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.

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

On Taking Pictures Shifting the Way I Blog, On Blogging Changing the Way I Take Pictures

heading in

Dean Shareski’s post reflecting on his experience with the 366 Photo Project and Alan Levine’s comment back to him about using metaphor on/in both image and writing have me thinking again about the relationship between image and text in my blogging and more actively creative explorations. Like Dean, I’ve written numerous times about the power of images in my work, in my case, in the writing classroom, about how taking language away can reinvigorate one’s relationship with it, and how images extend text and vice versa rather than illustrate one another when they are at their best–or when they create, yes, metaphor. The sum should be greater than the total of its parts.

walking on the beach

I’ve been noticing something shifting in the way I blog and in the way I take pictures: how using language and taking photos often–not always but often– influence one other, intersect with one other, complicate one other as I am in the act, and not just once they are placed down into a post. In other words, I not only lug my camera with me wherever I go and take lots of pictures (except when I intentionally leave my camera behind so that I have to relate to what I am seeing with myself alone, something I do pretty often, actually, as an important exercise), and try with every click of the shutter to do so actively, mindfully, thinking of that image on its own distinct from any other image I’ve taken, so as to keep growing as a photographer, but–and this is a real change for me–I am increasingly unable to disentangle the picture-taking moment from writing, and the writing moment from picture-taking, at least the writing moments that interest me. As I frame a shot, I feel a story suggested, or a point I want to make on blog or in a digital multimedia piece or in a talk. And I don’t mean in a representational way or even in a clearly metaphorical way. Something about the color, the saturation, perhaps, or the angle, the contrast, and not necessarily the subject at all.

Photos for me are never isolated incidents or expressions, then, but part of other things, or preludes to other things. I guess that is why the 366 Project isn’t my thing–I am too messy, too discursive, a storyteller working in bursts from a center, building towards something–I usually know not what until I am well into the creating. Take how did I get here this image, for example. As soon as I started playing with shots of the koi and duck, a post about collaboration started unfolding (in process right now); and this one island prow suggested to me when I saw it before I put camera to eye, the geometry of opposition, another post-idea floating about or perhaps a part of the collaboration post, and then I sought a way to create that sense in the image. I wasn’t, in other words, just looking for an interesting image that would stand on its own. I am finding that my words need my images, and my images need my words. And thus my Flickr sets and my text-only notebooks are sketches only and not as interesting to me as my stories, my presentations, some of my blogposts.

I’m also finding the way I explore online spaces shifting. I go to Flickr as often as to Bloglines and leave comments on photos as often as I do on blogs. (I really should use images to respond to images, I suppose…will have to try that.) I follow several blogs devoted to photography, multimedia and/or vernacular creativity including Dawoud Bey,Bagnewsnotes, Exposures, Magnum, and Do You Know Clarence (thanks to Leslie Madsen-Brooks).

I’m interested in Roy Ascott’s work, in Ron Burnett’s thinking about art, in all manner of theorists, philosophers and artists who write about the visual. I’m searching for explorations, commentary, meditations on this reciprocity between online digital writing and digital picture-taking, not as ekphrasis but as part of the online writer’s process of conceiving narrative and meaning.

I wonder if others are feeling this way, though I don’t often see posts using images in interesting, provocative ways (that s not to say that the way I use images always works–au contraire; mine are often glorious failures!) Because taking images has become an act of writing for me, I almost never (except in presentations) borrow other people’s photos (not a true mash-up artist I), but I would like to do more of that. I think it would be a good exercise, and I wish I had explored mash-ups more with my students when I had students. 😉

the world in an eggplant

Now it is time to take next steps, exploring more ways to push image up against text, to move them together and apart and see what I learn about what I am trying to say through the process of finding modes of expression new to me. I know I am hampered by my lack of skill, and so I need to become more versed at multimedia expression, the kind I am already doing, but also moving beyond the simple rotation of text and image, or of image with text written on it, or collage. Time, I think, to learn Flash. Time to get more creative, more bold, more experimental, perhaps, as a way to think about what it is we are doing in this creative/expressive/communicative/connective medium. Time to do more with audio, too.

How lucky we are to have this flexible medium that acts at once as palette and vehicle, as idea-source and expressive connector, as reflective/reflexive space and contact zone. How remarkable our students who often stun me with their creativity with this medium (oh, I will miss that!). As Janet Murray writes in Hamlet on the Holodeck: “As I watch the yearly growth in ingenuity among my students, I find myself anticipating a new kind of storyteller, one who is half hacker, half bard. The spirit of the hacker is one of great creative wellsprings of our time, causing the inanimate circuits to sing with ever more individualized and quirky voices; the spirit of the bard is eternal and irreplaceable, telling us what we are doing here and what we mean to one another.” (p.9) Is this what I struggle towards but have not the skills for?

So much to learn!

From Outside the Walls: In Search of Form and Meaning in Extreme Times

Be forewarned, this post is more of a personal reflective narrative about where I find myself than an exploration of ideas and practices of our times, so if you don’t like that sort of thing, go ahead, bow out now. 😉

My blog, morphing into an open laboratory, will include some messier-than-in-the-past posts about my doubts, my stumbling, my questions as much as my usual kinds of posts examining theory and practice of learning in our times as they play out in my world. I am not necessarily comfortable in this looser writing terrain –the risks are high–and thus I have stayed off blog more than on for the past months as I find my way. But enough of being careful. Blogging is about thinking and sharing boldly, sometimes half-baked thoughts–it is about learning and growing through the conversation, not always offering clear substance or demonstrating command or authority. Yikes. How did I forget that?

Okay, onward:

foggy ipswich morning

I have been fortunate to know summer as deep, slow quiet feathered between spring’s cacophony and fall’s exuberant re-embrace of the classroom. Wending my way through the weeks taking pictures, writing, gardening, playing, dreaming, traveling, cooking seems as natural and necessary as engaging in intense creative collaborations during the “school year.” The very bounded nature of that time invites its expansiveness, its dreaminess–it is luxurious precisely because it has limits, tensions, oppositions. The form poem. The classroom at its best.

into the kitchen

Even though it is summer, I miss acutely that beauty in what I have just left: the passion and optimism of my students, and what great teachers on my old campus, the Hector Vilas and John Elders, inspire in them. John’s recent comment sent me back to my old world:

“But I feel that such tension–between what Dave Smith calls desire and dailiness–can itself itself intensify our awareness of what’s really important. Contrast-value can be essential to staying awake. When I think back to recent classes on “Michael” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” or to class trips to hear Jean Ritchie sing or to climb Mt. Abe, I feel grateful to Middlebury for offering an educational structure from which these experiences of a life-time blasted off.

I guess my conclusion is that, while traditional institutions and structures can be oppressive, they can (and must) also be enlivened. Curricula, theology, and law can slump into dead weights indeed, but when overtaken by discovery, grace, and compassion can start to breathe again. And to dance.”

lotus dance

He’s so right. He describes the beauty of the classroom. Those of us lucky enough to have had such extraordinary experiences as I did when I studied with John in graduate school or as Gardner Campbell did draw daily inspiration from such teachers in our own work. Unlike Matt Crosslin* (Note added 8/20/08: please see the follow-up comments for a correction of this statement–sorry Matt for misreading your earlier comment!), I don’t think great classrooms are common at all. Too many teachers do not go beyond the comfortable syllabus, the safe lecture, the composed practice, in part because of systemic realities such as Leslie points out within even some of our finest large universities. What a shocking disregard for the deeper purposes of an education, of the sort John described in his response to me.

But he is exceptional. And just who has access to such an experience, to such a teacher? Too few. Too few. Even in a small college. The liberal arts college environment is too soft, too privileged, too disconnected from the actual messy classroom of the world–at least it is right now, at least in my experience. There are other ways, and I believe, better ways–especially now– to unlock the potential of our best selves, within the contact zones of a messier place than a traditional institution of higher education.

A place without clear summers, perhaps. Like this one. It is not quiet. It is not silent.

graffitti art montreal

I face nothing finite on the other end except for the end of summer itself, something subtly insinuating itself into the fields with the massing of swallows on the wires, the fading of the fawn’s spots, the empty nests, the yellowing fields. There’s no human-made marker, no school shaping the movement of time and responsibility and endeavor. I have walked beyond the sheltering walls of formal education and into the chaos of the world of messy, participatory learning. It is quite a feeling.

in a window, montreal

Could this be creative free-fall? Living the free-verse poem? Of the sort I tell my students to expect when they enter our learning community and have to feel their way as a group and as individuals through the labyrinth of possibility? What lovely irony. I’ve left the classroom to find the classroom, a truly participatory one in which I am as much apprentice as expert, as often confused as inspired, angry as delighted. How will the small centers I plan help communities if Obama loses the election and we continue as a country along this hellacious, divisive path? If we do not apply ourselves immediately to the urgent environmental crises of our time?

How do I find patience in this extreme time?

in the fray

I am awkward outside of school. My passion can overwhelm as much as inspire. A vision that seems so straightforward to me is easily misread, filtered through what is assumed and already experienced rather than what is possible. I have much to learn.

brilliance in a japanese garden pond

A big challenge is finding a way to articulate simply, clearly and sensibly a practical vision for centers devoted to creativity, collaboration and reciprocal apprenticeships within our lived-in small communities. How difficult that is when people naturally read through the spectacles of known context and experience–how do you describe something that hasn’t quite existed before, at least not quite as I am imagining? I am searching for form.

foraging in the Chinese garden pool

Even as I struggle with the words I am laughing at myself for not walking the walk. When I whined a bit on Twitter recently about having trouble with the mission statement, Steve Greenlaw suggested I post it and get feedback. Up until now I have done that but only kinda sorta–I have let people directly involved in the project onto the pages-in-process. Now I am considering making the entire process transparent and collaborative by blogging the draft mission and vision statements (and naming ideas), the turns in the road.

No more shyness or fear of failure.

vive montreal

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. 😉

Free flow: watching & learning from my students

waiting for spring

While I’m sorting out my problems with archived posts’ broken links (argh), wrestling with upcoming talks, and complaining about Vermont’s never-ending winter, I thought it would do me and you good to move to a more positive outlook and point to some extraordinary work my students are doing with Web-based practices. 😉 (This is what I will miss next year.)

IMG_2277
Even though Alex has taken three classes with me, I cannot say that I have taught him much of anything. He’s just plain old inventive, daring, creative, talented and willing to find the rules for himself, for each experience, rather than conform to some static set delivered to him. As has been true with a long line of students, I’ve been learning a good deal from him, as are my current crop of creative writers, for they have the good fortune to have him as one of their senior writing tutors. He was blogging well before he met me, and has continued blogging, folding into his own brand of link-blogging his creative and reflective writing on all manner of topics, currently on Mongolia (where he spent last semester) and heavy metal. He receives comments from people all over the world who share his particular interests, as well as from former teachers, family members, classmates and friends. His is truly a dispersed, loosely-knit, ever-fluid network. He is also a truly amazing photographer and one of my favorite Flickr commenters and cohorts (just look at this image, for instance), and so I am glad, also, to point to his new photoblog.

Some of this output is connected to his coursework (the more formal pieces on Mongolia and metal are part of the independent study he’s doing with me right now) but most of it is not. There’s no place in our courses for this kind of expressive work (he’s had to resort to an independent study), and that’s sad. But he perseveres, and makes the connections between his courses, his interests and the world on his own, because he’s that kind of learner.

My intro-creative writers are also exploring online expression in interesting ways, using a range of tools and practices to find form and meaning, moving away the now-traditional CDS-style digital-story. A few examples: Lois moves her own paintings, music and video into her story. In a quick in-class exercise Kyle creates a Flickr poem, which changes the entire experience of engaging with the text. Clare makes a hypertext creative nonfiction using only image and sound and requiring the involvement of the viewer. All of these projects underscore the students’ understanding of a degree of reader choice and involvement in the writing of the piece. They are writing for more than themselves, actively immersing their reader into the making of the work. And none of them had ever done any of this kind of writing before.

When students have opportunities to find their own forms while contextualizing them within their own lives, their own means of solving the problems we set out for them in our assignments instead of having them adhere to well-oiled formulaic structures and expected outcomes of our disciplines, what might they teach us and themselves? What might they break through to in making connections? In his ELI talk last month, George Seimens quoted historian William Cronon: “More than anything else, being an educated person means being able to see connections so as to be able to make sense of the world and act within it in creative ways.” This, this is what my students are trying to do, and in spite of some hefty impediments in their path, in their hypertext reflections on writing creative nonfiction, they show that they get it. They are connecting, and learning to connect, and learning to make connections. I see it in how they see the importance of learning to read as a writer–from the inside–instead of as a scholar only–from the outside. They are trying to connect to their readers as well as to their subject matter, to themselves as well as to some abstract notion of academic excellence. And playing around in this connected medium really helps them to do just that.

How many teachers can say that a first stop on their online daily tour is their students’ blogs, not to check up on them, but to learn from them?