Faculty Academy Talk: Change and the Twenty-First Century College Teacher

I’ve got another blogpost brewing about Faculty Academy itself (right now I am teetering between slow-blogging and just plain old blogging slow). What a pleasure to try to spin the tale and capture those days and those people, and how one experience like that can spark all kinds of creative thinking and recharge the batteries. It was remarkable.

For now, here’s the written version of my University of Mary Washington Faculty Academy 2007 talk; the version I actually gave, with slight digressions and shifts, will be available on the Faculty Academy site at some point if you want to hear my voice and see me gesticulate (shudder shudder).
(The complete set of slides at Flickr)

Change and The Twenty-first Century College Teacher: Deep Learning, Slow Blogging and the Tensions of Web 2.0

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Because I am a writing teacher and because I believe you have to explore your own perspective on a topic a bit before hearing what someone else has to say, I’d like you to ponder this question for a few moments:

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How do we see our practices relating and influencing one another–how can we understand what our students are experiencing if we don’t immerse ourselves in the very processes we ask them to explore? Why is it that some academic bloggers with thought-provoking, reflective blogs don’t ask their students to blog? I want to speak up for blogging. For ourselves. For our students. And I know that some of you don’t want to feel obligated to blog just because you have your students blog, and that some of you have moved down the road, shedding your blogging for newer clothes. Don’t abandon your practice just yet…

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Those of you who read my blog–deserve a croix de guerre for making your way through the long posts-ha-, well, you know that I believe in a residential liberal arts experience for our undergraduates but one that little resembles what we have now in place at most of our institutions. And my use of Web 2.0, especially blogs and their buddies, looks very different from the way it looks elsewhere–you will find me blogging on my blog but not much on the course Motherblog, for instance. The blogs are open to the world. No one is denied access.

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You might know, too, of my concern about the divide between the Academy’s staunch commitment to tradition, this generation’s rewriting of all the rules, and the work world’s dissatisfaction with both.

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In 2001 to address these tensions within my classroom, I turned to blogs in my teaching –to reinvigorate learning (my students were wanting too many quick answers, directions to follow, forms to follow when they should have been yearning to experiment, to spread their reading wings and ruffle some writing feathers). I wanted to open the windows and doors between students, between the classroom and students’ lives, between the classroom and the world. I wanted students to look at themselves.

Our first forays into social software pushed me as a teacher, too–students introduced me to new ways of thinking about academic expression, embedding audio in their research papers, photographs in in their poems, video as footnotes. They ranged across the blogosphere, brought in poets to comment, and got a little too intense at times in their discussion. My students are winning awards, getting jobs and into graduate school — with the help of this work.

They’re bringing the house down.

And they’ve forced me to transform my teaching and my creative work as a result, far far more than I had ever anticipated. I’ve thrown whole syllabi out, changed the evaluation process, backed out of the center of the experience.

One of the most interesting developments, I think, is my strong preference for what I call slow blogging, both for myself and for my students.

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In my own practice, that means trying to weave together the tangled and often seemingly irreconcilable strands of what I’ve picked up in my reading, my teaching, my photographing, my living. Even the titles of my blogposts carry on for longer than some bloggers’ entire posts. (I know I know, a little economy ain’t a bad thing…) But what I’m doing is trying to discover, to uncover the relationships between what I thought two months ago, two years ago, and now, and how my interests converge and inform one another, and how the ideas I find in one place can inform the ideas from another, in surprising ways. And how my use of images might add to the total meaning. It’s a way to send letters to the self. In public, as one small piece of a greater conversation about teaching and learning. What has emerged is an organic, evolving portfolio with tags and links leading both back into my experience and way out beyond myself.

I know I’m a better thinker because of my blogging –I’m more inventive and more patient. I take risks. I fail. Publicly. In front of my students! In front of brave readers who kindly argue with me, pointing out what I’ve overlooked or oversimplified. And I am learning to be tougher on myself, to insist on having something to say instead of merely repeating myself or someone else. Slow blogging is both perilous and pleasurable. And it should, I believe, be an active part of any 21st-century teacher’s practice as a window into this generation’s world as well as a way to develop teaching-with-technology skills and a deep reflective practice.

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In my course design I’ve come to blend solo slow-blogging into loose blogging conversations and more staccato posting that lead to spirited conversations face-to-face. Students can’t see their posts as mere messages in a bottle. They are writing to and for actual people, people they have to see in class and hear from on the blogs, people who will inspire them and teach them through their own work put out there in our transparent, open, connected medium, people who will infuriate them with their opposing viewpoints. They learn to participate. To give. To take. To be apprentices and experts. To enter contact zones. To invite other professors, family, friends to take part. We talk about chaos and learning, about disruption and repair, about what Claude Levi-Strauss says about artists never being alone (in Davenport), about social learning theory, about John Dewey. We talk about plurality, about recognizing our own biases, our own clichés (see (Skorczewski, p 100). This is essential in our diverse classrooms, essential in our times–and what better place that a stable learning community to explore encounters with the other.

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Students are often astonished.

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