Taking Stock of the First Six Months Beyond the Walls: I Had No Idea…Really…

I taught my last class at Middlebury College in May, six months ago almost to the day, packed up my office, said goodbye and left. What a gift, I thought: to be 51 and launched on an adventure to explore learning and communities outside the safe, constricting walls of higher education. I escaped.


But, to what? Exquisite freedom? Or do I feel “exterior dizziness” instead of “interior immensity”? ( Supervielle as quoted by Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, p.221) Some days I live Michaux’s “Trop d’espace nous etouffe beaucoup plus que s’il n’y en avait pas assez.” (Bachelard, p.221) These are concepts I explored with my poetry students–the freedom of the sonnet, the tyranny of free verse. Is this what I am experiencing by imagining Centers for Community Digital Exploration in a country without cybercafes, even, except marginally, in cities? Am I mad?

the house as if in a fairy tale, November late afternoon

With the shredding economy, people are wondering (aloud) about my timing. I left a decent-paying job with excellent benefits for the great, lean unknown. What a time to depart! And for what–something without much precedent–a new idea for challenging times, times when funders are scaling back, communities overwhelmed by the financial impact on citizens and services. Planning physical third-places that combine workshops designed by the community, open lab-workspace, exhibition and meeting space when people need jobs and help with mortgages and health care? Crazy? A luxury?

the old slate wall

I think not. On the contrary, I am convinced that this is precisely the time to play around with new ways of connecting, creating and communicating. Instead of sitting around waiting, for instance, for Obama to solve the world’s woes (and waiting to be told what to do to help, or worse, doing what academics do best–expending our energies criticizing and complaining while doing nothing), we have to engage with our communities to bring about change and help on local levels. Centers for Community Digital Exploration could help communities build bonds and bridges as they build collective intelligence, innovate new business and nonprofit models, and negotiate the trickiest of issues facing local governments.

wild apples at dawn, november

But wow oh wow, I am being pushed to the ends of my abilities as I learn how to collaborate in the world. As a college teacher, I thought I was all about collaborative learning, about students taking responsibility for their learning and their lives–together–but how can you do that within an artificial environment? Within a closed environment? Scott Leslie’s recent post, and Jim Groom and Tom Woodward’s recent NMC presentation demonstrate how academic institutions prevent innovation and sharing and openness. Brian Lamb’s stream of posts from Barcelona this week point at ways in which even Open Ed thinking hasn’t popped out of the school box...yet…completely. It’s scary out here. I risk everything every day as I stumble along in uncharted territory. Agoraphobia? Could be.

Nora's room from below, November late afternoon

As I collaborate with another nonprofit and a small rural community on a storytelling-to-engage-citizen-participation-in-planning-for-the-future project, and as I try to articulate the mission and vision for Digital Explorations, I am learning some big lessons. Teaching and collaborating and learning and working inside an academic institution have absolutely nothing to do with how to do those things out in the world. Really. I struggle even with my language–my fabulous board (right now consisting of Bryan Alexander, Sarah Kramer, Alan Levine and Nancy White) has urged me to shed the eduspeak in my documents. Argh! Me, writing eduspeak! Horrors. But true. And so I have started using Twitter to experiment with voice, tone and diction–how far is too far with the poetic voice, or a conversational tone in writing about the work–the kind of thing I thought I had practiced with my students. What had I practiced with my students??

Working with community and nonprofit partners is a huge revelation for slow-bg. It sounds so obvious. School’s comforting confines do not, unfortunately, often lead to extraordinary creativity; rather they give that impression. They talk about Bachelard’s doors, perhaps, but they do not touch them. Little we do in school prepares students for negotiating common ground in a real-world context where the stakes are considerable and real. We do not teach real sharing of ideas or negotiating with the Other, if our institutions, as Scott Leslie suggests, do not do so. We do not explore listening. We reward glibness as much as deep consideration. We honor the “maverick” but not the collaborator. We do not know how both to be the creator and collaborator. I like Brian’s idea about encouraging students to build on the ideas of their classmates as a way to engage them in this kind of negotiation. Community and nonprofit partners don’t sit politely, quietly waiting for me to tell them exactly how we’re going to proceed. They do not need me to urge them to action, to participation, to questioning. I have to learn how to shut up and follow while being passionate and outspoken. To sink into ongoing relationships instead of semesterized hurry-hurry-think.

up the side steps, late afternoon

I like this searching for form. Making mistakes. Trying again. Making it up as we go. Learning how to be in the world. I guess it’s about dang time.


13 Responses

  1. Still miss you 😦 –but still cheering you on : )

  2. Barbara – the only collaborative approach that most faculty know about is co-authoring a paper. I know I’ve been limited in some of my professional interactions because implicitly I’ve tried to treat them as co-authoring. The results have been mixed, at best.

    We’ve got some community based projects here and had a session on campus earlier this year where a repeated theme in the conversation was that students who work well in a community setting are self-starters and don’t need to be told what to do. I’m not sure where that comes from but the students who have it almost certainly had it before they came to Campus.


  3. Amen! I’ve learned more about collaboration and creation in experiences outside of the classroom more than inside (there are a few exceptions, but very few).
    So often I feel my experiences in the classroom are just artificial means to produce artificial results that mean nothing. I know there is more to living than what school presents, but as a full time student it is hard to work around it. /rant

  4. MEB,

    Thanks for reading on even after I have left. I see my old students all the time but rarely my colleagues. It would be nice to shift that a bit!


    I’m very interested in this statement: “…students who work well in a community setting are self-starters and don’t need to be told what to do. I’m not sure where that comes from but the students who have it almost certainly had it before they came to Campus.” I wonder what percentage of students we are talking about. Certainly family experience and personality probably have something to do with this perception. And what are we doing for/with those who do not “have it”? I saw the same thing at Middlebury, but refuse to accept that we cannot change, we cannot grow, learn and evolve. Look at me–Sure, I am awkward in some of my interactions out here, but I am learning quickly! If higher ed culture made community-based study and creative work a priority, a value, then, well, I think we’d see students shifting, too.

    Shannon’s reply is case in point–Thanks, Shannon, for hopping on–you have long provided me with terrific feedback from your position as a college student! We give students no time at all for community-based learning, and when we do, it is on their time rather than as part of the mission of the education itself. Shannon, in saying, ” So often I feel my experiences in the classroom are just artificial means to produce artificial results that mean nothing,” you articulate what so many of my students have told me, and how I felt in many of my classes as a student. My own daughters repeat this refrain as well. To see my older daughter burst into blossom only when she graduated from college (one of the nation’s most revered institutions at that) and my younger daughter learn far far more from her travels and explorations in the world than in any class (or the sum of her classes) at her college support your contention. So so wasteful. (I second your rant!)


  5. Barbara – the context of the statement is from the descriptions of the community organizers themselves. They really don’t have the time to be supervisors. So it works if the students can jump right in. Right now, my campus is not doing this at volume, so I can’t comment about the relative splits on the doers versus the others.

    I’ve been a big proponent of service learning done on campus. (A bunch of posts on the topic from a while back are here: http://lanny-on-learn-tech.blogspot.com/search/label/INSL. ) I don’t think the desired outcome can happen by individual instructors trying to implement something in their own classes. That’s too hit or miss. Of course, I’ve not gotten my campus to move to this vision yet. But at least we’re beginning to talk about it.


  6. Lanny,

    I hear the same thing from community organizers around here. And I agree that until the full institution moves out into the community as part of what it does, it is difficult to make a big enough difference. One thing my daughter’s college does well is require community service related to a student’s course of study before the student can pass into the senior year. Of course, she also has to create her own course of study, put together an advising board, and argue in front of them for what she’s doing and why.

    I hope you’ll blog about the discussions moving towards service learning at UIUC.


  7. Hi Barbara, I admit I’ve discovered your blog relatively recently, but I’ve caught up with some of your thoughts and writing. I admire also how you had the courage to quit a secure employment to venture out into self exploration. As well, I’ve appreciated your stand on “Slow Blogging”, a notion that I’ve put into practice all along but not finding a proper name for it. Thanks for creating an inspiring blog.

  8. […] Barbara Ganley (who was featured last week in the Times as a “slow blogger”) is consdering this as well. As a college teacher, I thought I was all about collaborative learning, about students taking […]

  9. I came here via Will’s post, as I haven’t been following you lately, Barbara (limited bandwidth in my brain). The Centers for Community Digital Exploration are similar to what I attempted with our Work/Environmental/Cultural Commons here, but did not succeed at (so far). Follow the “commons” category on jarche.com if you want to learn more about it. Anyway, I spent a couple of years trying to get the Commons going and have some documentation, the stub of a business plan and a few bruises that I will gladly share with you.

    I think that you have chosen the best time to launch this new venture because it is only when everything is falling apart that people are willing to try something new. I have also learned that there is a lot of support available from our fellow free-agents. Don’t be afraid to ask 🙂

  10. Arti, thanks for the comment. Quitting my job felt absolutely necessary if I wanted to live what I embraced. I am all about teaching and learning but no longer about school–it is quite exciting to be in the world finding my way with this idea for Centers for Community Digital Exploration.

    Harold, It’s great to have you here, and offering your advice! I will explore your commons and be in touch, I am sure, to learn from you. I am grateful for your offer!


  11. Hey Barbara (You’ll always be you-know-who to me…) Louise here from a million years ago. Do you know about HASTAC? (http://www.hastac.org/) – I don’t know if it’s something you might be interested in, or the very thing you’re trying to get away from – but it’s all about collaborative digital work… I think. (To be honest I don’t understand it well, but I like one of the founders, Cathy Davidson at Duke, very much). I’m so glad to have found your blog (thank you Kate – of course!) and will rss you right now. I’m afraid I’m a shameless commenter, so I’ll be back. Meanwhile, good on you for taking a big step at what felt like the right time, economy be damned. There’s no wrong time to do the right thing… cheers.

  12. Louise! Welcome! What fun to have you here and to find out that you, too, are a slow blogger, though you did not link to your blog. I have ways of finding out…

    Yes, I know of HASTAC and have thought of applying–once the nonprofit has wings. Thanks!

  13. What a lovely blog, Barbara. The writing, the ideas, and the gorgeous photos.

    I started my own blog in April (www.365pwords.wordpress.com) because I needed to discipline myself to daily writing practice. .

    Because I didn’t want to just ramble on mindlessly I chose to focus each post on words that began with the letter P (long story there…)

    It was working nicely until election season heated up and I found myself sucked into all Politics all Palin despite my revulsion for the latter. News moved fast and a lot of fast twtich response seemed necessary.

    Now that we have a worthy President elect I can allow myself to slow down a bit. At this point my daily writing habit is fairly well established, but posting better stuff less often will be my next step.

    In the meantime, it’s a great discipline.

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