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.)

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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?

Why Open A Creative Writing Course with Multimedia Experiments

How many creative writing courses include multimedia writing? Hypertext writing? How many creative writing/English departments (in small liberal arts colleges, at least) include multimedia writing courses at all? Do all painting classes insist on students grinding their paints? Do all photography classes insist on film-cameras only? Do dance departments insist on all-ballet-all-the-time? Shouldn’t students have a range of experiences? Shouldn’t we encounter the tools of the time, the full range of the art of the time at some point in the curriculum? Shouldn’t we move out of our comfort zones and play?

atthemilwaukeemuseumofart

Three weeks into creative writing class, a course that the students, when they signed up, had no idea would pull them into multimedia writing (all sections of Introduction to Creative Writing carry the same generic description, and no other section involves writing beyond text-on-paper), and already I am in awe of my students’ creative daring and their willingness to move into expressive terrain new to them as writers. Yes, they have a lot of experience looking at media–at multimedia, and writing–essays and poems and stories and shards of things in their journals or on Facebook; some of them have tried out a movie, many have taken pictures. But few have actually actively explored multimedia as an avenue for creative writing as viable as straight-up text-based creative nonfiction, fiction or poetry. Many of them, in their reflective blogging, even admit to some early consternation about multimedia and blogging being a part of a creative writing course at all. They are surprising themselves by how much they have learned about story and narrative and structure and voice–all traditional concerns of the writer, by moving outside the confines of words alone. It happens every semester.

in the kitchen, february

So why blog about this moment of the semester again? After all, I’ve been peppering the Twittersphere almost daily with my delight and astonishment over the discoveries; over the years here I have blogged repeatedly about how if you just help students open the window beyond what they thought it was okay to do in school, they would astonish you and themselves and anyone watching with their inventiveness, their intelligence, their boldness, their desire to reach down into their deepest creative recesses. I have long opened my courses with a multimedia unit. What’s different this semester is the quality and range of these early projects, the use of Web-based tools and the willingness to shake their own need to be right, to be good, to be, well, best. Most of them have also forgiven me for NOT being a famous writer. They are peeling away the layers of preconceived notions about being in a creative writing course in a school known for creative writing. And wow…

We spent the first three weeks exploring image and sound and text, individually and integrated. We played, we looked, we played, we listened, we played, we talked.

IMG_2362

And then I set them loose to create a multimedia piece that expressed something they felt they had to express, something that was not merely dazzling but meaningful. I urged them to consider the emotional as well as narrative arcs of their work; to think about entrances, exits and the terror of the middle; how the piece has to do more than exert their own fascination with their experience. It has to matter. And they had to make discoveries in the process. Or as Robert Frost put it, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”
IMG_2374

This group of 17 used all kinds of media and each other to extend their toolset, their subject matter, their creativity, their understanding. They truly taught one another and themselves and me.

One student is making an installation; some used audio/image, some text/image, some audio/text/image; lots of iMOVIE, some hypertext, slides–we used no college server, few expensive high-end tools. It was scary. Frustrating. Yet already they have stretched themselves to consider themselves as writers both in traditional ways–hunkering down with words on paper, and in emerging ways–exploring the ways in which words, images, and sound can come together on the computer screen or in a gallery space.

Here’s just a narrow sampling, including reflections (check out their individual blogs for more):

A project that lifts iMovie to new heights: Memory plus Kyle’s reflection–a first in this course–on Voicethread

A project using music as effectively and essentially as image and text:Imagine a Little Girl

Another use of image, text and voiceover: Shira And from her Reflection:

That is what multimedia has taught me. Know your story and know the tool you wish to shape it with. Because we have more options, we also have a greater responsibility – obligation, almost – to choose the best media, present our story exactly as it should be presented. As writers of the twenty-first century, we should know our alternatives and learn how to use the multitude of media available to us. If we choose to peel a potato with an axe, we should do so not out of ignorance at using the potato-peeler, but out of knowledge that the final effect, as well as the process, is the one we are after.

A project containing the student’s paintings: Catharsis

A dramatic narrative playing with voice, text and image Laura Lying (in the lane) plus reflection–excerpt here:

That being said, this has been an awkward unit for me. While I’m more willing to “put myself out there” in a realm where perfection has not yet been defined and creativity is key, it is still tricky to try to navigate through the world of electronics with words. I’ll admit that I was displeased when I learned that I was going to be blogging and creating a multimedia project in my writing class. I was set for the traditional write-my-piece-get-it-critiqued-do-a-rewrite-hand-it-in-for-comment-by-the-professor course. After the first couple of days, however, I saw that this wasn’t a unit focused on my technological prowess (or lack thereof) at all. To me it has become about physically expressing the images and sounds that I already see and hear through my words. The same agonizing decisions one always faces over word choice were made and then they had to be followed by additional agonizing over how to give visual and audio expression to those fragile sentiments without jeopardizing their integrity. It isn’t easy, but it’s an excellent exercise in awareness that I believe I will take with me into the upcoming units. I think perhaps the disquieting nature of this unit is precisely what I needed to remind me not to get too adjusted to what I “know” – writing is a never-ending pursuit that does not take kindly to comfort.

Hypertext project using only image and sound and her reflection.

Using picnik.com and Slideshare:

The Middle of Nowhere

As we move into creative-nonfiction-with-words-only, we’ll see how working on screens has an impact on working on the page. Of course, several students have already asked if they can use multimedia. I say vague things about rules, and about breaking rules.

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I will miss this…

Where I’ve been…

In case you think I’ve been on a cruise, or pulling back from blogging, I want to assure anyone who actually reads bgblogging that I haven’t gone far–just over to my course blog and now to bgexperiments as I join my students in the 100 Words A Day experiment, something I didn’t suggest or assign (a student’s idea to join the fun) but am interested to try out with them. In the past students have wanted to keep blogging past the course, but few have kept at it as the crush of their new courses and the action on their social networking sites pull them away from this kind of writing practice & conversation. Perhaps the 100 Words a Day project will help them bridge the gap next month as they leave our intensive J-term course and struggle to find the discipline to write every day as they grow their skills and explore their creativity. Perhaps the 100 words a Day will get me writing more playfully again, daily, instead of solely crafting commentary and observation and reflection. Yes!

I do also have a long bgblogging-type slowpost brewing that I hope to get out before the end of the day (week, month–heheheh), but in the meantime, I will be posting my 100 words a day over on bgbexperiments; every morning someone else in the class will propose the day’s topic, and we will see what stirs. Two days into it, and I’m having a blast, not only experimenting but reading my students’ inspired Houdini-like transcending of the constraints of word limits. Connecting, sharing, learning. Anyone want to join us?

Slowing it Down as the Semester Speeds to a Close

“When someone is trying to make something that doesn’t exist yet, for which there is no clear template, it’s going to look unfamiliar, and it’s likely to arrive with struggle, uncertainty, and a quality of raggedness. What makes things feel polished or “finished” is very often their adherence to familiar codes. The new arrives with its edges less charted; it tends less ‘to click the lid of a well-made box’ than to jangle or vibrate or sigh. Or even to provoke or irritate, as it presents itself with opacity rather than transparency.” Mark Doty, Preface to Legitimate Dangers, American Poets of the New Century

We’re back, barely, and briefly, from Thanksgiving break, which marked the first trip home for many first-years.
riverbottom
It’s a wild time now as students scramble to complete their work for the semester and try to get into spring classes. The first-years have had to watch our on-line registration system for days as the upper-level students preceded them in the course selection process. It has been agonizing. Every day the numbers in their favored choices have dwindled, and Friday morning, many were disappointed when at last, they were able to register. My phone has been ringing, my email box swelling. Students want to take creative writing and they can’t get into the class. My waitlist is longer than the class roster. And while I am delighted to see so many seeking creative spaces in their course line-up, I am dismayed that our institutions of higher learning place such little value on creativity-centered courses except for majors in the arts. If a student has 36 courses to take over the four years of college, how many of them are creative-intensive? And yet, what could be more important than building their ability to think and act creatively?

rivertree

It’s got me thinking–of Ken Robinson’s contention that schools are killing creativity, of Vera John Steiner’s examination of the role of collaboration in creativity (ah, here’s where schools could and should play a role, with our built-in arenas for collaboration), of Maxine Greene’s urging, of Dewey’s urging ( “Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of the imagination.” from The Quest for Certainty) and of James Paul Gee’s emphatic argument “that people learn best when their learning is part of a highly motivated engagement with social practices which they value.” (p. 77 Situated Language and Learning: A Critique of Traditional Schooling). Heck, it’s got me thinking about what many of my blogging buddies write about so often: our deep need for creativity, and the reality–a lack of creative spaces and practices in higher ed because, at least in part, these spaces invite uncertainty, risk, and Doty’s “raggedness.”

moodsofwater

Mostly, of course, it’s got me thinking of the journey of this course–nearly done– and how Mark Doty’s quotation about poets could describe this class. I think of how this group of students has come together to urge one another on, to encourage one another, to collaborate, to celebrate. Just as the course ends, they are oozing creativity, cracking open their voices and subject matter, messing around with the tools of twenty-first-century writers, as they engage with ideas, events and realities of our times, of their times. Their ongoing narrative reflections reveal that they are deeply immersed in Thomas Mann’s “serious play” of art and finding the deep rewards of creation: see Sarah’s inventive exploration of her thoughts on writing, for instance. They are confronting, too, what it means to be emerging adults, between childhood home and adult home, a reality they felt acutely upon going home for the first time last week, in posts such as Home? and the wry, moving Coming Home. This self-motivated slow-blogging (I’ve just told them to try it out, think about what they want to engage people in discussion about, without prescribing for them number or focus of posts) is pushing them to take responsibility for “what it is they believe and why they believe what they believe” (from yesterday’s lecture by former Harvard Dean, Harry Lewis, Excellence Without a Soul: Does Higher Education Have a Future?) They are loosening up, undoing the shackles of the grade-oriented grind, noodling around a bit, becoming increasingly playful, and open and THEMSELVES in posts such as Love is Monkey and Home: A Five-Paragraph Essay.

That so many students are lining up to take creative writing–and my section with its extra two-hour evening workshop to boot–tells me that we need to take our students’ creative development far more seriously than we do. The emails I have received from students trying to find a way into the course emphasize their need to explore their creative sides, as in this excerpt:

“This past semester, all of my writings in every class were analytical and dry. I found myself yearning for something more creative, something I could really attach and devote myself to.”

Indeed.

flight

In slowing down by moving more deeply into reflection, connection and creativity , my students have gotten in touch with parts of themselves that they haven’t seen in years while coming out of themselves to examine the world around them within the contact zones of the classroom community and of the provocative readings from John D’Agata’s The Next American Essay. Harry Lewis said something else in his talk along these lines that stayed with me: “Everybody should read books that keep them up at night.” Yes. And through reading one another’s thoughts about our reading and about life in general, we experience what de Certeau describes:

“the activity of reading has…all the characteristics of a silent production: the drift across the page, the metamorphosis of the text effected by the wandering eyes of the reader, the improvisation and expectation of meanings inferred from a few words, leaps over written spaces in an ephemeral dance…words become the outlet or product of silent histories. The readable text transforms itself into the memorable: Barthes reads Proust in Stendhal’s text; the reader reads the landscape of his childhood in the evening news. The thin film of writing becomes a movement of strata, a play of spaces…This mutation makes the text habitable, like a rented apartment…” (p. xxi The Practice of Everyday Life)

It’s got me thinking, too, about Laura’s recent post in which she wrestles with getting out of her comfort zone of genre and media:

“And although from a technical standpoint, I’m comfortable with video, audio and images, from an artistic standpoint, I feel like a complete dolt.”

And yet in the very pushing of herself into new creative directions, while vulnerable and terrified, perhaps, she finds herself energized, excited, “gung ho,” as I did when I made my foray into text-image storytelling this summer and every time I post a new photo. I have no training in photography, and all of my education tells me that I have no right to claim ownership of arenas outside those of trained expertise. And, yes, the results are pretty ragged but no less serious and revelatory for that.

This is what learning is about, this is what we need to be doing–not teaching undergraduates (most of whom will not go on to become academics, after all) to become ever narrower in viewpoint and expertise within silo-ed disciplines and arcane discourse modes, but to become expansive and worldly and deeply in touch with their creative and critical selves as they tackle the problems that face our world and articulate deep thinking clearly across disciplines. We need them to transcend disciplines, even. Look at this example of a “video poem” by a student working with a former student of mine on a Global Learning semester trip to Morocco. Wow…why aren’t these kinds of practices–as well as the traditional read-and-analyze practices– at the heart of our classrooms?

workingdog

We need more interdisciplinary creative courses in our higher education institutions, open to all students and not just majors. A little creative space goes a long way to bringing about meaningful reflection, action & interaction, “getting students to use their writing not just as a tool for making arguments, but also as a lens for exploring complexity and a vehicle for arriving at nuanced understandings of a lived reality that is inescapably characterized by ambiguities, shades of meaning, contradictions and gaps.” (Richard Miller, Writing At the End of the World, p.196-7)

And so on Monday, I will write more emails to those students seeking creative courses, urging them to let the school know how hard it is to be a science or social sciences major and get a place in a creative writing or other “creative” course, and how crucial it is to do just that. I’ll move into re-thinking my January term and spring semester courses with this in mind, too, and hope that I can continue to help students find contact with messy, vibrant, challenging spaces of creativity.

And the teacher learns that we may be missing a huge point…

octoberfield

With two and a half weeks left of this semester, I can now begin to see the full figure of my first-year seminar, this new course in exploring the far reaches of twenty-first century creative nonfiction (including a month-long unit in online multimedia expression). What brave teachers my students are, helping me to understand the complex intersection of their lives’ angles, social and academic, as they strive towards self-discovery and world-exploration…all while learning to crack open the process of reading and writing, digging into the fundamental elements of creative nonfiction, coming in touch with writers and theories of our times as we write for print and for the small screen. It has been such a fascinating journey for me as teacher-learner that I have hardly known where to begin to capture what I have witnessed, experienced and learned. But I will try. In fits and starts over the next weeks here.

Some Initial Observations/Revelations:

* Watching my students grapple with the tensions (and joys) of being college students away from home while they know full well that the world teeters on the brink of collapse: that other kids, just their age, are in Iraq, or contending with the direct impacts of global warming and first-world policies– brings home to me that we need to engage our students directly with these issues, from the minute they step on campus–in our classrooms, in all of our classrooms. We need to get them out into our communities both to apply their learning and to keep one foot squarely in the messy wider world. This is not the time for a four-year experience in privileged isolation. We have to keep the experience real– connected to the world beyond themselves. (I need to do better in this regard…more in an upcoming post.)

kitchendoor

* It is very very difficult to walk into a classroom like mine when everything else in students’ academic experience follows a different, and teacher-centric, model. It takes a lot of work (and determination) to help them understand that it’s okay that I will not lecture at length on the writers we read or the elements we analyze or the techniques they explore, nor will I provide them with the kind of feedback (i.e.my pen all over their papers) to which they have grown not only accustomed but on which they have become dependent. I will not tell them what they have to write about, or how. I will not respond to their posts on blog. I will not be solely responsible for their course grades. But I will question, push, explain, encourage and give them feedback one-on-one. As I often remark, students are in a bit of a freefall for the first weeks, thinking I have no idea how to be a teacher, and I have to stand by, reassuring them that this is fine, this is good, in fact.

crowinthewindowpane

* It takes faith on my part that if I am patient, and clear, and do a good job of setting up opportunities for learning magic to occur, then at some moment in the semester, when none of us is looking, the students will delight in their creativity, push into the world of ideas of their own choosing, and turn to one another in a lively example of collective intelligence and emergence at work. In turn, their thinking will deepen, their writing grow in clarity and complexity and power, and they will have engaged meaningfully with their own learning journey. Of course this is an oversimplification of the actual steps forward and back of the classroom dance–in a crammed semester with so many demands on student time and attention, there’s never enough time and focus to shift the learning model as dramatically as I believe we must.

throughbarnwindows

* My students have not been asked very often or at all to experience the world as writers (which I would define as actively engaging in the world and trying to make sense of it through communicating through words and/or words plus other media)–their comments about this month’s blogging (as opposed to posting their assigned work on the blog) reveal how “having to find something to say on the blog” has forced them out of the college bubble to look back and examine it, and out into the world to understand their place in it. Some have found “blogging whatever” artificial and forced–“I have nothing to say.” But why is that? Do they not have the practice of being asked to write about their experience and knowledge and connection and concern and questions? Publicly? As an act of genuine communication and connection? Others say that their nerve endings are on fire–that they now go to dance performances, for instance, wondering how they could possibly capture a post-modern production for their blogging community, or that they are constantly looking for things to share or to ask or to wonder about through the conversation of blogging. It’s exhausting to be this aware of the world.
At first they resisted blogging because they thought Facebook was for that kind of connection. But now many of them are discovering the value and pleasure of connected thinking through asynchronous discussion NOT dictated by the teacher. (Many teacher-directed and assigned online discussions including blog discussions are little more than adjacent monologues, call-and-response performances for the teacher’s benefit–and soon forgotten by the students, I’d wager–rather than authentic engagement in a fluid give-and-take about the world with a community of learners.)

fallbeauties

* They teeter between the future and the past–their own–as they find outlets from the furious pace of their studies:

quidditch%20post.jpg (from Sam’s Post, “Only at Middlebury”)

And students come to my home to cook and eat (fresh noodles and sauce and brownies). They seek and appreciate contact–direct, personal contact with their teachers and classmates. Friendships have sprouted from this seminar.

Some examples from student blogs that show me what’s on their minds:

ON BEING IN COLLEGE, GAZING BETWEEN CHILDHOOD AND THE FUTURE:
ON ‘AWKWARD’
On Grades
HIgh Hopes
On Comparing their Lives to Those Who Accomplished Great Things

ON THE FUTURE:
A student asks questions about when she’s going to make bold choices, and her classmates respond, including over at another blog
Another student looks at the Future

ON THEIR PLUGGED-IN LIVES:
A student on “Save Middlebury?”
On Facebook

ON ART:
A dance review..and more
Another Response to the Dance Performance
Performace? Art?

And that’s just for starters (Make sure you read the comments as well). They are tackling the life issues that matter to them on their posts, weaving in lessons from other courses, and engaging with larger societal issues in their projects–do we actively promote this kind of integrated learning between formal and informal learning spaces in our colleges and universities?

* Students crave time and opportunities to be creative (how many courses involve active creativity?), once they allow themselves to get off the train of the constant critic (why do we insist on teaching students to judge literature and art from the outside without an equal emphasis on exploring art from the inside? My students are much much better critical thinkers and writers as a result of their forays into the process of making art). They are, for the most part, enjoying the process of making multimedia projects even though they are exhausted at this moment in the semester and sometimes frustrated by their lack of technical skill or cumbersome programs or the number of hours spent in front of computers. What fun to mash things up, or to discover the impact of soundtrack on mood, color on visual impact, font size on narrative distance, or to make something out of nothing that has the potential to move people, to make them think? The projects are breathtaking, far far beyond anything I thought they could produce in a three weeks’ time. Stunning in fact. They’ll be posted soon.

*The challenging process of working through the course grading rubric with the class, to reach consensus, was well worth it–I think. I won’t really know until the end of the semester when they have met with me individually one last time to propose and defend a grade based on that rubric. What has been particularly striking about the conversations over the semester about the grading is the sharing about the mysteries of high school grades, of their interest in finding a fair balance between quality versus growth, and of their suggestion to evaluate one another. Grading Rubric Post from Course Blog and one student’s take on the balance between growth and quality. They want that experience and feedback, and to have those evaluations taken into consideration when proposing their course grade. And so, there are three layers of evaluation to this course: their own, their classmates’, and mine. For once I am actually looking forward to the grading process. Imagine–did I just say that?

quality rubric

And so on we go, inexorably towards semester’s end. Tuesday they unveil their multimedia projects–I can’t wait–and then after break we move into two weeks of revision and evaluation. It has been bumpy–teaching a course for the first time is always a little unnerving and I promise to post some of my (several) mistakes soon–and thrilling. It isn’t about stuffing their heads with what I know, but about helping them to fill their writing and learning toolbox with tools and practices and self-awareness, so that they can find out what they need to know and how. To participate in the process wherein these remarkable young men and women gain skill and confidence and daring and community is a privilege indeed.
suninaleaf

Image Stories and Essays

My students have just completed image-only responses to Bill McKibben’s Wandering Home, a book chronicling his walk from his home in Ripton, Vermont to his other home across Lake Champlain in New York’s Adirondacks. Last week I asked the class to take their own photos, if possible, and assemble them as a response to something in the book, some point McKibben makes about Middlebury, that they felt they had something to say about. The process was, as I expected, fun, frustrating, challenging, and enlightening. I wanted them to think about the arc of an argument, about making a point moment by moment, element by element. I wanted them to think about visual arguments and about how images work, and about transitions and ordering and structure–all by playing around with between 5 and 15 images. I wanted them to start thinking about how they might use images when we turn to multimedia writing in a couple of weeks. And I wanted them to learn from one another. None of them had ever done anything quite like this before. Some of them are still struggling to get their results embedded on their blogs. Soon we’ll talk about ways to evaluate multimedia writing and so we have to start looking at more than text. (I have a post brewing all about the unfolding of our class-built grading rubrics, so more on assessment soon.)

I find these early attempts interesting as responses and revealing about how they are reading the book and how they work with images before we have discussed the grammar of an image in class. You are welcome to look at their stories on their blogs linked from the Motherblog.

In the spirit of learning alongside them, I took my camera out on a walk this weekend and then made my own little image story-essay (thanks to cogdog (Alan Levine) and his magnificent resource, 50 Ways to Tell a Web 2.0 Story, for the link to FlickrSlide):

FALLING RIVER

Midsummer Preparations for Fall

In the old, pre-blogging days, prepping for a new course meant, primarily, doing a lot of reading and then thinking about sequencing assignments for students to develop their writing and thinking. I used to think in units, weeks—time and length. I used to hang out at the photocopier quite a bit. Pretty straight forward process.

last light

Now, as I dive headlong into prepping a new first-year seminar, “The Extraordinary in the Ordinary: Exploring the Far Reaches of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction” I realize that I go about designing a course by taking it myself during the summer.

fiddleheads

I spend a lot more time considering the opening couple of weeks. If I want my students to learn deeply, one of my most important tasks is figuring out how to create an environment in which they risk making mistakes, looking foolish, reaching out to others while relying on themselves. I frequently blog about the crucial first weeks of a course, how I am convinced that if you want your students to go beyond themselves, you have to focus on the class environment first.

bowling shoes

But I also spend time trying to put myself in their shoes. I spend a lot of time writing, playing, moving along promising threads of ideas and forms and outcomes, backing up, rejecting, flailing, and fumbling. I have to consider elements of visual design, explore a range of media for producing as well as consuming the course, and envision how a group of sixteen students might take the initial sparks I throw out and turn them into something far more interesting than I could possibly anticipate.

I’ve had to get a whole lot more creative.

With that in mind, one reason I have set up the new bgexperiments blog–-a blog far more intimidating for me than this one—is to push myself in ways that aren’t altogether comfortable, just as I will expect my students to do. And so I posted a personal narrative text/image exploration a couple of days ago, and wow, I haven’t felt so exposed and vulnerable in a long long time. I read it several times online, seeing the typo, the ways I would revise certain image-text combos, the ways the piece fails, the ways my skills and gifts fall short. And until some of my most valued cyberspace mentors had read and responded so kindly, well, I just felt completely out of sorts.

finn

How many times do we put ourselves squarely in our students’ shoes? Admit to yearning for feedback? To fearing failure?

sunrise through clouds

It’s harrowing, but as I move into this rainy Sunday morning, I find I can’t wait to get back to my experiments and to my course planning: I am as excited and engaged and nervous and exhilarated as I was the summer before my first teaching job back in the 80s. That’s one of the marvels of teaching in all times, but especially in this time—feeling like an explorer in a new land, remembering that “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” (Sir Edmund Hillary)