Creative Tensions: New Books, A Video Conference and Classroom Lessons

Going without posting for a couple of weeks while trying to keep up with my ever-lively Bloglines feeds creates an interesting tension, underscoring for me what Michael Joyce has said in an interview:

“Technology threatens our sense of presence yet at the same time offers unprecedented modes of presence to us.”

One of the most important literary hypertext pioneers and theorists, he no longer keeps a public Web presence. So interesting. And when I leave my blog for a spell, I see why one might like to let go of it altogether. And yet knowing it’s there, waiting, anxious, pushes me to explore and develop possible posts–but slowly, building up pressure until I find myself tapping away here. On the one hand I like resisting the urge to post all the time–instead I try to take a slower route, finding correspondences between what I read online, in books, what is evolving in the classroom, and in my thinking. But potential posts grow shaggy and complex as the days tick by until I find myself in a kind of limbo between the informal, conversational post and the formal, researched essay. Hypertext both liberates my thinking and holds me imprisoned within the responsibility to think it out carefully and thoroughly by linking to more interesting and thought-provoking discussions than my own. It’s easy to get lost in the labyrinth. It’s hard to find the time to find my way out.

It’s a different kind of blogging, for sure, than the more conversational sort that I also like to read, but the Chris Sessums-type essay post suits me more than the short update or the quick take on an idea. I found that out a couple of weekends ago during the Edtechtalk Barnraising. I felt scattered and pulled in too many directions– I had little to add to the blogging thread when I both had to be in the chatroom and posting to the wiki–I don’t work all that well that way. I couldn’t figure out who was where and what we were doing–I was downright disoriented. Basically I am not a multi-tasker. To contribute to the edublogging discussion, I usually do it in slow-time by immersing myself in my classroom, thinking, reading offline more extended discussions of my fields of interest, chewing on the ideas. Yup, I’m slow.

And yet I see, too, the value in frequent push-the-idea-out-there blogging. It’s very much what I ask my students to do–both to commit to a daily writing habit–as my colleague, John Elder, has said, “Writers are always talking about getting struck by lightning, and so if you want to increase your chances of inspired writing, you had better be out there in the field every day.” At the same time I ask them to resist the first easy discovery when they are circling in to the pieces they want to stay with for a while. Early on in the semester, I talk about sentiment vs. sentimentality, earned vs. unearned revelations, discussing James Baldwin’s quotation:

“When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway.”

Flannery O’Connor said much the same thing, that if the writer doesn’t discover something through the act of writing, how can the reader be expected to discover anything. I scare my students silly by asking them to dare put out their earliest forays into an assignment while urging them to go deep. Floating ideas out on blogs to one another in their tender, unformed state has been harrowing for them: naturally they feel vulnerable and inclined to make disclaimers and explanations to one another during the early stages of writing. Some of them really don’t want to put anything unfinished onto their blogs. But they do, they do, and the written feedback is, of course, invaluable. Already, within five weeks, they have come to realize that they put their raw experiments and first stirrings out there to get word back for themselves, and they put their finished pieces out there to give to their readers. They crave the conversation–they crave the connections to one another on the blog and in the classroom. They are linking to writers, to specific poems, essays and stories they have found on the Web and in books–extending one another’s reach this way. They dive back into past course blogs for inspiration and models. Their writing grows, the community sinks roots, and the students forget about grades and tidy schedules. They begin to be playful with language, with story, with themselves, with one another, with learning.

I want to be more playful here– to learn how to cast the idea out there before I have it so tangled up with all manner of linked threads the way I am doing here today. That’s a blogging goal I have for this spring–to do short jabby posts as well as these long discursive ones, to explore the tensions lying between these two kinds of posts. We’ll see… But today’s post is certainly the meandering kind, looking at the impact of connective writing on communities, and the impact of a community on the writing and the learning experience. I have three books in front of me that I have been reading and thinking about: Michael Joyce’s superb Moral Tales and Meditations: Technological Parables and Refractions, George Landow’s massive and essential update, Hypertext 3.0: Critical Theory and New Media in an Era of Globalization and Will Richardson’s wonderfully accessible, useful Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms.
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Will invites teachers into the world of Web applications in the classroom in his friendly, patient, energetic way–this is the book for teachers intimidated by but interested in blogs, wikis and podcasts. George Landow provides the theoretical as well as practical base for this work in about as approachable a way as I’ve seen. It’s a wonderful book for anyone thinking about hypertext in education. And Michael Joyce’s slim volume, as Helene Cixous writes in her Afterword, is filled with

“narrative cystallizations,” or “epiphanies [which] have an interrogrative rather than a conclusive form. They tell of the emergence of moments in which the characters’ lives are destabilized…What is at issue is the elasticity of time, as if it were possible to space time, that is, to space time out, to stretch time or to cut time with space….”( p.145)

And this is, in large part, what we are trying to do with blogs in our classroom–both to cut into space and to extend time through connectedness in the hopes that the learning experience will be enhanced, and the students better prepared to use the Read/Write Web well in their lives.

I’ve been thinking, too, about the experience my students have just had with digital storytelling at the opening of the Intro to Creative Writing course (A unit no one else in the department teaches, which in itself is rather disconcerting to the students, at least at first) –and how bits I read in these three books describe both my aims with the unit and the outcomes for the students as individual learners and as a community.

In Joyce’s “almost essay,” “The Persistence of the Ordinary,” he discusses the artist, Bill Viola’s work, “The Crossing,” holding that “the expectation of event plays off our own weariness with event.” Further on, he writes,

“The net dislodges the quotidian and diurnal by occupying it in every sense of that word, filling space and time alike…The hypermediated surface, the slow, tropic flow and swirl across the face of the soap bubble, is where we withstand the concurrent and concussive blast of immediacy, the onrushing nextness of unmoored life.”

The tension, the tension–and what I hope my students experience as they blog and as they make digital stories. It is not our job as educators to tell our students what or how to think–but rather to introduce them to situations in which they have to put their skills to use, meaningfully, authentically, and then reflect on the experience, on the learning. A bit of discomfort in the classroom helps. Students are so bombarded with language and image all day, all night; and in higher ed, they are wrapped up within the cloak of academic language–how can they possibly shift gears as quickly as I ask them to? I think it is the most difficult endeavor for college student or teacher to undertake–to make language fresh and true–to try to make art out of words. Paint–sure–it is an unfamiliar, strange medium… the same goes for musical notes. But words? And so I ask them to make stories first from image, music and text–their own photographs, their own scripts, and if they can, their own music. Through writing in multimedia, they become startled by words, by what they do and do not do, what images do, what sound does. Language becomes strange, and they crack open the imagination.

Indeed, this group of students created some powerful digital stories and learned a good deal about writing in three short weeks. And at the same time, the process of engaging with one another through the process of the making the digital stories wove them together into a dynamic community of practice. I am convinced that blogging’s most powerful outcome is the building of community through links and comments and an open presence to one another—-the students are learning how to use their virtual presence to amplify their learning and to give to the rest of the community.

All educators should, I think, read George Landow’s chapter, “Reconfiguring Literary Education,” (which goes far beyond a discussion of the literary in education) — he covers the changes and the pressures, the failures and the future of hypermediated education better than just about anyone. I love how in the section (pp. 312-313) “Answered Prayers, or the Academic Politics of Resistance” he writes about why teachers have “objections to the new technology and its associated pracitces”–that we are sure that students just don’t know enough to be left on their own with the tools of learning (he points to the concerns in the eighteenth century that students shouldn’t be allowed to read books freely without the professors’ control–library access was strictly limited.) And of today he writes:

” What more terrifying for professors of English, who have for decades called for creativity, independent-mindedness, and all those other good things, to receive them from their students! Complaining, hoping, even struggling heroically, perhaps, to awaken their students, they have nonetheless accommodated themselves to present-day education and its institutions, which include the rituals of lecture, class discussion, and examinations through which they themselves have passed and which (they are the evidence) have some good effects on some students.”

Indeed. And our students, having heard all about the rituals of the university classroom, expect this behavior from us. It takes a lot of energy on our part to break out of the ruts.

I’ve been marveling, too, at how different the world is and how the same from when I was the age of my students and my daughters–how traveling to India is both absolutely the same for my daughter as it was for me some twenty-five years ago and so different due to this machine. She and I send photos back and forth–within a couple of hours of a phone conversation we have with her boyfriend’s parents here in Vermont, we can hear her thoughts about that conversation from what I thought was a remote part of India. She has to make a deliberate decision not to be in contact in order to immerse herself completely in the experience. When I was travleing about after college, we couldn’t be in contact for long stretches of time even if we had so desired. And that made a big difference in how we saw ourselves in the world–we could get lost forever. We felt both insignificant and absolutely free. Overwhelmed and exhilarated by ourselves and the world. Now we find ourselves wondering why we haven’t heard from her for a week–ha–my parents had to wait a month for letters to arrive and by then they had no idea where I was in real time. My daughter revels in her discoveries perhaps because she has to seek them out — that’s what I want my students to do within the classroom, sometimes through embracing the connectedness of the blogging, and sometimes by turning away from it altogether. A little bit the way I am trying not to blog too often, but also to blog more freely (if that makes any sense at all).

Take the blogging of a Middlebury student on a research vessel in the Antarctic Ocean–she’s blogging as a way to chronicle her trip for herself, her friends and family–she’s getting no course credit for doing so. One of the most powerful outcomes for her, I think, has been that she has attracted a couple of fans whom she has never met–a ten-year-old with a passion for Antarctica and his grandfather, who with old-fashioned pushpins and a map taped to the wall, are tracing her voyage that they read about daily on the computer; they leave her wonderful comments, asking questions which she answers within 24 hours. She touches them and they her, opening their sense of community to a virtual one with people who share interests. It reminds me of how Barbara Sawhill talks about how she likes not having met the bloggers she has grown to know so well online–I think what she means is that having a single-minded kind of relationship without the complex layers of a fully articulated relationship means she can get right to the ideas, her perspective on this work online. We can engage with groups of people intensely online but not necessarily invite them into our full lives. Interesting–these defined communities are growing increasingly important in our work and our leisure lives–our students need opportunities to explore the grammar of online communities.

And that brings me to the video conference I sat in on for an hour last Friday, organized by university students around the country on Katrina SIx Months Later–a report card from New Orleans. A professor in communications from Tulane said that her research has shown that the most reliable indicator of how successful people were or were not in pulling through after the hurricane’s aftermath was communication within a community–people who had a way to communicate to a community to which they belonged fared much better than those who did not. She said there is a lesson in this for us all–to be in touch with one another, to form tight communities and to use whatever tools we have to stay in contact. It made me think about how my students are faring with the challenges I set before them–finding their way to their imaginations, their creativity, their stories and voices through the tight connections we form inside class via discussion and workshopping and outside of class through the blogs. Our students need opportunities to communicate within and between groups, to connect with one another and the world. Students who blog as a part of their education have their parents venture onto their blogs, friends, teachers, peers, experts out in the world–and each of those ties grounds them within communities and opens them to new groupings and ties potentially to more people rather than isolating them within themselves. And if we’re lucky, our blogging students will come to their own epiphanies that are interrogative rather than conclusive, that keep them creative and interested in the wider world, making deliberate decisions when to immerse themselves online and when to step away, understanding the notions of balance and tension. And then maybe they’ll help me figure out how to write short, interrogative posts that do not move in too many directions.

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2 Responses

  1. Amazing!

    It’s great what’s going on in middlebury and elsewhere. I like the independent thinking which is being enabled because of blogging and its inclusiveness.

  2. Hi, Barbara, we certainly need all types of bloggers in the arena of education and it is great that we in our own defy stereotypes, through the development of own writing voice. We probably reveal a lot more about ourselves than we could possibly imagine. It is probably good that you don’t post multi-daily because your prosey style needs proper consideration and reflections, and you would be exhausted!!But you do have to enjoy writing to be a blogger, I think, or it would be just too much hard work.

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