Habit and Expectation

Two moments yesterday afternoon–one reading a blog post, one an experience in New Media–bring me to thoughts about habit and expectation for those of us grappling with what it means to write, to teach and to read New Media.

Bud Hunt’s post about the habit of blogging brings up the old question that’s been circulating around the blogosphere for some time about how often should one blog (something many of us have contemplated as we adjust to writing on the Web and finding our rhythm here–Mena Trott spoke at Blogtalk2 last year about how the pressure to post BIG OFTEN drove her off her original blog; I’ve written from time to time about my own sense of blog writing habit and audience, and now that I am fast approaching my one-year anniversary of bgblogging–my four-year anniversary of using blogs in my classes, I’m thinking about it again).

I find it fascinating our human need for explanations, for parameters, for rules, for conformity. My students enter the classroom at the beginning of the semester thinking I have answers. They soon find out I have none. That each of them will have to find the right mix of strategies, techniques, ideas, skills and desire to find their way as writers and critical thinkers. I can show them the tools and how people use them, give them practice reading and writing critically and creatively, but I never tell them there is a right way to go about anything. Same goes for blogs. I’ve come to a place with blogging that I, like Bud, never want to blog just because the “anxiety of the link”(Bernstein) makes me rush to write, rush to connect, even if we don’t really have anything to say. It’s like Samuel Johnson’s sensible declaration: “I hate to read a writer who has written more than he has read.” Of course I know that many bloggers contend that the whole point of blogging is to remain connected, moving about the community, checking in, restlessly, with commitment.

Indeed, this brings up the question of feeding the blog–when does a blog die? Why? How long dormant is too long? What happens to the collaborative blog if only one person posts after a while? A class blog after the course is over? Well, we’ll soon see on that score with my creative writing class which has indicated a desire to keep posting–

As for a classroom blogging habit, even there I am very loose these days: I give students a few must-complete blogging assignments so that they are not avoiding blogging out of fear or out of lack of confidence or practice, but then I leave it up to each of them to find their own balance with the blogging. Some students really hate it–they will never blog of their own volition. Others love it. Some need to post every day, some are fine doing it once in a while. Both kinds of blogs interest me.

Bud excerpts Steve’s blog:

I do have to admit, as much as I love writing and blogging and sharing and collaborating, I do find it refereshing to take a mental break from it as well. It may sound crazy, but NOT learning for a few days does sort of recharge the batteries. I do feel a little out of it. I’m sure that there have been some amazing things written in the past week which I missed completely. But that’s alright, there will always be more,

Now there’s a guy who’s found balance.

I know, though, that some of my favorite bloggers, such as my colleague Héctor, rarely blog any more–he’s just too busy, and so people don’t tend to find him as often as they should.

Which brings me to the second part of this post: new media experience and expectation. One of my former students gave an informal presentation of her cyberartwork “Disembodiment” (I may have the title wrong)–she showed it in an auditorium on a large screen, then talked (something she altogether loathes doing under any circumstance) a bit about her process with Photoshop, Flash, and music. The audience was discomfited by what they saw for it didn’t conform to their expectations about “film”and yet they were sitting in front of a screen which by definition set up certain expectations –where was the narrative? What had she intended? What did it mean? Perhaps the most difficult part of the piece was that it was so compellingly beautiful while it flashed edges of a girl’s movement and spun a still image of a hologramesque face and marched across the screen an xray-DaVinci-esque torso. Was this an example of what Lev Manovich sees connecting the paintings of Vermeer to art in the new interfaces, where description and immersion are more important than narrative–the importance of objects, material surfaces, light, effects.

They pummeled her with questions about what it meant, what it was, what she hoped the audience would feel, know, do. They said it made them uncomfortable, and soon, the whole discussion period was making people uncomfortable, for she turned every question back over to the asker, or she refused to answer–but no one left. Someone asked her if this Q & A tactic was part of the whole piece, what she was after. People kept talking about the images and their juxtapositions, trying to figure them out and why she did what she did with the rearticulations of the self– At the end of the showing people still didn’t know what to do with it or themselves. Some people really seemed angry, some shrugged, one professor went up and hugged her and said it was fabulous and so not-Western.

In setting on its head the need for expectations to be met, she was articulating Roy Ascott’s “deep-seated fears of the machine coming to dominate the human will and of a technological formalism erasing human content and values.” She was showing us something most weren’t quite ready for:

In a telematic art, meaning is not created by the artist, distributed through the network, and received by the observer. Meaning is the product of interaction between the observer and the system, the content of which is in a state of flux, of endless change and transformation. In this condition of uncertainty and instability, not simply because of the crisscrossing interactions of users of the network but because content is embodied in data that is itself immaterial, it is purely an electronic difference, until it has been reconstituted at the interface as image, text, or sound. The sensory output may be differentiated further as existing on screen, as articulated structure or material, as architecture, as environment, or in virtual space.

From Roy Ascott’s “Is There Love in the Telematic Embrace?”

And as I get ready to present with Héctor at MIT this afternoon on digital stories, I know that there will be those in the audience who won’t appreciate what it is that my student, Julina, whose work I’ll be commenting on, has done with her digital storytelling as academic discourse and what Dominique last evening pushed well past– they insist on “dispersed authorship,” on each viewer participating in the writing of the piece, and resist leading us too far while connecting us to history, science, music, art, culture. And not feeling the need to define, to set rules, to tell us how to, when to, or why to communicate except as a way of reaching out to one another through the vast spaces that separate us. They are the artists who reside in the in-between spaces, participating yet commenting, being yet observing, on the boundaries between communities, where the most significant ideas often originate.

And so, I hope this medium stays ever fluid–that we resist the notion of how often we should post or how we should post– And that my students stay courageous in the face of doubt and misunderstanding, helping us to question and to connect and to see.


Trackback Recap

A few posts back I wrote about trackbacks vs. comments (with an insightful comment by Aaron Campbell thrown into the mix). Developments on my course blogs and with former students who miss the blogs have me thinking more about the rich, rough texture of the weaving of conversations I have on this blog with myself (with my current thinking and my older posts), and with those who care to trackback or to comment.

My last two posts brought several bloggers into my world I hadn’t known about, and wouldn’t know about without this kind of connectivity. I wouldn’t have wandered over to Carla Shafer ‘s blog, found the reference she left for me to her Anti-Syllabus for her first-year writing seminar at Cornell, a course in which she’s using blogs and wikis and having the students understand action research by working as a true community of practice. Fascinating.

I wouldn’t have found Situativity, Learning in Context blog which led me to Feld Thoughts Blog with its “The Me Too Zone” discussion of Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma or Tensegrities, another blog filled with thoughtful commentary and reflection on teaching and social software. I’d like to see students taking advantage of trackbacking–to get out there in the world of blogs of students at other institutions and make the kinds of connections I’m making with fellow teachers.

Which brings me, as usual, to my students and what’s going on in their blogging. Eugene, whom I’ve blogged about before, is a blog-less blogger, hopping onto other blogs in lieu of his own, for he’s afraid that no one would find his, no one would read it if it were floating untethered out there alone in cyberspace. When he’s part of a blogging community, he knows he’ll be read if not responded to, and that makes all the difference. And so I’ve been thinking of ways for him to have a blog outside of his classes without getting lost–how he can connect with likeminded bloggers out there.

And it’s got me thinking, in this, the fourth week of the semester, about these two new classes worth of students as they take to blogging, observing who leaves comments versus, in their case, new entries (I haven’t really stressed trackbacking since we’re building a collaborative blog, though I probably should since every student has a blog as well). I’m interested in how they perceive their connectedness, and use it and extend it in the context of our courses. They are still testing out the differences between posting an entry that calls to another post and commenting on the original post. It’s quite interesting to note how students shift in their relationship–in their attitude towards the ways in which blogs, podcasts and wikis work for them. I ask my students to develop reflective practices right away, frequently taking stock of how and what they have learned–and many of them are beginning to open their minds to this blogging business. They do love how it connects them to their peers.

Questions for me: how do I get students to refer back to one another’s posts, weaving in links and observations, and to use the commenting function fully without hiding there. Some students are much more comfortable sitting there off the main page, inside the comments, which is understandable, for being out there on the front page center of the MOTHERBLOG is a vulnerable place if you are a student who has been told repeatedly in life to be the best, to do it right. Blogging is both visual and loose, fluid and yet open to the world–how intimidating at first.

But slowly, they’re jumping on (some with a little nudging). One student, Julia in her “opening night” performance on the blog homepage, opens up with her post letting us know just how that feels:

I feel like a comedian on stage right now, the spot light on, the audience coughing, the digital clock counting down… and nothing is coming. I clear my throat and laugh a little to myself. “How is everyone feeling tonight?” A few random claps. “Great! How’s the Prime Rib?” Silence. “Okay, so, um, I was at the circus yesterday and…” This is what the blog feels like to me.

She’s self-conscious, but she’s now blogging and prompting responses from her classmates who are curious, too, about how it feels to blog rather than to post crafted stories, how it feels to initiate the conversations rather than to respond, how it feels to wait for a response, any response.

And then there’s Charles, writing in from Scotland:

A Word on Dancing and Elephants

My name is Charles Logan. I am, like Eugene, Steve, and Julina, an EL 170 Spring 2004 alumnus. And I am lonely. I miss her. I am jealous. I used to take her dancing. We would dally in the back next to the pecan cookies until our song came on and then it was off to the polished gymnasium dance floor where boys and girls grew into men and women. I never liked the cookies. But she seemed to enjoy saying “pecan” so I kept my opinion to myself. Besides, she was an excellent dancer, all hips and thighs.

Now see what you’ve done? I’m weepy, nostalgic. I cannot live without the blog.

And neither should you. Whether you are aware of it or not, this community is global – I’m writing this from my cozy flat near the North Sea in Scotland. It is an artistic community I cannot bear to be without. The blog is a forum for us apprentices to pool our collective works, thoughts, frustrations, triumphs, new dance steps. As such, I wish to offer a quote you might find helpful as you move from creative non-fiction into fiction.

In an interview with The Paris Review, Gabriel García Márquez explained, “If you say that there are elephants flying in the sky, people are not going to believe you. But if you say that there are four hundred and twenty-five elephants in the sky, people will probably believe you.”

Good luck with your elephants. I’ll be reading.


This class has already, in three short weeks, become closely tied to one another and to the class before them, through our time together in class, their Wednesday night workshops, and this blog. And even if they weren’t seeing results in their writing because of the blogging (which they are), wouldn’t it be enough to be heard, to know that someone was actually reading their writing, listening to them read their writing via podcasts, connecting with them through this return to a form of letter-writing and to what Robert Patterson(Via Aaron Campbell) describes as

a vector a return to an old culture.

When I say old culture, I mean the culture that fits the essential nature of humans and that fits nature itself. I imagine a return to the custom of being personally authentic, to a definition of work that serves the needs of our community, and to a society where our institutions serve to enhance all life.

I see signs that that we are going home. See if you can see what I can see.

Wouldn’t that be a good enough reason to keep our students blogging and wiki-connected and using folksonomies?

Saturation point?

Once again (and this seems to go in cycles) a lot of people are asking how much blogging in the classroom is too much. I see that conversation going on over at Will’s blog and the same kinds of questions were being asked at the Northern Voice Blogging Conference (check out Bryan’s live-blogging of the education panel), and now,a couple of days ago, one of my students walked into my office and said, “You know, I really think the blog is detracting from my ability to focus on my writing. I spend too much time looking at the screen, trying to figure out where to post what, engaging in conversations online when what I really took this course for was to improve my writing. It’s getting in the way.”

Hmmm…he has a point, of course. I have set up a rather complex series of inter-related blogs for that writing course, not all of them for actual blogging (the blogs vs. blogging divide). Students usually feel a bit disoriented during the opening couple of weeks in my courses as I try to pull them out of what I call “the rut of learning”–teacher-to-student delivery system–so his complaint was understandable. I find that students like social software just fine–but in their non-school lives, at least at first. They get it, but they don’t immediately get it in the classroom.

But I’m not concerned about the students doing a little complaining about blogging–a little uneasiness isn’t a bad thing at all in the classroom. I am concerned about the cry from people who aren’t actually using them in the classroom (or anywhere else for that matter); those onlookers reading sensationalized media accounts about lousy classroom practices, and listening to standards-based proponents suspect that something so “cool,” and so seemingly different from traditional ways of learning as blogging-the-verb couldn’t possibly enhance our students’ education. After all, aren’t we supposed to be teaching our kids how to write and write? Shouldn’t that involve pen and paper with a little keyboarding thrown in? Of course we do that, but we have to teach them also how to write well for a world that is no longer the world of pen and paper. It’s hard for our students (whom we’ve groomed in our image–at least inside the classroom) to understand–at first. And so, at the beginning of every semester I’m sure to get a kid or two informing me that blogging has nothing to do with “real” academic inquiry and the building of formal writing skills.

First off I wonder about our driving need to define, to categorize, to evaluate so quickly–I’ve been teaching for over twenty years now, and I feel as though I’m just now really coming into my own on many levels. Writers talk about apprenticeships that last a lifetime. And in my writing classes, I resist giving my students feedback too soon because well, for one thing, an immediate response from the teacher rather than a wider audience made up of peers, older students and the world beyond our walls, quite frankly sets up the teacher-student power dynamic that gets in the way of students taking responsibility for putting into practice the lessons they are learning through this learning collaborative. Too much feedback too soon sets up the expectation that teachers haveTHE answers and provide students with some sort of script to follow. That’s where blogging comes in.

The reality is that writers have to immerse themselves in the actual, complex, difficult act of writing–for quite some time–before it’s appropriate for me to jump in with my comments. Blogging becomes the student writer’s opportunity and responsibility to communicate to and with the group. I no longer even get on our course blogs very much to comment on student posts or to join their discussions. Horrors. I blog in my own spaces on the blog which allows me to participate without dominating, guide without controlling, mentor and model without interfering with the tender, new learning going on. Socrates online is what I’m striving for, I guess.
Many have pointed out over the past few years–James Duderstadt, Rheingold and Vila, for example–what Elmine Wijnia a Dutch researcher I met at BLOGTALK last summer, who has conducted an experiment on blogs in the classroom, observes:

The thing that was most interesting to me was a remark from one of the students that it was easy to check whether something new was published on the blog. It just felt natural to sit behind the computer (mostly at school btw, not at home) surfing around, chatting perhaps and check out the blog in between. Another student told me that it is easier to check to blog, because she often felt ‘too lazy’ to get her books and notebooks in order to get some homework done. It seems that using an internet based communication tool is far more fluent for today’s students.

To me that is the biggest challenge the educational system faces in the next few years. Schools are not dealing with the way teenagers learn. They are taught by people that grew up and finished their education before the internet era. Lots of teachers still lack the skills to teach current teenagers in the way they are familiar with and can understand. Loads of information is coming to them via the internet and everything they do is through the screen: the learning, the reading, downloading and listening to music, writing, designing and most importantly: communicating with the world. And if everything teenagers do is through the screen, why then is there so little taught through the screen??? It’s time for a change, it’s time to blog! (or to use wiki’s or whatever you prefer as long as it’s screen wise)

Researchers around the world are taking similar note. But all this is not to avoid my own tendency to flirt with the line of too-much techology, something I wondered about out loud here a few posts ago. Perhaps I have stepped over the line into the too-many blogs, wikis, podcasts, too-much too-much side of the room. I need to think about it. That’s what we teachers do–we constantly reassess what we’re doing, tweaking lessons, strategies, syllabi in the moment to make the most of the moment. And in blogging right here, I am working through these questions.

And here’s where I stand at the moment: The beauty of blogs, even in their current cumbersome state, is that they are so flexible and fluid as to allow for all kinds of writing, all kinds of uses, all kinds of individual choices. It is the linking, the modeling , the visual nature of the blog that works for me. Students can try out and then identify their writing voices and sitations. They can SEE when writing works and when it doesn’t. They can, at one moment, discuss the reading or respond to a classmate’s assignment, or post their own fledgling draft. They can blog in the purists’ sense of the verb. They need to learn how to write in all kinds of weather so to speak. And that blogs create this richly dense texture of linking to other blogs and sources out there in the world bespeaks the blogging student’s lively mind contextualizing his/her discoveries, grounding them in the larger, timeless conversation.

I do not use blogs because my students think they’re cool (actually my students don’t think they’re as cool as I do) or because I’m enamored of technology. I use them because they help my students become better writers (and you can read my BLOGTALK paper to find out why and how) and because they connect students to a world beyond themselves. And they don’t always welcome how different or challenging it is to have to learn how to negotiate new terrain. At this point in the semester, they’re irked–they want recipes, prescriptions, the five-foolproof-steps-to-writing-the-great paper-or-short-story approach. And we’ve trained them to expect no less, instead of the wonderfully messy process of deep critical inquiry with its switchback trails, its box canyon dead-ends, and its sandstorms out of which we somehow must find our way.

But if you keep them blogging long enough, something opens up…Take Eugene Lee, who has blogged in two of my classes and one of my colleague, Mary Ellen Bertolini’s, classes. He’s hooked and his writing has come a long way since he started on this blogging adventure a year ago. He’s now popping up on my Creative Writing Course blog as a guest post-er, writing to the students, and on the college’s new Diversity blog where he posted an essay on blogging, in which he refers to a blogging moment from my fall Arts Writing class:

This isn’t like novelists writing in collaboration (or “writing-by-committee”—that doesn’t even sound good), or a bunch of blow-hard critics critiquing, well, anything and everything under sun, it seems like. No, we’re somewhere in between. We’re not so close that we’re restricted by each other’s writing (stylistically or thematically), but we are not so far removed from each other that we are writing responses to each other’s work—we are actually responding. The transient nature of the blog allows for constant growth of our writing, constant change, additions and revisions, and the result is a kind of unified effort in which each piece is unique, and is vibrant and even volatile.

I say volatile because it is sometimes dangerous to be a blogger. We tried an experiment, in my Arts Writing class last semester, The Blogger’s Fieldtrip. One of us would go out to the nearby Middlebury community and explore and find examples of art, and the next person would pick up from where his or her predecessor left off, and find more art in response to the previous blogger. Well, in the following discussion, we engaged in a heated debate (well, the others did, all I did was make an inappropriate poop joke), in which feelings were hurt, and egos bruised.

Because the blog is so spontaneous, there’s always the danger (which I find thrilling) of people getting mad. But it happens on a blog, and it happened on our blog, because everyone 1. had an opinion and 2. had the stones to express those opinions. And our own bloggers were brave, philosophical, funny, and unique.

Is this (people’s feelings hurt) an example of a blogging failure? No. People cared. We cared about what everyone had written and we cared about what we had to say. So often in academic writing, we are forced to be objective and as a result, detached and unaffected. But with the immediacy of the blog, we have the freedom to be fiery and irreverent, passionate and angry and hot.

And so when at the end of our meeting my blog-irked student said he didn’t like the blog because it made him uncomfortable–it was new and he had never written in so many ways all at once–I smiled at him. Indeed.

Pedagogical Underpinnings of Blogs in the Classroom

As I presented my blogs at CET for the Social Software Workshop this morning, midway into my hour-long talk about how I’ve been using blogs over the past four years, I was feeling more scattered than usual, a little off-kilter with the grounding I was providing, which, of course, surprised me given that I have presented at CET numerous times as well as at conferences and workshops all over the place. Certainly there is the reality that every year I have more blogs to show, more assignments and experiences–the choices the choices! And it wasn’t that I didn’t get across the essence of my experience with blogs, because I think I did.

It was the very smart and equally perceptive Sarah Lohnes who helped me put my finger on what’s up. The deeper into this classroom blogging I get, the more I cannot disentangle the pedagogy from the blogging–to talk about blogs means to talk about student-centered learning, collaborative knowledge spaces, constructivist pedagogy FIRST. Teaching with blogs the way I do–which means not applying them piecemeal but integrating them fully in all their messy, flexible, fluid promise– means you have to let go of control of the classroom, give up the stage and create opportunities for learning magic to occur. The trick is to weave the learning and the tool so seamlessly together that the blog is the class and the class finds the blog indispensible.

Of course, all over this blog I go on about pedagogy and classroom blogging and teachers blogging (for example, here in November and here in October). It’s not a new topic at all here, but it is rapidly becoming THE topic. During a phone call yesterday with Cyprien Lomas about the upcoming NCII conference we talked about higher ed situations conducive to social software, and why some in higher ed resist blogs altogether, and we, too, circled back to the role of pedagogical leanings. I think I decided after that conversation to soft-pedal the pedagogy in my talk today, to see if just putting the blogs out there and the assignments and the different ways they can be and are being used would entice and inspire but not scare people off. After all, how many people even understand what we’re up to on the arts writing blog much less want to try it out?

(I’m particularly interested in feedback from anyone attending today’s CET workshop, if you happen to read this posting.)

As Sarah puts it, constructivist pedagogy has not caught on in higher ed the way it has in K-12 (mostly, K-6), and until it does, well, blogs probably won’t catch on in quite the way I’m pushing them. So what does this mean?

It’s time for me to make some decisions about how I want to talk about blogs in the future. Do I do so gently, subtly, hoping that through a gradual acceptance and use of blogs, fellow educators will also embrace the notion of the classroom as a community of practice constructing knowledge collaboratively, aided by the blog? Or do I just come right out there at the beginning of presentations and say, okay, don’t bother with blogs unless you’re ready to step off the stage and into the circle of learning?
Pedagogy first, blogs second–or–blogs as the vehicle to the pedagogy?

I hope we hone in on this topic in tomorrow’s social software users group meeting at CET–I am looking forward to meeting other liberal-arts-college bloggers and hearing what they’re experiencing in their classrooms and on their campuses.

A month later…looking back on a semester of blogging, digital storytelling, art ‘zines and online classroom experimentation

Wow, it’s been a full month since last I blogged, well, since last I blogged here. My focus has been over at the artswriting blog-‘zine wrapping up a semester’s explorations and experiments.
Updates: I’ve closed comments sections on older entries to reduce the spam load, and been playing around with blogs for two spring courses, and experimenting with my new iPODPhoto and how I might use it well in my classes (podcasting, of course, and in-the-field flash story making, perhaps–we’ll see.) The month just completely slipped out of my bgblogging grasp, and it feels good to be back on this page, and I’ve got a lot of catching up to do here (and with my blog reading in general). Fortunately Middlebury College has a month-long Winter Term, and I’ll have some time before the craziness of the spring semester to get back on track.

In a few days I’ll post a longer assessment of my fall blogging experience, but right now I’m preparing to present at next week’s CET Workshop in Social Software in Education and then the CET Social-Software Users’ Group meetings to follow and the NLII Conference in New Orleans on the 24th. All three events push me to assess and articulate just what transpired in that arts writing class where I do believe we took classroom blogging into an entirely different realm than at least I have seen anywhere. That’s not to say the blog’zine was completely successful or that I wouldn’t change a thing. Nope, there’s plenty I would revise, add, and scrap. More on that anon when I post presentation notes.

For now I want to draw attention to the travel blog of one of my sophomores, who has just left for a month-longindependent travel project in India, keeping a blog on the road, and returning to work on digital stories.


Her pre-trip postings show how giving blogs to students as self-reflective, narrative spaces pushes them to examine the relationships between childhood, heritage, and upbringing and how that affects them as they emerge from their homes as young adults at college trying to figure out who they are and how they will lead their adult lives. Piya already is making some valuable observations for herself but for her readers as well, all of us, who have been invited to journey with her back to her roots and through a world that doesn’t belong to her. She will conduct research, read, chronicle, reflect and create through this journey. The public, collaborative nature of the blog pushes her to say something worth saying, to communicate not only with herself but with the world, and to respond to the comments she will (hopefully) receive from those who read along. I’m eager to see how it turns out.

Important Yet Painful Lessons

It’s the final week of classes, and if I thought I’d make it through this semester without some sort of blog eruption then, well, I guess I was being too hopeful (read that, naive). Tempers flared and spirits were wounded over the weekend as our “great experiment,” the bloggers’ fieldtrip,nearly burst into flames–

Of course, this is not the first time disagreements have threatened my course blogs. I can remember a couple of arts writing courses back when two visiting experts grew so exasperated with one another–on the blog in front of the students no less– that one exited the blog altogether for some time until the other expert apologized. Last fall students blamed the blog for any and all course-related anxiety–some hated the blog, so much so, that one clever student, in his final project, did a take-off on the blog having an identity crisis in the wake of the constant criticism. And Héctor responded by pointing out the generalized anxiety people feel in the face of technology, saying:

I find the description of the blog both interesting and classic! Since the dropping of the atom bomb, historically, critically, and philosophically (culturally), we Americans, have had the tendency of “talking about” technology as if it were an entity outside ourselves; as if it exists “doing something” to us; as if it’s reliant and existent without our doing.

This is the tone and character of the description. A blog — or a weblog — is merely a tool. What in fact you’re talking about–the feeling and “anxiety” that comes across–is about technology in general.

How frustrating it is to suddenly be thrust upon what at first blush appear to be disparate realities: the new College; the new cyber-college. What do we make of this?

Our American reality is such that we’ve created a speed-frenetic-overwhelming (sometimes), beautiful, ridiculous, over the top, and imposing culture-and arguably world–that we’re seeking to have others join. It is, indeed, a globabization of more than just goods, services, and technologies; it is a globalization of attitude, of process, of morals and ideals.

What are our choices?


Be driven by it or drive it yourself.

Like Frost, who has chosen the road less traveled, I too chose this one–which is to drive myself.

What side are you guys on? In order to drive, one needs to know; to know is to work–and many times, most often, through frustrations.

Do you wanna work? Work can be play.

This time, the students are feeling the effects of blogging without thinking through the ramifications of their charged words being put out there in indelible blogtype in the public sphere. First they felt the challenge of writing about the artists within their community. Now it’s the field trip. Responses to art in the world turned personal as patience frayed and frustrations were unleashed.

It took a face-to-face discussion in class to make it possible for the community to regain its footing. And this is where the blog is magnificent (and why, I think, it really must be used in concert with f2f class meetings)–it shows us where and how we go right and wrong immediately. It both gives us the space to say anything we want, and then by its public nature, make us face the consequences.

Some might wonder where I’ve been in all this–why I didn’t jump onto the blog at the first sign of trouble and mediate, direct, or plain old shut it down. Isn’t that what a teacher does? Isn’t that the teaching moment? And believe me, I drafted a couple of posts and nearly hit the SAVE button. But I resisted that urge and let them, one by one, wrestle with the quagmire. If I am a teacher who hands the blog and the course to the students, I have to let them work out the lessons for as long as I can. (If you hand them the blog, they’ll give you the boot.) I have to watch –at least for a while– lurking but not commenting as they figure out the range of writing, and how far they can go and what happens when bloggers misread one another.

But it’s in class, when we’re all together that I can do a little orchestrating by pointing out what I have observed–projecting the blog right up there on the big screen, and then letting them have their say. We can point to actual moments on the blog when commentary works and where it has broken down. And the students are commenting about how we really have two classes–f2f and e2e, and how they are learning quite different lessons in each realm.

They also see how their five-minute responses to the Picasso prompt –(five-minute!) exemplifies good writing about art- focused, energetic, and interesting. How is it that they had something to say and could assemble the words and some pretty elegant sentences in no time at all, and then fell apart outside of class? The sprawling, messy blog allows us to experience a rich array of writing, both good and bad, and learn about finding the rules, looking for the patterns and the urgency, the reasons for writing, for having something to say before we put the words out there in the world. And they see it.

Valuable lessons learned, even in this, the last week, of class.
Go blog go.

Classroom Blogging as Performance Art

The end of the semester leads to sporadic postings here–and just after I got through urging teachers who use blogs in their classroom to blog in their own space as well! Ha! Héctor, Will, and many others have written about how instead of finding more mental space for reflecting on our teaching practices and on how our use of technology fits the larger puzzle of this cyber-revolution (because, theoretically, technology frees us up from the grind of the administrative details associated with our teaching and enables us to efficiently and effectively create student-centered classrooms), we’re finding ourselves ever more pressed for time. As Will has blogged recently, there’s just too much to read and digest and try out and think about.

“What’s cool, and also overwhelming,” he says, ” is that there’s so much good blogging going on these days.”

I notice how so many blogs are beginning to sound the same, to post the same links and reflections, even. Seems as though we’re all traveling the same route… Maybe Héctor has it right, resisting the call of the blog and posting anxiety by posting long essays once in a blue moon. But for me, when I don’t post, I feel guilty (which makes me think back to the whole “Questions of Audience” discussion on a couple of blogs earlier this semester). I also miss it because I know that if I’m not writing about what’s going on in my classroom and what I see in the blogosphere and the rest of the world as it pertains to this work, then I’m probably not thinking about it as deeply as I should. I’m letting the pace of classroom life carry me off. Which it very nearly has…

Even though the semester is well into its last frenzied moments (which in my world means that I am practically living in the media development lab helping kids with the glitches in their webwork and the near-disasters in their eyes-bigger-than-their-skills multi-media projects) there’s a new calm within the intensity. What’s different about this semester is how undaunted my students seem in the face of server crashes, file corruptions, compression nightmares and program freezing. They blithely move through the mini-disasters determined to write for the Web , on the Web.

And that’s what I want to make sure to reflect on over the coming weeks and once I’ve figured out the “why,” to develop my teaching in such a way that my students this spring capitalize on what I learn: this group of students has broken through to understanding what it means to WRITE ON THE WEB. For the first time (in the three plus years I’ve been at this classroom blogging/multimedia authoring work in my classes) we’re really getting it. The students see how it’s not enough to post a Word document to the blog and congratulate themselves for some blogging well done. It is not enough to post and run, to comment and drop. Some of the students are weaving earlier postings into the fabric of their writing, or referencing one another’s work, or extending earlier conversaitons through new postings. There’s a new circling back as they move forward, a grounding of the new work in the old as well as in the work beyond our own borders. The linking is neither haphazard nor arbitrary (linking for linking’s sake) as it was in earlier semesters. Linking to the world outside is done deliberately and carefully, not as a way to hand off the responsibility for making a particular point but to extend a notion that is an interesting but secondary point, or to draw the reader’s attention to luminaries and interesting, related work in the field. I don’t see the writing getting lazy in the face of a link as it did at times in my Irish course last fall. If anything, the writing sharpens in the approach or perhaps, more accurately, treats the link as a naturally integrated extension, as in playful profile of an artist friend or Britt’s recent blog post in which she weaves earlier group postings.

This group understands the need to consider the design dimensions of Web authoring: what should they put on a single screen and where, how the individual screens relate to one another and to the whole, how the visual qualities of the Web affect the reader-viewer’s experience, how they must take into account sound and how it interacts with text and image. Certainly our <a href=”http://mt.middlebury.edu/middblogs/ganley/Artswriting%20Experiments/005487.html”atrget=”-blank”digital storytelling assignments had an impact on our understanding of the interplay between the three modes of expression. Some of the final projects (still in process) demonstrate a pretty darn sophisticated use of the Web environment.

The students’ inventive and effective Web authoring pushes me to grow in my own use of it–as a teaching tool. Past explorations of discussions, workshopping avenues, publishing spaces and a building of assignments (moving from Levy’s knowledge trees to stories without words to hypertext stories to artist profiles and finally to multimedia final projects) are the first steps. Now I am trying to keep opening up the classroom to ways in which the blog invites us to explore a range of writing voices and modes and relationships–I won’t know for a while just how well these are working, exercises such as the Picasso-Stevens and Imagination piece which has them all posting responses to the Picasso in class on the blog without thinking about what anyone else is writing, and then posting again in response to Wallace Stevens’ response to Picasso–but not necessarily considering what their classmates have to say. We’ll take a look in class on Tuesday at what transpired around and between and in spite of each other. The Bloggers’ Field Trip is unfolding in an interesting way–wandering about town and countryside, and wandering about different voices and intentions and audiences all within the same post in some cases. And the side conversation going on in the comments section has influenced the field trip itself. Fascinating. This kind of exercise seems to offer some promising opportunities for writers to write about a work unhampered by what anyone else might think about it, and then push them up against what another writer has said about a work of art, necessitating a dialogue with that writer, and then free them up in the informal-and-heated conversation in the comments. We’ve had some fruitful discussions about the trip as it wends its way through our screens.

And then there’s the influence my students are having on others out there writing.. From Liza Sacheli, our most recent visitor, likening their blogging to performance art, to first-year Robyn in Héctor’s seminar, modelling her final project on the form created by Amanda in my seminar last year, to students using their blog work to springboard them into internships and jobs and publication offers, these student pioneers are having an impact on their world. That’s pretty good evidence of the power of this work.

Some Blog-Related Moments from the Week…

**Upon my return from Chicago, my students (and a couple of colleagues) recounted how Scott Rosenberg surprised them at his recent lecture by saying that he knew I had blogged him the day before and that I was in Chicago and not in the room–all from reading my blog and from the wonders of RSS. The students loved that bit of proof that people-out-there-somewhere read blogs. Their blog. Knowing that their artswriting course ‘zine, awZ has made it to Holland and New Jersey, to Barcelona and Chicago, and who knows where else pleases them mightily. They also love it when they Google an arts topic just to find an awZ posting right up there for all the world to see. They feel responsible for what they write, and for how it reads, some of them for the first time. That new commitment to excellence makes all the headaches involved in bringing technology into the classroom worth it. Of course it also means that we are way behind on getting all of their digital stories and artist profiles up onto the blog because they keep fine-tuning over on their own blogs before posting to the ‘zine, and because they are using so much media in their work that we have to play around with compression and embedding and ways to keep the file sizes under control. It means, for right now anyway, that I am spending a lot of time in the media lab troubleshooting.

**At a get-together on Friday with students who have attended one or another version of our pre-enrollment experience over the years, I couldn’t get over the number of times blogs or multi-media projects came up in conversation as students described the work they were doing this semester or had proposed to do as independent studies this winter or spring. And they didn’t think the blogs were the point at all–just the vehicle, just the means, the way of getting where they want to go with their research and writing.

**It’s a kick how many of my students, past and present, read this blog. As I have mentioned before it wasn’t something I had even thought about–I guess I never thought they would find this blog interesting or relevant to them. The more I think about it, though, the more I return to the comment to that post left by Dispatx Art Collective in Barcelona:

This whole thread is very interesting and thought provoking – as I was reading it, I was wondering about the whole idea of ‘commenting as conversation’ and ‘reciprocal relationships’ and really seeing these as something new, or something old. There is a level to which ones own thoughts are now becoming untrammelled –

once upon a time (in the good old days, perhaps) a teacher would come to class with work prepared. Always there was someone who had accessed some text that nobdy else had – if it were one of my classes, it could have been the text we were supposed to read but nobody had – and this student had an undeniable advantage. When I was writing my dissertation, I had several unpublished pieces of a professor’s book to hand. Reading the professor’s blog, coming up with a new thought, is almost socializing this advantage – saying – here, class – you can all have the benefit of what I think.

Isn’t that a bit like extending the class? Are reciprocal relationships in typed form new …

So how far does it go? Do teachers without blogs unwittingly expose their novices to a world without summer school? At what point does the professor give up, and use speech as his or her medium? How is the blog something that augments rather than simply mimics the normal range of human interrelationships?

These are excellent questions, and ones I’m grappling with right now as I think about the impact reading my blog might have on my students directly through the reading of this blog rather than indirectly through the resulting developments in my teaching. It’s not at all necessary for professors to have blogs as a way to augment their students’ education, to extend the reach of the class. (Though as I’ve been arguing–with some blogging colleagues–I DO believe that a teacher who uses blogs as a new kind of mult-media authoring tool better be using a blog herself.) Isn’t that what the course blog is about, and directly so? Having students learn more about our subject matter or about how I think certainly wasn’t my intention here with this blog…

I’m finding out that my student readership goes beyond those in my class curious to see if (and what) I’m writing about them. And it’s not only those from previous semesters who greet me in the halls with, “Nice post this week, BG…” ; it’s even those out in the world, including one in Syria on a Fulbright who let me know they’re keeping up with my world via this blog. Interesting…

**During lunch with a recent grad (a ground-breaker around here in the use of digital stories as a fiction-authoring medium) who is having a fabulous experience at Teach Kentucky, we started talking about getting her eighth graders and my creative writers together on a blog, discussing writing and sharing their work. I’ve done this inter-school sharing before with a local fifth grade, and once upon a time Will Richardson and I tried to get something going between our classes, though with little success. He has had better luck with other “blogging exchanges,” and I know that many other classes are inter-blogging with excellent results. My New England college students could learn a lot from her Louisville Middle-schoolers, and her kids could learn a thing or two about a small liberal arts college. Who knows where such a collaboration could lead for some of the kids. In the past, the young students have latched onto their college counterparts as though it were a Community Friends/Mentoring kind of collaboration. College students so quickly and easily forget that a world exists beyond their dormitories and classrooms–I’m always looking for ways for them to pick up their heads and look around at the world.

**With students about to scatter for Thanksgiving break, it will be interesting to see if any of them read the blog while they’re away, or post to it. Will they feel compelled to check in? Will they miss the blog?

Trying to Get It Right…


(Playing around with another cool, free tool)

Héctor hasn’t been blogging much recently (too many demands on his time these days), but when he does, it’s sure to be thought-provoking, and his recent posting The Taking of America 1-2-3 is no exception. Dismayed by the election results, he makes us look hard at how we are and aren’t teaching our children to REASON:

As we ponder the management of the Democratic journey–or even the Republican’s for that matter–what’s extremely clear is that we’re seeing in “red” America is the failure of education.

It’s tragic.

Our liberal education institutions are mere rights of passage to a socially stratisfied American reality: everyone is fighting for their own piece of the pie, up the ladder, and leaving everyone else out and down.

As long as it “ain’t happenin’ to me”…

The Bush Administration is one of the most divisive forces in our country’s short history. A Jihad has been constituted. We accept this–blindness reigns supreme, which means that education has not fostered the proper reflective practice necessary for deep and meaningful engagement with hard issues.

As an educator of just the kinds of students who will take up the mantle of leadership of this country a few years down the road, I have to look at what I’m doing in the classroom to foster, no to demand clear, deep thinking on the part of my students. Am I playing around with technology too much because, well, because it amuses me? Because I get attention for doing so? Am I sacrificing time that could be better spent in other activities that foster effective critical thinking? The faculty, administrators and IT folks attending the recent Multi-media Narrative Presentation asked me that question–repeatedly–and I’m glad they did. I’m glad Héctor does–all the time. It makes me have to take stock of my position.

I’m confident that, though certainly flawed in ways I won’t even see until I’m way down the road and doing a better job of integrating technology into the classroom, my use of blogging and digital storytelling has pushed my students into thinking long and hard about the important issues raised in class and on the blog. Right now there’s quite a discussion going on about what you can and can’t publish in an arts review, for instance, and there’s one about Stories with Images vs. with Words Added. In a regular class (meeting for 75 minutes twice a week), we can’t have those sprawling discussions–and we can’t archive them, returning later in class to point to them as we struggle to bring coherence and clarity to our thinking.

But it’s more than that–in brief class meetings, we also can’t develop the bold imaginative play that is crucial to deep inquiry. Technology–the freespaces of blogs and the multimedia authoring tools being developed used this way can have pretty remarkable results in this regard. Take this trial in England I learned about from Byran Alexander, for example, Savannah:

…a strategy-based adventure game where a virtual space is mapped directly onto a real space. Children ‘play’ at being lions in a savannah, navigating the augmented environments with a mobile handheld device. By using aspects of game play, Savannah challenges children to explore and survive in the augmented space. To do this they must successfully adopt strategies used by lions.

Preliminary findings suggest that, “the combination of play and planning within the game enabled children to explore knowledge from a number of different perspectives: through experience; through reflection on experience; and through research and discussion.” Perhaps this sort of project-based, experiential gaming-in-the-classroom experience in the younger grades will grow students who come to our undergraduate classrooms demanding opportunities to examine difficult questions from multiple perspectives and to think collaboratively, collectively. Just maybe…

And so I continue to be optimistic, to think that we’re on the right track with this work. It’s just beginning; I often fail; I usually have very little idea where a particular experiment will take my class, but I know that we’ll learn a heck of a lot in the doing as long as we’re careful to keep questioning, to keep deliberating and to keep searching.

Which brings me to my second, though related, topic of the day: Why the teacher who uses blogs must blog. And therefore why I need to spend next summer learning HTML, FLash, Dreamweaver inside-and-out at a minimum instead of depending on my good buddies to pull me out of my technology quagmires!

Blogging here in this space as my students take over and blog on awz, our course blog’zine is turning out to be a terrific idea on several fronts:

1. How can a teacher expect her students to blog (or to use any other tool, strategy, or technique) if she doesn’t use it herself, exploring the impact it has on her thinking, writing, research and creativity? This is what Elizabeth Daley was getting at during her keynote at the NITLE Annual Meeting when she explained that no faculty member was allowed to use the multimedia authoring tools at USC or to integrate multimedia into the classroom if she didn’t use it herself in her own research first! Blogging as regularly as is feasible during a busy semester keeps me well aware of how much time it takes to blog well. It puts me in their shoes.

2. Blogging pushes me to think through ideas and to keep anchoring my work to the larger conversation going on about the topics that interest me, and to keep revisiting earlier stops on my blogging-teacher’s journey. I can see my evolution and reflect on it (something I also ask my students to do). My research and pedagogy questions grow out of the postings; I build conference papers and proposals from the brainstorming.

3. I have a place to play around with some of the tools and strategies before trying them out in the classroom. I push myself to stay abreast of developments as best I can given the many demands on my time. (I mean, look at this kind of play going on with Flickr these days…)

Of course, Reason #3 also leads to frustration. Right now, I want to try out some sort of mapping for the Bloggers’ Field Trip we’re about to embark upon, and I need some time and HELP figuring out which tool to use and how to use it! (Perhaps it’s just the thing for Mikel Maron’s World Kit: Easy Web Geovisualization.)
I am also seeing this new kind of arts field trip as the perfect opportunity to try out podcasting (something Will Richardson has really thrown himself into recently!) or, perhaps a more multi-media kind of in-the-field blogging, a mix of images (via flickr) and video clips, narrative and even music as a way to look at the differences between improvisation and revision, between responses in the moment and reflective writing. There’s all kinds of potential in doing this sort of work. But FIRST I NEED TO GET MY HANDS ON A HALF DOZEN iPODS! Yes, many students own them, but not ALL students can even think of affording an iPOD. We have loaner mini DV cameras, still digital cameras, even laptops at our library circulation desk, but no iPODS. And people think it’s way over-the-top for me to be pushing for them.

So, for now, we’ll keep cobbling together our reports from the field. But I’m really looking forward to the day when the handheld do-it-all tool becomes available and affordable, easy-to-use and effective.

Students in Action on the Blog

I’m in Chicago right now, at the NITLE annual conference, where I’ve been invited to present on multi-media narrative in the liberal arts classroom, and yet I’m also in class, on the artswriting blog, mostly checking in on what they’re up to this weekend, and if I have time, I’ll post a little here and there and respond to what I read. It makes for a fluid, continuous relationship, and my students in some ways won’t even know I’m gone. One of the reasons for classroom blogging–extending the reach of the classroom.

But that’s not really what I want to write about…There are more interesting things afoot than that; indeed, a couple of noteworthy things are emerging on the blog right now: first, through Katie’s reference to this, bgblogging, blog, we’ve stepped into new territory–students reading their professors’ blogs–imagine–and finding what’s there interesting and relevant enough to point out to the entire class. We’ll see if any of the others pick up the thread (my students are not required to respond to any particular post–they respond when they have something to say). It makes me have to consider my students as part of my audience. Will that change some of what I say or how as I reflect on the experience of teaching them?

The other striking development is a small exchange between Alex and Julina about Julina’s Story without Words posting. First off, both students clearly understand that commenting is a form of conversation, and treat it as such, which a lot of people don’t do. Alex refers to previous comments and then moves beyond them to make a direct suggestion to the writer, Julina, saying:

I agree completely w/ what john and Donovan said -seeing the pictures first, then the words, and how smoothly the two fit together, both beautifully open-ended and specific in the way good poetry is (well, what i consider good poetry). I might be fun to play w/ putting different pictures to the poem after writing specifically for these pictures- it’s a choreography exercise the dance dept uses a lot, choreographing to one piece of music, then changing the music, while keeping the choreography complete. It can produce some interesting effects, give both the words and images new nuances that you hadn’t intended, but make the whole piece much richer. (But usually, honestly, I prefer the original)

A fine response in itself–and then Julina’s return comment makes my day:


Thank you for your suggestion. I think that is a fascinating idea–choreographing words to images then images to those words. I may just try that. Also thank you all very much for responding to my pieces. I find talking about them extremely difficult– as though once I have produced them they become foreign and strange and incomprehensible in a way. Hearing other people discuss these little brainchildren is extremely insightful, and also very helpful. Thanks again,


Right there, in those few sentences between them, we see the whole reason for blogging in the classroom: these two students have formed a reciprocal apprenticeship (a la Levy), teaching one another without needing me at all (I didn’t even know about that exercise); and–Julina articulates why publishing is so crucial, publishing to an audience, who in responding thoughtfully, lets the writer know she isn’t just blowing into the wind, that her work matters, and why. She gets to re-see her own work through the eyes of the other, the reader. This is efficacy in action if I’ve ever seen it.

It’s in these small moments of students sharing and linking, and of fellow teachers out there, like Paula Petrik At George Mason University and Erik Feinblatt at FIT sharing their inspired, innovative work here on my blog that I know we’re on the right track.

Now, back to the conference…