Creativity and Discomfort in the Classroom and on the Web

These past couple of days I have been torn between writing a quick post in response to the NYT article about students emailing their professors inappropriately, or pointing out (as usual) the ways in which online relationships are having a positive impact on my students’ learning experiences, or to highlighting posts from around the blogsphere about classroooms and creativity. The more I think about it, the more I have to write about them together — the tensions arising in email and classroom behavior are whiffs of actual positive if currently painful shifts in classroom dynamics and learning environments, and point to opportunities that if we keep our heads, are profoundly creative. And so, I admit, I rather enjoy the growing pains.

The letters appearing in last Thursday’s NYT in response to the article outlining some of the most extreme cases of students emailing their professors remind me of conversations I have had with my sister-in-law epidemiologist/doctor about how students sometimes jump onto listservs and discussion forums with world authorities on, say, malaria and ask the most basic–read that dumb– questions that could be answered by picking up any textbook. There’s little sensitivity on the part of these students to the context, the level, the chemistry of the conversation. It’s somewhat the same thing when we sit in the airport just to have the person sitting across from us dive into a cellphone conversation loudly and publicly. It chafes. It irks. And it’s fascinating if you think about it, how people pull up and over them a scrim of insulation even in public, online or not, that detaches them from old norms of etiquette. Yes, we have a whole new generation in our midst that expects immediate answers, click-and-receive right NOW consumerism. So what do we as educators do about this? Tear our hair out? Complain? Distance ourselves from such behavior by barricading ourselves within our own righteousness?

On the one hand there are teachers who somehow seem to expect that students just naturally should know something about email etiquette and the parameters guiding student-professor relationships. I was relieved, then, to see that most of the letter writers got right to the heart of the matter–if you choose to use email as a means of communication with your students, you have to set guidelines, just as you do phone calls, just as you do classroom etiquette. Some students may choose to ignore those rules–that happens. It always has happened. When I was a first-year high school teacher many years ago, I remember having a couple of fist fights break out in my rural classroom; I remember a student swearing at me to my face in front of the class. I remember a parent threatening to sue me if I didn’t pass her son in tenth-grade English. It happened. It was awful, but after a while, I figured out how to turn those low spots into learning moments for the entire class, and really interesting things started to happen for us all as a result–that’s what we’re here for, yes, to get them to think creatively and critically about themselves and the world? No matter our discipline, no matter the age group?

And then there’s the letter posted by an adjunct professor from Brooklyn College:

While I agree that e-mail is a double-edged sword, there are instances where it can be very helpful.

One of my students last semester had oral surgery that left his jaw wired shut for much of the semester. During that time, the class was reading Plato’s “Republic,” and my silenced student was bursting at the seams to express his reactions to the text. He sent me a long, thoughtful e-mail message, and I encouraged him to continue e-mailing his comments (to which I responded) for as long as he could not open his mouth in class.

The resulting e-mail exchange proved very enriching and rewarding for me as a teacher and, I presume, for this young man as a student.

A thoughtful response by someone who is a caring teacher through and through. But I also felt, what a waste–the entire class could have benefitted from the written exchange between these two–a blog, a blog, I yelled at the article! That lovely learning moment would have rippled out and potentially touched all the other learning moments of the course and all of the learners through linking, connecting and transparency, through inviting the conversation instead of transacting the simple exchange. This kind of conversation creates opportunities for deep and appropriate connections between learners and teachers. Take a look at my previous posting here, for example, and the comments it generated. Of the five comments thus far, one is from a professor-blogging cohort in Ohio, one is from an artist in Barcelona, and three are from my students blolgging from abroad. Look at how these twenty-year-olds are taking their current learning experiences in other classes and out in the world and applying them to what I bring up in my posting! If we kept to the old distances between professor and student, would Piya be deepening her understanding of Barthes by proposing how my post might reflect the theory? Would she even read what I write? Would poet Oliver extend and push her thinking if not on the blog? The Brooklyn prof and his student conversing on a blog could have sparked classroom discussions that would have taken all the students much further in their inquiry than they can go without these kinds of written exchanges. The teacher can at once delineate the appropriate kinds of interactions within the learning group while creating a dynamic, resilient learning collaborative where the students become far more interested in what they are learning than in any grade. My students call me Barbara. They email me. They do not abuse the privilege–they are incredibly respectful of my time, space and role. They push me on my blog–respectfully, fondly. And it isn’t about death of the teacher–it is about the birth of a new kind of teacher. I am still here setting up situations, designing assignments, asking questions, giving feedback–but so are the students. I spend time with them thinking about voice, audience, writing situation. Every discipline has its own demands, and our students need opportunities to learn and to influence the discourse, both informal and formal.

…Which brings me to the notion of the age of the classroom as studio, (as brought up byDave Warlick citing Richard Florida’s talk about the creativity age: “The classroom should look more like a studio.”). Our students are experiencing the tension between old classroom models and new, between the time spent together and the time online, between the teacher as authority and the teacher as guide, between learning as individual’s endeavor and as social activity. I see this tension as marvelously fruitful for a teacher: on the one hand we still have the luxury of sitting in classrooms, talking with one another about the subject of inquiry, learning through discussion, through example, through demonstration and, yes, through the occasional lecture. But my students–even those initially anti-blog–are already seeing the benefits of the blog: they are being inspired by one another’s writing; they take comfort in reading reflections from their classmates that match their own misgivings; they see their own growth from draft to draft right there on the blog; they are giving and getting thoughtful, meaningful feedback. Instead of speeding up the inquiry, the blog is throwing them deeper into each assignment, asking them to think and write and respond with care. They know they are being read by artists from dispatx, some even getting feedback and links at this early stage. They are learning from one another, from me, from experts, and–from the emerging learning expereince itself. Pretty remarkable in a couple of weeks.

And then there are my world bloggers who continue to surprise and delight me with their observations and revelations– Lizi is discovering precisely why we have study abroad programs at all:

In an essay entitled “Compression Wood,” Franklin Burroughs says of language:”But when you are using it all the time, talking to yourself even when you are trying to listen to somebody else, language doesn’t seem revolutionary at all. It seems like self-generated static.” Russian, hard as it may be, turns conversations and words alive again. My fear of speaking infuses the revolution back into language. The tool turns tempting again.

And if it is true that language does determine thought, and that the staleness of language prevents the expression of new perceptions, then the resurrection of language must yield fresh, if not new, thoughts.

Being abroad has renewed my tools–place, language, thought. I feel like Tolstoy must have felt as he fled his wife dressed in peasant clothes: free.”

That she can and would articulate such a moment means to me that she is deeply engaged in her learning and reveling in the experience.

Lizi in Siberia and Amanda, who has recently started blogging from Scotland are pushing one another blog-to-blog to write honestly and openly, as well as providing comfort and encouragement when things get rough. They are living the experience creatively. Jean Burgess (who, by the way, keeps an absolute must-read blog) has a recent post on dispersed creativity which speaks to what I think it is that my students abroad are actually doing, albeit inadevertently (unlike the deliberate work of an artistic collaborative such as dispatx) when she quotes Fibreculture Journal: “Distributed aesthetics, then, concerns experiences that are sensed, lived and produced in more than one place and time. ”

What we teachers feel as upheaval in these new fluid classrooms is learning how to work with distributed aesthetics as well as the safe, predictable deliverable goods of the syllabus, the text, the classroom rules. It’s bumpy, but seeing what my students here have already accomplished in two weeks and across the globe over lonely months as far as opening to their imaginations, to one another, and to learning–it’s why I’m in this work.


One Response

  1. I agree with you in the abstract and in principle – and for the first years of teaching I did this – but I’m finding it increasingly difficult to combine that sort of frankly consuming teaching (time-consuming, energy-consuming) with all my other duties and priorities: research, administration, family, mothering, friends.

    I’ve found that it’s exhilerating to teach if that’s all you’re doing, but incredibly hard when it has to be limited to make room for everything else, and so I’m trying to find ways of setting those boundaries in place.

    Which does seem counter to all these ideas, which I also love.

    What I need is a way of facilitating learning in an expansive, networked, dispersed manner and yet retaining enough of myself to actually be able to fulfil the other aspects of my job and my life.

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