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.