Dear Charles…

You’ve taken me to task. Rightfully so.

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

Barbara,

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

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

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

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

seven

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

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

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

bg and students in the classroom, a typical day

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

Listening: International Day of Sharing Life Stories

Listening more than sharing. Exploring the periphery. Trying to stay out there at my shifting, or, what Seth Godin calls stretching, edges. Listening creatively. I’m celebrating the International Day of Sharing Life Stories.

loose ends

In the slim wedges between work trips, I gather stories. Pulling in nets filled with gleaming, writhing flotsam. With my camera, with my pen, (and now, thanks to Nancy White) with my pastels. Mostly half-glimpses of things that do not fully reveal themselves. Learning to have patience, to fill sketchbooks and journals and draft spaces on-blog. Not to speak out of boredom or dismay or monotoned criticism, but to wait for the nuances, the shades, the deeper insights. To listen.

at the farmers market

To stories of the land: spring wildlife stories of the comings of migrants, nestings, returns from burrows deep underground, wildflower blooms and garden volunteers reseeding themselves according to their whim, not mine. Deaths among the iris. The dopey robin who in spite of Bee and my best efforts did build a nest on the drainpipe just above the grill. Stories that are sharply different this year without Finn. To learn to listen without him.

checking out the dandelion

To stories witnessed from my new bike. I wrote recently about how Flickr’s 365 Photo Group has changed the way I that I take notice of the world. My bike has done the same–I see the small shifts of the season, and details of the landscape I never noticed before in all the many years of living around here. Stories of the nose. Of air against skin. Listening with the whole self.

Stories of deep learning: the adventure of starting a nonprofit: weaving together a brilliant hodge-podge of multi-colored, multi-textured threads and being okay if sometimes they clash, they break, they knot or fray or need distance to see the patterns. Of learning to tell a website story, not a slow-blogging one. Of learning to work in the rich tumble of local rural community instead of the rich security of a college classroom. Of learning to forge partnerships, to listen carefully and constructively and authentically.

Vermont schoolhouse

Stories of other people’s journeys. In story circles in small towns. In my writing group. On blogs, like Jen’s and Beth’s and Dawoud’s, who try to write/think/connnect better than they did the day before, and always always stay true to self. In galleries, online and off, confronted by Picasso’s aim “to give [us] an image of [ourselves] whose elements are collected from among the usual way of seeing things in traditional painting and then reassembled in a fashion that is unexpected and disturbing enough to make it impossible for [us] to escape the questions it raises.” More listening. And looking and, hopefully, seeing. Robert Pogue Harrison writes in Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, “…nothing is less cultivated these days in Western societies than the art of seeing. It is fair to say that there exists in our era a tragic discrepancy between the staggering richness of the visible world and the extreme poverty of our capacity to perceive it.” (p.114) Balancing on the razor edge of seeing.

Recently, with my Flipvideo, to prep for June talks, I’ve been asking all kinds of people to tell me stories, about “memorable moments from school.” Next, I think I’ll venture into Ear to the Ground-type stories –or having people tell me stories of sounds. Memories of sounds. Smells. Movement. I used to do lots of stories-without-words exercises with my students as a way for them to make language strange and wonderful again, and to encourage them to listen as well as to speak. Breaking away, for a moment or two, from the expected, the safe, the rut of routine that beguile us with comfort and belonging.

Life stories. Live stories. Living stories. Here’s an assortment of stories from and about Digital Explorations if you’re interested (note the brilliant widget Alex created for our gallery)–I’ll leave you with this story, Disturbing the Universe, about life and lives and learning:

You’ve Always Wanted to Visit Vermont…

the middle field before mowing

I’m not blogging as much these days, but I sure am busy, and online. I’m also on my bike–post coming soon about that.

You’ll find me on delicious, Twitter, Flickr and, most of all, improving our new website and planning our summer workshops. Let me persuade you to venture up (down?) this way, explore the lovely countryside of Vermont, and join us for one of our creative workshops.

From the website:

Over the course of the year, we offer a sampling of our innovative, experiential workshops, here in our Vermont barn, ranging from three to five days. We bring together community activists and organizers, teachers, nonprofit staff and anyone interested in weaving the rich promise of storytelling and social media into the fabric of their lives, their work, their art. Be inspired by our surroundings and our creative exercises and expertise. We are committed to tailoring our workshops to meet the needs and interests of the participants.

We hope you’ll join us!

2009 Summer/Fall Offerings

Connections, Conversation and Creativity: A Social & Expressive Media Workshop
July 8 – 10

How do we harness the connective and creative potential of online practices in our communities? How do we move beyond simple information sharing to fostering creativity and sustained collaboration? In three days of discussion and hands-on activities, we cover a range of social and expressive media practices to enhance communication and collaboration, to foster creative culture, and to engage our communities actively in our work. Limited to 10

Storytelling in Our Communities
July 30 – August 1
October 1 -3

In this workshop, we explore storytelling in community-based efforts. We help participants design storytelling projects for civic engagement and participation, using a range of old and new media to enhance bonds and build bridges across community while creating a vision for the future. We cover traditional and digital storytelling methods in an experiential, fun-filled three days. Limited to 10

The Whole Story: Deep Creativity and Balance
August 6 – 8
September 17 – 19

During three days of storytelling, movement and meditation, we will deepen our practice as artists, activists and citizens. Learn to listen deeply and actively, to share stories, and to incorporate the serious play of creativity into your life. Led by Barbara Ganley and Cynthia Fuller-Kling (yoga teacher and artist extraordinaire)

Workshop Leaders:

Barbara Ganley, Director and Founder of Digital Explorations. Known for her energy, her creative exercises, and her deep knowledge in the field, Barbara brings over twenty years of teaching writing and creative thinking, and eight years working in the worlds of social media and digital storytelling to our workshops. Read more about her on our About Us page.

Remy Mansfield, Storytelling Fellow. Remy brings his great skill in digital storytelling, in designing and leading storytelling workshops for youth, and his gifts as a photographer to the workshop setting. Read more about him here.

Cynthia Fuller-Kling. Cynthia joins us for The Whole Story workshops this year. A former modern dancer, she has been a noted yoga teacher for twenty years and artist who draws upon movement, photography, video and language in her installations and performances.

Daily Schedule for All Workshops:
9:00 -noon Morning session
noon-1:00 Lunch
1:00 – 4:00 p.m. Afternoon Session

Location:
Tucked away at the end of a long dirt driveway, and yet just two miles from the center of Middlebury, Vermont, you’ll find our barn studio, fields and patios set in glorious surroundings with pastoral views reaching to both the Green Mountains and the Adirondacks.
Workshops meet in the barn studio and porch, and, as weather permits, out on the nearly 70 acres around us. At the end of the day, you’ll have time to explore the countryside (lakes, mountains, villages) by foot, bike or car.

Lodging & Meals: For overnight accommodation, many charming inns and bed & breakfasts dot the area. Contact us for recommendations. As a college town, Middlebury has an array of dining options. We will cook and eat together the first evening; Digital Explorations will provide local-ingredient based lunches.

Costs: $400 per three-day workshop includes all instruction and materials, three lunches and one dinner. Lodging not included.

Take a peek at our setting through this Flickr slide show

For more information:
Email: Barbara@digitalexploration.org
Phone: 802 989 1885

Well, what are you waiting for?!

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

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

picture-22

From the website:

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

In Honor of Ada Lovelace Day

very early spring near sundown

A post in honor of Ada Lovelace Day

What a strange thing to say: Until about ten years ago, I was not deeply influenced by women outside of my family or books. My mother and grandmother inspired me to pursue dreams no matter the obstacle: my grandmother because of her will and independence and role as unofficial doctor for her town (she never made it past high school), my mother for her affair with creativity (“Every day unfolds as a work of art,” she would say) and with women’s and civil rights as a state legislator in NH when women and Democrats were rare sights. My sisters-in-law (all three of them–filmmaker-activist, educator, and MD-epidemiologist) for their work at the margins. My daughters for just about everything these remarkable young women do. Otherwise, it was the women in and of books to whom I turned. My grade-school and middle-school teachers were largely a nice lot of friendly female faces–then I entered a nearly all-male bastion of a prep school and college that just went coed. I had three female teachers during those eight years. Three. And none in graduate school.

Perhaps this explains my particular fierceness. My rejection of schools as they are now.

Perhaps this explains my delight in being inspired by women.

skyballet

Especially in technology.

So so many have taught me how to think, how to explore, how to listen, including those from whom I have learned from afar: including Jill Walker Rettberg, Mimi Ito, Elizabeth Daley, danah boyd –and those I have had the pleasure of working with: my fearless cohorts Barbara Sawhill, Laura Blankenship, Leslie Madsen-Brooks and Martha Burtis for their brilliance across many fields, their deep humanity, their perseverance in a world that does not always see what they see, and their willingness to take me on when they think I’ve gone too far; Jennifer Jones for her great good sense, her ability to go straight to the heart of things, and her willingness to share her deep know-how in technology, in parenting and now in fiction-writing; Beth Kanter for her tireless pursuit of knowledge and ways for nonprofits to improve their services through social media. And there are many more: Josie Fraser, Sarah Lohnes…I could go on…for many pages.

How different this world is from the one I grew up in.

focus

Then there is Nancy White, that woman-in-technology-whirlwind who has taught me more than I can say, and not just about technology. About how to be in the world. Just watching her in a room filled with people is a lesson in teaching, is an adventure in thinking deeply about the ways in which technology intersects with our lives–its influence, its promise, its perils. And that she does all this outside of school is truly inspiring–her gifts reach anyone who wishes to venture onto her blog or wiki, or who has a chance to meet her or see her present, lead a workshop or facilitate graphically. No institution hoards her lessons. Learning from her blog, her wikis, her presentations, her emails about how to think about technology in our time, in our world, in our own lives has pushed me out of easy answers. She takes risks, willing to tweak and to experiment–but she does so from a careful foundation, a plan, always thinking about the outcome for the audience, the viewer, the reader of her blog.

Her work in online facilitation–in using a full range of social media tools mixed with expressive media (she understands the importance of the visual as few do) is extraordinary. And like my fearless friends, she calls me on my shortsightedness, my glibness, my over-the-top passion, my impatience, my lack of understanding. She also makes me lighten up and laugh–to enjoy the moment even when I face complete chaos, disaster and failure. I love her sharp intelligence, her ability to see the big picture, to synthesize and theorize, to be both practical and dreamy, to laugh wildly and embrace silliness, to dance and to draw, to shower everyone around her in warmth, to love chocolate, to be herself in a world that can be not-so-nice.

Hats off to all my mentors in this field who to the last one reach out, share, speak out and do not fall for their own reflection. Thank you thank you for all you bring to the world, to the field, to me.

echo

Getting Ready for SXSW: Thinking Aloud

disappearing act

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

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

from inside the barn

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

winter dream

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

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

marvel of nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

into the snowy curve

Betwitx and Between: Reflections on Northern Voice 2009

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

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

morning figments

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

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

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

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

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

into the morning

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

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

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

not even spring

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

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

To quote the Reverend:

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

And then Chris :

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

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

wintergrip

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

Flickr, I blame you…

Dear Flickr,

It’s all your fault. I didn’t grow up taking pictures. One brother kept a brownie strapped around his neck on our trips, snapping away at who knew what (I don’t remember his photos or if he ever shared them, but I do remember his flash going off in my face…); my mother had a Minolta that she and my other brother commanded, he growing into a photographer of elegant moody abstractions, she capturing the family in all its boisterous moments. My dad and I just looked. And I jotted things down in a notebook.

last sunset in january

Okay, yeah, I majored in art history. That choice had as much to do with it being the only major in my college in those days that pushed students to look at culture from a variety of perspectives: history, literature, religion, science, political science, anthropology. That I loved looking at pictures never struck me as anything special–it was a way to see how artists saw the world, and artists saw the world. (Besides, looking at slides in class and hanging out in museums as homework sure beat listening to famous teachers drone on in lecture and reading indecipherable textbooks or having beloved novels and poems shredded by this theory or that.)

from window to window, Wiscassett Maine

So why do I find myself as drawn to my camera as to my pen? It’s you Flickr, it’s you.

Interested as I am in transformation and transition, in creativity and culture, I wonder about this shift. Am I an example of the fact that “our historical moment is experiencing a pictorial turn” ? (W.T.J. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation, p.13) Evidence of Michel de Certeau’s assertion: “From TV to newspapers, from advertising to all sorts of mercantile epiphanies, our society is characterized by a cancerous growth of vision, measuring everything by its ability to show or be shown and transmuting communication into a visual journey” ? (The Practice of Everyday Life, p.xxi) Am I incapable of paying more attention to something than the seconds focussed before snapping the photo? Am I using images because “they are no longer just representations or interpreters of human actions[?] They have become central to every activity that connects humans to each other and to technology–mediators, progenitors, interfaces–as much reference points for information and knowledge as visualizations of human creativity.” (Ron Burnett How Images Think, p. xiv) Am I part of the tide of vernacular creativity?

And yet I am not a collector of moments. Of human moments, that is. I’m not trying to convey directly what I think & observe & experience. I work in metaphor. I am not a chronicler of much of anything except the detail of light and color and bits of things. I’m a fragmenteur. Funny for a slow (long-post) blogger.

from the hibiscus

But it’s true, Flickr, I find myself at the screens of groups such as this and this more than blogs, or books. This is nuts. You’re my first stop each morning, before email, Twitter, blogs, Facebook. I comb your riches for clues about taking better pictures. I read the conversations, leave comments, check out the tips, and wander around sideways, discursively, looking looking. I check to see if Alan has written any more Flickr posts, bits and pieces of his everyday musings. I look to see if Bryan has fresh bread on his counter. What Jen’s kids are up to today. What new drawing Nancy has posted. What D’Arcy has seen from his bike. I haven’t even met Jen or D’Arcy. I “see” all these folks on Twitter and blogs, but it is here on Flickr where I find them most compelling.

But there’s more I blame you for–. There’s that one group, especially that group. That group, you know. Or perhaps I need to blame D’Arcy or Alan for the 365 Day Flickr Group, that fascinating slice of vernacular creativity. Some people capture everyday moments, some work in metaphor. Some are serious about each image, others about sharing their lives. Conversations abound there. Little ones that spread out between group members. It brings more viewers to my photos, and then me to other Flickr-ers. People whose work I admire in other venues, for instance, also take photos that charm and surprise.

What this group has really done to me, for me is make me stretch to take one really good photo every day. Some days I’m pleased. Some days I think, not so much. I have looked harder at my regular haunts; I pay attention to qualities of light and air and angle and color and shape when I travel. Yesterday, as I drove back from Maine, a bald eagle flew over the road and banked so beautifully that the light infused his white belly with an unearthly glow. All I could think about for a moment was how great a shot that would have been–Yikes! Only later, a mile up the road or so, did I realize that it was the first time I had ever seen a bald eagle in Vermont. How extraordinary that moment was. He wasn’t a picture or the subject of a picture, but a bird endangered in this part of the country. Put the camera down, Barbara. But…would I have seen him if I hadn’t been looking around with that kind of intensity?

overseeing the last sunrise of the month

I’m getting up before dawn to watch the light slip up and over the mountains. I have a favorite tree I check out every morning. You see, Flickr? This is getting out of hand.

I have so much to learn. My brother (of the elegant moody abstractions) scolds me for not attending to the corners of my images. My daughter, who has studied photography and takes gorgeous shots that make me re-see her subjects, urges me to sharpen my depth of field. My old student and soon-to-be intern critiques my photos in Flickr,
recently expressing his ambivalence about a photo I had thought was pretty interesting, and suggesting ways to improve it. These are invaluable responses to my work; I wish more comments were of this ilk. Now, dear Flickr, I would like nothing more than to spend a week in a photography workshop, learning the technical aspects of shooting in RAW, of composition; looking at photos, having my photos critiqued. I even slid in a suggestion for a pre-Northern Voice WordCampEd session on shooting pictures and attending to blog visuals.

After checking out Flickr each morning, I head tosome of my favorite blogs, and why look at that, they are all about the visual. And only then do I move into the day.

I’m out the door now, headed to New York City for a few days, both work and play, and I’m thinking about the great people and meetings and dinners and museums down there, but really, it’s all about the camera, as About New York knows.

So, thanks a lot, Flickr. Having a place to share my photos, to connect with others around photography, and to learn more about my aesthetic, and about the ways in which people understand the world through image, has transformed my creative expression, my more scholarly discourse, and, well, my life.

Now, where’s my camera–it’s 8:30 a.m. and I haven’t yet taken a single picture today.

picture-1

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

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

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

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

past limbo

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

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

through the window, first light

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

green

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

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

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

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

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

A Second Restoried Fragment: Distances

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about "", posted with vodpod

To see a full-screen version, you can also go to the Flickr Slide show.

For a description of the project, (dis)locations and (contra)dictions, see my previous post.