Slow Blogging: Context, Transitions and Traditions (Back from Illinois, Part Two: Setting Up The Classroom Community)

Lately I have been off blog much more than on, posting a few times a month, not a week, while reading with pleasure and a bit of wonderment about the whirlwind travels and explorations of Bryan, Stephen, Nancy and many others on my Bloglines feeds. At times I’ve thought perhaps I should blog more often–I certainly have many entries swirling about in my head, and I’ve got to post some recent talks–but quick posts just don’t do it for me as a thinker, as a writer.

It was reading Martin Heidegger’s “Discourse on Thinking” this weekend, in which he writes about “calculative thinking” versus “meditative thinking,” and then wandering over to a student blog post about this year’s Slow Food Conference that made me want to call what I do slow-blogging or meditative blogging. At least that’s what I’d like to work towards. It takes time for the many loose strands of thought to converge into a unified post; it takes a lot of effort, a lot of energy, and a lot ( I know, I know sometimes too much) writing. And some posts never quite find their footing; they remain awkward and tangled when I don’t have enough time or courage or energy or ability to go deep.

And since this kind of reflective practice–both a return to thinker-to-thinker letter-writing and a move forward into hypertext and multimedia expression– is what I ask my students to do as a way to develop their creative and critical thinking and writing skills, it’s what I need to do, too. If I’m asking students who sign up to participate in the Blogging the World project to see blogging as a way to ground their experience, to think about it and to enhance it, then I’ve got to do that, too. So, yes, I come down on the side of teachers-who-use-blogs-in-the classrooms-better-use-them-in-their-own-work. And I make sure that the pedagogical underpinnings of my courses are transparent and discussed in class.

In other words, I try to look back as much as forward, to dig deep into the books that call to me from my bookshelves as I think about my teaching and my learning with social software and without. I think about my teachers as much as about my students. I try to stay aware of the context from which this blogging practice springs, and I try to consider the transitional spaces between old practices and new, old literacies and new, old treasures and new. And so right now, right next to this computer sits a bag of books I’ve been carting around with me for the past few days: the Heidegger; Pahl and Rowsell’s Travel Notes from the New Literacy Studies; Paul Muldoon’s new collection of poems, Horse Latitudes; Yehuda Amichai’s last collection of poems, Open Closed Open, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer— such wonderful books all of them. Sometime, somehow, I’ll figure out why this particular group of books happens to slide off the shelves and into my bag at the same time.

Maybe it is November and the onset of hibernation that put me into a period of absorption, of feeling my way between past and present, but I find myself in an oddly balanced place these days. Or maybe it’s because I have children emerging from adolescence and parents moving into old age, and next year I will celebrate one of the BIG birthdays that I feel perched between the disequilibrium of life’s big moments. I want it all–the physical world and the virtual, books and blogs, old ways of communicating and new. I want them all in my classroom. I want the physical classroom, where we sit around big tables together to wrestle with ideas and processes, and I want them augmented by other kinds of “tables” of the virtual sort at which we can come and go at will, learning from experts we discover as we wander. I don’t want to get rid of schools, just to change them. I want to walk through the halls with people, to talk with them in person, to sit around a table day after day after day with the same group in extended inquiry–in slow learning. I want access to the wisdom of someone who has devoted a lifetime to the study, to the processes of thinking in my field.

Visiting last week with graduate students in writing at the University of Illinois was not only a pleasure but an inspiration– to witness how much they enjoyed and felt stimulated and engaged by one another and their program and the place. They feel the dynamic bonds of community. I want my students to feel those ties to an intellectual, physical-based community. Take my mother’s three-year-old-and-going-strong poetry group: every Saturday some dozen residents of her retirement community meet for a couple of hours to read, study, and talk about poems. There’s a kind of special language they’ve developed, a trust and a willingness to speak openly and fiercely about what they read because they’re looking each other in the eye. There’s the caring for one another as neighbors and friends that goes beyond a simple intellectual engagement. I did a guest workshop for them several months ago and came away inspired by their intensity and warmth and commitment and intelligence, collective intelligence. I want that for my classes of twenty-year-olds.



So, what am I saying here? I guess I’m moving more and more to ways in which blogging and tagging and image-sharing and digital storytelling enhance the here-and-now, the communities in which we live and work, and in this particular case, the classes we teach. And to do that, it is essential to spend time at the opening of the semester talking about who we are, what we each bring to the learning adventure, why we’re in this class, and what we hope to get out of it. We talk about building a blueprint together based on our goals and available materials, and then think about how we actually build the course experience together and alone.

But first, I have to think about how the various means of expression might have an impact on the learning and on the community. How and why will we use social software? Will we venture further into online work than blogs? Why blogs at all? Will we really blog or use the blog structure as a vessel to hold traditional assignments? Why, for example, would we blog in a course on Ireland? How might hypertext and digital storytelling enhance the experience? How might we use audio as a tool for expression and for revising and for exploring ideas? Cameras? Images we take, images we find? How might we want to connect with experts out in the world–would we invite them to participate in blogging-invitationals? Would we want them to respond to our work? What is the role of loose dialogue and conversation, of let’s-talk-about-any-thoughts-we-have in the course? Do we want to link to our work in other courses? To our other online worlds? How do we also work in traditional modes? How do they intersect and influence one another? How much time can be devoted to learning how to use the tools, how to become comfortable with the practices? How much time do we devote to meta-practices, to reading and talking about what we’re doing online? How can we capitalize on the fact that we have the luxury of being together in class twice a week–do we devote that time to presentations, to discussion, to lecture, to feedback, to projects?

These are just some of the questions I have to ask before I pull up even the most basic course blog. Based on my answers, the course blog begins to take shape, each course demanding its own look and structure–

The Irish seminar blog really focuses on collaboration and so has more of a group-blog feel to it than others; one of our goals is to think about how our community of mutual apprenticeships works–how to be engaged in a liberal arts college.

A composition class balances between group and individual work, and so the unit plans are posted as we go, as we develop as thinkers and writers and see what next we need to learn and to practice.

An arts writing class takes on a ‘zine-like, real-world look with multiple columns and choices as to what is posted where and why.


We spend two-three weeks moving into the course material by examining our own voices, our learning goals and community, the demands of the discipline, and what it is we need to do and to learn in order for the course to “be a success.” I call this first part of the course Cracking Open the Course and the Imagination, in my creative writing classes; “Exploring the Course” in composition classes, something we do pre-blogging; Knowledge Trees in a first-year seminar on Ireland (the first part of this exploration is done online before the students even set foot on Middlebury’s campus).

I use a variety of techniques to examine the ways in which we’ll each enter this collaborative: personal narratives about our individual cultural contexts and learning histories, including digital storytelling, image-stories exploring personal relationships with the course content, and a deep-learning exercise.

In class we talk about how to participate in discussions and feedback-loops, how to help design the course, how to make it work for us as individuals. We talk about about collaboratives and about the purpose of a liberal arts education and how our course intersects with those goals. We talk about trust. About making mistakes. Asking dumb questions. Daring to ask dumb questions. About playful inquiry. We try to place our semester within a much bigger picture of our life journeys. We reflect on our blogs, we push one another to grow as learners and writers, we push ourselves. We might read Levy. Or Greene. Or Dewey and Wenger. We read each other. We always read each other. And we read deeply in our discipline.

Blogging enhances the undergraduate course experience, I believe, when we spend time laying a careful foundation for our work online and in class, thinking and talking about how and why connecting this way plays a fundamental role during the precious brief twelve weeks we have together. Because we rarely make our pedagogy visible, students are far too accustomed to going through the motions, to taking our word for it that our assignments have value, to completing work without thinking about how it fits into their lives. I can see the difference in the depth and authenticity of student work when I have taken the time to talk about the value of slow blogging, of slow learning compared to when I’ve been all in a rush to get to the facts and processes of the discipline, when I’ve thrown us into the course content without grounding it. Students who have come out of the slow-blogging classes have gone on to do some quite extraordinary, independent work–such as Lizi and Remy and Piya, work that transcends formal learning as they stand on the cusp of senior year, balanced between their school-years and their post-school lives. Just yesterday at a workshop for students thinking about blogging next semester from abroad, four seniors who had blogged their junior year experience abroad spoke eloquently about the benefits of slow-blogging, how it really helped them to make sense of and to deepen their experiences by taking the time to articulate their learning carefully, in writing and image and sometimes sound.

And so, I’ll keep trying to practice slow-blogging here and in my classes, while appreciating, too, the benefits to me of the quick post that my many blogging colleagues do so well and so often! It is the slow blogging, though, that I think our students need to practice with us, for they quite naturally know how to frame a quick post, pointing to what they’ve observed and commenting about it in passing.


Back from Illinois: Part One, The People

novemberinillinois illinoisbarn

Yes, it is flat out there, very very flat, and yes, the people are nice. Even the suburbs of Detroit startled and charmed me from the plane window as we sailed above intensely yellow puddles of leaves in perfect, surprising Andy Goldsworthyian circles about the base of tree after tree after tree. But what they didn’t tell me was that somehow all this open sky must have a wildly positive effect on the imagination — over the course of the three days I was in Champaign, Illinois, I met an extraordinary group of innovators happy to share with me the many interesting things they are doing with technology in their teaching and research, including:

Christian Sandvig
Christian’s creative, effective use of blogs and project-based learning in large lecture courses should be broadcast throughout the edublogosphere. His students apply their learning in treasure hunts, creative reports, active learning projects that make his courses fun for his students–imagine, fun in a university classroom, fun that leads to deep learning. He’s the artist and the scholar at play in a highly technical classroom and research lab. He kept explaining that he turned to blogs because they streamlined his teaching, made grading and responding efficient while making the students feel that their work meant something, was taken seriously. Anyone teaching large lecture classes who has some interest in using blogs to make their teaching, responding and grading more efficient should take a look at his inspired work. Here’s an article about his blogging with students.

Nancy Abelmann and Peter Mortensen
Their Ethnography of the University Project has a bit in common with Ed Ayers and Will Thomas’s Aurora Project (see this post for more of a description) . The UICU project is “an innovative center of interdisciplinary student research” (Abelmann and Mortensen) using iLABS software in courses across the university to study the university as an institution. The projects are archived as “an enduring portfolio of student research that showcases both the processes and products of student learning.” Here students engage in authentic learning about their own institution while building a rich archive of the university’s stories. This is the kind of project we should be doing across all of our schools, higher ed or not, as a way for students to think about where they are, and what issues concern their fellow students, and what and who have come before them in their place of learning.

Sharon Tettegah
Sharon is pioneering the use of Second Life in her education classes; students imagine and design learning spaces and the curricula together. She commented that the students could imagine quite extroardinary experiential curricula but they had a tougher time letting go of the traditional spaces they had experienced as school. Their learning spaces looked like, well, schools, especially from the outside. How often do we talk to learners about where they are learning? What a physical school ought to look like? Sharon is also doing great things with animation in elementary schools, in some cases in stripped-down, simple format with Powerpoint and Photoshop, for students to create personal digital stories about identity, communities and learning; her lab is also developing an incredibly simple-to-use animation software, still in Beta: “We have developed and designed Clover, an authoring tool that engages students and teachers in a technology-rich design process to construct animated narrative vignettes (simulations) that deal with school interactions. The tools leads students through the process of constructing a vignette – writing a narrative, writing a script, sketching characters and scenes, animating scenes, and responding to vignettes created by other students [Tettegah, 2002, 2003, 2004].” She volunteered to be my guide into Second Life if I want to explore its worlds for my classrooms…

I also met the talented, energetic, and inspired graduate students under the fabulous Gail Hawisher and her colleagues. The encouragement she gives them to engage in interdisciplinary work makes them as enthusiastic a bunch of grad students as I’ve met in a long time–they are teaching Writing with Video as well as more traditional comp courses that don’t look or feel traditional at all, using blogs, multimedia, and engaging students in the excitement of finding their writing voices while mastering the discourse modes of the Academy. Really wonderful work. It was a great pleasure to meet with Gail and Spencer Schaffner who’s a great blogger in his own right and an innovative, thoughtful teacher who clearly is passionate about his subject matter and his students.

Among the many people I met who were managing to pursue significant research while paying close attention to their teaching (contrary to popular opinion in my liberal arts world about the large university) was Chip Bruce (who edited the excellent Literacy in the Information Age: Inquiries into Meaning Making with New Technologies), with whom I had a too-short chat at the end of one of my talks, about bridging the old literacies with the new, and how do we effectively thread into our explorations traditional forms and history. I also had a great time talking at dinner with Walt Hurley who really should be blogging about his experience in ag school classrooms–he has a wealth of knowledge, a creative approach to teaching, and a real understanding of the role of technology in learning landscapes. I very much hope to see his blog up and running one day soon.

And of course, the highlight of it all was meeting Lanny Arvan in person instead of on the blogs–it was as though we had been colleagues for years, discussing and sometimes arguing about our approaches, our successes and failures with social software, and the position of the teacher in the classroom. He tells stories as well as he writes them! I learned a good deal about the challenges facing large public universities, and I experienced the advantages, too, of being surrounding by so many brilliant, bold thinkers. I had no idea that quite so much was going on in so many corners of the University of Illinois (I even met Bill Cope and Michael Peters in passing). What a place! Flat place, yes. Incredible people, absolutely. I came away having learned much more than I taught, having been much more inspired than inspirational– it was a great, great trip.

Over the next few days, I will post my two talks (for now the slides are posted to my page on Flickr,) and, in response to several requests from Illinois, a description of how I set up a learning community–the questions I ask myself as I design a new course blog, and the activities and exercises I use during the crucial first two weeks of a course.