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

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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