So This Is What It’s Like… Sort Of…

With a less than a week left of the Motley Group reading of Joyce’s Dubliners, I am lingering a bit too long, I realize, mid-collection, thinking about what I’ve read, how the stories talk to one another, undercut or intensify each another. I get pulled out of the book altogether for a few days at a stretch by the other calls on my time.  I have to get going here…onward into “Clay” and “A Painful Case” today. I might even have to set a reading schedule to make sure I have enough time to hang out in “The Dead.”  I can’t remember when I have ever read a collection this slowly, with breaks, and rereads, and trips out to my fellow readers’ blogs and to this site.  And I know I have not walked down the long driveway in search of the mail with such anticipation in a long long time.

remnants

This is as close as I have ever come to what I asked of my students and their blogging back in my teaching days. Yes I blogged with them, but never on equal terms, at best as guide. In fact I stayed off our class blogs for the most part, posting on my own blog in meta-reflection so as to keep their conversation open, playful and free between peers instead of performance for the teacher, something I’ve written about many times over the years here, including the final paragraph of one of those long-long posts of mine from 2005 (with lots of broken links):

“And it is the Motherblog that keeps them linked within a community–they venture back and forth onto one another’s blogs, taking comfort in their peers’ experiences, pushing one another, and learning from one another. And I’m rarely on the blog at all. Isn’t this what we’re after in a liberal arts education?  The students naturally, on their own, gravitate towards the learning ecology.  I’m keeping these second-wave bloggers in mind as my young first-years wonder aloud why we’re doing this public blogging thing.  I want them to read the Blogging-the-World blog, and I want them to look down the road at where they might be in two years.  If I teach them the grammar of the blog well, and they take to it, they can use the medium (or whatever other tool will be in play by then) to make their learning real, active, and worth crowing about.”

as if

I’m realizing that this Motley reading experience is as close as I’ve ever come to being absolutely inside classroom blogging–as a reciprocal apprentice.  I see the personalities come into play–who likes posterous, who their own blog, Flickr, postcards.  Who dropped out, never started, is still thinking about starting, is on the fence about continuing, is doing her own thing with responses.  Absolutely fascinating.  I’m learning more about my own inclinations as a reader as I hear Lanny’s puzzlement over the postcard I sent him, and how the image is linked in any way to the reading experience. In learning about how the others are approaching and responding to the stories, I think more deeply about my own readings, my own way of reading.  I really don’t think I did that enough as a teacher.  I see now how much I continued to dominate my classes even when I tried my best not to, even though I believed that students would learn how to think and communicate if they had to rely on one another as  much as on me. This experience almost has me hankering over another go in the classroom.  Almost.

Something else has me stumbling over my departure from the classroom. My old student, now my good friend and teacher, Stephanie Saldana, has been visiting for the past couple of days as she tears about the country on her first book tour.  Yesterday she gave a splendid, moving reading at the college. Four former students were in the audience: three still at the college and another, Stephanie’s best friend here fifteen years ago, another gifted writer, who drove over from Maine.  Stephanie read to an audience made up of townspeople, students and her former professors–a reading that showed her big heart as well as her considerable intellect, a reading that allowed us to glimpse her struggle with a broken world from the vantage point of living in the Middle East.  I thought, how brave, to come back here where you were a star poet/scholar and read from a book so human, so real, so true.  Later, a young Palestinian remarked to me that this was the first lecture/reading about the Middle East he’d been to here that hadn’t been dissecting, theorizing, and/or intellectualizing the trauma.  There was no sense of the personal, the lived in those other lectures and readings as though problems could be understood and solved purely from knowing enough. Stephanie’s reading and discussion gave him the space for his own story.  There it was again, the heart, the heart.  Later that evening, my two old students and another grad from that time sat on the floor of my livingroom and shared how they felt that their undergraduate classes had been far too much about the intellect.  Where was life in the classroom?  How did community outside the school have anything at all to do with what was going on in the classroom?  Where were the hearts of their teachers?

If I could do it all over…I would have been a more radical teacher than I was, and isn’t it too bad that I have to say that teaching from the heart in a liberal arts college is radical?  For a moment, I wanted another chance…but no, I am getting another chance…this way: with Motley readers, with my students turned teachers, with my messy work with storytelling in communities (ALL about heart), with my fumblings with camera.

It’s funny how I’m coming across this reminder repeatedly this week.  This morning,  I opened T.S. Eliot’s essay on Dante to find:

“In my own experience of the appreciation of poetry I have always found that the less I knew about a poet and his work, before I began to read it, the better.  A quotation, a critical remark, an enthusiastic essay may well be the accident that sets one to reading a particular author; but an elaborate preparation of historical and biographical knowledge has always been to me a barrier.  I am not defending poor scholarship…At least, it is better to be spurred to acquire scholarship because you enjoy the poetry, than to suppose that you enjoy the poetry because you have acquired the scholarship.”  (“Dante” 1929 Essay p. 205 in Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot)

That’s what I so like about writing and receiving postcards as well as posts–they feel like little bursts of felt response–by readers who love to read and love to feel the pen on a card, having to move within the confines of that small white square, and caring enough to take the time to find a postcard, a stamp, go to the post office after engaging with the text.  Bound together by a love of reading, the freedom to come and go as we wish, the playfulness of responding however we like, and, for me, a commitment to speaking from the heart as well as head and to stick with it even if I don’t have time, love all the stories, or feel I have anything useful to say.  You just never know when you’ll stumble upon the new, or touch someone, or learn something you thought you already knew.

Alan's Mount Fujiaraby

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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.)

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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?