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

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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! 😉

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

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

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

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

UMW Slide1

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

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

UMW Slide2

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

UMW Slide3

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

Slide4UMW

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

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

They’re bringing the house down.

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

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

UMW Slide5

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

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

UMW Slide6

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

UMW Slide7

Students are often astonished.

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