Blogs and Classroom Community

My blogging is slowing to an every-once-in-a-summer-while now that the semester has been put to bed, and I take off in June for three weeks (sans computer) in Ecuador and Argentina before immersing myself in two book projects. I’ll check in on these pages when I can, but not with the frequency of the semester, and that’s probably a good thing.

Before taking a little break, I do want to pull together some thoughts about the semester–first, just how instrumental blogging has been to foster, nurture and push the classroom community in my creative writing course this spring.

Some thoughts:

* As edubloggers are increasingly concluding, blogging does not replace the need for f2f time; quite the contrary–I have had to ADD a weekly workshop session to the course since introducing blogs. The students crave more time in class to talk about what transpires on the blog–the more they read one another’s work (which now they can do freely and continuously, commenting, linking, trackbacking etc on the blog), the more they want to talk about it; the more they post open-ended, freewheeling discussion topics, the more they want to continue these discussions in class as well as online. The time in class enriches the blogging experience which extends the classroom experience. And on it goes.

* Blogging should serve the learning community and not just the content of the course. The most powerful outcomes have had to do with the students feeling a part of something, owning something, having an impact on their environemnt (efficacy), and this has to do with the way the blog promotes a community. I use a Motherblog and individual student blogs linked off it (and as a linkblog) as a way to embrace both the collaborative and the individual. The students valued both places.

* I stay off the blogs as much as possible. The blogs are for student exploration and discussion–not for me to guide and teach and dictate. I don’t just talk about student-centered classrooms, I am committed to them. Of course, this means I have to plan the blog and the course very carefully, a complicated choreography which calls for the teacher to be confident in the process and in herself as teacher.

Here’s how one student put it at the end of the course:

In addition to the community we formed during class and workshop, I am so impressed with the connection made via blogging. Although Middlebury prides itself for small classes and intense interaction in the classroom, I have never NEVER experienced the genuinity, intensity, and closeness that we’ve found in this class. Maybe it’s because this is a creative writing class, and writers tend to be very honest and very personal — esp. considering nonfiction was our first encounter with each other… it makes me wish blogging could be part of our other classes syllabus’. It sparks such honest discussion and has allowed us to develop a relationship outside of class — it makes the class, writing, who we are and our relationship to one another — mean something. Because the disucssion on the blog is so honest, I never feel like we’re bullshitting in this class. Unfortunately, I feel that in so many of our other classes… I guess I’m wondering if the atmosphere in EL170 could be applied in other departments. it seems worth the try…

What else do I like about blogging? I think the blog has acted as a springboard for writing circles within the class… The blog is something all our own. I love how it really belongs to us (although yes, BG does maintain the necessary authority to keep it in line…haha). But the sense of ownership is very important in giving our work meaning. Writing and the class becomes more than just a class, more than just stories we turn in and the grades given — more than the traditional academic structure of what we find in the predictable essay and the predictable professor.

Blogging, if used as a tool for creating a student-centered collaborative learning environment, can help us to create these magical learning experiences. This is one course, one group of students I will not soon forget.


Social Software in the Academy Workshop: first Thoughts

ssawsign.jpg (MBertolini photo)
Back from SSAW in Los Angeles and I’m just beginning to sift through the many thought-provoking threads of conversations and demonstrations and presentations that filled every minute of those two-plus days. Talk about coming away from a conference with ideas, renewed energy and conviction….

These BLOGTALK-type conferences (small, one-panel-at-a-time, drawing from many spheres, and aimed at those who have been working with and thinking about social software for some time) are by far the most useful conferences I attend. I learn far more than I contribute, and I leave with a renewed sense that we’re on the right track AND that we have a long way to go before we sort out exactly what it is we are doing and where we need to go from here. The energy and brilliance of the graduate students presenting were matched only by the energy and brilliance of the designers and theorists and professors listening and questioning and presenting in their own right. Many conference moments worth mentioning–but I’ll save those for a future posting.

Whereas a year ago in Vienna I was one of a handful of classroom users of blogs in attendance, at the Annenberg Center there was a real range of teachers blogging or using wikis in their classrooms. With the numbers came a new, and healthy, degree of skepticism about the embrace of blogs in the undergraduate classroom. There were those who wanted hard numbers to substantiate the claims that blogs were effective vehicles for expression in classrooms, and those who wanted to know how they were evaluated, and those who wanted to know how edublogging was blogging at all. It was great to be pushed, to be asked some excellent and tough questions at the end of both my presentations.

piyaeugene.jpg(Photo by MBertolini)My students and colleague did a wonderful job explaining their experiences with blogs–so much so, in fact, that the crowd suspected that they weren’t real students at all but extraordinary exceptions! The group also half-suspected that the outcomes I have with social software in my classroom have more to do with me as a teacher than with the software or the act of blogging. Should blogging be left to the world outside the classroom altogether, a few wondered.

Excellent questions. Yes, we need Sarah and others to continue with their empirical research. Of course the success of any tool or any pedagocical approach has much to do with the teacher and with the way the learning collaborative is set up. Of course of course. What was interesting to me was that the whole notion of the learning community and how we set it up was NOT entertained by most of the presenters or the audience as crucial in the entire equation. For me, this is the lynchpin. And what separates the “good” teacher from the “bad” in a lot of cases: the ability to cultivate a creative, collaborative learning community. You gotta read Pierre L�vy’s Collective Intelligence. You have to read Rheingold and <a href=””target=”_blank”Jenkins, Bolter and Landow and Greene and Johnson , Manovich and Ascott for starters. Then read L�vy again. And think about the classroom culture–where you position yourself as teacher. Then you’re ready to pull blogs and whatever other kind of social software you like into the classroom if they will help you reach the learning outcomes you have in mind. Yes, I exaggerate… And yes, I know that my success with classroom blogs, multimedia authoring and podcasting has a lot to do with the way I teach, my personality, and my students. But it also has to do with the careful way I set up a learning collaborative–and this is something I repeat ad nauseum here on the blog and whenever I present at conferences or give talks–do our teachers read outside their disciplines and consider pedagogy? Communities of practice? For the mostpart, they repeat what they know, and since they have been motivated and successful in their educational endeavors, they figure the old models are the best models. And I’d say, yup, the oldest (i.e. Socratic) models are indeed what we need to remember, not the medieval ones.

For those who want to try out the collaborative learning model: At the opening of every course, the students create knowledge trees in which they explore their reasons for taking this course, the relevance of the material and the processes to their lives, and what they need to learn from and have to offer to the rest of the learning community. We spend the first week engaged in this writing and sharing and forming this community before we move onto anything else. If this preparation, and the preparation of the space that the blogging will occupy in the course are done well, then, just get out of the way of the students and let them do their work!

Many of us are coming to similar conclusions at this point in the evolution of classroom blogging–just today I see Aaron Campbell referring to a panel at Canadian Innovation in eLearning Symposium, and listing the notable points brought out in the final discussion between Jay Cross, Stephen Downes et al:

Some of the ideas tossed around that struck me as worth thinking about more were:

* The command-and-control model of education vs that of the ‘free range learner’
* ‘Process objects’ in addition to ‘learning objects’
* Critical Thinking + How to Learn = the two big goals of education
* Learning as technology-enabled but not technology-driven
* Schools as the most virtual, most artificial learning environments that exist
* Learning = Doing
* Weblogs are ‘transitional technologies’
* Learning as a ‘whole-body’ experience.
* Active virtual life increases f2f interactions

There is so much pressure placed on measurable results (and we all know why that is…) that we are losing the deep pleasure of messing around–serious messing around–of learning as a social activity, of learning as exploration, experimentation and a whole bunch of glorious failures. On the backchannel, someone at SSAW actually raised the question of “whether blogs lead to a kind of play school.” You’ve got to be kidding–blogs themselves don’t; bad teachers could. But put a blog into a good teacher’s hands, and see what she can do with it to promote all kinds of deep learning.

Blogs, because of their informality, their flexible, chameleon form, and the fact that they create an ongoing, individual and collaborative, learning narrative invite my students to explore the pleasures and real advantages of fooling around, together, seriously, with the materials of our subject matter. And the outcomes–however you wish to measure them–are pretty astounding.

How Far’s Too Far: Blog Boundaries

Just when I think the semester is about wrapped up and I can catch up on some reading and writing, reflect a bit about this year’s explorations of multimedia, including podcasting and digital storytelling, along come my students with more surprises.

Surprises that bring to mind a couple of recent posts by Jill Walker (and the many others commenting on her blog) where she discusses students using pseudonyms in their academic blogging, and taking risks in blogging. She writes:

Thats why Ive recommended to my blogging students this semester that they use pseudonyms unless theyre quite comfortable about claiming their identity online. Many of them do. As they become more secure in the environment, and especially once they understand, really understand, that anyone can read it now and in the future, then real names are just fine and a good part of establishing a durable online identity that youd be happy for anyone to see.

Little did I know that my own students’ in their first post-semester creative-writing-blog posting would find themselves playing around with both boundaries, commenting under just-for-the-occasion pseudonyms on a blank posting, comments that crossed into some pretty offensive sexually explicit trash. They knew enough to adopt pseudonyms (except for the post’s originator) for their off-color commentary, thereby protecting themselves, but also thereby releasing themselves from a certain level of accountability. Almost all of my students post under their names, taking public pleasure in and responsibility for their work and their responses.

This weekend, they were messing around at one of their “writing parties” and, well, things got a little out of hand, shall we say. When I checked the blog Sunday morning, I saw the damage and decided to pull the post (we’re on MT, so I switched it to DRAFT mode), knowing the “culprits” would sooner or later show up at my office to talk about it.

And sure enough, yesterday the main culprit (or should I say, the one whose name appear at the end of the original empty post) made an appearance. The posts and comments here and here, left by class members since he and I spoke, reveal a lot about the murky territory of the after-the-course-is-done blogging identity, about adopting pseudonyms after the fact, and crossing lines on a collaborative blog that resides within an institution and came out of an academic setting. They were exerting some kind of freedom, but then, when I called them on it, they realized that as long as the blog is still associated with a college and a course and a professor, even if it’s now summer and they have shifted into a different relationship with their writing, they cannot forget the blog’s origins and the full impact of what they write.

Gena writes:

And so here we have it folks, a community.
One that exists here with our words and in the classroom with our voices (and sometimes with podcasts, both!).
A community that now also exists outside both of those forums.
And I think that is where it has all become a little more difficult.
Maybe we are eager to have our bigger (and sometimes baser…) sense of community come back and act on the forums that got us there.
Maybe we are a little thoughtless in realizing that we need to preserve those very stepping stones, so that we can always come back, always grow, always eat of the fruit it gives us, ripe with nutrients, especially when the bigger community malnurishes us, leaves us without a coat, forgets to say hi……..

Merrick writes:

Unfortunately, it has taken me three times to realize that the blog exists solely to showcase our writings, to elevate our craft, and to cultivate our love-affair with language and story-telling. Think of it as a really nice, shiny and sparkly car. Perhaps a pretty pony, or unicorn even. Whichever you prefer, although the car or the unicorn is ours, we would never want mash it into a brick wall, or in the unicorns case, ram its majestic horn through a tree, right? Right? The blog is a bit temperamental, and it likes to be treated nicely. How ironic that I dirtied it directly above BGs post in which she thanks us for making [her] job about as good as it could ever get.

What fabulous moments of insight and learning about what it means to be in a community, and to have to decide whether to conform to some of that community’s more exacting standards. The reality is that blogs coming out of courses will never be completely free; there are limits, there are boundaries. I have a reputation for being open to differents kinds of explorations into form and genre, into the boundaries between things–but in a wild moment they thought that absolutely anything could go on our blog. I didn’t like pulling the post–it was a moment when I pulled rank and became the unmistakable authority instead of mentor and guide, when I said through my actions, well guys, really, when it comes down to it, the blog is ultimately my responsibility and if I don’t like what’s on it, I can pull the plug.

And this brings me to a January discussion over Newtwork(ed) Rhetoric blog about “Blogging with Students”. Tyra writes:

i want them to have their world without me in it. the fact that it’s in many ways an almost entirely textual (with bright pictures) world makes that more important to me as a writing teacher rather than less–i want to interact with them in ways that encourage/foster writing, sure. but (and maybe this is because all of my teacher-training was focused on the teaching of adolescents) i can’t help feel that one of the most encouraging things i can do with regards to their writing is to leave them a space where they’re alone–or at least alone-with an audience of their choosing & defining–alone away from me–to do it in.

Madeline responds:

Using technology to better immerse students in their studies, I think, brings us back to that model where teachers and students literally lived as neighbors, shared meals (ok, now I’m waxing, uh, fictitious, probably), you get the pic. Where students learned by living through things, not by simply getting by, going to class, the library, writing some stuff, and getting the grade.

And that’s what my students, for the moment, anyhow, thought they were doing–moving from a collaborative college space, to a collaborative friends space. They were blurring the lines between what you could do in a class and what you couldn’t. And I was expecting them to know the difference, I see. We’ll see what this moment does to the summer blogging experience–if they will need to spin off onto their own, private, blogs.

Metaphors, Teaching and Social Software: More Thoughts on Post-Course Blogging

Over on Will’s blog, in a post pulling together an excerpt from Ken Smith and one from me, Will likens this new beyond-the-classroom thinking many of us are engaging in these days to Edblogging 3.0. I used a term “second-wave blogging” the other day on a post referring to students who come to our classes as experienced bloggers. And then there’s the incisive comment Terry Elliot left for Will:

Re: Blogs in Education 3.0?
If there is one insight to come out of cognitive linguistics over the past twenty-five years, it is Lakoff and Johnson’s theory that the core of thought is metaphoric. We don’t just use metaphor as a critical and analytic term and tool. We are metaphoric in our brains. “Classroom” implies an enclosure, a bottle of sorts, a boundary that encloses. What happens when technology breaks the bottle? You have a blogwikiflickrfurlicious open space full of connections. Edblogging 3.0 is the birth of new metaphors for new experience. I oversimplify, but I think we edbloggers hold both metaphors (classroom and connected-open space) in our hearts simultaneously. We live in both worlds, yet we know one of them is a dead man walking.

This weekend at MIT4, someone in the audience at our presentation, asked if we could come up with an accurate term for the way we were using and thinking about New Media. We’re searching about for terms, Terry’s metaphors, to help us understand what it is we are doing; as Terry points out, the old term “classroom” will no longer do especially as we push this work outside the boundaries of semester and building and discipline, as we ask our students to think way out beyond the small community of learners to the world and time beyond our campuses and semesters. This thinking is very much on my mind as I prepare for this weekend’s Social Software in the Academy Workshop.

Of course,as my good buddy Hctor likes to point out, we must also ask ourselves whether we have actually set up the same old classroom walls with our classroom blogs, and just call them something different. We have to guard, I know, against smugness, against thinking we’re actually doing anything but what we have always done, just faster and perhaps better. In theory, if we really blog with our students (Will’s blogging-the-verb-rather-than-blog-the-noun, not just using them as a “cooler” version of a standard CMT), we have already constructed an entirely new kind of educational space. But if the course ends, the community disbands, then what do we expect our students to do? Just blog? Blog what? Are we fooling them? Ourselves? In other words, aren’t we by blogging within the traditional rubrics of a semeter system ensuring that course blogs are only that, finite, discrete, course blogs?

No, I don’t think so–though I’m the first to admit that it ain’t always pretty sitting here having to argue for something that isn’t completely together yet–that what I imagine and want to be true isn’t quite possible yet, not with our campus infrastructure and design, our calendar and positioning within disciplines. But there are glimmers–and those are what I see and try to keep in mind–and the students are beginning to make connections on their own, and to want to reach out beyond themselves and the school and the school calendar, making connections, learning to engage actively within communities through this practice. And there are the shifts I see within my colleagues. We’re asked repeatedly, “But doesn’t introducing blogs and multimedia authoring into the classroom take much more time than your old ways of teaching?” Today I heard my colleague, Mary Ellen Bertolini, respond, “Well, yes, it does, but it doesn’t feel like more work. It feels like fun. We have to ask whether our endeavors take away from the spirit or feed it. Blogging in my classes feeds my teaching spirit.”

And so it’s a start. A darn good one. If we engage our students in mobile, fluidly reconfiguring communities of practice–even in short bursts– and through the blogging transcend the notion of semesters and courses and our own self-serving readings of the world–at least for a moment–couldn’t we then expect the blogs to live on–at least for a while, as long as the bloggers have something they want to say to one another and the world? And isn’t it perfectly fine for a blog to live out its purpose and be left for a long spell or to close when the subject matter is exhausted or the members toodle off to new pursuits?

So we’ll see what the students do when left to their own devices. We’ll see if their desire to keep together blogging about writing or their experiences abroad or their ideas about generating social capital through blogs will come to anything over the next few months. My guess is that it will be tough going for this first small group of students in the face of a world compartmentalizing the learning into tidy classrooms and syllabi. So, I’m not sure we’re quite ready for new metaphors in a traditional liberal arts institution–but we sure can give them a shot.

MIT4 Talk Summary–Socrates Meets Borges: Digital Storytelling around the Liberal Arts Campfire

Hctor and I raced down to Boston Saturday to present at MIT4 (he wrote a brilliant paper, by the way, with very little help from me at all), met up briefly with the inimitable Joe Lambert and met some other interesting folks working away at bringing digital storytelling to the academic universe. Of course the two of us trying to say anything particularly useful about digital storytelling in the 20 minutes allotted, and in a space equipped only with an overhead projector was a bit much (M.I.T.??), but Hctor managed to articulate the context and a bit of the outcomes–pretty remarkable feat!

Here’s more on what I touched upon (or would have with more time):

One student’s journey through storytelling in the Fall 2004 Artswriting class: Writing in New Media Facilitates A Student’s Exploration of the Artist-Critic’s Role

In Writing Across the Arts, I am trying to get students to think about what it means to experience the arts and then to write about them authentically, not necessarily from the position of scholarship, but from the position of being a lover of the arts who has something to communicate to the world about that experience. I encourage my students to crawl around inside the tools of the writer–in our case all the tools of the computer that will help them to understand the relationship between artist, artform, critic and audience.

Because we live in an era that privileges images over text, (see Susan Sontag’s NYT article about the images of Iraqi prisoner abuse; George Lucas in Edutopia; Douglas Kellner on New Media and New Literacies: Reconstructing Education for the New Millennium), we must train them in the grammar of image, the tension between image and text, equipping them with the critical apparatus necessary to read New Media. In one assignment, I ask students to take text out of the telling of story or the writing of an essay. What happens to their understanding of how an image conveys its meaning? What do they learn about structure, argument, narrative, voice? After reading excerpts from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, the students played around with Stories without Words and hypertext essays. Both kinds of writing run counter to their training in their other classes where they are still writing traditional text-only analytical essays.

In Julina’s hypertext experiment, she puts pressure on final words, on journeys out beyond the small screen as she reviews a performance of a visiting dance troupe that moved in much the same way upon the walls of the new library.

In her Story without Words, Julina examines the dialogic relationships between word and image,storyteller and reader, playing with our notions of story, setting, structure, chronology. She comments simultaneously on art, museums, and stories while producing art. Even the title “Story without Words” directs us only into reading the images as a story, and underscores the lack of text, the significance of that lack. We are not told what story or what it means. She is asking the reader to participate in the writing of the story through the reading of it–and through the commenting on it.

Indeed, publishing this story on the blog has a significant impact on the work and on the writer. As she receives feedback from her peers–some show interest in her story, some in her use of images, others in what she might do next–she can read their telling of the story; they in turn become part of the story and the writing of it. One reader suggests a possible next exercise based on work she has done in a dance class (yes–finally–we see here the integration of the student’s full education, bringing lessons from one class into another, the apprentice becomes the expert becomes the apprentice). Julina becomes Walter Benjamin’s stage rather than screen actor–adjusting her work in response to the audience. She then writes a poem. And more feedback floods in, leading her past this project, finally, and into her final project of the semester, “An Ekphrasis Cycle,” in which she pushes images against poem directly, and vice versa, in a spiralling cycle, but more on that later. Here we can see Lvy’s collective intelligence as well as efficacy at work, both for her–her ideas matter and touch her peers–and for her peers, who see her revise her work in response to their suggestions. And we, participants or lurkers, witness the entire process much as she witnesses herself watching fans watching rock stars in her next, digital storytelling, project.

The blog reduces the threat of what Christine Rosen terms “Ego-casting”, the narrowing of what one takes in according to taste and perspective, since on a blog, anyone can comment–all possible perspectives are invited in. Her own perspective remains open to divergent responses, and the teacher’s hope is that she will continue to seek many points of view, many readings of a text and the world as she moves through her life.

In her digital story, “Watching Rock Fans Watching Rock Stars,” Julina jumps into the boundaries of Joyce’s Stephen Dedalusand Mann’s, Tonio Kroger,participating while watching herself participate, commenting while enjoying, wandering about the boundaries between communities where “radically new insights often arise” (Wenger) . She becomes the subject-artist-critic as she tries on the roles of poet, dj, rock star, groupie (Vila–see his MIT paper for a fuller reading of this digital story). Posting the story within the class cluster of digital stories extends the commentary and the interactive experience. These stories butt up against one another, talking with each other on the virtual canvas of the blog post. The students use digital stories to read culture and to read the artistic process. They become careful yet bold critical readers of and writers about New Media while creating art with it. Julina enters the Borgesian labyrinth while commenting on her journey.

In her final project, “Ekphrasis Cycle,” coupling word and image without sound or movement, Julina moves into entirely new territory, daring to exploit the lessons learned from the previous exercises, exploring Roy Ascott’s “dispersed authorship,” this time not only by inviting the viewer in to witness and comment, but by bringing together photographs of different artists, convening them as story, through the links made by her poems. The whole creates a cycle, a kind of story she has not before written. She collaborates with the artists she brings into the project, and her writing moves in response to their influence. “Welcome to Julina’s Ekphrasis Cycle” she writes on the opening screen, “The preface is at the end.” She turns the narrative structure around, but by announcing it, alleviates some of the anxiety produced for the viewer. She writes, “I am writing in response to visual images, yes, but also using them as tools.” Her project is a creative disruption of the traditional academic essay as it examines ekphrasis by engaging in its practice.

A response left by a student (the class tutor) illustrates the way a blog through its return to a more reflective, letter-writing mode, allows her peers to react thoughtfully and then to comment:

I had a really tough time responding to you while we were conferencing because your poem hit home with me. I knew it was very difficult to discuss the poem without bringing in my personal feelings, which is why I kept asking you to direct me in the way you wanted me to respond to it. But through the beauty of weblogs, that’s exactly what I can do… I can edit out what I don’t want to convey. Brilliant, isn’t it?”

She, too, is commenting on the writing act as she writes.

Julina leaves us at the end of her “Ekphrasis Cycle,” with these words:

“I invite you to look for the silence behind and within the language, to find the syntax between the positive and negative spaces of image, and to find what is human in all of it, for this was, from the outset, my intention. To show you a different picture of yourself.”

Her work exemplifies Lev Manovich’s asking “how can New Media allow us to experience the ambiguity, the otherness, the multi-dimensionality of our expereince in new ways, thus enriching our lives.”

Creative Writing Students on Podcasts

My EL170, Introduction to Creative Writing Course just wrapped up the semester (well, formally–that is; we plan to meet one more time to read and screen finished projects), and it was, I think, about as good as it gets for a teacher, and a pretty remarkable first blogging experience for them. If ever a class had a chance of moving the blogging community out of the classroom and into their lives at semester’s end, this would be the one. Of course there’s the distraction of summer, and the fact that 80% of them are going abroad next year. Will this community and its vehicle call loudly enough to keep them blogging collaboratively? Will the creative writing focus morph into something altogether different?

One interesting outcome of this blog-centric class is their embrace of the podcast. They loved recording their own work and then hearing it on the blog, and they found it helpful to hear someone else reading their work, and to hear the rest of the class read their work. I see it as one of the elements that created a kind of magic here this semester. They even asked me to record the silly poemI wrote and read to them in the final class meeting.

Now they want me to record myself reading a story to them. And they want the one student who has to leave campus before the group get-together to record her poems and post them to the blog, so we can play them that evening and have them for posterity.

I also think the podcasting had something to do with the number of students wanting to try out digital storytelling for their final projects–having discovered the pleasures of reading aloud and recording, they were open to experimenting with multimedia authoring as well. One piece of the technology puzzle naturally led to another, and as they gained skill in using the tools, they also gained the critical apparatus necessary for becoming astute readers of New Media. Once again, if the pedagogy leads the technology use, and if that pedagogy has the formation of a strong learning collective at its center, then the learning outcomes will be quite stunning.

I came across this podcasting lit game today as I poked around a bit to see what other people in lit and creative writing might be doing in their classes with podcasting. A useful tool for learning about writers’ voices. I’d like to see the professor let the students do the readings, too, though, for I am convinced that they learn by doing the reading and then playing it back.

Less successful though promising this semester (but only because I ran out of time before I could post the podcasts) was recording students giving short presentations twice–once in my office where they could read their talk if they liked, and then once in front of the class. My plan is to embed both versions on the blog for them to compare and to evaluate. Our students need a good deal of practice in public speaking, and though we can give them feedback, hearing themselves will provide much more effective self-evaluation tools. Podcasting is so effortless (compared to videotaping, for instance) that we should be able to model and analyze their presentations with them almost on the spot. Next semester…

Habit and Expectation

Two moments yesterday afternoon–one reading a blog post, one an experience in New Media–bring me to thoughts about habit and expectation for those of us grappling with what it means to write, to teach and to read New Media.

Bud Hunt’s post about the habit of blogging brings up the old question that’s been circulating around the blogosphere for some time about how often should one blog (something many of us have contemplated as we adjust to writing on the Web and finding our rhythm here–Mena Trott spoke at Blogtalk2 last year about how the pressure to post BIG OFTEN drove her off her original blog; I’ve written from time to time about my own sense of blog writing habit and audience, and now that I am fast approaching my one-year anniversary of bgblogging–my four-year anniversary of using blogs in my classes, I’m thinking about it again).

I find it fascinating our human need for explanations, for parameters, for rules, for conformity. My students enter the classroom at the beginning of the semester thinking I have answers. They soon find out I have none. That each of them will have to find the right mix of strategies, techniques, ideas, skills and desire to find their way as writers and critical thinkers. I can show them the tools and how people use them, give them practice reading and writing critically and creatively, but I never tell them there is a right way to go about anything. Same goes for blogs. I’ve come to a place with blogging that I, like Bud, never want to blog just because the “anxiety of the link”(Bernstein) makes me rush to write, rush to connect, even if we don’t really have anything to say. It’s like Samuel Johnson’s sensible declaration: “I hate to read a writer who has written more than he has read.” Of course I know that many bloggers contend that the whole point of blogging is to remain connected, moving about the community, checking in, restlessly, with commitment.

Indeed, this brings up the question of feeding the blog–when does a blog die? Why? How long dormant is too long? What happens to the collaborative blog if only one person posts after a while? A class blog after the course is over? Well, we’ll soon see on that score with my creative writing class which has indicated a desire to keep posting–

As for a classroom blogging habit, even there I am very loose these days: I give students a few must-complete blogging assignments so that they are not avoiding blogging out of fear or out of lack of confidence or practice, but then I leave it up to each of them to find their own balance with the blogging. Some students really hate it–they will never blog of their own volition. Others love it. Some need to post every day, some are fine doing it once in a while. Both kinds of blogs interest me.

Bud excerpts Steve’s blog:

I do have to admit, as much as I love writing and blogging and sharing and collaborating, I do find it refereshing to take a mental break from it as well. It may sound crazy, but NOT learning for a few days does sort of recharge the batteries. I do feel a little out of it. Im sure that there have been some amazing things written in the past week which I missed completely. But thats alright, there will always be more,

Now there’s a guy who’s found balance.

I know, though, that some of my favorite bloggers, such as my colleague Hctor, rarely blog any more–he’s just too busy, and so people don’t tend to find him as often as they should.

Which brings me to the second part of this post: new media experience and expectation. One of my former students gave an informal presentation of her cyberartwork “Disembodiment” (I may have the title wrong)–she showed it in an auditorium on a large screen, then talked (something she altogether loathes doing under any circumstance) a bit about her process with Photoshop, Flash, and music. The audience was discomfited by what they saw for it didn’t conform to their expectations about “film”and yet they were sitting in front of a screen which by definition set up certain expectations –where was the narrative? What had she intended? What did it mean? Perhaps the most difficult part of the piece was that it was so compellingly beautiful while it flashed edges of a girl’s movement and spun a still image of a hologramesque face and marched across the screen an xray-DaVinci-esque torso. Was this an example of what Lev Manovich sees connecting the paintings of Vermeer to art in the new interfaces, where description and immersion are more important than narrative–the importance of objects, material surfaces, light, effects.

They pummeled her with questions about what it meant, what it was, what she hoped the audience would feel, know, do. They said it made them uncomfortable, and soon, the whole discussion period was making people uncomfortable, for she turned every question back over to the asker, or she refused to answer–but no one left. Someone asked her if this Q & A tactic was part of the whole piece, what she was after. People kept talking about the images and their juxtapositions, trying to figure them out and why she did what she did with the rearticulations of the self– At the end of the showing people still didn’t know what to do with it or themselves. Some people really seemed angry, some shrugged, one professor went up and hugged her and said it was fabulous and so not-Western.

In setting on its head the need for expectations to be met, she was articulating Roy Ascott’s “deep-seated fears of the machine coming to dominate the human will and of a technological formalism erasing human content and values.” She was showing us something most weren’t quite ready for:

In a telematic art, meaning is not created by the artist, distributed through the network, and received by the observer. Meaning is the product of interaction between the observer and the system, the content of which is in a state of flux, of endless change and transformation. In this condition of uncertainty and instability, not simply because of the crisscrossing interactions of users of the network but because content is embodied in data that is itself immaterial, it is purely an electronic difference, until it has been reconstituted at the interface as image, text, or sound. The sensory output may be differentiated further as existing on screen, as articulated structure or material, as architecture, as environment, or in virtual space.

From Roy Ascott’s “Is There Love in the Telematic Embrace?”

And as I get ready to present with Hctor at MIT this afternoon on digital stories, I know that there will be those in the audience who won’t appreciate what it is that my student, Julina, whose work I’ll be commenting on, has done with her digital storytelling as academic discourse and what Dominique last evening pushed well past– they insist on “dispersed authorship,” on each viewer participating in the writing of the piece, and resist leading us too far while connecting us to history, science, music, art, culture. And not feeling the need to define, to set rules, to tell us how to, when to, or why to communicate except as a way of reaching out to one another through the vast spaces that separate us. They are the artists who reside in the in-between spaces, participating yet commenting, being yet observing, on the boundaries between communities, where the most significant ideas often originate.

And so, I hope this medium stays ever fluid–that we resist the notion of how often we should post or how we should post– And that my students stay courageous in the face of doubt and misunderstanding, helping us to question and to connect and to see.

Opening the WIndows

As I sit in my office this early spring evening getting a few things done before my final creative writing workshop of the semester, I can hear waves of drumming as high school marching bands from all over the state of Vermont parade down our main street as part of the All-State music festival hosted by our local high school. And much as I would like to throw open the windows in this state-of-the-art new library I am lucky enough to have my office in, I can’t. The building’s hermetically sealed, and all I’ve got is the low throb of hundreds of drums in an odd cacaphony coming through the thick glass of my window. On the one hand it makes me think about how last weekend I sat for an entire afternoon at the Metropolitan Opera partaking in a glorious production of Faust–about how it took all afternoon–two intermissions during which we leisurely walked the opera house, checking out the divas’ gowns and fans and cigarette cases in the museum cases scattered about the building, and taking in the finery of the women and the scene. We just don’t do that sort of thing much in our culture–spend an entire afternoon experiencing art with a group of strangers. How often does the woman sitting next to you offer you her opera glasses?

It also makes me think about Aaron Campbell’s latest posting, how he points out that many edubloggers are taking note of how students are feeling trapped by the smallness of the classroom experience:

How many students out there feel as if they are in imprisoned? Would an educational institution encourage the pursuit of a particular activity if it led to integration, fulfillment, and a sense of freedom? Where is the space for such pursuits in educational institutions? Why do we shut people out of these experiences through rigid curricula and imposed educational goals? Who creates standardized learning criteria and why do we place such a premium on their achievement at the expense of happiness, wholeness, freedom, personal growth, and creative and emotional expression? What kind of society are our institutions contributing toward?

I think we teachers are feeling a bit trapped too, at least I am, by the confines of the semester system and the separation between courses and disciplines, and by having our students pulled in a half dozen directions instead of synthesizing and reflecting on the experience. I watch my students and myself work at breakneck speed just to get everything done instead of pursuing Aaron’s “happiness, wholeness, freedom, personal growth, and creative and emotional expression.”

And yet–I also see how this blogging experience placed within a constructivist pedagogy does contribute to my students realizing that there is something more and they want it–they want to hear and feel the wonderful, crazy sounds of 40 marching bands, and to spend the entire afternoon listening with strangers to one glorious opera. They take the time to jump on our creative writing blog to see what their peers are writing within their individual blogs, and what’s happening on the main Motherblog. They’re planning another writing party. Perhaps our collaborative, relaxed blogging on the Motherblog gives them some of that reflective practice–as a group. I know that it spurs them on to find Aaron’s threads to embroider.

This is very much on my mind as I focus on the student perspective on blogging for back-to-back conferences and for a CCCC proposal with colleagues spread out across the U.S. and Europe–what happens to our students once they’ve had the experience of a collaborative learning environment networked with blogs, open to multimedia authoring, and podcasting, and most importantly, that positions the students squarely in the middle of the classroom with one another? More and more I am seeing them ask for other ways of being in college–of creating their own hybrid majors, of going off for a few weeks in the middle of things to do a research project in the field, writing a grant with a faculty member to go off in the summer to explore something brought up in the class– proposing all manner of independent study projects. My students come out of these blog-centric classes clamoring for this kind of fluid though rigorous educational experience. They still want classroom time and traditional learning experiences as well–they are, after all, first-generation inhabitants of cyberspace, and thus they migrate between the old and the new. Comfortably.
I’ve written about this new kind of student before, several times, but at the end of the year, I keep finding myself coming back to ways I’d like to keep opening the windows in my teaching, allowing my students out of this sealed academic world and into the streets with their own lovely cacaphony.