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

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

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

Okay, onward:

foggy ipswich morning

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

into the kitchen

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

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

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

lotus dance

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

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

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

graffitti art montreal

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

in a window, montreal

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

How do I find patience in this extreme time?

in the fray

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

brilliance in a japanese garden pond

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

foraging in the Chinese garden pool

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

No more shyness or fear of failure.

vive montreal

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

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

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

conversation

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

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

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

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

trainview

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

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

Hypocrite hypocrite.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And anyway, go where?

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

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

Solving the World's Problems

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

thecall

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

after rain

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

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

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

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

Even from you doctors out there. 😉