Slow Blogging: Context, Transitions and Traditions (Back from Illinois, Part Two: Setting Up The Classroom Community)

Lately I have been off blog much more than on, posting a few times a month, not a week, while reading with pleasure and a bit of wonderment about the whirlwind travels and explorations of Bryan, Stephen, Nancy and many others on my Bloglines feeds. At times I’ve thought perhaps I should blog more often–I certainly have many entries swirling about in my head, and I’ve got to post some recent talks–but quick posts just don’t do it for me as a thinker, as a writer.

It was reading Martin Heidegger’s “Discourse on Thinking” this weekend, in which he writes about “calculative thinking” versus “meditative thinking,” and then wandering over to a student blog post about this year’s Slow Food Conference that made me want to call what I do slow-blogging or meditative blogging. At least that’s what I’d like to work towards. It takes time for the many loose strands of thought to converge into a unified post; it takes a lot of effort, a lot of energy, and a lot ( I know, I know sometimes too much) writing. And some posts never quite find their footing; they remain awkward and tangled when I don’t have enough time or courage or energy or ability to go deep.

And since this kind of reflective practice–both a return to thinker-to-thinker letter-writing and a move forward into hypertext and multimedia expression– is what I ask my students to do as a way to develop their creative and critical thinking and writing skills, it’s what I need to do, too. If I’m asking students who sign up to participate in the Blogging the World project to see blogging as a way to ground their experience, to think about it and to enhance it, then I’ve got to do that, too. So, yes, I come down on the side of teachers-who-use-blogs-in-the classrooms-better-use-them-in-their-own-work. And I make sure that the pedagogical underpinnings of my courses are transparent and discussed in class.

In other words, I try to look back as much as forward, to dig deep into the books that call to me from my bookshelves as I think about my teaching and my learning with social software and without. I think about my teachers as much as about my students. I try to stay aware of the context from which this blogging practice springs, and I try to consider the transitional spaces between old practices and new, old literacies and new, old treasures and new. And so right now, right next to this computer sits a bag of books I’ve been carting around with me for the past few days: the Heidegger; Pahl and Rowsell’s Travel Notes from the New Literacy Studies; Paul Muldoon’s new collection of poems, Horse Latitudes; Yehuda Amichai’s last collection of poems, Open Closed Open, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer— such wonderful books all of them. Sometime, somehow, I’ll figure out why this particular group of books happens to slide off the shelves and into my bag at the same time.

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Maybe it is November and the onset of hibernation that put me into a period of absorption, of feeling my way between past and present, but I find myself in an oddly balanced place these days. Or maybe it’s because I have children emerging from adolescence and parents moving into old age, and next year I will celebrate one of the BIG birthdays that I feel perched between the disequilibrium of life’s big moments. I want it all–the physical world and the virtual, books and blogs, old ways of communicating and new. I want them all in my classroom. I want the physical classroom, where we sit around big tables together to wrestle with ideas and processes, and I want them augmented by other kinds of “tables” of the virtual sort at which we can come and go at will, learning from experts we discover as we wander. I don’t want to get rid of schools, just to change them. I want to walk through the halls with people, to talk with them in person, to sit around a table day after day after day with the same group in extended inquiry–in slow learning. I want access to the wisdom of someone who has devoted a lifetime to the study, to the processes of thinking in my field.

Visiting last week with graduate students in writing at the University of Illinois was not only a pleasure but an inspiration– to witness how much they enjoyed and felt stimulated and engaged by one another and their program and the place. They feel the dynamic bonds of community. I want my students to feel those ties to an intellectual, physical-based community. Take my mother’s three-year-old-and-going-strong poetry group: every Saturday some dozen residents of her retirement community meet for a couple of hours to read, study, and talk about poems. There’s a kind of special language they’ve developed, a trust and a willingness to speak openly and fiercely about what they read because they’re looking each other in the eye. There’s the caring for one another as neighbors and friends that goes beyond a simple intellectual engagement. I did a guest workshop for them several months ago and came away inspired by their intensity and warmth and commitment and intelligence, collective intelligence. I want that for my classes of twenty-year-olds.

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OPENING THE SEMESTER

So, what am I saying here? I guess I’m moving more and more to ways in which blogging and tagging and image-sharing and digital storytelling enhance the here-and-now, the communities in which we live and work, and in this particular case, the classes we teach. And to do that, it is essential to spend time at the opening of the semester talking about who we are, what we each bring to the learning adventure, why we’re in this class, and what we hope to get out of it. We talk about building a blueprint together based on our goals and available materials, and then think about how we actually build the course experience together and alone.

But first, I have to think about how the various means of expression might have an impact on the learning and on the community. How and why will we use social software? Will we venture further into online work than blogs? Why blogs at all? Will we really blog or use the blog structure as a vessel to hold traditional assignments? Why, for example, would we blog in a course on Ireland? How might hypertext and digital storytelling enhance the experience? How might we use audio as a tool for expression and for revising and for exploring ideas? Cameras? Images we take, images we find? How might we want to connect with experts out in the world–would we invite them to participate in blogging-invitationals? Would we want them to respond to our work? What is the role of loose dialogue and conversation, of let’s-talk-about-any-thoughts-we-have in the course? Do we want to link to our work in other courses? To our other online worlds? How do we also work in traditional modes? How do they intersect and influence one another? How much time can be devoted to learning how to use the tools, how to become comfortable with the practices? How much time do we devote to meta-practices, to reading and talking about what we’re doing online? How can we capitalize on the fact that we have the luxury of being together in class twice a week–do we devote that time to presentations, to discussion, to lecture, to feedback, to projects?

These are just some of the questions I have to ask before I pull up even the most basic course blog. Based on my answers, the course blog begins to take shape, each course demanding its own look and structure–

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The Irish seminar blog really focuses on collaboration and so has more of a group-blog feel to it than others; one of our goals is to think about how our community of mutual apprenticeships works–how to be engaged in a liberal arts college.

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A composition class balances between group and individual work, and so the unit plans are posted as we go, as we develop as thinkers and writers and see what next we need to learn and to practice.

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An arts writing class takes on a ‘zine-like, real-world look with multiple columns and choices as to what is posted where and why.

THE FIRST TWO-THREE WEEKS

We spend two-three weeks moving into the course material by examining our own voices, our learning goals and community, the demands of the discipline, and what it is we need to do and to learn in order for the course to “be a success.” I call this first part of the course Cracking Open the Course and the Imagination, in my creative writing classes; “Exploring the Course” in composition classes, something we do pre-blogging; Knowledge Trees in a first-year seminar on Ireland (the first part of this exploration is done online before the students even set foot on Middlebury’s campus).

I use a variety of techniques to examine the ways in which we’ll each enter this collaborative: personal narratives about our individual cultural contexts and learning histories, including digital storytelling, image-stories exploring personal relationships with the course content, and a deep-learning exercise.

In class we talk about how to participate in discussions and feedback-loops, how to help design the course, how to make it work for us as individuals. We talk about about collaboratives and about the purpose of a liberal arts education and how our course intersects with those goals. We talk about trust. About making mistakes. Asking dumb questions. Daring to ask dumb questions. About playful inquiry. We try to place our semester within a much bigger picture of our life journeys. We reflect on our blogs, we push one another to grow as learners and writers, we push ourselves. We might read Levy. Or Greene. Or Dewey and Wenger. We read each other. We always read each other. And we read deeply in our discipline.

Blogging enhances the undergraduate course experience, I believe, when we spend time laying a careful foundation for our work online and in class, thinking and talking about how and why connecting this way plays a fundamental role during the precious brief twelve weeks we have together. Because we rarely make our pedagogy visible, students are far too accustomed to going through the motions, to taking our word for it that our assignments have value, to completing work without thinking about how it fits into their lives. I can see the difference in the depth and authenticity of student work when I have taken the time to talk about the value of slow blogging, of slow learning compared to when I’ve been all in a rush to get to the facts and processes of the discipline, when I’ve thrown us into the course content without grounding it. Students who have come out of the slow-blogging classes have gone on to do some quite extraordinary, independent work–such as Lizi and Remy and Piya, work that transcends formal learning as they stand on the cusp of senior year, balanced between their school-years and their post-school lives. Just yesterday at a workshop for students thinking about blogging next semester from abroad, four seniors who had blogged their junior year experience abroad spoke eloquently about the benefits of slow-blogging, how it really helped them to make sense of and to deepen their experiences by taking the time to articulate their learning carefully, in writing and image and sometimes sound.

And so, I’ll keep trying to practice slow-blogging here and in my classes, while appreciating, too, the benefits to me of the quick post that my many blogging colleagues do so well and so often! It is the slow blogging, though, that I think our students need to practice with us, for they quite naturally know how to frame a quick post, pointing to what they’ve observed and commenting about it in passing.

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Students in Action on the Blog

I’m in Chicago right now, at the NITLE annual conference, where I’ve been invited to present on multi-media narrative in the liberal arts classroom, and yet I’m also in class, on the artswriting blog, mostly checking in on what they’re up to this weekend, and if I have time, I’ll post a little here and there and respond to what I read. It makes for a fluid, continuous relationship, and my students in some ways won’t even know I’m gone. One of the reasons for classroom blogging–extending the reach of the classroom.

But that’s not really what I want to write about…There are more interesting things afoot than that; indeed, a couple of noteworthy things are emerging on the blog right now: first, through Katie’s reference to this, bgblogging, blog, we’ve stepped into new territory–students reading their professors’ blogs–imagine–and finding what’s there interesting and relevant enough to point out to the entire class. We’ll see if any of the others pick up the thread (my students are not required to respond to any particular post–they respond when they have something to say). It makes me have to consider my students as part of my audience. Will that change some of what I say or how as I reflect on the experience of teaching them?

The other striking development is a small exchange between Alex and Julina about Julina’s Story without Words posting. First off, both students clearly understand that commenting is a form of conversation, and treat it as such, which a lot of people don’t do. Alex refers to previous comments and then moves beyond them to make a direct suggestion to the writer, Julina, saying:

I agree completely w/ what john and Donovan said -seeing the pictures first, then the words, and how smoothly the two fit together, both beautifully open-ended and specific in the way good poetry is (well, what i consider good poetry). I might be fun to play w/ putting different pictures to the poem after writing specifically for these pictures- it’s a choreography exercise the dance dept uses a lot, choreographing to one piece of music, then changing the music, while keeping the choreography complete. It can produce some interesting effects, give both the words and images new nuances that you hadn’t intended, but make the whole piece much richer. (But usually, honestly, I prefer the original)

A fine response in itself–and then Julina’s return comment makes my day:

Alex—

Thank you for your suggestion. I think that is a fascinating idea–choreographing words to images then images to those words. I may just try that. Also thank you all very much for responding to my pieces. I find talking about them extremely difficult– as though once I have produced them they become foreign and strange and incomprehensible in a way. Hearing other people discuss these little brainchildren is extremely insightful, and also very helpful. Thanks again,

Julina

Right there, in those few sentences between them, we see the whole reason for blogging in the classroom: these two students have formed a reciprocal apprenticeship (a la Levy), teaching one another without needing me at all (I didn’t even know about that exercise); and–Julina articulates why publishing is so crucial, publishing to an audience, who in responding thoughtfully, lets the writer know she isn’t just blowing into the wind, that her work matters, and why. She gets to re-see her own work through the eyes of the other, the reader. This is efficacy in action if I’ve ever seen it.

It’s in these small moments of students sharing and linking, and of fellow teachers out there, like Paula Petrik At George Mason University and Erik Feinblatt at FIT sharing their inspired, innovative work here on my blog that I know we’re on the right track.

Now, back to the conference…

Moving Into Digital Storytelling

It’s midterm and my students are working through their scripts as they prepare to make digital stories to embed on the blog–it’s interesting how this is the first crop I’ve had in class who actually know (or think they know) what a digital story is. And they are bored by them–“the clichéd mix of image/voiceover/soundtrack” just isn’t interesting –they see through the hoopla of the “new” way of writing a story.

Now that digital stories are no longer new, no longer intimidating, my students are being more critical, asking tough questions about how if we choose to use image and sound in our authoring on and for the Web, they have to do more than recreate the text. They have to do something other than write the same story, with illustrations and cool music.

Touché! Although we hear the Tarnation-type stories about kids and iMOVIE, mostly we watch glorified slide shows of the same old story. My students want more–and some of them are graduating to FinalCut and Premiere; some of them are interested in using FLASH or in playing around with other tools and dreams. They are questioning, doubting, and demanding. They sense what Michael Joyce points out in his essay “Forms of Future” in Rethinking Media Change:

“The emergence of a truly electronic narrative art form awaits the pooling of a communal genius, a gathering of cultural impulses, of vernacular technologies, and most importantly of common yearnings which can find neither a better representation nor a more satisfactory confirmation than what electronic media can offer…There is astonishing creativity everywhere but there has not as yet emerged any form which promises either widely popular or deeply artistic impact.”

The important thing here, I think, is not that students making digital stories are doing something new, but that they are showing a new openness to experimentation, to re-seeing form and voice, perspective and language through this kind of multi-media authoring. No longer am I urging my students to consider others kinds of authoring in addition to the traditional scholarly essay –they expect we’ll do a little multi-media authoring in my classes, but they want it to do their ideas justice. A year ago, many of my students were tentative, clumsy, even, with the tools–now they want to make them sing and to be used for good reason.

I think this bodes well for this set of digital stories. Yes,it’s true, as Héctor points out to me on a daily basis, we haven’t got a clue what we’re doing with the intersection of these tools–it’s all a mess, but I am delighted by the messes my students are making. They are pushing themselves to make sense of this online authoring. They are pushing me to articulate clearly my goals for this work. And then there’s the issue of time and training–I’ve had to back away from Premiere for the whole group (being a MAC user, I just learned how to use it myself and thus have to depend on Paul to set up a workshop, but he’s swamped, and so I am back to iMOVIE). They help me slow down and take stock, to ask if this is the best use of our time. And I return again and again with the response–yes, sometimes it is difficult to see the value of something we don’t fully understand, but there’s no getting around the fact that this work brings together our classroom community, forces us to get out of ruts of thinking and expression, and lets us be playful and creative.

And so I turn to some tutorial sites that will enable them to work efficiently, to accomplish at least some of their ideas in far too short a time (they need much more time than I can give them just to muck about with the tools):

Some good, helpful sites:

Photoshop tutorials

Free Pics

Apple’s Tips on Making iMOVIEs

Mac Tips and Tricks

Free Sample Plug-ins

The Unofficial iMOVIE FAQs

Advanced iMOVIE tips

Art Outside My Window

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No, Spiderman has not yet made an appearance at Middlebury nor have my students figured out how to scale the new-library walls; no, I’ve been receiving visits from soaring dancers this week as Project Bandaloop prepares for this weekend’s performances on the exterior of the new library as part of the celebration of its opening and the Clifford Symposium. The dancers smile as they twist and fly past my window, and I pull out my flippy phone and snap shots as I can, and then return to my computer, my books and my students, wondering if somehow I’ve chosen the wrong line of work–they are doing art and I’m not quite sure sometimes exactly what it is I’m doing…

Spending time these past couple of days with a hero of mine, Janet Murray, who is as warm and generous as she is brilliant and creative, and then listening to Siva Vaidhyanathan, has pushed me out of my own particular classroom story (fascinating as that may be to me) into the larger world of computer narrative and the culture of copyright. (The tension between the gifts, the stimulation of encountering the rest of the world via blogging and the teacher’s traditional experience of so often feeling locked into the demands of the particular classroom experience is another topic for a future blog post). And our own Héctor Vila had the pleasure of hearing his longstanding ideas and vision echoed by these groundbreakers. Exhilarating and exhausting couple of days. Much to think about and to try out in the classroom.

Indeed, the classroom, to be precise the Artswriting classroomwill benefit from what we’ve all taken in this week. I am struck nearly every day by how much more we imagine than we are yet able to deliver in this medium. I should be playing with imagery and sound here. I don’t like the way I write such long posts every time I sit down to the computer–ha– And I am forever making mistakes on the arts blog and cursing my weak Dreamweaver skills and lack of time to play around with Flickr and other applications that might well suit the kind of blogging my students are up to.

I need to tweak the art blog–adding a new couple of draft blogs (aptly entitled (fl)awZ as an interim place to post in-process writing for the students to respond to and revise before posting to awZ proper and yet also linking the draft blog prominently to the more finished version to enable those interested in our process to see it. Right now two of awZ’s internal blogs– Views & Reviews and Essays and Commentary are out of control spills. Drafts and revisions from fourteen students are thrown in here without much sense of organization.

A few students find the chaos absoutely exciting and liberating (can you tell, from their writing, which students these might be?), but most of them find it overwhelming. Of course some of what they are experiencing has to do with their desire for immediate gratification–the impatience we experience as things move ever faster (yup,the topic for another blog post–speed and expectations in the blogging classroom), but some of it is the fact that the nature of the blog is to create entries chronologically first, thematically as an aside. So–I think we’ve hit upon a solution with the new draft blogs for those two monsters. And the students are seeing the need to write better excerpts, better titles, to consider setting in place a rubric. They crave a bit of order, and are finding ways to accomplish it. I also think they will start responding to one another more, to engage in discussions, and to post spontaneously as they encounter art in the world.

Ah, we dreamed aloud this week of having a technology fellows program at Middlebury which would allow us to take a semester off to pursue some of this innovative application of technology in the classroom. I am falling behind…Bandaloop is falling past my window…time to get outside and watch the effect though I do love the intimacy of seeing the fragment, the up-close shot of one or two dancers. They are having such fun–laughing and grinning as they hang upside down, their heads inches from the unforgiving marble walls. They remind me to laugh, too, to PLAY with this medium if it’s the one I’m choosing as my means of expression, to be exuberant and serious all at once: to soar.

Frustrations…(when you see what should be possible…)

We’re into the second week of classes at Middlebury and my bold group of arts writers (those I have managed not to scare out of the class!) has embarked on the semester’s adventure with enthusiasm and some trepidation, I am certain. Frustrations rule at the moment–for me–because even with my intrepid crew of colleagues willing to help me move beyond my technology skill set, I cannot yet get the artswriting blog to do what it must do for the course: have five columns/categories running simultaneously on the homepage, much as columns on a newspaper would do, each listing excerpts from the previous ten postings from each category. Each category would actually be a separate blog with its own categories. And so, irony of ironies, the blogging teacher is teaching sans blog at the moment. Strange feeling indeed.

Just as my students should be connecting with each other both in and out of class–frequently–whenever each of them wishes to find others in the class through their writing– to create the essential webbing of our learning community, we are only coming together in class, twice a week. They have no access to one another’s work (other than through paper copies) and so are not able to connect slowly through sampling and reflecting and commenting and posting and then returning again and again to prior postings to see the movement, the growth. I want them to know each other as writers and thinkers in as sustained and deep a fashion as is possible in a twelve-week semester (during which they have many other demands on their time and interest), and to do that I have found the blog invaluable.

In a way this set-back forces me to look at classroom blogging in the face once again, to question my direction and the pedagogical underpinnings of the work, to re-evaluate why I need to go this far with the blog, for instance, by essentially running five blogs within one. It sends me back to my Blogtalk paper, testing my conclusions.

Already, several times outside of class, I have wanted to point to websites or to discussions about arts writing, something that I can certainly do using email, a flat, unsatisfactory means of connecting simultaneously to the students and to their work. Via email I can ensure that they will not miss out on observing some of the most interesting developments on the web, some of which I’ve written about in previous postings about Archinect’s blogging experiment and about the art collective, dispatx, coming out of Barcelona, for example (one of the organizers of which left me a thought-provoking comment a couple of weeks back questioning how far blogging should go–if we had hit the threshhold and were suffering from an overindulgence of blogging, a blogging surfeit, a glut, overkill) and others, such as Paul Klein’s new venture in Chicago, Artletter.com. Yes, I can point to those sites via email. What we lose without the blog is the ability to respond and reflect in an ongoing, fluid and connected manner through links and archives and multiple new postings. The conversation isn’t preserved as effectively and doesn’t enter the larger hypertext document of the blog as a whole.

And so, my missing the blog isn’t about an addict finding withdrawal a torture. it’s about being denied a powerful tool in my teaching set, and if I don’t get it back by the end of the week, I don’t know what I’m gonna do…

Arts Journalists on a Collective Blog

Arts Journal, which is using blogs quite effectively, has come up with a brilliant project–a 10-day topic-centered blog “exploring the future of BIG IDEAS in classical music”: Here’s the description by Douglas McLennan–

There was a time when great cities had multiple newspapers and culture was hashed out daily in the press, strongly-held opinions battling for the hearts and minds of readers. Today it’s rare for a city to have more than one or two outlets where culture can be publicly discussed, let alone prodded and pulled and challenged…

Our culture is the lesser for it, as critical opinions about art, music, theatre, and dance get squeezed, and public debates about culture in the print media grow fainter. That doesn’t mean there isn’t great writing about culture still to be found in print (there’s evidence of it every day in ArtsJournal). But the writing is one-way, and rarely do we see a good back-and-forth debate bubble up.

Now comes the internet, where a lively mob of voices has taken up discussions of culture, politics, and just about anything else you can think of. Daily, thousands of bloggers fire up their computers to register opinions, and one of the things that makes the best of them interesting is their willingness to engage in dialogues with their readers.

So what if we gathered up some of the best print critics and asked them to engage one another over an issue in a blog? Their opinions could be challenged, their ideas explained, and a lively debate might ensue.

That’s what we hope will happen over the next ten days in this “topic blog” exploring the future of Big Ideas in classical music. We’ve invited a dozen of the best American classical music critics:

Charles Ward of the Houston Chronicle
Scott Cantrell of the Dallas Morning News
Kyle Gann of the Village Voice
Justin Davidson of Newsday
John Rockwell of The New York Times
Andrew Druckenbrod of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Greg Sandow of The Wall Street Journal
Wynne Delacoma of the Chicago Sun-Times
John von Rhein of the Chicago Tribune
Kyle MacMillan of the Denver Post
Alex Ross of The New Yorker
Joshua Kosman of the San Francisco Chronicle

I’m all for this kind of dialogue. And it’s beautifully organized and posted on the blog. Two aspects of this dialogue I particularly like: one, that they’ve invited the public in to make comments (and some of these additions have thus far been as interesting as the journalists’ take on the topic; and two, that they plan to extend the conversation by concluding it with a f2f discussion at the Aspen Arts Festival. Will there be bloggers in the audience? Will it be live-blogged?–they’ll have to be mobloggers, I believe from the sounds of the tent locale.

This is just the kind of experiment I want to carry out on my new Arts Writing Course Blog–right now it’s bare bones, but I plan to make it look and act more like a ‘zine than the previous version did. Nice work by Douglas McLennan and crew!

Writing about Food as Art

–Making progress on the >WP 200 Writing Across the Artscourse. I’m continuing to grow my ideas about how this course might best serve my students.

For one, I would like to follow up on my informal invitation to Roland Tanglao at Blogtalk about participating in the blog discussions. Roland is a food writer, ( and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading his food blog, VanEat,), but how many people around here would consider food prep one of our arts? Coincidentally, I just read on Middlebury’s fall calendar that on October 22 there’s to be a lecture given on the history of French cuisine–aha!–Roland could fit in brilliantly! It might be interesting, too, to get Amy who writes for Lonely Planet and Williams Sonoma cookbooks to respond to the kids interested in food plus travel writing…am I getting too far awy from the fine and performance arts??

But food writing– how could I forget that our own young creative writing teacher, Stacie Cassarino, cooked up a storm in one of the big-deal NYC Italian kitchens, or that gorgeous little exchange Jim Grant and Letitia Williams had about cooking and food passions on the course blog a couple of years ago? Artswriting alum, Lia Lopez, has done some serious food writing, both in her work for the course and during an internship at Eating Well Magazine last winter, and truth be known I’ve been known to write a food review here and there myself.

So let’s by all means add food writing to the list of possible arts for the group to explore.