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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We build the course as we go, simultaneously creating the pressure of structure and constraint and the freefall of choice. Students reflect on the journey as they go, help plot out the next units; we work out grading rubrics, and they evaluate themselves. They move out into the world to see how their work fares out there, participating in conversations with invited experts, and other communities working in our field; they take a look at how other classes use tagging, make podcasts and movies.

And I try to stretch myself, too.

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Sometimes their other online practices come into play; sometimes they discover for themselves what researchers are finding about our online lives.

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At the opening of the course they are uneasy, defensive, seriously considering running. But something makes nearly every one of them stay. Inertia? Disbelief? Curiosity? They do not much like me or what we are doing those first weeks. It is too strange. Unsettling. I am strange with all my questions and lack of answers, my announcement that in large part we will shape the course as it shapes us.

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By the end they surprise themselves by how much they enjoy this way of learning, this working so hard, this having something to say.

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They see the value of time alone, on the blog, and together. Students don’t miss class; they keep their appointments, and work their tails off.

So okay–it works. End of story? Not quite. This semester, with the luxury of a sabbaticial away from the classroom, I’ve secretly toyed with the idea of moving away from blogs. I’ve heard people talking about how students are getting tired of blogging, they won’t do it well, deeply. That it’s passé, finished, kaput. I worry that my students might follow suit and disengage, go through the motions to try to please me, the teacher. I’ve thought about wikis instead of blogs, or Ning, or carrying everything out in Second Life. To see how they work. To see what they can provide that blogs don’t. To stay on the wave.

But a series of experiences during this past roller coaster of a month has brought me to my senses. Give up blogs? You’ve got to be kidding… the fluid, flexible, open, transparent, richly connected vehicle of a blog makes so much sense in undergraduate teaching and learning. The other things help and will crop up in incredibly interesting ways, I know, but they aren’t going to sideline the blogging in my classrooms. Not just yet.

And here’s why– I’m going to explore with you in a spoken sort of blog way (if only I could embed hyperlinks into my voice–but to know that I will blog a text version of this talk replete with links reassures me to no end); I am going to move through some tangled and often clashing strands from my last month that have led me to new clarity about why slow blogging works for 21st-century teaching and learning.

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The centering image here is memory, stirred and threaded through by blogposts, books and my recent travels in Scandinavia.

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Those who read bgblogging know that for the past six months my father has been constantly in my thoughts, appearing in my blogging (and I am not one of those who so easily moves back and forth between my personal life and my professional interests on the blog, the way Laura Blankenship, for one, does so brilliantly.)

That the stunning fact of my father’s death a month ago hits me every day does not surprise me; what does is how my relationship with him has not ended but has shifted into memory conversations and flashes of understanding I never had the time to reach because I was so busy in my relationship being with him in the present. My father, the master teacher, is teaching me still.

Reading letters of condolence from his students and colleagues underscore my understanding of his humanity and his skill in the classroom. Reading for the first time his letters home from World War II and hearing my brother read aloud passages from my father’s first book have me in awe of his writing, his wisdom even so young, his ability to see the big picture and articulate it. His letters should be published as great anti-war statements.

Most of all I have been replaying a conversation I had forgotten, one we had as we walked home from his classroom some twenty years ago, when I was visiting as a new teacher, sitting in on his classes trying to figure out the formula to his magic. It went something like this:

“I’m retiring at the end of the year, you know,” he said.

No I didn’t know. And I expressed my outrage at such a thought–that brilliant previous hour during which his students had lost themselves equally in deep discussion about the writings of the founding fathers surely was proof that he was at the top of his game. Students needed him. The school needed him. I needed him.

In his usual economical style (yes, we’re quite different) he said, “It’s time. I don’t know how to teach in these times. I don’t know how to teach this generation. My way no longer works. It’s time for someone else. For you.”

I didn’t understand.

Here I was modeling my teaching on his elegant conducting, his ability to reach all his students–And besides he had taught through the tumultuous sixties and early seventies, at turns dismayed by the antics of our government and the antics of his children–surely it wasn’t as bad as that. If he could teach through Kent State and Watergate, he could teach through the computer age.

But no, he up and retired.

I understand now. He was right. Although he was the most gifted discussion-based teacher I’ve ever seen, he couldn’t get his head around why we’d want to be more connected–through computers– but then turn out to be superficially connected to our lived-in communities because we no longer knew our neighbors, or were involved in our communities of place. We were interested in communities of interest, of practice, of convenience.

And he disliked everything about the cult of the individual.

He saw it all way before I did.

But what, exactly, has to change in teaching practice to serve this time, this generation?
Several blogposts, books and recent experiences wrap their tendrils around this memory, helping me to think that in spite of my fumbling in the dark with my Web 2.0 practice, I am finding my way, through a new mix of learning spaces and relationships that combine the formal and the informal, the personal and the scholarly, held together by a slow-blogging practice.

Let me take you on a little journey of how this works in my own blogging. From my RSS feeds four blogposts have pestered me, a sign that I’ve got to pull them out and think about them next to one another.

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Bryan Alexander, in a recent post, voices his dismay over streams of people through a busy subway station walked on by the great violinist Joshua Bell busking. His post generated an interesting discussion about our relationship to art, our plugged-in-ness, our expectations of where we encounter high art and our preoccupation with our own headlong rush. I wondered if any of my students would have stopped to listen even if they had something pressing to do. I wondered if I would have stopped.

In a post entitled “Where I work these days” Ethan Zuckerman blogged about being torn between missing working with his co-workers in place, in a face-to-face community and knowing that his work was about being in contact with people all over the world and how enriching that contact was for him.

Both posts presented me me interesting thought threads, though of different shades, of disconnection. About things I worried about for my students and my children–if our relationships happened primarily through our projected selves in computer screens and telephone lines what would the effect be on our ability to have face-to-face relationships? About our ability to be quiet in ourselves and out in nature?

Then I read Alan Chin’s post about photographing Virginia Tech in which he writes,

“Which does bring us to, and this is not in any way to excuse or justify the killer’s actions, but what it does bring us to is the situation of a young Asian-American man in such a place, such a culture that is on the one hand, modern and open and cosmopolitan, and, yet, still insular and proud and traditional…..And of course, there are plenty of other Asian students at Virginia Tech. They don’t go out and kill anybody, of course. Yet when you listen to Cho’s words on the tape, the anger and rage against privilege and wealth, you do realize that this remains a country that has yet to figure out just how we’re going to deal with our contradictions…”

When does disconnection morph into alienation and violent rage? How are we in our classrooms addressing the unspoken fissures in a multicultural, deeply divided society? How are we engaging positively all the perspectives and experiences in our classrooms?

But then I saw Gardner Campbell’s’s post and listened to his inspired Kemp Symposium keynote delivered at UMW not too long ago, and I felt hopeful. Again. (Thank you, Gardner.) He models for us the new teacher –as we could be–how he delights in sharing his passions, in weaving the personal with the scholarly, connecting to self, to community, to the times, inviting us to do the same. I’m sure he does this in class the way he does this on the blog. This is the kind of thinking and relating I want my students to do to counteract the disturbing realities of our fractured connections. His apt use of the image of a caravan as a metaphor for our learning journeys, and his sense of our role as inns or waystations along the route, well, just listen…

In a similar way, students can gather such posts around the topics of a course within del.icio.us or Bloglines, tagging and annotating them as they gather steam, sharing them with their classmates, arguing about them, arguing with them. Struggling with blog conversations to synthesize challenging ideas, tracing through them, linking them together helps students to become aware of their own clichés, and to learn to negotiate with other points of view. They learn to navigate a discipline within its social context.

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And then because I always do–it is one of my clichés–I also run to my books for clues, for other trails of breadcrumbs that might lead me to deeper discoveries. One of said books in this case, Jean M. Twenge’s Generation Me, I found out about on a blog, apophenia, danah boyd’s blog. It provides a harrowing, and convincingly researched portrait of today’s youth, voicing indeed what my father felt about the generation’s preoocupation with self.

It is a book you should all read. Of the many descriptions it offers is this one: “GenMe trusts no one, suggesting a culture growing ever more toward disconnection and away from close communities.” (p. 36) The author also points out that we “worship at the altar of self-esteem and self-focus” (p. 60), and I cringe as I recognize some of my parenting and teaching mistakes from the nineties. Am I, too, therefore, complicit in the development of a new narcissism?

Richard Miller’s Writing at the End of the World, another harrowing read asks why we should read and write at all in the face of a world gone mad?

“Why go on teaching,” he asks, “when everything seems to be falling apart?” (p. x) He thrusts Columbine in our faces and says no manner of explaining will ever make sense of what those boys did. “Schools,” he writes, “currently provide extensive training in the fact that worlds end; what is missing is training in how to bring better worlds into being.” Later in the book, he adds, “.. I work at getting students to use their writing not just as a tool for making arguments, but also as a lens for exploring complexity and a vehicle for arriving at nuanced understandings of a lived reality that is inescapably characterized by ambiguities, shades of meaning, contradictions and gaps.” (p.196-7)

Michael Dirda, in the third book I picked up, Book by Book, Notes on Reading and Life, echoes this contention:

“…contradiction, not consistency, second thoughts rather than dogmatic certitude, lie at the heart of humane understanding, and all those who try to simplify experience usually only succeed in narrowing it. To my mind, life should be complex, packed with questioning, full of misdirection and wasted effort–a certain number of mistakes is, after all, the price for ‘living large.’” (p. xvi)

In a 12-week semester–no time at all to do what I set out to do–slow-blogging cracks open these realities for students but in a connected, mentored learning space. They learn that it is difficult to remain indifferent once one comes into contact with the authentic story of another…when we know how to listen and wrap our own stories into the ones we hear. We may ease up on some of the rage. We may see one another instead of just ourselves.

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Travel, of course is one very good way of pushing oneself into a place of discomfort and unease and disconnectedness–of removing the gauze from our gaze–for a moment at least we should see with new eyes, a taking in of a different take on the world filled with complexity and contradiction. We should see ourselves. When we travel, we should have our senses knocked wide open as Heaney explains in “Postscript” even though we can never be a part of the visited place, never understand it–

“Useless to think you’ll park or capture it…

Useless to think you’ll capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”

(see complete poem)

And yet, in Scandinavia I found, as I have on other travels, and as have other writers such as Henry James, travelers tend to want NOT to have that kind of experience, they seem to be collecting countries, entertained, released from their own lives for a moment, more than changed. I saw people hide in their guidebooks, in their carefully chosen restaurants, in their carefully chosen sites to see as they raced about on “Norway in a Nutshell” while they read their books from home on the train, or plugged into their music from home.

And then on the plane home, when I pulled my camera from its bag, excited to take pictures from the sky of the landscapes as we passed over them and then the sea, the enormous ruffled carpet beneath us, the flight attendant’s voice came over the loudspeaker, asking us, out of courtesy for our fellow passengers who wished to watch the movie, to lower our shades. Talk about contact zones–

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When I flew into Vermont, I was dismayed by the march of huge homes across our landscape, homes once relegated to other places. And now I hear my town is getting a Starbucks. Next it will be Walmart. And Vermont will not be Vermont but everywhere else.

But those are my ways, my biases. I must remember that.

And so I talk with my students about travel. About what they will find when they study abroad. About how it can open the world to them and invite them to take a good long look at their own perceptions. I invite them to take their blogs with them.

It is here, on the blogs, weaving images, links, quotations, rants, memories together in an archive of learning that intersects with others’ learning and living tapestries, and then in conversation face-to-face with some of the same people –but not all, not all the ones by any means who touch us and teach us –that I see a way through for us.

But only if we keep talking and bumping up into each other’s perspectives. Only if we help this generation to come into contact with others and enter into reciprocal apprenticeships, bridging the scholarly with the personal– looking back into the lessons of history the way my father teaches me, looking carefully around us the way my camera teaches me, and looking beyond my own perspective the way blogging teaches me.

Upon my return from Norway and almost every day since, I have walked about the land with my camera, and without. This time of year the wildlife, restless, on the move, threads its way through corridors between dogs, cats, humans. The birds are going beserk nesting and fighting over territory — I wish I could show you better how beautiful their nests are, and how wondrous– how they appropriate whatever is handy to weave into their nests: mud, moss, twigs, leaves, grasses and pieces of string, a long blue piece of plastic, in this case, and in my favorite–strips of newspaper, the print still legible–no kidding. How each kind has its own way of constructing, its own preferred locations.

Such is slow blogging, I think, the pulling of strands from our encounters to create a nest of sorts, a vehicle, a caravan for deep thinking about our subject matter and deep connecting with ourselves, with others in our community and in the world. To awaken passion for learning and empathy in this time of self-focus, when as Barry Wellman says, when what was once “the broadly embracing collectivity, nurturing and controlling, has become a fragmented, variegated and personalized social network,” we have to use the tools of the time, Web 2.0 tools right now, which are all about connectivity.

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Yes, my father was right, if we have any hope at all that reading and writing matter, that schools matter, we do have to change our way of teaching — what we teach even– to focus on creativity and resilience, boldness and deep listening and observing, on conducting research and collaborating in fluid online conversations, to create bonds with community and bridges between the personal and the other. In other words, a liberal arts education should expose us to ideas and perspctives and give us training in collaboration, communication and creativity. And we have the tools, right here, to help us do just that.

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7 Responses

  1. Barbara,
    Beautifully said.

    As I think about your closing paragraph, I can’t help but feel that I received much of that education which you describe so well.

    “creativity and resilience, boldness and deep listening and observing, on conducting research and collaborating in fluid online conversations, to create bonds with community and bridges between the personal and the other.”

    It was sometimes overwhelmed by teachers who cared only about stuffing us full of information; but the core of it was there…and has served me well as a foundation for all the learning I have done since.

    My foundation didn’t have computers. My learning now does; and just as I have learned from you, at a distance, I see how this tool carries so much promise for our children.

    At the core of it all, even more important than the technology and all the trappings of our classrooms, are the hearts of teachers like your father, who care about their students, who recognize their gifts and who help students bring these gifts into the world.

    in gratitude,

    pete

  2. Thanks, Pete–I’m glad you found it useful.

    Yes, I agree, the very best teachers have always found ways to awaken the joy of discovery while responding to the times. My father, for one, never lectured in class, never gave easy answers, never let students think that they were there to please him. Even though he couldn’t teach in this time, for this time, his example continues to inspire me every time I walk into a discussion-based classroom.

  3. edubloging: One College Professor’s Perspective

    You can’t reads this blog entry from Barbara Ganley and be left with a…

  4. Barbara,

    You write most eloquently and a guess your lecture mode is just as enthralling!

    However, I am presently researching the secure functionality of blogs in the classroom, particularly for Secondary School children in the UK.

    Have a look at my posts in:
    http://comingofage.ning.com/

    So my question is, do you have any good Case Studies of interactivity with small-group blogging in the classroom?

    I’m really keen to see this take off in UK schools, I’m just so surprised that it hasn’t happened earlier!

  5. Barbara,

    You write most eloquently and a guess your lecture mode is just as enthralling!

    However, I am presently researching the secure functionality of blogs in the classroom, particularly for Secondary School children in the UK.

    Have a look at my posts in:
    http://comingofage.ning.com/

    So my question is, do you have any good Case Studies of interactivity with small-group blogging in the classroom?

    I’m really keen to see this take off in UK schools, I’m just so surprised that it hasn’t happened earlier!

  6. Barbara,

    You write most eloquently and a guess your lecture mode is just as enthralling!

    However, I am presently researching the secure functionality of blogs in the classroom, particularly for Secondary School children in the UK.

    Have a look at my posts in:
    http://comingofage.ning.com/

    So my question is, do you have any good Case Studies of interactivity with small-group blogging in the classroom?

    I’m really keen to see this take off in UK schools, I’m just so surprised that it hasn’t happened earlier!

  7. So eloquent and so profound. Professionally refreshing, that’s what this piece is.

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