Bits and Pieces: Learning from Great Blog Conversationalists

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

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

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

early december loneliness

The monologue versus the conversation or the discussion.

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

birdtracks

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

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

trio

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

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

the end of november

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

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

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

November Interior

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

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

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

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

radio

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

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

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

inthefalls

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

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

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

The Contextual Process: Cinquecento, Painted Toenails and Tagging Lessons

My favorite car of all time is a Fiat 500–I’ve wanted one ever since I first saw one–for their defiance of typical standards of cool (and perhaps because they were born the same year I was). I love that they are emphatically themselves and elegantly silly and ridiculously small compared to bloated U.S. vehicles. Seeing an entire line-up of them in Montreal, though not all were the older models, recently pleased me to no end.

proud line-up of cinquecento

I don’t want a new model. The original cannot be tinkered with–it is a one and only. And even though I would attract far more attention than I like, I would drive one around Vermont if I could get my hands on one. Context matters naught. They are perfection wherever and whenever they are. Sometimes the evolution of a thing or an idea doesn’t interest me, nor similar things. It is only THAT thing that will do, that makes any sense, that works.

But in other areas of my life I don’t feel that way at all. I take an organic approach, fluid in my likes and dislikes related more to context than anything. Sometimes I love calamari, sometimes I hate it. It all depends.

I love to read cookbooks but hate to cook by recipe.
I love to explore syllabi but hate to teach by them.

When I was a kid, my mother made me clean my room. College roommates had to put up with my “system” of un-organization. My family is used to my idea of packing (five minutes before we go anywhere, throw stuff into a bag) being out of sync with my timing (never be late–it is such a waste) and the way I stuff money wily-nilly into my pockets and never know how much I have or where it is. My students, too, grew used to my saying I had absolutely no idea what we’d be doing in the next class, and wouldn’t until we all got there–it depended on what happened on blog and in the world between class meetings.

bg and students in the classroom, a typical day

I love the idea of total immersion in a moment, paying complete attention to the now, the this, the Cinquecento’s definitiveness, its perfection. But in reality, I don’t work this way very often. I am always thinking about how this moment relates to the past, to what’s around me and what’s possibly ahead. In the classroom I was all about feeling the class temperature and relating this class to all those I’d taught before and what was going in the world and how this class could benefit all the classes to come. Context context.

Even the odd ritual I adhere to–and I don’t adhere to many–is about movement over time, about change, appearances and disappearances.

reminders

Ever since our first family trip to Europe when they were three and six, my two girls and I have painted our nails (the only time I ever paint mine). To feel a little Italian or French, I suppose, or to announce to ourselves that this is a big deal. I always paint mine a blazing red. And then I do not touch the color, letting the nails grow, clipping the paint away little by little with each clipping, letting them chip if they chip. And over the six months or so it takes the painted parts to disappear, I am reminded of the trip every time I look down at my feet. I like those little, private reminders. My kids think I’m nuts, rolling their eyes at how bad I look in public with these nails. It’s goofy, yes, but I love this tangible yet shifting link to experience. I like that they change and eventually disappear–by the time my nails are naked, I’m ready to move out of the past, planning the next trip across the Atlantic. And then I’ll paint my nails again, which will remind me of all the past trips and root me in the present one.

This is what tagging and linking have done for me in blogging: I wanted to keep all the possible links to the past, other presents, and the future open, so that in bumping up against something I wouldn’t necessarily think of, I might come up with something far more interesting than my own simple mind is capable of. But actually, I’ve always privileged the link over the tag. I’ve used a personal taxonomy, then, not a folksonomy. I’ve been using the recipe, following the syllabus. I’ve been treating my posts as little Cinquecentos while calling them open segments of an ongoing conversation. Readers mostly have to wait until I link back to find that old post–it’s really my conversation with myself more than with others.

I don’t use tags as well as I could. As I should. It has taken me a long time to see that.

Losing the rich conversations–the collective knowledge–of my early course blogs when those housing them erased entire servers, and then of later course blogs when access to them was denied to anyone off campus, finally brought home how limited I’ve been in my practices and attitudes. And so I moved bgblogging here and taught my final courses on WordPress.com blogs. And right now I am in the process of exporting all of those MT blogs off campus. What a waste to think in terms of a single class–that once a course is over, the conversation that occurred there is no longer interesting or alive. What a waste not to thread back to earlier posts–it is something I have argued for over these blogging years. But of course, no one else goes back to those posts; few readers of my blog ever click through to the links. And that has to do with my own poor understanding of the power of social tagging. If I had tagged well–and had my students tag well from the get-go, those early posts would have fed one another then, and live on much more than they do now and keep me from repeating myself, as well as making my own sorting through posts right now more fruitful, simpler. Right now my way back into old thoughts happens through links, links that are embedded only within the context of other posts and searching instead being about the tags living in freespace ready to be called upon as markers of the Cinquecentos, the thoughts as they existed right there and then, as well as open, fluid thinking.

just past dawn, late summer vermont

And so when Alan urges people to get tagging together, but simply, I’m with him. I’m heading back into old posts to examine the tags and vowing to do better tagging in delici.ous and on Flickr. I’m not sure where this will take me, but I’m interested in exploring the impact of a shift in emphasis, in attitude, and seeing how my thinking expands accordingly. I’ll still be dreaming of toodling around in a Cinqucento with my painted toenails, but not so much on blog.

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?

Memories of an Art History Class: Inspiration and Perspective

chinesepeony
Chinese Peony

One of my professors in college, I recall, an art history professor, would move into class by dimming the lights, leaning against the back wall behind us and clicking his little slide projector clicker to illuminate the first slide. Then, unlike most other professors, instead of lecturing us about what it was we were seeing and what it meant, etc. etc. in the larger context of our discipline, while we madly scribbled notes about the stuff we thought would be on the next exam, he would ask us to comment on what we saw and what we could glean from our observations based on the reading and looking we had done to prepare for class and what we had seen and discussed during previous class meetings. He’d challenge us to figure out when it was painted, maybe by whom, and why we should spend time looking at and discussing the work. He cautioned us to question our initial responses; he urged us to think as much with our guts as with our intellects. He’d ask questions, add context, push us to come up with more, to come up with better. His comments on our papers were much the same. And he told us the first day that he would grade the non-majors differently because they didn’t have the experience the rest of us had. We majors howled that it was unfair– no one else did that in any other department….

Bloomington Window

Nearly thirty years down the road, every time I see one of the paintings we studied, I am transported back to that classroom–I can still speak quite confidently about the content of that course while most other classrooms experiences have faded to mush.

IWU Theater Sculpture
(Illinois Wesleyan Theater entrance)

Sometimes he would slip in a slide of a fake. Sometimes a painting from a different country. Sometimes a lousy modern approximation. We never knew what was coming. And it was up to us to smoke it out. Once he came in and showed a pair of side-by-side slides which at first glance seemed identical. Only when we looked more closely than we had ever looked before could we begin to detect the differences. Our task that day was to figure out which was the original, which the copy. Our final exam was filled with such moments.

It was a course about discovery. About the joy of discovering something fundamental about painting, about the world at that time and place, about ourselves as art consumers, as critical thinkers, as contributors to the discussion. We didn’t need blogs or wikis or any of the Web 2.0 tools to have that profound experience. But sometimes I find myself thinking …

… it would have been even more interesting, the learning even deeper, the development of our skills even more pronounced if we had had opportunities to talk outside of class via asynchronous slow-blogging, linking out to articles we had found, and pushing each other and ourselves by posting images we had come across in our Web wnaderings, annotating them, publishing our papers–sharing our drafts with one another.

overthetop

But that’s ridiculous. Absurd. Preposterous. Web 2.0 was not for that time; it is for THIS time. My professor taught brilliantly for that time but not for this. (Much as my father had.) The world is different. The generation is different. The skills graduates need include those we were schooled in–but others, too. We cannot compare what we need to do with what our teachers did. It’s that different.

I remember that some of my professor’s colleagues didn’t approve of the way he taught. Or at least that was the buzz. I imagine he’d be really excited about the ways we can connect, link, share and tag. He’d understand that teachers who do not weigh all the tools they have available, all the practices possible are as guilty as doctors who fail their patients because they haven’t kept up with advances in treatment. (I heard Chris Dede use this analogy that in his 2007 ELI keynote) I like to keep that in mind when I face yet another audience, as I struggle to find ways to help faculty understand why they should not feel threatened by new ways of teaching and learning, but delighted, because in one sense we are not abandoning tradition–just remembering it–the best of it, that of Socrates, for instance, and clutches of great thinkers who hung out together through history, either in place or through letters and their responses to one another, artwork by artwork, letter by letter, essay by essay.

I’ve been on the road A LOT this semester, mostly to give talks and workshops to faculty teaching undergraduates. planeWhen I first started doing this a couple of years ago, I was pelted with questions about intellectual property (fear of plagiarism), assessment, and the time commitment taking to the Web would mean for someone thinking about giving blogs or wikis a go in their teaching. And those are still questions I get when I talk blogs, no matter how much I thread a talk with learning theory, progressive pedagogy, and the realities of a world simultaneously moving towards disconnection within local communities (which center on plurality) and greater connection through ME-oriented social networks); no matter how much I show the slide that puts the teacher as part of the learning circle after the slide with the scary desks in a row.

preppingfortalk

At Illinois Wesleyan University and then at University of New Hampshire, I recently gave versions of the kind of talk I’ve been focusing on lately in which I try to help faculty dare move into the 21st century. I try with each talk to convey more clearly the realities of the work world, of social networks moving beyond teens, of GenMe; I show them blogs and wikis, and some really interesting class projects such as ArtMobs and second language blogging such as Barbara Sawhill’sSpanish classes at Oberlin, and Jim Groom’s use of tagging with his UMW summer class.

Faculty seem to like what they see- learning by reflection (through hyperlinked slow-blogging techniques), learning by doing and making (multimedia projects, service learning mentoring through blog connections), and learning by connecting and conversing (asynchronous blog discussions and linking between blogs, referencing one another’s work and scholarship beyond the classroom). They love the idea of bringing experts in the field into the classroom through blogging invitationals, and the students to the world by publishing their work on their blogs, the class blog, wikis, ‘zines. All’s well so far.

Even Twitter has been making sense to people, how it might work to teach the art of concision, to get students to hone an idea, or to share urls, etc. Annotating slides and creating course photo sets on Flickr–you get the drift–it makes sense–to anyone once they see how it works.

cloudmetaphor

At UNH, especially successful was kicking off the talk by asking them to come up with a metaphor for how it feels to be a teacher who trained in the 20th century but is teaching in the 21st.

But then I get to RSS and del.icio.us–both of which I am planning to place at the heart of all my courses in the future–and things get a little unsettled. The questions get interesting; in other words they approach what’s really the heart of the matter: what happens when students are given much of the responsibility for their learning, what happens when risk and failure are seen as good things–fumbling together in the dark as we learn to think and read and write critically and creatively; what it means when even the syllabus can be changed at a moment’s notice as the group discovers a new direction. How Web 2.0 teaching and learning and living practices are butting up against age-old sacred cows: i.e. the dominant value of the expert, the teacher as trained authority, and a sense of order in the classroom.

Why do RSS and tagging, in particular, provide an opening for this kind of essential discussion? Well, I talk about having students not just create feeds to one another’s blogs–that can be done on the Motherblog or with multiuser blogs and is a given when you are using blogs within a community. Yes, it’s essential to have students see and learn from one another’s struggles for meaning. Yes, it’s essential to weave the stories of their blogs together in a larger community tapestry. Yes. But having students–and NOT the teacher or the librarian–go out and find resources in the field and bring them back via feeds for the group–well what an excellent opportunity to gain skill in evaluating sources, for one. I get concerned questions from the audience about quality control–who is responsible for making sure the sources linked to are “appropriate” or “valid”? Ah…that’s the beauty of gathering RSS feeds as a learning and not a teaching practice. What a learning moment to discover a deep bias within a blog in the field (or a journal, for that matter) or factual errors!

And so, we’re making progress, Laura, I agree. It’s slow, yes, and often frustrating. But it’s happening… At UNH a couple of days ago, some forty faculty members showed that they get it. They want to move their teaching. They just need a little help understanding what that means–and how they can do it well, navigating through the sea of options. It will take the kind of inspired and innovative and fearless IT people of the likes of the magnificent crew at University of Mary Washington or Laura Blankenship at Bryn Mawr, Todd Bryant at Dickinson, Barbara Sawhill at Oberlin, the staffs at UNH and VSC and IWU. It will take classroom teachers making their pedagogy transparent on blogs for themelves, their students and their colleagues. It will take leadership from in our institutions, of the kind Lanny Arvan at the University of Illinois repeatedly demonstrates. And the tireless work of the Bryan Alexanders and Alan Levines of this world–showing us, encouraging us. But finally, I think we’re actually making strides in the right direction.

Yeah.

My college professor would be happy, I think, to see me taking risks, pushing my teaching forward into this century as I strive to be for my students the kind of teacher he was for me. And to see that I’m not alone in this. Not by any means.

Here are the slides and notes from the two recent talks over on Flickr. I’ll pull them over here as well in a few days.

UNH Talk Slide1

For the Flickr version (slides and notes) of the University of New Hampshire FITSI talk, click here.

IWU Slide1

For the Flickr version of the Illinois Wesleyan University the Teaching and Technology Workshop keynote, click here.

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

lowereastsideshopwindowfromphone D&G Soho
Shop Windows in New York City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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