Beyond Fear: New Directions

“Hell is the place where nothing connects.” T.S. Eliot (by way of George Siemens)

“If you do not speak up when it matters, when would it matter that you speak? The opposite of courage is conformity. Even a dead fish can go with the flow.” Jim Hightower (by way of my brother)

“If we don’t fight hard enough for the things we stand for, at some point we have to recognize that we don’t really stand for them.” Paul Wellstone (by way of my brother)

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead (by way of my brother)

Picasso qtd by Gilot :”‘When I paint, I always strive to give an image people are not expecting and, beyond that, one they reject. That’s what interests me. It’s in this sense that I mean to be subversive. That is, I give a man an image of himself whose elements are collected from among the usual way of seeing things in traditional painting and then reassembled in a fashion that is unexpected and disturbing enough to make it impossible for him to escape the questions it raises.” in McLuhan and Parker, Through the Vanishing Point p. 242.

At the hacienda At the hacienda

So many quotations by way of introduction. So many powerful assertions by others before my own wee announcement. Okay, I have a confession to make. I’m terrified. Me. bgblogging. One of the so-called Fear 2.0 Dream Team. I am known as fearless, as fierce, as about as bold as they get with my talk, my work, my beliefs, my teaching. Terrified? Yes. And thrilled–because I’ve reached a crossroads. After 19 years, I am leaving higher ed. I can no longer teach from within the system as it is now. After years of trying to find a way to work from the inside, I am convinced that my way must be outside a liberal arts institution. I’m not giving up on teaching and learning; I’m giving up on school.

I’m terrified and thrilled in equal measures to be moving outside the safe confines of the Academy to a new kind of learning space. Will I cut myself off from creative-scholarly communities that mean the world to me? Can I function without a traditional classroom? Am I out of my mind to think that I have something to offer outside formal education? Instead of feeling like Houdini or a form poet (transcending the limits of a semester-ized, departmentalized institution), I face the freefall of the free verse poet, the search for form. And I think I’ve found it.

More on just what I have in mind in later posts, but for now I’ll just say that I am not becoming a consultant, not going freelance. I will be hanging about a new kind of blended (physical + virtual) learning space within our rural community, hoping to bring together local nonprofits and individuals through in-place workshops and gatherings, and connective and creative Web practices. I am very lucky to have many inspired mentors within the Academy–more posts on you later– and without, including Keira McPhee who stepped outside the Academy to start her own school,Nancy White who teaches me with every post about how to embrace and assist a range of communities with deep creativity and good sense, and Geoff Gevalt who has engaged and connected hundreds of Vermont kids through the Young Writers Project. With teachers like these, how can I go wrong?

But this post isn’t about the details of my plans. That’s for another post, in a while. It’s about what I know I’m leaving behind. My students. It’s about explaining why I’ve been quiet around here this academic year as I have sorted through big decisions. I will blog about my future soon; indeed now that I have some clear answers about my path, my blogging voice has been freed up, and I want to reflect a moment about my students before looking ahead.

I am mainly terrified about taking this leap because I know full well how painful it will be to leave my students and the extraordinary learning communities that form every semester. But ironically, it is precisely these classroom experiences that have led me to this juncture. My students have learned to ask me the same tough questions I ask them. Take, for example, my recent J-term course, Exploring the Far Reaches of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction, simply one of the most outstanding teaching/learning experiences I have ever had (and I have had many remarkable experiences through these blog-intensive seven years and beyond). Not having taught a J-term course in several years, I had forgotten about the gifts of January Term: that something magical about being in an intensive learning community with sixteen students for a month–we shed our self-consciousness and self-centeredness, our need to climb to the top of some pecking order, our distractedness to experience what Vera John-Steiner calls “the pleasures and risks of honest dialogue” in building “a shared language” and exploring the contact zones of multivocality. We transcended ourselves–wrote better thought better, connected better than we thought possible. Yes, my students produced some stellar work, but more importantly, they were on fire with their learning and amazed by the reach of work done transparently and collaboratively, connectedly online in full view of and connection to the world. Joined by Student Web 2.0 herself from UMW (so named by Laura Blankenship) who committed to doing our exercises just because she wanted to stretch herself; by a teacher/writer in Hawaii who found us during our 100-words exploration (and inspired us with his powerful writing and reflections on the process); by a brief, unsolicited exchange with filmmaker John Bresland, who commented on a student post about his webfilm, The Seinfeld Analog; by parents and friends and bloggers and former students who found us along our way–we moved beyond the limits of traditional notions of course and calendar–if, for a brief moment. And now, in February, inevitably, the group experience winds down though several students continue to blog and all of them continue to write in spite of the demands on their time, attention and energy of a new semester. They are plotting a webzine, perhaps a radio show–more on those developments as and if they unfold. The semestered, siloed system does not allow for much else. But students continue to show up at my door…and now I have a new group, just as eager to explore their creative selves as the last, just as committed and excited and willing to try something a little different.

But if I had my druthers this semester, I’d be in the second week now of an immersive course: On the Bus, during which the twenty-two of us pile onto a bus and wander the country, capturing the stories of chance encounters and glimpses both into ourselves, through the windows of the passing landscapes, and into the communities in which we land. We explore a range of media for recording and remixing our stories, and tools for connecting, narrating, and sharing from pencil to cellphone, paints to photo-editing software as each of us pursues projects that draw on a variety of disciplines. We stretch ourselves creatively and intellectually within our group and within the communities we encounter– each contributing our expertise–one helps us think as ethnographers, another as geographers, a third as biologists and so on. We strive to contribute meaningfully to every community just as we’ll be transformed by every community we encounter, spend time in, tell stories with and in and for. A new kind of study abroad, I suppose–study-outside-the-walls. That would have been a glorious finale.

And so at the end of this semester, for many reasons, I will part ways with the college for a different kind of learning space. That means for now I might well be blogging infrequently here (and switching platforms) as I move through the transition, but I will be on bgexperiments and the course blog, continuing to learn, to explore, to connect.

snowstorm afterthestorm