Betwitx and Between: Reflections on Northern Voice 2009

forgetfulness
As the months slip between me and my many years within the safe (?) confines of higher ed, it is tempting to forget what it was like to work for change from within the system. Honorable and important, frustrating work. I applaud the brave souls who continue to show deep patience and maintain faith that they can bring sense to the Academy. By sense I mean a spirit of openness, sharing, collaboration, innovation, and creativity (i.e.learning as discovery); a rejection of the territoriality and power struggles and entrenched mediocrity that result from fear and insecure ego and lack of trust & lack of an atmosphere where taking intellectual and creative risks is encouraged. By sense I mean rejecting this reality: “the systemic bias for continuity creates tolerance for the substandard.” —Clay Shirky Here Comes Everybody— By sense I mean taking a long hard long at what Ivan Illich asserted in Deschooling Society: ” The university graduate has been schooled for selective service among the rich of the world.” (p.34)

I should be in solidarity with these colleagues and mentors still within the system. Especially now, a time of enormous possibility if we seize the chances offered by the current chaos–a time for insisting on positive change by creating change wherever we are.

morning figments

I thought I was, in a short presentation created as one of the agent provocateurs enlisted by D’Arcy Norman, Scott Leslie and Brian Lamb to kick things off at WordCampEd, the day before Northern Voice, a conference I have wanted to attend since before it was in existence:

As those days unfolded, I found myself rankled by the thought of these brilliant people doing brilliant work in service of the petty fiefdoms of classroom, department, discipline, university. Actually, I was furious. And shocked at myself. I struggled to be useful with my contributions, to find common ground, but eventually, by the end of conference, I pretty much shut up altogether. Not helpful. Disconcerting. Weird.

Out of sync. Betwixt and between. And remained there.

Loath as I am to admit it, inside the Academy, I was a tyrant of my own petty fiefdom. Even though I embraced collaboration, had the students help me to create syllabus and grades, had them blog not only among themselves but in and with the rest of the world, I still ruled. They listened, not because they did so from true free choice, but because it was all part of the deal to get through college. They were nice, always polite and, yes, obedient. And because of the time limits, we never got beneath the skin of much of anything. And yet I receive email after email from them or contacts on Facebook, once they have graduated, sometimes a decade after graduating, telling me how real that classroom experience had been compared to much of the rest of college, which has now fuzzed out in memory. But I never really had to prove anything, to push past the easy to the really messy, really challenging spaces between things, between people, between cultures. I failed.

Am I experiencing a case of “You can’t go home again?”

into the morning

Slow learner that I am , I also waded into the combustible terrain of the spaces between online/offline during the session I shared with my fabulous co-conspirators, Nancy White and Laura Blankenship.

3303091828_e4f674a587 (Laura, Nancy, & bg by D’Arcy Norman)

Laura and I made short videos, Nancy had people do a co-drawing exercise, and in 40 minutes, all we did was open up Pandora’s box. I struggled to express how feeling more “real” in either off or online space wasn’t the point, but that in the spaces between, the spaces where, off-kilter, we can, as one person said, be conscious of what we’re doing in both, there we can weave together the best of both as we try to work towards better worlds. (See? Still struggling for clear expression.) I came away from our session disappointed, much as I often did after teaching. The debrief with Nancy, Sue and Laura grappled with our shortcomings and the rich terrain we had taken first steps onto–that was a great conversation–and other fine moments threaded through the conference (the keynotes; drawing with Nancy; the short time I had with the incomparable injenuity; seeing cogdog, Leslie, Brian, D’Arcy, Scott, Keira et al.) But I couldn’t wait to get to Idaho and back to work helping rural towns, through storytelling, find within themselves the roots of positive transformation.

not even spring

Then I read Jim Groom’s recent-ish post (He writes so much so often that I don’t even know how to situate recent with him) about “intimate alienation”, in part inspired by a comment Brian Lamb had tweeted during our NV session; “@cogdog said his online life felt more real than physical one, people laughed. But that’s not crazy. ‘Real’ life is often mediated bullshit”, and the conversation it spawned between him and Chris Lott. Yes! Intimate Alienation–that’s it. Reading their back-and-forth, I felt the same unease come over me: I had wanted to argue with Alan when he made that comment, and with Brian after his strong tweet. Precisely because life offline is often “mediated bullshit,” shouldn’t we work against that? Isn’t that what we mean by working towards better worlds? Are we giving up on our neighborhoods, our neighbors, our towns? Do we continue the flight from the broken down physical world–this time,not for the suburbs,but for the cyburbs where we find and build community in our own image, where it is easier, and more natural, often, to have much deeper conversations than when we meet in the grocery store, in the coffeeshop, on the playing field, in the office. (More like meeting at a bar?) I am concerned that we won’t wade right into those physical communities, bringing with us the conversations and innovations from our online interactions to make better worlds in our towns and cities. (One reason slow-blogging Barbara is now slower-blogging Barbara–I’m putting more time and effort into physical communities these days.)

And yet there I was at Northern Voice, during a rare opportunity to connect offline with online friends, and I had little to say. Some irony.

To quote the Reverend:

“This idea of alienation might be understood as increasingly more relevant during our moment based on the growing number of people who seem cut-off from the “real world” given the massive amounts of time spent physically alone in public while communing through a computer. A reality that has been woven into just about every facet of modern life from work and education to even more intimate relationships like family, friends, and one’s love life. They are all increasingly mediated by devices, i.e. a computer, the internet, mobile phones, applications, websites, social networks, etc., and what we have emerging is a kind of invisible, multi-layered constellation of things that bring people into real and intimate relationships, but are at the same time premised upon an irrepressible faith in objects: their perfection, increased performance, speed, mobility, ubiquity, etc.”

And then Chris :

“I find solace in the fact that living and creating at the highest levels, which is what finally most of us are really talking about, has always been a marginalized, sometimes-subversive, niche with a vortex of radical tension between individuals and their networks.”

(I should have known that these two would help me say what I’m trying to say. Next time I think I’ll just save lots of words and link directly to them.)

wintergrip

So, yes, it was a valuable conference, probably the best I’ve been to in a long time because it has made me lose sleep over my inconsistencies and failures as it rekindles my determination to keep pushing at the walls, to find solace in my feeble attempts at moving the conversation past the divides, to dance in the in-between.

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Flickr, I blame you…

Dear Flickr,

It’s all your fault. I didn’t grow up taking pictures. One brother kept a brownie strapped around his neck on our trips, snapping away at who knew what (I don’t remember his photos or if he ever shared them, but I do remember his flash going off in my face…); my mother had a Minolta that she and my other brother commanded, he growing into a photographer of elegant moody abstractions, she capturing the family in all its boisterous moments. My dad and I just looked. And I jotted things down in a notebook.

last sunset in january

Okay, yeah, I majored in art history. That choice had as much to do with it being the only major in my college in those days that pushed students to look at culture from a variety of perspectives: history, literature, religion, science, political science, anthropology. That I loved looking at pictures never struck me as anything special–it was a way to see how artists saw the world, and artists saw the world. (Besides, looking at slides in class and hanging out in museums as homework sure beat listening to famous teachers drone on in lecture and reading indecipherable textbooks or having beloved novels and poems shredded by this theory or that.)

from window to window, Wiscassett Maine

So why do I find myself as drawn to my camera as to my pen? It’s you Flickr, it’s you.

Interested as I am in transformation and transition, in creativity and culture, I wonder about this shift. Am I an example of the fact that “our historical moment is experiencing a pictorial turn” ? (W.T.J. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation, p.13) Evidence of Michel de Certeau’s assertion: “From TV to newspapers, from advertising to all sorts of mercantile epiphanies, our society is characterized by a cancerous growth of vision, measuring everything by its ability to show or be shown and transmuting communication into a visual journey” ? (The Practice of Everyday Life, p.xxi) Am I incapable of paying more attention to something than the seconds focussed before snapping the photo? Am I using images because “they are no longer just representations or interpreters of human actions[?] They have become central to every activity that connects humans to each other and to technology–mediators, progenitors, interfaces–as much reference points for information and knowledge as visualizations of human creativity.” (Ron Burnett How Images Think, p. xiv) Am I part of the tide of vernacular creativity?

And yet I am not a collector of moments. Of human moments, that is. I’m not trying to convey directly what I think & observe & experience. I work in metaphor. I am not a chronicler of much of anything except the detail of light and color and bits of things. I’m a fragmenteur. Funny for a slow (long-post) blogger.

from the hibiscus

But it’s true, Flickr, I find myself at the screens of groups such as this and this more than blogs, or books. This is nuts. You’re my first stop each morning, before email, Twitter, blogs, Facebook. I comb your riches for clues about taking better pictures. I read the conversations, leave comments, check out the tips, and wander around sideways, discursively, looking looking. I check to see if Alan has written any more Flickr posts, bits and pieces of his everyday musings. I look to see if Bryan has fresh bread on his counter. What Jen’s kids are up to today. What new drawing Nancy has posted. What D’Arcy has seen from his bike. I haven’t even met Jen or D’Arcy. I “see” all these folks on Twitter and blogs, but it is here on Flickr where I find them most compelling.

But there’s more I blame you for–. There’s that one group, especially that group. That group, you know. Or perhaps I need to blame D’Arcy or Alan for the 365 Day Flickr Group, that fascinating slice of vernacular creativity. Some people capture everyday moments, some work in metaphor. Some are serious about each image, others about sharing their lives. Conversations abound there. Little ones that spread out between group members. It brings more viewers to my photos, and then me to other Flickr-ers. People whose work I admire in other venues, for instance, also take photos that charm and surprise.

What this group has really done to me, for me is make me stretch to take one really good photo every day. Some days I’m pleased. Some days I think, not so much. I have looked harder at my regular haunts; I pay attention to qualities of light and air and angle and color and shape when I travel. Yesterday, as I drove back from Maine, a bald eagle flew over the road and banked so beautifully that the light infused his white belly with an unearthly glow. All I could think about for a moment was how great a shot that would have been–Yikes! Only later, a mile up the road or so, did I realize that it was the first time I had ever seen a bald eagle in Vermont. How extraordinary that moment was. He wasn’t a picture or the subject of a picture, but a bird endangered in this part of the country. Put the camera down, Barbara. But…would I have seen him if I hadn’t been looking around with that kind of intensity?

overseeing the last sunrise of the month

I’m getting up before dawn to watch the light slip up and over the mountains. I have a favorite tree I check out every morning. You see, Flickr? This is getting out of hand.

I have so much to learn. My brother (of the elegant moody abstractions) scolds me for not attending to the corners of my images. My daughter, who has studied photography and takes gorgeous shots that make me re-see her subjects, urges me to sharpen my depth of field. My old student and soon-to-be intern critiques my photos in Flickr,
recently expressing his ambivalence about a photo I had thought was pretty interesting, and suggesting ways to improve it. These are invaluable responses to my work; I wish more comments were of this ilk. Now, dear Flickr, I would like nothing more than to spend a week in a photography workshop, learning the technical aspects of shooting in RAW, of composition; looking at photos, having my photos critiqued. I even slid in a suggestion for a pre-Northern Voice WordCampEd session on shooting pictures and attending to blog visuals.

After checking out Flickr each morning, I head tosome of my favorite blogs, and why look at that, they are all about the visual. And only then do I move into the day.

I’m out the door now, headed to New York City for a few days, both work and play, and I’m thinking about the great people and meetings and dinners and museums down there, but really, it’s all about the camera, as About New York knows.

So, thanks a lot, Flickr. Having a place to share my photos, to connect with others around photography, and to learn more about my aesthetic, and about the ways in which people understand the world through image, has transformed my creative expression, my more scholarly discourse, and, well, my life.

Now, where’s my camera–it’s 8:30 a.m. and I haven’t yet taken a single picture today.

picture-1

The iPhone comes to Vermont tomorrow: Who will go out and get one?

I’m thinking about braving the crowds (and cold) tomorrow and lining up for an iPhone at one of five stores that will have them available in the state. The truly-with-it (and wealthy) figured out a long time ago that if they really wanted one, they could, with a New York phone exchange. (And the bills accompanying that choice.) Now that it will be possible to have a Vermont number, I wonder who will be in those lines tomorrow. Who will (have the luxury to) think of such a purchase.

shades
Who might be there (and even more, who surely will not) interests me because of intersections between my reading and my work in small rural communities, towns with sketchy cell phone coverage, iffy internet access and uneven (unequal) access to computers.

In The Power of Place, Harm de Blij speaks to this reality in his opening chapter, “Globals, Locals, and Mobals,” a sharp and simple reminder of how deeply tied (chained? rooted?) much of the world is to locality. “Earth may be a planet of shrinking functional distance, ” he writes, “but it remains a world of staggering situational difference. From the uneven distribution of natural resources to the unequal availability of opportunity, place remains a powerful arbitrator….Of the seven billion current passengers on Cruiseship Earth, the overwhelming majority (the myth of mass migration notwithstanding) will die very near the cabin in which they were born.” (p.3) While he is not writing of rural communities in North America specifically here, it is helpful to remember the pull, the demands, the realities, the power of place. Even when we have iPhones. At least around here. Climate, landscape, size and spread of community, proximity to a highway or to a town of some size have a profound impact–still–on the people who live here. iPhones (or any of the competition) are irrelevant to so many who live here although cellphones can be lifelines in remote places.

past limbo

My work table is strewn with books, my desktop cluttered with articles and blogposts, images and metaphors in the hopes that they will help me to think through the conundrum of helping small rural communities explore social media practices. It is no simple matter. Platitudes and generalizations don’t work to describe the complexities of rural life. This is slippery territory, murky, confusing, mysterious. I have to stop myself every few days to ask, “And why do I think this is a good idea, this new-old open community learning space, a third place fluid computer center/ office/lab/studio/collaboratory/exhibition/meeting space for communities that perhaps have spotty high-speed internet, few public computers, and some (sometimes more than some) suspicion that going online means losing oneself, or worse, one’s kids?” Several upcoming talks and conference presentations will tease out some of these idea, including one with Nancy White and Laura Blankenship at Northern Voice .

Doing the Limbo. Out on a limb-o. Stuck in limbo.

through the window, first light

The iPhone has me thinking about gaps, the betweens created by lack of broadband and computer access as well as cellphone coverage, by a lack of extended conversation about creative and/or social media practices, and a confusion over what we mean by openness on the Web. I’m worried about the widening gaps between locals, mobals and globals. I think about what Clay Shirky has observed about the way people are wrapping themselves in bubbles of perceived privacy as they talk loudly on their cellphones, or text while engaging in conversation with someone sitting right there in front of them. I’m concerned about unfounded fear and anxiety, how they creep about and lead to misinformation and disaster (hey, look at our government’s actions over the last eight years), how they influence online behaviors and attitudes about online behaviors. Sometimes there’s not enough fear about things that ARE threats. But in a country where it is so difficult to talk openly about the scary things and places and practices, we often don’t even “see” racism, sexism, domestic and sexual abuse, social injustice when they’re right in front of us. (Another must-read book on my table is one Joe Lambert suggested: Sundown Towns by James Loewen ). I worry about how “the systemic bias for continuity creates tolerance for the substandard.” (Shirky, Here Comes Everybody, p.250)

green

And there’s the visual, the digital image. The iPhone, having as much of a visual impact as an audio one, with its big screen and camera, makes me think about the impact of images in small rural communities. Digital photos have exploded onto the Web (see Susan Sontag’s NYT piece “Regarding the Torture of Others” and BagNewsNotes‘ reading of visual media day in and day out, Pedro Meyer’s writing on Zone Zero, among many others) and so we need to think about our use of and response to digital images, both professional and vernacular. About cameraphones. Images on the Web. How we circulate images, how we communicate with them–and what all this openness really means. Blogposts such as Alec Couros’ Flickr Perversion, and the conversation it has sparked in the comments and blogs, and articles linking unsafe visual social media practices to crime, such as this one in Vermont’s statewide newspaper, show us how urgent it is to talk about our practices as well as to go out there and practice.

Having a place in town to learn, to talk, to mess around with digital media could lead to active, informed participation. I think it could also lead to stronger bonds within the town between generations, groups, traditional divides. I’m seeing it happen already. People want to share stories, ideas, connect over the things that matter to them. They’re nervous about it–wonder if it’s okay to do online. And there’s the problem of time. We want our Web stories to look good and be easy to make. We often want them to be like StoryCorps stories or what Sarah Kramer, friend and board member, is working on with “One in Eight Million,” a new web experience via the New York Times, elegant stories of the people of New York. These are simple, short. Folksy yet polished. These stories seem easy to make: just push RECORD and the story spills out. Click STOP and there it is. Start a blog and people will listen. Open a wiki and people will contribute. Ha. How realistic is it for people to learn to edit, to share, to contribute, to tend, to share feeds and participate online when we can’t find the time to attend town meetings or to volunteer? We’re a now culture. We have no time.

And then there are those, quite a few of those in rural communities, who think we should run away from technology, toss the iPhone while we’re at it. Return to some “better way.”

I am pulled to balance on this score by David Gessner, who writes:
“What I want to leave behind is false romanticism. What I want to carry into the fight is the original romantic urge for the specific, the local, the real. What I want to leave behind is quoting Thoreau; what I want instead is to follow more deeply the complex spirit of the man. What I want to leave behind are pages of facts. What I want to carry forward are facts marshaled for purpose, facts enlivened because they follow an idea. What I want to leave behind is the sanctimony of quietude and order and “being in the present.” What I want to embrace is loud and wild disorder, growing this way and that, lush and overdone. What I want to leave behind is the virtuous and the good, and move toward the inspiring and great. And while we’re at it I want to leave behind anything false, false to me that is, false to what I feel is my experience on this earth. What I want instead is to wade through the mess of life without ever reaching for a life ring called The Answer.”

Yes. And so, it’s not enough for us to talk here on blogs. We’ve also got to go into our towns and engage our neighbors in these essential, messy conversations of our time. To think about place but not think only of place–if we’re fortunate enough. I want to move toward “the inspiring and great.” Fearlessly but not stupidly, blindly. So I’m going to get an iPhone, maybe not tomorrow, but soon. I want to participate actively in the remarkable creative, connective world of the Web, but balance what I do there with actions in town, in person. So, if I talk online about Flickr and fear, then I’ll talk about it in town as well. If I make a digital story, I’ll show it to people where I live as well as to the whole World Wide Web. And I’ll pull out my iPhone to do it. And then we can talk about that, too.

Bits and Pieces: Learning from Great Blog Conversationalists

A playful tweet by Jim Groom this morning responding to one I wrote (about proposing something for Northern Voice) has me thinking. He jokingly suggested:

picture-3

I laughed. Very funny. Hmmmm…. But what is it about bavablogging that distinguishes it from what I do, what do I learn from him and others who keep blog company with him.

I thought about being a kid. How at my childhood dinner table, my mother would shake her head at my father and one of my brothers, who, she said, did not engage in dinner conversation, or in decent discussion about the explosive events of the day (Civil Rights, assassinations, riots & protests, Vietnam, Watergate–pretty wild time, that), but in adjacent monologues. It was pretty tough to get a word in some nights, I remember.

early december loneliness

The monologue versus the conversation or the discussion.

Sure, linking out helps even the long post become more than a self-congratulatory harangue (or musing ;-)). But the long, intricate posts do not invite conversation really. My previous post, for instance, included a couple of side pages, one about three books I highly recommend. I’m pretty sure very few people had the time or the inclination to click through to those pages. I understand. The long post is, after all, mostly an open letter to oneself. But slow-blogging shouldn’t mean plodding blogging, or deadly monologing. The monoblog. Yikes. Oh no.

birdtracks

The hoopla about slow-blogging has been good all in all. It has brought some fine posts, some funny ones, some angry ones. Mostly, it has made me restless in my own blogging. And so I’ve been paying a lot more attention these days to bloggers who not only write well about ideas, but who also know how to lighten up, and most importantly, how to mentor a great blogversation. (Okay, I’m getting a little carried away with these terms…) I’m spending more time leaving comments and listening in on conversations, learning from the give-and-take, often far more than from the original post alone. Sometimes the topic is rather silly–at least on the surface, such as Jim’s recent post about blogs and the insignificant — and he covers such a range of topics and pushes out more posts than seems humanly possible, with mad energy and intelligence and humor–yet he always responds to his commenters, gratefully, respectfully. He’s a great blogversationalist. He clearly takes in what they say and thinks about each comment, synthesizing them as he pushes the conversation further, into discussion. No monoblogger he. Geeky Mom, too, dares to mix it up. She’ll post a cat video, or a poll asking what she should blog about side by side with some musing about the state of politics or education or gender issues in her profession. I’ve always felt I could learn a lot from her.

Brian Lamb‘s another blogger model. Yes, he’s inventive, has on-the-edge ideas, but he also gets interesting conversations going. His prose alone makes you have to read on–the opening phrases of his last three posts: “Being an anxious sort…” “It came as an unpleasant shock…” “”Part of me feels…” invite you into the post, not just as reader, but as someone who might have some advice for him. His posts are generous, thought-provoking invitationals. And people respond.

trio

I’m going to learn from these three and play around a little. Stretch my blogging wings. And try hard not to sound like those dinner “conversations” of my childhood.

December Arrives: A (Quasi) Hypertext Musing on Storytelling and Stories

the end of november

I’m ready for December. November unsettles me with its wild swings set beneath a heavy-lidded sky, even during years without presidential elections and collapsing dogs and intensifying troubles around the world. I spend the first half of autumn missing summer and the second half seeking winter. Fall and spring swell with their neighbors, never completely themselves, in palpable transition, leaving me fidgety, restive–so much to do on the land and on the computer. I waste a lot of time in November.

But December, now there’s a month, the seed of great poems about winter coming on, ends of things, light returning. Winter solstice and our yearly bonfire. Snow.

December opens to stillness. The gardens quiet (the birds have stripped what’s edible); outside chores have stilled for the moment. We turn inwards; even when we venture out to ski across the land, to skate on the pond, to walk with Finn through the cold wet season, we think about getting home. We read the papers more carefully, finish magazine articles, delve into novels, poetry. We talk and talk. Swap stories.

November Interior

I work and live in story–here in my reflective/connective practice, in my creative work and in the work I do with communities, and so every month is about stories and storytelling, then. But it is this month that especially embodies storytelling for me, for the stories come home as I slow down and focus, as I think about the long take, about technique versus craft. As I try to grow as a thinker, as a writer, as a storyteller, as a catcher of stories.

Today, listening to the recording I made on Friday, during the National Day of Listening of my family spinning childhood memories, I notice how the stories themselves, as told, are not especially memorable, nothing anyone outside the family would find interesting. If I decided to blog them, for instance, I would have to cut, add, tinker a bit. But I also notice how we soon forgot the recorder and in the pulling out of those old stories, we recaptured the past for a moment through someone else’s words and found one another around the table, listeners and co-tellers. It was about the telling, not the stories. No, that’s not it exactly–it was about the sharing, not the art or the thing being shared.

We go on and on about the power of storytelling, its role in human culture, but how are we using the telling, the sharing and the art itself within classrooms and communities? As a classroom teacher and now in my work in rural communities, only rarely do I see sustained, connected use of both stories and storytelling to build healthy bonds and bridges, to synthesize thought and experience, or to imagine a better future. Certainly not in higher ed. Not in community work either. At least not enough. I encounter stories and storytelling to promote a brand or to perpetuate a particular point of view (see Miller again–indeed, if you have not read Writing at the End of the World, you really should).

Which brings me to December as end-of-term season. Over Thanksgiving break, I watched my younger daughter wade into the four term papers she has to write, the three presentations to prepare and several final examinations to study for. And she attends a college that on paper, at least, understands the foolishness of grades and short-term-memory learning and the disconnect that comes from single-discipline-based majors. I also see on Twitter that people across the world are grading papers and preparing exams. Every course in every institution seems to follow the same pattern, the same kinds of assignments over and over and over. Where is the creativity? The larger view? Do we think students are that dull that they need to repeat the same exercise scores of times?

radio

What about communal, connected storytelling in person, orally, and through ongoing blogs and wikis and creative projects dreamed up by the group that grow, build, adjust, evolve, reach out, connect, revise and give life to the stories by making them about something beyond the classroom? Making the stories transparent and enduring? For years many of us have talked about this kind of learning narrative. Some embrace narrative portfolios–but those mostly seem to trace a single perspective through learning. What about exploring multivocality, which George Landow ascribes to hypertext and thus to the ways in which we read and write now everywhere but in the university? Perhaps UMW’s grand experiment in blogging across the institution comes close to multivocality. I’m eager to watch how much movement grows associatively, across course/subject/discipline through the blogs. Do professors assign one another’s courseblogs? Do students from one course interact with students in another? Are course lines blurring? Course participants? How much storytelling goes on there in the face-to-face meeting spaces as a result of the blogging? Are students finding their voices while exploring what has come before them? How about the community outside the university? How much informal, ongoing storysharing; practiced storytelling, and storycatching goes on in and between schools and towns?

I am invariably struck by how unusual it is to tell stories outside our closest circles of family and friends beyond the anecdote sort, the you-gotta-hear-what-I-saw variety. When I open a workshop or a course with a simple storytelling exercise–the participants telling stories about themselves and their link to the work at hand, be it Irish literature or land-use planning, people find themselves simultaneously uneasy in the moment of “telling a story”–“I’m no good with words” many protest–and amazed by the impact of listening intently and sharing with a group. Participants feel closer to one another, trust builds, and differences are honored. People laugh. But it is a tender, fragile trust, one that can easily fade out once the “workshop” or the course ends.

When this storytelling extends, however, through sustained practice, and stories are caught here, commented on, revised, and extended on blogs, on wikis, on sites such as Orton Family Foundation’s newly unveiled Community Almanac, where they become threads woven together of a complex story, the moment of person-to-person connection has the potential to deepen, to open up through contact with other stories, and to move others–if the story is told well. Hence the need for practice, for developing a practice where storytelling is used.

inthefalls

I see evidence of this kind of practice in blogs that have made their way to me recently as a result of the NYT article: Beth Kephart’s Blog, a deft, melodious threading together of image and word; and the remarkable work of Jeff Gates (how did I not know of him?) whose In Our Path project epitomizes the kind of storytelling that can happen, first as a single voice whose idea triggers responses from others, institutions even, to share and extend the story, in his case about the Los Angeles Freeway Corridor. It is incredible. And then there’s his own blog, Life Outtacontext, and Eye Level, the blog he started for the Smithsonian where he now works as a new media specialist. These are three very different examples of what blogs can do and be, and how they wrap the tendrils of story around whomever happens upon them and takes the time to read.

And so this month, this December, I will immerse myself in stories, storysharing, storytelling and storycatching, hoping to help those I work with understand how “Storytelling is central to the well-being, the confidence and sustainability of communities. It allows communities to generate and sustain a sense of belonging and cohesion and purpose even through periods of tumultuous change–especially through periods of tumultuous change. It allows them to constantly define who they are and who they want to be.” (K. Longley, 2002, Stories for Sustainability, Sustainability Forum, Perth)

Workshops, Animal Hospitals and Lots to Be Thankful For…

finn as beaver

What a week. A whirlwind two-day workshop in Maine. Finn-dog at death’s door. And The New York Times getting it and not getting it about how and why I slow-blog.

As anyone who follows me on Twitter knows, I’ve been on a roller coaster with Finn-dog: from his inexplicable collapse on the driveway Monday night to diagnosis of tumors in the liver and spleen to surgery and now home to recuperate and await the biopsy results. At one point we were faced with the decision of putting him down or trying to stabilize him enough for the surgery. He was that bad. It was no easy choice, believe me. But something about how he was acting and how we were feeling made us follow this path. And so far, so good. He is returning to himself (though he insists that he can eat cat food only ;-)). I have been brought back repeatedly to the final days and hours of my mother-in-law and my father, how we made tough decisions with and for them. Agonizing. Expectedly so. Who knew it would be so hard with a dog? We kept asking ourselves and each other if we were prolonging his life for us or for him. Are we characters from Best in Show? Hmmm….

Fortunately, I also had work calling, a two-day workshop in lovely Damariscotta, Maine.

picture-2 We dove into storytelling and community participation and action and kept to a dizzying pace. I congratulate the good folks who participated in this immersion into disruption and repair–they stayed with me magnificently. Time was too short–and I balk a bit at parachuting into a community, giving a workshop and heading right out again. Follow-up helps. Virtual collaboration, too, via the wiki I have set up for these workshops (please add to it!), but nothing beats face-to-face gatherings over time, ongoing, within a community, coupled with the delights of online interactions, collaborations, creativity. A Center for Community Digital Exploration would be just the ticket.

I was the epitome of the fast. So packed was my schedule that I had no time to wander about the waterfront or take pictures. Not a one. I guess I’m a slow photographer, too, and am loath to pull out my camera unless I can focus with my entire energy on the photos.

Which bring me to that wee article. Of course I love the fact that people are taking notice of slow blogging, and I am honored to be in the piece. Absolutely. And yes, deer and bikes and walks and the pond do figure in my posts, but as threads, I hope, as metaphors and examples of ideas I am exploring about learning, communities, and technology. And why Chris Lott’s contributions to slow blogging never made it into the paper, or Alan Levine’s wonderful, recent forays into this reflective space aren’t there…or Leslie Madsen-Brooks’ Clutter Museum…or..Stephen Downes’ remarkable Half an Hour …or…I could go on and on… oh well. Me in the Styles section? Gotta smile about that.

finneyleaping

So here I am, on the threshold of Thanksgiving week with so much to be thankful for–incredible family and friends, and Finn back with us. Rewarding work. Fabulous colleagues. A plane ticket to Northern Voice in February (I’ve been trying to get there for five years)! And a new reputation as someone who has style.

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.

away

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.