The yin and yang of classroom writers blogging: lightening up

When I first started teaching creative writing at Middlebury College a decade or so ago, I preached patience to my students, describing the “glorious failures” that awaited them during their long apprenticeships a la Charles Baxter who talks about writing for some ten years before actively seeking publication ( see the Ploughshares profile). My students would indulge me by nodding yes yes of course, but then ask about how, once they were ready, how to get their work out there and read. They wanted to know right there in the first weeks of the intro course if they were good enough for the long haul. I wanted to know if they dared put away their own sense of direction and ego long enough to learn from those who came before them. I talked about Japanese potters throwing the same shape day after day for years–could they do that? Could they write some hundred pages for every ten they kept? I made them read and read and read and write. I quoted from Samuel Johnson: “I hate to meet a writer who has written more than he has read.” They were aching to have contact with the world, and I was telling them about the young art students of Europe standing day after day in drafty museum galleries copying the masterworks, learning the grammar of the brush and the work of those who came before them as they pushed to create their own work, to exert their own voices upon their art. I likened their trajectories to those of painters and dancers and musicians, all of whom spend many years grasping the technique so they can find the art inside their instruments. I agreed with Thomas Mann, who said, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than for anyone else.” My students looked at me impatiently: yeah yeah yeah, but when will we know if we can do this thing?

Now I find myself urging my students to put their work out there right away and frequently–on their blogs and the Motherblog–to experiment with media and voice and audience and genre. People mistake that for a 180 degree turn, thinking that I have abandoned my stance on taking time to learn and hone the craft, to dare make big mistakes before caring about publication. Hardly.

Blogging is different altogether, providing a wonderful balance between putting work out there and developing the practice. Yes, they get to float their young, sometimes inspired work out in the world and see what comes back. They get to read it on the Web, Google themselves, try the writer’s life on for size. They look back at old posts with incredulity–I wrote that? Argh!— but see the growth, the need for apprenticeships while reaching out with the work to see how the world responds. Through blogging, they also develop discipline, writing regularly both at as high a level as they can and freely, because no one expects you to do anything spectacular on a blog anyway. There is the freedom that comes with a medium that is not altogether accepted as a means of artistic expression. At least not yet. How immensely satisfying for the teacher and the student. We can both relax into the writing for its own sake, relishing the discoveries and the risks as they appear through our fingers and into language on our screens, and hold ourselves to a routine of writing and to a standard–the fact that our words go out into the world instead of staying in our notebooks forces us to consider them more carefully, perhaps, than we would in a journal or for a teacher alone (at least the kind of blogging I’m talking about).

My student, Megan, in a recent post on practice, writes:

The Art of Practicing
Practicing my violin since I was three-years old, I learned two important skills:
1) Self-discipline
2) Ensemble

Piya mentioned, in a comment posted to BG’s blog, that part of her purpose for blogging involves a “space” for practicing writing. I’ll be returning to Middlebury in January, and I feel more confident, composed, and excited about approaching writing and its entire process since participating and sharing within this community.

Writing is perhaps the most important skill in college. So why aren’t we practicing our writing by reflecting conversationally about our subjects of study in a blog-setting???

We need to pay more attention to the value of this comraderie felt through Web publishing and connecting. As Megan says, students hanker after this collaboration, this community-making out there in the world. This is the arena for discussing how to share ideas and to incorporate the ideas of others into our own work, the way Will Richardson discusses in his excellent “What do we do about that?” post. Communities of practice within the Academic Commons subvert urges to “steal” or to “hoard” ideas while they encourage boldness and accomplishment. Competition becomes friendly and respectful and measured–the individual striving for excellence while benefitting the group–because students support and applaud one another in this blogging atmosphere–everything is out in the open and connected, honored and learned from and carefully considered.

And so this blogging serves the work and the students themselves. My blogging creative writing class from last spring has organized a reunion at my house tomorrow–they miss the community, but they are kept so busy in their studies that they don’t have the time to participate meaningfully in this kind of community outside the classroom, they say. Except for the group abroad. Which is a shame. Laura Blankenship’s recent post about homework in the early grades made me wonder how meaningful are the assignments we give our students in college. Do we overload them with information and tasks instead of giving them the room to explore the material and their approaches to thinking about it critically and creatively? Is this not also perhaps what Aaron Campbell discusses in his “Violence in the Classroom” post when he writes, about his EFL students:

When given the opportunity to take control of their learning, they get nervous, confused, and irritable; and like sailors on a sinking ship, they look desperately for rescue. From the very beginning of their formal education, they have rarely been encouraged to think for themselves, take a critical stance, and choose the direction and pace of their learning. They’ve been marginalized, homogenized, standardized, and processed. They sport student numbers and grades like cattle sport brands and bells; and like all domesticated livestock, they are completely dependent on their owners for sustenance.

Blogging through a course–any course–as a means of interactive reflection and questioning and experimenting with form frees students to explore, to practice, to work hard for their own reasons. There is space and time on a blog, just as there is the drive to post and to comment–to post anything if need be just to ping people’s Bloglines feeds. George Siemens’s “The Joys of Shallow Thinking” post which gets at how our we are now literally surfing through hundreds of essays, articles and posts, looking for the general idea, the bit to return to later captures half of the tension. Yes, blogs have us skimming. But through the practice of regular posting, of having something to offer the group, students can slow things down, go deeper, hang in there longer with the unending apprenticeship because suddenly what they have to say can matter now while not being held up to the kind of scrutiny it would if printed, between covers, and costing money.

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“The Transition Generation,” the Time Issue and Dispersed Blog Communities

Anyone questioning the usefulness of social software in a liberal arts education (anyone who doesn’t believe that college students can engage in meaningful discussion via blog comments or blog-to-blog, the kind of discussion that should be at the heart of the liberal arts) or anyone conjuring up doom-and-gloom scenarios when they think of students and computers together, might want to take a gander at the four comments left by three students–all of whom are away from campus–to my October 21 posting. Even serious blog researchers wonder about how blogs are really working within classrooms, such as James Farmer in his and Anne Bartlett-Bragg’s excellent paper proposal from this summer for ASCILITE 2005, observing:

“In particular, educators have struggled with participation, getting learners to extend themselves in the environment, conducting collaborative tasks using blogs and the challenges of renegotiating ‘private’ reflective tasks into the public arena.”

Ah, have they looked at a student’s blogging over the course of a full four years, in and out of the classroom? The students I’m referring to here are no longer in the classroom with me–the physical, semester-delineated classroom, that is. Rather, they have taken the notion of their education as being continuous and fluid and emerging to heart–we are fully immersed in Pierre Lévy’s reciprocal apprenticeships. They are not fearful of talking about the challenges of their experiences, or what they are reading, or what they are learning. Indeed, they often make more interesting observations about education and the world than just about anyone I’m reading. Their own blogging exemplifies attentive writing, extended reflection that looks out beyond their own small experience as well as circling back to thoughts they and their peers have had in the past. Just this short second comment left by Lizi just this morning, from an internet cafe in Siberia–the fact that she was still thinking about the original post and the ensuing discussion and came back to add another thought shows the benefits of these slowly unfolding conversations blog-to-blog and within blogs:

I just want to add that after reading these comments I thought of one more blogging benefit. Last week I was on my blog, reading one of Megan’s comments about landscape. A few minutes later, I travelled over to Barbara’s blog to take a look, and Megan had commented below my comment, this time about the idea of blogging.
In a period of 10 minutes, I’d met Megan in two different contexts, and had “conversations” with her that, I doubt, we’d have had face to face. There’s links on the internet that don’t exist in real life. It’s natural on blogs to think. It’s not so natural in day to day life.

Now don’t get me wrong–it takes time to develop the voice, the confidence and the understanding to blog the way they do. Blogging gets a bad rap because it seems so glossy, so easy, so facile. But I’m convinced that you have to blog with students over time and in many different situations to show the real promise of the medium–not just in isolated contexts, and of course therein lies the problem when we continue to adhere to separate courses, semesters, years and dump the “learning” inside units to be consumed and digested and yet not necessarily implemented outside the classroom. Course blogs go dormant or die during semesters off. There can be a jarring disconnect between blogging experiences. But if we were to give all our students blogs to use to make connections between courses and peers and professors, what kinds of thinking might emerge then? If my gaggle of study abroad bloggers can accomplish what they are with their blogging in a month, what might they do in four years? And of course not all of them will suceed or will take to blogging. That’s to be expected. Not all of my students like to speak up in class discussion, or write papers, or play frisbee, after all. But those who will take to it will reap considerable rewards.
This brings me to the latest round of articles (in addition to Monke’s “Charlotte’s Webpage” in Orion to which I responded on the 23rd) raising the alarm about this generation and what computers are doing to them. Everyone is talking about the negative trends in our computer technology-driven world–the dangers of children spending too much time in front of computers (Yesterday’s New York Times article), the fracturing of our attention span in this hurry-up world propelled by computer use (last week’s NYT) that it’s no wonder that blogs, podcasting, wikis, RSS, etc remain at the threshold of our institutions but never really step into our classrooms in significant numbers. We read these articles; we watch the news; we see the disasters, and we know that the world is out of control. And so it is.

But we can either sit by and decry the convulsive changes–try to pull back (when the train is already way down the track), or insist on finding the promise, the potential, the truly remarkable about these tools and applications and put them in the hands of our able students. Who is listening to James Martin and his thinking about this “transition generation” or toJames Duderstadt, who asks:

Or is the true university something more intellectual: a community of masters and scholars (universitas magistorium et scholarium), a school of universal learning (Newman) embracing every branch of knowledge and all possible means for making new investigations and thus advancing knowledge (Tappan)?
… Certainly, both learning and scholarship will continue to depend heavily upon the existence of communities, since they are, after all, high social enterprises. Yet as these communities are increasingly global in extent, detached from the constraints of space and time, we should not assume that the scholarly communities of our times would necessarily dictate the future of our universities. For the longer term who can predict the impact of exponentiating technologies on social institutions such as universities, corporations, or governments, as they continue to multiply in power a thousand-, a million-, and a billion-fold?

Take the case of my own two daughters–you could read them as confused, lost, even, and scared. You might think they spend too much time at their computers IM-ing. Or you can see them as finding a new route through life, a new way to become educated: The oldest finds herself in her sophomore year of college at one of this country’s premiere institutions after having spent three years at one of our country’s top prep schools. She pushed to attend these schools. Now, recently, she announced that she wants to take time off–she doesn’t know who she is or why she’s on this speed-driven, elite train. She needs to take a look around, ask questions, test herself in the world. Her younger sister, our adventurer, has always insisted on doing things according to her own clock and her own map–she has always questioned everything and everyone and at sixteen is remarkably confident and put together. I marvel at their willingness to see the world in a new way. They are examples of a growing trend, again as reported in the NYT today–but about college graduates. Suddenly, the world is smaller and students want to travel and learn in ways that do not fit into the traditional academic structures. And what distinguishes this kind of learning is active engagement with the wider world–the world beyond their own home turf. This is POSITIVE! As I said in a recent post, students, perhaps because they have constant and direct and virtual connection with the world, want to get out in it. Virtual communities of practice help them to reflect and learn, and to hunger after immersive experiences in the physical world. Because they are in constant contact with one another and with their families and friends all over the globe, they can be in the world and back home at the same time. Do we have to separate these experiences? Do we have to leave our parents at home? Our friends? Our professors? Why?

Parents and grandparents, friends and peers, professors and strangers all write along with the student bloggers, creating a complex fabric of relationships, bringing together the various pieces of one life within a single conversation, or multiple conversations taking place on different screens, on a range of devices. Our notion of teachers expands to include everyone–

Blog sceptics and detractors (and those make up the majority in liberal arts institutions if we look at the numbers of classrooms making active and ongoing use of social software) worry about time. They worry that their time as teachers will be taken over by online discussions, to learning software applications, to attending to the glitches and crashes and disasters instead of attending to the learning. They worry that their students will spend even more time on search engines instead of in the library or together discussing around a table or listening to their professors. They worry about blogging watering down the curriculum and the level of erudition. Blogging has a bad name around the halls of higher ed. It’s not serious enough, or it’s a time guzzler.

What may seem like interruptions or intrusions along the lines of last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine article by Clive Thompson might just be the painful moments within the transition to new forms of engagement:

When Mark crunched the data, a picture of 21st-century office work emerged that was, she says, “far worse than I could ever have imagined.” Each employee spent only 11 minutes on any given project before being interrupted and whisked off to do something else. What’s more, each 11-minute project was itself fragmented into even shorter three-minute tasks, like answering e-mail messages, reading a Web page or working on a spreadsheet. And each time a worker was distracted from a task, it would take, on average, 25 minutes to return to that task. To perform an office job today, it seems, your attention must skip like a stone across water all day long, touching down only periodically…

In the language of computer sociology, our jobs today are “interrupt driven.” Distractions are not just a plague on our work – sometimes they are our work. To be cut off from other workers is to be cut off from everything.

Information is no longer a scarce resource – attention is.

Add adolescence into the mix and you’ve got chaos. So how is it that blogging, wikis, podcasting, FLICKR, RSS, and multimedia writing can help our students concentrate rather than fracture what attention span they may have? Teaching students how to blog in the classroom and then handing them individual blogs and a Motherblog community (and perhaps a professor at home blogging) –having patience–makes sense to me. Look at how these students are extending their posts, returning instead of running through and discarding ideas brought up earlier. Linking, commenting, archiving, posting–it’s as though they are creating a language-map to the development of their thoughts over the course of this year–through and across disciplines, geographies, communities and cultures. Pretty darn good use of time in my book.

Now what happens when they come home???

Blog Woes with MT Upgrade

My latest post has gone missing for the time being as we upgrade MT. I’ll be back on as soon as possible. The joys, the joys…

Digital Stories as a Way to Write the Journey

I’ve got multi-media narrative on the brain today. Over the past three-four years, my students have done some remarkable work with digital stories, ranging from interpretations of poetry, fictions, personal narratives, and excerpts from longer multimedia research projects. (You can read about earlier work here and here). )
I’m interested now in exploring ways digital storytelling can be used by students returning from studying abroad as a way to write the journey. One student, heading to Southeast Asia for January term, will return to Middlebury in the spring to work on an independent project with me in multiple forms of writing about being abroad. One of those forms will be the digital story. And so I’ve been searching the Web for digital storytellers-on-the-road. As usual, when I venture out to the Web looking for something for the first time, I am not at all sure how well I’ve combed the blogosphere for interesting examples. I did come up with a few instances of colleges actually sending students to do digital stories during study abroad –at least, in a way. Phoenix College had students make digital stories in Ireland last summer; apparently Kean University uses digital storytelling as a reflective practice, but I couldn’t find their stories on the Web; Ball State University, which has an MFA in Digital Storytelling, sends students abroad to create digital stories about their intercultural immersion experiences; certainly there are individual examples in the extraordinary BBC Telling Lives project. Examples of digital storytelling within communities about those communities or for individuals to tell a compelling story abound; I’m still hunting for ways in which digital storytelling connects significantly with the study-abroad experience.
I’m also gearing up to introduce digital storytelling to my first-year writing class, I’m continuing to play around with image-stories here and on Flickr)as well as dusting off the digital story I made this summer about traveling to South America to join my daughter. One thing I’ve learned about introducing the vocabulary of image and sound to the students as a way to get them to think about the relationship between the parts of an essay and as a powerful means of writing is that I need to pull the digital story apart into its components. Before I even introduce Joe Lambert’s Seven Elements of Digital Storytellling or even discuss what a digital story is, I want them to confront images and voices. I want them to play around with using photos to respond to texts and to think about their world, and to think about the role of image–what it does to and for the writer. I also want them to play around with podcasting, getting used to the sound of their own voice coming from their own blogs.
And so, for the first-year writers, I have threaded several exercises involving images through the first weeks of the semester, asking them first to gather images that represent something about their reactions to Vermont, as Luisa has done here. I also had them write with photographs about a theme in one of the short stories assigned, as Luisa has done for Howard Frank Mosher’s “Alabama Jones.” They write a story-without-words version of their literary analysis essay, too (Scottie’s example). As they become more comfortable thinking visually, and thinking critically about the visual, they begin to see how stepping away from language for a moment to think about their ideas in image can help the preciseness of their diction, the development of their points, and the depth of their ideas. Occasionally I will hold class in the computer lab and have the group find an image from a repository I have set up, an image that connects somehow to a work of literature we are studying. I’ll have them write for ten minutes about those connections as a way to have them return to written language while considering visual metaphors (Israel’s example).

They have recorded reflections on their essays (Yina’s example) and listened to their voices, the way they put words into the air versus onto the page. Podcasting 1-2 minute responses to images of Vermont in one of our texts and to an excerpt from another text (see Israel’s examples) asks students to articulate their ideas succinctly and clearly. Listening to their own voices gets them to consider style, rhythm, emphasis–the color of their speaking voice versus the color of their writing voice.

And so, they’re almost ready for the next step–thinking about how the digital story (using a music soundtrack, images with transitions, and a voiceover narration) can extend and enhance their critical and creative thinking about a research project. Next week I will have them make several simple, but different, versions of the same story: an image-only story; the same story, the same images with movement and transsitions added; that story with two different music soundtracks added, and then finally the digital story itself.

I’ve made a very basic set of examples: A Walk Through Primeval Vermont

Story Without Words

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Story with Image Movement and Transitions
<embed controller=”YES” autoplay=”NO” length=”175″ src=”http://muskrat.middlebury.edu/wrpr0100a-f05-st/digitalstories/primevalvermont.mov&#8221;

Story with Soundtrack A (John Whelan Jig)
<embed controller=”YES” autoplay=”NO” length=”175″ src=”http://muskrat.middlebury.edu/wrpr0100a-f05-st/digitalstories/primevalvermont2.mov&#8221;

Story with Soundtrack B (John Whelan’s “Lost Souls”)

<embed controller=”YES” autoplay=”NO” length=”175″ src=”http://muskrat.middlebury.edu/wrpr0100a-f05-st/digitalstories/primevalvermont3.mov&#8221;

I will also show them (and students thinking about digital storytelling from study abroad) the digital story I made in three days this summer as part of a workshop to learn Premiere:

(Hmmm…I’ll embed the movie next week…)

Blogs provide a way to connect all this work over the years, over the course of a semester, project to project, student to student, all while allowing me space for reflecting on the developments and throwing open the conversation to colleagues, students and interested readers.

Thinking Twice about Computers in Classrooms, “Multi-subjectivity” and Balance

As usual, I find myself sifting through the past several days, finding connections between seemingly dissimilar experiences: a moment watching the slide show of a former student just returned from a Fulbright year in Syria, a lively conversation over the dinner table about journals vs. email vs. blogs when you’re traveling abroad, reading my students’ blogs (make sure you use Mozilla as your browser if you want to see their blogs listed on the right sidebar) and the article my friend and colleague, H�ctor Vila, threw my way as he urged me to look up from my blog and ask some essential questions about the impact of my technology use on my students’ lives and on my own. I’m interested in the correspondences arising from the very tensions produced by this dizzying range of experiences, and how they bring me back here to the blog.

Watching the slideshow and listening to the accompanying Syrian music transported me to a place I wouldn’t have access to without the stories, the images and the music. Every evening after dinner, the young poet/scholar has been telling us stories about her life in Damascus. This is what happens when people get together around a table and spend time with one another–the magic of stories. But two nights ago, she said that without the images–her photos–we couldn’t really feel it. She couldn’t tell us another story without first showing us the images. It was time to see the iPHOTO slide show. For a moment I was surprised: this young woman is one of the best storytellers I know. Her words create worlds. Her facial expressions and graceful, punctuating hands pull us in, make us listen as hard as we can. She teases me about blogs. And yet, we sat around her computer,listening not to her, but to the music she had selected to go with the images of young girls studying the Qu’ran, children playing in the squares, monks in the monastery, people going about their lives. Staring at that computer screen added something essential to the stories. They brought real people to me. People I will never meet.

My young friend doesn’t like how long it takes me to respond to email–for all my blogging, I am rather slow to commit words to the screen. She loves books and paintings and even email but dislikes blogs as though they were tainted, not real. I get that same response from colleagues sometimes–why blogs, why would you ever use blogs?–as though somehow having students talk to one another and the world about their subject matter through writing online is less valuable than to fill a notebook with notes during a lecture. But last night, she had to admit that to find out what’s going on in Syria and Iraq–what’s really going on–she reads blogs. (I think she does it with a flashlight beneath the covers…) These contradictions mark our age as we struggle to get our heads around what we’ve wrought with technology.

The article, Lowell Monke’s “Charlotte’s Webpage,” from Orion Magazine, would have us do more of this blog resisting, I believe. At least he would have us resist bringing computers into classrooms–at least elementary school classrooms–at least without thinking far more carefully about what we’re doing with computer technology in education than we have to this point–, making a compelling argument about “why children shouldn’t have the world at their fingertips.” He puts his own finger right on an enormous, vexing problem: how we are putting the tools in front of our thinking about the effects of these tools, and now we are seeing the results of our headlong rush into the arms of our technological innovations. We do NOT want to mediate the experience of elementary-school children through computers instead of or even alongside direct, real, lived experiences with the world, he contends, writing:

The medium is so compelling that it lures children away from the kind of activities through which they have always most effectively discovered themselves and their place in the world.

This is a thoughtful, thought-provoking article I urge everyone–in particular educators using computer technology–to read. His experience with students avoiding face-to-face discussion of important and difficult issues is particularly worrisome:

During the two decades that I taught young people with and about digital technology, I came to realize that the power of computers can lead children into deadened, alienated, and manipulative relationships with the world, that children’s increasingly pervasive use of computers jeopardizes their ability to belong fully to human and biological communities�ultimately jeopardizing the communities themselves.

He concludes:

At the heart of a child’s relationship with technology is a paradox–that the more external power children have at their disposal, the more difficult it will be for them to develop the inner capacities to use that power wisely. Once educators, parents, and policymakers understand this phenomenon, perhaps education will begin to emphasize the development of human beings living in community, and not just technical virtuosity. I am convinced that this will necessarily involve unplugging the learning environment long enough to encourage children to discover who they are and what kind of world they live in.

I agree that we must slow down to consider the impact of technology on our students’ ability to engage with the world around them, the direct experience with people and place. If our use of technology serves to distance our students from the physical world and their own responsibilities within the world, then we are missing the point of using technology in the classroom. And so, yes, we should pause–big time– before we send our elementary-age students to computers. And we should teach our high school students critical approaches to using media of all sorts. In our college and university classrooms, we need to find some kind of balance between sending our students to texts of any sort, and asking them to engage directly with the world and one another–integrating experiential learning into our classrooms. Indeed, the more I use computer technology in my courses, having students roam the Web, podcast, make digital stories and blog, the more I also find myself sending my students out into the world more than I ever did before, conducting interviews, observing, and then coming back to write, to record, to share these experiences via the Web. I also meet more often with them in class–without computers– and one-on-one than I ever have in the past, and students are ever more likely just to stop by my office to say hello. (I never did that with my professors, and no one else did as far as I knew.)

But it’s ridiculous to shun or to vilify the Web-mediated experience. The Web can (just as books and stories can) point students towards the real, have them dream about the world, prompt them to explore it and revise their sense of it. I wish Monke had gone further in his article to discuss ways in which computers in the classroom–coupled with the experiential learning he promotes– can lead to essential discussions about society and expectations and relationships. Why not take those moments in high school when students turn from f2f conversations with members of their own community in favor of the blog or email discussion with someone halfway across the world as opportunities to talk about the reasons, the repercussions, the differences between these experiences? Why not even have elementary school children examine the computer-generated spider next to the real thing?

Case in point–my own sixteen-year-old daughter, in an article she recently wrote for our local newspaper about her spring semester spent with The Traveling School in South America, provides an example of just these kind of conclusions our computer-dependent children are drawing and then what happens when they confront the real:

When I traveled to the Ecuadorian rainforest, I was initially expecting to see the Discovery Channel version of the Amazon jungle: monkeys swinging from tree-to-tree, toucans and parrots perched on every branch, and boa constrictors slithering through the brush ready to grab me at every turn.

The reality of the rainforest didn�t hit me until I went on my first hike. Jerson explained the different plants, flowers and trees we encountered, but we rarely saw even a bird flying overhead. The only time I actually saw any of the animals I had imagined would live in a rainforest was in an animal sanctuary, miles upriver from where we were staying. I wasn�t disappointed, just mainly shocked by the difference between what I had been expecting and the reality of the rainforest.

And she’s a well-traveled person who went to an elementary school without computers and which prided itself on an experiential, community-based curriculum. It was in the clash between the two experiences that a number of interesting discoveries took place.

The same day I read the Monke article, I saw that Will had linked to
a recent post by Dave Weinberger in which he writes:

It is the connectedness of the Net. We can see what the world is thinking. But that just leads to relativism, a form of disappointment. Instead, the Net is filled with joy. That is why almost a billion people are using it and are finding it transformative. In fact, we are escaping from the old, dissatisfying clash between objectivity (the world as it looks when we’re not looking at it) and subjectivity (the world as it matters to us). With the Internet, we get multi-subjectivity for the first time. Take blogs. They look like publications, but they’re overwhelmingly conversations. We’re linking to one another, disagreeing, amplifying, making fun, extending, sympathizing, laughing. We are talking with one another, thinking out loud across presumptions and continents. If you want to know about an idea, you could go to an encyclopedia and read what an expert says about it. Or you could find a blog that talks about it and start following the web of links. You’ll not just see multiple points of view, you’ll hear those points of view in conversation. That’s new in the world.

The old dream of finding a single knowledge for the entire world � having knowledge be like reality, in other words � is dying rapidly.

But we should not be left in despair because we now also know that for as long as we manage to not to destroy this blue pearl, we’re going to be engaged in endless conversation. Conversations iterate differences upon a common ground. Conversations are themselves paradoxes. But because they happen, they’re miracles.

And of course, leave it to my students blogging away out there in the world, and my young traveling and writing daughter, and my young scholar/poet friend to feel and examine these tensions– observing them interact with one another around a dinner table, reading their blog posts, and listening to them talk about their desire for the direct experience makes me smile again. They’ve got a good chance of fulfilling James Martin’s hope that this generation coming of age will put the world to rights, this world that we have come close to destroying. They immerse themselves in place, with people and with themselves while also connecting virtually to one another as well as to themselves and to anyone else (parents, family, friends, interested strangers) to collaborate in an intellectual commons, a collective intelligence. They’ll revel in both kinds of experience.

My abroad bloggers are talking about just these tensions between the lived moment and the virtual communication: take, for example, Piya’s blogging as she sat in the airport:

But a question emerges from jet exhaustion…must we physically plant our feet in its soil to have traveled to another place? Just two days ago I was back, ironically also for the third time, at Middlebury College for a pre-orientation program called Project for Integrated Expression (P.I.E.). Fifteen freshman from all edges of space were in attendance. Jamaica, Gaza, Idaho, Arkansas, Alaska, California, the list grows. And as I listened to their stories, felt around their selves, their souls, imagined their communities, their sense of home, while tentatively sharing my own, I had the overwhelming feeling that I had traveled to a new place. In knowledge, in understanding, in perspective,in space, in my very own being. But my feet stayed planted, the scenery around me unchanged.

It’s funny, in this age of globalization, of time and space compression, of mass communication and rapid progress, how far must we travel to be in a new place?

And a few posts later:

:
As an aside�someone posted a valuable comment on my blog. They asked if having to reflect on this experience has made it harder to actually involve myself in the experience. How do you all feel about this? About this pressure to blog, to write something worthwhile and meaningful about this frenzy we�ve thrown ourselves into. I know that I found it much easier to reflect and critique on my trip through India. On both my personal journey, and on the people and places around me. Maybe because I was only there for a month? Not enough time in a new place to formulate an actual exsistence. Or maybe because the place is part of me, flows through my blood� What about you, has this World Blogging Project, compliments of Mad Dog Ganley, added to or retracted from being abroad? Lizi, I know you had mentioned earlier that you are too caught up in your own sphere of reflection. Have you been able to step outside of this? What about you others? I would definitely be interested to hear some thoughts�

And a response from Megan:

I’ve only just started my third week on the reservation and I’m not at an actual university studying, nor am I technically “abroad” — BUT — what I like about blogging is 1)it provides me the liberty and routine for reflection on this experience with a new geographical setting, culture, and people while at the same time this reflection provokes action in both my thoughts and in my day-to-day living. I’ve been reflecting on the blog about how nervous I am about bringing blogging to Takini — calculating possible drawbacks, observing the already obvious lack of enthusiasm now and trying to predict the success or failure of something I honestly believe in, on top of learning and gauging culture and family and spirituality in the realm of the school — AHH!

Anyway, my point is that through my reflection, I in turn am asking more questions, becoming more excited about blogging, the students, and my overall experience, releasing fears — and really ALLOWING myself to LIVE WITH the people rather than just existing IN the school on the reservation.

So yes — I think blogging enriches my experience “abroad.”

….Oh, I totally forgot the other component I was meaning to mention.

COMMUNITY! I’m almost finished with this book called Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Paulo Friere, the author, talks about the student-teacher relationship where it is necessary for both student and teacher to be “actors” in their discussion, to be “Subjects” — not Subject and object. He also talks about dialogue and words, how every words breaks down into reflection AND action. Thus, our dialogue is, if it is authentic, is composed of reflection and action.
Blogging provides this opportunity for reflection and action at the individual level while simultaneously connecting the individuals to other individuals forming a community that responds to one another through the “reflection-action” process. And I think that’s such a beautiful way of existing with one another.

(I swear I didn’t put her up to that post!)

Ron Burnett on his blog <a href=”http://www.eciad.ca/~rburnett/Weblog/”target=”_blank, Critical Approaches to Culture + Comunications + Hypermedia, on October 6, in his “Dilemmas of Learning and Teaching” post, writes:

For Freud, and for Socrates, knowledge is only gained through struggle and as a result of the recognition that ideas have an impact because of the dynamic interplay of words and spoken language, interpersonal communications and public discourse. It is their recognition of the importance of speech and of the balancing act between knowing and not knowing that opens up new possibilities for discussion and learning.

These students are actively engaged in this struggle, trying to find a balance between the lived and the virtual–and learning more about the world and themselves in the process than I certainly did at their age. So I don’t advocate removing computers from classrooms, but rather to wade right in and talk about the confusion, the dangers, the possibilities–the uneasy space we are in right now.

Last night at the dinner table (and our ranks are growing with each evening as our young traveling friend attracts my students and friends of my daughter to our home) the conversation among us turned to forms of capturing and reflecting on travels as the experience is being lived. My daughter had just received a letter of acceptance to a semester program in India for the spring and was trying to decide if she really could get her head around being in India at age sixteen. I laughed and said that this time, instead of emailing wonderful missives back home, she should blog it, the way Piya blogged her month in India last year. She looked at me and said, “I have to blog it–blogging is required on this program.” One student (who has blogged brilliantly in a couple of my classes but avoids it when she has the choice) said that she uses a journal, and hates the thought of blogging from abroad because she doesn’t want to share her private revelations. Blogging is too exposed. Another young friend asked my daughter if she had kept a journal in South America. She said that she could never get into journaling because she didn’t see why she needed to tell herself what she was feeling–just feel it, and be present in those feelings. Writing to others, though, having to explain to someone else what is going on and what it seems to mean, well that, she said, makes a lot more sense to her. Our young scholar/poet agreed. Our journal-keeper did not.

And I sat quiet, just listening, thinking about the article that had left me unsettled earlier in the day, and Dave Weinberger’s post, and the students’ blogging from abroad about blogging from abroad, and the eight of us sitting around a table talking about blogging and emailing and journaling from abroad, and I thought how lucky we are to have all these ways of connecting with ourselves and one another: face-to-face AND virtually. My sixteen-year-old daughter is able to think critically about both kinds of experiences, about how to be present within the moment, responsive to the people and environment around her, and to use computer technology to extend those experiences, to reach out to others within her community and beyond it, and to think about how both affect the other and her own perceptions. Her enormous spirit has room to range in and a means of connecting. She gets what Dave Weinberger says: “So knowledge has become the continuousness of conversation. It has become a miracle. Knowledge can no longer fix the meaning of a thing with a single pin of meaning. To understand now means to hear the multiplicity of meaning talked about across the world…The more of the world we get into the conversation, the more the world will mean.”

And so here I am, back to the blog, back to having my students blog–but also insisting that they get out in the world, and talk to one another face-to-face. There can be a balance, a lovely kind of tension between these two sides–the Web writer who wants to throw open the doors to discussion via the Web, and the experiental learner, who needs to throw open the doors of the classroom. Our students need both experiences.

Connectivity, Collaboration & Emergence

I write often about how more and more what I see as the most interesting and powerful uses of classroom blogging involve opportunities for students to connect and to collaborate. It comes as no surprise at all, of course, since this is precisely what Tim O’Reilly (and many others) point to within the emergence of Web 2.0. But we don’t pay enough attention to the benefits of connectivity and collaboration via the Web in classrooms that do not explicitly focus on technology. So yes, Laura’s (Geeky Mom’s) Bryn Mawr class blogs as part of their course on Web writing, absolutely. And writing classes are using blogging nicely to form and strengthen their learning communities, to disseminate materials, and to publish writing, such as my colleague, MaryEllen Bertolini is doing with her first-year seminar on Jane Austen. But I’m also looking for ways in which humanities and social science classrooms are seeing blogs as a way to reach beyond the classroom and into the world of their discipline, to put students in touch with one another as mutual apprentices, and with the experts in the world, and to join in the larger conversations going on in the field–in ongoing relationships. But perhaps I don’t need to look within classes, after all, for I’m discovering that the students are getting it, and forging these connections now in ways they didn’t even a couple of years ago, whether we encourage them to or not.

The Blogging the World Project, for instance, is growing–not because I or my colleagues from Haverford or Dickinson have been out there knocking on our students’ doors, asking them to join the project. No, the students themselves are reaching out, asking to join, or telling me about other students abroad blogging independently, students who are interested in joining a community of bloggers. At first, in what some of us have come to call, second-wave blogging, students from our classes that blogged started to hanker after it a few weeks once the course was over. They missed the opportunity to write on the Web in multimedia, sure, but most of all, they told us they missed the connections with one another as a writing and learning community. But now, not only do these students return asking what’s going on with blogging and how can they participate, students who have never blogged in class are wanting in. They have experienced the fluid connectivity of cellphone and IM, of online social communities, and are interested in engaging with an intellectual, educational community as well.

And so I have found myself recently adding students in South Dakota, Russia and Senegal to our project–students interested not only in blogging as one-to-many, but as many-to-many. It’s lonely blogging out there by yourself even when you have a devoted following–if that devoted following is not blogging, you have to wait for responses instead of wandering over to someone else’s blog to see what’s going on in their experience. Now that I am being shown these blogs springing up, I notice the clusters of friends linking one another’s blogs off their pages as a way to keep a group scattered all over the globe in touch, together. I’m now interested in seeing what happens when we take these independent study abroad bloggers into our project–will they find that posting to the Motherblog offers them something that their own blog does not? Will anything shift in voice or content on their own blogs as a result? What does a virtual community offer?

And back on campus, my Writing Workshop students are posting their writing, images and podcasts dutifully to their blogs, and appreciating how the range of writing modes helps their writing and thinking. Now, though, I have moved off the center collaborative blogging space and invited them to step in to blog collaboratively, to engage in a full-group discussion directed by them. But until late next week, I won’t have asked them to comment on one another’s posts on the individual blogs.In the past, it wouldn’t have dawned on them to wonder about that. But lasy night, I saw that one student, Bobby, is already concluding that they would benefit from giving one another feedback on the blog, and has left a classmate a response:

Anyways, while I was looking at different peoples writing blogs, I realized that no one really had any comments or suggestions to any of their writings, which seems to negate the power of this technology. I think we all aspire to be better writers here, otherwise we wouldn’t have taken this class, but I think in order to achieve great heights in our writings, we need the analysis and honest opinions of our peers as well as our teachers. Luisa, you have left an impression on me with your artistic ability from day one. Thus this is the reason why I decided to atribute my first comment to you.

This is new. They get it. They want it.

In talking yesterday with my colleague, Catharine Wright, who blogs and has used blogs extensively in a range of writing classes, about a collaborative blogging project that grew out of her class a year ago and now has a life of its own beyond her course, Dis.course, I asked her about whether she had observed the same kind of phenomenon. Were students finding the blog and wanting a place on it? And yes, she said, her students who had blogged with her, have approached her about wanting a place to try out their writing, their ideas, their multimedia projects. And they don’t want to go it all alone. The common blog off of which they link their own blogs makes all the difference for them, as Catharine points out in a recent post,Writing, Community and Activism, in writing about one of her new bloggers, Ariana Figuero:

Ariana’s connection of the two communities seems completely natural to me. Both communities rise out of the same philosophy about learning, writing, community. There are a number of us in the writing program who encourage such communities, online, offline–the list is long. And what Ariana was saying was that, having had such an experience, she needed more of it. She needed to stay plugged in and keep working in community with others.

So here is where even in small, liberals arts colleges, institutions that pride themselves on close-knit nuturing communities, we hunger for meaningful, ongoing connections to one another in which we explore one another’s and our own ideas. Catharine goes on to say:

But the work can feel isolated, and the voices unheard, if we don’t call out to one another, as Carter did, and say, “I hear you.” And Ariana is saying that she needs that–that without that, she got stuck in her writing, which is so good. So I hope that dis.course writers and readers will reach out to one another, and beyond; to say, “I hear you,” and “why,” and “listen to this.”

Bobby just new to Middlebury, in his course, WP100, the Writing Workshop, understands this as does Ariana as she ventures beyond the nurturing community of her WP201, Writing Across Differences course. Imagine what could happen if all of our students had such opportunitites to connect with one another and us and the world on community blogs like Dis.course and Blogging the World as a valued part of their education? What kinds of discoveries would they make about their places in the world and their roles in their own education? What kinds of transformations would emerge within our educational institutions?
Imagine.

Asking My Students To Write Stories Without Words As a Means to Consider the Elements of Writing

My Own Attempt:

Upon Rising Too Early on an October Morning

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