ELI 2007 Presentation: The World Is Flat: Using Blogs and Skype to Create Communities of Learners and Cultural Literacy

Here is the text/slide/podcast version of our January 22 talk. ( I’ll also post my recent Tufts talk within the next few days.)

Update (Saturday the 10th): The blog is back up and running with commenting reinstated!

To View Larger Versions of the Slides, click on them–you’ll be sent to their home at Flickr.com.

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Welcome. We’re delighted to share our experiences at two small liberal arts colleges with blogs and Skype in writing, literature and language classrooms. I’m pleased to introduce you to these two remarkable students whose work exemplifies the very best of liberal education in the 21st century within quite traditional institutions. I’m Barbara Ganley, a lecturer in the Writing Program and English Department at Middlebury College, and since the fall of 2001 I have been using blogs and more recently digital storytelling, multimedia essays, podcasting, wikis etc, in my classes. But I’m not a techie. I still don’t know how to use the remote correctly at my house.

But I’ve had to get over myself. My fears. (My loathing.) The shifts occurring so dramatically in the world outside our institutions and the changes in the realities of our students’ lives — what Julie Evans earlier today pointed to as student attitudes and use of technology– pulled me from the complacent slumber of a Rip Van Winkle in a 19th-century classroom (something even Time Magazine gets, pointing to school as the only place a time traveler from a hundred years ago would find virtually unchanged).

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Preparing for Educause’s ELI Conference in Atlanta

Tomorrow I head to Atlanta with one of my former students, Lizi, to co-present with Barbara Sawhill and one of her students, Evie:

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Apart from looking forward, in particular, to watching these two stellar blogging students interact with our audience, I am hoping to catch up with blogging buddies and to attend several talks, including Chris Dede’s, my good friend, Bryan Alexander’s, the preconference workshop by Joann Martyn of Carleton College on using visual media to teach critical thinking, and Cyprien Lomas’ session on Teaching and Learning with Ambient Mobile Technologies.

It’s been interesting to prepare for the conference from Oberlin and Middlebury–I’m not sure we really nailed the best way to share our evolving talks, (email, audio files to give the group a sense of the voice and narrative such as Barbara has done with her first draft–especially important since we do not all know one another–, blogs to post thoughts and elicit feedback as Evie has done, Skype for in-the-moment consults, and Flickr for sharing and commenting on draft slides ), but I rather liked pulling from a variety of platforms to get a pretty dynamic talk ready to roll out. We’ll see how it comes together… and I’ll post the talk once it’s finalized.

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.

Blogging and Place… Three Recent Contacts and Implications for the Classroom

smallerlydia.jpg A Willa Cather-esque Scene (think My Antonia) of Lydia, my husband’s grandmother, who traveled out to the Dakotas, alone, as a would-be homesteader around the turn of the 20th century, just to be told women couldn’t claim land. Undeterred, she got a job with the telegraph company and eventually married a homesteader.

As I finish up a couple of talks for next week’s visit with Lanny Arvan and his Learning Commons and Gail Hawisher and her students at The University of Illinois, I keep thinking about the place itself. That part of the country’s center. How flat it is out there–flatter, perhaps, than anywhere I’ve ever been (Lanny has told me that it is flatter than Wisconsin, my husband’s home state–and that’s as flat as it gets for me, New Englander that I am). I find myself both excited and apprehensive about that fact and how it will make me feel.

Such thoughts sent me back into my Willa Cather, to the opening description in O Pioneers!:

“One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away. A mist of fine snowflakes was curling and eddying about the cluster of low drab buildings huddled on the gray prairie, under a gray sky. The dwelling-houses were set about haphazard on the tough prairie sod; some of them looked as if they had been moved in overnight, and others as if they were straying off by themselves, headed straight for the open plain. . .”

It sent me digging around for this photo I wrested from my husband a long time ago, a photo that speaks to me with its smiling Lydia amid the emptiness, her companion looking off –where?–and the shadow of the photographer. The whiff of stories. The pile of lumber. History. Railroads. Migrations. The vast flat plain and sky–flat, empty, flat. No Rockies backing it, ending it–just the horizon. And so I’ve selected a window seat on the plane…

And it makes me think about my camera and whether I should try to get out into the country. It makes me think about Nancy White and the way she travels in Australia, pulling photos she takes that day in whatever place she is in, into her Flickr-based talks. How aware she is of her surroundings and how they have an impact on what she blogs (she even has a blog just for the trip) and on her talks. And it makes me think of my former student and friend from San Antonio who has moved to Jerusalem with her new, French husband and what a mosaic of places inhabit her being and how her connection to so many perhaps contributes to her gifts as keenly perceptive and observant and sensitive writer. And it pulls me to Steven Berlin Johnson’s new website, outside.in, because it’s a wonderful idea–to gather the stories, the concerns, the talk of a place, the geography of a place ,

“So what is outside.in? In a phrase, it’s an attempt to collectively build the geographic Web, neighborhood by neighborhood.” from SBJ’s description

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To get us involved in our communities, get us talking, sharing, thinking aloud and together– This is what I am trying to do in a way with my students and blogging together on Motherblogs as well as alone–to share, collect, build and consider the learning going on in our classroom and to connect it to the places and events and people around us. It is essential for students to think about the place, the actual geographic place they are in at college, just as it is essential, as Bill Shutkin of The Orton Family Foundation said the other morning on his Vermont PublicRadio commentary, for a community to think about how a school defines its town:

A school is a community’s premier symbol of its own survival, of its ability to reproduce itself over time as a living, breathing, thinking place. This is why a community that loses its school often feels it’s also lost its identity. It’s like losing a vital organ or worse, its soul.

To see a school disappear is, for a moment, to see a community’s life flash before its eyes.”

To that end, my group of first-semester first-year students will research and write about our Vermont county in the next course unit. As part of the research, I’ve asked them to get outside and observe the place, and they’ll take pictures and record the ambient sounds. Perhaps we should set up an outside.in account… as a gathering spot for our materials. I like the idea of such a site better than a wiki because the fluidity of a blog, the storyness of it as it unfolds, post to post, feels like people talking, breathing, interacting, each post somehow preparing the way for the next and linking back to the past posts. As long as people read one another’s contributions, that is. (And that’s a real issue in all human communication–listening–if only those in power would listen to one another and to those without power…)

Awareness of place and discovering it more deeply by writing about it drives, in part, the Blogging the World project, as students on study abroad programs learn as much just being absolutely alert in a place as they do in books and classrooms. Imagine what happens when learners connect the three… Read, for instance, the remarkable blogging of Emily on Paris (she’s blogged her hometown, New Orleans, and her school home in Vermont as well), how being in those places conjures up the realities, both harsh and wondrous, of history and culture, of people and events and literature and self. twoshadows.jpg
Read what happens to a professor and his students (all international students grappling with what it means to go to school in the US, in Vermont) when they read and respond to her blog in light of what they are reading and wrestling with in their course and experience as new students in a foreign place.

And away from the real place, here, Vermont, where as close as I get to Illinois is our neighbor’s field, at least in mind’s eye, cornfield.jpgI move through the books into that other place, to reconnect to memories of the Great Plains, memories quite vivid, but of a young girl on the coast of Maine, reading, reading hammockmaine.jpg of other places, of that other place:

“I wanted to walk straight on through the red grass and over the edge of the world, which could not be very far away. The light air about me told me that the world ended here: only the ground and sun and sky were left, and if one went a little farther there would be only sun and sky, and one would float off into them, like the tawny hawks which sailed over our heads making slow shadows on the grass.” Willa Cather My Antonia

If I hadn’t gotten myself entangled in the threads of this blogpost, would I have pulled Willa Cather from my shelf? Would I have rooted around for the photo of Lydia and the ones of the cornfield and the hammock and the shadows? Would I have thought about the correspondances between what I read on Emily’s blog and what my old student must be experiencing in her new home? Would I have slowed down enough to think along these threads when a million other things clamor for my attention? I don’t think so. Blogging this post has pulled me into my most alert, alive sensory thinking and remembering, and as I drive home tonight, I’ll keep the radio off, look at the last leaves on the trees, breathe in the cold wet October, try to hear the geese pouring South and feel this place.
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Creativity and Discomfort in the Classroom and on the Web

These past couple of days I have been torn between writing a quick post in response to the NYT article about students emailing their professors inappropriately, or pointing out (as usual) the ways in which online relationships are having a positive impact on my students’ learning experiences, or to highlighting posts from around the blogsphere about classroooms and creativity. The more I think about it, the more I have to write about them together — the tensions arising in email and classroom behavior are whiffs of actual positive if currently painful shifts in classroom dynamics and learning environments, and point to opportunities that if we keep our heads, are profoundly creative. And so, I admit, I rather enjoy the growing pains.

The letters appearing in last Thursday’s NYT in response to the article outlining some of the most extreme cases of students emailing their professors remind me of conversations I have had with my sister-in-law epidemiologist/doctor about how students sometimes jump onto listservs and discussion forums with world authorities on, say, malaria and ask the most basic–read that dumb– questions that could be answered by picking up any textbook. There’s little sensitivity on the part of these students to the context, the level, the chemistry of the conversation. It’s somewhat the same thing when we sit in the airport just to have the person sitting across from us dive into a cellphone conversation loudly and publicly. It chafes. It irks. And it’s fascinating if you think about it, how people pull up and over them a scrim of insulation even in public, online or not, that detaches them from old norms of etiquette. Yes, we have a whole new generation in our midst that expects immediate answers, click-and-receive right NOW consumerism. So what do we as educators do about this? Tear our hair out? Complain? Distance ourselves from such behavior by barricading ourselves within our own righteousness?

On the one hand there are teachers who somehow seem to expect that students just naturally should know something about email etiquette and the parameters guiding student-professor relationships. I was relieved, then, to see that most of the letter writers got right to the heart of the matter–if you choose to use email as a means of communication with your students, you have to set guidelines, just as you do phone calls, just as you do classroom etiquette. Some students may choose to ignore those rules–that happens. It always has happened. When I was a first-year high school teacher many years ago, I remember having a couple of fist fights break out in my rural classroom; I remember a student swearing at me to my face in front of the class. I remember a parent threatening to sue me if I didn’t pass her son in tenth-grade English. It happened. It was awful, but after a while, I figured out how to turn those low spots into learning moments for the entire class, and really interesting things started to happen for us all as a result–that’s what we’re here for, yes, to get them to think creatively and critically about themselves and the world? No matter our discipline, no matter the age group?

And then there’s the letter posted by an adjunct professor from Brooklyn College:

While I agree that e-mail is a double-edged sword, there are instances where it can be very helpful.

One of my students last semester had oral surgery that left his jaw wired shut for much of the semester. During that time, the class was reading Plato’s “Republic,” and my silenced student was bursting at the seams to express his reactions to the text. He sent me a long, thoughtful e-mail message, and I encouraged him to continue e-mailing his comments (to which I responded) for as long as he could not open his mouth in class.

The resulting e-mail exchange proved very enriching and rewarding for me as a teacher and, I presume, for this young man as a student.

A thoughtful response by someone who is a caring teacher through and through. But I also felt, what a waste–the entire class could have benefitted from the written exchange between these two–a blog, a blog, I yelled at the article! That lovely learning moment would have rippled out and potentially touched all the other learning moments of the course and all of the learners through linking, connecting and transparency, through inviting the conversation instead of transacting the simple exchange. This kind of conversation creates opportunities for deep and appropriate connections between learners and teachers. Take a look at my previous posting here, for example, and the comments it generated. Of the five comments thus far, one is from a professor-blogging cohort in Ohio, one is from an artist in Barcelona, and three are from my students blolgging from abroad. Look at how these twenty-year-olds are taking their current learning experiences in other classes and out in the world and applying them to what I bring up in my posting! If we kept to the old distances between professor and student, would Piya be deepening her understanding of Barthes by proposing how my post might reflect the theory? Would she even read what I write? Would poet Oliver extend and push her thinking if not on the blog? The Brooklyn prof and his student conversing on a blog could have sparked classroom discussions that would have taken all the students much further in their inquiry than they can go without these kinds of written exchanges. The teacher can at once delineate the appropriate kinds of interactions within the learning group while creating a dynamic, resilient learning collaborative where the students become far more interested in what they are learning than in any grade. My students call me Barbara. They email me. They do not abuse the privilege–they are incredibly respectful of my time, space and role. They push me on my blog–respectfully, fondly. And it isn’t about death of the teacher–it is about the birth of a new kind of teacher. I am still here setting up situations, designing assignments, asking questions, giving feedback–but so are the students. I spend time with them thinking about voice, audience, writing situation. Every discipline has its own demands, and our students need opportunities to learn and to influence the discourse, both informal and formal.

…Which brings me to the notion of the age of the classroom as studio, (as brought up byDave Warlick citing Richard Florida’s talk about the creativity age: “The classroom should look more like a studio.”). Our students are experiencing the tension between old classroom models and new, between the time spent together and the time online, between the teacher as authority and the teacher as guide, between learning as individual’s endeavor and as social activity. I see this tension as marvelously fruitful for a teacher: on the one hand we still have the luxury of sitting in classrooms, talking with one another about the subject of inquiry, learning through discussion, through example, through demonstration and, yes, through the occasional lecture. But my students–even those initially anti-blog–are already seeing the benefits of the blog: they are being inspired by one another’s writing; they take comfort in reading reflections from their classmates that match their own misgivings; they see their own growth from draft to draft right there on the blog; they are giving and getting thoughtful, meaningful feedback. Instead of speeding up the inquiry, the blog is throwing them deeper into each assignment, asking them to think and write and respond with care. They know they are being read by artists from dispatx, some even getting feedback and links at this early stage. They are learning from one another, from me, from experts, and–from the emerging learning expereince itself. Pretty remarkable in a couple of weeks.

And then there are my world bloggers who continue to surprise and delight me with their observations and revelations– Lizi is discovering precisely why we have study abroad programs at all:

In an essay entitled “Compression Wood,” Franklin Burroughs says of language:”But when you are using it all the time, talking to yourself even when you are trying to listen to somebody else, language doesn’t seem revolutionary at all. It seems like self-generated static.” Russian, hard as it may be, turns conversations and words alive again. My fear of speaking infuses the revolution back into language. The tool turns tempting again.

And if it is true that language does determine thought, and that the staleness of language prevents the expression of new perceptions, then the resurrection of language must yield fresh, if not new, thoughts.

Being abroad has renewed my tools–place, language, thought. I feel like Tolstoy must have felt as he fled his wife dressed in peasant clothes: free.”

That she can and would articulate such a moment means to me that she is deeply engaged in her learning and reveling in the experience.

Lizi in Siberia and Amanda, who has recently started blogging from Scotland are pushing one another blog-to-blog to write honestly and openly, as well as providing comfort and encouragement when things get rough. They are living the experience creatively. Jean Burgess (who, by the way, keeps an absolute must-read blog) has a recent post on dispersed creativity which speaks to what I think it is that my students abroad are actually doing, albeit inadevertently (unlike the deliberate work of an artistic collaborative such as dispatx) when she quotes Fibreculture Journal: “Distributed aesthetics, then, concerns experiences that are sensed, lived and produced in more than one place and time. ”

What we teachers feel as upheaval in these new fluid classrooms is learning how to work with distributed aesthetics as well as the safe, predictable deliverable goods of the syllabus, the text, the classroom rules. It’s bumpy, but seeing what my students here have already accomplished in two weeks and across the globe over lonely months as far as opening to their imaginations, to one another, and to learning–it’s why I’m in this work.

Blogging Across Languages? Multilingual Blogging? Multiple Single-Language Blogs?

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As we prepare for the fall’s Blogging the World project, interesting questions about writing across languages are starting to swirl about on the students’ opening posts. Grappling with the to blog-in-English or not-to-blog-in-English question shows how they are thinking about the relationship between language and culture, language and self. By extension, they are confronting the reality of being American in the wider world. Indeed, already they have introduced one of the fundamental questions for the project–how language affects experience.

Responding to my post on blogging in Argentina, Zoey, already in Germany, expresses some of the same internet cafe disorientation I did in Argentina. She writes:

Barbara, I am lost somewhere in Berlin and for the first time have accessed the internet. It was very comforting to read your post and understand the unfamiliarity with computers and your surroundings abroad. A small detail, the Z and the Y have switched places on my keyboard ahhhhh!!
I am using the internet at a cafe and all the internet users are glaring at the screens with such desperation that I am afraid one man might actualy try to climb on in.
As you said, this project is definitely going to force me to reflect on my trip…

That reading my post comforted her speaks to one of the potential benefits of this group blog experiment–that collaborative blogging across study-abroad experiences enhances the individual student’s experience by bringing along a community–not the home community but a virtual, on-the-road community.

Lizi who is immersed in Russian Summer School, in a thought-provoking post, explores the impact on self of switching languages, of becoming hyper-aware of language, writing:

We are speaking Russian, but our thoughts and are humor are directly translated from English. We are not saying things that would be interesting (or understandable) to Russians. But I am thinking of language itself differently. In this environment our expressible thoughts are so simplified that they are, I think, more honest. Without knowing the inner workings of the Russian language, and incapable of differentiating layers of meaning, we are forced into bluntness. We don�t know how to manipulate our appearances through language yet. We are exposed, and it may be why, during most of my conversations, I am either extremely agitated or extremely grateful. I read other students, and myself, much more easily.

My friend told me (only half jokingly I think) that we are better friends in Russian than in English. We do laugh more now. We are all living the exact same way here. Thinking the same things about the same people, and expressing our thoughts with the same words that we studied together the night before. Is it a surprise that suddenly everyone feels strangely connected? We have no room to become individuals.

How many twenty-year-olds are putting into words such experiences? This isn’t your how-many-bars-I’ve-visited-this-week kind of students travel blogging. For my money, this blogging experiment has already reaped significant benefits if the students find themselves trying to communicate the complexities of the experience moving between languages and cultures.

Piya, who has blogged from India, worries about what blogging in English will do to her experience in Italy, pointing out that her goal is to become fluent in Italian:

There is also the language component. I am traveling to Florence with a supposedly specific goal in mind; to become fluent in Italian. Will blogging in English interfere with this process? Unlike my journey to India, which was a mere three weeks, I will be living in Italy for six months, and not just reporting people�s stories but attempting to become a part of them and make them my own. Is it more difficult to evaluate or perhaps critique a culture and its people when you�re trying so desperately to become a part of it?

I found that as my India blog progressed there was a pattern in who was reading and commenting on my writing. Of course my close friends, family and professors were a crucial component, but another community formed; that of the Indian Diaspora. It will be fascinating, and of course, nerve-wracking in the next six months to see who, if any, will be able to relate and respond.

Another fact remains. In India I was blogging alone. I was not part of a larger community of writers and bloggers and I got used to the solitude, actually enjoyed it. In this situation I will be blogging amongst fourteen other students sharing their own international experiences. And I am sure that our writing will clash, collide, mesh, and simultaneously take on their own and unique character. But will I be able to adjust to a community again or will I be pining for my privacy, my own piece of space?

Already, before the project officially launches, these students give us a fascinating glimpse into the educational impact of the study abroad experience. Already, blogging is pushing them to consider and to communicate to a readership the often discomfitting sensations of facing the unknown, the Other. I’ll be interested to see if bloggers from their host countries will discover them and engage them in discussion about the experience of being an American living in their culture.

That they are all thinking about the impact of blogging in English and whether they should blog at least part of the time in Italian, Spanish, German, Portuguese sent me off into the blogosphere to see what multilingual bloggers were doing. Last summer’s Blogtalk2 introduced me to a number of European bloggers choosing to blog in English or to keep multiple, language-specific blogs, Ton Zylstra,for example, a Dutch blogger blogging in English, or Martin Roell, a blogger from Luxembourg with multiple blogs, some in English, some in German. I went back to read Stephanie Booth’s French/English blog out of Switzerland, Climb to the Stars, and her post from a year ago about how the English-speaking blogosphere was missing the uproar among French bloggers. She blogs in both languages, interchangeably on the same blog, quite successfully. I can see some of the students choosing to do this–each post aimed at a particular subset of readers according to the language selected. Will they feel as though they have whiplash as they shift languages?

Hector Vila, who is now blogging exclusively on the collaborative Future Communities Blog coming out of his fall 2004 first-year seminar at Middlebury, (which, btw, I believe is the only blog out there that has successfully pushed course blogging beyond the semester, taking his fourteen students on a livelong learning adventure–see Emily’s inspired ongoing blogging, for example) has posted a fascinating bi-lingual entry in preparation for his trip to Argentina with two of the students from that course. He moves between Spanish and English fluidly, elegantly, and in such a way that readers without Spanish (i.e.Yours Truly) can make sense of the Spanish excerpts. He, too explores the meaning of moving between cultures, in his case as an exile:

Like Callao, I have been lost though I’ve existed in mainstream American culture; but following the actor, H�ctor Vila is a private self known only by one. The Spanish H�ctor Vila is unknown to those I know in the United States–it is nebulous to me as well. Given the personality of the Argentinean and Latin American history, this project is part of a long and arduous journey I’ve undertaken to find my way back to this exotic and romantic culture.

�Puedo crear? therefore extends itself in me: can I recreate myself, both as partially American and partially Argentinean? How do I reconcile both in the world marked by globalization? Am I a hybrid, as so many exiles have become? And can the exile enter society as an organic intellectual, contributing from a perspective that is unique, different, and often times challenging to the status quo? Will the future look like it does in Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46, where some are allowed “in,” others are automatically on the margins, and the language is a stew of cultures that have effectively lost their identities, Chinese, Americans, the Spanish?

These are the kinds of blogposts I hope the students read, consider and respond to in their own blogging–will their experience in some small way echo his? Will they feel marginalized within the host culture? How will being an American have an impact on the study abroad year?

As I venture further out into the blogosphere, I’ve come across such posts as this one from Loic Le Muer blog entitled, “Four options to blog multilingual… or remain local” and a lively discussion threading through the comments weighing in on the merits of multilingual blogging.

Questions of audience, of local concerns versus global, will arise, I am certain, as the blogging-the-world project moves along. They are wondering if anyone beyond the project parameters will read the blogs and join the discussion–pre-game jitters?

New blogs/Old blogs

Now that I have returned from the internet cafes of South America to my quiet computing space of home and office, it is much easier to reflect and consider and ponder and let ideas percolate according to Slow Food”-esque principles. Blogging out there on the fly, dashing off the street and into the internet cafe made posting both easier and harder–easier, because I just let the words write themselves. Time pressed, and I wasn’t willing to sit there digging into other blogs, or to interrupt a post by walking around and doing something else for a while. Nope. I just sat down and let that baby spin itself out in no time. I didn’t feel as though I needed to link carefully or reach out too far to see what others were thinking about the topic. I just wrote what I was experiencing and thinking right then.

Now that I’m back and have the leisure to come and go from my computer at will, I feel not the pressure of time, but of depth, of substance, of needing to have something worthwhile to offer the blog (and its readers). It means I’m thinking about how I might link to the interesting bits I’ve been reading (such as Bryan’s Dracula Blogged or Seb Pacquet’s link to a terrific post by Lee Bryant from back in January or <a href=”http://www.hyperorg.com/blogger/mtarchive/004153.html”Dave Weinberger’s NECC keynote, notes to which on his blog include:

So, how do we teach our kids? Do we cram their heads full of content and then test them on it? As individuals? Do we imply ambiguity is a failure? Do we insist on being right? Or do we say that knowledge is an unending conversation? Do we teach children to seek ambiguity and love difference?”

or Jyrie Engstrom’s talk on social networks or Mary Ellen’s reflection on the backchanneling at SSAW), or how I might allude to the fledgling conversation my students have just started over on the creative writing blog (yes, the students are really starting to step back onto the blog even though school is out, the course is over and our community dispersed to the four corners of the earth) or to the new blogging-the-world project for the fall that is starting to take shape (the operative word being “starting”–it will be some weeks before the blog is really chugging along). In other words, I am thinking about the bigger conversation more than about my own experience. And of course, it’s impossible to keep up or even to catch up, but pulling in just this smattering of thinking swirling about blogs I read is incredibly thought-provoking and stimulating.

What’s the upshot? Well, for this fall’s blogging-in-the-world group, it means (or I think it means) that it will be easy to write the experience (the journal kind of post) but hard to engage in the discussion that asks for more than a simple rat-a-tat-tat of off-the-cuff responses. The student bloggers will have to figure out how to find the time to do more than report. Piya was lucky to have so many people (professors, peers, family, readers from the Indian diaspora) reading along, commenting, and even questioning her responses and conclusions (people are still leaving comments although her latest entry was posted in February). Will the students want to pull out of living in another language enough to converse in English about the ways in which their experiences across cultures and continents can be enhanced through this kind of collaboration, this dialogue? Will they have the patience? Or like much of the travel blogging I see out there, will the blogs turn into diary entries for the readers at home with little deep exploration?

And then there’s the whole question of my involvement in the group blog–do I stay largely silent the way I do on my course blogs once the conversation gets rolling, or do I have a role to play by throwing questions to them from the home space?