Three Weeks into the Semester: Stopping to Catch My Breath

Between Twitter satisfying my need to reach out within my blogging community, a quick trip to George Mason University for a workshop/conversation, several wiki and Google doc collaborations with blogging comadres, and the whirlwind of the semester’s opening leaving me rather out of breath, I have been the slower-blogger as of late. But I like this pace: Twitter brings me into daily contact with many whose blogging work informs and intersects with mine–I trust they’ll let me know when something of note is stirring abroad in the blogosphere and beyond, and so I don’t spend as much time looking at edublogs as I once did. I can spend more time thinking about new modes of expression, new ways to bridge old literacies and new. And I wait for blogposts to brew while I watch with amazement how my Bloglines account fills with unread feeds…

This beautiful place is festooned in grand colors and I should be outside, but I’m drawn into this realm to think aloud about how things are evolving with social software in my classes and in my conversations out in the world. vermontfall

So here I am. Because something’s not quite as it was when last I entered a classroom ( a mere nine months ago). Every time I step into a new learning adventure everything, of course, seems new; every time I enter the classroom, I wonder where we’ll venture that day. It’s always new. But this year is even more new, if such a thing is possible. Both in the classroom and on the road when I give talks and workshops.

My Students–
These first-years strike me as quite different from those of past years (which is interesting, as I am also parent of a first-year college student, and I always attributed her distinct ways to her alone–what a range of lenses we use depending on our role …). Indeed, teaching a first-year seminar for the first time in four years is a fascinating revelation–I usually detect subtle shifts in the online experience of the classes of students separated by the three-year gaps between my first-year seminar teaching stints. Subtle shifts. Students in my 2001 first-year seminar (blog now lost) and 2004 seminar didn’t have notably different experiences online before coming to college. Some in both groups came with video editing skills and memberships within social networks, but most did not. Blogging was foreign to all of them. It took some time to get over the disorienting, unnerving experience of writing in and for the public, of sharing their work with one another and commenting effectively.

The difference between my current seminar group’s exposure to online learning and networking practices and that of my 2004 seminar is stunning:
All fifteen students…
*know what a blog is;
*six blogged in high school classes (the first students I have ever had who blogged in secondary school);
*none of them blog on their own;
*every one of them has a Facebook account;
*they all walked into class the first day with strong opinions (mostly negative) about reading blogs for information. (“Oh no, I don’t read blogs,” one student said in a tone that indicated surprise that I would even ask such a question. They contended that blogs were unreliable and/or belonged to the realm of narcissistic exhibitionists. ) Where did they learn to disapprove of blogs? Teachers? Parents? The Media? Experience?
*A couple of them indicated that they signed up for this course precisely because of the online practices promised–not because they liked their previous classroom experiences, but they felt they needed to get more comfortable communicating online and exploring Web 2.0 storytelling practices. Interesting.


A couple of observations about the first weeks of seminar blogging:

Observation #1: What they did in high school in no way resembles what we’re doing (or aiming to do) here. Some students used blogs before college to hand in work or to retrieve assignments; others used blogs to participate in teacher-driven discussions (mostly in the form of writing what amounted to response papers handed in to the teacher). No one had actually integrated informal and formal learning spaces, the world of the classroom and the world beyond, or had conversed on blogs about ideas other than the ones the teacher instructed them to consider.

So, while this group is very very comfortable with online communication amongst themselves on Facebook, they are uneasy about discussing academic ideas in public, writing about what they learn from one another. (They met on Facebook as well as on our course blog before school, and surprise surprise, the Facebook encounters were much more natural-feeling and informal than the introduce-yourself-as-a-writer assignment driven by me). In fact Facebook-communication is so prevalent among Middlebury students that new first-years flocked to ask the advice of an upperclassman who volunteered to answer their questions before they ever got to school. Another group of students brought down a move by the administration to change the college logo–all via Facebook) Yet classroom blogging, at least the way I envision it, is foreign to them.

So some things have shifted, for sure–they are online and comfortably so–but they have not had particularly meaningful experiences using social software in their formal learning spaces.

As my students venture onto Flickr and try out tagging, I see them slowly extending their intellectual reach and sense of expressive possibility, and relaxing into a blogging practice not because a teacher wants them to do it, but because they get it. Slowly though. Even more slowly, perhaps, than previous groups–they are fine about having a Motherblog and their own blog and a Flickr group and other Web 2.0 experiences, but they aren’t necessarily naturally going much further than through the motions–yet. I suppose that the very strangeness of the medium to earlier students made them leap into the heart of the practice instead of skimming the surface. They had nothing to compare it to–no years of Facebook; they had not been bored by it in high school…
fallmorning It’s a tough jump for this year’s group, though, because so much in formal education conspires against it (i.e. faculty misunderstanding how social software can serve transformative learning, and the way we pack their days and nights with assignments–who has time for deep learning?). So far, I do see these students finding real value in reading one another’s work and commenting on it, and in experiencing the tight bonds of community fostered by the Motherblog. They like having the blogs. We’re making progress. Next step: initiating and joining the conversation–doing the blogs.

Observation #2: Online teaching & learning is moving out from the hinterlands, even here in the woods of the liberal arts. The opening editorial, “Welcome to the 21st Century” in our student-run college newspaper, discussed the college online, including new blogs set up by our president and college dean, and ended with the power of blogging in classes; another article profiled the new college radio station blog .
Things are changing around here… (Though, yes, the Editor-in-Chief and Managing Editor both blogged in bgblogging classes, and so it isn’t as surprising an editorial to me as it would have been if they had not had this experience.)

This semester, for the first time, my students are participating in online discussions in several classes at once. It makes sense–no real surprise here that more and more classes are incorporating online discussion. But the kids are already getting worn out by having to do so many responses, comments, conversations simultaneously; they find it frustrating to keep track of the number of posts required for Course A vs. Course B, and how they are being evaluated, etc etc. In some cases they feel that the discussions are unnecessarily added onto a full load, and are really extra same-old response papers or last-minute flurries to fulfill the course requirements.

These shifts mean that I must struggle to keep transforming my teaching to meet the needs of my students, to stay alert to the shoals, the currents, the wind. And that’s good–no getting carried away with the technology here. I have to ask myself why I am asking students to discuss their work, the reading, ideas they come across–online. Do I pull back the blogging in my class because they are online so much in other classes? No. But I have to be mindful of that they make digital stories or podcasts or Powerpoint presentations in other courses. Mine is no longer one of the handful of technology-rich classrooms. Not by a longshot. And I welcome this tension, and the opportunity for opening discussion about new ways of connecting courses one another by connecting their online worlds through the pivot of the student’s own learning practice. Ah, for a fluid learning landscape.

In other words, we have pulled in new practices, but we have not yet transformed our teaching or our courses or our institutions.

My recent experiences on the road and in the blogosphere have also pointed both to progress and to new tensions as we work towards breaking through to progressive pedagogies. Take last week’s workshop/discussion with GMU Arts & Sciences faculty. That I was invited to GMU not to convince people of the merits of blogging, but to work with faculty already blogging, to help them to ground it within twenty-first-century teaching practices marks a significant shift. I never had to define a blog. Instead of stopping along the way to discuss technical how-to questions, we discussed pedagogy how-to–practices–and we discussed the generation of learners; we discussed the reality of preparing them for this hyper-networked world. Concerns about plagiarism were never raised. Support issues were handled deftly by ed tech staff–so so different. Finally I could talk about transformative teaching, and transforming teaching with people really grappling with the gap between how they were taught to teach and how they needed to teach now. At Exeter, too, faculty talked about online overload, about how we need to move towards a more holistic, student-centered approach to online classroom practices, that these conversations need to happen in conjunction with conversations about curriculum and learning spaces as a whole, across the school. Yes indeed.

Evaluation is always a big concern when I give talks–but this group asked a different question: they were not trying to push blogging into antiquated, ineffectual notions of assigning and grading (by asking how many posts I require, how I check or read them, how I assign grades to them); they were really trying to sort out how to engage students in new learning practices through effective assignments and to evaluate the outcomes, and new forms of academic discourse fairly and meaningfully–yet– within the static constraints of old requirement systems. And that is, I see, the big stumbling block for so many faculty who are, on the one hand, asked to push their teaching forward and yet, on the other, required to adhere to teacher-driven test-and-grade forms of evaluation and assessment. The most controversial thing I hear myself saying these days is no longer, “Let your students read each other’s work and build on it and learn from it–let them learn from the world and the world from them; they should transform the course as it transforms them” or “To use social software effectively and to its full potential, you must really question whether you have actually shifted teacher-centric practices” but “To integrate social software and twenty-first century learning practices effectively into your classrooms, you must abandon your twentieth-century ways of grading–and if you must use letter grades (as I must), build the grading rubrics WITH your students. Have them write ongoing, hypertext narrative reflections of their learning process and outcomes, and then propose and defend a grade twice a semester according to those class-generated rubrics, a grade that has meaning because they understand what it represents and why. Do not grade individual posts. Do not count them.”

I think I still shock people with that one, and so one of my blogging goals for this year is to make visible here the building of the course rubrics in my first-year seminar as we go. My students have never done this kind of self-evaluation before, either. And when they heard that’s what we’d be doing, they smiled rather wanly, I must say. But they are a game group, and that’s something else that’s different—they are willing to experiment–to try out these new ways of learning. Not a one is balking. So far. We’ve started the process of building a rubric by looking at old posts from the archives of previous classes, looking at what first-years have written, sophomores and seniors, trying to come up with some ways to describe the elements of a successful piece of writing at this stage.
Today I saw some lights flicker on for them as they explored why they knew a senior had written one essay and a first-year another–they are crawling around writing as writers, as fellow travelers in Gardner’s caravan. Next week, I’m having them read from two student blogs that are not being kept in conjunction with courses, one by a Midd student and veteran blogger, Alex, blogging from study abroad in Mongolia and the other bya wonderful student I met at UMW’s Faculty Academy, Blogging from University of Mary Washington. I’m interested in them taking a look at blogging the learning journey rather than blogging the course ; will they be interested in integrating the two, if, when it makes sense thematically, they can pull some of their discussions from other classes onto our course blog? We’ll see just how contained they find each course experience.


And we’re only three weeks in…


6 Responses

  1. I’ve seen that “I don’t read blogs” attitude increasing of late. It seems to be one response to academia’s growing awareness that blogs exist. I bet the Chronicle’s coverage plays a role here, too.
    One quick response I use is to show them that Google loves blog content, so they already read blogs, like it or not!

    Question about overload: does anyone see blogging as linked to note-taking?

  2. Barbara – I’ve got two questions for you.

    Regarding the students’ experience in high school, did you query them about their face to face interactions and whether they had any conversations that way akin to what you expect them to do in the blogs in your course? I could be quite wrong about this, but my sense is that we all compartmentalize, and they may have been doing a similar activity but not in an online medium.

    Then I wonder whether the student’s issue of too much posting might encourage conversation between you and other instructors. Here that wouldn’t happen, but I’d hope that at Middlebury it might. It would be quite interesting to see if students posting online was a way to get instructors to talk with each other.

  3. Bryan and Lanny–great questions, thanks. The knee-jerk dismissal of blogs by students actually leads to a wonderful teaching/learning moment–a discussion of how-it-is-we-come-to-believe-what-we-believe. On the first day of class, what better entree into a semester learning adventure!

    As for posting overload–that’s an interesting question, Bryan, about notetaking. I haven’t heard of anyone really looking at it that way, a kind of collaborate note-taking of the course itself. I like it. But I don’t think students see it that way, yet, because as of now blogging about course content seems to come from the teachers rather than from the students themselves. “School” and “Life” have been kept separate from one another so that it doesn’t really occur to students to interweave the two naturally together.

    And I agree wholeheartedly, Lanny, that this over-posting tension presents an opportunity for an entire faculty to talk about what’s going on in our classrooms and how it affects our students in their other classrooms. We assign far too much homework. Our president’s first blogpost highlighted student workload as a primary concern and so there is hope for us here at Middlebury to talk with one another. 😉

    As for conversations in other venues, in other mediums: I sure hope my students had ongoing, unfolding conversations in their high school classrooms, but unless they went to an Exeter or were very very lucky, the chances that their classes were small enough or lasted long enough –i.e. more than 40 minutes– to foster inclusive reciprocal apprenticeships during class discussions are pretty small. –I know–I was a high school teacher once upon a time. Certain kids talk, the rest listen. And the kids who get to a Middlebury were the talkers.

    But quite apart from that, what gets said in a face-to-face discussion and what gets posted in an asynchronous conversation are two very different things, I have come to believe. And both are valuable, essential even as both serve deep learning and community-building in different ways. I wouldn’t want to do without either. I want students to stop, slow down and reflect, to go deeper than the first thought. But I also want them to learn the pleasures and power of effective face-to-face discussion, too.

    So the trick now is to figure out how to weave those conversations across as well as within classes. I’m working on it…

  4. Barbara – I’m recalling my own high school experience and some conversations I had that were totally outside of school but intellectual in nature. I had one friend with whom that happened regularly. It’s true the product might be quite different in asynchronous online conversations. But both likely fill the same need for self-expression. If there is the one there may not be a need for the other.

    So I was asking whether the need was already being filled before you got them thinking about blogging. If not, as you say the Middlebury students are the type where your job is to open the vein, then stand back watch the flow. But if they’ve already had an intellectual social life of sorts, the blogging may be a harder sell.

  5. Lanny, I hear you. And I think that in some way you’re right about these kids having an intellectual community outside of the classroom (where else, in our current educational climate are they going to find such a thing…) and thus don’t yearn for other outlets. But that’s true for me, too. I have a wonderful offline intellectual community, but it’s the blogging-to-myself-while -I’m-blogging-to-others that has pushed me more as artist. Absolutely. The slow building of online communications, the kind of ideas that blossom in this kind of thoughtful letter-writing is not something that is encouraged or honored in this culture and therefore is so foreign to our kids that it takes time to adjust to, and to trust. Right now, four weeks into the semester, my students are really opening up, trusting one another and seeking each other out on the blog more and more as an extension of all their other ways of being together in an intellectual community. It’s fascinating to watch.

  6. As a person in my 40’s, I sometimes wonder what sort of effect such connectedness would have had on me back when I was in high school and dreaming about becoming a writer. Would I have blogged my own development? Sometimes I wonder if modern students take such interactivity for granted.

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