Taking Stock of the First Six Months Beyond the Walls: I Had No Idea…Really…

I taught my last class at Middlebury College in May, six months ago almost to the day, packed up my office, said goodbye and left. What a gift, I thought: to be 51 and launched on an adventure to explore learning and communities outside the safe, constricting walls of higher education. I escaped.

away

But, to what? Exquisite freedom? Or do I feel “exterior dizziness” instead of “interior immensity”? ( Supervielle as quoted by Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, p.221) Some days I live Michaux’s “Trop d’espace nous etouffe beaucoup plus que s’il n’y en avait pas assez.” (Bachelard, p.221) These are concepts I explored with my poetry students–the freedom of the sonnet, the tyranny of free verse. Is this what I am experiencing by imagining Centers for Community Digital Exploration in a country without cybercafes, even, except marginally, in cities? Am I mad?

the house as if in a fairy tale, November late afternoon

With the shredding economy, people are wondering (aloud) about my timing. I left a decent-paying job with excellent benefits for the great, lean unknown. What a time to depart! And for what–something without much precedent–a new idea for challenging times, times when funders are scaling back, communities overwhelmed by the financial impact on citizens and services. Planning physical third-places that combine workshops designed by the community, open lab-workspace, exhibition and meeting space when people need jobs and help with mortgages and health care? Crazy? A luxury?

the old slate wall

I think not. On the contrary, I am convinced that this is precisely the time to play around with new ways of connecting, creating and communicating. Instead of sitting around waiting, for instance, for Obama to solve the world’s woes (and waiting to be told what to do to help, or worse, doing what academics do best–expending our energies criticizing and complaining while doing nothing), we have to engage with our communities to bring about change and help on local levels. Centers for Community Digital Exploration could help communities build bonds and bridges as they build collective intelligence, innovate new business and nonprofit models, and negotiate the trickiest of issues facing local governments.

wild apples at dawn, november

But wow oh wow, I am being pushed to the ends of my abilities as I learn how to collaborate in the world. As a college teacher, I thought I was all about collaborative learning, about students taking responsibility for their learning and their lives–together–but how can you do that within an artificial environment? Within a closed environment? Scott Leslie’s recent post, and Jim Groom and Tom Woodward’s recent NMC presentation demonstrate how academic institutions prevent innovation and sharing and openness. Brian Lamb’s stream of posts from Barcelona this week point at ways in which even Open Ed thinking hasn’t popped out of the school box...yet…completely. It’s scary out here. I risk everything every day as I stumble along in uncharted territory. Agoraphobia? Could be.

Nora's room from below, November late afternoon

As I collaborate with another nonprofit and a small rural community on a storytelling-to-engage-citizen-participation-in-planning-for-the-future project, and as I try to articulate the mission and vision for Digital Explorations, I am learning some big lessons. Teaching and collaborating and learning and working inside an academic institution have absolutely nothing to do with how to do those things out in the world. Really. I struggle even with my language–my fabulous board (right now consisting of Bryan Alexander, Sarah Kramer, Alan Levine and Nancy White) has urged me to shed the eduspeak in my documents. Argh! Me, writing eduspeak! Horrors. But true. And so I have started using Twitter to experiment with voice, tone and diction–how far is too far with the poetic voice, or a conversational tone in writing about the work–the kind of thing I thought I had practiced with my students. What had I practiced with my students??

Working with community and nonprofit partners is a huge revelation for slow-bg. It sounds so obvious. School’s comforting confines do not, unfortunately, often lead to extraordinary creativity; rather they give that impression. They talk about Bachelard’s doors, perhaps, but they do not touch them. Little we do in school prepares students for negotiating common ground in a real-world context where the stakes are considerable and real. We do not teach real sharing of ideas or negotiating with the Other, if our institutions, as Scott Leslie suggests, do not do so. We do not explore listening. We reward glibness as much as deep consideration. We honor the “maverick” but not the collaborator. We do not know how both to be the creator and collaborator. I like Brian’s idea about encouraging students to build on the ideas of their classmates as a way to engage them in this kind of negotiation. Community and nonprofit partners don’t sit politely, quietly waiting for me to tell them exactly how we’re going to proceed. They do not need me to urge them to action, to participation, to questioning. I have to learn how to shut up and follow while being passionate and outspoken. To sink into ongoing relationships instead of semesterized hurry-hurry-think.

up the side steps, late afternoon

I like this searching for form. Making mistakes. Trying again. Making it up as we go. Learning how to be in the world. I guess it’s about dang time.

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