Moving Past Cynicism: Inspired by a Former Student

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

through the barn at sunset

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

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

cardinal in november

From Julia:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Students Still Read My Blog…and Think about the Role of Blogging

mildweedsilk

I’ve written a few times over the years about how my students actually like to read my blog, and that when former students look for me, they often first head to my blogs to check up on what I’m up to before shooting me an email or picking up the phone. One of my students is now on Twitter with me, though he uses it much less than does Shannon. It’s fascinating to share these spaces with students.

This current group, though, does not often comment on my posts; rather, they tell me at the beginning of class that they caught my latest post, and ask “how do you get to MASSMoCA from here,” or they stop me in the library or come to my office to talk it over. I think this is an interesting intersection of blogged-world and face-to-face world, how our conversations walk right off the screen and into class, into our conversations when we meet. I like that. But I also like it when they try to pull their thoughts together to frame a written response to something I’ve written–it signals a commitment to the conversation, an acknowledgment of being stirred by something. I want them to stop a minute, put fingers to text (or audio or image) to argue or agree, to extend my thinking either here or over on their own blogs when they’re interested. Indeed, over the years, some of the most thought-provoking comments have come from my students; for instance, look at how three students joined the conversation unfolding from an old post (I’m linking to the old bgblogging–still haven’t ironed out the missing links on this blog).
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I want them to drop by.

Sometimes they write posts out of the blue, though, that show me the merits of not pressuring students to respond, to be on the blogs, instead being patient as they discover for themselves why we’re blogging as part of the course. Indeed, one student, grappling openly with blogging, has just written a great post in which he answers his own question about the purpose of blogging . You can go read the full post over on his own blog, but I’m also going to excerpt almost all of it here, to weave his thoughts into the conversation over here as well. It’s a treasure:

“Returning to my blog after a brief break always seems to bring novel thoughts about the process of blogging my work and the more general idea of forming and participating in an online community. I am in a constant state of reflection as to how I feel about posting and creating online as opposed to in “the real world.” Practically I suppose it makes sense to use the tools we have available to us – in this case, blogging has been re-cast for me as a source for learning (through communication) to take place within the context of writing courses. And even as I find the blog useful in this context (and also an unexpected unleasher of new creative processes), I am struck by an unwillingness to fully dive into the process of blogging itself… I keep expecting for the “ah-hah!” moment to hit me as I read a comment or make another post (and I admit, there is a certain satisfaction in knowing that at least somebody else is reading my writing.) Yet there is also a state of personal uneasiness that strikes me as I type away in my text-box. In the same way I think Facebook is damaging my generation psycho-socially (have a discussion with me in person about the topic), I wonder if my blogging is somehow removing me from the creative process even farther. Sometimes I feel as though I end up spending hours in front of a screen – writing, e-mailing, blogging – and I can’t help but wonder what I would be doing with my work (and time and creativity) if there wasn’t a screen there for support. (?)

Perhaps I now should admit that even while writing this a miniature “ah-hah” moment has, indeed, occurred. This is what blogging is about. This piece of writing. Reflection and communication and sharing. I didn’t set out to write this piece, I felt compelled to say something about what I’m actually DOING here (eventually posting some work from break) before doing it. And if a whole group of people gets together and starts to use this space to form a sort-of “creative collective,” there might be the chance to grow and create more vividly in the real world from our collective experience in a virtual one.

When BG explained blogging to me in J-Term, I nodded my head in theoretical understanding – I certainly could intellectualize what going online with my writing was supposed to do for me. But it’s not until I have been with my blog for nearly 12 weeks that I have come to understand more deeply how I can use this tool in my creative life. This isn’t to say that I’m totally comfortable with it or that I’m going to be a super-blogger for the rest of my life (or that I think Facebook is creating thriving online communities) but it does point to a rediscovery of what it feels like to learn outside of a classroom setting and the different forms communities can take in our very (post)modern age.”

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This kind of post, this revelation put into words, is one reason why we need continuity and connection with and between and for our students beyond the walls and division of courses, semesters, disciplines. This is a reason for slowing into a practice of writing reflectively online, of connecting the way in ongoing hypertext reflections about their work, their thoughts, their lives, and in the occasional glimmer of a post like this, when a student, for no other reason than to sort things out for himself, reveals his learning, shows something of himself. But it takes time. And space. And for our students in this era, permission of sorts to share with us and one another the stumbling, the discoveries. Nice way to move into spring!

Free flow: watching & learning from my students

waiting for spring

While I’m sorting out my problems with archived posts’ broken links (argh), wrestling with upcoming talks, and complaining about Vermont’s never-ending winter, I thought it would do me and you good to move to a more positive outlook and point to some extraordinary work my students are doing with Web-based practices. 😉 (This is what I will miss next year.)

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Even though Alex has taken three classes with me, I cannot say that I have taught him much of anything. He’s just plain old inventive, daring, creative, talented and willing to find the rules for himself, for each experience, rather than conform to some static set delivered to him. As has been true with a long line of students, I’ve been learning a good deal from him, as are my current crop of creative writers, for they have the good fortune to have him as one of their senior writing tutors. He was blogging well before he met me, and has continued blogging, folding into his own brand of link-blogging his creative and reflective writing on all manner of topics, currently on Mongolia (where he spent last semester) and heavy metal. He receives comments from people all over the world who share his particular interests, as well as from former teachers, family members, classmates and friends. His is truly a dispersed, loosely-knit, ever-fluid network. He is also a truly amazing photographer and one of my favorite Flickr commenters and cohorts (just look at this image, for instance), and so I am glad, also, to point to his new photoblog.

Some of this output is connected to his coursework (the more formal pieces on Mongolia and metal are part of the independent study he’s doing with me right now) but most of it is not. There’s no place in our courses for this kind of expressive work (he’s had to resort to an independent study), and that’s sad. But he perseveres, and makes the connections between his courses, his interests and the world on his own, because he’s that kind of learner.

My intro-creative writers are also exploring online expression in interesting ways, using a range of tools and practices to find form and meaning, moving away the now-traditional CDS-style digital-story. A few examples: Lois moves her own paintings, music and video into her story. In a quick in-class exercise Kyle creates a Flickr poem, which changes the entire experience of engaging with the text. Clare makes a hypertext creative nonfiction using only image and sound and requiring the involvement of the viewer. All of these projects underscore the students’ understanding of a degree of reader choice and involvement in the writing of the piece. They are writing for more than themselves, actively immersing their reader into the making of the work. And none of them had ever done any of this kind of writing before.

When students have opportunities to find their own forms while contextualizing them within their own lives, their own means of solving the problems we set out for them in our assignments instead of having them adhere to well-oiled formulaic structures and expected outcomes of our disciplines, what might they teach us and themselves? What might they break through to in making connections? In his ELI talk last month, George Seimens quoted historian William Cronon: “More than anything else, being an educated person means being able to see connections so as to be able to make sense of the world and act within it in creative ways.” This, this is what my students are trying to do, and in spite of some hefty impediments in their path, in their hypertext reflections on writing creative nonfiction, they show that they get it. They are connecting, and learning to connect, and learning to make connections. I see it in how they see the importance of learning to read as a writer–from the inside–instead of as a scholar only–from the outside. They are trying to connect to their readers as well as to their subject matter, to themselves as well as to some abstract notion of academic excellence. And playing around in this connected medium really helps them to do just that.

How many teachers can say that a first stop on their online daily tour is their students’ blogs, not to check up on them, but to learn from them?

In Three Places at Once

taxidermy

These past few days I have found my head in three places at once: here in San Antonio at Educause’s ELI conference (an event that brings together a fantastic crew in person and through Twitter–see Jim Groom’s post about experiencing the event from afar), a ways up the road in Arlington, Texas where I will meet up with UTexas faculty and The Texas Bluebonnet Writing Project later this week, and back at Middlebury, where my students have been wrapping up J-term with me away, participating virtually through ongoing 100-word posts, reading their blog entries and emails. I found myself moving with ease between thoughts of and interactions with these three different worlds.

People have noticed me working on a 100-word posts as I wait for some session or another to get going. Some have asked, “You mean you don’t have posts stored up, ready to push out? You mean you actually write the 100-word entries right here, in the middle of this mayhem?” I say, yes, I do, and that it is a pleasure to pull away from the conference from time to time to spend moments with my class, in my class-on-the-blogs. My students know I am still reading along, commenting occasionally, reading always, posting my own entries about lighthouses, cranberries and squash. They know I’m right there with them.

Indeed, as I prepare to head to Arlington by reconnecting with the workshops and talk I’ve prepared, as I continue to talk with my fab four colleagues about our presentation on Fear 2.0 and the ensuing dialogue about how to overcome our panic, our unease, our mistrust, our FEAR, I also have been reading the narrative reflections my students posted today. I wish I could have shared these at our talk yesterday. Although not required to post their course reflections on blog, many students have–to our good fortune–for in these thoughtful revisitings of our course journey, these students have created a map for me as I try to find my way, creatively and critically as a teacher and learner. These reflections are long, but so well worth reading for they show how much can happen in even just a short time if we allow ourselves to embrace reciprocal apprenticeships and expect great things of our students and ourselves, and then help them explore this world of online communication and expression. I think that from now on, all I have to do, when people ask me what it is I am up to in my classes and why I think it works, is to point them at these reflections. This is what can happen. This is what should happen.

To give you a taste of what you’ll find in their reflections, here are just a couple of excerpts:

At the end of the first day of class, when Barbara asked if anyone wanted to leave. I almost raised my hand. Not out of disinterest to the course, but fear of failure. Failure of a bad a grade. Failure of embarrassment in front of my peers. Seeing what the rest of the class came up with in small exercises, I didn’t stand a chance. But something kept my hand down that day. An inner curiosity and fearlessness that I cannot explain. That little gremlin on my shoulder that told me to dare, has made all the difference four weeks later.

I had never thought of blogging before this class. So from what started as a requirement for the class became an addiction, and obsession. Before I checked Facebook every night, I would see if anyone’s 100 word piece hit home. I couldn’t wait for people to post comments in response to my blogs so I could start a conversation about the piece and hopefully something bigger. It’s changed the way I view writing. Abshek

And

I never realized how powerful blogging could be — so enriching and vast and stimulating. At the beginning of the course, I found myself spending all my time on other people’s blogs, reading what they had written and wishing I could write more like they did and be less like me. I only went on my blog to post whatever we had to post. I stressed over what template to use. Back then, that was what was most important.

But the days began to roll past. I realized that there was, actually, magic in my own blog. That maybe I could actually surprise myself and take risks. I raised my hand and read one of my pieces to the class one day. It was no masterpiece, but I finally started to have more faith, to look at my own writing more objectively, to know its flaws, but to also acknowledge it as mine. I learnt it was up to me, and the blog was the tool to make the most of my writing.

Blogging and workshopping also changed my way of reading. I read other blogs and pieces as a writer. I learnt from them. I commented on them. I talked to them personally about their writing. I didn’t limit myself to doing this in class or for class. It had become a way of life. My obsession with facebook has been replaced with the obsession for wordpress. This really took off with me. Annabelle

So, thanks, J-term Writing students, for the extraordinary month, for sharing your work with me, one another, and the world, and for daring to write better than you thought you could by being willing to face the fear of failure, throwing yourselves into the work, and to seeing the world with wonder. I count myself lucky indeed to have been a fellow adventurer, even when I am not in the classroom.

Slowing it Down as the Semester Speeds to a Close

“When someone is trying to make something that doesn’t exist yet, for which there is no clear template, it’s going to look unfamiliar, and it’s likely to arrive with struggle, uncertainty, and a quality of raggedness. What makes things feel polished or “finished” is very often their adherence to familiar codes. The new arrives with its edges less charted; it tends less ‘to click the lid of a well-made box’ than to jangle or vibrate or sigh. Or even to provoke or irritate, as it presents itself with opacity rather than transparency.” Mark Doty, Preface to Legitimate Dangers, American Poets of the New Century

We’re back, barely, and briefly, from Thanksgiving break, which marked the first trip home for many first-years.
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It’s a wild time now as students scramble to complete their work for the semester and try to get into spring classes. The first-years have had to watch our on-line registration system for days as the upper-level students preceded them in the course selection process. It has been agonizing. Every day the numbers in their favored choices have dwindled, and Friday morning, many were disappointed when at last, they were able to register. My phone has been ringing, my email box swelling. Students want to take creative writing and they can’t get into the class. My waitlist is longer than the class roster. And while I am delighted to see so many seeking creative spaces in their course line-up, I am dismayed that our institutions of higher learning place such little value on creativity-centered courses except for majors in the arts. If a student has 36 courses to take over the four years of college, how many of them are creative-intensive? And yet, what could be more important than building their ability to think and act creatively?

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It’s got me thinking–of Ken Robinson’s contention that schools are killing creativity, of Vera John Steiner’s examination of the role of collaboration in creativity (ah, here’s where schools could and should play a role, with our built-in arenas for collaboration), of Maxine Greene’s urging, of Dewey’s urging ( “Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of the imagination.” from The Quest for Certainty) and of James Paul Gee’s emphatic argument “that people learn best when their learning is part of a highly motivated engagement with social practices which they value.” (p. 77 Situated Language and Learning: A Critique of Traditional Schooling). Heck, it’s got me thinking about what many of my blogging buddies write about so often: our deep need for creativity, and the reality–a lack of creative spaces and practices in higher ed because, at least in part, these spaces invite uncertainty, risk, and Doty’s “raggedness.”

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Mostly, of course, it’s got me thinking of the journey of this course–nearly done– and how Mark Doty’s quotation about poets could describe this class. I think of how this group of students has come together to urge one another on, to encourage one another, to collaborate, to celebrate. Just as the course ends, they are oozing creativity, cracking open their voices and subject matter, messing around with the tools of twenty-first-century writers, as they engage with ideas, events and realities of our times, of their times. Their ongoing narrative reflections reveal that they are deeply immersed in Thomas Mann’s “serious play” of art and finding the deep rewards of creation: see Sarah’s inventive exploration of her thoughts on writing, for instance. They are confronting, too, what it means to be emerging adults, between childhood home and adult home, a reality they felt acutely upon going home for the first time last week, in posts such as Home? and the wry, moving Coming Home. This self-motivated slow-blogging (I’ve just told them to try it out, think about what they want to engage people in discussion about, without prescribing for them number or focus of posts) is pushing them to take responsibility for “what it is they believe and why they believe what they believe” (from yesterday’s lecture by former Harvard Dean, Harry Lewis, Excellence Without a Soul: Does Higher Education Have a Future?) They are loosening up, undoing the shackles of the grade-oriented grind, noodling around a bit, becoming increasingly playful, and open and THEMSELVES in posts such as Love is Monkey and Home: A Five-Paragraph Essay.

That so many students are lining up to take creative writing–and my section with its extra two-hour evening workshop to boot–tells me that we need to take our students’ creative development far more seriously than we do. The emails I have received from students trying to find a way into the course emphasize their need to explore their creative sides, as in this excerpt:

“This past semester, all of my writings in every class were analytical and dry. I found myself yearning for something more creative, something I could really attach and devote myself to.”

Indeed.

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In slowing down by moving more deeply into reflection, connection and creativity , my students have gotten in touch with parts of themselves that they haven’t seen in years while coming out of themselves to examine the world around them within the contact zones of the classroom community and of the provocative readings from John D’Agata’s The Next American Essay. Harry Lewis said something else in his talk along these lines that stayed with me: “Everybody should read books that keep them up at night.” Yes. And through reading one another’s thoughts about our reading and about life in general, we experience what de Certeau describes:

“the activity of reading has…all the characteristics of a silent production: the drift across the page, the metamorphosis of the text effected by the wandering eyes of the reader, the improvisation and expectation of meanings inferred from a few words, leaps over written spaces in an ephemeral dance…words become the outlet or product of silent histories. The readable text transforms itself into the memorable: Barthes reads Proust in Stendhal’s text; the reader reads the landscape of his childhood in the evening news. The thin film of writing becomes a movement of strata, a play of spaces…This mutation makes the text habitable, like a rented apartment…” (p. xxi The Practice of Everyday Life)

It’s got me thinking, too, about Laura’s recent post in which she wrestles with getting out of her comfort zone of genre and media:

“And although from a technical standpoint, I’m comfortable with video, audio and images, from an artistic standpoint, I feel like a complete dolt.”

And yet in the very pushing of herself into new creative directions, while vulnerable and terrified, perhaps, she finds herself energized, excited, “gung ho,” as I did when I made my foray into text-image storytelling this summer and every time I post a new photo. I have no training in photography, and all of my education tells me that I have no right to claim ownership of arenas outside those of trained expertise. And, yes, the results are pretty ragged but no less serious and revelatory for that.

This is what learning is about, this is what we need to be doing–not teaching undergraduates (most of whom will not go on to become academics, after all) to become ever narrower in viewpoint and expertise within silo-ed disciplines and arcane discourse modes, but to become expansive and worldly and deeply in touch with their creative and critical selves as they tackle the problems that face our world and articulate deep thinking clearly across disciplines. We need them to transcend disciplines, even. Look at this example of a “video poem” by a student working with a former student of mine on a Global Learning semester trip to Morocco. Wow…why aren’t these kinds of practices–as well as the traditional read-and-analyze practices– at the heart of our classrooms?

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We need more interdisciplinary creative courses in our higher education institutions, open to all students and not just majors. A little creative space goes a long way to bringing about meaningful reflection, action & interaction, “getting students to use their writing not just as a tool for making arguments, but also as a lens for exploring complexity and a vehicle for arriving at nuanced understandings of a lived reality that is inescapably characterized by ambiguities, shades of meaning, contradictions and gaps.” (Richard Miller, Writing At the End of the World, p.196-7)

And so on Monday, I will write more emails to those students seeking creative courses, urging them to let the school know how hard it is to be a science or social sciences major and get a place in a creative writing or other “creative” course, and how crucial it is to do just that. I’ll move into re-thinking my January term and spring semester courses with this in mind, too, and hope that I can continue to help students find contact with messy, vibrant, challenging spaces of creativity.

Blurred Boundaries: Some recent moments on blog and off

Hands Writing in Class

This is the most challenging course I have ever taught because I’m asking my students–right from their first days as undergraduates– in large part to unlearn how they have been taught to read, to write, to connect with the measure of their own work. (Of course I say that–I hope I can say that–every time I teach.) I am asking them to dare move beyond anything they have ever written–to reconnect with deep creativity as they put every word they write on trial for its life. It is one hard course. But man oh man, their writing is beginning to sing with voice and passion and urgency. They have something to say. Yes, their creative nonfiction essays are by no means finished or polished, but they represent something far more important than respectable college writing–they signal authentic attempts at communicating something they are trying to understand for themselves.

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And now they will explore multimedia creative nonfiction writing. I can’t wait to travel this part of the course with them and see how leaving language, or pushing language up against image and sound, will affect their text-based writing when they return to it at the end of the semester. I am sure they are apprehensive, excited and hopeful in almost equal measure.

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One interesting observation–We’ve wrestled over blogging, and they haven’t yet broken through to a place where blogging helps them develop voice and perspective and interest–in fact, they really haven’t been blogging much at all (they will try their hands at frequent blogging in the next unit). But the blogs have served an invaluable purpose of bringing them together to read one another’s work, to be inspired by it, and to find community with one another. They are one tight group. We’ll see what blogging itself does to their sense of writing, community and collaboration.

So yes, a hard course, but–at least for me–an intensely rewarding one.

I set out this morning, actually, to write a detailed blogpost about grading, a post that has been simmering for weeks, but I find myself so resenting the entire notion of grading and what it so often does to learning and growth, to learners taking risks and daring to go beyond the safe, known routes they’ve been treading for years upon years–
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–that the whole topic puts me into an ugly mood and makes me do anything but talk about it here. In fact it has kept me off blog for three weeks. Which is too bad. Both because being off blog as much as I have recently is bad for the flow of my blogging, and because I can deal with grades in my classes, having with my students transformed course grading into a collaborative process that works. So here’s a preview of that post:

Over the course of several in-class conversations, some looks at student writing and other people’s rubrics, the class pulls together a grading rubric for individual class projects and then the full course; each student carries on an ongoing narrative reflection of the course (posted to the blog), converses with workshop groups about the writing, grades him/herself on writing projects according to the rubrics (handed to me), and at the end of the course, proposes and defends a grade in a one-on-one conference with me, in which I have an equal say in the grade, as their outside evaluator. It works. Yes, it takes more time than conventional forms of grading, but the grades mean something quite valuable to the students at the end. And more importantly, the students gain real understanding of and take responsibility for their own writing journey.

riverflow

And so I am inching my way through a grading post in which I discuss the book The Theory and Practice of Grading Writing (eds. Frances Zak and Christopher C. Weaver) as well as link to the rubrics from my course. I will say for now that my class is making good progress creating a grading rubric for a specific writing project (next we move to creating a rubric for the entire course), and it has proven an excellent exercise for them to define and then weigh the elements of a writing project and how to describe the relative effectiveness of the finished results.

What has them rightfully perplexed and concerned and divided is the whole notion of progress, growth and risk-taking. Should they count in the grade at all? And if so, how? Indeed. Good questions.

gradingelements grading (from our recent class discussion)

How many times do we really grapple with these questions alongside our students, reading the course as contributors, learning–from the inside– about how we evaluate learning outcomes? How many teachers actually show and discuss models of student writing in their classes? Have the students hold up their own work alongside those models, learning to read their results within a continuum of scholars and writers engaging with these very questions–but at the level of first-year or senior rather than professional expert? Instead we often play games with our students, inadvertently perhaps, keeping them guessing as to what will be on exams and why, as to how we will read their papers, and as to why a teacher counts numbers of posts and assignments rather than looking at the depth of those entries, how they represent creative thinking and active collaboration? Students actually prefer teachers to do the grading. They like grades–they’re something measurable, something they understand—but then ask students what they measure exactly, why, and how fairly, and to what effect?

intheforest

Instead of requiring a certain number of posts, for example, I show my students exemplary comments and thoughtful posts and creative thinking in action. I show them how every writing situation has its own demands, its own forms and conventions and needs and opportunities and rewards–dependent in part on the writer’s background, personality, perspective, etc etc. Students want me to prescribe–this is how you do it. This is how many posts you need to make to get an “A”; this is how many sources you must include in your creative nonfiction essays, and so on. And I tell them that I have no idea–they are the only ones who know what they need to do to work with the elements of writing to make something sing, to make it grab us by the scruff of the neck and say, “Think about this….think about it deeply.”

Going to college is complex and complicated, but life outside these walls is ever so much more so. I aim to blur the boundaries, help them become comfortable and then excited about putting their own voices out into the world, and in entering contact zones, in active citizenship based on collaborating and communicating and doing rather than passively waiting for instructions or feeling powerless in the face of the world’s problems. Right now the students are bumping up against the challenges of writing in the world, in this world–how do they write authentically and yet respectfully, mindfully and yet boldly? How do they recognize and confront their own biases, their “little darlings” and retain a sense of humor? Ah, it’s not easy, but six weeks into it, we’re beginning, really beginning to break out into some work they want to stand for them well beyond any course, any semester, any teacher.

eveningdisplay

And that’s pretty exciting. And far far more meaningful than any grade will ever be.

Image Stories and Essays

My students have just completed image-only responses to Bill McKibben’s Wandering Home, a book chronicling his walk from his home in Ripton, Vermont to his other home across Lake Champlain in New York’s Adirondacks. Last week I asked the class to take their own photos, if possible, and assemble them as a response to something in the book, some point McKibben makes about Middlebury, that they felt they had something to say about. The process was, as I expected, fun, frustrating, challenging, and enlightening. I wanted them to think about the arc of an argument, about making a point moment by moment, element by element. I wanted them to think about visual arguments and about how images work, and about transitions and ordering and structure–all by playing around with between 5 and 15 images. I wanted them to start thinking about how they might use images when we turn to multimedia writing in a couple of weeks. And I wanted them to learn from one another. None of them had ever done anything quite like this before. Some of them are still struggling to get their results embedded on their blogs. Soon we’ll talk about ways to evaluate multimedia writing and so we have to start looking at more than text. (I have a post brewing all about the unfolding of our class-built grading rubrics, so more on assessment soon.)

I find these early attempts interesting as responses and revealing about how they are reading the book and how they work with images before we have discussed the grammar of an image in class. You are welcome to look at their stories on their blogs linked from the Motherblog.

In the spirit of learning alongside them, I took my camera out on a walk this weekend and then made my own little image story-essay (thanks to cogdog (Alan Levine) and his magnificent resource, 50 Ways to Tell a Web 2.0 Story, for the link to FlickrSlide):

FALLING RIVER