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?

Why Open A Creative Writing Course with Multimedia Experiments

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

atthemilwaukeemuseumofart

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

in the kitchen, february

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

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

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And then I set them loose to create a multimedia piece that expressed something they felt they had to express, something that was not merely dazzling but meaningful. I urged them to consider the emotional as well as narrative arcs of their work; to think about entrances, exits and the terror of the middle; how the piece has to do more than exert their own fascination with their experience. It has to matter. And they had to make discoveries in the process. Or as Robert Frost put it, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”
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This group of 17 used all kinds of media and each other to extend their toolset, their subject matter, their creativity, their understanding. They truly taught one another and themselves and me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A project containing the student’s paintings: Catharsis

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

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

Hypertext project using only image and sound and her reflection.

Using picnik.com and Slideshare:

The Middle of Nowhere

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

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I will miss this…

Slowing it Down as the Semester Speeds to a Close

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

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

rivertree

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

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

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

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

Indeed.

flight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Initial Observations/Revelations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

quality rubric

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

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

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

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

FALLING RIVER

Three Weeks into the Semester: Stopping to Catch My Breath

Between Twitter satisfying my need to reach out within my blogging community, a quick trip to George Mason University for a workshop/conversation, several wiki and Google doc collaborations with blogging comadres, and the whirlwind of the semester’s opening leaving me rather out of breath, I have been the slower-blogger as of late. But I like this pace: Twitter brings me into daily contact with many whose blogging work informs and intersects with mine–I trust they’ll let me know when something of note is stirring abroad in the blogosphere and beyond, and so I don’t spend as much time looking at edublogs as I once did. I can spend more time thinking about new modes of expression, new ways to bridge old literacies and new. And I wait for blogposts to brew while I watch with amazement how my Bloglines account fills with unread feeds…

This beautiful place is festooned in grand colors and I should be outside, but I’m drawn into this realm to think aloud about how things are evolving with social software in my classes and in my conversations out in the world. vermontfall

So here I am. Because something’s not quite as it was when last I entered a classroom ( a mere nine months ago). Every time I step into a new learning adventure everything, of course, seems new; every time I enter the classroom, I wonder where we’ll venture that day. It’s always new. But this year is even more new, if such a thing is possible. Both in the classroom and on the road when I give talks and workshops.

My Students–
These first-years strike me as quite different from those of past years (which is interesting, as I am also parent of a first-year college student, and I always attributed her distinct ways to her alone–what a range of lenses we use depending on our role …). Indeed, teaching a first-year seminar for the first time in four years is a fascinating revelation–I usually detect subtle shifts in the online experience of the classes of students separated by the three-year gaps between my first-year seminar teaching stints. Subtle shifts. Students in my 2001 first-year seminar (blog now lost) and 2004 seminar didn’t have notably different experiences online before coming to college. Some in both groups came with video editing skills and memberships within social networks, but most did not. Blogging was foreign to all of them. It took some time to get over the disorienting, unnerving experience of writing in and for the public, of sharing their work with one another and commenting effectively.

The difference between my current seminar group’s exposure to online learning and networking practices and that of my 2004 seminar is stunning:
All fifteen students…
*know what a blog is;
*six blogged in high school classes (the first students I have ever had who blogged in secondary school);
*none of them blog on their own;
*every one of them has a Facebook account;
*they all walked into class the first day with strong opinions (mostly negative) about reading blogs for information. (“Oh no, I don’t read blogs,” one student said in a tone that indicated surprise that I would even ask such a question. They contended that blogs were unreliable and/or belonged to the realm of narcissistic exhibitionists. ) Where did they learn to disapprove of blogs? Teachers? Parents? The Media? Experience?
*A couple of them indicated that they signed up for this course precisely because of the online practices promised–not because they liked their previous classroom experiences, but they felt they needed to get more comfortable communicating online and exploring Web 2.0 storytelling practices. Interesting.

milkweedbursting

A couple of observations about the first weeks of seminar blogging:

Observation #1: What they did in high school in no way resembles what we’re doing (or aiming to do) here. Some students used blogs before college to hand in work or to retrieve assignments; others used blogs to participate in teacher-driven discussions (mostly in the form of writing what amounted to response papers handed in to the teacher). No one had actually integrated informal and formal learning spaces, the world of the classroom and the world beyond, or had conversed on blogs about ideas other than the ones the teacher instructed them to consider.

So, while this group is very very comfortable with online communication amongst themselves on Facebook, they are uneasy about discussing academic ideas in public, writing about what they learn from one another. (They met on Facebook as well as on our course blog before school, and surprise surprise, the Facebook encounters were much more natural-feeling and informal than the introduce-yourself-as-a-writer assignment driven by me). In fact Facebook-communication is so prevalent among Middlebury students that new first-years flocked to ask the advice of an upperclassman who volunteered to answer their questions before they ever got to school. Another group of students brought down a move by the administration to change the college logo–all via Facebook) Yet classroom blogging, at least the way I envision it, is foreign to them.

So some things have shifted, for sure–they are online and comfortably so–but they have not had particularly meaningful experiences using social software in their formal learning spaces.

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As my students venture onto Flickr and try out tagging, I see them slowly extending their intellectual reach and sense of expressive possibility, and relaxing into a blogging practice not because a teacher wants them to do it, but because they get it. Slowly though. Even more slowly, perhaps, than previous groups–they are fine about having a Motherblog and their own blog and a Flickr group and other Web 2.0 experiences, but they aren’t necessarily naturally going much further than through the motions–yet. I suppose that the very strangeness of the medium to earlier students made them leap into the heart of the practice instead of skimming the surface. They had nothing to compare it to–no years of Facebook; they had not been bored by it in high school…
fallmorning It’s a tough jump for this year’s group, though, because so much in formal education conspires against it (i.e. faculty misunderstanding how social software can serve transformative learning, and the way we pack their days and nights with assignments–who has time for deep learning?). So far, I do see these students finding real value in reading one another’s work and commenting on it, and in experiencing the tight bonds of community fostered by the Motherblog. They like having the blogs. We’re making progress. Next step: initiating and joining the conversation–doing the blogs.

Observation #2: Online teaching & learning is moving out from the hinterlands, even here in the woods of the liberal arts. The opening editorial, “Welcome to the 21st Century” in our student-run college newspaper, discussed the college online, including new blogs set up by our president and college dean, and ended with the power of blogging in classes; another article profiled the new college radio station blog .
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Things are changing around here… (Though, yes, the Editor-in-Chief and Managing Editor both blogged in bgblogging classes, and so it isn’t as surprising an editorial to me as it would have been if they had not had this experience.)

This semester, for the first time, my students are participating in online discussions in several classes at once. It makes sense–no real surprise here that more and more classes are incorporating online discussion. But the kids are already getting worn out by having to do so many responses, comments, conversations simultaneously; they find it frustrating to keep track of the number of posts required for Course A vs. Course B, and how they are being evaluated, etc etc. In some cases they feel that the discussions are unnecessarily added onto a full load, and are really extra same-old response papers or last-minute flurries to fulfill the course requirements.

These shifts mean that I must struggle to keep transforming my teaching to meet the needs of my students, to stay alert to the shoals, the currents, the wind. And that’s good–no getting carried away with the technology here. I have to ask myself why I am asking students to discuss their work, the reading, ideas they come across–online. Do I pull back the blogging in my class because they are online so much in other classes? No. But I have to be mindful of that they make digital stories or podcasts or Powerpoint presentations in other courses. Mine is no longer one of the handful of technology-rich classrooms. Not by a longshot. And I welcome this tension, and the opportunity for opening discussion about new ways of connecting courses one another by connecting their online worlds through the pivot of the student’s own learning practice. Ah, for a fluid learning landscape.

In other words, we have pulled in new practices, but we have not yet transformed our teaching or our courses or our institutions.

My recent experiences on the road and in the blogosphere have also pointed both to progress and to new tensions as we work towards breaking through to progressive pedagogies. Take last week’s workshop/discussion with GMU Arts & Sciences faculty. That I was invited to GMU not to convince people of the merits of blogging, but to work with faculty already blogging, to help them to ground it within twenty-first-century teaching practices marks a significant shift. I never had to define a blog. Instead of stopping along the way to discuss technical how-to questions, we discussed pedagogy how-to–practices–and we discussed the generation of learners; we discussed the reality of preparing them for this hyper-networked world. Concerns about plagiarism were never raised. Support issues were handled deftly by ed tech staff–so so different. Finally I could talk about transformative teaching, and transforming teaching with people really grappling with the gap between how they were taught to teach and how they needed to teach now. At Exeter, too, faculty talked about online overload, about how we need to move towards a more holistic, student-centered approach to online classroom practices, that these conversations need to happen in conjunction with conversations about curriculum and learning spaces as a whole, across the school. Yes indeed.

Evaluation is always a big concern when I give talks–but this group asked a different question: they were not trying to push blogging into antiquated, ineffectual notions of assigning and grading (by asking how many posts I require, how I check or read them, how I assign grades to them); they were really trying to sort out how to engage students in new learning practices through effective assignments and to evaluate the outcomes, and new forms of academic discourse fairly and meaningfully–yet– within the static constraints of old requirement systems. And that is, I see, the big stumbling block for so many faculty who are, on the one hand, asked to push their teaching forward and yet, on the other, required to adhere to teacher-driven test-and-grade forms of evaluation and assessment. The most controversial thing I hear myself saying these days is no longer, “Let your students read each other’s work and build on it and learn from it–let them learn from the world and the world from them; they should transform the course as it transforms them” or “To use social software effectively and to its full potential, you must really question whether you have actually shifted teacher-centric practices” but “To integrate social software and twenty-first century learning practices effectively into your classrooms, you must abandon your twentieth-century ways of grading–and if you must use letter grades (as I must), build the grading rubrics WITH your students. Have them write ongoing, hypertext narrative reflections of their learning process and outcomes, and then propose and defend a grade twice a semester according to those class-generated rubrics, a grade that has meaning because they understand what it represents and why. Do not grade individual posts. Do not count them.”

I think I still shock people with that one, and so one of my blogging goals for this year is to make visible here the building of the course rubrics in my first-year seminar as we go. My students have never done this kind of self-evaluation before, either. And when they heard that’s what we’d be doing, they smiled rather wanly, I must say. But they are a game group, and that’s something else that’s different—they are willing to experiment–to try out these new ways of learning. Not a one is balking. So far. We’ve started the process of building a rubric by looking at old posts from the archives of previous classes, looking at what first-years have written, sophomores and seniors, trying to come up with some ways to describe the elements of a successful piece of writing at this stage.
ontheboard
Today I saw some lights flicker on for them as they explored why they knew a senior had written one essay and a first-year another–they are crawling around writing as writers, as fellow travelers in Gardner’s caravan. Next week, I’m having them read from two student blogs that are not being kept in conjunction with courses, one by a Midd student and veteran blogger, Alex, blogging from study abroad in Mongolia and the other bya wonderful student I met at UMW’s Faculty Academy, Blogging from University of Mary Washington. I’m interested in them taking a look at blogging the learning journey rather than blogging the course ; will they be interested in integrating the two, if, when it makes sense thematically, they can pull some of their discussions from other classes onto our course blog? We’ll see just how contained they find each course experience.

stilllife

And we’re only three weeks in…