Memory, Experience, and Online Conferences

I’ve steered clear of them, I have to admit–online conferences, that is.

I read the descriptions, which usually sound interesting, and what’s better, you can come and go at will, deciding what to follow and what to ignore–you can surf the sessions, in other words, until you light on something that holds your interest. In other words, you won’t embarrass anyone by ducking out of a session, and you can alway come back at leisure if the sessions are archived. You can return again and again, in fact. Most significantly, (at least in theory– if the online conference costs are minimal) online conferences bring together people from across the world (again in theory — if the participants have online access and share a language) in dialogue about shared interests and research, giving participants access to speakers, information, and opportunities to discuss the subject that in the past may have remained out of reach. The conversation can be shifted to embrace multiple cultural perspectives. In the best of these formats, no one person is the show or dictates the conversation. Sounds pretty ideal.

But I still don’t like them.

For one, I find it difficult to juggle various channels and chatrooms, listening & watching & responding, asking questions, attending to side conversations all at once. I really don’t like listening and talking at the same time, and chat rooms can get distracting. There can be too much to absorb–I can’t hold onto it all, or remember who said what. It can feel like a perpetual waterfall of interruptions. Hmmm…sounds like the kind of environment that feels natural to my daughters. My students. It’s what I read in the literature about emerging childhood literacies. I am fascinated, and I enjoy giving these settings a shot, but I feel completely wrung out, strung out after such a conference (even more than I do those BIG cattleshow national conferences). I inevitably have to go back and read transcripts and watch the screencasts, so I can think about the things I have heard without distraction.

I am, I realize, contradicting a statement I made earlier this year in reference to a Jay Cross online presentation–and yes, I do like having screencasts linked to from my own blog entries, and lists of conference presentations and transcripts to study. Maybe I just need more practice. But, I wonder, if I have a hard time navigating these conferences, what about people who don’t normally spend as much of their lives in the blogosphere as I do? Perhaps conference pods could be set up so people could get together locally to discuss and participate in online conferences much as my husband as a teenager in Milwaukee would go to a movie theater to watch European soccer matches, where he would shout and swap soccer stories with the other fans. He did not watch a screen in the isolation of his own living room.

And much as I hate to admit it, I miss seeing people in their rumpled conference wear, or like Will today as one pair of jeans in a sea of suits (ha–good for you, Will, though my guess is that Dave Weinberger was right there with you in attire. In an online conference, would you have sniffed out their suits, and they your jeans? Probably.) I miss the experience, the story of the in-person UNconference–the meeting, conversation, the face-to-face talk that used to happen between sessions but now happens in the kinds of professional get-togethers I try to attend these days. I find myself at the end of a technology saturated school year looking forward to these conferences, meetings, workshops and retreats I’ll head to this summer. I want to see the people. I want to go from the blogs to the in-person conversation to the blogs again.

Another set of contradictions: This morning, I found myself inordinately joyful to hear my sixteen-year-old daughter’s voice on the phone, from Ladakh, after a week–just one week– of no contact as she was out in the mountains, out of range. Although when I traipsed across the world, I never spoke to my parents for months and months, and postcards and aerogrammes limped continent to continent finally to reach them when the news was weeks old, I have grown accustomed to reading her emails and hearing her voice from across the world frequently. And this morning I realized how much I count on it, how it is so much easier for me to let her go winging her way about the world because I know she can pretty much contact us from wherever she is–I can hear her voice as though she’s in the next room, instead of in a place about as far from here as you can get (in so many ways). This morning she spoke about how she’s learned so much about the pressures and pleasures for the Ladakhi of modernization, and the beauty –for a plugged-in girl from the USA–of quiet, of sitting around with her host family night after night swapping stories, knitting, even just sitting there close to the warm stove, looking at the stars out the window. They inhabit and share memory and experience, turning them over and over. Every night. They may yearn for cellphones, we for silence and relief from the clatter of machines. My daughter gets that tension and sees how crucial media literacy education is for those moving towards technology, and for those trying to get away from it. We hang up the phone, and I marvel at her, and I laugh at myself for writing this post whining about something like online conferences when there are so much more interesting things to think about in the world.

But of course it is all so much more complex than all this, and something keeps nagging at me about my online world, and so, as usual, my conflicting thoughts have pushed me back into books, books this time covering new research and theory about early childhood and digital literacy, the Web as community conduit, and storytelling in the information age. In my search for some answers, I find myself once again reaching for that word, BALANCE.

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I dove back into Pierre Levy’s Collective Intelligence and Dave Weinberger’s Small Pieces Loosely Joined, Popular Culture, New Media and Digital Literacy in Early Childhood (Ed. Jackie Marsh, 2005), and Stuart Selber’s Multiliteracies for a Digital Ageand Adolescents and Literacies in a Digital World. And I also journeyed back into Charles Baxter’s 1999 essay, “Shame and Forgetting in the Information Age”.

In his section on backpacks (pp. 181-191) Dave Weinberger includes these snippets:

The Web…exists only because its 300 million denizens are reaching out to others. The Web is possible only as a group activity… The thoroughly a creation of subjective human beings and is built not of atoms or facts but of human interest….The Web is a revel of values and viewpoints. The Web…is a multibillion-point reflection on the world, on its inhabitants, and on their reflections about the world. It is a fractal image of the world outside our own minds. ..The Web helps us to embrace without embarrassment who we really are. It returns us to ourselves. It arches over the alienation we’ve been taught to take as a sign of tough-mindedness. The Web’s movement is towards human authenticity.

And I know he’s right about this and why I am not giving up on trying online conferences–and of course this is counter to what many people think, those who associate the Web only with the avalanche of information giving us “information-nausea” (Baxter). And it does do that–which is why I turn from online conferences, and say, enough–this goes beyond what I can or want to absorb on screen. Charles Baxter sees the deadening, not the “movement towards human authenticity”:

Remembering data and remembering an experience are two very different activities. It is possible that the quantity of data we are supposed to remember has reduced our capacity to remember or even to have experiences; this turn of events was predicted by Walter Benjamin in the 1930s.
What meaning does forgetfulness have in an information age?…The signs of anxiety over forgetfulness have been turning up everywhere lately…The phobia about forgetting has entered the run of daily conversation….Time and again, I have seen friends and colleagues lose their trains of thought in meetings and then blush and stammer and apologize, as if their professional standing had suddenly been endangered.
Many people seem to believe that remembering is simply a matter of willpower.

Do we bloggers sit around a stove and tell the stories of our lives and our ancestors’ lives? Is it helping us to have experiences and to remember? Blogging has made me not want to give up blogging, but to combine it with even more in-person talk. I want both. As Guy Merchant writes in “Barbie Meets Bob the Builder” in the Marsh-edited volume, the computer and the Web have transformed writing into “a rapidly changing social practice, in which a wider range of technologies are now at hand.” (p.186) Blogging is a kind of swapping-stories around the virtual campfire–but I can’t see the faces. Victoria Carrington, in “New Textual Landscapes, Information and Early Literacy” from the same volume, writes:

…the textual landscapes in which children are learning the practices, skills and knowledge that determine the kinds of literates and citizens they become are no longer confined to the parameters of family and school, nor are they print-based. However, a more fundamental shift is taking place. While the passive, unworldly child was expected to merely inhabit the textual landscapes created by others, children developing literate habits around new communications technologies, popular culture and expanding access to de-segregated information are already active participants. . . The next generation of instruction and theoretical models for early literacy education must take account of the pivotal nature of information. Each child’s role as analyst of information from multiple sources must be focal, as well as serious attention paid to ensuring that s/he is scaffolded towards effective and ethical production and dissemination of infomation. . .Where more traditional models of literacy prepare children for somewhat distant future at which time they will participate in meaningful ways in the ‘real’ world, a model of literacy matching the needs of contemporary children must take as a first principle that children are already active participants and risk takers. (pp. 23-25)

This is much what edubloggers are saying across the blogosphere as they chonicle their efforts within their local institutions to put pressure on our entire educational system, pushing and pulling it towards the realities of a twenty-first century world.

Beach and Bruce in “Using Digital Tools to Foster Critical Inquiry” in Adolescents and Literacies in a Digital World, point out that

While adolescents may continue to use media to construct themselves according to the values of a consumerist, narcissistic world, we would argue that their emerging participation in digital technologies portends the possibilities of alternative ways of constructing identities. Many adolescents are turning away from the represented worlds of broadcast media…to participate in shared communal experiences mediated by digital tools.

We teachers can’t turn away from the online world–not even, as Stuart Selber argues persuasively in Multiliteracies for a Digital Age, in Higher Ed English departments:

Humanists often have stranged or uncomfortable relationships with technology, yet neither indifference nor paralysis are acceptable options nowadays. In fact, an important role for English departments is to help postion human-computer interaction as essentially a social problem, one that involves values, interpretation, contingency, persuasion, communication, deliberation, and more.

I want students to see me puzzling this out, in class and on the blog, feeling a tension between the worlds. Sharing, participating, narrating–experiencing a new world. Hmmm….sounds like what we want to do in English classrooms. We need not lose the in-person when we move online, just as we do not put away our books when we take up blogs. I see this in my own students on our course blogs. They honor writing traditions as they themselves move beyond them. We have moved in closer to one another as we have moved out into the blogosphere. We want the comfort of one another’s body language, facial expressions, and talk. But not apart from the blogs, perhaps because of the blogs. This social-software and digital-storytelling-in the classroom adventure I’ve been on for five years keeps shouting out lessons of balance. I am delighted by the irony, once again, that blogging and storytelling have compelled me to use the classtime ever more meaningfully. We are glad to be together, and we know one another better than classes in my pre-blog teaching days. We run to the blogs and to the class.

I couldn’t have predicted quite this when I first pulled blogs into my courses in the fall of 2001; I did so then because I sensed students were feeling the parts of themselves being spilled into separate boxes: the person in class, and the person outside of class. The two didn’t have all that much to do with one another. I thought that to bring the world to my students and my students to one another would erase those lines. It made absolute sense in a seminar on contemporary Irish literature (The original blog is now offline due to an abrupt switch from Manila to MT) to seize opportunities to invite into a virtual classroom space experts I could not afford to bring into our rural Vermont physical space. It made sense to have all of the work of the course on view, connected, in process–a working laboratory of developing skills in critical and creative thinking and, hence, writing. Students should learn from one another as well as from whatever I had to tell them. It worked. Even better than I had anticipated. Along the way, the visual transparency of the medium–how it allowed students to examine, follow, appreciate and understand their process and growth– became just as important and led me to make adjustments in the syllabus and in the way I conducted class. Assignments grew to include online workshopping and knowledge trees–the more we knew each other as thinkers and writers and community members, the stronger our learning collaborative would grow, and the richer the learning experience. I pulled in a wiki from time to time–though I could certainly do more with them–and podcasting, multimedia writing and hypertext essays. This was a natural learning curve, a developing use of social software in the writing and literature classrooms. But I didn’t anticipate that I would add another class meeting every week, more one-on-one conferences with me–I had no idea that we would move from blog to class to blog to class to blog as we did, pretty seamlessly.

And here on bgblogging I’ve been writing about those outcomes, those experiences as they unfold on my class blogs, and as I wrote in my previous post, I have found my own blogging informed by my teaching but also by the experience of participating in a blogging community. No longer was I working in relative isolation with my students–not only was my students’ work an open laboratory for them and the rest of the world, but my teaching was and is for me and others. Blogging has sent me back to writing letter-like essays, but it has sent me out into the woods with my camera, and across oceans to meet people face-to-face.

Yes, the experiences online are valid, rich experiences, but they make the in-person ones all that sweeter. And so just as the more I move outside my classroom into the world of community applications of social software and digital storytelling, the more I move back into my classroom, the more I blog, the more I want my conferences in person and not online. It’s a fascinating balance, and one that’s sure to shift as I continue to explore it.


Looking Again, and More Deeply

A Lesson:

In my previous post, one of the points I touched upon had to do with CAST and its Universal Design for Learning. I don’t know much about it except what I have read and heard, having never actually seen UDL in use in the classroom. I mostly based my response on what I heard onlanguagelabunleashed’s interview with David Rose, CAST’s founding director. While I much admire CAST’s principles and mission to make classroom learning accessible to all students no matter their learning needs–a movement they have really led in this country– I did wonder aloud about whether you could really pull it off in our current educational system–do teachers have the time and energy to bring one more thing into their classrooms, especially if it means more for teachers to learn and to orchestrate.

David Rose left me a comment that has made me rethink that part of my post–and remember how easy it is to blog poorly. I realize that I was writing merrily away on my blog about something before I really took a careful, measured look at it. Whoops. Not my style. Sorry about that, David.

And that’s both the beauty and the bother of blogs: the beauty because we’re in conversation, and I can post my reaction to an interview and have it changed by David’s response; the bother, because I or anyone can say whatever it is we like without perhaps thinking deeply or doing adequate research. While I still hold that our teachers are overwhelmed, I don’t know enough about what a UDL classroom really looks like (I’d love to visit one in action) to make the kinds of statements as I did in my last post. Lesson learned (and an important one for my students to note). And of course the truth is that I try to teach from all angles, to every learner, so I’m sure that my classroom looks a little like what CAST is pioneering, just without the help of useful tools– with me working to get a bunch of college kids to draw, dance, speak, write, look, listen, and move as they circle in to their own ways of learning. Ha. So I’m glad to have my thinking pushed and my writing held up to scrutiny like that. And I have a lovely example to show my students about what NOT to do–and they will, I am sure, love the fact that I was the careless one. Ouch.

Creative Tensions: New Books, A Video Conference and Classroom Lessons

Going without posting for a couple of weeks while trying to keep up with my ever-lively Bloglines feeds creates an interesting tension, underscoring for me what Michael Joyce has said in an interview:

“Technology threatens our sense of presence yet at the same time offers unprecedented modes of presence to us.”

One of the most important literary hypertext pioneers and theorists, he no longer keeps a public Web presence. So interesting. And when I leave my blog for a spell, I see why one might like to let go of it altogether. And yet knowing it’s there, waiting, anxious, pushes me to explore and develop possible posts–but slowly, building up pressure until I find myself tapping away here. On the one hand I like resisting the urge to post all the time–instead I try to take a slower route, finding correspondences between what I read online, in books, what is evolving in the classroom, and in my thinking. But potential posts grow shaggy and complex as the days tick by until I find myself in a kind of limbo between the informal, conversational post and the formal, researched essay. Hypertext both liberates my thinking and holds me imprisoned within the responsibility to think it out carefully and thoroughly by linking to more interesting and thought-provoking discussions than my own. It’s easy to get lost in the labyrinth. It’s hard to find the time to find my way out.

It’s a different kind of blogging, for sure, than the more conversational sort that I also like to read, but the Chris Sessums-type essay post suits me more than the short update or the quick take on an idea. I found that out a couple of weekends ago during the Edtechtalk Barnraising. I felt scattered and pulled in too many directions– I had little to add to the blogging thread when I both had to be in the chatroom and posting to the wiki–I don’t work all that well that way. I couldn’t figure out who was where and what we were doing–I was downright disoriented. Basically I am not a multi-tasker. To contribute to the edublogging discussion, I usually do it in slow-time by immersing myself in my classroom, thinking, reading offline more extended discussions of my fields of interest, chewing on the ideas. Yup, I’m slow.

And yet I see, too, the value in frequent push-the-idea-out-there blogging. It’s very much what I ask my students to do–both to commit to a daily writing habit–as my colleague, John Elder, has said, “Writers are always talking about getting struck by lightning, and so if you want to increase your chances of inspired writing, you had better be out there in the field every day.” At the same time I ask them to resist the first easy discovery when they are circling in to the pieces they want to stay with for a while. Early on in the semester, I talk about sentiment vs. sentimentality, earned vs. unearned revelations, discussing James Baldwin’s quotation:

“When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway.”

Flannery O’Connor said much the same thing, that if the writer doesn’t discover something through the act of writing, how can the reader be expected to discover anything. I scare my students silly by asking them to dare put out their earliest forays into an assignment while urging them to go deep. Floating ideas out on blogs to one another in their tender, unformed state has been harrowing for them: naturally they feel vulnerable and inclined to make disclaimers and explanations to one another during the early stages of writing. Some of them really don’t want to put anything unfinished onto their blogs. But they do, they do, and the written feedback is, of course, invaluable. Already, within five weeks, they have come to realize that they put their raw experiments and first stirrings out there to get word back for themselves, and they put their finished pieces out there to give to their readers. They crave the conversation–they crave the connections to one another on the blog and in the classroom. They are linking to writers, to specific poems, essays and stories they have found on the Web and in books–extending one another’s reach this way. They dive back into past course blogs for inspiration and models. Their writing grows, the community sinks roots, and the students forget about grades and tidy schedules. They begin to be playful with language, with story, with themselves, with one another, with learning.

I want to be more playful here– to learn how to cast the idea out there before I have it so tangled up with all manner of linked threads the way I am doing here today. That’s a blogging goal I have for this spring–to do short jabby posts as well as these long discursive ones, to explore the tensions lying between these two kinds of posts. We’ll see… But today’s post is certainly the meandering kind, looking at the impact of connective writing on communities, and the impact of a community on the writing and the learning experience. I have three books in front of me that I have been reading and thinking about: Michael Joyce’s superb Moral Tales and Meditations: Technological Parables and Refractions, George Landow’s massive and essential update, Hypertext 3.0: Critical Theory and New Media in an Era of Globalization and Will Richardson’s wonderfully accessible, useful Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms.
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Will invites teachers into the world of Web applications in the classroom in his friendly, patient, energetic way–this is the book for teachers intimidated by but interested in blogs, wikis and podcasts. George Landow provides the theoretical as well as practical base for this work in about as approachable a way as I’ve seen. It’s a wonderful book for anyone thinking about hypertext in education. And Michael Joyce’s slim volume, as Helene Cixous writes in her Afterword, is filled with

“narrative cystallizations,” or “epiphanies [which] have an interrogrative rather than a conclusive form. They tell of the emergence of moments in which the characters’ lives are destabilized…What is at issue is the elasticity of time, as if it were possible to space time, that is, to space time out, to stretch time or to cut time with space….”( p.145)

And this is, in large part, what we are trying to do with blogs in our classroom–both to cut into space and to extend time through connectedness in the hopes that the learning experience will be enhanced, and the students better prepared to use the Read/Write Web well in their lives.

I’ve been thinking, too, about the experience my students have just had with digital storytelling at the opening of the Intro to Creative Writing course (A unit no one else in the department teaches, which in itself is rather disconcerting to the students, at least at first) –and how bits I read in these three books describe both my aims with the unit and the outcomes for the students as individual learners and as a community.

In Joyce’s “almost essay,” “The Persistence of the Ordinary,” he discusses the artist, Bill Viola’s work, “The Crossing,” holding that “the expectation of event plays off our own weariness with event.” Further on, he writes,

“The net dislodges the quotidian and diurnal by occupying it in every sense of that word, filling space and time alike…The hypermediated surface, the slow, tropic flow and swirl across the face of the soap bubble, is where we withstand the concurrent and concussive blast of immediacy, the onrushing nextness of unmoored life.”

The tension, the tension–and what I hope my students experience as they blog and as they make digital stories. It is not our job as educators to tell our students what or how to think–but rather to introduce them to situations in which they have to put their skills to use, meaningfully, authentically, and then reflect on the experience, on the learning. A bit of discomfort in the classroom helps. Students are so bombarded with language and image all day, all night; and in higher ed, they are wrapped up within the cloak of academic language–how can they possibly shift gears as quickly as I ask them to? I think it is the most difficult endeavor for college student or teacher to undertake–to make language fresh and true–to try to make art out of words. Paint–sure–it is an unfamiliar, strange medium… the same goes for musical notes. But words? And so I ask them to make stories first from image, music and text–their own photographs, their own scripts, and if they can, their own music. Through writing in multimedia, they become startled by words, by what they do and do not do, what images do, what sound does. Language becomes strange, and they crack open the imagination.

Indeed, this group of students created some powerful digital stories and learned a good deal about writing in three short weeks. And at the same time, the process of engaging with one another through the process of the making the digital stories wove them together into a dynamic community of practice. I am convinced that blogging’s most powerful outcome is the building of community through links and comments and an open presence to one another—-the students are learning how to use their virtual presence to amplify their learning and to give to the rest of the community.

All educators should, I think, read George Landow’s chapter, “Reconfiguring Literary Education,” (which goes far beyond a discussion of the literary in education) — he covers the changes and the pressures, the failures and the future of hypermediated education better than just about anyone. I love how in the section (pp. 312-313) “Answered Prayers, or the Academic Politics of Resistance” he writes about why teachers have “objections to the new technology and its associated pracitces”–that we are sure that students just don’t know enough to be left on their own with the tools of learning (he points to the concerns in the eighteenth century that students shouldn’t be allowed to read books freely without the professors’ control–library access was strictly limited.) And of today he writes:

” What more terrifying for professors of English, who have for decades called for creativity, independent-mindedness, and all those other good things, to receive them from their students! Complaining, hoping, even struggling heroically, perhaps, to awaken their students, they have nonetheless accommodated themselves to present-day education and its institutions, which include the rituals of lecture, class discussion, and examinations through which they themselves have passed and which (they are the evidence) have some good effects on some students.”

Indeed. And our students, having heard all about the rituals of the university classroom, expect this behavior from us. It takes a lot of energy on our part to break out of the ruts.

I’ve been marveling, too, at how different the world is and how the same from when I was the age of my students and my daughters–how traveling to India is both absolutely the same for my daughter as it was for me some twenty-five years ago and so different due to this machine. She and I send photos back and forth–within a couple of hours of a phone conversation we have with her boyfriend’s parents here in Vermont, we can hear her thoughts about that conversation from what I thought was a remote part of India. She has to make a deliberate decision not to be in contact in order to immerse herself completely in the experience. When I was travleing about after college, we couldn’t be in contact for long stretches of time even if we had so desired. And that made a big difference in how we saw ourselves in the world–we could get lost forever. We felt both insignificant and absolutely free. Overwhelmed and exhilarated by ourselves and the world. Now we find ourselves wondering why we haven’t heard from her for a week–ha–my parents had to wait a month for letters to arrive and by then they had no idea where I was in real time. My daughter revels in her discoveries perhaps because she has to seek them out — that’s what I want my students to do within the classroom, sometimes through embracing the connectedness of the blogging, and sometimes by turning away from it altogether. A little bit the way I am trying not to blog too often, but also to blog more freely (if that makes any sense at all).

Take the blogging of a Middlebury student on a research vessel in the Antarctic Ocean–she’s blogging as a way to chronicle her trip for herself, her friends and family–she’s getting no course credit for doing so. One of the most powerful outcomes for her, I think, has been that she has attracted a couple of fans whom she has never met–a ten-year-old with a passion for Antarctica and his grandfather, who with old-fashioned pushpins and a map taped to the wall, are tracing her voyage that they read about daily on the computer; they leave her wonderful comments, asking questions which she answers within 24 hours. She touches them and they her, opening their sense of community to a virtual one with people who share interests. It reminds me of how Barbara Sawhill talks about how she likes not having met the bloggers she has grown to know so well online–I think what she means is that having a single-minded kind of relationship without the complex layers of a fully articulated relationship means she can get right to the ideas, her perspective on this work online. We can engage with groups of people intensely online but not necessarily invite them into our full lives. Interesting–these defined communities are growing increasingly important in our work and our leisure lives–our students need opportunities to explore the grammar of online communities.

And that brings me to the video conference I sat in on for an hour last Friday, organized by university students around the country on Katrina SIx Months Later–a report card from New Orleans. A professor in communications from Tulane said that her research has shown that the most reliable indicator of how successful people were or were not in pulling through after the hurricane’s aftermath was communication within a community–people who had a way to communicate to a community to which they belonged fared much better than those who did not. She said there is a lesson in this for us all–to be in touch with one another, to form tight communities and to use whatever tools we have to stay in contact. It made me think about how my students are faring with the challenges I set before them–finding their way to their imaginations, their creativity, their stories and voices through the tight connections we form inside class via discussion and workshopping and outside of class through the blogs. Our students need opportunities to communicate within and between groups, to connect with one another and the world. Students who blog as a part of their education have their parents venture onto their blogs, friends, teachers, peers, experts out in the world–and each of those ties grounds them within communities and opens them to new groupings and ties potentially to more people rather than isolating them within themselves. And if we’re lucky, our blogging students will come to their own epiphanies that are interrogative rather than conclusive, that keep them creative and interested in the wider world, making deliberate decisions when to immerse themselves online and when to step away, understanding the notions of balance and tension. And then maybe they’ll help me figure out how to write short, interrogative posts that do not move in too many directions.

A Topic Worth Returning To: Teachers and Fear


Over the past year I’ve posted several entries on what student blogging means for the teacher: the actual practice versus the theory of using social software in the classroom and fear’s crippling effect– I’m not talking about the fear factor Will’s been covering (schools shutting blogs down for fear of students abusing one another or being abused by the outside world via the internet) but the fear of change–the fear of free-falling, of moving away from the known, of relinquishing control and of the impact on our time and the resulting pressure on how we train our teachers. It’s one thing to talk about subject-centered, collaborative-centered, connected learning (via blogs or not); it’s another thing altogether to make it truly a reality in classrooms employing blogs in ways many edubloggers write about, including me. And if a teacher/researcher as insightful and open-minded and influential as Jill Walker is pulling away from having her students blog (also see her response to my previous post here) because blogging seems unscalable to large classes when she’s trying to balance the demands on her time (personal life, teaching, research and administrative responsibilities), it makes me stop a moment and wrestle with the topic once again.

First off, the time issue. No teacher ever has enough time. We are asked to cram whole lifetimes of learning into ten-twelve-fifteen weeks, and we wonder why we feel like zombies and our students are increasingly stressed out. Taking on one more thing, one more approach, tool, pedagogy seems like madness when we’re already teetering on the brink of losing any time to ourselves much less time to make it through the course requirements. And on first view, collaborative learning approaches that focus on each student’s ability to contribute to group according to his/her learning style and learning interests seem to demand more time on our part managing, overseeing, leading, planning, and modelling. And that’s the problem–if we only kinda sorta adopt the tools and the approaches, while hanging onto our need to be in control of the learning situation and outcomes, then we’ll surely dive headfirst into the sinkhole of the teacher-as-everything model. I do not believe that classroom blogs are more time-consuming than any other effective teaching approach–once you know what you’re doing with them. And that’s the problem–new approaches take more time initially, and are risky because we’ll make mistakes along the way. We have to look closely at the FEAR factor and find ways to help our co-horts and ourselves dare to move into teaching & learning as a collective intelligence activity.
An interesting article on the terrific Tomorrow’s Professor Blog, a collaboration between MIT and Stanford, Preparing Faculty for Pedagogical Change: Helping Faculty Deal with Fear by Linda Hodges, outlines underlying fears that make shifting to new pedagogies, including collaborative and problem-solving learning, so overwhelming to many teachers. If we want to bring about widespread reform —really do it instead of thinking we are doing it, we must address these teacher fears and help with concrete, non-threatening steps. Dave Cormier’s one-day virtual conference next weekend to fire up “a mass curriculum plan” on “how to use Social Media that uses Social Media as a core part of the teaching.” seems to me a brilliant step in the right direction. Teachers need help! Instead of adopting an attitude of, well, good teachers will get it just as they have always gotten it, and bad teachers will not or can not, I’m determined to take a page from Anne’s blog, and focus as much on ways to move into this work as on the outcomes as experienced by the learning collaboratives in my classrooms.
Conrad’s recent posting about how he has learned to comment on student writing rather than mark it because he has learned to include the student in a conversation (versus the teacher monologue), is a brave post: his transparent reflective practice gives us all a view into the impact a blogging practice can have on the teacher, even away from computers altogether. And there’s Tom Wright’s post on “Blogs and Learning Communities, that points out the difference between commenting and marking. Any teacher who has read Lucy Calkins or Donald Graves or Peter Elbow or Mina Shaunnessey, etc. knows about the conversations that must occur in writing classrooms, that the most important aspect of teaching is, perhaps, listening. The research tells as much: “The Instructional Conversation: Teaching and Learning in Social Activity, by Tharp and Gallimore, in 1991, for example. We talk about Dewey’s “learning as a social activity” but are we really doing more than holding classroom discussions that often look a whole lot like the teacher talking and the students listening, or the teacher asking pointed questions that have the students jumping over one another to deliver THE RIGHT answer? Most teachers believe they give the students a part of the conversation. And yet doing so means giving up control of the conversation and re-envisioning the way time is spent in a course. Giving up control, some believe, means time is being wasted, material isn’t being covered, we are shirking our teacherly responsibilities. And, furthermore, in a classroom that values emergent learning, you never know exactly where you’re going until you get there. With standards to meet and tests to pass, how is it that any teacher would dare bring blogs into the classroom if they mean that students might digress or even meander down the wrong road altogether? Blogs do NOT take more time; they do, however, demand a new view of how we spend our time in the classroom and out. Ah so, we teachers must reorient ourselves to the entire learning process, to our relationship with our teaching, much the way my students have, through writing with images and sound as well as text, recently shaken up their whole sense of who they are as writers and what discoveries lie just below the first outpourings of language onto a page. And that’s scary.

Here are more questions related to the topic of teachers and fear that have surfaced in my blog/email/phone and in-person conversations this week:

What does it take for a teacher to bring blogging into the course in the first place?

What keeps a teacher blogging with her students?

Is blogging scalable to a large class (versus the 15-18 students classes I teach)?

I’ll tackle these questions over the next few posts, but for now I want to point to Francois Lachance’s response to Jill, and how he reminds us that it is NOT blogging per se that is the key, but having our students “network and discuss” and taking responsibility for tracking their own development in whatever form it makes sense to do so according to the learning situation and the learner:

“I wonder if “It’s helping them use their blogs to discuss and network that’s the challenge.”
could not be restated to “help them network and discuss” _tout court_ and thus evidence of blogging experience is but one of the criteria for students to demonstrate that they have indeed networked and discussed. i.e. with a larger number of students, stand back from the process and assess a selection of products that they have submitted in portfolio form to you as prof. The spin off value from such an approach is that students become responsible for their own personal archive (i.e. documenting their own interactions blog and otherwise) and such personal archives are vital for networking and discussion. It might be worth investing a little time in creating a portfolio of examples that students can review as they build their own.

Such an approach doesn’t replace a sense of being there when they actually take those steps in their evolution as social and intellectual beings. But from a phenomenological perspective that was all it was, a sense of being there.

And this is what Dave’s idea for the mass-generated curriculum is, I think, and what I hope we all do on our blogs–begin to compile the resources and to articulate clearly the reasons for time-stressed, anxious teachers to step into this work fostering strong learning collaboratives within their classrooms.

Creativity and Discomfort in the Classroom and on the Web

These past couple of days I have been torn between writing a quick post in response to the NYT article about students emailing their professors inappropriately, or pointing out (as usual) the ways in which online relationships are having a positive impact on my students’ learning experiences, or to highlighting posts from around the blogsphere about classroooms and creativity. The more I think about it, the more I have to write about them together — the tensions arising in email and classroom behavior are whiffs of actual positive if currently painful shifts in classroom dynamics and learning environments, and point to opportunities that if we keep our heads, are profoundly creative. And so, I admit, I rather enjoy the growing pains.

The letters appearing in last Thursday’s NYT in response to the article outlining some of the most extreme cases of students emailing their professors remind me of conversations I have had with my sister-in-law epidemiologist/doctor about how students sometimes jump onto listservs and discussion forums with world authorities on, say, malaria and ask the most basic–read that dumb– questions that could be answered by picking up any textbook. There’s little sensitivity on the part of these students to the context, the level, the chemistry of the conversation. It’s somewhat the same thing when we sit in the airport just to have the person sitting across from us dive into a cellphone conversation loudly and publicly. It chafes. It irks. And it’s fascinating if you think about it, how people pull up and over them a scrim of insulation even in public, online or not, that detaches them from old norms of etiquette. Yes, we have a whole new generation in our midst that expects immediate answers, click-and-receive right NOW consumerism. So what do we as educators do about this? Tear our hair out? Complain? Distance ourselves from such behavior by barricading ourselves within our own righteousness?

On the one hand there are teachers who somehow seem to expect that students just naturally should know something about email etiquette and the parameters guiding student-professor relationships. I was relieved, then, to see that most of the letter writers got right to the heart of the matter–if you choose to use email as a means of communication with your students, you have to set guidelines, just as you do phone calls, just as you do classroom etiquette. Some students may choose to ignore those rules–that happens. It always has happened. When I was a first-year high school teacher many years ago, I remember having a couple of fist fights break out in my rural classroom; I remember a student swearing at me to my face in front of the class. I remember a parent threatening to sue me if I didn’t pass her son in tenth-grade English. It happened. It was awful, but after a while, I figured out how to turn those low spots into learning moments for the entire class, and really interesting things started to happen for us all as a result–that’s what we’re here for, yes, to get them to think creatively and critically about themselves and the world? No matter our discipline, no matter the age group?

And then there’s the letter posted by an adjunct professor from Brooklyn College:

While I agree that e-mail is a double-edged sword, there are instances where it can be very helpful.

One of my students last semester had oral surgery that left his jaw wired shut for much of the semester. During that time, the class was reading Plato’s “Republic,” and my silenced student was bursting at the seams to express his reactions to the text. He sent me a long, thoughtful e-mail message, and I encouraged him to continue e-mailing his comments (to which I responded) for as long as he could not open his mouth in class.

The resulting e-mail exchange proved very enriching and rewarding for me as a teacher and, I presume, for this young man as a student.

A thoughtful response by someone who is a caring teacher through and through. But I also felt, what a waste–the entire class could have benefitted from the written exchange between these two–a blog, a blog, I yelled at the article! That lovely learning moment would have rippled out and potentially touched all the other learning moments of the course and all of the learners through linking, connecting and transparency, through inviting the conversation instead of transacting the simple exchange. This kind of conversation creates opportunities for deep and appropriate connections between learners and teachers. Take a look at my previous posting here, for example, and the comments it generated. Of the five comments thus far, one is from a professor-blogging cohort in Ohio, one is from an artist in Barcelona, and three are from my students blolgging from abroad. Look at how these twenty-year-olds are taking their current learning experiences in other classes and out in the world and applying them to what I bring up in my posting! If we kept to the old distances between professor and student, would Piya be deepening her understanding of Barthes by proposing how my post might reflect the theory? Would she even read what I write? Would poet Oliver extend and push her thinking if not on the blog? The Brooklyn prof and his student conversing on a blog could have sparked classroom discussions that would have taken all the students much further in their inquiry than they can go without these kinds of written exchanges. The teacher can at once delineate the appropriate kinds of interactions within the learning group while creating a dynamic, resilient learning collaborative where the students become far more interested in what they are learning than in any grade. My students call me Barbara. They email me. They do not abuse the privilege–they are incredibly respectful of my time, space and role. They push me on my blog–respectfully, fondly. And it isn’t about death of the teacher–it is about the birth of a new kind of teacher. I am still here setting up situations, designing assignments, asking questions, giving feedback–but so are the students. I spend time with them thinking about voice, audience, writing situation. Every discipline has its own demands, and our students need opportunities to learn and to influence the discourse, both informal and formal.

…Which brings me to the notion of the age of the classroom as studio, (as brought up byDave Warlick citing Richard Florida’s talk about the creativity age: “The classroom should look more like a studio.”). Our students are experiencing the tension between old classroom models and new, between the time spent together and the time online, between the teacher as authority and the teacher as guide, between learning as individual’s endeavor and as social activity. I see this tension as marvelously fruitful for a teacher: on the one hand we still have the luxury of sitting in classrooms, talking with one another about the subject of inquiry, learning through discussion, through example, through demonstration and, yes, through the occasional lecture. But my students–even those initially anti-blog–are already seeing the benefits of the blog: they are being inspired by one another’s writing; they take comfort in reading reflections from their classmates that match their own misgivings; they see their own growth from draft to draft right there on the blog; they are giving and getting thoughtful, meaningful feedback. Instead of speeding up the inquiry, the blog is throwing them deeper into each assignment, asking them to think and write and respond with care. They know they are being read by artists from dispatx, some even getting feedback and links at this early stage. They are learning from one another, from me, from experts, and–from the emerging learning expereince itself. Pretty remarkable in a couple of weeks.

And then there are my world bloggers who continue to surprise and delight me with their observations and revelations– Lizi is discovering precisely why we have study abroad programs at all:

In an essay entitled “Compression Wood,” Franklin Burroughs says of language:”But when you are using it all the time, talking to yourself even when you are trying to listen to somebody else, language doesn’t seem revolutionary at all. It seems like self-generated static.” Russian, hard as it may be, turns conversations and words alive again. My fear of speaking infuses the revolution back into language. The tool turns tempting again.

And if it is true that language does determine thought, and that the staleness of language prevents the expression of new perceptions, then the resurrection of language must yield fresh, if not new, thoughts.

Being abroad has renewed my tools–place, language, thought. I feel like Tolstoy must have felt as he fled his wife dressed in peasant clothes: free.”

That she can and would articulate such a moment means to me that she is deeply engaged in her learning and reveling in the experience.

Lizi in Siberia and Amanda, who has recently started blogging from Scotland are pushing one another blog-to-blog to write honestly and openly, as well as providing comfort and encouragement when things get rough. They are living the experience creatively. Jean Burgess (who, by the way, keeps an absolute must-read blog) has a recent post on dispersed creativity which speaks to what I think it is that my students abroad are actually doing, albeit inadevertently (unlike the deliberate work of an artistic collaborative such as dispatx) when she quotes Fibreculture Journal: “Distributed aesthetics, then, concerns experiences that are sensed, lived and produced in more than one place and time. ”

What we teachers feel as upheaval in these new fluid classrooms is learning how to work with distributed aesthetics as well as the safe, predictable deliverable goods of the syllabus, the text, the classroom rules. It’s bumpy, but seeing what my students here have already accomplished in two weeks and across the globe over lonely months as far as opening to their imaginations, to one another, and to learning–it’s why I’m in this work.

Digital Stories as a Way to Write the Journey

I’ve got multi-media narrative on the brain today. Over the past three-four years, my students have done some remarkable work with digital stories, ranging from interpretations of poetry, fictions, personal narratives, and excerpts from longer multimedia research projects. (You can read about earlier work here and here). )
I’m interested now in exploring ways digital storytelling can be used by students returning from studying abroad as a way to write the journey. One student, heading to Southeast Asia for January term, will return to Middlebury in the spring to work on an independent project with me in multiple forms of writing about being abroad. One of those forms will be the digital story. And so I’ve been searching the Web for digital storytellers-on-the-road. As usual, when I venture out to the Web looking for something for the first time, I am not at all sure how well I’ve combed the blogosphere for interesting examples. I did come up with a few instances of colleges actually sending students to do digital stories during study abroad –at least, in a way. Phoenix College had students make digital stories in Ireland last summer; apparently Kean University uses digital storytelling as a reflective practice, but I couldn’t find their stories on the Web; Ball State University, which has an MFA in Digital Storytelling, sends students abroad to create digital stories about their intercultural immersion experiences; certainly there are individual examples in the extraordinary BBC Telling Lives project. Examples of digital storytelling within communities about those communities or for individuals to tell a compelling story abound; I’m still hunting for ways in which digital storytelling connects significantly with the study-abroad experience.
I’m also gearing up to introduce digital storytelling to my first-year writing class, I’m continuing to play around with image-stories here and on Flickr)as well as dusting off the digital story I made this summer about traveling to South America to join my daughter. One thing I’ve learned about introducing the vocabulary of image and sound to the students as a way to get them to think about the relationship between the parts of an essay and as a powerful means of writing is that I need to pull the digital story apart into its components. Before I even introduce Joe Lambert’s Seven Elements of Digital Storytellling or even discuss what a digital story is, I want them to confront images and voices. I want them to play around with using photos to respond to texts and to think about their world, and to think about the role of image–what it does to and for the writer. I also want them to play around with podcasting, getting used to the sound of their own voice coming from their own blogs.
And so, for the first-year writers, I have threaded several exercises involving images through the first weeks of the semester, asking them first to gather images that represent something about their reactions to Vermont, as Luisa has done here. I also had them write with photographs about a theme in one of the short stories assigned, as Luisa has done for Howard Frank Mosher’s “Alabama Jones.” They write a story-without-words version of their literary analysis essay, too (Scottie’s example). As they become more comfortable thinking visually, and thinking critically about the visual, they begin to see how stepping away from language for a moment to think about their ideas in image can help the preciseness of their diction, the development of their points, and the depth of their ideas. Occasionally I will hold class in the computer lab and have the group find an image from a repository I have set up, an image that connects somehow to a work of literature we are studying. I’ll have them write for ten minutes about those connections as a way to have them return to written language while considering visual metaphors (Israel’s example).

They have recorded reflections on their essays (Yina’s example) and listened to their voices, the way they put words into the air versus onto the page. Podcasting 1-2 minute responses to images of Vermont in one of our texts and to an excerpt from another text (see Israel’s examples) asks students to articulate their ideas succinctly and clearly. Listening to their own voices gets them to consider style, rhythm, emphasis–the color of their speaking voice versus the color of their writing voice.

And so, they’re almost ready for the next step–thinking about how the digital story (using a music soundtrack, images with transitions, and a voiceover narration) can extend and enhance their critical and creative thinking about a research project. Next week I will have them make several simple, but different, versions of the same story: an image-only story; the same story, the same images with movement and transsitions added; that story with two different music soundtracks added, and then finally the digital story itself.

I’ve made a very basic set of examples: A Walk Through Primeval Vermont

Story Without Words










Story with Image Movement and Transitions
<embed controller=”YES” autoplay=”NO” length=”175″ src=”;

Story with Soundtrack A (John Whelan Jig)
<embed controller=”YES” autoplay=”NO” length=”175″ src=”;

Story with Soundtrack B (John Whelan’s “Lost Souls”)

<embed controller=”YES” autoplay=”NO” length=”175″ src=”;

I will also show them (and students thinking about digital storytelling from study abroad) the digital story I made in three days this summer as part of a workshop to learn Premiere:

(Hmmm…I’ll embed the movie next week…)

Blogs provide a way to connect all this work over the years, over the course of a semester, project to project, student to student, all while allowing me space for reflecting on the developments and throwing open the conversation to colleagues, students and interested readers.

Connectivity, Collaboration & Emergence

I write often about how more and more what I see as the most interesting and powerful uses of classroom blogging involve opportunities for students to connect and to collaborate. It comes as no surprise at all, of course, since this is precisely what Tim O’Reilly (and many others) point to within the emergence of Web 2.0. But we don’t pay enough attention to the benefits of connectivity and collaboration via the Web in classrooms that do not explicitly focus on technology. So yes, Laura’s (Geeky Mom’s) Bryn Mawr class blogs as part of their course on Web writing, absolutely. And writing classes are using blogging nicely to form and strengthen their learning communities, to disseminate materials, and to publish writing, such as my colleague, MaryEllen Bertolini is doing with her first-year seminar on Jane Austen. But I’m also looking for ways in which humanities and social science classrooms are seeing blogs as a way to reach beyond the classroom and into the world of their discipline, to put students in touch with one another as mutual apprentices, and with the experts in the world, and to join in the larger conversations going on in the field–in ongoing relationships. But perhaps I don’t need to look within classes, after all, for I’m discovering that the students are getting it, and forging these connections now in ways they didn’t even a couple of years ago, whether we encourage them to or not.

The Blogging the World Project, for instance, is growing–not because I or my colleagues from Haverford or Dickinson have been out there knocking on our students’ doors, asking them to join the project. No, the students themselves are reaching out, asking to join, or telling me about other students abroad blogging independently, students who are interested in joining a community of bloggers. At first, in what some of us have come to call, second-wave blogging, students from our classes that blogged started to hanker after it a few weeks once the course was over. They missed the opportunity to write on the Web in multimedia, sure, but most of all, they told us they missed the connections with one another as a writing and learning community. But now, not only do these students return asking what’s going on with blogging and how can they participate, students who have never blogged in class are wanting in. They have experienced the fluid connectivity of cellphone and IM, of online social communities, and are interested in engaging with an intellectual, educational community as well.

And so I have found myself recently adding students in South Dakota, Russia and Senegal to our project–students interested not only in blogging as one-to-many, but as many-to-many. It’s lonely blogging out there by yourself even when you have a devoted following–if that devoted following is not blogging, you have to wait for responses instead of wandering over to someone else’s blog to see what’s going on in their experience. Now that I am being shown these blogs springing up, I notice the clusters of friends linking one another’s blogs off their pages as a way to keep a group scattered all over the globe in touch, together. I’m now interested in seeing what happens when we take these independent study abroad bloggers into our project–will they find that posting to the Motherblog offers them something that their own blog does not? Will anything shift in voice or content on their own blogs as a result? What does a virtual community offer?

And back on campus, my Writing Workshop students are posting their writing, images and podcasts dutifully to their blogs, and appreciating how the range of writing modes helps their writing and thinking. Now, though, I have moved off the center collaborative blogging space and invited them to step in to blog collaboratively, to engage in a full-group discussion directed by them. But until late next week, I won’t have asked them to comment on one another’s posts on the individual blogs.In the past, it wouldn’t have dawned on them to wonder about that. But lasy night, I saw that one student, Bobby, is already concluding that they would benefit from giving one another feedback on the blog, and has left a classmate a response:

Anyways, while I was looking at different peoples writing blogs, I realized that no one really had any comments or suggestions to any of their writings, which seems to negate the power of this technology. I think we all aspire to be better writers here, otherwise we wouldn’t have taken this class, but I think in order to achieve great heights in our writings, we need the analysis and honest opinions of our peers as well as our teachers. Luisa, you have left an impression on me with your artistic ability from day one. Thus this is the reason why I decided to atribute my first comment to you.

This is new. They get it. They want it.

In talking yesterday with my colleague, Catharine Wright, who blogs and has used blogs extensively in a range of writing classes, about a collaborative blogging project that grew out of her class a year ago and now has a life of its own beyond her course, Dis.course, I asked her about whether she had observed the same kind of phenomenon. Were students finding the blog and wanting a place on it? And yes, she said, her students who had blogged with her, have approached her about wanting a place to try out their writing, their ideas, their multimedia projects. And they don’t want to go it all alone. The common blog off of which they link their own blogs makes all the difference for them, as Catharine points out in a recent post,Writing, Community and Activism, in writing about one of her new bloggers, Ariana Figuero:

Ariana’s connection of the two communities seems completely natural to me. Both communities rise out of the same philosophy about learning, writing, community. There are a number of us in the writing program who encourage such communities, online, offline–the list is long. And what Ariana was saying was that, having had such an experience, she needed more of it. She needed to stay plugged in and keep working in community with others.

So here is where even in small, liberals arts colleges, institutions that pride themselves on close-knit nuturing communities, we hunger for meaningful, ongoing connections to one another in which we explore one another’s and our own ideas. Catharine goes on to say:

But the work can feel isolated, and the voices unheard, if we don’t call out to one another, as Carter did, and say, “I hear you.” And Ariana is saying that she needs that–that without that, she got stuck in her writing, which is so good. So I hope that dis.course writers and readers will reach out to one another, and beyond; to say, “I hear you,” and “why,” and “listen to this.”

Bobby just new to Middlebury, in his course, WP100, the Writing Workshop, understands this as does Ariana as she ventures beyond the nurturing community of her WP201, Writing Across Differences course. Imagine what could happen if all of our students had such opportunitites to connect with one another and us and the world on community blogs like Dis.course and Blogging the World as a valued part of their education? What kinds of discoveries would they make about their places in the world and their roles in their own education? What kinds of transformations would emerge within our educational institutions?

Asking My Students To Write Stories Without Words As a Means to Consider the Elements of Writing

My Own Attempt:

Upon Rising Too Early on an October Morning












Thinking about images in a Writing Course

chard.jpg trunk.jpg

In my teaching, I find myself thinking these days about visual images almost as much as I do about words. Five years ago that wasn’t the case at all. Yes, I majored in art history in college and teach an arts writing course, and so I’ve long been pulled to the grammar of an image, but in my teaching of writing, I stuck pretty much with language on the page. These past four years have seen me not only inviting my students to consider the image as a viable writing tool, but insisting that they use them, and explore what an image does and how it means. Why?


The last couple of days has seen a convergence for me of image-rich, image-tense, image-dominated moments that will help explain:


I bought my first digital camera this summer and have been taking it out with me on dawn walks with the dog through the Vermont countryside. I forgot how having a camera in tow makes me experience a simple morning walk so differently–it isn’t the same experience of feeling the morning on my skin and eyes and ears in equal parts. With the camera I am more alert to the individual details of the scene–and it is more a scene–than when I’m just walking. I am more attentive to everything going on in the visual plane rather than to the full experience. I don’t lose myself in thought quite as often. And so each morning now I ask myself if it’s a camera morning or a sensation morning.


Echoing in my head, too, is H�ctor’s recent description of visiting the sites of D.C. with his young son this past weekend. People were snapping photos as though their lives depended upon it. They never brought the little boxes from their faces, as he described it, and he wondered what this was doing to people’s ability to SEE, to look closely at ANYTHING anymore. The snapping away was indiscriminate, and distanced the snapshot-taker from the experience of actually looking at the Washington monument, taking it in, experiencing it. Do people not really want to have experiences anymore–do they just want photos to email home?

And then last night, late, we watched an episode of Six Feet Under, the one in which Claire (and Russell–there’s a little exploration of intellectual property brewing here, and collaboration, and artistic license) creates photographs of people on whom she has laid papier mache masks covered with collages of torn bits of photos of their faces. For one thing, this is the only television show that interest me at all, and I’m thinking of using this episode in my class to talk about what all these photographs–the taking of photos in particular–are doing for and to us as artists, as writers, and as dwellers on this planet at this time.

…Which got me searching back into an old post looking for the quotation from Susan Sontag. on how images are being used today: “a shift in the use made of pictures–less objects to be saved than messages to be disseminated, circulated.”

I also bought Ron Burnett’s How Images Think, a book that wouldn’t have been high on my list just a few years ago and now sits on my desk atop several must-read novels and collections of poetry and essays, next-in-line (and I can hardly wait for the weekend when I can start it). Today I wandered over to his blog (because that’s what I seem to do nowadays, see if writers who interest me blog, and if they do it well. Ron Burnett has a beautiful blog which is part of his
CRITICAL APPROACHES TO Culture + Communications + Hypermedia website
. Much to explore there. In his latest post he announces a new book he’s writing, The Age of Six Feet Under. Ha.

All of which brings me to my students, of course, as most posts do, and what they’re up to. On the Blogging the World Project blog, many posts (on the students’ own blogs linked off the Motherblog) focus on the feeling of disorientation and disequilibrium that comes with living for some time in a place quite different from your own. Those first posts covered impressions of feeling, I would say, and the ones coming now are more visual in their content and theme as they begin to post photos and remark upon what they are seeing. I’m going to be interested to see what posting images to a blog and hearing back about them does to and for the experience of being abroad. How will they use the pictures? Piya uses them poetically in this post and this one, Zoey as punctuating illustrations that really help us to see what she’s talking about. I’ll have my students in Writing Workshop follow along, watching the way in which the bloggers abroad use their images. Will it be like the snapshot takers in D.C.; will it be like Julina last year in Artswriting? How will they choreograph the screen, and what impact will it have on our reading their journey and on their experience of it? Will there be writing only blog days and image-rich blog days?

Katrina, Blogday and a Handful of Students

When BLOGDAY came and went without my posting links to five blogs I read, it crossed my mind that I was, indeed, a contrarian who liked blogs as long as no one else liked blogs, or that I only liked serious blogs. Fortunately although perhaps that describes the way I was at sixteen rather all too well, thirty years further down the line, I really don’t think that’s it. Although I was interested in seeing blogs linked to from around the world–the little blogs rather than the same old A-list blogs–I found myself feeling that it was a bit of a chain-letter moment that would vanish as soon as it was done. After all, tagging and bookmarkingfolksonomies— already offer interesting and connected ways of finding out who is blogging about things that might interest me. I follow the trails through, for instance, or Bloglines or FLICKR, and most of the time, the journey is well worth the time. I appreciate the threaded texture of a readership that responds, blogs and links, as well as the opportunity to discover blogs new to me as I also see old favorites, on someone else’s blogroll or via feeds. Often I click on a story as much to read into the links, well past the original blog, sometimes even forgetting altogether where my reading originated. The out of the blue listing of five blogs lacked the kind of depth of contact that I have come to value and expect of blogs. I’m not really interested in blogs-as-diaries, truth be known. (Not with the many books waiting by my bedside for me to read!)

So, I didn’t connect to five blogs, and I’m okay with that. Call me curmudgeon. At least it’s got me wanting to blog ever better…

The maelstrom, the tragedy, of Katrina, too, makes me want to blog more carefully and yet boldly–to encourage my students to dare speak out, repeatedly, when things go awry in the world and when something touches them, or inspires them. A story on NPR tonight covered a blog set up as a forum for victims of the hurricane and those in search of the missing. Apparently some people were rescued as a result of the postings coming via text-messaging from those trapped in attics who still had cellphone battery life and coverage. Who would’ve thought… Of course, a blog, in this case Doc Searls’ Weblog pointed to Nola Blog right from the start as covering the hurricane far better than some traditional news sources.

Forging connections with one another and the world. Communicating the news and insights. Creating knowledge. Collaborating. This is what we work on in my classes with the blogs. And at the opening of this fifth fall of classroom blogging, I aim to urge my students even more to write to effect change, to call out to the world, to articulate a response to what others have to say. Perhaps that’s all we have–connections to one another–reaching out beyond ourselves in authentic ways. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll save ourselves or someone finding our blog along the way.

Of course all this blogging talk leads me right back to the f2f world. Take my students–those here before the start of the school-year for the Middlebury College program I direct, The Project for Integrated Expression,, a one-week intensive workshop about community and activism and making the transition to college life. One of our program assistants hails from New Orleans, and as we watched her city battered first by wind, then water, then human incompetence, she threw herself into the work. Each day she worked a little harder than the day before, and grew quieter. On the final day of the program we heard that the state of Vermont would be gathering provisions, that day only, to send down to the gulf states.

Eight of us hopped into cars which we filled at our independent grocer’s and our natural foods co-operative and then headed to our county’s drop-off spot. As we reached the end of the long line of cars waiting to enter the high-school parking lot, our Louisianian smiled– from deep down into herself she pulled about as big a smile as I have ever seen. Car upon car, trucks, vans–even a motorcycle idled patiently, waiting to move to the stations set up to unload, sort, pallet and load the cans, boxes, bedding, toys into tractor trailers. People worked quickly and quietly, together.
And we had no camera. With my trusty cell phone I snapped a few bad shots of the remarkable outpouring from this small state.
These students had been on campus for all of seven days.

The following day I took a look at the blogging my students are doing, from abroad and was struck by how they are all reeling from the initial shock of the experience abroad. And how alone they feel. Blogging might relieve some of that feeling of being set adrift, especially when they receive thoughtful and thought-provoking responses from such bloggers as Ewan McIntosh,an edublogger from Scotland (whose summary of Katrina wiki and blog coverage is excellent and comprehensive)–as they try to sort out the bombardment of sensations they are experiencing in Russia, Brazil, Italy and Germany. I hope they realize that they aren’t just blogging into the wind!

Here blogging makes considerable sense– my students, even in these early days, find comfort in putting into words, for their readers to take in and respond to, the disorientation they are feeling, the first tentative explorations of who they might be in another place. Instead of blogging-as-diary, the students are trying to lift their heads from the moment to see if others are sharing their sense of the experience. The blogging asks them not to privilege their own experience but to contextualize it and connect it.

And so I move into the fall semester–and yes, the first leaves have turned–

I’m determined to remember these lessons: whether in a high school parking lot packing boxes with tins of tuna, or hearing about bloggers from New Orleans trying to lend a hand, or watching my students exploring the disequilibrium of leaving our home communities.