Memory, Experience, and Online Conferences

I’ve steered clear of them, I have to admit–online conferences, that is.

I read the descriptions, which usually sound interesting, and what’s better, you can come and go at will, deciding what to follow and what to ignore–you can surf the sessions, in other words, until you light on something that holds your interest. In other words, you won’t embarrass anyone by ducking out of a session, and you can alway come back at leisure if the sessions are archived. You can return again and again, in fact. Most significantly, (at least in theory– if the online conference costs are minimal) online conferences bring together people from across the world (again in theory — if the participants have online access and share a language) in dialogue about shared interests and research, giving participants access to speakers, information, and opportunities to discuss the subject that in the past may have remained out of reach. The conversation can be shifted to embrace multiple cultural perspectives. In the best of these formats, no one person is the show or dictates the conversation. Sounds pretty ideal.

But I still don’t like them.

For one, I find it difficult to juggle various channels and chatrooms, listening & watching & responding, asking questions, attending to side conversations all at once. I really don’t like listening and talking at the same time, and chat rooms can get distracting. There can be too much to absorb–I can’t hold onto it all, or remember who said what. It can feel like a perpetual waterfall of interruptions. Hmmm…sounds like the kind of environment that feels natural to my daughters. My students. It’s what I read in the literature about emerging childhood literacies. I am fascinated, and I enjoy giving these settings a shot, but I feel completely wrung out, strung out after such a conference (even more than I do those BIG cattleshow national conferences). I inevitably have to go back and read transcripts and watch the screencasts, so I can think about the things I have heard without distraction.

I am, I realize, contradicting a statement I made earlier this year in reference to a Jay Cross online presentation–and yes, I do like having screencasts linked to from my own blog entries, and lists of conference presentations and transcripts to study. Maybe I just need more practice. But, I wonder, if I have a hard time navigating these conferences, what about people who don’t normally spend as much of their lives in the blogosphere as I do? Perhaps conference pods could be set up so people could get together locally to discuss and participate in online conferences much as my husband as a teenager in Milwaukee would go to a movie theater to watch European soccer matches, where he would shout and swap soccer stories with the other fans. He did not watch a screen in the isolation of his own living room.

And much as I hate to admit it, I miss seeing people in their rumpled conference wear, or like Will today as one pair of jeans in a sea of suits (ha–good for you, Will, though my guess is that Dave Weinberger was right there with you in attire. In an online conference, would you have sniffed out their suits, and they your jeans? Probably.) I miss the experience, the story of the in-person UNconference–the meeting, conversation, the face-to-face talk that used to happen between sessions but now happens in the kinds of professional get-togethers I try to attend these days. I find myself at the end of a technology saturated school year looking forward to these conferences, meetings, workshops and retreats I’ll head to this summer. I want to see the people. I want to go from the blogs to the in-person conversation to the blogs again.

Another set of contradictions: This morning, I found myself inordinately joyful to hear my sixteen-year-old daughter’s voice on the phone, from Ladakh, after a week–just one week– of no contact as she was out in the mountains, out of range. Although when I traipsed across the world, I never spoke to my parents for months and months, and postcards and aerogrammes limped continent to continent finally to reach them when the news was weeks old, I have grown accustomed to reading her emails and hearing her voice from across the world frequently. And this morning I realized how much I count on it, how it is so much easier for me to let her go winging her way about the world because I know she can pretty much contact us from wherever she is–I can hear her voice as though she’s in the next room, instead of in a place about as far from here as you can get (in so many ways). This morning she spoke about how she’s learned so much about the pressures and pleasures for the Ladakhi of modernization, and the beauty –for a plugged-in girl from the USA–of quiet, of sitting around with her host family night after night swapping stories, knitting, even just sitting there close to the warm stove, looking at the stars out the window. They inhabit and share memory and experience, turning them over and over. Every night. They may yearn for cellphones, we for silence and relief from the clatter of machines. My daughter gets that tension and sees how crucial media literacy education is for those moving towards technology, and for those trying to get away from it. We hang up the phone, and I marvel at her, and I laugh at myself for writing this post whining about something like online conferences when there are so much more interesting things to think about in the world.

But of course it is all so much more complex than all this, and something keeps nagging at me about my online world, and so, as usual, my conflicting thoughts have pushed me back into books, books this time covering new research and theory about early childhood and digital literacy, the Web as community conduit, and storytelling in the information age. In my search for some answers, I find myself once again reaching for that word, BALANCE.

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I dove back into Pierre Levy’s Collective Intelligence and Dave Weinberger’s Small Pieces Loosely Joined, Popular Culture, New Media and Digital Literacy in Early Childhood (Ed. Jackie Marsh, 2005), and Stuart Selber’s Multiliteracies for a Digital Ageand Adolescents and Literacies in a Digital World. And I also journeyed back into Charles Baxter’s 1999 essay, “Shame and Forgetting in the Information Age”.

In his section on backpacks (pp. 181-191) Dave Weinberger includes these snippets:

The Web…exists only because its 300 million denizens are reaching out to others. The Web is possible only as a group activity… The thoroughly a creation of subjective human beings and is built not of atoms or facts but of human interest….The Web is a revel of values and viewpoints. The Web…is a multibillion-point reflection on the world, on its inhabitants, and on their reflections about the world. It is a fractal image of the world outside our own minds. ..The Web helps us to embrace without embarrassment who we really are. It returns us to ourselves. It arches over the alienation we’ve been taught to take as a sign of tough-mindedness. The Web’s movement is towards human authenticity.

And I know he’s right about this and why I am not giving up on trying online conferences–and of course this is counter to what many people think, those who associate the Web only with the avalanche of information giving us “information-nausea” (Baxter). And it does do that–which is why I turn from online conferences, and say, enough–this goes beyond what I can or want to absorb on screen. Charles Baxter sees the deadening, not the “movement towards human authenticity”:

Remembering data and remembering an experience are two very different activities. It is possible that the quantity of data we are supposed to remember has reduced our capacity to remember or even to have experiences; this turn of events was predicted by Walter Benjamin in the 1930s.
What meaning does forgetfulness have in an information age?…The signs of anxiety over forgetfulness have been turning up everywhere lately…The phobia about forgetting has entered the run of daily conversation….Time and again, I have seen friends and colleagues lose their trains of thought in meetings and then blush and stammer and apologize, as if their professional standing had suddenly been endangered.
Many people seem to believe that remembering is simply a matter of willpower.

Do we bloggers sit around a stove and tell the stories of our lives and our ancestors’ lives? Is it helping us to have experiences and to remember? Blogging has made me not want to give up blogging, but to combine it with even more in-person talk. I want both. As Guy Merchant writes in “Barbie Meets Bob the Builder” in the Marsh-edited volume, the computer and the Web have transformed writing into “a rapidly changing social practice, in which a wider range of technologies are now at hand.” (p.186) Blogging is a kind of swapping-stories around the virtual campfire–but I can’t see the faces. Victoria Carrington, in “New Textual Landscapes, Information and Early Literacy” from the same volume, writes:

…the textual landscapes in which children are learning the practices, skills and knowledge that determine the kinds of literates and citizens they become are no longer confined to the parameters of family and school, nor are they print-based. However, a more fundamental shift is taking place. While the passive, unworldly child was expected to merely inhabit the textual landscapes created by others, children developing literate habits around new communications technologies, popular culture and expanding access to de-segregated information are already active participants. . . The next generation of instruction and theoretical models for early literacy education must take account of the pivotal nature of information. Each child’s role as analyst of information from multiple sources must be focal, as well as serious attention paid to ensuring that s/he is scaffolded towards effective and ethical production and dissemination of infomation. . .Where more traditional models of literacy prepare children for somewhat distant future at which time they will participate in meaningful ways in the ‘real’ world, a model of literacy matching the needs of contemporary children must take as a first principle that children are already active participants and risk takers. (pp. 23-25)

This is much what edubloggers are saying across the blogosphere as they chonicle their efforts within their local institutions to put pressure on our entire educational system, pushing and pulling it towards the realities of a twenty-first century world.

Beach and Bruce in “Using Digital Tools to Foster Critical Inquiry” in Adolescents and Literacies in a Digital World, point out that

While adolescents may continue to use media to construct themselves according to the values of a consumerist, narcissistic world, we would argue that their emerging participation in digital technologies portends the possibilities of alternative ways of constructing identities. Many adolescents are turning away from the represented worlds of broadcast media…to participate in shared communal experiences mediated by digital tools.

We teachers can’t turn away from the online world–not even, as Stuart Selber argues persuasively in Multiliteracies for a Digital Age, in Higher Ed English departments:

Humanists often have stranged or uncomfortable relationships with technology, yet neither indifference nor paralysis are acceptable options nowadays. In fact, an important role for English departments is to help postion human-computer interaction as essentially a social problem, one that involves values, interpretation, contingency, persuasion, communication, deliberation, and more.

I want students to see me puzzling this out, in class and on the blog, feeling a tension between the worlds. Sharing, participating, narrating–experiencing a new world. Hmmm….sounds like what we want to do in English classrooms. We need not lose the in-person when we move online, just as we do not put away our books when we take up blogs. I see this in my own students on our course blogs. They honor writing traditions as they themselves move beyond them. We have moved in closer to one another as we have moved out into the blogosphere. We want the comfort of one another’s body language, facial expressions, and talk. But not apart from the blogs, perhaps because of the blogs. This social-software and digital-storytelling-in the classroom adventure I’ve been on for five years keeps shouting out lessons of balance. I am delighted by the irony, once again, that blogging and storytelling have compelled me to use the classtime ever more meaningfully. We are glad to be together, and we know one another better than classes in my pre-blog teaching days. We run to the blogs and to the class.

I couldn’t have predicted quite this when I first pulled blogs into my courses in the fall of 2001; I did so then because I sensed students were feeling the parts of themselves being spilled into separate boxes: the person in class, and the person outside of class. The two didn’t have all that much to do with one another. I thought that to bring the world to my students and my students to one another would erase those lines. It made absolute sense in a seminar on contemporary Irish literature (The original blog is now offline due to an abrupt switch from Manila to MT) to seize opportunities to invite into a virtual classroom space experts I could not afford to bring into our rural Vermont physical space. It made sense to have all of the work of the course on view, connected, in process–a working laboratory of developing skills in critical and creative thinking and, hence, writing. Students should learn from one another as well as from whatever I had to tell them. It worked. Even better than I had anticipated. Along the way, the visual transparency of the medium–how it allowed students to examine, follow, appreciate and understand their process and growth– became just as important and led me to make adjustments in the syllabus and in the way I conducted class. Assignments grew to include online workshopping and knowledge trees–the more we knew each other as thinkers and writers and community members, the stronger our learning collaborative would grow, and the richer the learning experience. I pulled in a wiki from time to time–though I could certainly do more with them–and podcasting, multimedia writing and hypertext essays. This was a natural learning curve, a developing use of social software in the writing and literature classrooms. But I didn’t anticipate that I would add another class meeting every week, more one-on-one conferences with me–I had no idea that we would move from blog to class to blog to class to blog as we did, pretty seamlessly.

And here on bgblogging I’ve been writing about those outcomes, those experiences as they unfold on my class blogs, and as I wrote in my previous post, I have found my own blogging informed by my teaching but also by the experience of participating in a blogging community. No longer was I working in relative isolation with my students–not only was my students’ work an open laboratory for them and the rest of the world, but my teaching was and is for me and others. Blogging has sent me back to writing letter-like essays, but it has sent me out into the woods with my camera, and across oceans to meet people face-to-face.

Yes, the experiences online are valid, rich experiences, but they make the in-person ones all that sweeter. And so just as the more I move outside my classroom into the world of community applications of social software and digital storytelling, the more I move back into my classroom, the more I blog, the more I want my conferences in person and not online. It’s a fascinating balance, and one that’s sure to shift as I continue to explore it.

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