Flying into Fall: Productive Anxiety* and Creative Tensions

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The beginning of every school year takes me by surprise–I am invariably charmed by my new students one by one as I hear their stories of home and culture, and connect with their learning journey, and welcome them to our classroom community–but I am also reminded of the previous semester and the learning collectives that grew into examples of Pierre Levy’s collective intelligence, each class distinct in character, in attitude, in outcomes; each semester teaching me something new about how to teach with and without computers; each new online learning experience sending me back into learning theory and media theory and current takes on composition theory so as to ground the work, to question what I am doing, and to assess it. I miss the old semester; I delight in the new. And so it goes.

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And now, a month into the semester, I feel the many tensions a teacher feels just about now if she believes in problem-posing, student-centered learning helped along by social software and digital media:

This class is not like any other I have ever taught.

I have to learn how to teach all over again.

What worked last time out might not work now.

I have to help my students survive in this academic culture while trying to bring about change, and sometimes that means that even in an institution that affords me incredible freedoms as a teacher and encouragement in my explorations, I have to teach forms and approaches rarely used outside the halls of the Academy–why do we, in our undergraduate institutions, insist on preparing all of our students for careers as old-school academics?

I try to remember that, as Stephen Downes put it in the wrap-up to the UK edublogging conference this past June, “To teach: be the person you want your students to become.”

For me that means being alert and responsive to the needs of students, helping them light their own fires of learning. That means staying up with developments in my field. That means playing around with digital media in my own work. That means spending the first two weeks of every semester exploring our educational and cultural backgrounds, our individual goals, ourselves as learners, our roles within the collective. We look hard at our deep learning experiences inside and out of classrooms; then we write personal narrative essays out of those experiences, connecting as we do to the larger conversation about learning. I design assignments and experiences for the collective which the group shapes and revises as they get accustomed to having a real hand in the course design. We read one another’s work and get excited (hopefully) about what it could mean to be a part of this learning collective.

And that means that some of the things that I take for granted, that I have prepared for and with the students, need to be shifted, tweaked, or thrown out altogether.

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Blogging, for instance, doesn’t always work out quite as I envision. Or at least, some groups take to it, others do not–at least the kind of blogging that asks for conversation, for deep connecting with the material and one another in lively intellectual interaction. Sometimes a group will want to talk in class but work as solo artists on their own blogs. Other groups–and these are usually the ones who are taking my courses because they have announced themselves as writers–can’t wait to talk to each other through blogging–through this kind of exchange. Because I teach a range of courses, this seems absolutely right to me. The flexibility of the online tools allows us to configure and pool them according to the emergent practices, goals, and chemistry of a learning collective. Sometimes we’ll work more in audio, other times in image…sometimes we’ll write the long solo post, sometimes shorter, conversational bits. It’s impossible to predict exactly what we’ll do until we’re doing it. So my class blogs look and feel quite different one from another. And I find it much easier to describe to people what we’ve done than what we’ll do.

I also get asked about reluctant bloggers, how to “motivate” them. I don’t. It’s up to me to show students how these things work and why–I make the pedagogy transparent, exposing them to learning theory and composition theory and new media theory–to get the intellectual juices flowing and the collective engagement moving, to give them a chance to practice some approaches that can feel antithetical to what their expectations about what the college classroom would be like.

But I can’t make them like it or even do it. That’s their responsibility. Their commitment to make. Yes, I want all my students to have this experience connecting with one another, with themselves, and with the world through social software–but they don’t all have to take to this kind of interaction at all. As long as they gain skill in the use of this medium for this kind of deep learning, they can choose to use it or not as they see fit in the future. I’ve learned not to be disappointed when any one group doesn’t really take to blogging. And so far, this group of first-years are moving into blogging versus posting drafts and assignments to blogs, quite slowly. They love being connected to one another; they crave the feedback, but it takes longer for them to see conversation-in-writing as part of thinking-and-learning.

And so that pushed me last week into getting more creative and to put pressure on my reasons for using blogging with this group. I came up with an exercise in collective intelligence ( a bit like Open Space work with lots of stickies and newsprint stuck to the walls) to demonstrate the power of conversation to find, grow and complicate ideas through connecting, questioning, and finding relationships between their thinking and that of others. They were floored by the difference between the ideas they had come up with on their own the night before and what happened to those ideas once pushed up against those of their peers–they had to clarify, build, and defend their stances. We talked about how doing the same kind of collective, connected work online while they were wrestling with reading and writing could help them deepen and contextualize their ideas, and in turn to get pretty darn excited about what and how they were learning. We’ll see over the next few weeks what this blogging-as-conversation experience will do for them as learners across disciplines and media and how it will help them as writers in traditional modes.

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Meanwhile, last spring’s creative writing class, an avid blogging group during the semester, is finding their way back to one another, to their own blogs and to the group blog. They miss the collective. It’s interesting that when they are away over the summer, they are too busy to blog, but when they are together, back on campus, they want that kind of deep, connected interaction.

And the Blogging the World group is up and running from Cairo, Damascus, Paris, London, Florence. One student now in Cuba, who blogged in class but is NOT from his semester abroad, explained to me, when I commented that his email missives were so compelling that I wished he had a blog so that more people could read about his experiences, that he wants to make sure that people do read him–and so he likes to flood email boxes instead of leaving it up to his readers–the ones he values– to find him on the blogs. These are readers unlikely to use RSS or bookmarks. Interesting. He’s afraid they’ll forget him (out of email box, out of mind…) And because we have filters here that do not allow the email pinging with blogposts, he makes an interesting point.

A few returnees from study abroad are missing the blogging but finding it more difficult to blog reflectively (outside the parameters of any course) about learning here (too self-indulgent, one blogger told me–too isolating, said another, if others aren’t doing it as well, which of course goes to the social part of the software). All this pulls at something I’ve been thinking about (and will lead to a fuller blog entry eventually) about how people don’t read far back into the blogs, or at least my blog–and when I feel I’m repeating myself, others respond as though I’ve covered some brand new ground. Maybe it’s time for a wiki for some of the old posts, pulling them together into something better organized and tagged–something people will find useful….These posts here are about the moment for readers if not for me so much. It’s only when they move back over to their own blogs and pull apart something I’ve said, connecting it to their own growing web of thinking that it becomes anything more than of the moment. The undulations of blogposts across the edublogosphere. Fascinating.

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These are productive anxieties indeed.

*I was much taken by the way Edward Ayers uses the term, Productive Anxiety, to describe how his students feel in his classes where they write narrative histories they should imagine were written for the cellphone.

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One Response

  1. Thanks for the insights into your classroom. I’m working with a ninth grade teacher whose classes are blogging, and this semester has been an entirely different experience. Different kids. Different attitudes. We tried something similar with paper commenting like you described above–just to get them to see how they can converse and extend. We hoped this would help them to return and look back at previous posts. We’ll see. It just makes me feel good to know that we aren’t alone. Blogging doesn’t always work ideally. As teachers we need to make changes as new students come along, just like we would with any “lesson” we might teach. We have to adapt and be flexible.

    Thanks for the thoughts. I enjoyed reading them.

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