Memories of My Ancestors, Thoughts of the Land

July 4

Being the daughter of a historian who spent his life researching, writing, and teaching about the early days of this country, I’m naturally thinking back today as I look out over the fields I call home…to the rich history of Vermont and its role in the country’s story, its public figures from Ethan Allen to Patrick Leahy, its deep land ethic, its commitment to social justice, its hardscrabble farmers then and now. I’m thinking about the Champlain Valley where I live, celebrating this month the quadricentennenial of Samuel de Champlain’s voyage and our connection to New France and Quebec.

down to the lake

This little nirvana, as friends call our home, could make it easy to be willfully ignorant of the pains shaking the human world, even locally. And there are days when I have little contact with that world. But even my relationship with the land keeps American history and its legacies from wandering too far from view. The early-Vermont-settler remnants in our house: the beams and floorboards from abandoned and torn-down houses and barns, the stones around our walls pulled from the piles generations of farmers heaved into the copses; and out in the woods, the signs of old foundations and pasture walls, the march of succession in the treescape, all serve as reminders that Vermont, now 80% forest and 20% cleared, was, in the nineteenth century, 80% cleared and 20% forested. And there is the very real drama playing out just beyond my windows: field birds struggling to survive in spite of the heavy haying schedule farmers adhere to if they want to survive as farmers; songbirds trying to bring their broods to maturity in spite of (what seem to be the increasingly) large numbers of hungry squirrels, crows, jays, ravens and hawks scouring the place for nestlings; the bats vanishing this year–not a single one has graced our skies this summer–due to a bacterial infection that has wiped out most of Vermont’s bat population; the smaller numbers of honey bees in the garden; the swelling numbers of wild turkeys. So much shifting in such a short time. The past few evenings as I turn away from the fields and gardens, I’ve headed intoAmy Seidl’s Early Spring, an alarming (and beautifully written) book that corroborates page by page what I am witnessing play out in my own surroundings.

marshhawk ballet

The garden, too, is behaving a bit strangely– all this rain, this relentless cloud cover to blame for greens (and slugs) outgrowing beans. Honestly, though, I’ve been more concerned about post-dog incursions by rabbits, deer and turkeys as my raised beds counter most weather vagaries. The rain has bothered my cycling far more than my gardening; I have worried, though, for my neighbors, farmers unable to get their corn in much less have it knee-high by today. I know all this, I see it, I feel it.

But the local paper has shaken some deep part of me, pulling me full circle back to this day and my family’s journey to this country. Ordinarily, reading the paper is about connecting with my town, not being surprised by what I read, for I usually hear most of the important news on the street or in the natural foods cooperative before the paper comes out on Mondays and Thursdays. I love the fact that my old student, Katie Flagg, now writes for the paper and has started their multimedia site. I am always eager to read her reporting on the goings-on in our county. The editor/publisher is one of my husband’s good friends, a wonderful writer and incisive editorialist.

Vermont portrait

But yesterday, Katie’s front-page article threw me back from the immediate changes and into my own family’s past. The same Late Blight as sent my people from their homes is apparently creeping to Vermont because “tomato plants sold at some large garden centers in neighboring states may have been infected with the late blight.” (Is this the garden world’s version of the salmonella outbreaks?) I grow both potatoes and tomatoes, almost all my own plants from organic seed, and the rest I buy from friends who have been in the small organic-garden business for thirty years. But as happened in Ireland 160 years ago, the winds blow the spores field to field, and so it might not matter a bit how careful I’ve been with my own gardening practices. Even if all the tomatoes and potatoes are wiped out in Vermont, my life will not be gravely affected. I do not earn my living growing vegetables; my family’s table does not depend on what we grow. I can drive or cycle down to our natural foods cooperative for vegetables or whatever else I need. I worry for friends and neighbors who do rely on vegetable sales. And I remember the famine that sent my own people unwillingly from their doors, and the famines, displacement and destruction we continue to cause through our poor Earth practices (pollution, war, over-population, greed and consumerism, etc. etc.) l think, too, about the recent Orion Magazine article, “Forget Shorter Showers” by Derrick Jensen, which scolds us for thinking that individual efforts will make a difference in the climate change crisis. We have to do more than find pleasure and worth in scaling back, in digging into the earth, and connecting with one another. We have to work for change at every level of society.

early potato harvest

And so with one foot in my garden’s lush world–where I will pick early potatoes and delight in their tenderness–and the other out in rural communities exploring the balance between the fast and the slow, and online, learning about how others are engaging with the pressing problems of our times, I’m spending this July 4 celebrating the Earth’s wonders, my family’s history, and I’m contemplating the future, how to tread lightly in spirit with the ecosystem I share with countless species, and also working for sweeping change as though all life depends on it. I’m celebrating the razor edge between taking time to dig potatoes and pinch back tomato suckers and getting out there in the human fray to learn, to participate, to embrace mindful connectivity. And finding joy in the struggle.

riding with style

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The iPhone comes to Vermont tomorrow: Who will go out and get one?

I’m thinking about braving the crowds (and cold) tomorrow and lining up for an iPhone at one of five stores that will have them available in the state. The truly-with-it (and wealthy) figured out a long time ago that if they really wanted one, they could, with a New York phone exchange. (And the bills accompanying that choice.) Now that it will be possible to have a Vermont number, I wonder who will be in those lines tomorrow. Who will (have the luxury to) think of such a purchase.

shades
Who might be there (and even more, who surely will not) interests me because of intersections between my reading and my work in small rural communities, towns with sketchy cell phone coverage, iffy internet access and uneven (unequal) access to computers.

In The Power of Place, Harm de Blij speaks to this reality in his opening chapter, “Globals, Locals, and Mobals,” a sharp and simple reminder of how deeply tied (chained? rooted?) much of the world is to locality. “Earth may be a planet of shrinking functional distance, ” he writes, “but it remains a world of staggering situational difference. From the uneven distribution of natural resources to the unequal availability of opportunity, place remains a powerful arbitrator….Of the seven billion current passengers on Cruiseship Earth, the overwhelming majority (the myth of mass migration notwithstanding) will die very near the cabin in which they were born.” (p.3) While he is not writing of rural communities in North America specifically here, it is helpful to remember the pull, the demands, the realities, the power of place. Even when we have iPhones. At least around here. Climate, landscape, size and spread of community, proximity to a highway or to a town of some size have a profound impact–still–on the people who live here. iPhones (or any of the competition) are irrelevant to so many who live here although cellphones can be lifelines in remote places.

past limbo

My work table is strewn with books, my desktop cluttered with articles and blogposts, images and metaphors in the hopes that they will help me to think through the conundrum of helping small rural communities explore social media practices. It is no simple matter. Platitudes and generalizations don’t work to describe the complexities of rural life. This is slippery territory, murky, confusing, mysterious. I have to stop myself every few days to ask, “And why do I think this is a good idea, this new-old open community learning space, a third place fluid computer center/ office/lab/studio/collaboratory/exhibition/meeting space for communities that perhaps have spotty high-speed internet, few public computers, and some (sometimes more than some) suspicion that going online means losing oneself, or worse, one’s kids?” Several upcoming talks and conference presentations will tease out some of these idea, including one with Nancy White and Laura Blankenship at Northern Voice .

Doing the Limbo. Out on a limb-o. Stuck in limbo.

through the window, first light

The iPhone has me thinking about gaps, the betweens created by lack of broadband and computer access as well as cellphone coverage, by a lack of extended conversation about creative and/or social media practices, and a confusion over what we mean by openness on the Web. I’m worried about the widening gaps between locals, mobals and globals. I think about what Clay Shirky has observed about the way people are wrapping themselves in bubbles of perceived privacy as they talk loudly on their cellphones, or text while engaging in conversation with someone sitting right there in front of them. I’m concerned about unfounded fear and anxiety, how they creep about and lead to misinformation and disaster (hey, look at our government’s actions over the last eight years), how they influence online behaviors and attitudes about online behaviors. Sometimes there’s not enough fear about things that ARE threats. But in a country where it is so difficult to talk openly about the scary things and places and practices, we often don’t even “see” racism, sexism, domestic and sexual abuse, social injustice when they’re right in front of us. (Another must-read book on my table is one Joe Lambert suggested: Sundown Towns by James Loewen ). I worry about how “the systemic bias for continuity creates tolerance for the substandard.” (Shirky, Here Comes Everybody, p.250)

green

And there’s the visual, the digital image. The iPhone, having as much of a visual impact as an audio one, with its big screen and camera, makes me think about the impact of images in small rural communities. Digital photos have exploded onto the Web (see Susan Sontag’s NYT piece “Regarding the Torture of Others” and BagNewsNotes‘ reading of visual media day in and day out, Pedro Meyer’s writing on Zone Zero, among many others) and so we need to think about our use of and response to digital images, both professional and vernacular. About cameraphones. Images on the Web. How we circulate images, how we communicate with them–and what all this openness really means. Blogposts such as Alec Couros’ Flickr Perversion, and the conversation it has sparked in the comments and blogs, and articles linking unsafe visual social media practices to crime, such as this one in Vermont’s statewide newspaper, show us how urgent it is to talk about our practices as well as to go out there and practice.

Having a place in town to learn, to talk, to mess around with digital media could lead to active, informed participation. I think it could also lead to stronger bonds within the town between generations, groups, traditional divides. I’m seeing it happen already. People want to share stories, ideas, connect over the things that matter to them. They’re nervous about it–wonder if it’s okay to do online. And there’s the problem of time. We want our Web stories to look good and be easy to make. We often want them to be like StoryCorps stories or what Sarah Kramer, friend and board member, is working on with “One in Eight Million,” a new web experience via the New York Times, elegant stories of the people of New York. These are simple, short. Folksy yet polished. These stories seem easy to make: just push RECORD and the story spills out. Click STOP and there it is. Start a blog and people will listen. Open a wiki and people will contribute. Ha. How realistic is it for people to learn to edit, to share, to contribute, to tend, to share feeds and participate online when we can’t find the time to attend town meetings or to volunteer? We’re a now culture. We have no time.

And then there are those, quite a few of those in rural communities, who think we should run away from technology, toss the iPhone while we’re at it. Return to some “better way.”

I am pulled to balance on this score by David Gessner, who writes:
“What I want to leave behind is false romanticism. What I want to carry into the fight is the original romantic urge for the specific, the local, the real. What I want to leave behind is quoting Thoreau; what I want instead is to follow more deeply the complex spirit of the man. What I want to leave behind are pages of facts. What I want to carry forward are facts marshaled for purpose, facts enlivened because they follow an idea. What I want to leave behind is the sanctimony of quietude and order and “being in the present.” What I want to embrace is loud and wild disorder, growing this way and that, lush and overdone. What I want to leave behind is the virtuous and the good, and move toward the inspiring and great. And while we’re at it I want to leave behind anything false, false to me that is, false to what I feel is my experience on this earth. What I want instead is to wade through the mess of life without ever reaching for a life ring called The Answer.”

Yes. And so, it’s not enough for us to talk here on blogs. We’ve also got to go into our towns and engage our neighbors in these essential, messy conversations of our time. To think about place but not think only of place–if we’re fortunate enough. I want to move toward “the inspiring and great.” Fearlessly but not stupidly, blindly. So I’m going to get an iPhone, maybe not tomorrow, but soon. I want to participate actively in the remarkable creative, connective world of the Web, but balance what I do there with actions in town, in person. So, if I talk online about Flickr and fear, then I’ll talk about it in town as well. If I make a digital story, I’ll show it to people where I live as well as to the whole World Wide Web. And I’ll pull out my iPhone to do it. And then we can talk about that, too.

Walking the Land with Hard Thoughts

woodland floor One of the greatest gifts I’ve received from leaving the Academy is a clearer perspective on what matters. As layer after layer of those years slip from my shoulders, I can see, breathe, think more fully than I have in a long time. I often feel delighted by the promise of what is possible.

And I walk. Every day. In a slow-blogging kind of way. Usually without human companion because my communing on those walks is with nature, and people can be, well, so distracting. And so much of my life is about people, so the walks are for other connections and reflections.
water silence leaf
Right now, though, I struggle for perspective. I am scared. I am torn up by thoughts of friends who have recently been diagnosed with cancer–so many, so young–I have already lost one of my dearest life friends to the plague and sense the planet’s sickness in this. Here on the land, though, things seem so whole and beautiful; walking helps me move back to a more positive space. I am wracked, too, by the clatter and jitter of this crazy presidential race and find that I have to walk fast and hard before anger and fear subside. Voter suppression. Sickening robo calls and leafleting. Distortions of fact, even downright lies pouring forth from McCain’s and Palin’s mouths, and people cheering them on. Political pollution. Obama should win in a landslide. Should. Walk walk. I am so lucky to live in this place.

Over the next two days two different photographers are coming to accompany me on my walk to take photos of me in my fields (for articles about slow blogging, communities, and/or the new nonprofit). Today in a Skype call, Bud Hunt asked me about my deep ties to place and to community and how those two are connected for me. It’s funny. I write and think about these connections, but I never figured other people were interested in this part of my blogging. I roam, camera in hand, dog at my side, looking looking closely for the subtle shifts from the day before. And now someone will capture me in them. Strange. Meta-perspective, I suppose. I’m pulled out of the being to observe myself there.

Some days I leave the camera behind on purpose so that I miss it and so that I pay attention in a different way. I think that’s important, to keep things moving around, to stay a little off-kilter, surprised, ever developing my sensory awareness.

last wild apples winter stole

And almost always, when I walk camera-less, I come upon something I really want a picture of; sooner or later that image will burn so intensely in my head that it will spill out into words on this blog. Somehow. Yesterday was one of those days. One walk with camera. One without. And sure enough, Finn-dog and I came upon two perfectly pressed impressions of deer bodies–hoof-embossed snow all around two green patches in the shape of sleeping deer. Their warmth melted the snow as they rested. Snow angels into the grass. Now I keep seeing those two forms there, and feel glad that there are simple moments of incredible beauty in mad times.

And mad times they are. Throughout the world. But so shockingly here, playing out across our screens in full color, the smear campaign, the robo calls and leaflets–how corrupt, how vile, how cynical and deeply frightening. I can hardly speak to people who continue to support McCain in the face of the lies, the distortions, and the transformation of this man into a crazed, desperate figure who will go to any lengths to win. And what does that say about me?

caught

My California sister-in-law is in North Carolina volunteering for the Obama campaign. My California brother is in Nevada doing the same. I have friends who drove from Vermont to Ohio, another who has gone to Virginia. I make phone calls, link to articles and videos on the Smalltown Mamas (and Papas) for Obama blog, will help out in New Hampshire on Sunday and Tuesday, but mostly I walk the land and fret, send out links on Twitter to the Voter Suppression wiki, freak out when Chris Lott’s tweets articulate my own fears. My 75-year-old mother, who has been volunteering for Obama in her retirement community, has said she will take to the streets if the election is stolen from Obama. If McCain wins, it will be a moment of intense disgrace for the United States. Unconscionable. Unspeakable. As another of my sisters-in-law said to me today, we like to condemn corrupt politicians in developing countries for their abuses and evil, and here we’re seeing in bold relief our own corruption.

arcadia lake late fall

Walk walk. These next five days. Hope hope.

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

featherinthegrass

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

neighbor barn

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

putting the garden to bed before frost

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

from across our land

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

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

Finn and Rope at the beach

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

spike

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

long shadows across the lawn

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

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

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

to be airborne

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

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

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

late summer in the garden

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

ELI 2007 Presentation: The World Is Flat: Using Blogs and Skype to Create Communities of Learners and Cultural Literacy

Here is the text/slide/podcast version of our January 22 talk. ( I’ll also post my recent Tufts talk within the next few days.)

Update (Saturday the 10th): The blog is back up and running with commenting reinstated!

To View Larger Versions of the Slides, click on them–you’ll be sent to their home at Flickr.com.

Slide2

Welcome. We’re delighted to share our experiences at two small liberal arts colleges with blogs and Skype in writing, literature and language classrooms. I’m pleased to introduce you to these two remarkable students whose work exemplifies the very best of liberal education in the 21st century within quite traditional institutions. I’m Barbara Ganley, a lecturer in the Writing Program and English Department at Middlebury College, and since the fall of 2001 I have been using blogs and more recently digital storytelling, multimedia essays, podcasting, wikis etc, in my classes. But I’m not a techie. I still don’t know how to use the remote correctly at my house.

But I’ve had to get over myself. My fears. (My loathing.) The shifts occurring so dramatically in the world outside our institutions and the changes in the realities of our students’ lives — what Julie Evans earlier today pointed to as student attitudes and use of technology– pulled me from the complacent slumber of a Rip Van Winkle in a 19th-century classroom (something even Time Magazine gets, pointing to school as the only place a time traveler from a hundred years ago would find virtually unchanged).

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The Tightrope of Blogging: A Week’s Adventure into the Public Nature of Social Software

Colin Brooke’s post today (his is one of my favorite academic blogs, btw) entitled, “Inching, Inching” is a wonderful reminder of the tightrope we walk as we blog (at least those of us inclined towards the long post, the discursive meanderings that are richly linked) between letting out the first inklings of ideas that have started to itch, and the need to write carefully considered, well-supported texts we can hang our EXPERT hat on. He opens his post with:

“It’s easy to come off, and to want to come off, as someone who’s already figured it all out–it’s a particularly academic attitude that’s all but hammered into us, that to “not know” is a sign of weakness. The unfortunately ironic part of it all is that not knowing is always an opportunity, for me at least, and yet I feel like I get caught up in papering over those times where I don’t know.”

It’s something we all blog about from time to time–something Chris Sessums considered a while back when he felt under some pressure NOT to blog or at least to rationalize the time he was spending blogging. I’ve written frequently about related tensions–here, for example in a post on the pull between time on- and offline.

All of these posts touch upon the individual as creator versus the group as creator along the lines of collective intelligence. Confused in Calcutta has a great post this week, called “Musing about Collaboration” in which he sketches a research project he wants to do about the nature of selection within collaborating groups. One line that really stands out is this:

What has entranced me since then is the magic of collaboration, the sheer unadulterated joy of co-creation.

How often do professionals say such things?! (It reminds me of Lanny taking me to task a couple of posts ago for using the term “authentic engagement” and not “falling in love”–it’s another side of the same issue of holding back what we know , this time by cloaking it in jargon vs. sharing it clearly, simply in hopes it will grow beyond us.)

Several moments this week during my whirlwind travels back out to California and back for the Center for Digital Storytelling’s three-day retreat pushed me up against the tensions between choosing to post, choosing to blog, choosing to read blogs at all due to concerns about boundaries of ownership and privacy. First off, it is still quite remarkable to me how many people I met in many venues really don’t get the potential of blogging and blogs even when they say they know a lot about blogs. Even people who spend a heck of a lot of time on the Internet reading blogs.
–I met with a lot of “Oh, right, you’re a blogger…I see…” during my travels as though that just about summed me up–they got the picture, no more info necessary. I also met with some hostility from people using fairly sophisticated digital tools when I talked about Web 2.0 possibilities–about putting stories and ideas out there for everyone to see, to respond to, to connect to, and to potentially build off of–well, there’s certainly the tricky arena of intellectual property–those who love Ourmedia.org and The Creative Commons, for example, and those who really really do not. It’s a vexing, thorny (but fascinating) issue that gets people rather heated.
–I heard a couple of horror stories about meetings being blogged (without anyone in the meeting knowing) the content of said kinds of meetings in the past having stayed safely within the group, or moving mouth to mouth rather than as they did in the stories, blog to blog to newspaper to television and ending up causing harm. As Henry Jenkins notes in the Introduction to his new book, through some astonishing anecdotes and simply-stated realities: Convergence Culture, Where Old and New Media Collide :

“When people take media into their own hands, the results can be wonderfully creative; they can also be bad news for all involved. ” (p. 17)

–I heard blogging being called navel-gazing by definition, soft, inconsequential–and I’m sure that’s true in a lot of cases. But what I find interesting about these criticisms is how they are evaluative according to some sort of scale that doesn’t suit this form. Blogs are being judged as though they are supposed to be printed media–finished, the end, the last word on a subject by an expert. But for me as a teacher, the absolute beauty of blogging is that it’s not that at all–it’s about developing thought, about pushing out tendrils to myself and the world in hopes that through collective intelligence and my own writing them down, the thoughts might both increase my own understanding of the subject at hand and even add something to the greater conversation by raising a question, reframing an idea already out there, contextualizing, adding extended commentary and case studies–we are building a wealth of new research and practice on teaching and learning through all of our reflective blogging chronicling our classroom practices; our reading practices; our conversations about these ideas; and our questions, doubts, concerns and fears about the whole messy business. It is about becoming, not about being there. It is about sharing and connecting and trying stuff out; not about knowing it first or best. It is learning in action. And so that’s why I urged a trio of remarkable teachers at the DS Retreat to take up blogging with their students and for themselves. They had great stories about how they are trying to change the educational system in their state, kid by classroom by school by schoolboard. But they feel isolated. Blogging could offer them a valuable approach: to help their students with a range of essential literacies while making the learning efficacious; to help themselves articulate and thus understand their own budding thoughts and lived experiences about how to keep passion for learning alive in their classrooms in spite of No Child Left Behind; and to connect with a community of other such teachers doing action research and trying to figure out this mess we call our educational system.

–And last night, back in Vermont, I urged our dinner guest who was skeptical about blogs for people in nonprofits wanting to convey ideas, to think of blogging in his world in pretty much the same way I explained to the teachers, instead of as just as another essentially static soapbox or as something potentially harmful because ideas could be co-opted or misconstrued. Don’t stay away, I say, but help us figure out the balancing act between private and public, between mine and ours.

I love the messiness of it–the need to let go of our perfectionist, achievement-oriented structures and mindsets, and play with ideas with other people who come to the work from myriad perspectives. It’s a bit like the Digital Storytelling Retreat, where the richness of the into-the-wee-hours talk with clutches of the fifty incredible people, who all worked with digital storytelling as an agent of change in schools and communities of all kinds, lay in the sheer smorgasabord of responses to the how, what, why, and the future of the work.

Indeed, here are a couple of the wonderful characters I had the pleasure of hanging out with and learning from–
bryan and helen.jpg Bryan Alexander and Helen Barrett.
(We were three of the few bloggers in the group, though I think we’ve made a few converts between us…)

For me, the lessons of the retreat will grow as I pull into posts from time to time some of the things I gleaned from my cohorts, weaving them into other thoughts I’m hatching, and then I’ll probably move some of the ideas worked on here into articles or presentations off-blog as well as on. But here, I feel absolutely free to post half-baked ideas I might even revise as soon as tomorrow once I hear how others respond–and there are many times when I have changed my mind about something I posted. And that’s fantastic. That’s what being passionate about ideas and learning is all about–and it’s okay if I get it wrong. We have to be okay about making mistakes in public, just as we have to struggle to articulate here as clearly and powerfully as we can our tender first stirrings of ideas or our considered responses to the ideas of others so as to use our and others’ time well.

It’s a tightrope I’m delighted to be on …