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:

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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.

Moving Past Cynicism: Inspired by a Former Student

I’ve recently received several emails from non-blogging friends with links to Paul Boutin’s Wired Magazine article announcing the death of blogs. I, of course, send them right to Alan Levine’s response and then shrug and also point to some of the blogging my former students are doing now that they are out in the world. Since my earliest posts, I have pointed to student blogging and commenting for the window into their perspectives, their learning journeys, their creativity. And here I am, out of the classroom, still reading their posts, still learning from them.

through the barn at sunset

Lizi, for instance, blogs from Russia, comparing the post-college working life there to her experience as an undergraduate on a Study Abroad year in Siberia–longtime readers of bgblogging might remember her Siberia blog and her part in an ELI presentation (liveblogged by Leslie Madsen-Brooks) we made with Barbara Sawhill and her student Evie a couple of years ago); Kyle (whose creative work I have pointed to repeatedly–his multimedia explorations figure prominently at the end of my NITLE talk from this past spring: scroll all the way to the right to see them side by side or just click to his Flickr poem, his Voicethread response to Kerouac, his digital story on memory, his vuvox collage poem) is blogging from his year off in India; Astri has an entire Web world in play with her blogging and website; Tyler has resurrected his dormant blog as he prepares to head back to China. Another has been a frequent commenter on The Smalltown Mamas (and Papas) for Obama blog, a local newspaper reporter and now member of my writing group. There are many more I follow, learn from and converse with as they wend their way into the post-college world.

One who is not blogging on her own is Julia. She chooses instead to take part in blog conversations from time to time, and when she does, watch out! A fabulous writer and thinker, her comments are posts of the slow-blogging variety (though she does not link out). Whenever she comments, I wish she had a blog. Yesterday she left me a comment on my post reflecting on the Obama victory, and in it she describes the roots of her cynicism and how she, too, is turning towards hope. It is a must-read piece, and so, I am pulling it from the unread-depths of commentland and posting it here. Enjoy.

cardinal in november

From Julia:

I’m turning towards the good, too. I’m choosing to ignore, for the moment, the fact that Californians just voted to constitutionally ban gay marriage, and that my father’s democratic candidate in Oregon is fighting for his life in what should be a no-brainer election, and that Sarah Palin is still out there, waiting, reloading. And here is why:

There were many times during this campaign I almost posted to this blog. Almost, but not quite. Firstly, when Palin was seeming to gain ground with a certain section of the American electorate. For someone who found the choice an even split between laughable and insulting, I was shocked to see not everyone agreed with me. I began a draft of a post about how someone can be created from thin air (I began again months later with Joe the Plumber), but something held me back. And soon, America became less and less enchanted with Caribou Barbie every time she opened her mouth, so the point seemed moot.

I almost posted when I saw a news report that Polar Bears are resorting to cannibalism. What did this have to do with the election? Besides the obvious ties to failed environmental policies (or lack thereof), it also seemed an apt metaphor. Again, however, I could not write.
I nearly posted an end-of-days suggestion to the readers of this blog before McCain began to slip in the polls. What if every Obama supporter – should McCain win – purchase a one-way ticket out of the country the day after the election? Would the message be clear then?
I wanted to post after the four debates, pointing out the difference in the candidates’ “performances.” As an actor, this happens to be my specialty, telling when someone is not selling a character: they blink a lot (McCain), they seem to physically seize when the script won’t come to them (McCain), they forget the power of their voice, resorting to monotonic incantations resembling a parrot (McCain), and, finally, they break the one cardinal rule of good acting: listening (Palin). Yet, even here, where I truly felt I had something to contribute, I did not. Could not. And this bothered me.

But all throughout yesterday, I began to understand why. I was too cynical. I awoke yesterday morning excited in ways I had not been in a very long time. I filled out my voter booklet, and walked to my polling station, enjoying the warm California morning. I didn’t begrudge a minute of the twenty I spent in line, and I made sure to punch my ballot extra hard, even making the table quiver each time I pressed down. I handed my ballot to the black female volunteer, thanked her for her service, and walked back home, smiling and nodding to everyone I passed. Then, the strangest thing happened: I fell back asleep. For an hour and a half. My excitement had exhausted me. When I awoke, I began preparing for an election party I was hosting. I printed out Obama quotes and passages from “The Audacity of Hope” and hung them up around the house. I copied electoral maps and had my friends guess which states would go red or blue respectively. I made hot dogs and put out the leftover American Halloween candy. Yet, even with all my excitement, I still did not believe he could win.
Then, almost immediately after 8PM PST, the news came in: it was over. And it was just beginning.
We were not prepared for this. I mean, we’d started the party at 7, convinced we’d be up until 4 or 5 in the morning. And McCain conceded and Obama spoke and the faces of the people in the Chicago crowd said it all. And then, a good friend of ours came to our door, running late from a night class for his masters in Academic Counseling. He is sixty years old; he is from Norristown, PA; and he is black. His look of surreal disbelief, of a lifetime of promises come due, jolted me. On the couch he joined his wife, an Argentinean by birth who just became a citizen this year. This was her first election, not only in the US but anywhere, as she left Argentina before she was legally allowed to vote. For so many people, this was personally a watermark election; for our country, it was a victory over cynicism.

I know this because I am cynical. I come from a long line of Irish politicians, and my cynicism is a result of both nature and nurture. In short, I’m the cynic people like Oprah and Rick Warren just walk away from. Sure I donated money and time to the election, but the cold hard truth is I never donated my heart. Because I was sure we were going to get kicked in the head again and I didn’t think I could survive it. Many people don’t understand this sentiment from young people. “What could you possibly know about cynicism, about disappointment?” Well, eight years of Bush – our most formative years, mind you – will do that. And before him? There was Clinton, who was a president to be proud of, who was simultaneously accessible and inspiring; but Clinton’s “betrayal” (as pointless and irrelevant as it may seem now) came at a time when people my age were just learning about moral matters and the insidiousness of lies. To be disappointed at fourteen, and then have that followed up by eight years of frustration is essentially the recipe for cynicism. But this election has proved something to me. And now I’m blogging because I have something to say that needs to be immortalized in print. I am blogging, selfishly, because I want a record of this moment, a standard to hold myself to in the future when Obama does something to disappoint me, and the Republicans win another election, no matter when that may be: I am done with cynicism.

I’m all about realism, and pragmatism, and a healthy dose of skepticism every now and then, but cynicism and me, we’re through. Cynicism is an insidious mistress because it cannot be contained. One cannot simply be cynical about politics, or, I don’t know, vegetarianism exclusively. If one is cynical, one is cynical about politics, AND vegetarianism, AND humanism, AND, most regrettably, love. This is what I feel Obama’s victory has restored in me, a sense that all is possible, whether it happens or not. That’s the mistake of cynicism: it confuses probability with inevitability.
And my newfound faith is not based on intangibles or abstract self-delusion, but on facts: the tears of pride last night in the eyes of Jesse Jackson and my friend who never thought they’d see this day; in the celebrations around the globe among people who still see America as the city on the hill, even if we no longer saw ourselves that way; in the cries and horn honks that filled the streets of LA and other cities sometime after 8PM last night; in – as ridiculous as this may sound – the facebook statuses of friends who are just as disbelieving and proud as I; and especially in the way my 83 year-old grandfather’s voice broke when he joked to me last night that he can finally pull his American flag out of storage and fly it – and his admission that he never thought he’d live to see it wave outside his house again.

Well, it IS waving again, and proudly. And last night, with the Santa Ana’s blowing winds of change across the Southland, I fell asleep to the faint sound of the flagpole down the street clanking. A sound that used to annoy me now ushered me into a dreamscape; one that I wasn’t sorry to wake up from this morning.

A Glorious Morning to Commit to Making Changes in Our Lives

Like so many people across the United States and throughout the world, I am filled with energy and joy and wonder this morning. I wish my father had lived to see this day. I wish Barack Obama’s grandmother had lived to see this day. What a moment.

yes we can

We CAN transform ourselves; we CAN take responsibility and work for a better world. I live in Vermont, a state that in some ways has come to represent progressive ideals and civic engagement–our town meetings are still alive; I can run into the governor in the movie theater; our federal judge sells his daughter’s goat cheese at the farmer’s market on Saturdays. Yes, I’m proud of Vermonters, again.

But, wow, look at what happened in places where people do not feel so connected to those in power, in places where it is not so easy to participate, to feel included, to have a voice, a say. If a country as divided and diverse as ours can come together like this and demand real change across the political landscape, we can and must do it in our own backyards, our neighborhoods, our towns, our schools, our states by doing more than going to the polls–by participating actively in civic life, by speaking up and by listening to our neighbors, by moving beyond our own personal concerns and needs and wants and building a real conservation ethic.

Sentiments like these spill out effortlessly into this post. I am getting used to writing about politics. Words are easy. Some actions are easy. It was easy, for instance, to get involved in the campaign. It is hard to make the real changes necessary to healing this deeply wounded earth, this damaged world. But I saw something so hopeful while making calls for the campaign–how lonely some people were –how alone in their homes, some of them shut-ins, clearly—and yet how excited they were to be a part of something bigger than themselves. What courage.

I’m making a change in my own life because of those calls. With my daughter, I used to volunteer for Meals-on-Wheels, delivering daily meals to shut-ins across our town. And then I stopped because my busy work schedule didn’t allow for my consistent participation a couple of days a week; more and more the ways I contribute to my community are abstract and distanced, through being on advisory boards to nonprofits, writing and talking, moving out of an elite college to work in small rural communities. But how often do I just roll my sleeves up and do hands-on service in my own community besides being on committees, offering workshops? Time to get to work.

bristol, vermont nearing peak foliage

Yesterday while canvassing in my childhood state, New Hampshire, I was shocked by how almost almost unrecognizable it was to me. I grew up when it was one of the most right-wing states in the nation and yet so important to the candidacy of democrats running for president. My parents were actively involved in the primaries; during election season, we often had candidates in our home. The first vote I ever cast was for my mother when she ran for the state legislature (and won) as a Democrat, a woman(!) in a sea of reactionary white men.

Yesterday when a small group of us stood at a busy intersection waving our signs and our arms, we were amazed by the response: so many waves, so many honks from all kinds of people in all kinds of cars–old and young, truckers and Prius drivers, women with children in mini-vans, disabled vets in their vans. We found ourselves nearly silly with hope. We returned home to Vermont, a state that we knew would go overwhelmingly to Obama, with the very real sense that our neighbors would join us.

At a busy intersection

And it wasn’t just New Hampshire that seemed transformed. Young people, too. The numbers of students in that NH campaign office and campaigning here in Vermont, the deep interest my daughters showed in the process and their eagerness to participate seemed so very different from anything I had seen in twenty years as a college teacher. These young people were thinking about the world beyond themselves.

To hear my daughters’ excited voices on the phone (ages 22 and 19) when the news of Obama’s victory broke–to know their political awakening was such a joyful one–gives me great hope about their generation. One daughter, who works in the heart of Wall Street, believing that change can come from within, sent me all kinds of things to post to the Smalltown Mamas (and Papas) for Obama blog. The other daughter, still in college, contributed actively to the blog and the campaign, sending whatever money she could and making calls to Ohio. For them to hear not just the news that Obama had won and to feel the vibrations of those around-the-world celebrations, but also Obama telling us that the road ahead is long and difficult, that we all need to do our part to clean up the mess, to heal the earth’s wounds, to bring about peace, was critical. They know that it is up to them, to us, to make small and big changes, to educate ourselves about the issues facing us, to contribute our own creative thinking to solution-making, not to wait for someone else to tell us what to do, to move beyond our own self-centered-ness.

Easy to write. But what to do? This first day?

My personal plan is to devote a good portion of each day to rolling my sleeves up:

in my home (more bike-commuting, more energy efficiency in the house, more conserving and recycling and composting, more time spent connecting with my extended family);

in my civic life (more hours in the community contributing in whatever way I can, an even more concerted effort to support local merchants and manufacturers and avoid chains, attending more community functions);

in my creative contributions (thinking even more creatively about the new nonprofit, the advising for other groups, my blogging here; speaking out boldly while learning to listen better).

first fall dawn

Yes we can. WE.

The Depths of Fall: Planting Garlic, Meeting Old Students & Slow Blogging


Time moves inexorably towards November. An enormous flock of robins clusters in the near copse, resting and feeding; the yearling deer have separated from their mothers and are hanging about together as hunting season approaches. The turkeys gorge on wild apples. What leaves remain, deep gold or rust, rustle noisily, catch and hold the clear afternoon light.

We humans careen about inside the steady tick of days and seasons as though they don’t exist. The very real threat hanging over the UBC farm–condos as invasive species–(go read Keira’s post!) shows how hard it is to hear sense, to make sense. We’re at the brink of madness. Especially this fall. Panic fills the air. Trouble. War.

And yet there’s also hope. Next week we’ll all know whether the U.S. can transcend the deep and closet racism; the fear of difference; the insular, selfish, wasteful individualism and greed that characterize so much of who we are and how we behave. We’ll see if we can be better than ourselves.

As I plant garlic today, clove after clove in the cooling soil of my raised beds, I ponder what the winter will bring. I think about where the world will be when the green tips push up in the wet, even snowy late spring. Will my daughter, recent college graduate, still have her job? Will my neighbors have suffered through a long, lean winter, scrimping on food in order to heat their homes? Will we hear specifics, glad tidings, like good news from UBC that the farm has been saved? Will I find funding for the Centers for Community Digital Exploration and start helping communities explore social and creative digital media practices as a means of coming together, sharing, collaborating, solving problems? Will conserving become as natural as expending? Will more bikes fill our roads? Will schools be moving away from NCLB and towards modeling deep creativity, connectivity, collaboration? Will we start acting as connected and inter-dependent with the rest of the world? That troops are being brought home while clinics and community centers for learning are being built? Will the crashing economy shake us from our consumerism?
Will spring bring the first shades of new growth?barn details

I’m thinking about the future today not only because I am all a-jitter about the election next week but because something is going on with my former students. Malaise. Over the past week my mailbox, my email box, Facebook, phone have been awash in contacts from my old students. They’re nervous, uneasy, confused. The ones still in school are restless, missing the wild cycles of disruption and repair we experienced together in class. Why aren’t their courses electrifying, they ask. Why isn’t there the sense of community they now crave? Creativity? Risk-taking in the classroom? What do traditional disciplines taught in traditional ways have to do with the world exploding around them? The ones outside of school are reporting back with examples of digital creativity, and with questions about how to find or create spaces for creativity, for connection, for collaboration that will help change the world.

I’ve been telling (retelling) them my favorite James Martin story, the one in which his daughter poses one of the great what-if questions: If you could live at any time in any place during human history, when and where would that be? And he shocks her by saying, “Right here, right now, because we stand at the door of the most crucial time in human history. Your generation has 50 years to solve the problems my generation and the one before it have created. Fifty years to save the earth or there will be no earth to save. You can either move humanity forward, to become better than it has ever been, or that’s it.” I say to them, “If he’s right; if that’s true that we have fifty years to reverse the environmental degradation and related political and social turmoil we have caused, what role are you preparing to play? How are you using these four college years to equip you to participate actively?” I also like to remind them of the Richard Miller quotation about how we have mastered the art of teaching about how worlds come to an end, but we do little to help our students bring better worlds into being. How to connect, how to collaborate, how to be intensely creative, how to take risks, how to fail. How to be inclusive, to get off the hill and into town. Meaningfully.

the woods dance before winter

I’m also thinking about the future because there’s new interest in slow blogging, thanks to a recent post by Chris Lott, a wonderful post in which he explains slow blogging better than I ever have:
“Slow blogging is mindful wandering is meditative reflection is an attempt to face the fear, to take a stab at the heart, take responsibility and risk, and in the process create a gift of immense value to others, a manifestation of our particular truth.”

This blog has never attracted a great deal of traffic or attention. Indeed, the Small Town Mama (and Papas) for Obama Blog I started just a few months ago routinely pulls in many more readers, many many more readers, yet the posts I do there take me maybe five minutes, and that’s when I’m adding a few lines of commentary to the links I’m posting. Don’t get me wrong—I like that blog and I like blogging there with my six fellow active posters. It gives me a positive outlet for my deep concern about this country, my perspective on this being a watershed moment. But it is a blog for the moment, not the one I have returned to through the years, seasons, job changes, idea shifts. It is a blog to spur immediate action rather than more thought. Perhaps that is something missing from the slow blog, from this slow blog.

Chris’ s post brought new readers here for the moment; my blog stats spiked, incoming links, too. I’ve been asked for interviews, even, by journalists wondering if the new interest in slow-blogging comes in response to the convulsions occurring on the world stage. A yearning for the local, the meaningful, the dependable–contact that is enduring, deeply connective, both serious and not. Balance. Interesting question. I am hopeful that next spring when I am watching the the garlic break through the earth, I can honestly say that we have become more actively thoughtful, more thoughtfully active, combining action and reflection and connection as a response to the world in crisis. Moving beyond fear. At the polls next week. And after Tuesday.

venerable resident of the woods

Thoughts as We Near the Fall Equinox, The Time of Between

featherinthegrass

I am lucky to live in a place as beautiful as this–from my door every day I walk for miles across the farmlands. An 18-mile loop trail crosses our neighbor’s land, but mostly I prefer to range pathless with dog and camera across fields and scrublands.

neighbor barn

And without the burden of frustration welling up from banging my head against the Academy wall, I wake up each morning with thoughts of the land and the family instead of how conflicted I am about working within a system in which I no longer believe. I watch my friends still there too busy and stressed to breathe deeply while I can put the garden to bed before a frosty night.

putting the garden to bed before frost

Yes, since extricating myself from the Academy’s fetters, it’s been easy to step out my door for a break and focus on the nuances of daily changes on the land. It’s easy to be overly pleased that the localvore movement flourishes, that our neighbor’s dairy still has its honor system store (you write down in the ledger what you’ve taken from the milk coolers, and they eventually clip a hand-written bill to your page), that many people around here don’t even have locks on their homes, that we all gather once a year to discuss and vote on town business. We buy our wood from our neighbor and eggs from a friend; our dog loves the UPS man; the trash man calls to check on us when we forget to drag the garbage down our nearly half-mile driveway. Our senators and congressman (yeah, we only have one) are enlightened and fearless and in touch with us back home.

from across our land

It’s a breeze to step back into my barn studio and wing about a larger world from my laptop. On Twitter and on the blogs I can range about taking in the wonders offered up by the smart people who share their thinking, be dazzled by the Reverend and inspired by ingenuity and pushed by cluttermuseum. I can grow in my thinking by delving into old books and films and music on the Internet Archive, by following an MIT course, by signing up for any number of free, online conferences of my choosing, by participating in a MOOC. I can collaborate on projects with colleagues scattered about the globe. I can make cool stuff, mash-ups and digital stories to share with the world. I can feel liberated, creative, and collaborative.

Why, then, am I worried about all of this? Because it’s too easy to stay in places I like and listen to people I admire and leave it at that. It’s too easy to slip into smugness, to be self-congratulatory. To save the saved and think I’m doing something worthwhile.

Finn and Rope at the beach

But then along comes a bizarre presidential contest and economic and natural disasters, and I shake myself awake to a more complex, more troubling world, even close to home. Vermont has lost an appalling, disproportionate number of of its youth to the Iraq war. No one talks about how many Iraqi have died. We have a milktoast governor who will walk back into office because the Democrats and the Progressives can’t see beyond party politics to collaborate on a single candidate in this extreme time. (And to see what I think about the presidential race, you can head over to Small Town Mamas (and Papas) for Obama.)

spike

People around here worry, as our senator Pat Leahy puts it, whether they will “eat or heat” this winter. There’s a nuke in the southern part of the state that keeps breaking down. Violent crimes are way up in the state. Heroin dealing has snaked its way into our bucolic county. Many youth are bored in our schools, can’t wait to get out of here (including my own children). Our Mom & Pop shops are vanishing, giving way to chains. It’s hard to find union-made clothing. People are moving here and building HUGE, generic houses–some neighborhoods are indistinguishable from those in the worst suburbs. People are putting locks on their houses. People are in their cars, not on their bikes. I’m in the car more than on my bike. Although we built our home largely from recycled materials and have worked to make our land a wildlife corridor, it’s two miles from town and I’m not yet D’Arcy Norman enough to brave rain or cold on my bike–and it’s only two hilly miles. I can’t say, truth be told, that I know all of the people who live on my road; our mailbox sometimes ends up in the front pond, knocked off its post by a baseball bat in the night. The beauty of Vermont sometimes feels like a scrim.

long shadows across the lawn

And so here’s where things get interesting for me as I pace about the boundaries, conflicted, uneasy. This is where I like to be, on those cusps, stretched to find other ways, better ways. And this is what I’m finding:

I’m conflicted about the open-education movement, about MOOCs and online affinity groups and online communities. The openness is exemplary. The learning possibilities mind-boggling. The chance to even the playing field–open access to all–downright thrilling. But I also sense, as a natural outcome of networked individualism, an increasing movement towards the ME and away from the US, both online and off, towards polarization and insularity rather than expanded horizons and inter-cultural understanding. I’m concerned about Negroponte’s “Daily Me” . Participatory learning, both online and off, can help us counter this risk, by enabling us to bump into one another and other ideas if we work at it, in keeping withSunstein’s Republic.om contention that “Unplanned, unanticipated encounters are central to democracy itself.”

Yes, people are gathering together on the Web to interact, to learn from one another, to explore all manner of subjects. But who? But what about home? What about the physical communities in which we live? Are people gathering together there to discuss the future? To understand one another–to open one another’s minds? To discuss the complex, convulsive changes sweeping across the world? Are we interacting in physical spaces with people from other ends of our communities? Are we bringing home the lessons learned from these extraordinary online gatherings or are we keeping them to ourselves? Will we get even more narrow-minded if we can graze, avoiding what we don’t like, hunkering down into clans? Just because we can talk online with anyone anywhere, does that mean we will talk with people who think differently from ourselves? Will we actually grow any wiser? Are rural communities being left out?

to be airborne

This is why I am emphatic that the Centers for Community Digital Exploration be PHYSICAL places, rooted in rural communities, to help ease the digital divide, and to help people reap the benefits of the internet and Web practices while also staying connected to our lived-in communities lest they crumble around us while we’re glued to our computers and cellphones and iPods. I want to reap the benefits of online open ed and in-person community-based ed. Simultaneously. Together. In tension. Checking and balancing. I envision a place where people from all parts of a community gather to discuss this new world, to explore the benefits and risks of being plugged-in, of connecting across as well as within affinity groups. Of walking along the borders, discovering the Other. Of old people learning from kids, of teens and adults have positive interactions, of nonprofit staffs gathering to pool their knowledge, of people from all walks of life sharing their expertise and cultures both online and in person, of college kids not “volunteering” in town but participating actively, learning and teaching. A new learning space. And not a place already trailing associations and baggage. A new kind of third place, both online and in the town. Neutral except for its goal of serving open, accessible, connected sustainable learning. Not outside.in., not 826 Valencia, not the local coffee shop. All of these kinds of places bundled into a space in the heart of a town.

Imagine a MOOC group gathering at the center to talk over the course, or a group of people learning about blogging in schools, or digital storytelling to connect the stories of the townspeople to the place and to the world, or nonprofits exploring folksonomies, or–and this is Geeky Mom’s idea– parents trying to understand WoW or SL by participating in a workshop dreamed up by them and taught by their kids?

Am I dreaming? Perhaps. But the response I am getting from rural towns and nonprofits is quite encouraging. Now to write grants, pull up the pilot centers in 2009, and get the dang paperwork completed for the 501(c)3.

late summer in the garden

Now to making green-tomato chutney and sharing recipes with bee dieu in Brazil. Now to meeting an artist in town at a new gallery space and to creating a digital something for my upcoming Vancouver visit–though not simultaneously. 😉

Working On Community Storytelling Projects

the beauty of boundaries
The Beauty of Boundaries

I’m happily immersed in my new work helping communities with digital expression, right now through several projects involving storytelling in and by and for small communities, using digital tools and collaborative Web practices. I’m also making good progress (with my fabulous cohorts) on making The Centers for Community Digital Expression a reality–more on that soon!

This afternoon, I return to Middlebury College briefly to teach a three-hour workshop for an Environmental Studies course (running on WPMU blogs!) in capturing the stories of a small county town. I am delighted to be a part of this course as it exemplifies the kind of learning through doing, through participating in local communities, and through a mix of online communication and in-person experience. I look forward to following their work. Here’s the course description from the catalog:

ENVS 0350 Portrait of a Vermont Town (CW) (Fall)
In this course we will record, reflect upon, and present the stories of one Addison County town. Students will talk with a diverse range of local residents about their memories, choices, hopes, and anxieties related to the place in which they live. We will offer an intensive experience of interviewing, writing, and videography, and will also count both as an intermediate-level writing workshop in nonfiction and as a cognate for the Environmental Studies major. This workshop will be enriched by a close affiliation with current programs of the Orton Family Foundation and the Vermont Land Trust that are dedicated to celebrating the stories of community. These two outstanding organizations will work with us in indentifying the town on which to focus, in helping students gain significant access to its residents and institutions, and in planning a final series of public presentations. The exact nature of presentations and publications coming out of the course will be determined in the course of the semester. NOR (J. Elder)

… and below, the outline and some links from the workshop (I WILL BE UPDATING THESE LINKS ON OCCASION)

STORIES FOR A VERMONT TOWN ENVS 350

A Workshop with Barbara Ganley & Joe Antonioli

1. The Power of Blogging Your Learning Experience

—Blogging as Reflection

—Blogging as Creative Cauldron

—Blogging as Connection

See Flickr Slide Set

2. Ways to “Publish” your Stories

Considerations

Do you want these stories to be interactive? How? Why? will you collaborate on the stories with the townspeople? Who is your audience–the class, the town, the world, all of these?

How do we learn to “read” our materials and be willing to change our minds to serve those materials and the stories best? In other words, how much to we control the story, and how much does it control us?

* The Power of the Written Story What kinds of stories seek text alone?

* Digital Stories–the power of the medium, the peril of the medium (Student Examples on DVD–I’ll put links here soon)

* The Power of the Voice (Listen to Logan–on DVD)

* The Power of the Image (Flickr Set Exercise )

—Oral histories (podcasts, etc. Vermont Folklife Center will help with this medium, so I won’t)

—Image Stories (Soundslides and Web 2.0 options, see Alan Levine’s WikiList of Story Tools)

—Audio-Image/ Text-Image Stories (Soundslides and Slideshare, Flickr and Picnik, Flickr Notes) Exercise in pairs: Telling a Story in Five Flickr Images (lessons in searching, in associations, in color, in transitions, in story arc, in what images convey easily and not so easily; Exercise in telling a story dominated by image, punctuated by text using the same five Flickr images as before, this time manipulating the images in picnik and writing on them)

—Multimedia Stories (video editing possibilities, looking at a simple documentary and digital stories)

RESOURCES

THE ROLE OF STORYTELLING

Storytelling and Rural Communities

Scott Russell Sanders “The Most Human Art”

Storytelling and Fund-raising

Bryan Alexander’s Web 2.0 Storytelling

STORYTELLING PROCESS

Ira Glass from This American Life: Tips on Storytelling

Storyboarding for Macs

Storyboarding from Berkeley’s Knight Media Center

Berkeley’s Knight Center for Media Tutorials on Multimedia

The Center for Digital Storytelling’s Cookbook

OurMedia’s Oral History Resources

WQED of San Francisco’s Guide to Digital Storytelling

The University of Minnesota has done excellent work both in digital storytelling and in facilitation

Here’s an example of ways to curate the stories from ACMI Museum in Melbourne, Australia

An example of a way to screen stories that include letters, old pictures, scrapbooks

Storytelling Examples

City of Memory Project in New York City (StoryCorps)

Place Stories in Australia Software and Server hosting stories combined into on

The Elder Storytelling Place (Ronni Bennett is from Portland, Maine)

Rural Voices Radio

Joe Lambert’s DS about Saving the Albany Bulb

M.I.T.’s Landphoto

Listen UP! ” a youth media network that connects young video producers
and their allies to resources, support, and projects in order to develop
the field and achieve an authentic youth voice in the mass media.”

The Washington Post’s “On Being” Project

Apalshop

The Moth

Touching Hearts Stories (narrative made up of several individual stories–note the simple use of image, sound and text)

360 Degrees Perspective on the U.S. Criminal Justice System: Background, Timeline, Stories and Discussion

NYT Project: Race in America site

Mediastorm ***Great example

Shifting Ground

Interactivenarratives.org

American Diversity Project

EveryBlock.com

Holding Up the Memories

***Mountain Workshops

Marching Together Soundslides

Saving the Sierra

Meadowlark Project

Capture Wales Digital Stories

National Writing Project

Digital Stories from Canada

Stories for Change Digital Storytelling Portal

Storytelling Project in Oakland, CA

OurMedia How-tos

ArtMobs Tours of MOMA

Murmur Project A Whole New Way to Tell and Hear Stories

Museum of the Person Digital Stories

Maps and Stories

Mapping the stories using Wayfaring

Flickr MemoryMaps

Bay Area Map of Dangerous Intersections

Travels of Marco Polo and Google Maps

Storymapping including this example from Ukiah, California

IMAGES

List of Things You Can Do with Flickr Images

MIT Course in Photography

Flickr note posting example Xrays

Visual Literacy

Pomona’s Visual Literacy Project

Dave Gray on Visual Thinking

Garr Reynolds’ Presentation Zen

Cornell University’s Introduction to the Elements of Design

DIAGRAMS

Gliffy for Diagrams and Flow Charts

Mind mapping

Flowgram

Video

Videoediting on Jumpcut

Moviestorm Making Animated Movies

TAGGING

Alan Levine’s List of Tagging Resources

SOCIAL MEDIA

PEW Internet and American Life Project

FullCircle Associates Online Facilitation Wiki

Davis, California Wiki

Umberto Eco From Gutenberg to the Internet

Social Media in Plain English

A Primer on Social Media

Should Your Organization Use Social Networking Sites?

Digital Storytelling Early Process: Choices and Gathering Material*


Script

Write a one-hundred to two-hundred word draft of a narrative. (Topics shift course to course.) As eventually you will be reading this narrative aloud in a voiceover, it is important to consider the following questions:

Where is the dramatic moment—the actual moment in time when something momentous occurs?
What does this story reveal about the topic?
Why is it necessary to tell this story in this course?
Do you open by grabbing the reader’s interest in hearing this story?
Do you end in a way that suits your objective?

Write the three-sentence version of narrative:
Sentence 1- Beginning:

Sentence 2- Middle:

Sentence 3-End:

How do your sentences work individually and with one another to create a flow?
How does meaning build because you are reading it aloud?
How will you use your voice? How do timbre, speed and modulation affect the meaning? Practice different ways of reading your script. Record and listen to yourself.
How might images and soundtrack pull their weight and not act as appendages; in other words, why can’t this story be a radio story?

IMAGES
Consider what kinds of images will help tell the story: literal or metaphorical, concrete or abstract, long-shot and close-up, color or not, and how the images will move from one to the next, considering how an image is “a peculiar and paradoxical creature both concrete and abstract,” (W. J. Thomas Mitchell (2005) What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images, University of Chicago Press p. xvii) and experiencing scholar Craig Stroupe’s “visualizing English.” (“Visualizing English: Recognizing the Hybrid Literacy of Visual and Verbal Authorship on the Web.” College English May 2000. Reprinted in Visual Rhetoric in a Digital World: A Critical Sourcebook . Ed. Carolyn Handa. Boston : Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004. 13-37.)

Gather 10-30 images you might use, being mindful of copyright restrictions.

Questions to ask:
Why these images?
How do they contribute to meaning rather than look pretty?
How do they work individually and together?
How do they carry the story’s drama?

Write the three-sentence version of the visual narrative:
Sentence 1- Beginning:
Sentence 2- Middle:
Sentence 3-End:

How are you keeping in mind what Ron Burnett says: “In a general sense, the meaning of a photograph depends on the discursive efforts I put into it and on the tensions between my own interpretation and that of other viewers. This is at least one part of the creativity and tension of viewing, which encourages the development of a variety of different vantage points as well as contestation around the meaning of images.” (Ron Burnett (2005) How Images Think, M.I.T Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, p.14)

SOUNDTRACK

Consider the audio elements, how you will use your voice and/or the voices of others, and how non-vocal sounds might interact with voice. Consider whether you want to include a music soundtrack or ambient sound. If so, what kind of music would help tell the story? What role does the music play? Try out several very different kinds of soundtracks that create contrasting moods and tones.

Write the three-sentence version of the sound narrative:
Sentence 1- Beginning:

Sentence 2- Middle:

Sentence 3-End:

STORYBOARDING
Storyboard the digital story, exploring the repercussions not only of pushing image against image, word against word, and sound against sound, but image against sound against word. Think about the way someone “reads” a digital story: “Because users can click on a video clip, turn it off by closing the window, replay it, or skip forward or backward in the narrative, the use of video becomes a dialogically fraught element: it enhances, disrupts, complexifies the notion of narration itself.” (Helen Burgess, Jeanne Hamming, Robert Markley “The Dialogics of New Media,” in (eds) (2003) Mary E. Hocks, Michelle R. Kendrick Eloquent Images: Word and Image in the Age of New Media MIT Press, Cambridge, MA p. 75.)

* Excerpted from a chapter on digital storytelling I’ve written fro a forthcoming anthology.

There’s No Doctor in This House, Just Someone Who Asks a lot of Questions: Where I’m Headed, Part One

“…for most [people], the right to learn is curtailed by the obligation to attend school.” (Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society, 1970 p.xix)

I’m an unabashed generalist. A near novice in any field. Now that I’ve left my teaching position, I’m no longer qualified for it–I couldn’t even apply, wouldn’t make the interview round. No joke. A bona fide outsider. After all, the theory goes, you wouldn’t want a non-degreed, non-licensed doctor to operate on you. So if you are shelling out $50,000 a year on college, you don’t want anything but a certified expert in the classroom. And I’m no Doctor.

conversation

Don’t get me wrong. I know many spectacularly gifted PhDs who do fabulous teaching and research, who push my own thinking every time I encounter their work, who are incredible, imaginative learners. We need specialists. But not only specialists.

I could never imagine myself studying any one thing exclusively–I majored in art history, did a Masters in English, am deeply interested in creative expression, Irish Studies, multimedia narrative, 21st-century learning, gardens, architecture, digital art, food in culture, sustainable communities, the history and theory of education, photography–all kinds of subjects. I wanted it all, fluidly, simultaneously. I never wanted to teach the same course semester upon semester (in spite of agreeing with Gardner Campbell that every semester opens as a tabula rasa). Increasingly, I didn’t want to teach with a syllabus at all but to wander about a subject as a group of learners needed and wanted, exploring from as many angles, histories, perspectives as possible, veering off topic altogether when that was what we needed to do.

I even proposed to the college that I would be happy to continue teaching from the new center I was designing, as long as students could be released from the semesterized, campus-ized model, coming down instead to the center in intensive bursts when relevant collaborations, mini-courses, projects presented themselves there; when not at the center, they would graze freely on the myriad open-course opportunities on the Web, pulling together a mosaic of study: reading, conversing and reflecting online, creating, working in tutorial and/or in small groups, taking whatever time (within reason–deadlines have their use) made sense to complete that “course.” Some students could get the credit fast, in a few weeks; others might take a year or grow a single course into multiple credits. That idea went over…well...not so much.

Which makes sense because whereas the ability to work and learn and live this way has once again become possible (in a newly rich, global-as-well-as-purely-local way), the fear of the miscellaneous and anarchy and chaos–loss of control–has led to our time out of school looking more and more like school and our neighborhoods no longer about neighbors at all.

trainview

I was quite aware of breaking the rules of the Academy, and that I was a puzzlement to my students–who was this odd duck with neither PhD nor string of important books? No books? How did someone like me get to a place like this? (Well, I was only sort of in “a place like this”–a lecturer, never a professor, I inhabited the margins of this place.) I’d explain that I was lucky, an anomaly. Couldn’t be pigeon-holed. Couldn’t be known. And for a long time, I couldn’t see how it could get any better: I could be in school but not of school. I could hang onto my rebel cred WHILE reaping the benefits of a life in college.

So, why ever would I leave if I’d never be able to return?

Hypocrite hypocrite.

Reading Illich, hooks, Rose, Greene, Arendt, Gomez-Pena, Sontag, Freire, and more recently Gee, Wellman, Levy, Hawisher & Selfe, Tuan, and Weinberger and, well, so many others, and right now some fantastic bloggers engaged in continuous, dynamic conversation of the now in the now, made me uneasy about staying. I was troubled when I read what string theorist Brian Greene wrote in an op-ed piece for The International Herald Tribune:
“We rob science education of life when we focus solely on results and seek to train students to solve problems and recite facts without a commensurate emphasis on transporting them out beyond the stars.”

crowsatdawn
And when he said that “America’s educational system fails to teach science in a way that allows students to integrate it into their lives.” Integration and imagination take time and opportunities to speculate, to dream, to play with what-ifs.

Of course in 1970, Ivan Illich wrote (once again in Deschooling Society): “…the deep fear which school has implanted within us, a fear which makes us censorious.” (p.18 ) How can learners dare reach beyond themselves, beyond the stars if they are blocked, bounded by fear?

Michael Pollan gets at the same dilemma of over-specialization and fear–in his case, as it pertains to how and what we eat–in his new book, In Defense of Food, (you can read the introduction on his website). He shows us the promise of this particular moment: “We are entering a postindustrial era of food; for the first time in a generation it is possible to leave behind the Western diet without having also to leave behind civilization. And the more eaters who vote with their forks for a different kind of food, the more commonplace and accessible such food will become. Among other things, this book is an eater’s manifesto, an invitation to join the movement that is renovating our food system in the name of health—health in the very broadest sense of that word.”

But is the answer to go back? Or to go forward in a new way?

In spite of my growing unease I stayed. For years. I complained a lot, sometimes loudly, mumbling something about the importance of working from within the system, about influencing the next generation of leaders. To ask them thee questions. To point at these dilemmas.

And anyway, go where?

Everywhere. Anywhere. Both back to very old ways of doing things and forward into cyberspace. Post-industrial?

Into town. Downtown. Back into town. AND wherever in the world we need to go.

Solving the World's Problems

Now that we can harness the creative and connective powers of the Web and the open education resources of some of our great universities, why ever stay within the confines of a single school? Why shell out up to $50,000 a year for fancy digs when for no money at all we can reap the full benefits (sans credit) of such courses as the one George Siemens and Stephen Downes are offering? How long will the cachet of a degree from elite institutions and the attendant uber-important connections be enough to trump the limits of single-school-in-place-with-limited number-of-course-offerings-and-departments-and-majors? It was time to make the leap.

thecall

The community digital learning centers I am planning (slowly) are being conceived in the spirit of the miscellaneous, of emergence, of collective intelligence, of de-schooling, of edupunk, of slow-food (slow communities now too). Yup. All of those.

after rain

With my merry band of cohorts I’m exploring how to marry collaborative Web practices to the lived-in, traditional community to open our notions of learning–when and what and how. Right now we’re thinking about four-five pilot sites across the country, ranging from small rural communities, to suburbs to small cities. These physical centers will be places where people from across a community’s spectrum gather in person to discuss and learn and explore and share the connected and expressive practices of the Web. Within this neutral non-school people can shuck their fear of trying out these tools and practices within the workplace. People with no computer or internet access at home can hang out in the lab. Kids and the elderly can swap stories as they teach one another invaluable lessons about life. Nonprofits and agencies can gather to learn from one another and help one another both online and in person. Individuals can avail themselves of the computers, the space, the mentors to engage in hybrid learning.

Is it possible that these Web practices, instead of potentially polarizing us into affinity groups and spaces as some contend, can be used to ease community divides? To help solve community problems? To engage children and adults together in deep learning that is contextualized, shared, and personally relevant? To give people a chance to experience the power and joy and fun of the creativity and storytelling and feelings of belonging unleashed by some of these practices? What does the new digitized community learning center look like? Who is there? Why? How is it sustained? How do the practices of de-schooling, online learning, and informal f2f learning inform one another?

These aren’t new ideas. Hardly. But there are so few initiatives in rural places, at least, that are fusing the online and off, bringing people together into contact zones within a center and then moving out into the world online. We have few community computing centers, few internet cafes, even, and fewer centers seeking simultaneously a return to the slow while rejoicing in the fast. Rather, we have roaming workshops and consultants blasting in and out–a great, bonding time online or off, and then you’re on your own. Is that sustainable? Does it actually work? I’d rather work from inside communities to ease the participatory gap, one along the lines of what 826 Valencia or The Sunset Neighborhood Beacon Center or The Purple Thistle Center are modeling (funny that these are all in intensely urban areas) but in smaller communities, and with a decidedly Web bent and with an open, generalist’s slate of offerings–each center will be of that community for that community and so will, I imagine, function quite differently from other centers.

I’d love to hear about initiatives/centers from which I could learn–I am in the gathering information, writing vision statements & strategic plans (and grants) stage.

Even from you doctors out there. 😉