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.

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The Depths of Fall: Planting Garlic, Meeting Old Students & Slow Blogging


Time moves inexorably towards November. An enormous flock of robins clusters in the near copse, resting and feeding; the yearling deer have separated from their mothers and are hanging about together as hunting season approaches. The turkeys gorge on wild apples. What leaves remain, deep gold or rust, rustle noisily, catch and hold the clear afternoon light.

We humans careen about inside the steady tick of days and seasons as though they don’t exist. The very real threat hanging over the UBC farm–condos as invasive species–(go read Keira’s post!) shows how hard it is to hear sense, to make sense. We’re at the brink of madness. Especially this fall. Panic fills the air. Trouble. War.

And yet there’s also hope. Next week we’ll all know whether the U.S. can transcend the deep and closet racism; the fear of difference; the insular, selfish, wasteful individualism and greed that characterize so much of who we are and how we behave. We’ll see if we can be better than ourselves.

As I plant garlic today, clove after clove in the cooling soil of my raised beds, I ponder what the winter will bring. I think about where the world will be when the green tips push up in the wet, even snowy late spring. Will my daughter, recent college graduate, still have her job? Will my neighbors have suffered through a long, lean winter, scrimping on food in order to heat their homes? Will we hear specifics, glad tidings, like good news from UBC that the farm has been saved? Will I find funding for the Centers for Community Digital Exploration and start helping communities explore social and creative digital media practices as a means of coming together, sharing, collaborating, solving problems? Will conserving become as natural as expending? Will more bikes fill our roads? Will schools be moving away from NCLB and towards modeling deep creativity, connectivity, collaboration? Will we start acting as connected and inter-dependent with the rest of the world? That troops are being brought home while clinics and community centers for learning are being built? Will the crashing economy shake us from our consumerism?
Will spring bring the first shades of new growth?barn details

I’m thinking about the future today not only because I am all a-jitter about the election next week but because something is going on with my former students. Malaise. Over the past week my mailbox, my email box, Facebook, phone have been awash in contacts from my old students. They’re nervous, uneasy, confused. The ones still in school are restless, missing the wild cycles of disruption and repair we experienced together in class. Why aren’t their courses electrifying, they ask. Why isn’t there the sense of community they now crave? Creativity? Risk-taking in the classroom? What do traditional disciplines taught in traditional ways have to do with the world exploding around them? The ones outside of school are reporting back with examples of digital creativity, and with questions about how to find or create spaces for creativity, for connection, for collaboration that will help change the world.

I’ve been telling (retelling) them my favorite James Martin story, the one in which his daughter poses one of the great what-if questions: If you could live at any time in any place during human history, when and where would that be? And he shocks her by saying, “Right here, right now, because we stand at the door of the most crucial time in human history. Your generation has 50 years to solve the problems my generation and the one before it have created. Fifty years to save the earth or there will be no earth to save. You can either move humanity forward, to become better than it has ever been, or that’s it.” I say to them, “If he’s right; if that’s true that we have fifty years to reverse the environmental degradation and related political and social turmoil we have caused, what role are you preparing to play? How are you using these four college years to equip you to participate actively?” I also like to remind them of the Richard Miller quotation about how we have mastered the art of teaching about how worlds come to an end, but we do little to help our students bring better worlds into being. How to connect, how to collaborate, how to be intensely creative, how to take risks, how to fail. How to be inclusive, to get off the hill and into town. Meaningfully.

the woods dance before winter

I’m also thinking about the future because there’s new interest in slow blogging, thanks to a recent post by Chris Lott, a wonderful post in which he explains slow blogging better than I ever have:
“Slow blogging is mindful wandering is meditative reflection is an attempt to face the fear, to take a stab at the heart, take responsibility and risk, and in the process create a gift of immense value to others, a manifestation of our particular truth.”

This blog has never attracted a great deal of traffic or attention. Indeed, the Small Town Mama (and Papas) for Obama Blog I started just a few months ago routinely pulls in many more readers, many many more readers, yet the posts I do there take me maybe five minutes, and that’s when I’m adding a few lines of commentary to the links I’m posting. Don’t get me wrong—I like that blog and I like blogging there with my six fellow active posters. It gives me a positive outlet for my deep concern about this country, my perspective on this being a watershed moment. But it is a blog for the moment, not the one I have returned to through the years, seasons, job changes, idea shifts. It is a blog to spur immediate action rather than more thought. Perhaps that is something missing from the slow blog, from this slow blog.

Chris’ s post brought new readers here for the moment; my blog stats spiked, incoming links, too. I’ve been asked for interviews, even, by journalists wondering if the new interest in slow-blogging comes in response to the convulsions occurring on the world stage. A yearning for the local, the meaningful, the dependable–contact that is enduring, deeply connective, both serious and not. Balance. Interesting question. I am hopeful that next spring when I am watching the the garlic break through the earth, I can honestly say that we have become more actively thoughtful, more thoughtfully active, combining action and reflection and connection as a response to the world in crisis. Moving beyond fear. At the polls next week. And after Tuesday.

venerable resident of the woods

When the teacher travels…

…she doesn’t need to cancel class. Why should she cancel class in order to attend a conference or to give a talk?

If she does cancel her classes when she is unable to attend, then she probably believes that students cannot learn without her, cannot benefit from engaging with one another out of her presence. Or she has a research assignment or the like coincide with her absence, which seems like a valid reason for canceling class–but is it? Why give up one precious opportunity for the group to come together to puzzle out something, and to continue to build the bonds of reciprocal apprenticeships?

If she does cancel class, then she must be making herself mighty indispensible.

If she does cancel class, then her students potentially lose a precious opportunity to explore the course together, richly, without her (whether she likes it or not) dominant perspective and voice and persona.

vermont elixir

So, with these thoughts in mind, I did not cancel class when I went out to NITLE’s Conference on Teaching Writing in the Digital Age (I will, btw, post the text version of my talk within the next week–after one more talk). Instead, I worked with my senior tutors to design a class they felt comfortable leading, and that provided opportunities for learning in that moment of the course as we moved from fiction to poetry.

winter leaves the pond

I’ve written before about how bringing seniors who have taken intro courses with me back into those courses a couple of years later, as tutors, to mentor the younger writers, and to have their own intro work showcased in the syllabus as models, examples of the kind of writing we will practice, is one of the best things about my teaching. The seniors act as go-betweens, as translators in a way, as they understand the method to my madness, and they understand the freefall of the students who are thrown into a classroom that values failure, that insists on risk, and aims to travel deeply into the world of reading and writing. They lead the Wednesday evening workshops during which they dream up inventive writing exercises and help model effective workshopping practices (I teach two days a week in a comfortable, computer-free lounge, and then hold a two-hour evening workshop once a week during which we look at things online and/or students workshop their writing in small groups).
april full moonrise

And so, I’m delighted to say that from all reports, workshop Wednesday evening and class on Thursday went very well. The students were engaged, lively, interested and probably pleased to have me out of the room for a moment. Does this mean that I think I should absent myself from class more often? Probably not. I don’t think any member of the learning community should be absent unless absolutely necessary. The shared language thins and the collaborative experience cracks if the members come and go too much during a 12-week course. We need to commit to this shared course, to our reciprocal apprenticeships if we are to reap the benefits from the 21 minds, imaginations, lives we represent. But having the person who, until we change our educational system altogether, holds the power of course design and evaluation abssent herself once during the semester, is a healthy thing indeed.

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).
eyeingtheground

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.”

norwaytreesfromthetrain

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.)

IMG_2277
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?

Grading Partnerships in the Classroom, Conversation #3

I know that I have been hammering away about grading in the new classroom, student responsibility, and faculty resisting substantive change to the way they teach and therefore use grades, but I’m doing it again here, because of an amazing class yesterday during which I watched my students connect with one another in authentic, deep-learning ways.

Lanny Arvan’s excellent post on personal responsibility in the face of our full-on financial crisis, and what it should mean to us and our students, reminds me of something Harry Matthews said in his “Excellence without a Soul” speech here a couple of months ago (and in his book): academic institutions have basically abdicated the responsibility to teach integrity, to teach values, to talk about the pressing questions of being human right now right here as we mentor our students along their way to responsible citizenship. We are distracted by our own research. By the lack of time. We complain that here isno time for anything, not as things stand now with our major requirements for graduation, our singular focus on only whatare doing in our own classrooms. We’re afraid to change. We’re afraid of change.

One of my students in a recent post wrote,

I enjoyed this unit tremendously. I think much of it had to do with the exploration of self and the reflective aspect and nature of the genre. Writing some of the exercises during this unit and doing the longer pieces gave me assigned time to think about myself, which I thought quite uplifting, in a way, because we, as students, are so busy these days that we hardly ever have time to contemplate—really contemplate—things such as our childhoods or moments that have shaped us. Writing about these moments gave me an opportunity to get in touch with myself, and I think I needed this.

Indeed. If we do not give our students time and space to contextualize their learning, time to contemplate who they are and what they are doing, then how do we expect them to do anything but find the quickest avenues to “success” ?

Lanny writes:

Somehow we need to create a grades-don’t-matter environment where the decisions that students make have clear consequences on others and where the students can readily see those consequences, then reflect on them and on their own choices. This would let them learn the lesson for themselves, not to please others. All I can conclude is that it seems more likely to happen in a co-curricular setting than in actual courses. Yet even then it seems more likely that students will learn the opposite lesson to what we want – everyone else is cheating so why shouldn’t I? This is a tough one to crack.

It takes time and a concerted effort to help students to slow down, as Mark Edmundson also urges, though I do not agree with his top-down approach. I want them to come to these conclusions themselves, together, looking at one another across the circle, listening, and entering the contact zones, wrestling for themselves with the questions of whether to have laptops in class, for instance, or how grades are going to figure into the learning experience. Have we forgotten the whole student?

I have written a bit about my current creative writing class, about the fabulous work they have done in multimedia expression, and just now in creative nonfiction, and some, too, about how long it has taken them to come together as a group, to trust one another, to open up to one another–to trust me and this process of participating in a learning community where learning to read one another’s work-in-progress and commenting on it is an important part of the course. I’ve blogged about the shift I have seen lately, how they are now coming together. They are beginning to care about each other as writers, and as complex people, not just fellow students who happen to be taking the same class.

Our three-part conversation about grading has played a role in this shift, I believe. During the initial discussion we decided upon the areas that should be assessed: risk, effort, improvement and quality.
Opening the Evaluation Conversation

During the second conversation, we discussed percentages to be given each of those areas, as well as how to consider the individual’s writing, and the individual’s contributions to the group, and the balance of self-assessment and outside assessment.
grading percentages

Yesterday we voted on the percentages to be given to each area.
grading3
The discussion explored the relationship between the various parts of the course to the whole–what does quality mean exactly, how can effort and risk be separated–doesn’t effort lead to improvement automatically? And questions about the individual’s responsibility to the self and to the group. I wish I had recorded the discussion–they wrestled with the urge to do their own work, to focus on their own writing projects versus the urge to spend time helping each other out, reading and responding, commenting and discussing, and participating in the group conversation. This is what happens, I believe, when we take grades out as much as possible–meaning, stop grading individual assignments, and yet discuss assessment to push their thinking about why they are here in the first place, and what it is they can get out of this course, and how. And what it means to balance self-interest and group-interest, and how serving the group is to serve the self, ultimately. Now, when they walk into class, the chatter subsides, and they move with excitement into a world where their contributions count and are counted on, where they have a say in the process and the outcome. This is not me being a magician, a guru, a cult figure. This isn’t about me at all–and that’s been the hardest piece of the puzzle to fall into place for them. For the most part, they know only classrooms dominated by the teacher.

Every year, it gets a little harder, I think, to pry the kids out of themselves (their in-the-moment needs and desires) and out of the rut of the way they have been conditioned to experience a formal learning environment while getting them to take their own work seriously (deeply, over time). Another student wrote recently,

“While some early discussions and workshops felt akin to having teeth pulled, by this time in the semester I feel that our class has laid down a solid foundation and begun to grow from it. This developing bond is encouraging to me as a writer, reader, critic, and classmate, and that dark bleak hour between 3 and 4 am has recently become much less intimidating on account of the obligation I feel towards the class’ creative, academic, and group health.”

Now we’re getting somewhere.

Building a Course, Weaving a Story: Writing the Experience

under the gable end

The first thing our architect did when designing our house was ask each of us to write a narrative about our relationship to space–what kinds of spaces we felt drawn to, how we felt in various spaces, how we felt about colors and textures and memories of spaces and places we loved. He didn’t want to know what we thought our house should look like, or what rooms it should contain–he wanted to know how we felt, what we believed about the world, who we were. After he read our four narratives, he sat down in front of us and made a quick sketch of the exterior of what now looks very much like our house. It was remarkable. And it was us. It surprised us to discover things about one another through these narratives (it’s a terrific exercise for families, and communities of practice), and through talking through the design of the house. When we built the house, our architect made plaster casts of our faces, and embedded them into the gable ends. I look out over my garden, my husband to the sunrise, one daughter to the sunset and the other to the mountains. We are the place, the place is us, quite literally, as the impressions of our faces, the narratives we wrote weave us into the fabric of the house. We thus also connect deeply to one another, four points on our home’s compass. We like to think that our faces give the house personality, our collective, complex personality.

bowling shoes

What does this anecdote have to do with writing, teaching and the teaching of writing? For me it suggests how I try to teach writing. I have to reveal my beliefs about writing, and the students do, too. We have to think about ourselves as points on the compass of this writing experience. I have to be available as a writer. Show them how I read as a writer. Show something of my struggles with writing, with writing digitally, with the decisions only I can make about and for my writing–all without imposing myself on the community. (I highly recommend Teaching One Moment at a Time, in which Dawn Skorczewski explores “the delicate negotiation” in writing classes.) Teachers, in my experience, tend to over-articulate or under-articulate–but do little modeling, have little self-awareness about how their own beliefs and attitudes are affecting the course experience, all while holding set (and rather mysterious) expectations for outcomes. We are, for the most part, terrible listeners. How are students to know what it is they are supposed to be creating if they have never seen one of these beasts before? Where is there room for student innovation? Beliefs? What does excellence look like at the intro level? The advanced level? Why? The University of British Columbia Murder, Madness and Mayhem Course Wikipedia projectThe University of British Columbia Murder, Madness and Mayhem Course Wikipedia project, described here so well by Brian Lamb, gives students real-world experience finding their way, collaboratively, to high standards of content and writing in their field. It’s an incredible example of what college students and their inspired teacher can do, collaborating, reflecting, listening, revising.

windows reflecting fall

Today my creative writing class had our second discussion on grading. The group proposed and discussed percentages to assign the various areas of the course to be assessed–areas they had decided upon in the first discussion; after narrowing the field down to three proposals, they asked for a couple of days to reflect before we put it to a vote and finalized the balance between self and external evaluation.

grading percentages

This group has slowly, slowly come together, much more tentative about group practices than other classes, quieter in discussion, and uncomfortable with the need to comment on one another’s work. It is a situation that comes close to unnerving me, so delicate is this balance between all the learners and their writing journeys, so strong are my beliefs about what a good writing community looks like. Some days I have wondered if we’re getting anywhere, if I have stunned them with such newness that they cannot take the first steps, even. But things have shifted. As they do. Especially when I relax, when I become more self-aware. As I have increasingly pulled out of discussion, letting them wrestle with reading-as-writers after having modeled for them how I read, and then scaffolding the process, they have gradually gained confidence in discussion, on the blog, in conference and in workshop–and in their writing. Coming over to my house last week for food, laughter, collaborative writing exercises, and a glimpse of my life as a person with a house, a husband, a dog and some weird stuff around the walls helped them feel the power of the collaborative. They were ready to tackle the insides of the course, what we mean by taking this course.

birds

And indeed, today’s discussion on grading was lively, provocative and meaningful–it belonged to everyone. They spoke out for what they believed, listened to one another, moved towards consensus. I asked tough questions. They asked tough questions. And they wanted more time–to go deeper, to think about it. They slowed down on their own.

The same thing is happening on the blog, where I am one writer among many; rather than primary respondent and feedback-giver. After a few weeks of fumbling with the blog, looking for me to take the lead, they are starting to take it over. After hearing their voices in writing and in recordings, they are losing their shyness. And they see me as a writer in action, playful and experimenting, sometimes writing well, sometimes missing my mark, struggling to find meaning and then to convey it in a way that moves my reader. I know how hard it is to write well. And they are learning to trust themselves, one another, and me. When I do give them feedback, it is always in response to specific questions they ask about their writing. They come to one-on-one conferences prepared to critique their work before I do. And when I give them feedback, they really take it in, and then I promptly narrate my thinking process for them, to show them how I read their writing. That’s the best part of the one-one-one conference, watching them learn how to ask good questions of their writing, watching them gain control of their writing.

earlyearlymorning

I’m the architect, I suppose, of this course, but a resident, collaborative one, who tries to listen to their narratives about what they need to learn and why, connecting our points on the compass through the bones and veins of the coursework, weaving our personalities and beliefs and writing styles deeply into the story of this course.