Beauty and Implausibility in This Thin Place*: Familyscape, Tendrils Out into the World and Talks

*Thin Place defined

“There is probably nothing more beautiful and implausible than the world, nothing that makes less sense, the gray bud of the willow, silky and soft, the silk-white throat of the cobra, the wish of nature or humans to subsume all living matter in fire and blood. I will hurt you, hurt you, hurt you, says the world, and then a meadow arches its back and golden pollen sprays forth.”
–from The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis (p. 12)

I’ve been absent here for some time, and my blogging fingers feel rusty. For the next weeks I will blog sporadically at best as my family pulls ever closer into the cocoon around my father; when I can I do a little work and hit the road for talks. This is not to say that I haven’t been scratching down ideas for next fall’s new course, or talks and workshops and chapters still ahead this spring; or reading in my restless, hungry way—for I have, and these moments, because they are slowed down and intensified, I believe, bring a kind of pleasure and clarity I haven’t experienced in a long time. Ah, the joys of a semester’s sabbatical and the wonders of deep participation in the dying process.

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One of the deepest pleasures has come in the shape of a book, a truly astonishing book. If you haven’t read Kathryn Davis’s new novel, The Thin Place, you are missing a most moving, original use of language, form and narrative—it’s one of the best novels about small-town life and most beautifully-written books I have read in a long time.

out the train window (Manchester - York, England) york minster

Another pleasure was my brief time in England, on the train, snapping pictures out of windows as I have been doing as of late, meandering around medieval York, Victorian Leeds, and then giving a talk at AoC Nilta 2007 where I met wonderful Nigel Paine and many great AoC Nilta folks and caught up with Scott Wilson for a few minutes before racing off to catch a plane to Milan. I’m not convinced that my talk hit the mark as well as I would have liked, but preparing it helped me push my thinking and it seems to have sparked some discussion; a question during Q & A about traditional speeches espousing new ways of doing things motivates me to get more creative as well as passionate, incorporating conversation and/or action.

Here’s the longer, written version of the talk, (the shorter, delivered version captured in audio on the AoC NILTA site), entitled “Blurring the Boundaries, Making It Real: Global & Local, Formal & Informal Learning Landscapes.”

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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

One Resolution: When I Return to the Classroom Next Fall…

“One’s ‘reality’ rather than being fixed and predefined, is a perpetual emergent, becoming increasingly multiplex, as more perspectives are taken, more texts are opened, more friendships are made.” Maxine Greene (quoted in Dawn M. Skorczewski’s Teaching One Moment At a Time, p.27)

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One of my (many) goals for my sabbatical is to rethink my teaching by looking at what I’ve been doing, by immersing myself in reading both in and outside education theory and practice, by exploring experiential and informal learning used in formal learning contexts, and by peeking into the classrooms and research of inspired teacher-scholars such as Spencer Schaffner and Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Jill Walker. I want to put pressure on the way I teach, on my contributions to every semester’s unfolding learning dynamic, on the way I design courses–the actual physical space I request for our class meetings, the frequency and duration of our face-to-face time, the blog as vehicle and receptacle of our time together outside of class, the one-on-one conferences, the balance between my selection of texts and assignments and student-directed/generated explorations and assignments, the rhythm of the semester’s unfolding and how much I really allow directions and opportunities to emerge from the learning moments themselves, the use of multimodal forms of expression. Does the interplay between Web spaces and physical spaces really help students to develop their creative and critical thinking, reading and expression skills? Am I helping them to think and read and communicate for their time by contextualizing the new literacies within the old and then letting the students explore together and on their own as much as is possible within the confines of a twelve-week semester? How does what we do in class relate to what students do outside, including their commitment to the pressing issues of our time, to community, to environment, to learning, to art?

My determination to put my teaching through rigorous self-review in part comes out of an ongoing conversation about the gap between what students do with communication and digital technologies outside the classroom and what we’re trying to get them to do inside traditional institutions, and how much that gap matters. I am bothered to no end by the fact that among the few places that really haven’t changed at all in the past century or more are our classrooms–even Time Magazine gets that (thanks for the link, Bryan). A hundred years ago classroom spaces, materials, attitudes, dynamics, experiences were as bad as they are now, privileging the privileged, not to mention deadening the creative spirit. Have I really found my way out of the factory-method of education, or am I just fooling myself?

Students tell me they value my classes, but sometimes I wonder if what they like is the attention I give them, the intensity of my commitment to every one of my students as individual learners, which involves ample one-on-one time. My privileged students may well take this kind of easy access to me for granted, coming as they increasingly do from highly scheduled backgrounds and the instant connection to their parents via their cellphones, as my colleague at Middlebury, Barbara Hofer, is researching with her students. My less privileged students blossom under the attentiveness, the connection to an adult mentor, but I wonder if I am too available, too present offline and on.

I am heartened, though, that people, including–at last–those within mainstream media, are asking some tough questions about our education spaces and traditions, and even more, by how pockets of teachers and students are quietly transforming formal education in their own schools and communities. Of particular note are programs started by teachers and parents who have had enough of wasted time in classrooms, and have found ways to get students out of their home environments not for the typical two-week class whirlwind tourist trip to Spain or Italy or Peru, but for a full semester or year, time enough to taste living in another culture. Take, for example, the following innovative teacher-initiated programs for teenagers– BOTH ORIGINATED OUTSIDE TRADITIONAL SCHOOLS :

travelingschool.jpg The Traveling School, started by teachers who left their traditional schools, is putting backpacks on groups of girls and sending them out on the trail for a semester to learn about the world and themselves (and yes, math and writing) by studying where they are in context and getting out to do community-service projects. vis.jpgAnd Vermont Intercultural Semester, with its innovative program that brings Vermont teens to Ladakh to learn side by side with Ladakhi teens. These programs know that to learn about the world you’ve got to get out into the world, and to get to know yourself and your home, you’ve got to leave home. Both programs are working hard to provide opportunities for all kinds of students–not just the privileged—to get out into the world. And in university? Is the traditional liberal arts tradition of studying abroad little more than the contemporary version of the continental tour of old? Or are our study abroad programs really challenging students to gain a broader world view by immersing students in target languages, having them live with host families, and sending them out on experiential kinds of programs such as Global Learning and SIT? How many colleges are offering the kinds of opportunities John Schott at Carleton has embarked on this semester?

And what about kids who stay at home in our classrooms? Not everyone can actually pick up and leave home. That’s where social software really shines, of course. Over the past five years we’ve seen remarkable uses of blogs, wikis, podcasting and gaming to foster classroom community, creative and critical thinking and expression skills within and across disciplines, and–to a lesser extent–building bridges to people and ideas out beyond our classroom walls, not just by visiting websites, but by participating in conversations, sharing work, and collaborating with others well beyond our own schools.

One of the most powerful and effective uses I’ve seen recently of blogs and online communities to integrate formal and informal learning is the brainchild and passion of the remarkable Geoff Gevalt, former Managaing Editor of The Burlington Free Press: The Young Writers Project.
ywp.jpg Teens from all over Vermont are taking to the site–ALL kinds of teens, not just motivated students– both prompted by teachers and finding their own way there, publishing their writing and connecting to one another through their writing and photography on a site that also involves adult writers and teachers. This kind of interactive site meant for both kids and teachers could well be a model for teaching and learning in the 21st century–check it out.

And so, I want to look closely at my students’ online and multimodal, multimedia work and highlight interesting, compelling uses of social software, multimedia narrative, and mash-ups to stretch students’ critical and creative skills, and see if I can transfer those individual inventions into models and inspirations for future students–and perhaps, more importantly, for other teachers. I also want to think about how throwing open the doors and windows of my classroom to the world can be done even better, even more powerfully, even more safely. I want to explore gaming, and ways to use cellphones (something I’ve been meaning to do since I read Howard Rheingold’s The Virtual Community and then Smart Mobs years ago, and Mimi Ito’s research and The Digital Youth Project coming out of Berkeley, USC and the MacArthur Foundation) to do Murmur-like projects and perhaps Museum of the People kinds of projects that would combine research out into the world with a pedagogy of the local. I want to think abut ways in which we can do some Outside.In or Placeblogger kinds of projects.

And I want to give my students lots and lots of room to bring in their own ways of communicating and creating– After all, what got me thinking about multimedia narrative as viable academic discourse was a student in the fall of 2001 who wanted to turn in a video as her final project, a video that included a voiceover narrative, cited scholarly evidence, images, and music– fortunately for me and the next five years of students in my classes, I said sure, why not, and her ground-breaking project introduced me to a whole new way of writing the academic essay. I’ve got a lot to learn from my students.

I want to learn, too, from Oliver Luker’s dispatx projects, seeing if there’s a way I can tweak their model of collaboration and bring it to my creative writing and arts writing classrooms. I want to learn from Remy’s experiments in travel writing for the 21st century. I want to return to the work of Michael Joyce and Roy Ascott and, of course, Maxine Greene, but also to go well off line to the work of young writers such as my old students, Stacie Cassarino and Stephanie Saldana, who are pushing boundaries of genre and form and discipline.

Gotta get to work–time is a-flying!

A Year Down the Road…the Edublogs Awards, Skyping with Students, And Some New Reading

Collin made a post a week or so ago in which instead of moving forward into new material, he circles back to posts from the past to think about how and if his thinking has changed in the interim. I often link to my past posts to weave the threads of connected stories (and to make my posts even longer–ha!), but I have never gone back to the same time a year past to see what I was thinking. And so when I heard that I had been nominated in two categories for an Edublog Award and felt even more surprised this time out than I had last year, I thought I’d go back to see what I had thought last December and what has happened since then. As many others have observed, the explosion of edublogging has brought new names to our shores, new insights, new energy. In the best individual blog category, last year I felt like an interloper in the big-ideas gang with Stephen, Will and Ulises my co-finalists for the best individual blog. This year, it’s a very different group indeed, diverse, with a couple of slow-bloggers, a couple of post-almost-every-day types and ANOTHER WOMAN in the mix! I am again honored to be a part of such an interesting and excellent group. And the other nominees for the most significant post, all making essential contributions to the ongoing conversation, are collaborative endeavors this time, which makes me feel a little lost, a little insignificant within this magnificent crew. I hardly know who to vote for among this extraordinary group.

field fog at dawnAnd so I plod along in my little thinking box here, reflecting on the changes in my teaching and learning, on what I experience in reading and conversation and writing. And I realize that my blogging quietly evolves post to post, little by little, sometimes circling back, sometimes treading water, sometimes moving forward. What has really changed for me in the last year, I realize, has not been how my own thinking has shifted or how fellow teachers have begun to experiment with blogging and new media or have shifted their sense of effective learning environments, but rather what my students have been doing to craft learning experiences that combine the experiential and the creative, the reflective and the active. And I have have so very little to do with their learning. The learning experiences my students are having seem, finally, to be headed towards Levy’s knowledge spaces or James Gee’s affinity spaces–explained in his wonderfully provocative and illuminating Situated Language and Learning: A critique of traditional schooling(which Jo McLeay blogged about a year ago) The twelve features of an affinity space:

“1. Common Endeavor, not race, class, gender, or disibility is primary
2. Newbies and masters and everyone else share common space
3. Some portals are strong generators
4. Content organization is transformed by interactional organization
5. Both intensive and extensive knowledge are encouraged
6. Both individual and distributed knowledge are encouraged
7. Dispersed knowledge is encouraged
8. Tacit knoweldge is encouraged and honored
9. There are many different forms and routes to participation
10. There are lots of different routes to status
11. Leadership is porous and leaders are resources” (pp. 85-87)

It is very difficult indeed to implement # 9 and #10 in a college classroom, but I’m trying, I’m trying. I am, though, seeing the power of cultural versus instructed processes of learning in my classes. Gee writes,

“In today’s schools many instructed processes, not least those connected to learning to read, involve practicing skills outside any contexts in which they are used by people who are adept at those skills (e.g. good readers). If this is how children had to learn to play a computer or video game–and, remember, these games are often very long and quite challenging–the games industry would go broke.”
….
“…as schools turn reading into an instructed process, today’s children see more and more powerful instances of cultural learning in their everyday lives in things like Pokemom and computer games. Modern high-tech society–thanks to its media, technology, and creative capitalists—gets better and better at creating powerful cultural learning processes. Schools do not.”

Moving away from instruction and thinking of our classroom as a community space and rather as an affinity space makes such sense to me right now because I’ve had to let go of even more of my power in the classroom (power dynamics when teachers evaluate student performance is a topic I’ll return to soon), even though I had thought I had already distributed the power pretty well. I have been rather preoccupied this semester with my father’s rapidly failing health, thinking about what it will mean to lose the person who, in addition to being a beloved parent, has so inspired my work by his example during his forty plus years teaching high school history. A remarkable teacher, my father would seem to disappear as the students took it upon themselves to sort out the motivations and meanings behind piles of primary source documents he would heap on the center of the Harkness table. He asked questions from time to time as a member of a team might. The first time I saw him teach, I understood classroom magic. I have been zooming back and forth across the spine of mountains and down towards the sea since this summer, now every week, splitting my time, almost, between the two places. My students have had to cope. And in the old system of college classrooms, that would have meant canceling class, or screening a film, or assigning an extra project. Without me there, there would be no class. Now it meant really letting the features of this learning environment–offline and on–unfold according to their own rhythms, not mine. Now it meant seeing if the blogs, as vehicles for conversation, for posting images and audio files as well as writing, would serve us no matter where any of us, including the teacher, might be. Now it meant seeing how fluid groupings and re-groupings of students worked as they sought help from each other on their final projects. Now it meant trying out Skype for the final evaluation conference. Online work was no longer what we did because it enhanced or facilitated what we already did pretty well offline or because we knew we had to integrate new, emerging literacies with the old, but because we had to–we had no choice. Because I give no grades (all assessment and evaluation is done collaboratively by the students and me in conferences, but mostly by the students), ongoing reflection, self-assessment, and conversation about progress and outcomes are essential–and in the past conducted in written narratives by the students and by me, and in face-to-face conferences. bgelee.jpg
(Photo by my great blogging colleague, MEB.
Yesterday, because I had to leave town so quickly to race to my parents’ for what might have been the last time, I had one of our fabulous IT guys set up a laptop in my office with Skype–video and all (not all of the students have used Skype before now). We’d do the conferences online, but talking.

And because in my haste I forgot the toggle for my iSight (I have an older model Powerbook), we had to dispense with visuals altogether. I thought it would be disastrous not to see my students, not to read their body language and their facial expressions, not to be able to look them in the eye when we talked about their final grade. But in a way, it worked even better than the regular conference precisely because everything disappeared but our words. And the students heard when their words did not convey their intention, when they were vague or hadn’t yet thought our their point. All we had were the words in our ears coming from our computers. And all I could hear was the confidence, the sense of ownership these young men and women now have in their writing, in their learning. They have all mentioned the power of collaboration, of reaching out to one another for feedback, for expertise, for the enjoyment of sharing. They know how to ask probing questions of their books, their cohorts, themselves. It has been a great lesson for me.

And some of them, some of them might just go on to do the kind of independent, boldly creative and innovative senior work that Remy of remstravels has done with his interactive multimedia installation, both online and in situ, of new forms of travel writing. Remy is, by the way, up for the best undergraduate award this year, so go check out his work–he represents the new student in a traditional school–taking chances, making his education his own, and doing inspiring work in the process. It’s been quite a year!

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

Slow Blogging: Context, Transitions and Traditions (Back from Illinois, Part Two: Setting Up The Classroom Community)

Lately I have been off blog much more than on, posting a few times a month, not a week, while reading with pleasure and a bit of wonderment about the whirlwind travels and explorations of Bryan, Stephen, Nancy and many others on my Bloglines feeds. At times I’ve thought perhaps I should blog more often–I certainly have many entries swirling about in my head, and I’ve got to post some recent talks–but quick posts just don’t do it for me as a thinker, as a writer.

It was reading Martin Heidegger’s “Discourse on Thinking” this weekend, in which he writes about “calculative thinking” versus “meditative thinking,” and then wandering over to a student blog post about this year’s Slow Food Conference that made me want to call what I do slow-blogging or meditative blogging. At least that’s what I’d like to work towards. It takes time for the many loose strands of thought to converge into a unified post; it takes a lot of effort, a lot of energy, and a lot ( I know, I know sometimes too much) writing. And some posts never quite find their footing; they remain awkward and tangled when I don’t have enough time or courage or energy or ability to go deep.

And since this kind of reflective practice–both a return to thinker-to-thinker letter-writing and a move forward into hypertext and multimedia expression– is what I ask my students to do as a way to develop their creative and critical thinking and writing skills, it’s what I need to do, too. If I’m asking students who sign up to participate in the Blogging the World project to see blogging as a way to ground their experience, to think about it and to enhance it, then I’ve got to do that, too. So, yes, I come down on the side of teachers-who-use-blogs-in-the classrooms-better-use-them-in-their-own-work. And I make sure that the pedagogical underpinnings of my courses are transparent and discussed in class.

In other words, I try to look back as much as forward, to dig deep into the books that call to me from my bookshelves as I think about my teaching and my learning with social software and without. I think about my teachers as much as about my students. I try to stay aware of the context from which this blogging practice springs, and I try to consider the transitional spaces between old practices and new, old literacies and new, old treasures and new. And so right now, right next to this computer sits a bag of books I’ve been carting around with me for the past few days: the Heidegger; Pahl and Rowsell’s Travel Notes from the New Literacy Studies; Paul Muldoon’s new collection of poems, Horse Latitudes; Yehuda Amichai’s last collection of poems, Open Closed Open, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer— such wonderful books all of them. Sometime, somehow, I’ll figure out why this particular group of books happens to slide off the shelves and into my bag at the same time.

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Maybe it is November and the onset of hibernation that put me into a period of absorption, of feeling my way between past and present, but I find myself in an oddly balanced place these days. Or maybe it’s because I have children emerging from adolescence and parents moving into old age, and next year I will celebrate one of the BIG birthdays that I feel perched between the disequilibrium of life’s big moments. I want it all–the physical world and the virtual, books and blogs, old ways of communicating and new. I want them all in my classroom. I want the physical classroom, where we sit around big tables together to wrestle with ideas and processes, and I want them augmented by other kinds of “tables” of the virtual sort at which we can come and go at will, learning from experts we discover as we wander. I don’t want to get rid of schools, just to change them. I want to walk through the halls with people, to talk with them in person, to sit around a table day after day after day with the same group in extended inquiry–in slow learning. I want access to the wisdom of someone who has devoted a lifetime to the study, to the processes of thinking in my field.

Visiting last week with graduate students in writing at the University of Illinois was not only a pleasure but an inspiration– to witness how much they enjoyed and felt stimulated and engaged by one another and their program and the place. They feel the dynamic bonds of community. I want my students to feel those ties to an intellectual, physical-based community. Take my mother’s three-year-old-and-going-strong poetry group: every Saturday some dozen residents of her retirement community meet for a couple of hours to read, study, and talk about poems. There’s a kind of special language they’ve developed, a trust and a willingness to speak openly and fiercely about what they read because they’re looking each other in the eye. There’s the caring for one another as neighbors and friends that goes beyond a simple intellectual engagement. I did a guest workshop for them several months ago and came away inspired by their intensity and warmth and commitment and intelligence, collective intelligence. I want that for my classes of twenty-year-olds.

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OPENING THE SEMESTER

So, what am I saying here? I guess I’m moving more and more to ways in which blogging and tagging and image-sharing and digital storytelling enhance the here-and-now, the communities in which we live and work, and in this particular case, the classes we teach. And to do that, it is essential to spend time at the opening of the semester talking about who we are, what we each bring to the learning adventure, why we’re in this class, and what we hope to get out of it. We talk about building a blueprint together based on our goals and available materials, and then think about how we actually build the course experience together and alone.

But first, I have to think about how the various means of expression might have an impact on the learning and on the community. How and why will we use social software? Will we venture further into online work than blogs? Why blogs at all? Will we really blog or use the blog structure as a vessel to hold traditional assignments? Why, for example, would we blog in a course on Ireland? How might hypertext and digital storytelling enhance the experience? How might we use audio as a tool for expression and for revising and for exploring ideas? Cameras? Images we take, images we find? How might we want to connect with experts out in the world–would we invite them to participate in blogging-invitationals? Would we want them to respond to our work? What is the role of loose dialogue and conversation, of let’s-talk-about-any-thoughts-we-have in the course? Do we want to link to our work in other courses? To our other online worlds? How do we also work in traditional modes? How do they intersect and influence one another? How much time can be devoted to learning how to use the tools, how to become comfortable with the practices? How much time do we devote to meta-practices, to reading and talking about what we’re doing online? How can we capitalize on the fact that we have the luxury of being together in class twice a week–do we devote that time to presentations, to discussion, to lecture, to feedback, to projects?

These are just some of the questions I have to ask before I pull up even the most basic course blog. Based on my answers, the course blog begins to take shape, each course demanding its own look and structure–

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The Irish seminar blog really focuses on collaboration and so has more of a group-blog feel to it than others; one of our goals is to think about how our community of mutual apprenticeships works–how to be engaged in a liberal arts college.

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A composition class balances between group and individual work, and so the unit plans are posted as we go, as we develop as thinkers and writers and see what next we need to learn and to practice.

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An arts writing class takes on a ‘zine-like, real-world look with multiple columns and choices as to what is posted where and why.

THE FIRST TWO-THREE WEEKS

We spend two-three weeks moving into the course material by examining our own voices, our learning goals and community, the demands of the discipline, and what it is we need to do and to learn in order for the course to “be a success.” I call this first part of the course Cracking Open the Course and the Imagination, in my creative writing classes; “Exploring the Course” in composition classes, something we do pre-blogging; Knowledge Trees in a first-year seminar on Ireland (the first part of this exploration is done online before the students even set foot on Middlebury’s campus).

I use a variety of techniques to examine the ways in which we’ll each enter this collaborative: personal narratives about our individual cultural contexts and learning histories, including digital storytelling, image-stories exploring personal relationships with the course content, and a deep-learning exercise.

In class we talk about how to participate in discussions and feedback-loops, how to help design the course, how to make it work for us as individuals. We talk about about collaboratives and about the purpose of a liberal arts education and how our course intersects with those goals. We talk about trust. About making mistakes. Asking dumb questions. Daring to ask dumb questions. About playful inquiry. We try to place our semester within a much bigger picture of our life journeys. We reflect on our blogs, we push one another to grow as learners and writers, we push ourselves. We might read Levy. Or Greene. Or Dewey and Wenger. We read each other. We always read each other. And we read deeply in our discipline.

Blogging enhances the undergraduate course experience, I believe, when we spend time laying a careful foundation for our work online and in class, thinking and talking about how and why connecting this way plays a fundamental role during the precious brief twelve weeks we have together. Because we rarely make our pedagogy visible, students are far too accustomed to going through the motions, to taking our word for it that our assignments have value, to completing work without thinking about how it fits into their lives. I can see the difference in the depth and authenticity of student work when I have taken the time to talk about the value of slow blogging, of slow learning compared to when I’ve been all in a rush to get to the facts and processes of the discipline, when I’ve thrown us into the course content without grounding it. Students who have come out of the slow-blogging classes have gone on to do some quite extraordinary, independent work–such as Lizi and Remy and Piya, work that transcends formal learning as they stand on the cusp of senior year, balanced between their school-years and their post-school lives. Just yesterday at a workshop for students thinking about blogging next semester from abroad, four seniors who had blogged their junior year experience abroad spoke eloquently about the benefits of slow-blogging, how it really helped them to make sense of and to deepen their experiences by taking the time to articulate their learning carefully, in writing and image and sometimes sound.

And so, I’ll keep trying to practice slow-blogging here and in my classes, while appreciating, too, the benefits to me of the quick post that my many blogging colleagues do so well and so often! It is the slow blogging, though, that I think our students need to practice with us, for they quite naturally know how to frame a quick post, pointing to what they’ve observed and commenting about it in passing.

Flying into Fall: Productive Anxiety* and Creative Tensions

finneyleaping eveningflyers

The beginning of every school year takes me by surprise–I am invariably charmed by my new students one by one as I hear their stories of home and culture, and connect with their learning journey, and welcome them to our classroom community–but I am also reminded of the previous semester and the learning collectives that grew into examples of Pierre Levy’s collective intelligence, each class distinct in character, in attitude, in outcomes; each semester teaching me something new about how to teach with and without computers; each new online learning experience sending me back into learning theory and media theory and current takes on composition theory so as to ground the work, to question what I am doing, and to assess it. I miss the old semester; I delight in the new. And so it goes.

blurringoftheleaves fall woodpile

And now, a month into the semester, I feel the many tensions a teacher feels just about now if she believes in problem-posing, student-centered learning helped along by social software and digital media:

This class is not like any other I have ever taught.

I have to learn how to teach all over again.

What worked last time out might not work now.

I have to help my students survive in this academic culture while trying to bring about change, and sometimes that means that even in an institution that affords me incredible freedoms as a teacher and encouragement in my explorations, I have to teach forms and approaches rarely used outside the halls of the Academy–why do we, in our undergraduate institutions, insist on preparing all of our students for careers as old-school academics?

I try to remember that, as Stephen Downes put it in the wrap-up to the UK edublogging conference this past June, “To teach: be the person you want your students to become.”

For me that means being alert and responsive to the needs of students, helping them light their own fires of learning. That means staying up with developments in my field. That means playing around with digital media in my own work. That means spending the first two weeks of every semester exploring our educational and cultural backgrounds, our individual goals, ourselves as learners, our roles within the collective. We look hard at our deep learning experiences inside and out of classrooms; then we write personal narrative essays out of those experiences, connecting as we do to the larger conversation about learning. I design assignments and experiences for the collective which the group shapes and revises as they get accustomed to having a real hand in the course design. We read one another’s work and get excited (hopefully) about what it could mean to be a part of this learning collective.

And that means that some of the things that I take for granted, that I have prepared for and with the students, need to be shifted, tweaked, or thrown out altogether.

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Blogging, for instance, doesn’t always work out quite as I envision. Or at least, some groups take to it, others do not–at least the kind of blogging that asks for conversation, for deep connecting with the material and one another in lively intellectual interaction. Sometimes a group will want to talk in class but work as solo artists on their own blogs. Other groups–and these are usually the ones who are taking my courses because they have announced themselves as writers–can’t wait to talk to each other through blogging–through this kind of exchange. Because I teach a range of courses, this seems absolutely right to me. The flexibility of the online tools allows us to configure and pool them according to the emergent practices, goals, and chemistry of a learning collective. Sometimes we’ll work more in audio, other times in image…sometimes we’ll write the long solo post, sometimes shorter, conversational bits. It’s impossible to predict exactly what we’ll do until we’re doing it. So my class blogs look and feel quite different one from another. And I find it much easier to describe to people what we’ve done than what we’ll do.

I also get asked about reluctant bloggers, how to “motivate” them. I don’t. It’s up to me to show students how these things work and why–I make the pedagogy transparent, exposing them to learning theory and composition theory and new media theory–to get the intellectual juices flowing and the collective engagement moving, to give them a chance to practice some approaches that can feel antithetical to what their expectations about what the college classroom would be like.

But I can’t make them like it or even do it. That’s their responsibility. Their commitment to make. Yes, I want all my students to have this experience connecting with one another, with themselves, and with the world through social software–but they don’t all have to take to this kind of interaction at all. As long as they gain skill in the use of this medium for this kind of deep learning, they can choose to use it or not as they see fit in the future. I’ve learned not to be disappointed when any one group doesn’t really take to blogging. And so far, this group of first-years are moving into blogging versus posting drafts and assignments to blogs, quite slowly. They love being connected to one another; they crave the feedback, but it takes longer for them to see conversation-in-writing as part of thinking-and-learning.

And so that pushed me last week into getting more creative and to put pressure on my reasons for using blogging with this group. I came up with an exercise in collective intelligence ( a bit like Open Space work with lots of stickies and newsprint stuck to the walls) to demonstrate the power of conversation to find, grow and complicate ideas through connecting, questioning, and finding relationships between their thinking and that of others. They were floored by the difference between the ideas they had come up with on their own the night before and what happened to those ideas once pushed up against those of their peers–they had to clarify, build, and defend their stances. We talked about how doing the same kind of collective, connected work online while they were wrestling with reading and writing could help them deepen and contextualize their ideas, and in turn to get pretty darn excited about what and how they were learning. We’ll see over the next few weeks what this blogging-as-conversation experience will do for them as learners across disciplines and media and how it will help them as writers in traditional modes.

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Meanwhile, last spring’s creative writing class, an avid blogging group during the semester, is finding their way back to one another, to their own blogs and to the group blog. They miss the collective. It’s interesting that when they are away over the summer, they are too busy to blog, but when they are together, back on campus, they want that kind of deep, connected interaction.

And the Blogging the World group is up and running from Cairo, Damascus, Paris, London, Florence. One student now in Cuba, who blogged in class but is NOT from his semester abroad, explained to me, when I commented that his email missives were so compelling that I wished he had a blog so that more people could read about his experiences, that he wants to make sure that people do read him–and so he likes to flood email boxes instead of leaving it up to his readers–the ones he values– to find him on the blogs. These are readers unlikely to use RSS or bookmarks. Interesting. He’s afraid they’ll forget him (out of email box, out of mind…) And because we have filters here that do not allow the email pinging with blogposts, he makes an interesting point.

A few returnees from study abroad are missing the blogging but finding it more difficult to blog reflectively (outside the parameters of any course) about learning here (too self-indulgent, one blogger told me–too isolating, said another, if others aren’t doing it as well, which of course goes to the social part of the software). All this pulls at something I’ve been thinking about (and will lead to a fuller blog entry eventually) about how people don’t read far back into the blogs, or at least my blog–and when I feel I’m repeating myself, others respond as though I’ve covered some brand new ground. Maybe it’s time for a wiki for some of the old posts, pulling them together into something better organized and tagged–something people will find useful….These posts here are about the moment for readers if not for me so much. It’s only when they move back over to their own blogs and pull apart something I’ve said, connecting it to their own growing web of thinking that it becomes anything more than of the moment. The undulations of blogposts across the edublogosphere. Fascinating.

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These are productive anxieties indeed.

*I was much taken by the way Edward Ayers uses the term, Productive Anxiety, to describe how his students feel in his classes where they write narrative histories they should imagine were written for the cellphone.