with the five describing their projects clearly and enthusiastically, placing them within the context of their greater Middlebury education. They did themselves proud…

Two things really stood out for me during the event–as the teacher and as the blogger and as the researcher: hearing the students describe their work months and even years after completion, and hearing the responses of the audience–mostly though not exclusively a non-blogging/multi-media crowd. The students reflected back quite thoughtfully on the processes and outcomes of the work.

The sophmores remembered the frustrations, the time-consuming nature of working with video editing tools and having to think laterally, associatively about the appearance of their work and how it would be “read.” They described how writing hypertext changes everything about the academic paper in that the reader can read the work laterally rather than linearly, even moving outside the paper altogether to the scholary sources linked within the research. They found this linking, and the use of images and sound to be both liberating and challenging–they found themselves getting a little “lazy” with the writing when it was complemented by accompanying images or sound files, counting on the additional media to do some of the work that words would have to accomplish alone in a traditional essay. A couple of parents had questions about that point, about whether multi-media projects actually watered down the depth of the analysis and the sharpness of the prose. Excellent questions! The pair responded by saying that it made the writing “easier,” but that the project as a whole offered more than the written texts ever could–to them and to their readers– and so it was a matter of learning how to balance the liveliness of prose written for the web and the deep scholarly insights expected in such research.

I talked about audience and how until the students ventured onto our weblog, none of them had, in school, written anything of consequence for anyone other than a teacher. By adding the notion of REAL AUDIENCE, the students had to take into account a whole new grammar and syntax–using more than one media and posting openly to the Web requires a whole new way of thinking about writing, what it is and how to do it well. Interesting to note about these two students is that both of them are very accomplished writers–in their other classes following traditional rubrics of academic writing–and that their writing did indeed get a little wild and even a little general on the Web, something the parents clearly keyed into.

But I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all at this level–the students were challenged by the Web and had to adjust to it, and in so doing learned a great deal about academic writing off the Internet as well as on. They had a fresh view of choices and of voices and of modes of discourse. They weren’t just following rules someone else made up–they were searching for the rules of the piece they were writing. What this brings up for me and the conferences is the need to stress the importance of allowing our students time to learn how to write for the Web so that they take advantage of all it offers while not losing the depth and perhaps polish of the kind of writing endeavors they were doing offline. They need to actively compare, analyze and evaluate different modes of discourse for different purposes and different audiences. And we need to keep providing students with the opportunity to innovate and to integrate various means of expression and to publish this work. Of course.

The senior talked about how the work she had done in the class had led to her art history major and to her growing interest in multimedia work in her scholarship and artistic endeavors, how opening up her project on Sophie Calle with links and images and a creative exploration of being Sophie Callle helped her to create an entire world within her project, one that well-suited her material. A parent asked about whether the students had written their pieces in linear fashion and then had broken them up for web reading–they had said, no, that writing hypertext had asked for an entirely different writing process altogether.

Are those parents being turned off by the inappropriateness of technology poorly integrated into such settings as exhibitions at the New York Historical Society? Are they used to seeing presentations where the technology leads the subject rather than the subject leading the technology? Listening and taking part in the discussion with parents who understood and embraced the use of technology in the classroom and those who didn’t necessarily understand its value shows me how essential it is that we advocates of technology in the classroom articulate the pedagogical underpinnings as clearly as possible. We need more data, more research. Yes.

I am feeling a bit the way I did when I was one of five girls in the freshman class at Exeter which meant that I had to do twice as well as the boys in my class to achieve any sort of credibility with the teachers and the rest of the class…

And so we’ll continue to push ourselves to question our work, to improve our use of technology and to aspire to finding a balance between the object f2f world and the virtual e2e world.

So keep the questions coming and the thoughtful criticisms–

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The Importance of Patience, Careful Planning and the Willingness to Let Things Happen

This marks the fourth fall semester that I’ve used blogs in my classes–I both can’t believe that my first blogger-students are now seniors and can’t remember what it felt like to teach without blogs (actually I re-visited that feeling during the first two weeks of the semester as we were pulling the new blog up–much as in an oldtime barn-raising). A lot has changed on the blogscape in those years:Middlebury College now has its own homegrown open source course management software, Segue, and the ranks of classroom bloggers and multi-media makers have, while not exactly mushroomed, at least become respectable in number.

Some observations about what’s going on with my students (now a full cycle of bloggers from first-years to seniors):

They like blogging and are designing quite extraordinary projects that will incorporate blogs, and more importantly, an integrated use of technology. Some examples include a student who will travel through Southern India this January visiting NGO-run healthcare projects. She will keep a travelblog of photos, sound files and text updates–journal-like in some senses, but connected as a conversation by having specific people with an interest in the subject, the writer, or the region respond to her on the blog, engaging her in discussion as well as reflection. Setting up a community of respondants makes sense to me (and will prevent the blog from disintegrating into a self-absorbed account of “look at me” kind of writing–not that this student would do that in the first place!)–and we’ll see who else jumps aboard as she makes her way through the month-long journey. When she returns to Middlebury, she’ll create a digital story or two to embed on the blog as a way reflect on the journey from a distance. Another student is working right now on a blog-centered independent project on the town-gown relations in our community from her perspective as a college student living off-campus. I’ll link to her blog as soon as it’s up and running. One of my former blogging students is now in Syria on a Fulbright, and she’s been asked by her hometown newspaper to set up a blog for them to read about her experiences as an American in Syria during this year. Another student is developing a project-blog/digital storytelling extravanganza on grassroots political/community organizing. And there are several more…as well as people outside the classroom seeing the value of digital stories and blogs in their work. Héctor and I more than have our hands full with the consulting we are doing with all kinds of groups on campus and off who want to incorporate these technologies into projects.

Watching these students take what they have learned in a single semester and apply it to their lives provides me with valuable feedback on why we should integrate technology into our classrooms carefully, thoughtfully, and meaningfully. If we show our students how these tools might work in their efforts to communicate their experiences, to connect with communities and to engage in complex intellectual and artistic endeavors, we can step back, out of the way, and watch them take over their education.

Now of course, there’s a lot of groundwork that must be laid before a teacher signs on to use technology in the classroom, and a willingness to experience a steep learning curve, and glorious failure, and frustration endemic to life on the frontier; indeed a teacher must be willing to re-orient the entire classroom experience. Teaching in this way within the technology-rich classroom strips away hierarchical underpinnings of traditional classroom structures. I can’t emphasize that point enough.

Some lessons I’ve learned:

1. Blogging has to be integrated into the course pedagogy. It is not an add-on (unless you are nuts to be throwing tools at your students without considering the time you’ll invest and the impact they have on the learning environment and outcomes); it is not a writing tool (though some will argue with me on this point–I don’t use it to accomplish the kind of writing I could offline); it is a new means of expression that must be used accordingly with the course goals in mind. In other words, what does linking and commenting and writing evolving, multi-media hypertexts in this virtual space do to the course goals, methods and structures?

2. Expect students to experience the sensation of freefalling as the emerging voices and multiple simultaneous postings make them wonder who’s directing this work, anyway. And since they’ve been taught since they were in first grade that the teacher is always in charge, and always right, this searching-for-the-form-and the-themes makes them uneasy for a spell. In fact, this moment (the end of Week #3) is just when my students are really wondering about what they have gotten themselves into as I prepare to hand over the course blog to them, and they have to act as synthesizers, chroniclers, pointers, and ethnographers of the evolving course as well as being students within that course. They are experiencing the unease of the observer-participant, the artist described by Joyce and Mann who has one part of herself in the unfolding experience and one just outside watching, taking notes, saying what needs saying. And they are also experiencing the unease of the novice-expert, again a duality, and one that makes them feel, for the moment, as though they are are sham artists. “What do I know of art?” they say. “Who am I to tell anyone anything about the films I watch or the music I hear?–Why are we publishing this work out in the world?? Ah, and here comes the blogging teacher saying that herein lies the beauty of blogging: the blog is not static; no one reading blogposts thinks that this is your last word on the subject. You are trying your views out, sending them out to the world for review, for feedback, and then thinking about what the response means. It’s demonstrating a willingness to learn actively and constantly, to admit that no writing is the final version of anything.

But it is difficult for our students, just as it is difficult for us, to risk looking stupid, limited, blockheaded, incapable, and –oh the words of last night’s Presidential debates (don’t get me started…)–inconsistent.

3. Careful pre-course preparation of the blog is important, and if you can get your students blogging before the course ever starts, all the better. But be willing to change everything if the students have a better idea.
Be willing to experiment with the possibilities and have some of them fail. Right now I am tweaking our blog quite a bit in response to their insights and comments. The teacher-as-follow-learner model is not for everyone. Have patience. Have a sense of humor. And dream big.

4. Schedule in enough time to discuss the technology and how it affects the writing and scholarship. I am kicking myself for not adding a workshop one evening a week to our schedule this semester. It would be making quite a difference…

I’ll be tracking these lessons and others and incorporating them into some conference proposals during the next weeks–the teacher-researcher in action.