Learning (Once Again) from My Students:To Blog or Not to Blog–the Social Context

NOTE: Middlebury is about to upgrade MT tomorrow (Thursday) , and we’ll probably be offline until Monday, so if you want to jump in and help me think about the threads of this post, you might have to wait until next week.
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Being on leave this semester, one might well assume, entails little to no contact with students as I try to gain perspective on this work through reading, traveling and writing. And yes, it is true that I have been mighty scarce around my office, and have an away message all cued up on my phone. Nevertheless I am still learning from my students, right here, embodying Paolo Freire’s portrait of β€œThe teacher [being] no longer the one who teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach.” All while trying to be a bit quieter.

But of course the blog is absolutely fair game, and I welcome my students to check it out if they’re interested. Back in 2004 I wrote about the first time one dipped a toe into bgblogging conversations. And now three years later, they are still finding their way here to extend my thinking by wrestling with the question of blogging outside a course as a way to connect their learning experiences and to think deeply through connected, transparent writing. And I gotta say, their comments get more and more interesting as they come to understand the benefits of this asynchronous, extended, letter-writing-like correspondence. If for no other reason than to engage with these fine young thinkers in the conversation about the liberal arts, about writing to learn, and about the relationship between what goes on in the classroom and out, blogging has been incredibly helpful to me as a teacher and learner. (Of course there are other important reasons, namely the conversation with blogging colleagues, the opportunity to work out my ideas in a densely linked narrative, and the exploration of the practice I ask my students to try out. )

While I recommend that readers actually take in the entire discussion growing out of my previous post, and even going back to the ELI presentation itself (slides are now uploaded to the ELI site and the version with notes/text and audio here on bgblogging–(once the MT work is complete), I do want to pull out a few of their points here –they provide a very interesting look into the undergraduate learning experiences of some of our students.

Lizi writes:

“I hadn’t even made the connection that blogging is the one and only thing that I’ve ever done as both a classroom activity and a personal interest. I’ve never thought it strange that our learning remains contained to the classroom. I have a distinct memory though, when we were reciting poems in your class, of one student starting to recite a translated poem and me realizing that we had memorized that same poem, in Russian. I almost didn’t say anything,though, because I felt strange sharing my experiences from another class…For some reason, students (myself included) are still assuming that their projects and time are categorically divided between academic and personal development.”

If we spent more time at the beginning of our school year, semester, course talking about blurring the lines between formal and informal learning, between learners and between modes of expression, and about how students can create their own learning spaces that pull in all kinds of learning, relating it, synthesizing it, reflecting on it and talking about it, together, students might well take more ownership of their learning, developing the kinds of reciprocal apprenticeships that transcend classroom walls and semester systems. Our campuses could get pretty interesting… Whether we do that with social software or through other means is pretty unimportant–just as long as we do… as Megan imagines in her comment:

“…Our classes at Middlebury could be like that. Departments could be more communicative. Perhaps, there wouldn’t be a need for the Independent Scholar major if we were all in fact “independent scholars.” Professors across the board could utilize blogs. We could all meet in rooms where the chairs were arranged in a circle, or Coltrane Lounge was multiplied. In fact, professors could be blogging with one another across departments about educational visions. Perhaps, there might be more service-learning; perhaps, we’d have an Education major; perhaps, student clubs and organizations would then transgress boundaries, and those perspectives might step into the classroom more fervently. Would we be more active?”

Ah, she’s describing what we could be doing in our institutions if we took away the single-subject major, the one-teacher-to-a-learning-space design we have in place. She sees the potential , but she’s pretty realistic, too:

“…Ever since your class, I’ve been struggling to define and redefine what education and learning means for me. And I go back and forth. I remember your class and the very few others I’ve had like it, and I wonder — well, maybe it was really just me. Maybe, this type of learning is only limited to the arts. Yes, Barbara’s class was great–but now I have to find a major and stick with it and follow its rules. You say the blogging stops after the class. You’re right, it does. But the reflecting doesn’t stop.”

I know it doesn’t–but there’s something extraordinary about connected, transparent, archived–yes, documented— reflection–Megan’s to Lizi’s to Julia’s, for instance, that pushes the individual reflection into something even more interesting, something along the lines of Dave Weinberger’s “Small Pieces, Loosely Joined” thinking, taking the time to write out our thinking, showing it to others, responding, linking it to others’ thinking, and then linking back to our own earlier thinking…

And then Megan, in this true spirit of conversation, returns for another comment, in which she observes:

“Sometimes I feel as if I need permission. Not just to blog, but to make connections with what I’m learning to my own life. I still can’t tell sometimes if it’s selfish, if it’s distracting to the intellectual standards of the conversation. Frankly, there is information professors must transmit to their students. Lectures and summative testing are the first two obvious ways for transmitting and evaluating that knowledge. But on the other hand, it’s like putting on a mask every time you enter the classroom–the PC mask. How honest are we with each other wearing that mask? What goes left unsaid? Who chooses not to speak? Who does? Why?

I can never tell if it’s my own personal problem when I find myself struggling with these questions. Are these reflections just a guise for my low self-esteem and the fear of failing to articulate verbally? Or the fact that I learn differently, just as we all do, from other people and it is my responsibility to acquire the skills Middlebury demands of me? Or are my reflections valid? Do they warrant a discussion of change? Even more importantly, do they resonate with other students? “

How often do our students let us know this is how they feel? How often do they venture out beyond the safety of their own bound journals or their trusted groups of friends to discuss these concerns, misgivings, fears? Isn’t this what we should be talking about in our schools? In our classrooms?

And then Julia jumped on, from Oxford where she is studying this year, to comment on the social context in which students blog:

“When you speak of our ability to post on our own social network without censure, one thing to keep in mind is that we are “talking” to our friends, people we know, people who saw us drunk last weekend, who we brush our teeth next to. For most of us, the classroom is still our equivalent to having a real job, it is a professional place “of business.” And you’re right that we have an academic mentality that keeps us from expressing our own, sometimes half-formed, ideas because it goes against everything we’ve ever been taught. The entire reason we got into Middlebury is that we know how to write without “generalizations” and we use “it seems” to stand in for “it is.” We are taught our opinions don’t really matter unless they can be backed up with more experienced opinions that have made it into peer-reviewed journals. It’s just a mentality.”

And later on:

“But most people are terrified of their fellow students. You, the teacher, go home at the end of the day, you remain aloof. We live together, we eat together, we party together, and then we’re forced into this artificial classroom environment where we have to seem knowledgeable without being condescending, and supportive without being overly-friendly.”

Fascinating–I hadn’t really thought about it that way before, but of course it is absolutely true: they compete by day and play by night with the same people in a small liberal arts insitution, at least. And of course in class they must perform–brilliantly. Our classrooms are stages, artificial, dislocated. I am sent back to my books now, to thinkers on space and place: Yi-Tu Fuan and Michel deCerteau, and Gaston Bachelard and Henri Lefebvre
for starters. Now this is what being on leave is all about–having an opportunity to be sent down the strands of thought deep into the study of things I have only glanced at before. And this particular journey has been set in motion by a trio of my students. Brilliant.


3 Responses

  1. Very strange spam in the comment above. I would just like to thank you, Barbara, for putting all our thoughts together in this post. Just reading your last two posts and the ensuing comments has really reminded me of why blogging works–as you said, it is “connected, transparent, [and] archived.” Wow. I would also like to thank Julia for her comment on the distinction between professors’ and students’ lives and artificiality in the classroom. We must come across as “knowledgable without being condescending, and supportive without being overly-friendly” — I couldn’t say it better! And what a relief to know others feel it too!

  2. “For most of us, the classroom is still our equivalent to having a real job, it is a professional place “of business.”

    Wow. That.is.brilliant. And explains a lot, I think… I mean, how many of us “adults” struggle with the line between personal and business, between work and fun? How integrated are we, really?

  3. Megan, does this mean you’re going back to blogging?


    Sarah, indeed indeed, we really don’t pay attention to this reality in our residential colleges. And there’s something else to think about here, too, I think–the difference between the generations in attitudes towards these distinctions. I just heard (and am about to work on a related blogpost) Marilee Jones, the Dean of Admissions at M.I.T. talk about these differences and how Boomers are really misunderstanding both the X-ers and the Milennials. How we view a classroom, job, relationship–all very very different. And so this is why hearing from my students on these blog pages is so immensely helpful to me as a teacher. I’m learning to listen… they have so much to teach me!

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