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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When the teacher travels…

…she doesn’t need to cancel class. Why should she cancel class in order to attend a conference or to give a talk?

If she does cancel her classes when she is unable to attend, then she probably believes that students cannot learn without her, cannot benefit from engaging with one another out of her presence. Or she has a research assignment or the like coincide with her absence, which seems like a valid reason for canceling class–but is it? Why give up one precious opportunity for the group to come together to puzzle out something, and to continue to build the bonds of reciprocal apprenticeships?

If she does cancel class, then she must be making herself mighty indispensible.

If she does cancel class, then her students potentially lose a precious opportunity to explore the course together, richly, without her (whether she likes it or not) dominant perspective and voice and persona.

vermont elixir

So, with these thoughts in mind, I did not cancel class when I went out to NITLE’s Conference on Teaching Writing in the Digital Age (I will, btw, post the text version of my talk within the next week–after one more talk). Instead, I worked with my senior tutors to design a class they felt comfortable leading, and that provided opportunities for learning in that moment of the course as we moved from fiction to poetry.

winter leaves the pond

I’ve written before about how bringing seniors who have taken intro courses with me back into those courses a couple of years later, as tutors, to mentor the younger writers, and to have their own intro work showcased in the syllabus as models, examples of the kind of writing we will practice, is one of the best things about my teaching. The seniors act as go-betweens, as translators in a way, as they understand the method to my madness, and they understand the freefall of the students who are thrown into a classroom that values failure, that insists on risk, and aims to travel deeply into the world of reading and writing. They lead the Wednesday evening workshops during which they dream up inventive writing exercises and help model effective workshopping practices (I teach two days a week in a comfortable, computer-free lounge, and then hold a two-hour evening workshop once a week during which we look at things online and/or students workshop their writing in small groups).
april full moonrise

And so, I’m delighted to say that from all reports, workshop Wednesday evening and class on Thursday went very well. The students were engaged, lively, interested and probably pleased to have me out of the room for a moment. Does this mean that I think I should absent myself from class more often? Probably not. I don’t think any member of the learning community should be absent unless absolutely necessary. The shared language thins and the collaborative experience cracks if the members come and go too much during a 12-week course. We need to commit to this shared course, to our reciprocal apprenticeships if we are to reap the benefits from the 21 minds, imaginations, lives we represent. But having the person who, until we change our educational system altogether, holds the power of course design and evaluation abssent herself once during the semester, is a healthy thing indeed.

In Three Places at Once

taxidermy

These past few days I have found my head in three places at once: here in San Antonio at Educause’s ELI conference (an event that brings together a fantastic crew in person and through Twitter–see Jim Groom’s post about experiencing the event from afar), a ways up the road in Arlington, Texas where I will meet up with UTexas faculty and The Texas Bluebonnet Writing Project later this week, and back at Middlebury, where my students have been wrapping up J-term with me away, participating virtually through ongoing 100-word posts, reading their blog entries and emails. I found myself moving with ease between thoughts of and interactions with these three different worlds.

People have noticed me working on a 100-word posts as I wait for some session or another to get going. Some have asked, “You mean you don’t have posts stored up, ready to push out? You mean you actually write the 100-word entries right here, in the middle of this mayhem?” I say, yes, I do, and that it is a pleasure to pull away from the conference from time to time to spend moments with my class, in my class-on-the-blogs. My students know I am still reading along, commenting occasionally, reading always, posting my own entries about lighthouses, cranberries and squash. They know I’m right there with them.

Indeed, as I prepare to head to Arlington by reconnecting with the workshops and talk I’ve prepared, as I continue to talk with my fab four colleagues about our presentation on Fear 2.0 and the ensuing dialogue about how to overcome our panic, our unease, our mistrust, our FEAR, I also have been reading the narrative reflections my students posted today. I wish I could have shared these at our talk yesterday. Although not required to post their course reflections on blog, many students have–to our good fortune–for in these thoughtful revisitings of our course journey, these students have created a map for me as I try to find my way, creatively and critically as a teacher and learner. These reflections are long, but so well worth reading for they show how much can happen in even just a short time if we allow ourselves to embrace reciprocal apprenticeships and expect great things of our students and ourselves, and then help them explore this world of online communication and expression. I think that from now on, all I have to do, when people ask me what it is I am up to in my classes and why I think it works, is to point them at these reflections. This is what can happen. This is what should happen.

To give you a taste of what you’ll find in their reflections, here are just a couple of excerpts:

At the end of the first day of class, when Barbara asked if anyone wanted to leave. I almost raised my hand. Not out of disinterest to the course, but fear of failure. Failure of a bad a grade. Failure of embarrassment in front of my peers. Seeing what the rest of the class came up with in small exercises, I didn’t stand a chance. But something kept my hand down that day. An inner curiosity and fearlessness that I cannot explain. That little gremlin on my shoulder that told me to dare, has made all the difference four weeks later.

I had never thought of blogging before this class. So from what started as a requirement for the class became an addiction, and obsession. Before I checked Facebook every night, I would see if anyone’s 100 word piece hit home. I couldn’t wait for people to post comments in response to my blogs so I could start a conversation about the piece and hopefully something bigger. It’s changed the way I view writing. Abshek

And

I never realized how powerful blogging could be — so enriching and vast and stimulating. At the beginning of the course, I found myself spending all my time on other people’s blogs, reading what they had written and wishing I could write more like they did and be less like me. I only went on my blog to post whatever we had to post. I stressed over what template to use. Back then, that was what was most important.

But the days began to roll past. I realized that there was, actually, magic in my own blog. That maybe I could actually surprise myself and take risks. I raised my hand and read one of my pieces to the class one day. It was no masterpiece, but I finally started to have more faith, to look at my own writing more objectively, to know its flaws, but to also acknowledge it as mine. I learnt it was up to me, and the blog was the tool to make the most of my writing.

Blogging and workshopping also changed my way of reading. I read other blogs and pieces as a writer. I learnt from them. I commented on them. I talked to them personally about their writing. I didn’t limit myself to doing this in class or for class. It had become a way of life. My obsession with facebook has been replaced with the obsession for wordpress. This really took off with me. Annabelle

So, thanks, J-term Writing students, for the extraordinary month, for sharing your work with me, one another, and the world, and for daring to write better than you thought you could by being willing to face the fear of failure, throwing yourselves into the work, and to seeing the world with wonder. I count myself lucky indeed to have been a fellow adventurer, even when I am not in the classroom.

ELI Youtube Fear 2.0 Video

More anon on ELI and all the terrific people and ideas–my wee contribution to the Fear 2.0 digidrama:

Looking Back, Moving Forward: A Talk at Exeter

Sifting through my archives, I see that not only do I like the cusps of things, the edges, the beginnings and endings, the transitions, I seem to do a lot of blogging during such times.

foxontherun (fox stealing a pear)

The cusp of the school year, of course, quite naturally prompts a looking back on the summer (hence all those lousy what-I-did-over-the-summer essay assignments September after September–don’t teachers have any imagination?) and previous years as I move into the wonder of the fall semester a day or a week before I meet my students in class for the first time. I wrote such a post in 2004, , 2005 (on the heels of Katrina) , 2006 (one that captures the old Russian custom exercise I will use again this year), and I am drawn back here to do so again even though it’s the middle of Labor Day weekend, writing deadlines loom, and it’s a drop-dead gorgeous early evening.

roadtoschool

This year is one of the special ones when I teach a first-year seminar, and already my students are stirring the blog with letters (via email to me for their posts at this point) and comments–their first forays into our community. With five days to go before we have our first class together, 13 of the 15 have been on the blog–I am delighted to read their introductions and to see how they have understood my request for them to introduce themselves as writers before having the chance to see one another. Of course, they could all well be communicating with one another via Facebook for all I know. For this teacher, though, who will not look for them on their own social network spaces, getting to know them through their writing (both posts and comments) first has me thinking through my exercises for the first weeks of semester, selecting ones I think will work for them, and it also takes me back to other beginnings of years.

mainememory

Yesterday I was sent forward and back in quick succession: forward as I brought my younger daughter to college for the first time, and back to childhood and my teaching roots at Exeter where I had the honor of delivering a talk to the faculty before the opening of their school year. How strange to be standing in front of former teachers (was I in a dream in which I was 15 again, giving a presentation in one of my high school classes?) and how exhilarating to be sharing with them how my grounding in Harkness has informed my Web 2.0 teaching. The school where my father taught. It was something, and quite a fitting way to spend August 31, 2007.

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Here is the first half of the talk. The second half was a tour through my course blogs to show the how of what I do. I think the slides show enough (and I’ve written about my course blogging many times), so I won’t fill in the details unless someone requests clarification. And as usual, the Q & A period was the richest time of all. Excellent, sometimes tough, questions.

Slide1

What a pleasure it is to stand here before you in this room on this campus. I have spent much of the past nine months speaking to faculty in Europe, Australia and the U.S. about a new kind of blended teaching, a 21st-century Harkness pedagogy that embraces deep learning based on reflection, action and social-constructivist learning theory. But to give a talk here about bringing Harkness online quite takes my breath away. As you know, I grew up on this campus, a beneficiary of this school’s gifts as daughter of one of the great Harkness teachers. Indeed, I learned to teach here, at the dinner table under my father’s tutelage, as a student of some of the great Harkness teachers, by learning from Jack Heath in the Exeter Writing Project, by visiting my father’s classroom in the early 80s when I was just starting out as a teacher. It is quite something to be here 20 years after my dad retired and at the beginning of the school year following his death. What an honor. And so I thank Kathleen and Shelley and Vi for inviting me and all of you for coming here to listen to me speak about something that may well make you uneasy. But I am okay with that, for as the dynamic systems theorists tell us, “learning happens in cycles of disruption and repair” (Skorczewski), and a little disruption is a good thing indeed at the opening of a new school year.

Slide2

I lived here in the sixties and early seventies, an exciting, bewildering time of transition when Exeter shed its old-boy ways as its student body grew more diverse, its curriculum more open, its rules less rigid. I was in the first class of four-year girls, a handful of faculty daughters graduating in 1974. But that’s a whole other story. I return to Exeter today during a time even more tumultuous, a time calling for even more daring changes, perhaps, on our campuses if we are to prepare our students equally and well to take their places at THIS time in THIS world.

But before I take you on my journey with technology, and explore the benefits of taking Harkness online, I’d like you to consider what it means to you to be a Harkness teacher in the 21st century. What does Harkness offer our students? What are our responsibilities? If our goal is to guide and mentor and model and inspire as our students develop creative and critical thinking and expression skills balanced with goodness—how do these things look out there in our global, networked society? Should we care—or should we batten down the hatches and hang on to our beloved, time-honored traditions because they served us well in the past?

Slide3

Some of you—and my father would surely have been in your ranks– may well be thinking that we should resist using network technology in our classrooms. Kids spend too much time texting, phoning, Facebooking, IM-ing, You-Tubing as it is. Especially at a residential liberal arts college like Middlebury or the heart of Harkness, Exeter, we should continue an unplugged model of teaching—it is reading and writing and discussing– solving problems together over time, after all, that is our gift, that sets us apart. Why introduce the distraction of out-of-place, out-of time practice of blogging in our classes? Shouldn’t we resist the flash and seductiveness of the new?

Indeed. We should be serious about time offline. About time immersed in lived-in community, in daydreaming and noodling and walking out in the woods. I teach in a computer-free classroom two out of every three class meetings. I want those class meetings not to be spent watching films or interacting with one another or information on machines. It is a mighty gift to be in a classroom together—in a residential school together, discussing, listening, doing, learning from one another in reciprocal apprenticeships.

But it is no longer enough. And I would go further to say that it is no longer the best way, even, to teach and learn.

The day I brought my daughter to Exeter as a new Lower catapulted me, of all people, into teaching with technology. You see, I am not a techie. I hadn’t heard of a blog two weeks before I introduced one into a first-year seminar on contemporary Ireland. But that day, September 11, 2001, shook me from my lovely complacency. I saw clearly then how ill-prepared my students and I were to participate in a networked, global society, and effectively engage with emerging online communication practices. I was teaching as though nothing had really changed since I had been a student. And while my students were lucky that my pedagogy was Harkness-based, and while their credentials were increasingly astonishing, classroom discussion was often superficial, writing formulaic, and engagement with extended, deep learning for learning’s sake difficult to muster. The kids were distracted. Disconnected. Though they performed well. And liked class. Exonians counted in their midst.

Slide4

I realized then what Barry Wellman of the University of Toronto meant by observing: “The broadly-embracing collectivity, nurturing and controlling, has become a fragmented, variegated and personalized social network. Autonomy, opportunity and uncertainty are the rule.” People no longer know their neighbors, as Robert Putnam pointed out in Bowling Alone. As Daniel Pink argues, the work world, too, has changed, now requiring adaptive experts, who can shift easily from one mode of thinking to another, one project to another—working collaboratively, often at a distance from colleagues. Sir Ken Robinson has shown that we are not doing a good job preparing our students for this world: graduates are unable to think creatively, work together well or express themselves clearly in a range of situations. Exactly what I had been noticing—

Ah, we like to blame technology—the sink of time, the cult of the amateur as Andrew Keen has recently argued.

But look at the riches of online exploration, the impact of the access for so many people to so much information. As Yochai Benkler points out in The Wealth of Networks, “…the diversity of perspectives on the way the world is and the way it could be for any given individual is qualitatively increased.” People with access to the internet, have access to information, to learning resources, and to networks. And potentially to choice about how to live. To solve the problems of illegal logging and exploitation of natural resources, for example, the government of Brazil has announced it will provide indigenous villages along the Amazon with satellite internet access connecting villages to one another gives them access to shared crucial information and power of their numbers. How extraordinary.

Slide5

Universities such as M.I.T. and UC Berkeley are exploring the new options and opportunities afforded by the internet,—opening their classrooms to the world, participating in the explosion of affinity spaces where people come together to learn from one another out of INTEREST not coercion. If kids have such rich learning resources available online, for free, why will they continue to plunk down their $36,000 a year to come to Exeter? Should they?

Slide6

How are we taking into account our culture’s increasing privileging of image over text, of how the world is being transformed by digital camera ownership, vernacular culture; as Susan Sontag pointed out after Abu Ghraib, “the western memory museum is largely visual”, “images no longer objects to collect but messages to be sent”. As Victoria Carrington points out, “Where more traditional models of literacy prepare children for a somewhat distant future at which time they will participate in meaningful ways in the ‘real’ world, a model of literacy matching the needs of contemporary children must take as a first principle that children are already active participants and risk takers.” (in Marsh, p.23) Hence the explosion of such sites as Youtube and Flickr—of images circulating on Facebook and MySpace. Do we spend time teaching students how to navigate and evaluate these images? How to produce visual arguments?

Slide7

I also had been noticing other kinds of shifts in this post-Internet, Generation Me. As Jean Twenge’s extensive research has found, based on data collected from 40,000 college students–”anxiety increased so much that the average college student in the 1990s was more anxious than 85% of students in the 1950s and 71% of students in the 1970s.” (p.107) “One out of three college freshmen reported feeling ‘frequently overwhelmed’ in 2001, twice as many as in the 1980s.” The cult of the individual suggests that they do not trust others because they have been taught to believe in themselves, to feel good about themselves no matter what—to listen to themselves and not other people. And yet they crave immediate anytime, anywhere connection, as a Middlebury study of cellphone use and autonomy suggests in finding that the average first-year student was in contact with parents over 10 times a week. College students! How do we inspire goodness and a connection to lived-in community in students who are as likely to be connected to friends far away as friends down the hall? How do we get them to commit to more than themselves when they are overcommitted, oversheduled as it is? Are we helping kids take risks as learners by getting it wrong, by experimenting, by daring to think new thoughts? How do we get them to be more reflective, to slow down, to go deep both on their own and in a collaborative context all while learning to use the emerging tools and practices of this time? How overwhelming!

As I watched my students after 9-11 reeling, trying to make sense of their world, I knew we had to venture out beyond the safe confines of the classroom. I needed to connect the classroom with the world, students to themselves and one another in meaningful, reciprocal apprenticeships. I had a responsibility to teach my students how to navigate the Web fluently, how to use it ethically, producing and publishing as well as consuming.

I had to weave into my new practices three powerful approaches to learning:
Slide8
learning as reflection;

Slide9

Learning as doing—democratic learning means taking action—making and doing things, an Arendtian approach to democratic education .

Slide10

And—Exeter’s own great gift, learning as social activity. You are lucky to be here facing this challenge—for you have long taken into account the power of informal learning outside the classroom—in the dining hall, the dorms, the playing fields. The importance of an integrated interdisciplinary program such as prep studies or the senior seminars. The value of multiple perspectives, of plurality.

Slide11

I turned to social software—blogs—as they seemed to balance the individual with the group, reflection and action, the informal with formal, the private and the public all while providing flexible opportunities to practice new literacies. They seemed uniquely to be of the time and timeless, both very old and very new.

Slide12

Few teachers were integrating digital technology into the heart of their classes, while striving to safeguard the Socratic, Harkness tradition of a residential school. bell hooks asks us whether we dare change our teaching practices even when we dare embrace progressive pedagogies.. It was scary—risky—to throw myself into the unknown. But if we teachers do not take risks, trying to become better than ourselves, how can we expect our students to do so? As Richard Miller writes in Writing at the End of the World : “Schools currently provide extensive training in the fact that worlds end; what is missing is training in how to bring better worlds into being.” (p.x) And that is what we all need to do.

Slide13

These past six years, my Harkness teaching has moved from this model:
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At least it was in theory–my classroom as it really was, if truth be known, I fear :

Slide15

Only after I brought social software into the mix did I understand that some students didn’t participate because they felt they were not invited in–they were the onlookers, the lurkers in blog parlance. Although I thought I was using an inclusive approach and inviting all the students to speak, to add their voices, to learn equally, some students felt more ownership than did others, some participated and others did not–I was espousing a progressive pedagogy but not really practicing it p.42) .

Slide16

The results of classroom blogging, as I will show you now, have been nothing short of astounding in my experience these past six years—this is now how my classes look and feel according to my students, who have become actively engaged with deep learning, developed their skills of critical and creative thinking and expression, their ability to connect and collaborate, and their confidence and skill using the digital technologies. It has been nothing short of electrifying. Staying the course for Harkness in the 21st century means evolving it to suit the needs and realities of our times, and to avail ourselves of the opportunities afforded by new ways of teaching and learning–online.

So let’s take a little look, and by all means stop me and ask questions along the way.

Slide17 Slide18 Slide19 Slide20 Slide21 Slide22 Slide23 Slide24 Slide25 Slide26 Slide27 Slide28 Slide29 Slide30 Slide31

The Tortoise and the Hare Together: A Slow-Blogger Takes to Twitter, and Other Lessons Learned at Faculty Academy

lowereastsideshopwindowfromphone D&G Soho
Shop Windows in New York City

Lately I’ve been referring to myself as a slow-blogger, taking inspiration from the slow food movement. I’ve also made it no secret that I prefer face-to-face (un)conferences to online ones of any sort because of the same kind of slow unfolding of discovery through the dynamics of being together in the same room, looking at one another, eating together, laughing, commiserating over the course of a couple of days. But as the online world started to move on from blogs-as-reflective, centering spaces, as people’s posts seemed more and more quick thoughts on the run about other blogposts instead of syntheses of many and varied tendrils of theory and practice, I secretly wondered if I was just making excuses. Was I was a slow blogger because I was slow? Did I hate online conferences because I was bad at them? Was I not the tortoise at all, but the tree, rooted in place, stuck in the old mud?

University of Mary Washington’s outstanding Faculty Academy has me jazzed again, illuminating the value of my love of blogs and gatherings, while helping me to lighten up and be playful, to take risks again instead of being the person who once took risks, was noticed because of it and now spent her time talking about taking risks. Simply put, Faculty Academy was one of the best two-day events I have ever attended –and as fabulous as Alan’s talk was (and believe me, it was fabulous) and as rich as the many presentations and Karen Stephenson’s keynote were, and as much as I learned by pushing myself in my talk to find words to express my commitment to blogging as learning tool, the best part was the relaxed way the conversation deepened, grew more complex and interesting as the days unfolded. Laughter. Jokes. Arguments. Tips. Questions. Ideas–oh, the ideas. And more laughter. Alan and Martha and Laura and Jim, just to mention a few, have all captured pieces of this extraordinary gathering.

Now as the days rush by, and I prepare and give other talks, other workshops, and as life settles again after the excitement, I dream of ways to replicate Faculty Academy at Middlebury and vow to stay inspired by the FA magic, reminding myself of what Maxine Greene says:

“I believe that teachers willing to take the risk of coming in touch with themselves, of creating themselves, have to exists in a kind of tension; because it is always easier to fall back into indifference, into mere conformity, if not into bad faith.” (in “Teaching: The Question of Personal Reality” Sept 78 TC record, Vol 80, #1)

So I’ve been thinking about the source of their magic. Is it the magician himself, Gardner Campbell? Having an inspired senior member of the faculty leading the way certainly helps enormously in the world of undergraduate liberal arts teaching. Other faculty, such as Steve and Angela and Jeff, so willing to experiment as they sharpen their teaching practices? Or is it the sort of student in their midst–the Shannons and Joes of the place? The marvelous cast of ITS characters? …Absolutely amazing to have them together on a single campus– and to hear the faculty speak of them and to them as peers, as teachers and not somehow separate, apart. I think they all–faculty, ITS, students– should take their show on the road and hold workshops on how to develop a faculty and a learning culture of trust and risk-taking and humor. They know how to laugh at themselves. They delight in discovery and in collaboration. How they cheer one another on; how they welcome outsiders! They exemplify what Vera John-Steiner explains in Creative Collaboration:

“Through collaboration we transcend the constraints of biology, of time, of habit, and achieve a fuller self, beyond the limitations and the talents of the isolated individual.” ( p.188) and “…the achievement of productive collaborations requires sustained time and effort. It requires the shaping of a shared language, the pleasures and risks of honest dialogue, and the search for a common ground.” (p.204)

And what Miriam B. Raider Roth describes in her research: “Students’ construction of trustworthy knowledge in school depends heavily on the quality of their relationships with teachers and peers.” (in “Trusting What You Know: Negotiating the Relational Context of Classroom Life” 2005)

Or –and perhaps even more important–what Margaret Mead said (as quoted by my brother): “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”

So, what in practical terms have I taken away from those two days?

1. Well, I am now Twittering and seeing that a little fun online is a good thing. I can see beyond the fun, too, as I am served links with my breakfast to posts I wouldn’t necessarily come across on my own, and 140-character snippets of experience or thoughts just percolating. I’m hooked. And while I know it is not microblogging proper, for a slowblogger, it is, it is. And I see how I can use it with my students to communicate to one another as they tackle a reading or a project, as they come across relevant sideshoots and first stirrings of thoughts to share with the group, titles, mini-abstracts, all while practicing the fine art of concision and threading through the absurd and funny moments of a day.

2. A must-read post for my students by a students about being a student engaged in reciprocal apprenticeships. Here’s a paragraph from Shannon that captures the discoveries I want my students to make about blogging within a community:

I understand now that small pieces loosely joined don’t only foster conversations about things I am interested in (as much as I would like to think the world revolves around me) but, chemistry majors could engage in deeper learning and with the possibility of ronco on the horizon those conversations can extend past our specific interests and majors and lead to conversations where we can all utilize what we know towards a better understanding of…whatever! So perhaps I don’t have to fear that super freshman who will take over my position at DTLT and then the world because there could be other conversations out there for him/her to engage in (and Jim is taking the world over anyway). Even if SuperFrosh did get involved in the dtlt conversation, I might even be ok with that. 😉 Everyone can contribute to the conversation and the more reflection the better the conversation gets. It isn’t about whether someone has better ideas than me or blogs better, it is about the conversation their ideas can generate. It is hard to admit when you are being self-centered and I’ve been guilty of some of that. What I really like about “this thing” (whatever this thing is) is it allows me to reflect individually and take time for myself but, also encourages me to share those thoughts and be open to conversation for a greater good.”

3. Remember to keep the pedagogy open the way Jim Groom is doing so brilliantly over at bavatuesdays. It’s as good as a serial to tune in to his teaching adventures.

4. Continue to focus on trust, to think about how trust plays out in departments as well as classrooms and other communities of practice.

5. Take the work but not myself too seriously–have I forgotten this? How I’ve blogged about it? Am I taking the passion, the urgency too far? After a couple of recent talks — here’s the Flickr slide set from WiAOC (I’ll post the Vermont State Colleges Academic Retreat set soon) –I felt as though I pushed too hard. Someone told me after he felt humbled by my talk. Aak! First it was a tsunami in Sweden and now this–time to lighten up. The discussion between Alan, Chris and Jim brings out both the value of a deep reflective practice but also the absurdity of jumping on a single bandwagon. I gotta get back into Second Life. Change my avatar a bit. Humor her up.

Heck, if I can move from snapping funky windows in the Lower East Side to Dolce & Gabbana’s over-the-top display (kind of Twittering with Flickr, perhaps?) I might even have to get off my high horse and head to McDonald’s, something I have never ever done.

So, between Faculty Academy, my new life on Twitter, and a dose of New York City this past weekend, I am finding a new balance. We’ll see how it asserts itself in my upcoming talks and in my classroom this fall… hey, maybe I’ll try out some short posts! 😉

Faculty Academy Talk: Change and the Twenty-First Century College Teacher

I’ve got another blogpost brewing about Faculty Academy itself (right now I am teetering between slow-blogging and just plain old blogging slow). What a pleasure to try to spin the tale and capture those days and those people, and how one experience like that can spark all kinds of creative thinking and recharge the batteries. It was remarkable.

For now, here’s the written version of my University of Mary Washington Faculty Academy 2007 talk; the version I actually gave, with slight digressions and shifts, will be available on the Faculty Academy site at some point if you want to hear my voice and see me gesticulate (shudder shudder).
(The complete set of slides at Flickr)

Change and The Twenty-first Century College Teacher: Deep Learning, Slow Blogging and the Tensions of Web 2.0

UMW Slide1

Because I am a writing teacher and because I believe you have to explore your own perspective on a topic a bit before hearing what someone else has to say, I’d like you to ponder this question for a few moments:

umw slide2

How do we see our practices relating and influencing one another–how can we understand what our students are experiencing if we don’t immerse ourselves in the very processes we ask them to explore? Why is it that some academic bloggers with thought-provoking, reflective blogs don’t ask their students to blog? I want to speak up for blogging. For ourselves. For our students. And I know that some of you don’t want to feel obligated to blog just because you have your students blog, and that some of you have moved down the road, shedding your blogging for newer clothes. Don’t abandon your practice just yet…

UMW Slide2

Those of you who read my blog–deserve a croix de guerre for making your way through the long posts-ha-, well, you know that I believe in a residential liberal arts experience for our undergraduates but one that little resembles what we have now in place at most of our institutions. And my use of Web 2.0, especially blogs and their buddies, looks very different from the way it looks elsewhere–you will find me blogging on my blog but not much on the course Motherblog, for instance. The blogs are open to the world. No one is denied access.

UMW Slide3

You might know, too, of my concern about the divide between the Academy’s staunch commitment to tradition, this generation’s rewriting of all the rules, and the work world’s dissatisfaction with both.

Slide4UMW

In 2001 to address these tensions within my classroom, I turned to blogs in my teaching –to reinvigorate learning (my students were wanting too many quick answers, directions to follow, forms to follow when they should have been yearning to experiment, to spread their reading wings and ruffle some writing feathers). I wanted to open the windows and doors between students, between the classroom and students’ lives, between the classroom and the world. I wanted students to look at themselves.

Our first forays into social software pushed me as a teacher, too–students introduced me to new ways of thinking about academic expression, embedding audio in their research papers, photographs in in their poems, video as footnotes. They ranged across the blogosphere, brought in poets to comment, and got a little too intense at times in their discussion. My students are winning awards, getting jobs and into graduate school — with the help of this work.

They’re bringing the house down.

And they’ve forced me to transform my teaching and my creative work as a result, far far more than I had ever anticipated. I’ve thrown whole syllabi out, changed the evaluation process, backed out of the center of the experience.

One of the most interesting developments, I think, is my strong preference for what I call slow blogging, both for myself and for my students.

UMW Slide5

In my own practice, that means trying to weave together the tangled and often seemingly irreconcilable strands of what I’ve picked up in my reading, my teaching, my photographing, my living. Even the titles of my blogposts carry on for longer than some bloggers’ entire posts. (I know I know, a little economy ain’t a bad thing…) But what I’m doing is trying to discover, to uncover the relationships between what I thought two months ago, two years ago, and now, and how my interests converge and inform one another, and how the ideas I find in one place can inform the ideas from another, in surprising ways. And how my use of images might add to the total meaning. It’s a way to send letters to the self. In public, as one small piece of a greater conversation about teaching and learning. What has emerged is an organic, evolving portfolio with tags and links leading both back into my experience and way out beyond myself.

I know I’m a better thinker because of my blogging –I’m more inventive and more patient. I take risks. I fail. Publicly. In front of my students! In front of brave readers who kindly argue with me, pointing out what I’ve overlooked or oversimplified. And I am learning to be tougher on myself, to insist on having something to say instead of merely repeating myself or someone else. Slow blogging is both perilous and pleasurable. And it should, I believe, be an active part of any 21st-century teacher’s practice as a window into this generation’s world as well as a way to develop teaching-with-technology skills and a deep reflective practice.

UMW Slide6

In my course design I’ve come to blend solo slow-blogging into loose blogging conversations and more staccato posting that lead to spirited conversations face-to-face. Students can’t see their posts as mere messages in a bottle. They are writing to and for actual people, people they have to see in class and hear from on the blogs, people who will inspire them and teach them through their own work put out there in our transparent, open, connected medium, people who will infuriate them with their opposing viewpoints. They learn to participate. To give. To take. To be apprentices and experts. To enter contact zones. To invite other professors, family, friends to take part. We talk about chaos and learning, about disruption and repair, about what Claude Levi-Strauss says about artists never being alone (in Davenport), about social learning theory, about John Dewey. We talk about plurality, about recognizing our own biases, our own clichés (see (Skorczewski, p 100). This is essential in our diverse classrooms, essential in our times–and what better place that a stable learning community to explore encounters with the other.

UMW Slide7

Students are often astonished.

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