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


23 Responses

  1. Good luck in the future! Just remember: change is a good thing so we don’t get stuck in a rut!

  2. Congratulations on making and taking the plunge. You are so lucky to be in a place right now in your life and in your life’s work where you can afford to do this. I am, as they say in Boston, wicked envious, but I am also wicked excited for you.

    And I am also sad. Sad because having you as a role model within the walls of Academia gave me the courage to do some of the things that I have been able to do out here (literally and figuratively) in the cornfields. To be able to say to people here that I was collaborating with/emulating a colleague at a school that my school admires/ envies went a long long way. How weird. It is so sad, really, how those within Academia tend to evaluate others based upon where they work and what their .edu address might be vs the work they do and the words they create. It’s so precious, so insanely precious.

    I know you well enough to know that you will not go down the path of “former educator for hire… invite me to be your next keynote speaker” You are too true to your craft and to the essence of teaching and learning to cheapen that experience by being a gun for hire.

    So, I raise a glass and say YIPPEE for you! Per usual you are breaking with tradition, showing the world another way of thinking, another way of approaching the world using the tools that hold such extraordinary potential for learning… be that with a capital L or a small l.

    And for the rest of us who need to stay within the Academy for the time being, we will watch and cheer from the sidelines. We’ll join you there virtually and emotionally until, tee hee, we can all get there ourselves!

  3. Like Barbara above, I have fiercely mixed feelings about your decision. These roads, these yellow woods, these divergences–and at the same time, the yearning to be in a real school, to see it clearly and see it whole (whatever “it” is), the driving desire for integrity that drove Ivan Illich to his own decisions about how best to find conviviality and wholeness within his vocation: they are all here, and I hold my breath waiting for the new episodes in your work….

    Godspeed, Barbara.

  4. I’m proud, excited, inspired to watch you take the leap off the cliff– and am sure you will soar. To me, it does not matter if you are in or out of academia, as long as you just are.

    go, barbara, go.

  5. Very exciting news! You are a model for all of us :). Congratulations!!

  6. That’s extraordinarily exciting…perhaps you are creating the first steps toward a revolutionary new mode of education, a revolution that is perhaps long overdue.

    One more quotation comes to mind: “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” Gandhi

  7. I follow you on Twitter and sometimes here. I admire your courage. I took early retirement from a long-term post-secondary position because it had become more about a very prescribed, and not research-based or rational, certification process, rather than about education and learning. I think a new mode for learning is developing, one that post-secondary institutions are ignoring at their peril.

    One of the wonderful things about the web is that leaving my position hasn’t cut me off from dialogue about teaching and learning. I keep learning through people like you and the wider edublogger community.

    I look forward to hearing about your plans and progress.

  8. Wow, I am so lucky to be part of this supportive, creative, collaborative community here on the blogs and on Twitter. Making such a leap is made much easier by knowing you all are out there cheering me on, helping me think through my ideas, and inspiring me to live by my beliefs. Great quotation, Patrick!

    Here’s another that helps, from Richard Miller: “Schools currently provide extensive training in the fact that worlds end; what is missing is training in how to bring better worlds into being.”


  9. How exciting for you! I’ll miss seeing your posts about your classroom and student experiences but I am excited to see what comes of your new direction. Will you continue to blog?

  10. Ah, you know how I feel. You are jumping off the high board now, and although I wish you were staying behind with me, I know you need to go. xoxo

  11. Barbara,

    I want to ride on that bus. And being in the space of Northern Voice with hearing the news about your decision re-enforces so much of what I think must important about what we are doing here as a community of thinkers, irregardless of institutions. Congratulations!

  12. Welcome outside Barbara! Sometime one has to create the context anew to do the work one needs to do. I feel like I’m remixing school right now- imagining with my friends and new colleagues “real school”, in Gardner’s phrase.

    Everyday I read those who are doing the same within the tradition, as you have been already. I’m excited at the prospect of reading your blogs as the next chapters of your work/life emerge. And I am very honoured by your shout-out. Thanks so much for that! All the best, Keira

  13. Barbara – a bit of a belated congratulations, since I was at in-laws over the weekend.

    Here’s kind of a selfish suggestion. The rest of us want to know whether we should make the jump too. Sticking up for what we believe, as your opening quotes make clear, is important. But affecting outcomes matters too.

    You likely won’t be able to write about that with any new perspective until you are in the new environment for some time. So I’m just hoping once that’s behind you that you can still look back at former colleagues with affection and reflect on this issues.

    Best of luck.

  14. I go away for the weekend and I miss all the big news!
    Along with many people who have commented already, you continue to inspire me with your boldness and even honestly on your fears.
    I am looking forward to see where the future takes you.
    Just because you are leaving doesn’t mean you can pack a bus full of people and travel around, most of my summer plans have not panned out so I’m looking for something exciting to do…just throwing some ideas out there : )

  15. I do intend to keep blogging, and to chronicle the journey–the jump–and what I make of trying to effect change from a different kind of blended learning space. And I will continue to turn to you for inspiration and wisdom and perspective, Lanny and John and Jim and Gardner and Shannon and MaryEllen and Barbara and Patrick and Cyprien and Alan and the rest of you who continue to work with courage and integrity and brilliance from the inside because it is important to keep moving the system and modeling excellence and inspiring students. I cheer you on with admiration and deep respect!

  16. I am giddy with excitement for you. I understand your terror. In honor of it and to confront it, here are some fear quotes:

    Collective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd.–Bertrand Russell

    Death is not the biggest fear we have; our biggest fear is taking the risk to be alive — the risk to be alive and express what we really are.–Don Miguel Ruiz

    You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.–Eleanor Roosevelt

    Don’t be afraid to go out on a limb. That’s where the fruit is.–H. Jackson Browne

    I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning how to sail my ship.–Louisa May Alcott

    Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.–Marianne Williamson

    Ultimately we know deeply that the other side of every fear is a freedom.–Marilyn Ferguson

  17. That’s really exciting. Thanks for what you’ve already done to support your students and to share the work you’ve done and they’ve done. You’ve been an inspiration, and I’m sure you will continue to be. Best of luck.

    – Bruce

  18. I stop by your blog for the first time in longer than I’d like to admit, and boom! Big news! 🙂 Congratulations, and best of luck (not that you’ll need it). New beginnings are a wondrous thing, enjoy!


  19. Congratulations on such a daring move! I am sure that you will soar beyond your expectations, and I look forward to following your growth, as I have for quite a few years.

  20. Wow, Barbara! Congratulations! You have been such a great teacher to me over the course of my own shifts, and I look forward to continuing to learn as you expand your horizons even further. May your journey be have as fulfilling as my has been.



  21. Barbara, don’t know if you realize it, but you’re still teaching us :-). This time, it’s about knowing when to jump off the cliff and doing it in spite of the fear. Enjoy the flight, if anybody deserves it, it’s you. But I also know that as you take off, all that will happen is that you will catch a new current that will help you soar over new terrain, because that is you, and what you do best. Hmm, I think you’ve also inspired me to wax poetic here for a change, my sap isn’t revealed this easily ;-).

    That said, when you touch terra firma again, and get on that bus, I want to be there, taking that trip with you.

    Good luck and best wishes on your new adventures!

  22. Wow, everyone. Thank you thank you for the latest round of responses. You help me shake off the fear. You teachers you!

    Sarah, so good to hear from you again–you were one of the ones I hold responsible as you held my hand during those early days of blogs in the classroom. 😉

    Laura B, you inspire me with your energy, courage, intelligence and willingness to meet people halfway. These are qualities I want to develop.

    Bruce, I’m so glad to have you along the teaching-writing-deep creativity journey; your practice on your blog is truly a bridging of the creative and reflective selves. I will use it as a model in my new work.

    Laura, thanks for your encouragement here and on Twitter. You reach out! Yes!

    Will, heheheh, when you jumped ship I looked on with a healthy degree of skepticism and now look at me. What a wild journey. I’ve thought about you a lot lately. And although our post-school paths are quite different, the spirit is kindred.

    And Vidya, thanks so much for waxing poetic! Your enthusiastic embrace of the uncharted and your deep questioning of what we’re doing remind me to be both bold and reflective. Heck, I might even be convinced to try out a motorcycle! 😉


  23. I’m excited for you. I know what it’s like, to jump off that cliff and not know what, exactly, is below or whether the chute will hold or a gust of wind will blow me into the trees… It’s fun, really, to jump. Since jumping, I have learned so much; my priorities have changed — to my own rather than someone else’s; and for the first time in a long time I am involved in something that is totally, utterly positive.
    You have that before you. And being scared is good.
    And I look forward, as well, to our new learning relationship, to your continued help with my crazy project and I hope that, someday, I can return the favor.
    Happy flying.

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