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.

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