The iPhone comes to Vermont tomorrow: Who will go out and get one?

I’m thinking about braving the crowds (and cold) tomorrow and lining up for an iPhone at one of five stores that will have them available in the state. The truly-with-it (and wealthy) figured out a long time ago that if they really wanted one, they could, with a New York phone exchange. (And the bills accompanying that choice.) Now that it will be possible to have a Vermont number, I wonder who will be in those lines tomorrow. Who will (have the luxury to) think of such a purchase.

shades
Who might be there (and even more, who surely will not) interests me because of intersections between my reading and my work in small rural communities, towns with sketchy cell phone coverage, iffy internet access and uneven (unequal) access to computers.

In The Power of Place, Harm de Blij speaks to this reality in his opening chapter, “Globals, Locals, and Mobals,” a sharp and simple reminder of how deeply tied (chained? rooted?) much of the world is to locality. “Earth may be a planet of shrinking functional distance, ” he writes, “but it remains a world of staggering situational difference. From the uneven distribution of natural resources to the unequal availability of opportunity, place remains a powerful arbitrator….Of the seven billion current passengers on Cruiseship Earth, the overwhelming majority (the myth of mass migration notwithstanding) will die very near the cabin in which they were born.” (p.3) While he is not writing of rural communities in North America specifically here, it is helpful to remember the pull, the demands, the realities, the power of place. Even when we have iPhones. At least around here. Climate, landscape, size and spread of community, proximity to a highway or to a town of some size have a profound impact–still–on the people who live here. iPhones (or any of the competition) are irrelevant to so many who live here although cellphones can be lifelines in remote places.

past limbo

My work table is strewn with books, my desktop cluttered with articles and blogposts, images and metaphors in the hopes that they will help me to think through the conundrum of helping small rural communities explore social media practices. It is no simple matter. Platitudes and generalizations don’t work to describe the complexities of rural life. This is slippery territory, murky, confusing, mysterious. I have to stop myself every few days to ask, “And why do I think this is a good idea, this new-old open community learning space, a third place fluid computer center/ office/lab/studio/collaboratory/exhibition/meeting space for communities that perhaps have spotty high-speed internet, few public computers, and some (sometimes more than some) suspicion that going online means losing oneself, or worse, one’s kids?” Several upcoming talks and conference presentations will tease out some of these idea, including one with Nancy White and Laura Blankenship at Northern Voice .

Doing the Limbo. Out on a limb-o. Stuck in limbo.

through the window, first light

The iPhone has me thinking about gaps, the betweens created by lack of broadband and computer access as well as cellphone coverage, by a lack of extended conversation about creative and/or social media practices, and a confusion over what we mean by openness on the Web. I’m worried about the widening gaps between locals, mobals and globals. I think about what Clay Shirky has observed about the way people are wrapping themselves in bubbles of perceived privacy as they talk loudly on their cellphones, or text while engaging in conversation with someone sitting right there in front of them. I’m concerned about unfounded fear and anxiety, how they creep about and lead to misinformation and disaster (hey, look at our government’s actions over the last eight years), how they influence online behaviors and attitudes about online behaviors. Sometimes there’s not enough fear about things that ARE threats. But in a country where it is so difficult to talk openly about the scary things and places and practices, we often don’t even “see” racism, sexism, domestic and sexual abuse, social injustice when they’re right in front of us. (Another must-read book on my table is one Joe Lambert suggested: Sundown Towns by James Loewen ). I worry about how “the systemic bias for continuity creates tolerance for the substandard.” (Shirky, Here Comes Everybody, p.250)

green

And there’s the visual, the digital image. The iPhone, having as much of a visual impact as an audio one, with its big screen and camera, makes me think about the impact of images in small rural communities. Digital photos have exploded onto the Web (see Susan Sontag’s NYT piece “Regarding the Torture of Others” and BagNewsNotes‘ reading of visual media day in and day out, Pedro Meyer’s writing on Zone Zero, among many others) and so we need to think about our use of and response to digital images, both professional and vernacular. About cameraphones. Images on the Web. How we circulate images, how we communicate with them–and what all this openness really means. Blogposts such as Alec Couros’ Flickr Perversion, and the conversation it has sparked in the comments and blogs, and articles linking unsafe visual social media practices to crime, such as this one in Vermont’s statewide newspaper, show us how urgent it is to talk about our practices as well as to go out there and practice.

Having a place in town to learn, to talk, to mess around with digital media could lead to active, informed participation. I think it could also lead to stronger bonds within the town between generations, groups, traditional divides. I’m seeing it happen already. People want to share stories, ideas, connect over the things that matter to them. They’re nervous about it–wonder if it’s okay to do online. And there’s the problem of time. We want our Web stories to look good and be easy to make. We often want them to be like StoryCorps stories or what Sarah Kramer, friend and board member, is working on with “One in Eight Million,” a new web experience via the New York Times, elegant stories of the people of New York. These are simple, short. Folksy yet polished. These stories seem easy to make: just push RECORD and the story spills out. Click STOP and there it is. Start a blog and people will listen. Open a wiki and people will contribute. Ha. How realistic is it for people to learn to edit, to share, to contribute, to tend, to share feeds and participate online when we can’t find the time to attend town meetings or to volunteer? We’re a now culture. We have no time.

And then there are those, quite a few of those in rural communities, who think we should run away from technology, toss the iPhone while we’re at it. Return to some “better way.”

I am pulled to balance on this score by David Gessner, who writes:
“What I want to leave behind is false romanticism. What I want to carry into the fight is the original romantic urge for the specific, the local, the real. What I want to leave behind is quoting Thoreau; what I want instead is to follow more deeply the complex spirit of the man. What I want to leave behind are pages of facts. What I want to carry forward are facts marshaled for purpose, facts enlivened because they follow an idea. What I want to leave behind is the sanctimony of quietude and order and “being in the present.” What I want to embrace is loud and wild disorder, growing this way and that, lush and overdone. What I want to leave behind is the virtuous and the good, and move toward the inspiring and great. And while we’re at it I want to leave behind anything false, false to me that is, false to what I feel is my experience on this earth. What I want instead is to wade through the mess of life without ever reaching for a life ring called The Answer.”

Yes. And so, it’s not enough for us to talk here on blogs. We’ve also got to go into our towns and engage our neighbors in these essential, messy conversations of our time. To think about place but not think only of place–if we’re fortunate enough. I want to move toward “the inspiring and great.” Fearlessly but not stupidly, blindly. So I’m going to get an iPhone, maybe not tomorrow, but soon. I want to participate actively in the remarkable creative, connective world of the Web, but balance what I do there with actions in town, in person. So, if I talk online about Flickr and fear, then I’ll talk about it in town as well. If I make a digital story, I’ll show it to people where I live as well as to the whole World Wide Web. And I’ll pull out my iPhone to do it. And then we can talk about that, too.

Workshops, Animal Hospitals and Lots to Be Thankful For…

finn as beaver

What a week. A whirlwind two-day workshop in Maine. Finn-dog at death’s door. And The New York Times getting it and not getting it about how and why I slow-blog.

As anyone who follows me on Twitter knows, I’ve been on a roller coaster with Finn-dog: from his inexplicable collapse on the driveway Monday night to diagnosis of tumors in the liver and spleen to surgery and now home to recuperate and await the biopsy results. At one point we were faced with the decision of putting him down or trying to stabilize him enough for the surgery. He was that bad. It was no easy choice, believe me. But something about how he was acting and how we were feeling made us follow this path. And so far, so good. He is returning to himself (though he insists that he can eat cat food only ;-)). I have been brought back repeatedly to the final days and hours of my mother-in-law and my father, how we made tough decisions with and for them. Agonizing. Expectedly so. Who knew it would be so hard with a dog? We kept asking ourselves and each other if we were prolonging his life for us or for him. Are we characters from Best in Show? Hmmm….

Fortunately, I also had work calling, a two-day workshop in lovely Damariscotta, Maine.

picture-2 We dove into storytelling and community participation and action and kept to a dizzying pace. I congratulate the good folks who participated in this immersion into disruption and repair–they stayed with me magnificently. Time was too short–and I balk a bit at parachuting into a community, giving a workshop and heading right out again. Follow-up helps. Virtual collaboration, too, via the wiki I have set up for these workshops (please add to it!), but nothing beats face-to-face gatherings over time, ongoing, within a community, coupled with the delights of online interactions, collaborations, creativity. A Center for Community Digital Exploration would be just the ticket.

I was the epitome of the fast. So packed was my schedule that I had no time to wander about the waterfront or take pictures. Not a one. I guess I’m a slow photographer, too, and am loath to pull out my camera unless I can focus with my entire energy on the photos.

Which bring me to that wee article. Of course I love the fact that people are taking notice of slow blogging, and I am honored to be in the piece. Absolutely. And yes, deer and bikes and walks and the pond do figure in my posts, but as threads, I hope, as metaphors and examples of ideas I am exploring about learning, communities, and technology. And why Chris Lott’s contributions to slow blogging never made it into the paper, or Alan Levine’s wonderful, recent forays into this reflective space aren’t there…or Leslie Madsen-Brooks’ Clutter Museum…or..Stephen Downes’ remarkable Half an Hour …or…I could go on and on… oh well. Me in the Styles section? Gotta smile about that.

finneyleaping

So here I am, on the threshold of Thanksgiving week with so much to be thankful for–incredible family and friends, and Finn back with us. Rewarding work. Fabulous colleagues. A plane ticket to Northern Voice in February (I’ve been trying to get there for five years)! And a new reputation as someone who has style.

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.

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. 😉

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. 😉

On the Cusp: Learning to Pay Attention to the Extraordinary in the Ordinary

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Appearances welcome and unwelcome: In northern Vermont lynx have returned for the first time in forty years; in our central Vermont town Starbucks is reportedly about to make an entrance for the first time ever. Even here. Is this a faint echo of the strange careenings in this country, between the hopeful: the beaver in the Bronx, and the disastrous: the government’s anti-earth policies and actions? What does this have to do with thoughts about my teaching and learning?

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Since fall I’ve been in an unfamiliar, sometimes unsettling space and time, on the road a lot, in between, and it’s not been easy finding my bearings, or balance. But it is precisely those moments of disequilibrium that carry the promise of deep learning, of pulling me out of my complacency, of sharpening my sight. It’s so easy not to pay attention, to settle into the blur and selfishness of routine. Being out of my element has been good for me. I have missed some momentous local events altogether: the Vermont blizzard, for one,
snowdrift hearing or reading, instead of living, the stories of my daughter snowshowing the third of a mile length of our driveway in deeply drifting snow to get a ride to town for her job, or of our large flat-coated retriever getting stuck in the snow and needing to be fished out. I’ve had to learn how to listen instead of speaking.

bethelmountainroad Nearly every week for months I’ve been driving the three hours over two mountain passes to New Hampshire and then down the interstate to the town I grew up in to stay with my parents in their retirement community, and two or three or four days later, I turn around and drive home again.

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My father is dying. And in spite of his being just shy of 89, it’s still a stunning fact to face, a difficult sentence to utter. He has been a tremendous force in my life, my role model as a teacher, a touchstone in many ways. Traveling with him and my mother and my brothers through these challenging, touching days has pulled me out of my own orbit, far from the details of daily home life and my students and the computer and their thrall.

It has taken slowing down, going deep, having some time for thoughts to bubble up and rise slowly–to look around, to feel the power of the ordinary instead of just talking about it. I’m also reading differently: picking up the magazines strewn about the laundry room at the retirement community: reading several times the poems in the torn issue of New Yorker (a lovely one by Louise Gluck, “Noon,” for instance) or the articles in a pristine looking Preservation –a powerful, short piece, for instance, by Wendell Berry, adapted from his foreword to James Achambeault’s Historic Kentucky and think about what he has to say about photographs:

Photography is surely the most temporal of the arts…The picture that results is the realization of a unique instant. Looking at it, we are aware of an implied insistence: This picture could not be made again. The light that made it is past. The photographer cannot return even tomorrow, even later today, and make the same picture. Because it is so insistently temporal, photography is also insistently historical.”

and as I watch the elderly gentleman next to me fold his laundry slowly, perfectly, to the side of his walker, I put down the Berry and my thoughts journey from the article and the man’s flannel shirts and his bent hands to John Berger and what he writes recently in Orion Magazine:

“It’s a commonplace to say that photographs interrupt or arrest the flow of time. They do it, however, in thousands of different ways. Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’ is different from Atget’s slowing-down to a standstill, or from Thomas Struth’s ceremonial stopping of time. What is strange about Jitka’s forest photos…is that they appear to have stopped nothing! In a space without gravity there is no weight, and these pictures of hers are weightless in terms of time. It is as if they have been taken between times, where there is none.” (“Inside Forests” November/December 2006)

Is this why I’ve been taking so many photos of the ordinary details glimpsed through windows, to steady myself within a moment without end, to try to understand it?
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Such unexpected discoveries in someone else’s magazines and moving about a world filled with old people brings me to thoughts of my students so young and intoxicated with possibility. In the fall I want my students to explore and experience a visual and aural understanding of their world as they write about it. I want them to have the pleasure of observing people and place, of diving into the writings of the Berrys and Bergers and Glucks of the world in a leisurely way, as I am now. For years I have been guilty, I believe, of what David T. Hansen describes in his introduction to the outstanding John Dewey and Our Educational Prospect:

“The explosion of information in the world today, the rapidity of interaction via contemporary modes of communication, the continued blurring of the lines between providing education and offering marketable degrees and diplomas: these and other forces conspire to push educators into a mode of incessant busyness, with increasingly scarce time for solitude and the conversation so indispensable for thoughtful study and reflection.”

Even with this reflective blog and my posts about blogging as letter-writing and slow-blogging, I know I moved too fast, glancing at the books piled high, at the road, at the world around me, at the colossal problems in my community and the world. Now I observe the nuances of my father’s expressions, reading his face and his body for signs of pain. I do jigsaw puzzles with him, slow piece by slow piece, noticing the subtle spill of colors and contours of the picture. I go to the community’s library and pick out a wondrous array of books in the discard box–I wonder which of the men and women I pass in the halls donated the Lawrence Durrell, which the books on Ancient Greece, the pulpy thrillers, the self-help volumes, the Ogden Nash, the Pico Iyer. Some of them look well-read, others untouched. I look inside the front covers, think about writing a post of found inscriptions, remember how as a child I collected antique spectacles and old photos of people until someone (a brother? a friend? a teacher?) told me it was kind of creepy. I wonder where those spectacles went.

I read slowly as I sit with my parents, slow-moving books, deep-observing books such as Bill McKibben’s Wandering Home, about his long walk from his home in Vermont to his home in the Adirondacks, a book I will use in my new class in the fall, a book that combines close observation, personal narrative and an urgent call to action. This I want my students to read, especially as we move into a year of presidential campaigns, of critical questions about Iraq, about who we should be in the world. I want them to have time to slow down and turn over in their hands the urgent questions of our time and I want them to think about time and place. I want them to remember their own collections of spectacles and connect them to the world.

How do we help our students, these Milennials who, Marilee Jones, Dean of Admissions at M.I.T., described during her keynote (at the Tufts University’s conference: Educating the Ne(x)t Generation), as the least healthy (most anxious, sleep-deprived, poorly nourished) generation ever: “The collective pressure is making kids sick.” As she pointed out, we have only ourselves to blame for this debilitating pressure: parents and most of their teachers are Boomers, the self-involved generation all about happiness and self-actualization and choices, our identities caught up in careers, caught up in our kids’ identities– we’re over-involved with them, we live vicariously through them, and have high expectations of them. How are they expected to slow down if we don’t? How are they supposed to have time to think creatively or mess around outside if even the playgrounds we build are managed?

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The new rituals of traveling back and forth to New Hampshire, of hanging out with retirees instead of college students during my semester leave, of being with my father as he slowly moves towards the end of life and then with my seventeen-year-old daughter at home as she moves towards the beginning of life away from home have me wanting to take a class on a trail–the same one week after week, sometimes with notebooks or cameras or recorders, sometimes without, silently, sometimes as a group, sometimes solo and see what happens. It has plunged me back into the pleasures and significance of unexpected informal learning, the importance of paying attention to the local, of learning to look at the road every week and see it, really see it for the first time in twenty-five years, instead of listening to music or zoning out into thoughts of my teaching, of my blogging, of my parenting, of all the things I have left undone.

The road is one I’ve been driving for over twenty-five years but never every week. At first, this fall, the shifting light and color of the natural landscape (fall melting into winter) and the shifting rhythms of the human travel week (quiet Tuesdays, busy Fridays) kept me occupied. At first I played around with my camera:
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Then gradually I started taking note of the particulars of the humanscape I had never noticed along the way:

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And now back home I think about how lucky I am to be on this journey right now: how next week I’ll be giving a workshop in Denver to independent-school teachers with Barbara Sawhill who has written a beautiful post about informal learning with her students through Skype and talkand then back to my Vermont-New Hampshire commute before heading to the U.K. to give a talk to educators in the post-16 sector. Thinking about K-12 learning, about post-16 learning, about teaching, about what social software has to do with any of this, all while tracing this quiet, intense passage with my family has been remarkable. I am acutely aware of the importance of examining how and why we privilege certain kinds of learning and learners in our classrooms and to thinking about the value and context of everyday informal learning as Peter Sawchuk does in his excellent book: Adult Learning and Technology in Working-Class Life. In those talks I want to explore ways in which moving out into the connected spaces of the internet can bring huge gifts to the classroom–any classroom– if we ground our learning communities in the very real and present local. Even in traditional learning institutions teachers and students will benefit from considering and sharing their own learning histories, then noticing and experiencing the contact zones within this learning community, noticing and experiencing the landscape and peoplescape around them, thinking about why and how such things as blogging might help to deepen the learning or inhibit us as Laura wonders in a recent post, as we connect to one another so publicly as my student Katie explores in a wonderful post that in part answers, I believe, Jill’s question about whether students are tiring of blogging.

In our classrooms we have for so long woven pretty pale, stiff excuses for richly hued, complex, textured tapestries of a group’s time together thinking, listening, talking and creating. We can do better. I can do better, by honoring the personal and informal and ordinary within the confines of formal learning, by slowing down, by messing around, by looking for signs of the lynx and beaver all while asking why people crave the sameness of a Starbucks, while as BBC Washington correspondent Matt Frei says about recent stories in the news: “We have been captivated because each one of these escapades featured an unscripted moment of hilarity, insanity or frailty in our otherwise so scripted world.”

I’d like to explore other kinds of unscripted moments in my classes–slowly– the personal and ordinary, turning them over and over in our hands, connecting them to our formal learning experience and to each other in our pursuit of deep learning about ourselves and the world and how we want to live within take our participatory culture .

Ganleymen1939.jpg My grandfather, my uncle, my father ( the older brother) in 1939, Upstate New York

Thinking Locally As the Semester Ends

Today opens the last week of classes for me until September, and so as I stand on the cusp of a semester’s leave, many thoughts about my students, my teaching, my family send me to the blog. And it’s a twist I appreciate, for I turn to this global medium to talk about the importance of grounding the Web 2.0 work locally. I continue to grapple with balance, with the relationship between what I do at the computer and what I do away from it, and how to help students understand the importance of going out in the world to learn about its various workings and stories and marvels and tragedies and then to apply that learning, that communicating, that collaborating back here, locally, in the communities in which we live. I want to study the blogging of Laura, Toril and Lanny, for they so seamlessly weave the threads of their home lives into their blogging about the world and their work. They think aloud about how difficult it is to bring these two realities together: the online networking and the in situ groups with whom they work. I would like students to weave more of the personal, of the particular, of the here-and-now into their academic writing; they seem detached, almost clinical in their approach to writing as soon as evaluation, grades, school enter the picture. And no wonder.

But there are lovely exceptions. One student told me last week that writing about her dance practice, trying to tell the world about its role in her life, about the role of art in our lives, has helped her to understand and then to articulate something momentous for her–she wanted to write about how dancing a classical Chinese dance role, which she loves but also finds confining, is something she does in her quest to belong, to find a connection in her life to place and people and culture– how important this sense of belonging somewhere has become for her as she, a Chinese woman growing up in Japan and now studying in the United States, looks ahead to her adult life. It reminds me, too, of my sister-in-law’s wonderful film that she will screen tomorrow in New York, Shalom Ireland, which she made as a way to understand her own heritage as a Jew with roots in Ireland, a seemingly odd convergence of cultures. I want my students to ask the very questions she has asked: Where do we belong? >How do we belong?

How do university students cultivate a sense of rootedness to a place, a local place when places begin to look and feel so much the same in this country and increasingly in other countries with the malling and the sprawling? How do students who travel across states, continents and oceans to go to university keep rooted to place because and in spite of communications technologies? Are my students too tied to home by the phone so that they do not really connect with Vermont as a place instead of Middlebury as a school? Does my having them blog out to the world interfere with their ability to look around them and make ties here? Or does it help them to become more observant, more aware, more caring citizens of their local worlds as they hear stories of other persepctives, of other places? And am I, as a mentor to them, staying as aware as I should of the fact that, as Chip Bruce tells us,

“No two of us live in the same information age”? (Literacy in the Information Age, p.333)

Or what Bill McKibben contends in The Age of Missing Information:

“We believe we live in the ‘age of information,’ that there has been an information ‘explosion,’ an information ‘revolution.’ While in a certain narrow sense this is the case, in many ways just the opposite is true. We live at a moment of deep ignorance, when vital knowledge that humans have always possessed about who we are and where we live seems beyond our reach. An Unenlightenment, An age of missing information.'” (As quoted in Bruce, p. 334)

Every day at my country home begins with some configuration of the family taking Finn for a pre-dawn or edge-of-dawn walk through the fields–ours and those of neighboring farmers. Every day ends with a final walk down our long driveway. When it’s 20 below, or sheeting cold rain, no one volunteers. Finn is always ready to go, especially if we’re in for, what our Irish neighbors called, “a bit of dirty weather.”
morning fog And though we fuss about leaving the warmth of pre-dawn bed, we’re glad to be thus grounded in the quiet, subtle shifts of the seasons in our physical, natural world. milkweed opening Right now early December careens from a bizarre in-between-ness, neither fall nor winter as Finn still picks up ticks, as geese seem to fly north as much as south, as the fields hold their green, as the snow is slow in making a first appearance.
Finn drinking in the field

And then we move into our human community, driving through town on the way to work. Stopping in our bank, our post office, our natural foods cooperative, our local corner grocery store means catching up with the people we know as much as it means running errands. We have no chain stores downtown; we still have a locally-owned bank, independent grocers, a bakery, coffee shops. My husband takes forever on errands because he seems to know everyone from all of his work on local boards; I know everyone of a certain age, people I taught in high school in the late eighties.

It makes me think of Timothy Beatley’s contention that,

“A significant pathway to greater meaning in our lives and greater commitment to place is understanding and knowing the landscapes, creatures and people living here.” And this sobering quotation he includes by Terry Tempest Williams: “‘….if we don’t know the names of things, if we don’t know bighorn antelope, if we don’t know blacktail jackrabbit, if we don’t know sage, pinyon, juniper, then I think we are living a life without specificity, and then our lives become abstractions. Then we enter a place of true desolation.'” (Native to Nowhere: Sustaining Home and Community in a Global Age)

My students don’t know these things about the land or the town here. Until they were assigned to read our local newspaper a couple of weeks ago, it hadn’t occurred to them that we had poverty here or that dairy farms were suffering or that we still have a dairy in my village or that our county has a bevy of artisanal cheesemakers. Their lives are so tethered to campus and to home (and by that I mean their families). But not to the people and places of the town and county in which they will live for the next four years. And when they do finally get out there and take a look around, they are struck by the stories, by the rich complexity of the place.

This is the strange thing about a college town, especially in a rural place–how it’s very strength–the flooding into the area of new ideas and perspectives and cultures– can now in this age of instantaneous, continuous communication links to the world beyond the local, be at once something to embrace and something to be wary of. And it’s linked, I think, to something else I’m noticing about our students. They have a hard time telling stories. True stories that link their intellectual inquiry to their own lives. Why it matters to study history, philosophy, chemistry, geography–to them– What all those things have to do with the here and now. I’ve been working with seniors on essays for the Peace Corps, graduate schools, fellowships; I’ve been working with high school seniors on college essays, suggesting–tell your story in your own voice–what do you want people to know about you? How are you connected to things and people and places you hold important? They often look terrified. What should be the most natural thing in the world to do as an act of human communication–to tell stories–leaves them flustered, for they are out of the habit of it. It feels too risky.

Likewise, as Francine Prose points out in her new book, Reading As a Writer:

I liked my students , who were often so eager, bright, and enthusiastic that it took me years to notice how much trouble they had reading a fairly simple short story. Almost simultaneously I was struck by how little attention they had been taught to pay to the language, to the actual words and sentences that a writer had used. Instead, they had been encouraged to form strong, critical, and often negative opinions of geniuses who had been read with delight for centuries before they were born.” (p. 10)

And it reminds me of things I have been reading lately as I try to get my head around ways in which I can help my students and myself use the Web as a means of communication and expression to root themselves firmly to the local as well as to the global conversation the way Stephen Johnson is doing with Outside.in. HOw well are we doing this in our universities? And that is one reason I’m so looking forward to having Middlebury graduate Sarah Kramer of StoryCorps visit campus on Thursdaysarahkramer.jpgto tell the stories of helping people tell their stories of family and place. I want students to get to know their community so they will not become part of a world of lost connections, that hollow existence that Timothy Beatley describes:

Americans, it seems, work harder and longer, often to support increasingly higher levels of consumption and personal debt, in a kind of overwhelming spiral of stress and anxiety…
The hectic pace of American life reinforces stultifying uniformity in our communities…
With minimal civic involvement, little time or inclination to know one’s neighbors or one’s community, it is perhaps not surprising that there is considerable fear and anxiety about ‘others.’ Both a product of our current culture and considerable obstacle itself to strengthening place and community, this fear often keeps us apart. (p.19)

And so, as this semester ends, and I step out of the classroom for several months, I want to remind myself to think creatively about how and where online and offline meet, how one can complement and deepen the other for our students in residential colleges as they navigate the challenging waters of a 21st-century adulthood.
early morning fog