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.

Walking the Land with Hard Thoughts

woodland floor One of the greatest gifts I’ve received from leaving the Academy is a clearer perspective on what matters. As layer after layer of those years slip from my shoulders, I can see, breathe, think more fully than I have in a long time. I often feel delighted by the promise of what is possible.

And I walk. Every day. In a slow-blogging kind of way. Usually without human companion because my communing on those walks is with nature, and people can be, well, so distracting. And so much of my life is about people, so the walks are for other connections and reflections.
water silence leaf
Right now, though, I struggle for perspective. I am scared. I am torn up by thoughts of friends who have recently been diagnosed with cancer–so many, so young–I have already lost one of my dearest life friends to the plague and sense the planet’s sickness in this. Here on the land, though, things seem so whole and beautiful; walking helps me move back to a more positive space. I am wracked, too, by the clatter and jitter of this crazy presidential race and find that I have to walk fast and hard before anger and fear subside. Voter suppression. Sickening robo calls and leafleting. Distortions of fact, even downright lies pouring forth from McCain’s and Palin’s mouths, and people cheering them on. Political pollution. Obama should win in a landslide. Should. Walk walk. I am so lucky to live in this place.

Over the next two days two different photographers are coming to accompany me on my walk to take photos of me in my fields (for articles about slow blogging, communities, and/or the new nonprofit). Today in a Skype call, Bud Hunt asked me about my deep ties to place and to community and how those two are connected for me. It’s funny. I write and think about these connections, but I never figured other people were interested in this part of my blogging. I roam, camera in hand, dog at my side, looking looking closely for the subtle shifts from the day before. And now someone will capture me in them. Strange. Meta-perspective, I suppose. I’m pulled out of the being to observe myself there.

Some days I leave the camera behind on purpose so that I miss it and so that I pay attention in a different way. I think that’s important, to keep things moving around, to stay a little off-kilter, surprised, ever developing my sensory awareness.

last wild apples winter stole

And almost always, when I walk camera-less, I come upon something I really want a picture of; sooner or later that image will burn so intensely in my head that it will spill out into words on this blog. Somehow. Yesterday was one of those days. One walk with camera. One without. And sure enough, Finn-dog and I came upon two perfectly pressed impressions of deer bodies–hoof-embossed snow all around two green patches in the shape of sleeping deer. Their warmth melted the snow as they rested. Snow angels into the grass. Now I keep seeing those two forms there, and feel glad that there are simple moments of incredible beauty in mad times.

And mad times they are. Throughout the world. But so shockingly here, playing out across our screens in full color, the smear campaign, the robo calls and leaflets–how corrupt, how vile, how cynical and deeply frightening. I can hardly speak to people who continue to support McCain in the face of the lies, the distortions, and the transformation of this man into a crazed, desperate figure who will go to any lengths to win. And what does that say about me?

caught

My California sister-in-law is in North Carolina volunteering for the Obama campaign. My California brother is in Nevada doing the same. I have friends who drove from Vermont to Ohio, another who has gone to Virginia. I make phone calls, link to articles and videos on the Smalltown Mamas (and Papas) for Obama blog, will help out in New Hampshire on Sunday and Tuesday, but mostly I walk the land and fret, send out links on Twitter to the Voter Suppression wiki, freak out when Chris Lott’s tweets articulate my own fears. My 75-year-old mother, who has been volunteering for Obama in her retirement community, has said she will take to the streets if the election is stolen from Obama. If McCain wins, it will be a moment of intense disgrace for the United States. Unconscionable. Unspeakable. As another of my sisters-in-law said to me today, we like to condemn corrupt politicians in developing countries for their abuses and evil, and here we’re seeing in bold relief our own corruption.

arcadia lake late fall

Walk walk. These next five days. Hope hope.

From Academy to Community and Back Again: On Being a Visitor

deep in the woods

Three times this past month I have traveled back to school all while steadily journeying far far from that world. What a strange feeling to have so much I want to say and explore with people still on the inside while rejecting the structures of formal education. My closest colleagues, even in the Centers for Community Digital Exploration, and many of my mentors work on the inside. I am deeply influenced by the Academy even as I resist it. And that gets my fiercely independent, passionately fiery hackles up.

So while prepping workshops and talks (at Middlebury, University of British Columbia and St. Michael’s), I found myself tempted to confront and confound expectations of what talks and workshops are and do, to stretch my own understanding and experience. Brian urged me to do just that for my UBC long session (3 hours). And goodness knows he embodies that tack, brilliantly so, even when he writes for formal periodicals. I wanted people to explore the free-fall of searching for form and meaning–but together and have them experience, even in an hour or two, the benefits and joys of working in reciprocal apprenticeships, of having to think creatively and collaboratively, of moving past what is already known. I wanted them to be learners as though for the first time, working from disruption to repair. Meta but even more than that.

I spent a ridiculous number of hours coming up with some wild stuff from mash-ups to out-there exercises, rejecting each in turn. I needed to go through that process, to be recklessly creative, wildly irreverent in my drafts, but fortunately, the years and years of teaching & presenting at least taught me to remember my audience for the short talks. And so for Middlebury & St.Mike’s, and a classroom presentation and meetings at UBC I held back and listened, felt my way into the moments and pulled from collections of Flickr slides when I needed to show something. Presentation as conversation, meeting as mash-up.

barn view

But for the UBC three-hour session, I couldn’t help myself. It was a rare chance to push beyond what even I felt was safe, and so I plunged this brave group into learning chaos. I threw out the mash-up movie, the pirate images, the sixteen other plans, and worked from a blog I had created for the occasion and moved the group through an (exhausting, I’m sure, and often mystifying and frustrating) afternoon of thinking about learning within community, remembering to contextualize the experience within the personal and the local and the global, engaging with questions of what really needs to go on in classrooms and workplaces.

salmon leaping

I came away from that experience delighted and surprised and disoriented and not sure what people walked away with that they could use. They asked excellent questions. They articulated their wonder, their frustration, even their anger. One group hugged one another at the end of a particularly trying collaborative exercise. Another group wanted to know why on earth we were doing these things. I am certain that they were worn out–I gave them no quarter at all during three hours. I was unremitting. Yikes.

after a storm

The other talks and meetings were more easily satisfying and comprehensible, and the time with Brian, kele, Cyprien and Keira was absolutely fabulous. To spend an afternoon at the UBC farm with folks trying to save it from the wrecking ball, to be among people who are championing viral, emergent learning that will benefit the lived-in community, to hang out with mentors far more imaginative and wise and smart than I am gave me renewed incentive to keep traveling down this path. How lucky to be taught far more than I teach, to have the time for conversations. How incredible to shift from several days in the university to the stunning wilds of the west coast of Vancouver Island.

where's that salmon

It was only on the beach and in the woods that I saw what I had done, trying to bring the wild winds into a place that might not want or need them. But how freeing to know that it was okay to throw myself against those rocks from time to time. How valuable to have this time before the centers have become full-fledged reality (soon soon, that) to risk glorious failure, to learn through experimentation and improvisation, to move back–for a moment–inside to test my theories and practices. If conferences included a track for experimentation–not to describe experiments but TO experiment right there with peers–I’d be more inclined to attend them. Perhaps Northern Voice this winter? NMC next summer?

wave against rock

I’ll promise (sort of) to tame the hurricane winds that whip up when I think of the Academy…
.
at dawn west vancouver island

Thoughts as We Near the Fall Equinox, The Time of Between

featherinthegrass

I am lucky to live in a place as beautiful as this–from my door every day I walk for miles across the farmlands. An 18-mile loop trail crosses our neighbor’s land, but mostly I prefer to range pathless with dog and camera across fields and scrublands.

neighbor barn

And without the burden of frustration welling up from banging my head against the Academy wall, I wake up each morning with thoughts of the land and the family instead of how conflicted I am about working within a system in which I no longer believe. I watch my friends still there too busy and stressed to breathe deeply while I can put the garden to bed before a frosty night.

putting the garden to bed before frost

Yes, since extricating myself from the Academy’s fetters, it’s been easy to step out my door for a break and focus on the nuances of daily changes on the land. It’s easy to be overly pleased that the localvore movement flourishes, that our neighbor’s dairy still has its honor system store (you write down in the ledger what you’ve taken from the milk coolers, and they eventually clip a hand-written bill to your page), that many people around here don’t even have locks on their homes, that we all gather once a year to discuss and vote on town business. We buy our wood from our neighbor and eggs from a friend; our dog loves the UPS man; the trash man calls to check on us when we forget to drag the garbage down our nearly half-mile driveway. Our senators and congressman (yeah, we only have one) are enlightened and fearless and in touch with us back home.

from across our land

It’s a breeze to step back into my barn studio and wing about a larger world from my laptop. On Twitter and on the blogs I can range about taking in the wonders offered up by the smart people who share their thinking, be dazzled by the Reverend and inspired by ingenuity and pushed by cluttermuseum. I can grow in my thinking by delving into old books and films and music on the Internet Archive, by following an MIT course, by signing up for any number of free, online conferences of my choosing, by participating in a MOOC. I can collaborate on projects with colleagues scattered about the globe. I can make cool stuff, mash-ups and digital stories to share with the world. I can feel liberated, creative, and collaborative.

Why, then, am I worried about all of this? Because it’s too easy to stay in places I like and listen to people I admire and leave it at that. It’s too easy to slip into smugness, to be self-congratulatory. To save the saved and think I’m doing something worthwhile.

Finn and Rope at the beach

But then along comes a bizarre presidential contest and economic and natural disasters, and I shake myself awake to a more complex, more troubling world, even close to home. Vermont has lost an appalling, disproportionate number of of its youth to the Iraq war. No one talks about how many Iraqi have died. We have a milktoast governor who will walk back into office because the Democrats and the Progressives can’t see beyond party politics to collaborate on a single candidate in this extreme time. (And to see what I think about the presidential race, you can head over to Small Town Mamas (and Papas) for Obama.)

spike

People around here worry, as our senator Pat Leahy puts it, whether they will “eat or heat” this winter. There’s a nuke in the southern part of the state that keeps breaking down. Violent crimes are way up in the state. Heroin dealing has snaked its way into our bucolic county. Many youth are bored in our schools, can’t wait to get out of here (including my own children). Our Mom & Pop shops are vanishing, giving way to chains. It’s hard to find union-made clothing. People are moving here and building HUGE, generic houses–some neighborhoods are indistinguishable from those in the worst suburbs. People are putting locks on their houses. People are in their cars, not on their bikes. I’m in the car more than on my bike. Although we built our home largely from recycled materials and have worked to make our land a wildlife corridor, it’s two miles from town and I’m not yet D’Arcy Norman enough to brave rain or cold on my bike–and it’s only two hilly miles. I can’t say, truth be told, that I know all of the people who live on my road; our mailbox sometimes ends up in the front pond, knocked off its post by a baseball bat in the night. The beauty of Vermont sometimes feels like a scrim.

long shadows across the lawn

And so here’s where things get interesting for me as I pace about the boundaries, conflicted, uneasy. This is where I like to be, on those cusps, stretched to find other ways, better ways. And this is what I’m finding:

I’m conflicted about the open-education movement, about MOOCs and online affinity groups and online communities. The openness is exemplary. The learning possibilities mind-boggling. The chance to even the playing field–open access to all–downright thrilling. But I also sense, as a natural outcome of networked individualism, an increasing movement towards the ME and away from the US, both online and off, towards polarization and insularity rather than expanded horizons and inter-cultural understanding. I’m concerned about Negroponte’s “Daily Me” . Participatory learning, both online and off, can help us counter this risk, by enabling us to bump into one another and other ideas if we work at it, in keeping withSunstein’s Republic.om contention that “Unplanned, unanticipated encounters are central to democracy itself.”

Yes, people are gathering together on the Web to interact, to learn from one another, to explore all manner of subjects. But who? But what about home? What about the physical communities in which we live? Are people gathering together there to discuss the future? To understand one another–to open one another’s minds? To discuss the complex, convulsive changes sweeping across the world? Are we interacting in physical spaces with people from other ends of our communities? Are we bringing home the lessons learned from these extraordinary online gatherings or are we keeping them to ourselves? Will we get even more narrow-minded if we can graze, avoiding what we don’t like, hunkering down into clans? Just because we can talk online with anyone anywhere, does that mean we will talk with people who think differently from ourselves? Will we actually grow any wiser? Are rural communities being left out?

to be airborne

This is why I am emphatic that the Centers for Community Digital Exploration be PHYSICAL places, rooted in rural communities, to help ease the digital divide, and to help people reap the benefits of the internet and Web practices while also staying connected to our lived-in communities lest they crumble around us while we’re glued to our computers and cellphones and iPods. I want to reap the benefits of online open ed and in-person community-based ed. Simultaneously. Together. In tension. Checking and balancing. I envision a place where people from all parts of a community gather to discuss this new world, to explore the benefits and risks of being plugged-in, of connecting across as well as within affinity groups. Of walking along the borders, discovering the Other. Of old people learning from kids, of teens and adults have positive interactions, of nonprofit staffs gathering to pool their knowledge, of people from all walks of life sharing their expertise and cultures both online and in person, of college kids not “volunteering” in town but participating actively, learning and teaching. A new learning space. And not a place already trailing associations and baggage. A new kind of third place, both online and in the town. Neutral except for its goal of serving open, accessible, connected sustainable learning. Not outside.in., not 826 Valencia, not the local coffee shop. All of these kinds of places bundled into a space in the heart of a town.

Imagine a MOOC group gathering at the center to talk over the course, or a group of people learning about blogging in schools, or digital storytelling to connect the stories of the townspeople to the place and to the world, or nonprofits exploring folksonomies, or–and this is Geeky Mom’s idea– parents trying to understand WoW or SL by participating in a workshop dreamed up by them and taught by their kids?

Am I dreaming? Perhaps. But the response I am getting from rural towns and nonprofits is quite encouraging. Now to write grants, pull up the pilot centers in 2009, and get the dang paperwork completed for the 501(c)3.

late summer in the garden

Now to making green-tomato chutney and sharing recipes with bee dieu in Brazil. Now to meeting an artist in town at a new gallery space and to creating a digital something for my upcoming Vancouver visit–though not simultaneously. 😉

From Outside the Walls: In Search of Form and Meaning in Extreme Times

Be forewarned, this post is more of a personal reflective narrative about where I find myself than an exploration of ideas and practices of our times, so if you don’t like that sort of thing, go ahead, bow out now. 😉

My blog, morphing into an open laboratory, will include some messier-than-in-the-past posts about my doubts, my stumbling, my questions as much as my usual kinds of posts examining theory and practice of learning in our times as they play out in my world. I am not necessarily comfortable in this looser writing terrain –the risks are high–and thus I have stayed off blog more than on for the past months as I find my way. But enough of being careful. Blogging is about thinking and sharing boldly, sometimes half-baked thoughts–it is about learning and growing through the conversation, not always offering clear substance or demonstrating command or authority. Yikes. How did I forget that?

Okay, onward:

foggy ipswich morning

I have been fortunate to know summer as deep, slow quiet feathered between spring’s cacophony and fall’s exuberant re-embrace of the classroom. Wending my way through the weeks taking pictures, writing, gardening, playing, dreaming, traveling, cooking seems as natural and necessary as engaging in intense creative collaborations during the “school year.” The very bounded nature of that time invites its expansiveness, its dreaminess–it is luxurious precisely because it has limits, tensions, oppositions. The form poem. The classroom at its best.

into the kitchen

Even though it is summer, I miss acutely that beauty in what I have just left: the passion and optimism of my students, and what great teachers on my old campus, the Hector Vilas and John Elders, inspire in them. John’s recent comment sent me back to my old world:

“But I feel that such tension–between what Dave Smith calls desire and dailiness–can itself itself intensify our awareness of what’s really important. Contrast-value can be essential to staying awake. When I think back to recent classes on “Michael” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” or to class trips to hear Jean Ritchie sing or to climb Mt. Abe, I feel grateful to Middlebury for offering an educational structure from which these experiences of a life-time blasted off.

I guess my conclusion is that, while traditional institutions and structures can be oppressive, they can (and must) also be enlivened. Curricula, theology, and law can slump into dead weights indeed, but when overtaken by discovery, grace, and compassion can start to breathe again. And to dance.”

lotus dance

He’s so right. He describes the beauty of the classroom. Those of us lucky enough to have had such extraordinary experiences as I did when I studied with John in graduate school or as Gardner Campbell did draw daily inspiration from such teachers in our own work. Unlike Matt Crosslin* (Note added 8/20/08: please see the follow-up comments for a correction of this statement–sorry Matt for misreading your earlier comment!), I don’t think great classrooms are common at all. Too many teachers do not go beyond the comfortable syllabus, the safe lecture, the composed practice, in part because of systemic realities such as Leslie points out within even some of our finest large universities. What a shocking disregard for the deeper purposes of an education, of the sort John described in his response to me.

But he is exceptional. And just who has access to such an experience, to such a teacher? Too few. Too few. Even in a small college. The liberal arts college environment is too soft, too privileged, too disconnected from the actual messy classroom of the world–at least it is right now, at least in my experience. There are other ways, and I believe, better ways–especially now– to unlock the potential of our best selves, within the contact zones of a messier place than a traditional institution of higher education.

A place without clear summers, perhaps. Like this one. It is not quiet. It is not silent.

graffitti art montreal

I face nothing finite on the other end except for the end of summer itself, something subtly insinuating itself into the fields with the massing of swallows on the wires, the fading of the fawn’s spots, the empty nests, the yellowing fields. There’s no human-made marker, no school shaping the movement of time and responsibility and endeavor. I have walked beyond the sheltering walls of formal education and into the chaos of the world of messy, participatory learning. It is quite a feeling.

in a window, montreal

Could this be creative free-fall? Living the free-verse poem? Of the sort I tell my students to expect when they enter our learning community and have to feel their way as a group and as individuals through the labyrinth of possibility? What lovely irony. I’ve left the classroom to find the classroom, a truly participatory one in which I am as much apprentice as expert, as often confused as inspired, angry as delighted. How will the small centers I plan help communities if Obama loses the election and we continue as a country along this hellacious, divisive path? If we do not apply ourselves immediately to the urgent environmental crises of our time?

How do I find patience in this extreme time?

in the fray

I am awkward outside of school. My passion can overwhelm as much as inspire. A vision that seems so straightforward to me is easily misread, filtered through what is assumed and already experienced rather than what is possible. I have much to learn.

brilliance in a japanese garden pond

A big challenge is finding a way to articulate simply, clearly and sensibly a practical vision for centers devoted to creativity, collaboration and reciprocal apprenticeships within our lived-in small communities. How difficult that is when people naturally read through the spectacles of known context and experience–how do you describe something that hasn’t quite existed before, at least not quite as I am imagining? I am searching for form.

foraging in the Chinese garden pool

Even as I struggle with the words I am laughing at myself for not walking the walk. When I whined a bit on Twitter recently about having trouble with the mission statement, Steve Greenlaw suggested I post it and get feedback. Up until now I have done that but only kinda sorta–I have let people directly involved in the project onto the pages-in-process. Now I am considering making the entire process transparent and collaborative by blogging the draft mission and vision statements (and naming ideas), the turns in the road.

No more shyness or fear of failure.

vive montreal

There’s No Doctor in This House, Just Someone Who Asks a lot of Questions: Where I’m Headed, Part One

“…for most [people], the right to learn is curtailed by the obligation to attend school.” (Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society, 1970 p.xix)

I’m an unabashed generalist. A near novice in any field. Now that I’ve left my teaching position, I’m no longer qualified for it–I couldn’t even apply, wouldn’t make the interview round. No joke. A bona fide outsider. After all, the theory goes, you wouldn’t want a non-degreed, non-licensed doctor to operate on you. So if you are shelling out $50,000 a year on college, you don’t want anything but a certified expert in the classroom. And I’m no Doctor.

conversation

Don’t get me wrong. I know many spectacularly gifted PhDs who do fabulous teaching and research, who push my own thinking every time I encounter their work, who are incredible, imaginative learners. We need specialists. But not only specialists.

I could never imagine myself studying any one thing exclusively–I majored in art history, did a Masters in English, am deeply interested in creative expression, Irish Studies, multimedia narrative, 21st-century learning, gardens, architecture, digital art, food in culture, sustainable communities, the history and theory of education, photography–all kinds of subjects. I wanted it all, fluidly, simultaneously. I never wanted to teach the same course semester upon semester (in spite of agreeing with Gardner Campbell that every semester opens as a tabula rasa). Increasingly, I didn’t want to teach with a syllabus at all but to wander about a subject as a group of learners needed and wanted, exploring from as many angles, histories, perspectives as possible, veering off topic altogether when that was what we needed to do.

I even proposed to the college that I would be happy to continue teaching from the new center I was designing, as long as students could be released from the semesterized, campus-ized model, coming down instead to the center in intensive bursts when relevant collaborations, mini-courses, projects presented themselves there; when not at the center, they would graze freely on the myriad open-course opportunities on the Web, pulling together a mosaic of study: reading, conversing and reflecting online, creating, working in tutorial and/or in small groups, taking whatever time (within reason–deadlines have their use) made sense to complete that “course.” Some students could get the credit fast, in a few weeks; others might take a year or grow a single course into multiple credits. That idea went over…well...not so much.

Which makes sense because whereas the ability to work and learn and live this way has once again become possible (in a newly rich, global-as-well-as-purely-local way), the fear of the miscellaneous and anarchy and chaos–loss of control–has led to our time out of school looking more and more like school and our neighborhoods no longer about neighbors at all.

trainview

I was quite aware of breaking the rules of the Academy, and that I was a puzzlement to my students–who was this odd duck with neither PhD nor string of important books? No books? How did someone like me get to a place like this? (Well, I was only sort of in “a place like this”–a lecturer, never a professor, I inhabited the margins of this place.) I’d explain that I was lucky, an anomaly. Couldn’t be pigeon-holed. Couldn’t be known. And for a long time, I couldn’t see how it could get any better: I could be in school but not of school. I could hang onto my rebel cred WHILE reaping the benefits of a life in college.

So, why ever would I leave if I’d never be able to return?

Hypocrite hypocrite.

Reading Illich, hooks, Rose, Greene, Arendt, Gomez-Pena, Sontag, Freire, and more recently Gee, Wellman, Levy, Hawisher & Selfe, Tuan, and Weinberger and, well, so many others, and right now some fantastic bloggers engaged in continuous, dynamic conversation of the now in the now, made me uneasy about staying. I was troubled when I read what string theorist Brian Greene wrote in an op-ed piece for The International Herald Tribune:
“We rob science education of life when we focus solely on results and seek to train students to solve problems and recite facts without a commensurate emphasis on transporting them out beyond the stars.”

crowsatdawn
And when he said that “America’s educational system fails to teach science in a way that allows students to integrate it into their lives.” Integration and imagination take time and opportunities to speculate, to dream, to play with what-ifs.

Of course in 1970, Ivan Illich wrote (once again in Deschooling Society): “…the deep fear which school has implanted within us, a fear which makes us censorious.” (p.18 ) How can learners dare reach beyond themselves, beyond the stars if they are blocked, bounded by fear?

Michael Pollan gets at the same dilemma of over-specialization and fear–in his case, as it pertains to how and what we eat–in his new book, In Defense of Food, (you can read the introduction on his website). He shows us the promise of this particular moment: “We are entering a postindustrial era of food; for the first time in a generation it is possible to leave behind the Western diet without having also to leave behind civilization. And the more eaters who vote with their forks for a different kind of food, the more commonplace and accessible such food will become. Among other things, this book is an eater’s manifesto, an invitation to join the movement that is renovating our food system in the name of health—health in the very broadest sense of that word.”

But is the answer to go back? Or to go forward in a new way?

In spite of my growing unease I stayed. For years. I complained a lot, sometimes loudly, mumbling something about the importance of working from within the system, about influencing the next generation of leaders. To ask them thee questions. To point at these dilemmas.

And anyway, go where?

Everywhere. Anywhere. Both back to very old ways of doing things and forward into cyberspace. Post-industrial?

Into town. Downtown. Back into town. AND wherever in the world we need to go.

Solving the World's Problems

Now that we can harness the creative and connective powers of the Web and the open education resources of some of our great universities, why ever stay within the confines of a single school? Why shell out up to $50,000 a year for fancy digs when for no money at all we can reap the full benefits (sans credit) of such courses as the one George Siemens and Stephen Downes are offering? How long will the cachet of a degree from elite institutions and the attendant uber-important connections be enough to trump the limits of single-school-in-place-with-limited number-of-course-offerings-and-departments-and-majors? It was time to make the leap.

thecall

The community digital learning centers I am planning (slowly) are being conceived in the spirit of the miscellaneous, of emergence, of collective intelligence, of de-schooling, of edupunk, of slow-food (slow communities now too). Yup. All of those.

after rain

With my merry band of cohorts I’m exploring how to marry collaborative Web practices to the lived-in, traditional community to open our notions of learning–when and what and how. Right now we’re thinking about four-five pilot sites across the country, ranging from small rural communities, to suburbs to small cities. These physical centers will be places where people from across a community’s spectrum gather in person to discuss and learn and explore and share the connected and expressive practices of the Web. Within this neutral non-school people can shuck their fear of trying out these tools and practices within the workplace. People with no computer or internet access at home can hang out in the lab. Kids and the elderly can swap stories as they teach one another invaluable lessons about life. Nonprofits and agencies can gather to learn from one another and help one another both online and in person. Individuals can avail themselves of the computers, the space, the mentors to engage in hybrid learning.

Is it possible that these Web practices, instead of potentially polarizing us into affinity groups and spaces as some contend, can be used to ease community divides? To help solve community problems? To engage children and adults together in deep learning that is contextualized, shared, and personally relevant? To give people a chance to experience the power and joy and fun of the creativity and storytelling and feelings of belonging unleashed by some of these practices? What does the new digitized community learning center look like? Who is there? Why? How is it sustained? How do the practices of de-schooling, online learning, and informal f2f learning inform one another?

These aren’t new ideas. Hardly. But there are so few initiatives in rural places, at least, that are fusing the online and off, bringing people together into contact zones within a center and then moving out into the world online. We have few community computing centers, few internet cafes, even, and fewer centers seeking simultaneously a return to the slow while rejoicing in the fast. Rather, we have roaming workshops and consultants blasting in and out–a great, bonding time online or off, and then you’re on your own. Is that sustainable? Does it actually work? I’d rather work from inside communities to ease the participatory gap, one along the lines of what 826 Valencia or The Sunset Neighborhood Beacon Center or The Purple Thistle Center are modeling (funny that these are all in intensely urban areas) but in smaller communities, and with a decidedly Web bent and with an open, generalist’s slate of offerings–each center will be of that community for that community and so will, I imagine, function quite differently from other centers.

I’d love to hear about initiatives/centers from which I could learn–I am in the gathering information, writing vision statements & strategic plans (and grants) stage.

Even from you doctors out there. 😉

Since Leaving School…

…I have not blogged, letting a couple of months pass, to clear the shatter of thoughts and feelings tied up with leaving formal ed, waiting, too, for the language to wash over me that could explain where I am and where I’m going. I searched for the words during three weeks with family in Europe and continue to look for them as I weed my vegetable and flower gardens, walk the dog, watch the wildlife raise their young in the fields and woods beyond the house. It’s taking a while to shake the frustration of failing on the inside, about not doing more over nineteen years than help a handful of students trust their creative selves and stop waiting for direction and correction from some external authority.
Rome scene

As excited as I am about my new path into informal learning across a community rather than throwing myself at the walls of the limiting structure of academic institutions, I am sad about giving up. About losing faith. About saying goodbye to my students. And I’m angry. About a lot of what goes on (or doesn’t go on) in formal education. And about the self-congratulatory nature of our institutions of higher learning. I find it galling that during my daughter’s graduation, the presidents of both her college and its umbrella university blamed plugged-in-ness for a lack of time for contemplation, introspection or creativity. What about how we overload our students (and ourselves) with assignments (“if this is Tuesday we’re reading Ulysses” kind of attitude) and the umpteen required courses and the whole notion of majors, and insist on building resumes of activity and accomplishment? How do faculty (and university presidents) build time into syllabi for such introspection, contemplation and creativity? Noodling? Open-ended thinking and conversation? Creative connections? Hmmmm…. How easy to blame iPods and cellphones and virtual worlds and video games for our own lack of balance, our own failure to go into the woods, our inability to quiet ourselves down. Schools are all about noise.

Shuttered Window

I’m tired of writing angry. Frustrated. Negative. And so I have stayed off-blog. Thinking. Feeling. Planning. Noodling. Doing. Tweeting. But not sharing writing longer than 140 characters at a stretch. Not until now. This morning when I whined a bit on Twitter about my lack of posting due to having little positive to say about schools, especially those of a private, liberal arts, expensive nature-Bud Hunt came right out and told me to move past the need to write about formal ed (i.e. get over myself) and write about the new thoughts, the new connections. With that one little nudge, I could feel myself start to shuck that snakeskin of academia and the baggage of nineteen years and be ready to start noodling around out loud about what I’m reading, thinking, dreaming and wondering.

Thanks, Bud. 😉

Window

So here I am:

* Banged up but still breathing after nineteen years in a marginal position within an educational system I no longer believe in.

* Thankful to all of the remarkable young men and women who lit up the classroom over those years, teaching me and themselves as they transcended the limitations of college.

Windows

* Jazzed about having this summer to explore my creative work, to think think think, and to connect even more deeply to my family and to the daily rhythms of this glorious piece of land I call home.

* Delighted to stop complaining about the failings of formal education (particularly of higher ed) and instead put my efforts to more positive use by setting up the nonprofit I hope will serve as a nerve center for deep creative learning and connecting using technology within our rural community.

Looking up in Rome

And so here I go, out of school and its mindset, into the summer and into the world.

Laundry

Stay tuned…