The Contextual Process: Cinquecento, Painted Toenails and Tagging Lessons

My favorite car of all time is a Fiat 500–I’ve wanted one ever since I first saw one–for their defiance of typical standards of cool (and perhaps because they were born the same year I was). I love that they are emphatically themselves and elegantly silly and ridiculously small compared to bloated U.S. vehicles. Seeing an entire line-up of them in Montreal, though not all were the older models, recently pleased me to no end.

proud line-up of cinquecento

I don’t want a new model. The original cannot be tinkered with–it is a one and only. And even though I would attract far more attention than I like, I would drive one around Vermont if I could get my hands on one. Context matters naught. They are perfection wherever and whenever they are. Sometimes the evolution of a thing or an idea doesn’t interest me, nor similar things. It is only THAT thing that will do, that makes any sense, that works.

But in other areas of my life I don’t feel that way at all. I take an organic approach, fluid in my likes and dislikes related more to context than anything. Sometimes I love calamari, sometimes I hate it. It all depends.

I love to read cookbooks but hate to cook by recipe.
I love to explore syllabi but hate to teach by them.

When I was a kid, my mother made me clean my room. College roommates had to put up with my “system” of un-organization. My family is used to my idea of packing (five minutes before we go anywhere, throw stuff into a bag) being out of sync with my timing (never be late–it is such a waste) and the way I stuff money wily-nilly into my pockets and never know how much I have or where it is. My students, too, grew used to my saying I had absolutely no idea what we’d be doing in the next class, and wouldn’t until we all got there–it depended on what happened on blog and in the world between class meetings.

bg and students in the classroom, a typical day

I love the idea of total immersion in a moment, paying complete attention to the now, the this, the Cinquecento’s definitiveness, its perfection. But in reality, I don’t work this way very often. I am always thinking about how this moment relates to the past, to what’s around me and what’s possibly ahead. In the classroom I was all about feeling the class temperature and relating this class to all those I’d taught before and what was going in the world and how this class could benefit all the classes to come. Context context.

Even the odd ritual I adhere to–and I don’t adhere to many–is about movement over time, about change, appearances and disappearances.

reminders

Ever since our first family trip to Europe when they were three and six, my two girls and I have painted our nails (the only time I ever paint mine). To feel a little Italian or French, I suppose, or to announce to ourselves that this is a big deal. I always paint mine a blazing red. And then I do not touch the color, letting the nails grow, clipping the paint away little by little with each clipping, letting them chip if they chip. And over the six months or so it takes the painted parts to disappear, I am reminded of the trip every time I look down at my feet. I like those little, private reminders. My kids think I’m nuts, rolling their eyes at how bad I look in public with these nails. It’s goofy, yes, but I love this tangible yet shifting link to experience. I like that they change and eventually disappear–by the time my nails are naked, I’m ready to move out of the past, planning the next trip across the Atlantic. And then I’ll paint my nails again, which will remind me of all the past trips and root me in the present one.

This is what tagging and linking have done for me in blogging: I wanted to keep all the possible links to the past, other presents, and the future open, so that in bumping up against something I wouldn’t necessarily think of, I might come up with something far more interesting than my own simple mind is capable of. But actually, I’ve always privileged the link over the tag. I’ve used a personal taxonomy, then, not a folksonomy. I’ve been using the recipe, following the syllabus. I’ve been treating my posts as little Cinquecentos while calling them open segments of an ongoing conversation. Readers mostly have to wait until I link back to find that old post–it’s really my conversation with myself more than with others.

I don’t use tags as well as I could. As I should. It has taken me a long time to see that.

Losing the rich conversations–the collective knowledge–of my early course blogs when those housing them erased entire servers, and then of later course blogs when access to them was denied to anyone off campus, finally brought home how limited I’ve been in my practices and attitudes. And so I moved bgblogging here and taught my final courses on WordPress.com blogs. And right now I am in the process of exporting all of those MT blogs off campus. What a waste to think in terms of a single class–that once a course is over, the conversation that occurred there is no longer interesting or alive. What a waste not to thread back to earlier posts–it is something I have argued for over these blogging years. But of course, no one else goes back to those posts; few readers of my blog ever click through to the links. And that has to do with my own poor understanding of the power of social tagging. If I had tagged well–and had my students tag well from the get-go, those early posts would have fed one another then, and live on much more than they do now and keep me from repeating myself, as well as making my own sorting through posts right now more fruitful, simpler. Right now my way back into old thoughts happens through links, links that are embedded only within the context of other posts and searching instead being about the tags living in freespace ready to be called upon as markers of the Cinquecentos, the thoughts as they existed right there and then, as well as open, fluid thinking.

just past dawn, late summer vermont

And so when Alan urges people to get tagging together, but simply, I’m with him. I’m heading back into old posts to examine the tags and vowing to do better tagging in delici.ous and on Flickr. I’m not sure where this will take me, but I’m interested in exploring the impact of a shift in emphasis, in attitude, and seeing how my thinking expands accordingly. I’ll still be dreaming of toodling around in a Cinqucento with my painted toenails, but not so much on blog.

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On Taking Pictures Shifting the Way I Blog, On Blogging Changing the Way I Take Pictures

heading in

Dean Shareski’s post reflecting on his experience with the 366 Photo Project and Alan Levine’s comment back to him about using metaphor on/in both image and writing have me thinking again about the relationship between image and text in my blogging and more actively creative explorations. Like Dean, I’ve written numerous times about the power of images in my work, in my case, in the writing classroom, about how taking language away can reinvigorate one’s relationship with it, and how images extend text and vice versa rather than illustrate one another when they are at their best–or when they create, yes, metaphor. The sum should be greater than the total of its parts.

walking on the beach

I’ve been noticing something shifting in the way I blog and in the way I take pictures: how using language and taking photos often–not always but often– influence one other, intersect with one other, complicate one other as I am in the act, and not just once they are placed down into a post. In other words, I not only lug my camera with me wherever I go and take lots of pictures (except when I intentionally leave my camera behind so that I have to relate to what I am seeing with myself alone, something I do pretty often, actually, as an important exercise), and try with every click of the shutter to do so actively, mindfully, thinking of that image on its own distinct from any other image I’ve taken, so as to keep growing as a photographer, but–and this is a real change for me–I am increasingly unable to disentangle the picture-taking moment from writing, and the writing moment from picture-taking, at least the writing moments that interest me. As I frame a shot, I feel a story suggested, or a point I want to make on blog or in a digital multimedia piece or in a talk. And I don’t mean in a representational way or even in a clearly metaphorical way. Something about the color, the saturation, perhaps, or the angle, the contrast, and not necessarily the subject at all.

Photos for me are never isolated incidents or expressions, then, but part of other things, or preludes to other things. I guess that is why the 366 Project isn’t my thing–I am too messy, too discursive, a storyteller working in bursts from a center, building towards something–I usually know not what until I am well into the creating. Take how did I get here this image, for example. As soon as I started playing with shots of the koi and duck, a post about collaboration started unfolding (in process right now); and this one island prow suggested to me when I saw it before I put camera to eye, the geometry of opposition, another post-idea floating about or perhaps a part of the collaboration post, and then I sought a way to create that sense in the image. I wasn’t, in other words, just looking for an interesting image that would stand on its own. I am finding that my words need my images, and my images need my words. And thus my Flickr sets and my text-only notebooks are sketches only and not as interesting to me as my stories, my presentations, some of my blogposts.

I’m also finding the way I explore online spaces shifting. I go to Flickr as often as to Bloglines and leave comments on photos as often as I do on blogs. (I really should use images to respond to images, I suppose…will have to try that.) I follow several blogs devoted to photography, multimedia and/or vernacular creativity including Dawoud Bey,Bagnewsnotes, Exposures, Magnum, and Do You Know Clarence (thanks to Leslie Madsen-Brooks).

I’m interested in Roy Ascott’s work, in Ron Burnett’s thinking about art, in all manner of theorists, philosophers and artists who write about the visual. I’m searching for explorations, commentary, meditations on this reciprocity between online digital writing and digital picture-taking, not as ekphrasis but as part of the online writer’s process of conceiving narrative and meaning.

I wonder if others are feeling this way, though I don’t often see posts using images in interesting, provocative ways (that s not to say that the way I use images always works–au contraire; mine are often glorious failures!) Because taking images has become an act of writing for me, I almost never (except in presentations) borrow other people’s photos (not a true mash-up artist I), but I would like to do more of that. I think it would be a good exercise, and I wish I had explored mash-ups more with my students when I had students. 😉

the world in an eggplant

Now it is time to take next steps, exploring more ways to push image up against text, to move them together and apart and see what I learn about what I am trying to say through the process of finding modes of expression new to me. I know I am hampered by my lack of skill, and so I need to become more versed at multimedia expression, the kind I am already doing, but also moving beyond the simple rotation of text and image, or of image with text written on it, or collage. Time, I think, to learn Flash. Time to get more creative, more bold, more experimental, perhaps, as a way to think about what it is we are doing in this creative/expressive/communicative/connective medium. Time to do more with audio, too.

How lucky we are to have this flexible medium that acts at once as palette and vehicle, as idea-source and expressive connector, as reflective/reflexive space and contact zone. How remarkable our students who often stun me with their creativity with this medium (oh, I will miss that!). As Janet Murray writes in Hamlet on the Holodeck: “As I watch the yearly growth in ingenuity among my students, I find myself anticipating a new kind of storyteller, one who is half hacker, half bard. The spirit of the hacker is one of great creative wellsprings of our time, causing the inanimate circuits to sing with ever more individualized and quirky voices; the spirit of the bard is eternal and irreplaceable, telling us what we are doing here and what we mean to one another.” (p.9) Is this what I struggle towards but have not the skills for?

So much to learn!

From Outside the Walls: In Search of Form and Meaning in Extreme Times

Be forewarned, this post is more of a personal reflective narrative about where I find myself than an exploration of ideas and practices of our times, so if you don’t like that sort of thing, go ahead, bow out now. 😉

My blog, morphing into an open laboratory, will include some messier-than-in-the-past posts about my doubts, my stumbling, my questions as much as my usual kinds of posts examining theory and practice of learning in our times as they play out in my world. I am not necessarily comfortable in this looser writing terrain –the risks are high–and thus I have stayed off blog more than on for the past months as I find my way. But enough of being careful. Blogging is about thinking and sharing boldly, sometimes half-baked thoughts–it is about learning and growing through the conversation, not always offering clear substance or demonstrating command or authority. Yikes. How did I forget that?

Okay, onward:

foggy ipswich morning

I have been fortunate to know summer as deep, slow quiet feathered between spring’s cacophony and fall’s exuberant re-embrace of the classroom. Wending my way through the weeks taking pictures, writing, gardening, playing, dreaming, traveling, cooking seems as natural and necessary as engaging in intense creative collaborations during the “school year.” The very bounded nature of that time invites its expansiveness, its dreaminess–it is luxurious precisely because it has limits, tensions, oppositions. The form poem. The classroom at its best.

into the kitchen

Even though it is summer, I miss acutely that beauty in what I have just left: the passion and optimism of my students, and what great teachers on my old campus, the Hector Vilas and John Elders, inspire in them. John’s recent comment sent me back to my old world:

“But I feel that such tension–between what Dave Smith calls desire and dailiness–can itself itself intensify our awareness of what’s really important. Contrast-value can be essential to staying awake. When I think back to recent classes on “Michael” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” or to class trips to hear Jean Ritchie sing or to climb Mt. Abe, I feel grateful to Middlebury for offering an educational structure from which these experiences of a life-time blasted off.

I guess my conclusion is that, while traditional institutions and structures can be oppressive, they can (and must) also be enlivened. Curricula, theology, and law can slump into dead weights indeed, but when overtaken by discovery, grace, and compassion can start to breathe again. And to dance.”

lotus dance

He’s so right. He describes the beauty of the classroom. Those of us lucky enough to have had such extraordinary experiences as I did when I studied with John in graduate school or as Gardner Campbell did draw daily inspiration from such teachers in our own work. Unlike Matt Crosslin* (Note added 8/20/08: please see the follow-up comments for a correction of this statement–sorry Matt for misreading your earlier comment!), I don’t think great classrooms are common at all. Too many teachers do not go beyond the comfortable syllabus, the safe lecture, the composed practice, in part because of systemic realities such as Leslie points out within even some of our finest large universities. What a shocking disregard for the deeper purposes of an education, of the sort John described in his response to me.

But he is exceptional. And just who has access to such an experience, to such a teacher? Too few. Too few. Even in a small college. The liberal arts college environment is too soft, too privileged, too disconnected from the actual messy classroom of the world–at least it is right now, at least in my experience. There are other ways, and I believe, better ways–especially now– to unlock the potential of our best selves, within the contact zones of a messier place than a traditional institution of higher education.

A place without clear summers, perhaps. Like this one. It is not quiet. It is not silent.

graffitti art montreal

I face nothing finite on the other end except for the end of summer itself, something subtly insinuating itself into the fields with the massing of swallows on the wires, the fading of the fawn’s spots, the empty nests, the yellowing fields. There’s no human-made marker, no school shaping the movement of time and responsibility and endeavor. I have walked beyond the sheltering walls of formal education and into the chaos of the world of messy, participatory learning. It is quite a feeling.

in a window, montreal

Could this be creative free-fall? Living the free-verse poem? Of the sort I tell my students to expect when they enter our learning community and have to feel their way as a group and as individuals through the labyrinth of possibility? What lovely irony. I’ve left the classroom to find the classroom, a truly participatory one in which I am as much apprentice as expert, as often confused as inspired, angry as delighted. How will the small centers I plan help communities if Obama loses the election and we continue as a country along this hellacious, divisive path? If we do not apply ourselves immediately to the urgent environmental crises of our time?

How do I find patience in this extreme time?

in the fray

I am awkward outside of school. My passion can overwhelm as much as inspire. A vision that seems so straightforward to me is easily misread, filtered through what is assumed and already experienced rather than what is possible. I have much to learn.

brilliance in a japanese garden pond

A big challenge is finding a way to articulate simply, clearly and sensibly a practical vision for centers devoted to creativity, collaboration and reciprocal apprenticeships within our lived-in small communities. How difficult that is when people naturally read through the spectacles of known context and experience–how do you describe something that hasn’t quite existed before, at least not quite as I am imagining? I am searching for form.

foraging in the Chinese garden pool

Even as I struggle with the words I am laughing at myself for not walking the walk. When I whined a bit on Twitter recently about having trouble with the mission statement, Steve Greenlaw suggested I post it and get feedback. Up until now I have done that but only kinda sorta–I have let people directly involved in the project onto the pages-in-process. Now I am considering making the entire process transparent and collaborative by blogging the draft mission and vision statements (and naming ideas), the turns in the road.

No more shyness or fear of failure.

vive montreal