Dear Charles…

You’ve taken me to task. Rightfully so.

I thought of you yesterday as I spent a couple of hours with a remarkable group of students (some of whom you see here) who touched my life four years ago during the Project for Integrated Expression (PIE), a program I co-created and directed for incoming student leaders and artists, a program cut three years ago. last These final PIE participants, about to graduate, reminded me of the magic that can happen when you put as diverse a group of people as possible together with some powerful creative and intellectual challenges. They made me think of what Cory Doctorow wrote on boingboing a couple of days ago about Daniel Pinkwater’s novel, The Education of Robert Nifkin: “…the slow, delightful realization on Nifkin’s part that learning — especially eclectic, self-directed learning undertaken with your peers and with engaged teachers — is incredibly fun.” They made me think of your response to a recent post of mine:

Barbara,

I hope we all weren’t such acquiescent, diploma hungry minions. You are too hard on yourself. And wrong about us, too. Or maybe just me. Because I’d like to think that my battered notebooks past and present are filled not with the “easy” stuff, but with sloppy helpings of actual sustenance. The napkins are piled up; my belly is still rumbling. The lasting impression you left on me – and I know I’m not alone – speaks not to skinny learning. My time spent in EL 170 and my subsequent follies in writing and learning and teaching (you are an inspiration, you know? a frustrating and disorienting and gleeful prompter of my ideas and my role in the larger communities, personal and professional, I now call home) are more than polite forays from a “nice” Midwestern boy. I look at the relationship and knowledge we built in Rohatyn as a fat (and phat) helping of something real and caloric, stirred from prose and poetry and the interstices in-between. (Perhaps Carver’s slim words were an attempt at a diet…though he only urged me to eat on.)

What’s more disconcerting for me is that I now model my own teaching in large part on my Great Teachers, and that means, to a large extent, my experience under your tutelage. I fear to think that you were just scratching the surface. I’m curious: what would’ve the “really challenging spaces” looked like in EL 170? I ask because, shit, if you failed, then I’m doomed. Or maybe this is just another Mad Dog moment, a question and a silence and a chance for me to fill the quiet with my own answer. I’ll speak, but know your voice is speaking too. And that’s no failure.

You’re right. It is another Mad Dog moment. But I’ve been careless, too, perhaps to the point of recklessness in my critique of formal schooling as it is now. You’re not the only one dismayed. School has worked for some, especially for those who now work in schools. Makes sense.

A single experience, one teacher (in school or not), can help a young mind open to the world’s wonders. Absolutely. Some of us have extraordinary memories of teachers and classroom experiences. And it’s enough to provide the spark. We all need such teachers, absolutely. But do we need school?

seven

School as it is– twelve to sixteen years of desk-sitting for the most part, participating (some of us) in largely contrived discussions (I am, of course, generalizing), doing the same kinds of problems and papers year after year? Do we keep kids in school all in the hopes that somewhere along the line, they’ll have such an experience, such a teacher as you? Or two or three? If they’re lucky, or ready to be moved by the potential of that moment when it arrives? Or lucky enough to land in one of those fabulous little schools like Urban or Fieldston? Or like Pinkwater’s Nifkin, who “… is drummed out of Riverview and convinces his father to send him to The Wheaton School, a free-school frequented by beatniks, idiots, criminals, dropouts, freaks, and misfits.”

My loud shouting from the sidelines should not make you wince. We need you, Charles, in our classrooms as long as we have classrooms. We need creative, passionate teachers who can “sing from the chains” as Rita Dove describes the writing of a sonnet. I tried. And mostly failed–but I believe in making mistakes, in errors, in pushing past the comfortable. As long as my students were finding their way and not being dulled or altogether overwhelmed.

When the impact of even a one-week creative workshop such as the Project for Integrated Expression can have such a profound impact as it had on the group of young men and women who returned to my house yesterday–I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if they had spent less time throughout their formal schooling years in conventional classrooms and more time interacting with each other and the world through games and simulations and solving real problems with people of different ages and backgrounds. I love that in Vermont, you can still “read the law.” What if primary school were more like a cross between 826 Valencia and Zeum? Middle School like the North Branch School? Exploration. Collaboration. Communication. High school as a cauldron of problem-solving, a place that invites flops and sustained reflection and study of those glorious failures? And college as a combination of the slow (solitude for deep contemplation and reflection) and the fast (internships/apprenticeships/fieldwork within diverse communities) instead of being a tsunami of readings/tests/papers?
pickled eggs
What if we moved even beyond these modest shifts and questioned formal schooling as the sole avenue to accreditation?
What if we questioned what a teacher is and does? That we based our selection of teachers on curiosity, creativity, caring and sense of humor as much as on scholarship?

bg and students in the classroom, a typical day

Thanks, Charles, for reminding me not to run over great teachers and the positive parts of formal education in my zeal to explore other learning models. I’m now a year out of the classroom and still learning from my students–that’s as it should be! I hope that’s your experience as a teacher, too. Yes, I wished I had shaken things up more in my classrooms. Moved beyond the unclassroom, the unsyllabus, no teacher-grading to active engagement in the everyday world–using the skills we practiced together out in our local community, and learning more about writing and reading from those we encountered beyond the school walls. Adaptive expertise. Writing and reading and conversation and collaboration–way more collaboration–just as the PIE students experienced, to better ourselves, sure, but with the wider aim of bettering the world–now, every day, little by little.

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Digital Explorations: If you’re looking for me, you’ll find me here

to be a bird here
After months of dreaming, planning and working flat-out with my merry band of advisors, board members and Fellows, and with the encouragement of so many of you, the new nonprofit, Digital Explorations is now officially launched online. What a nine months it has been–the gestation period has seen us immersed in a variety of projects ranging from storytelling in rural communities as a way to engage people in civic life, to helping mentor teachers trying to deepen creative learning experiences for their students in spite of NCLB, to developing our own workshops and taking the first steps towards opening our first Center for Community Digital Exploration.  There’s so much to share about what we’ve learned, to reflect upon, to puzzle over that I hardly know where to begin other than to share our site with you: Digital Explorations.

picture-22

From the website:

We’ve made it–onto our website–after a couple of years of dreaming from inside the walls of higher education about a different model of learning: townspeople coming together online and in person to share their collected expertise, their community-based projects, their processes through connecting, creating, collaborating and conversing–here, in town, online, and all over the country! From talking through the possibilities with The Fab Fearless Five and convincing my fabulous board and staff to join me in this adventure, to securing our first contracts and collaborations, I am thrilled by the response to our vision for bringing storytelling (both old and new), connective strategies (both old and new), and Centers for Community Digital Exploration into the heart of rural downtowns. We’d love to hear your feedback, your ideas, your wisdom. Let us know where you come across like-minded adventurers. We’ll keep you updated as to our news and projects, including our reflections on our work, our discoveries out there in the blogosphere, and our plans for future directions. Please wander about the site, read all about us, and let us know what you think!

Getting Ready for SXSW: Thinking Aloud

disappearing act

This coming Sunday, I will be joining Dave Lester, Gardner Campbell, Stephen Downes and Jim Groom on the Edupunk Panel at SXSW–wow, what a line-up they are–to chime in as one who left formal education to try a different approach to teaching and learning. To prepare, I’m listening to Janis Joplin (childhood), Joni Mitchell and Neil Young (high school) Patti Smith (college years), Ani deFranco (now) –(“i speak without reservation from what i know and who i am. i do so with the understanding that all people should have the right to offer their voice to the chorus whether the result is harmony or dissonance, the worldsong is a colorless dirge without the differences that distinguish us, and it is that difference which should be celebrated not condemned. should any part of my music offend you, please do not close your ears to it. just take what you can use and go on.”)

All offer me lessons in moving across media, across boundaries, across voices while speaking out, while acting.

from inside the barn

In some ways I am an odd duck here as I am no longer edu-anything. I am not working with schools to shift their approaches to teaching and learning–I’m interested in what we can teach-and-learn without schools as we know them now. I’m working with five rural communities to help them design storytelling projects as a way for them to honor and learn from the past, understand the present, and to create actively across community divides, the future. I’m also dreaming up centers for community digital learning as third places where kids, elders, and everyone in-between can offer and take workshops/discussions/seminars–whatever they decide–to explore new media/social media practices and their impact on community life and learning.

winter dream

I spent some 25 years teaching– at the secondary school, community college, and liberal arts college levels. I grew up inside a school. I have children who have journeyed through public and private educational institutions, one who never wants to go back to school now that she has graduated summa cum laude/ phi beta cappa from a prestigious college, and one who attends a progressive college within a five-college consortium and currently taking classes at four colleges. I am passionate about learning. I thought I knew a thing or two about teaching-within-the-confines-of-a-school-as-writing-a-sonnet. Some of the particulars about those years of which I was especially proud:

  • Embracing the creative process as fundamental to deep learning. In creative writing courses, my students would dance or drum their poems, or make play-dough versions of stories, or use color only to plot a narrative, and write image-only stories as well as write multimedia narratives and essays. We talked about writing counter to our well-worn inclinations, as a way to surprise ourselves out of our ruts–clipping bits and pieces of stories to actual clotheslines, for instance, and walking about inside the characters’ lives, for instance. I encouraged students to employ these processes in all of their writing, across the disciplines. I thought of myself as disruptor
  • Believing in less-is-more. To watch my daughter valiantly try to read over 600 pages a week just to fulfill her assignments–and she loves every one of her classes, at least what they purport to be and do–makes me furious. What of all this mass of reading will she think deeply about? Will she retain? She is a docent at one of the college museums, making podcasts of conversations about the works of art, writing the actual catalogues and captions–learning about art through being in art. None of her classes has her engaged in such learning. Not one departs from the read-discuss-test-write cycle. Only one course my other daughter ever took at her college departed from that cycle–the only course she loved. Why do faculty continue to assign ever more reading/tests/writing–now adding blogging, online discussions to the pile instead of ditching this approach altogether
  • Viewing every class group as a community experiment. I put in place the opening strokes of a syllabus and then we built the course together from there–how did I know what they would want and need to learn? How presumptuous and arrogant that sort of teacher-as-sole-course-designer stance is, how infantilizing of our students. In designing the course, they had to think about what it was they didn’t know and wanted to know and how we might go about engaging with those things. Did they like this approach–no way, not at first. Some thought I was out of my mind; others that I was lazy; others that I didn’t know what I was doing. They were placing the responsibility for their education on me. In preparation for them to place responsibility for their towns, states, country and world in the hands of others, yes
  • Grading as an opportunity for the class to come together and decide on how they would succeed in their learning journey–what excellence might look like at their novice level, how they would evaluate their work together and as individuals, and what role I could play to help them
  • All classrooms as having windows wide open. We invited subject-specific experts, casual readers, our families and friends–everyone and anyone– into our courses via blogs. We learned to engage with a range of people on the topics we had set out to explore. We learned to engage with one another intensely yet respectfully under the gaze of the public. Sometimes we failed, and we learned from those glorious failures
  • Indeed, we saw deep learning as willing to take risks, to experience glorious failure. The goal was to try to do things we couldn’t already do.

marvel of nature

Sounds pretty good, yes? I thought so. Ha.

I have never learned so much about teaching and learning; about systems and institutions; about active, deep engagement and participation–about reciprocal apprenticeships and Do-it-Yourself learning ; about the power of less-is-more; about the damaging effects of the cult of the charismatic teacher; about creativity’s role in learning–as I have in the nine months since I left school.

Some early lessons I might offer on Sunday that on surface do not sound edupunkish at all but on closer look are, I believe, profoundly subversive where we’re talking about school:

  • Even less is even more. Slowing down, being playful, laughing, going deep. School has programmed us to expect outcomes, tangible results, blueprints to follow, measurable results. We skim, skate and race across the surfaces. What a waste of time. Effort. Energy. What has happened to common sense, on the one hand, and to a spirit of wandering, on the other. Why do teachers make up syllabi (I do not make up community storytelling project plans)? Why do teachers continue to grade (I do not evaluate the outcomes of the storytelling projects–I evaluate my own work)?
  • Belonging. How essential a concept that is, with its spiral meaning. Belonging to the moment, the group/network/community, the experience; and they belonging to us. Peter Block writes about belonging in his book, Community: The Structure of Belonging: “It is membership, the experience of being at home in the broadest sense of that phrase…To belong to a community is to act as a creator and co-owner of that community. What I consider mine I will build and nurture.” (p. xii) Take responsibility. How can we expect students to do so if we are constantly telling them what to do, what to read, what to think and how?
  • Engage our full creative selves in every learning situation. If we privilege textual expression, we lose fundamental ways of understanding, connecting and bridging. I’ve learned a good deal from watching Nancy White in action, her journey into non-verbal approaches to understanding, communication, and creative thinking
  • Listen. Listen some more. Patience balanced by impatience. Sitting still and moving fast. Daring to try, daring to refuse.

As I deepen my work with communities engaged in the Orton Family Foundation’s Heart and Soul storytelling projects, I see how powerful paths are, and how well-worn paths soon become ruts. And I’m talking about my own approaches here, about moving beyond verbal language to the visual and kinesthetic while refusing to offer easy scaffolds, blueprints, recipes for success.

Here, for example, is the wiki from my most recent four-hour workshop. Note the absolute absence of slides–I never turned on the computer during the workshop–released from computers when we’re together; using them actively when we’re apart.

“What do we know but that we face
One another in this place.”

(from WB Yeats “Man and the Echo” beautifully remembered by Gardner Campbell at the end of the final edupunk-talk video with Jim Groom)

into the snowy curve

Betwitx and Between: Reflections on Northern Voice 2009

forgetfulness
As the months slip between me and my many years within the safe (?) confines of higher ed, it is tempting to forget what it was like to work for change from within the system. Honorable and important, frustrating work. I applaud the brave souls who continue to show deep patience and maintain faith that they can bring sense to the Academy. By sense I mean a spirit of openness, sharing, collaboration, innovation, and creativity (i.e.learning as discovery); a rejection of the territoriality and power struggles and entrenched mediocrity that result from fear and insecure ego and lack of trust & lack of an atmosphere where taking intellectual and creative risks is encouraged. By sense I mean rejecting this reality: “the systemic bias for continuity creates tolerance for the substandard.” —Clay Shirky Here Comes Everybody— By sense I mean taking a long hard long at what Ivan Illich asserted in Deschooling Society: ” The university graduate has been schooled for selective service among the rich of the world.” (p.34)

I should be in solidarity with these colleagues and mentors still within the system. Especially now, a time of enormous possibility if we seize the chances offered by the current chaos–a time for insisting on positive change by creating change wherever we are.

morning figments

I thought I was, in a short presentation created as one of the agent provocateurs enlisted by D’Arcy Norman, Scott Leslie and Brian Lamb to kick things off at WordCampEd, the day before Northern Voice, a conference I have wanted to attend since before it was in existence:

As those days unfolded, I found myself rankled by the thought of these brilliant people doing brilliant work in service of the petty fiefdoms of classroom, department, discipline, university. Actually, I was furious. And shocked at myself. I struggled to be useful with my contributions, to find common ground, but eventually, by the end of conference, I pretty much shut up altogether. Not helpful. Disconcerting. Weird.

Out of sync. Betwixt and between. And remained there.

Loath as I am to admit it, inside the Academy, I was a tyrant of my own petty fiefdom. Even though I embraced collaboration, had the students help me to create syllabus and grades, had them blog not only among themselves but in and with the rest of the world, I still ruled. They listened, not because they did so from true free choice, but because it was all part of the deal to get through college. They were nice, always polite and, yes, obedient. And because of the time limits, we never got beneath the skin of much of anything. And yet I receive email after email from them or contacts on Facebook, once they have graduated, sometimes a decade after graduating, telling me how real that classroom experience had been compared to much of the rest of college, which has now fuzzed out in memory. But I never really had to prove anything, to push past the easy to the really messy, really challenging spaces between things, between people, between cultures. I failed.

Am I experiencing a case of “You can’t go home again?”

into the morning

Slow learner that I am , I also waded into the combustible terrain of the spaces between online/offline during the session I shared with my fabulous co-conspirators, Nancy White and Laura Blankenship.

3303091828_e4f674a587 (Laura, Nancy, & bg by D’Arcy Norman)

Laura and I made short videos, Nancy had people do a co-drawing exercise, and in 40 minutes, all we did was open up Pandora’s box. I struggled to express how feeling more “real” in either off or online space wasn’t the point, but that in the spaces between, the spaces where, off-kilter, we can, as one person said, be conscious of what we’re doing in both, there we can weave together the best of both as we try to work towards better worlds. (See? Still struggling for clear expression.) I came away from our session disappointed, much as I often did after teaching. The debrief with Nancy, Sue and Laura grappled with our shortcomings and the rich terrain we had taken first steps onto–that was a great conversation–and other fine moments threaded through the conference (the keynotes; drawing with Nancy; the short time I had with the incomparable injenuity; seeing cogdog, Leslie, Brian, D’Arcy, Scott, Keira et al.) But I couldn’t wait to get to Idaho and back to work helping rural towns, through storytelling, find within themselves the roots of positive transformation.

not even spring

Then I read Jim Groom’s recent-ish post (He writes so much so often that I don’t even know how to situate recent with him) about “intimate alienation”, in part inspired by a comment Brian Lamb had tweeted during our NV session; “@cogdog said his online life felt more real than physical one, people laughed. But that’s not crazy. ‘Real’ life is often mediated bullshit”, and the conversation it spawned between him and Chris Lott. Yes! Intimate Alienation–that’s it. Reading their back-and-forth, I felt the same unease come over me: I had wanted to argue with Alan when he made that comment, and with Brian after his strong tweet. Precisely because life offline is often “mediated bullshit,” shouldn’t we work against that? Isn’t that what we mean by working towards better worlds? Are we giving up on our neighborhoods, our neighbors, our towns? Do we continue the flight from the broken down physical world–this time,not for the suburbs,but for the cyburbs where we find and build community in our own image, where it is easier, and more natural, often, to have much deeper conversations than when we meet in the grocery store, in the coffeeshop, on the playing field, in the office. (More like meeting at a bar?) I am concerned that we won’t wade right into those physical communities, bringing with us the conversations and innovations from our online interactions to make better worlds in our towns and cities. (One reason slow-blogging Barbara is now slower-blogging Barbara–I’m putting more time and effort into physical communities these days.)

And yet there I was at Northern Voice, during a rare opportunity to connect offline with online friends, and I had little to say. Some irony.

To quote the Reverend:

“This idea of alienation might be understood as increasingly more relevant during our moment based on the growing number of people who seem cut-off from the “real world” given the massive amounts of time spent physically alone in public while communing through a computer. A reality that has been woven into just about every facet of modern life from work and education to even more intimate relationships like family, friends, and one’s love life. They are all increasingly mediated by devices, i.e. a computer, the internet, mobile phones, applications, websites, social networks, etc., and what we have emerging is a kind of invisible, multi-layered constellation of things that bring people into real and intimate relationships, but are at the same time premised upon an irrepressible faith in objects: their perfection, increased performance, speed, mobility, ubiquity, etc.”

And then Chris :

“I find solace in the fact that living and creating at the highest levels, which is what finally most of us are really talking about, has always been a marginalized, sometimes-subversive, niche with a vortex of radical tension between individuals and their networks.”

(I should have known that these two would help me say what I’m trying to say. Next time I think I’ll just save lots of words and link directly to them.)

wintergrip

So, yes, it was a valuable conference, probably the best I’ve been to in a long time because it has made me lose sleep over my inconsistencies and failures as it rekindles my determination to keep pushing at the walls, to find solace in my feeble attempts at moving the conversation past the divides, to dance in the in-between.

The New Year: Resisting Action

As I learn to follow my own nose around the land instead of depending on Finn to set both pace and direction for my daily wander, I am coming face-to-face with some interesting lessons on the pull of inertia, and the challenge of creative thinking. I’m also finally grappling with my uncharacteristic (and to myself inexplicable) reluctance to rush headlong- into the Centers for Community Digital Exploration, the heart of my new nonprofit, Digital Explorations. I haven’t even pulled a website to its feet, yet I had imagined I would just dive right in and open the first center in my hometown as a pilot project and then see if such an idea could take off virally. The must-have-something-to-offer-every-day attitude.

In his 1966 Discourse on Thinking, Martin Heidegger wrote, “…man today is in flight from thinking;” (p.45) we spend our time in calculative rather than meditative thinking. We want to do instead of looking at the larger implications of our doing.

happy new year

I’m learning. This new aloneness –without Finn– has me interacting differently with the land, the sky and its inhabitants. No spirited dog asking if we can please please please go hunt for rocks in the stream or frogs in the pond or head to the neighbors’ to see if their dogs are out or go along this way because there are surely turkeys over in the far field today or that way because can’t you smell the deer/coyote/bobcat/fox that was here a moment ago? I have to depend on myself to go out in the frigid cold in the first place. There’s no one to remind me (by a push of the head under my arm or a paw on the knee or a drop of a bone in my lap) that it is time to leave the book I am reading, the story I am writing, the project I am planning.

How extraordinary. I hardly know where to go. It is a new awareness that I have to develop.

by the barn

I thought it was exhaustion from years of throwing myself against the Academy walls that had me lay out a year of learning and listening and exploring before action. I secretly thought –and still do– it was self-indulgent and incredibly privileged to have this time. Nonetheless I imposed on myself a bit of the Buddhist “Don’t just do something, sit there.” Moving my office from the college to my barn studio means hours daily in gorgeous solitude. Losing my cellphone over a month ago stepped me even further into silence. I could choose a silent online experience, too, and engage only when I felt compelled to reach out or to learn via my networks.

I’ve never gotten so much done. In every part of my life. And yet, it’s hard to see the results in tangible places. Yet.

In the December issue of Orion Magazine,
Anthony Doerr writes a humorous account of his dark twin “Z”:

“Information, information, information—it’s all sustenance for that rawboned, insatiable, up-to-the-second twin of mine. I can stand in a river with my little sons beside me pitching pebbles into a deep, brilliant green pool with a flight of geese flapping along overhead and the autumn sun transforming the cottonwoods into an absolute frenzy of color—each leaf a shining, blessed fountain of light—and Z will start whispering in my ear about oil prices, presidential politics, the NFL.

What, Z wants to know, are we missing right now?

Addiction, neurologists say, changes the physical shape of our brains. Each time old Z finds another text message, another headline, another update, my brain injects a little dopamine into a reward pathway.

“You’ve got mail!” squeals the computer and—whoosh!—here comes a shot of dopamine. “

Inertia can come from doing too much. This is nothing new. On blogs and Twitter, people express their yearning for balance, their desire for more time for non-work pursuits–the North American plague–addiction to must-be-doing-a million-things-all-the-time-but-bemoan-the loss-of-quiet-slow-time. We seem to find meaning (or escape from meaninglessness) by moving fast, conquering, being the first, the most, the best. Little moves forward as we twirl around and around. Addiction to online spaces and practices can lead to this same kind of spinning in place, a stunned laziness if we simply acquire more and more surface information and relationships and do not stop to analyze, to synthesize, to reflect, to apply, to question. I wonder why so many people are suddenly following me on Twitter, people who do not interact with me on blogs or at conferences. Will they also find their way into deeper conversation with me on blogs, the in-between moments at conferences? For me Twitter is a way to deepen the connections with thinkers and writers and artists I can interact with and learn from in other spaces as well–hopefully face-to-face at some point. I follow people I don’t know if I see that I can learn from them in a blogging or wiki space, too–that a Twitterer new to me is willing to push my thinking.

winterwater

I am learning to read widely yet deeply just as I have recently become a spare eater though a lover of food and a passionate cook. I am slow reader, playing attention to the how as well as the what of writing, and I am beginning to hold still with my creative works before sharing them. Moving more deliberately helps me to get more done. It’s the same with shopping–my rejection of Big Box stores (I have NEVER been in a Walmart, for example), sprawl-malls, McDonald’s (still a fast-food virgin at age 51) comes from a deep belief in the local, in the recycled, in excellence. But do I avoid such places because I can afford to do so? Because I don’t have to work two jobs to support my kids? I wonder. I’m beginning to bake our bread (following Bryan Alexander’s lead) and make our pasta out of local ingredients (the savings defrays the higher cost of other local, organic foods). But it takes more time, people argue–really? How about all that time I save not driving to the mall? Or following a gazillion people on Twitter? Or surfing the Web (or TV)? (I ingeniously let my network do much of that for me–heheheheh.) Patience Gray, writing in her marvelous 1988 Honey from a Weed wrote:
“Good cooking is the result of a balance struck between frugality and liberality…It is born out in communities where the supply of food is conditioned by the seasons. Once we lose touch with the spendthrift aspect of nature’s provisions epitomized in the raising of a crop, we are in danger of losing touch with life itself.” (p.11) I want to remember this while also wanting to help rural communities explore the communicative and creative potential of the Web. Frugality and liberality.

I am determined to sit on my hands a while longer yet, and spend the next six months working with communities on the storytelling projects, going to (un)conferences that promise to push me, and continuing to read deeply across lots of fields as preparation for this huge endeavor. I’m listening to Edward O. Wilson who writes in Consilience:

“Every college student should be able to answer the following question: ‘ What is the relationship between science and the humanities, and how is it important for human welfare?’
Every public intellectual ad political leader should be able to answer that question as well. Already half the legislation coming before the U.S. Congress contains important scientific and technological components. Most of the issues that vex humanity daily…cannot be solved without integrating knowledge from the natural sciences with that of the social sciences and humanities. Only fluency across the boundaries will provide a clear view of the world as it really is, not as seen through the lens of ideologies and religious dogmas or commanded by myopic response to immediate need…..A balanced perspective cannot be acquired by studying disciplines in pieces but through pursuit of the consilience between them.” (1999, p. 13)

He also says that creative thinking is characterized by “knowledge, obsession, daring.” (p.64)

We so good at “obsession” and less so at “daring” and “knowledge.”
Obsession but not Addiction? Daring but not just to be daring? Knowledge across boundaries but not feverish information surfing? Creative thinking, not inertia?

Alex Reid writes about
throwing out a first-year writing course syllabus completely and starting over. That’s rich daring–the kind I would like to emulate by questioning my instincts–all of them– about setting up the centers.

Of course all this could just be me excusing an addiction to the silence, to the stillness.

I hope not.

Taking Stock of the First Six Months Beyond the Walls: I Had No Idea…Really…

I taught my last class at Middlebury College in May, six months ago almost to the day, packed up my office, said goodbye and left. What a gift, I thought: to be 51 and launched on an adventure to explore learning and communities outside the safe, constricting walls of higher education. I escaped.

away

But, to what? Exquisite freedom? Or do I feel “exterior dizziness” instead of “interior immensity”? ( Supervielle as quoted by Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, p.221) Some days I live Michaux’s “Trop d’espace nous etouffe beaucoup plus que s’il n’y en avait pas assez.” (Bachelard, p.221) These are concepts I explored with my poetry students–the freedom of the sonnet, the tyranny of free verse. Is this what I am experiencing by imagining Centers for Community Digital Exploration in a country without cybercafes, even, except marginally, in cities? Am I mad?

the house as if in a fairy tale, November late afternoon

With the shredding economy, people are wondering (aloud) about my timing. I left a decent-paying job with excellent benefits for the great, lean unknown. What a time to depart! And for what–something without much precedent–a new idea for challenging times, times when funders are scaling back, communities overwhelmed by the financial impact on citizens and services. Planning physical third-places that combine workshops designed by the community, open lab-workspace, exhibition and meeting space when people need jobs and help with mortgages and health care? Crazy? A luxury?

the old slate wall

I think not. On the contrary, I am convinced that this is precisely the time to play around with new ways of connecting, creating and communicating. Instead of sitting around waiting, for instance, for Obama to solve the world’s woes (and waiting to be told what to do to help, or worse, doing what academics do best–expending our energies criticizing and complaining while doing nothing), we have to engage with our communities to bring about change and help on local levels. Centers for Community Digital Exploration could help communities build bonds and bridges as they build collective intelligence, innovate new business and nonprofit models, and negotiate the trickiest of issues facing local governments.

wild apples at dawn, november

But wow oh wow, I am being pushed to the ends of my abilities as I learn how to collaborate in the world. As a college teacher, I thought I was all about collaborative learning, about students taking responsibility for their learning and their lives–together–but how can you do that within an artificial environment? Within a closed environment? Scott Leslie’s recent post, and Jim Groom and Tom Woodward’s recent NMC presentation demonstrate how academic institutions prevent innovation and sharing and openness. Brian Lamb’s stream of posts from Barcelona this week point at ways in which even Open Ed thinking hasn’t popped out of the school box...yet…completely. It’s scary out here. I risk everything every day as I stumble along in uncharted territory. Agoraphobia? Could be.

Nora's room from below, November late afternoon

As I collaborate with another nonprofit and a small rural community on a storytelling-to-engage-citizen-participation-in-planning-for-the-future project, and as I try to articulate the mission and vision for Digital Explorations, I am learning some big lessons. Teaching and collaborating and learning and working inside an academic institution have absolutely nothing to do with how to do those things out in the world. Really. I struggle even with my language–my fabulous board (right now consisting of Bryan Alexander, Sarah Kramer, Alan Levine and Nancy White) has urged me to shed the eduspeak in my documents. Argh! Me, writing eduspeak! Horrors. But true. And so I have started using Twitter to experiment with voice, tone and diction–how far is too far with the poetic voice, or a conversational tone in writing about the work–the kind of thing I thought I had practiced with my students. What had I practiced with my students??

Working with community and nonprofit partners is a huge revelation for slow-bg. It sounds so obvious. School’s comforting confines do not, unfortunately, often lead to extraordinary creativity; rather they give that impression. They talk about Bachelard’s doors, perhaps, but they do not touch them. Little we do in school prepares students for negotiating common ground in a real-world context where the stakes are considerable and real. We do not teach real sharing of ideas or negotiating with the Other, if our institutions, as Scott Leslie suggests, do not do so. We do not explore listening. We reward glibness as much as deep consideration. We honor the “maverick” but not the collaborator. We do not know how both to be the creator and collaborator. I like Brian’s idea about encouraging students to build on the ideas of their classmates as a way to engage them in this kind of negotiation. Community and nonprofit partners don’t sit politely, quietly waiting for me to tell them exactly how we’re going to proceed. They do not need me to urge them to action, to participation, to questioning. I have to learn how to shut up and follow while being passionate and outspoken. To sink into ongoing relationships instead of semesterized hurry-hurry-think.

up the side steps, late afternoon

I like this searching for form. Making mistakes. Trying again. Making it up as we go. Learning how to be in the world. I guess it’s about dang time.

Moving Past Cynicism: Inspired by a Former Student

I’ve recently received several emails from non-blogging friends with links to Paul Boutin’s Wired Magazine article announcing the death of blogs. I, of course, send them right to Alan Levine’s response and then shrug and also point to some of the blogging my former students are doing now that they are out in the world. Since my earliest posts, I have pointed to student blogging and commenting for the window into their perspectives, their learning journeys, their creativity. And here I am, out of the classroom, still reading their posts, still learning from them.

through the barn at sunset

Lizi, for instance, blogs from Russia, comparing the post-college working life there to her experience as an undergraduate on a Study Abroad year in Siberia–longtime readers of bgblogging might remember her Siberia blog and her part in an ELI presentation (liveblogged by Leslie Madsen-Brooks) we made with Barbara Sawhill and her student Evie a couple of years ago); Kyle (whose creative work I have pointed to repeatedly–his multimedia explorations figure prominently at the end of my NITLE talk from this past spring: scroll all the way to the right to see them side by side or just click to his Flickr poem, his Voicethread response to Kerouac, his digital story on memory, his vuvox collage poem) is blogging from his year off in India; Astri has an entire Web world in play with her blogging and website; Tyler has resurrected his dormant blog as he prepares to head back to China. Another has been a frequent commenter on The Smalltown Mamas (and Papas) for Obama blog, a local newspaper reporter and now member of my writing group. There are many more I follow, learn from and converse with as they wend their way into the post-college world.

One who is not blogging on her own is Julia. She chooses instead to take part in blog conversations from time to time, and when she does, watch out! A fabulous writer and thinker, her comments are posts of the slow-blogging variety (though she does not link out). Whenever she comments, I wish she had a blog. Yesterday she left me a comment on my post reflecting on the Obama victory, and in it she describes the roots of her cynicism and how she, too, is turning towards hope. It is a must-read piece, and so, I am pulling it from the unread-depths of commentland and posting it here. Enjoy.

cardinal in november

From Julia:

I’m turning towards the good, too. I’m choosing to ignore, for the moment, the fact that Californians just voted to constitutionally ban gay marriage, and that my father’s democratic candidate in Oregon is fighting for his life in what should be a no-brainer election, and that Sarah Palin is still out there, waiting, reloading. And here is why:

There were many times during this campaign I almost posted to this blog. Almost, but not quite. Firstly, when Palin was seeming to gain ground with a certain section of the American electorate. For someone who found the choice an even split between laughable and insulting, I was shocked to see not everyone agreed with me. I began a draft of a post about how someone can be created from thin air (I began again months later with Joe the Plumber), but something held me back. And soon, America became less and less enchanted with Caribou Barbie every time she opened her mouth, so the point seemed moot.

I almost posted when I saw a news report that Polar Bears are resorting to cannibalism. What did this have to do with the election? Besides the obvious ties to failed environmental policies (or lack thereof), it also seemed an apt metaphor. Again, however, I could not write.
I nearly posted an end-of-days suggestion to the readers of this blog before McCain began to slip in the polls. What if every Obama supporter – should McCain win – purchase a one-way ticket out of the country the day after the election? Would the message be clear then?
I wanted to post after the four debates, pointing out the difference in the candidates’ “performances.” As an actor, this happens to be my specialty, telling when someone is not selling a character: they blink a lot (McCain), they seem to physically seize when the script won’t come to them (McCain), they forget the power of their voice, resorting to monotonic incantations resembling a parrot (McCain), and, finally, they break the one cardinal rule of good acting: listening (Palin). Yet, even here, where I truly felt I had something to contribute, I did not. Could not. And this bothered me.

But all throughout yesterday, I began to understand why. I was too cynical. I awoke yesterday morning excited in ways I had not been in a very long time. I filled out my voter booklet, and walked to my polling station, enjoying the warm California morning. I didn’t begrudge a minute of the twenty I spent in line, and I made sure to punch my ballot extra hard, even making the table quiver each time I pressed down. I handed my ballot to the black female volunteer, thanked her for her service, and walked back home, smiling and nodding to everyone I passed. Then, the strangest thing happened: I fell back asleep. For an hour and a half. My excitement had exhausted me. When I awoke, I began preparing for an election party I was hosting. I printed out Obama quotes and passages from “The Audacity of Hope” and hung them up around the house. I copied electoral maps and had my friends guess which states would go red or blue respectively. I made hot dogs and put out the leftover American Halloween candy. Yet, even with all my excitement, I still did not believe he could win.
Then, almost immediately after 8PM PST, the news came in: it was over. And it was just beginning.
We were not prepared for this. I mean, we’d started the party at 7, convinced we’d be up until 4 or 5 in the morning. And McCain conceded and Obama spoke and the faces of the people in the Chicago crowd said it all. And then, a good friend of ours came to our door, running late from a night class for his masters in Academic Counseling. He is sixty years old; he is from Norristown, PA; and he is black. His look of surreal disbelief, of a lifetime of promises come due, jolted me. On the couch he joined his wife, an Argentinean by birth who just became a citizen this year. This was her first election, not only in the US but anywhere, as she left Argentina before she was legally allowed to vote. For so many people, this was personally a watermark election; for our country, it was a victory over cynicism.

I know this because I am cynical. I come from a long line of Irish politicians, and my cynicism is a result of both nature and nurture. In short, I’m the cynic people like Oprah and Rick Warren just walk away from. Sure I donated money and time to the election, but the cold hard truth is I never donated my heart. Because I was sure we were going to get kicked in the head again and I didn’t think I could survive it. Many people don’t understand this sentiment from young people. “What could you possibly know about cynicism, about disappointment?” Well, eight years of Bush – our most formative years, mind you – will do that. And before him? There was Clinton, who was a president to be proud of, who was simultaneously accessible and inspiring; but Clinton’s “betrayal” (as pointless and irrelevant as it may seem now) came at a time when people my age were just learning about moral matters and the insidiousness of lies. To be disappointed at fourteen, and then have that followed up by eight years of frustration is essentially the recipe for cynicism. But this election has proved something to me. And now I’m blogging because I have something to say that needs to be immortalized in print. I am blogging, selfishly, because I want a record of this moment, a standard to hold myself to in the future when Obama does something to disappoint me, and the Republicans win another election, no matter when that may be: I am done with cynicism.

I’m all about realism, and pragmatism, and a healthy dose of skepticism every now and then, but cynicism and me, we’re through. Cynicism is an insidious mistress because it cannot be contained. One cannot simply be cynical about politics, or, I don’t know, vegetarianism exclusively. If one is cynical, one is cynical about politics, AND vegetarianism, AND humanism, AND, most regrettably, love. This is what I feel Obama’s victory has restored in me, a sense that all is possible, whether it happens or not. That’s the mistake of cynicism: it confuses probability with inevitability.
And my newfound faith is not based on intangibles or abstract self-delusion, but on facts: the tears of pride last night in the eyes of Jesse Jackson and my friend who never thought they’d see this day; in the celebrations around the globe among people who still see America as the city on the hill, even if we no longer saw ourselves that way; in the cries and horn honks that filled the streets of LA and other cities sometime after 8PM last night; in – as ridiculous as this may sound – the facebook statuses of friends who are just as disbelieving and proud as I; and especially in the way my 83 year-old grandfather’s voice broke when he joked to me last night that he can finally pull his American flag out of storage and fly it – and his admission that he never thought he’d live to see it wave outside his house again.

Well, it IS waving again, and proudly. And last night, with the Santa Ana’s blowing winds of change across the Southland, I fell asleep to the faint sound of the flagpole down the street clanking. A sound that used to annoy me now ushered me into a dreamscape; one that I wasn’t sorry to wake up from this morning.