If All You Have is a Hammer . . .

OCU Campus Legends


The first day of our Liberal Arts Seminar I said Cardinal Newman’s philosophy of liberal learning boiled down to one thing: his concern that if all we have is a hammer everything will look like a nail.

To make this lesson memorably multimodal I passed around one of my own hammers from home. OK, it wasn’t really a hammer; it was a heavy rubber mallet. (Seemed less freaky for a first day of class.)

As a hardcore do-it-myselfer I get a lot of use from that mallet so I confess I had mixed feelings presenting it as a symbol of limited imagination. In truth, I have done some fairly creative problem-solving with that mallet.

Here’s the thing: if all you have is a hammer, you can potentially become extremely skilled with the hammer. You might hammer in the morning, hammer in the evening, building up your 10,000 hours with…

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Finding another Voice

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Two years ago today my friend Elaine died of Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS).

For years she was my closest friend in the department. As time passes I find myself missing her more, finding more things we ought to be talking about. Teaching is one of those things.

The Chronicle of Higher Education interviewed her in 2010 for this article and video about her technology-mediated teaching:

Elaine’s experience strengthened my conviction about two things (pertaining to teaching, anyway):

First, that my job as a liberal arts educator is not merely about fostering genteel well-roundedness; rather, it’s about the urgent, essential work of teaching and learning interdisciplinary ingenuity. We don’t have time to wait for other people to be geniuses. We don’t have the luxury of patiently applauding other people seeking creative solutions to complex problems like ALS.

Second, that my best work is done as a catalyst, even though I’m still figuring out how to do it right. Elaine’s teaching method described in the video is in many ways what I hope to achieve through approaches like quadblogging–devoting more of the course to the students’ own processing of knowledge. On one level I’m having them experiment with digital tools because it’s practical and important to their digital literacy; on another level the digital communication projects are far more deeply about tapping into more parts of their brain through multimodal inquiry and reflection and composition. I want them to think and write in 4D, not just 2D or even 3D. I want them to master the art of extracting useful and inspiring knowledge from dense verbal sources (Emerson called this “creative reading,” yes?) as well as from other media, and I want them to generate new, actionable insights for themselves and for the rest of us.

Elaine’s interviewer asks her to share some advice to faculty. She says we should look at ourselves and our practices really honestly, because so much of traditional pedagogy tends to be about performance and even to some extent about ego-gratification. Perhaps what she means is that we’re distracted by our own desire for students to like and admire us–or perhaps we just love hearing ourselves talk about our favorite subjects.

In my teaching I tend to always want students making something or experiencing something. I want them to dig into raw materials and discover things that will delight or intrigue or inspire them. I try to use my speaking time to make sure they know everything we’re doing is on purpose, that a scaffold is in place to increase our odds of finding cool stuff, even though I can’t predict what it will be. It’s a different motivation than the infamous “sage on the stage” mindset but might my approach still be about ego? Yes, in some ways I think so. Because at the end of the day I want them to share my giddy enthusiasm for our work and my inflated sense of personal agency. I want us to cure ALS in Honors Comp 2.

Toward Blogcraft

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I remember somewhere around 50 pages into the first Twilight book thinking I couldn’t possibly bear any more of the writing. I winced at every new appearance of “his perfect marble skin” and though I soldiered through the rest of the chapters I realized the pop culture indulgence had become more of a crappy habit–like drinking bad coffee because it’s there in the pot on the way to the copy machine.

I had that same feeling this morning reading Reality Steve‘s blog. I don’t know why I read Reality Steve. Yes I do: I’m a fan of Survivor and of the gameplay forums on Television Without Pity and sometimes people in those forums mention Reality Steve so I click over to read what he’s saying. Also, he covers The Bachelor–an awful franchise but fascinating for people like me who study the social construction of gender roles. I cannot adequately describe how satisfying it is to juxtapose, say, The Bachelorette‘s Emily Maynard and RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Willam or Chad Michaels; The Rose Ceremony vs. Lip Sync for Your Life. Endlessly, endlessy edutaining.

Unlike Twilight, which has no socially redeeming value, the Reality Steve blog in its way has seemed worth supporting. He’s a high profile spoiler and the legal cases against him are forcing relevant questions to the surface regarding intellectual property and media coverage and the preservation of “reality” narratives on these programs. I think Reality Steve’s spoilerage is doing important cultural work, actually. He refuses to treat “reality” as reality. There’s something to that.

But, honestly, his writing is so bad–well not “bad” but so very meh. He’s been blogging thousands of words for years and his writing has never improved. He seems to make no effort to be witty or entertaining to anyone but himself. He just rants through otherwise dry, wordy recaps. Reading his latest installment, I remembered an adage from a dance colleague: “practice makes permanent.” Doing lots of crappy writing with no attempt at craft yields lots more crappy writing and might even make you a crappy writer <– which is something I never like to call anyone, so how about “meh” writer. Yes, that’s a fair critique because a lot of meh writing is done by decent writers who are more committed to cranking out text than crafting text.

Yet that’s what I’m doing right now, isn’t it? I’m kvetching and ruminating and don’t intend to take the time to revise this blog posting. I probably blog this way all the time. So the lesson I’m learning from Reality Steve is the lesson I didn’t take the time to learn from Twilight: it’s time to pay more attention to my own blog writing. I don’t want to get hung up on craft to the point I’m too self-critical to post. But I do want to start paying more attention to the blog authors whose writing strikes me as especially well crafted. And I want to spend this semester, alongside my students,  noting and emulating some of the craftsmanlike moves made in blog writing.

disruption as storytelling device

I love this post from my new MOOC colleague for many reasons but perhaps most of all because it has us thinking about the MOOC itself as a narrative. My dear grad school mentor, Jim Corder, said, “Life is a narrative we make, or not, that only exists in our own little fictions.” Our EDC MOOC is an open learning space that we haven’t even entered yet. I don’t even remember how to get there–which will be somewhere in Coursera, though under the auspices of the University of Edinburgh. The MOOC student interaction right now is all over the Web (Facebook, Google+, Twitter, etc.) and the course doesn’t actually begin until the end of this month. We have all just built our own learning community sparked by our signing up for the MOOC and informally agreeing to interact ahead of time. I don’t even know how that started (my friend in the MOOC was doing early interaction and that sounded fun so here I am . . . wherever “here” is).

another space oddity

I was just listing to the radio briefly as I passed between rooms and heard a novelist in interview saying how she (and all creative writers) needs to construct a disruption in a situation in order to be able to go on to tell a story, and of course this rings true – we all know narrative technique well enough to know the importance of the initial ‘crisis’… but what interested me was how that obvious truism suddenly struck me as just as true of the sort of creative writing we are engaging in as students in this course, and how the course itself is an emerging narrative enabled by an initial discourse on how ‘disruptive’ the mooc is to everything and anything in higher education: it’s irrelevant whether we take it as ‘true’ or not, we simply need to suspend disbelief in order to engage in the joys of…

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Color Walks & Documenting Walkabouts

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I love working with Keri Smith‘s How to Be An Explorer of the World in my academic research and writing classes because it helps me reinforce the scholar adventurer dimensions of field research and the noticing deeply needed for imaginative learning and  precise writing.

But having the students share their findings can get a little tricky, especially when I try to integrate the explorations into digital kinds of sharing–ePortfolios, blogs, discussion boards. I’m trying to get them outside to practice & cultivate a keener awareness of the often-overlooked details (and potential sources of inspiration and insight) in their everyday surroundings and then to use various tools–sometimes digital (e.g., phone camera), sometimes not (e.g., rubbings with crayons)–to preserve their observations.

Thanks to one of my MOOC colleagues, I just found this blog post on Color Walking from RadioLab‘s episode on Color. Their multisensory exploration was inspired by William S. Burroughs’ Color Walking; Keri Smith  recommends it also. What I’m loving especially is the way they used the timeline tool to plot their findings. This is so much better than attaching a photo to a discussion board posting, in so many ways. The timeline communicates the journey so much better and the inclusion of multiple images and short textual descriptions of each encounter with the image/color-source captures the interpersonal aspect of the trek. Sometimes the color is on a person, not an object, so they don’t just snap the photo but ask permission first and include a snippet of that discussion (or an acknowledgement of it) in their caption–reinforcing so many important learning objectives regarding citation and scholarship as conversation and so forth. I’m really jazzed.

I was already planning to use a timeline tool in one of my classes–Tiki-Toki–but now I’m also going to look at the tool RadioLab used: Timeline JS. I can see the color walk assignment as a way to get the students comfortable with the timeline software in preparation for a larger, collaborative timeline we’ll be doing as a class.

I’m also thinking about how the timeline tool might work with one of my favorite ice breaker assignments, a mad libs style exercise based on George Ella Lyon’s poem, “Where I’m From.” In it, students compose poems that are litanies of significant artifacts and names from their personal histories. I’m wondering what it might look like to translate those metaphors into images on a timeline–what would be lost and gained through that translation or remediation.

Learning as Networking as Learning


As I watched Dave Cormier’s Success in a MOOC video I found myself making mental notes about how I might translate the learning-as-networking principles back into a f2f classroom. In so many ways I think these principles for online learning get overlooked in bricks-and-mortar classes. Despite all our efforts at engaged and experiential learning it seems to me that we don’t do a good enough job helping students experience networked learning in conventional on-campus environments.

For example, Cormier explains that once you’ve begun learning something in an online class the next step is to declare yourself by writing something about what you’ve learned in, say, a posting to your blog; then you deepen your learning by finding and making a connection to someone else’s learning by, e.g., posting a thoughtful reply to their blog.

In f2f and hybrid classes many of us try to do this through in-class conversation, short writing assignments, and/or postings outside class to an online discussion board or blog. The actions are analogous but relatively superficial. It’s just homework, in other words. Just an activity.  What’s missing is the [social] networking energy–the thing that makes it satisfying and even addictive to repeatedly visit, read, and comment on someone else’s thoughts. That’s the hook I’m wanting to activate, somehow, in all my courses–f2f, hybrid, and wholly online.

Also, when we declare ourselves online there’s an underlying assumption that we’re inviting a response–and, increasingly, that we’re not just saying one thing (i.e., one blog posting, one YouTube video) but sharing a body of work and inviting others to consider and respond to some or all of it. So Cormier’s MOOC video is the thing I’m looking at now, but YouTube tells me there are 118 more videos in his library, and I can subscribe to updates and comment on what I’m seeing. But in a f2f class a student composes one text at a time and the rest of us may never see anything else she has created on a kindred topic in the past nor in the future. We may glean some of her insights through class discussion but her body of work is invisible. I’m looking for ways to make all that other significant thinking and making more a part of the person we meet during our f2f semester. Like a multimodal portfolio of thoughts and experiences or a D&D style avatar that summarizes the diverse skills and traits likely to be activated during the course. Something that helps us better appreciate who is in the room (literally or figuratively) and how they have come to think and know what/as they do.