From Academy to Community and Back Again: On Being a Visitor

deep in the woods

Three times this past month I have traveled back to school all while steadily journeying far far from that world. What a strange feeling to have so much I want to say and explore with people still on the inside while rejecting the structures of formal education. My closest colleagues, even in the Centers for Community Digital Exploration, and many of my mentors work on the inside. I am deeply influenced by the Academy even as I resist it. And that gets my fiercely independent, passionately fiery hackles up.

So while prepping workshops and talks (at Middlebury, University of British Columbia and St. Michael’s), I found myself tempted to confront and confound expectations of what talks and workshops are and do, to stretch my own understanding and experience. Brian urged me to do just that for my UBC long session (3 hours). And goodness knows he embodies that tack, brilliantly so, even when he writes for formal periodicals. I wanted people to explore the free-fall of searching for form and meaning–but together and have them experience, even in an hour or two, the benefits and joys of working in reciprocal apprenticeships, of having to think creatively and collaboratively, of moving past what is already known. I wanted them to be learners as though for the first time, working from disruption to repair. Meta but even more than that.

I spent a ridiculous number of hours coming up with some wild stuff from mash-ups to out-there exercises, rejecting each in turn. I needed to go through that process, to be recklessly creative, wildly irreverent in my drafts, but fortunately, the years and years of teaching & presenting at least taught me to remember my audience for the short talks. And so for Middlebury & St.Mike’s, and a classroom presentation and meetings at UBC I held back and listened, felt my way into the moments and pulled from collections of Flickr slides when I needed to show something. Presentation as conversation, meeting as mash-up.

barn view

But for the UBC three-hour session, I couldn’t help myself. It was a rare chance to push beyond what even I felt was safe, and so I plunged this brave group into learning chaos. I threw out the mash-up movie, the pirate images, the sixteen other plans, and worked from a blog I had created for the occasion and moved the group through an (exhausting, I’m sure, and often mystifying and frustrating) afternoon of thinking about learning within community, remembering to contextualize the experience within the personal and the local and the global, engaging with questions of what really needs to go on in classrooms and workplaces.

salmon leaping

I came away from that experience delighted and surprised and disoriented and not sure what people walked away with that they could use. They asked excellent questions. They articulated their wonder, their frustration, even their anger. One group hugged one another at the end of a particularly trying collaborative exercise. Another group wanted to know why on earth we were doing these things. I am certain that they were worn out–I gave them no quarter at all during three hours. I was unremitting. Yikes.

after a storm

The other talks and meetings were more easily satisfying and comprehensible, and the time with Brian, kele, Cyprien and Keira was absolutely fabulous. To spend an afternoon at the UBC farm with folks trying to save it from the wrecking ball, to be among people who are championing viral, emergent learning that will benefit the lived-in community, to hang out with mentors far more imaginative and wise and smart than I am gave me renewed incentive to keep traveling down this path. How lucky to be taught far more than I teach, to have the time for conversations. How incredible to shift from several days in the university to the stunning wilds of the west coast of Vancouver Island.

where's that salmon

It was only on the beach and in the woods that I saw what I had done, trying to bring the wild winds into a place that might not want or need them. But how freeing to know that it was okay to throw myself against those rocks from time to time. How valuable to have this time before the centers have become full-fledged reality (soon soon, that) to risk glorious failure, to learn through experimentation and improvisation, to move back–for a moment–inside to test my theories and practices. If conferences included a track for experimentation–not to describe experiments but TO experiment right there with peers–I’d be more inclined to attend them. Perhaps Northern Voice this winter? NMC next summer?

wave against rock

I’ll promise (sort of) to tame the hurricane winds that whip up when I think of the Academy…
at dawn west vancouver island


7 Responses

  1. You are certainly not alone in wishing for more room for experimentation at conferences (and many other events). If I could, I’d boycott all conferences that won’t allow for at least a touch of the non-traditional. But since I *am* still in academia…

    On a personal note, based on reading your blog for a while and all I’ve heard from Brian and many others, if you do find a good fit at NV or NMC– the former has been a winner for me twice, because of the people, the latter I might shoot for next year– I hope you’ll spread the word. You’re on my shortlist of “people I need to meet and talk to!”

  2. What a rich sprawling resource you built in noboats! I just lost time present and future in the Word Association game, going quickly from “shapely” to “booger” rather quickly.

    And you are now the poster child for thoughtful insurrection, yay! I fall back to one of my favorite Edward Abbey quotes, “Society is like a stew. If you don’t stir it up once in a while, all of the scum rises to the top”.

    right next to the bold, though not as related, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell”

  3. I haven’t had the headspace to properly articulate a summary of your visit, and as with so many of my most important experiences I doubt I’ll ever be able to sum it up neatly.

    All I can do right now is humbly thank you for what you gave to us. I am especially grateful for how “unremitting” you were… You took no quarter, and I will never forget it. All I can hope is that it is indeed true you found the considerable energy and inspiration you expended here to be as worthwhile for you as it was for us.

    I suggested *City of Glass* by Douglas Coupland as your formal speakers gift, as a fairly transparent ploy that I hope will help lure you back here. Please consider coming back when we have a bigger party going, whether it be Northern Voice next February, or the Open Education conference next August.

  4. […] From Academy to Community and Back Again: On Being a Visitor « (the new) bgblogging Hoping to meet Barbara Ganley at some point (tags: mycomments) […]

  5. Chris,

    You are on my shortlist, too. I’m hoping to attend both of those conferences precisely because they attract incredible people and because if ever there could be experimentation within a conference, I think it would happen there.


    Creating noboats was fun and inspired by your wikis, especially “50 Ways…” but I’m a blogger at heart, methinks, liking to invite people to explore and to discuss and to tell stories, so this time I tried out a blog instead of a wiki. We didn’t get to half of these exercises, but I like that they can come back to this sprawl of options in their own time and space and work through them if they like.

    Thanks, too, for the Abbey quotations. Gotta love that guy’s attitude and his ability to find just the right words to capture it.


    Thanks to you and Keira, I came away inspired to be even bolder in my thinking while modulating my big spirit; i.e. making sure I leave enough space for the people around me ;-). Lots to think about and to explore in my work now thanks to you.

    I love “City of Glass,” and have looked at it several times since I returned home. What a city, what a landscape, and what people. I will be back, you can be sure of that–now that I have basked in the great hospitality of Chez Lamb/McPhee and eaten of the legendary ceviche and tacos, well, you won’t be able to keep me away from those parties especially if they invite experimental approaches to presentation.


  6. Your time here was truly inspiring. The questions you asked and the risks you spurred us to take were thought-provoking & oh so relevant. As I listened to you speak, riff, create, I found myself shifting from the micro (here @ UBC) to the macro (the world around us), the personal (my own personal struggles with being part of academia) to the political (education needs to be thought of as activism to have true benefit), and the local to the global perspectives.

    And, you know, you may have convinced me to become a blogger. Never really took to it, but I think the notion of slow blogging really struck a chord.

    Thank you for your time & amazing energy. I do hope we have the opportunity in the very near future to bring you back to Vancouver!

  7. kele,

    It was such a pleasure to hang out with you, Brian and Keira and to have a chance to open up my Mary Poppins bag with UBC. I am glad you found it valuable–it was certainly a, well, wild presentation… 😉

    Yay for you blogging! I look forward to following along as you slow-blog. Keeping a transparent, connected reflective practice isn’t for everyone, but I sure think we’d be better off if more people would take the time to write from the heart and mind, contextualizing the personal within the larger world, and looking out beyond the moment and the minutiae. Make sure you let everyone know where you’re blogging. Will you incorporate your music? I’d love to read such a post!

    And you know I’d return to Vancouver any time!!

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