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.

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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

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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.

Going [Nearly] Non-Verbal

Wesch clip - A Vision of Students Today
As much as I genuinely appreciate the digital ethnography work done by Wesch and his students, I’m irritated by the smugness of this video–the sense that it’s somehow OK for students to dismiss books and classroom lectures as irrelevant so long as antiquated pedagogies take the blame.

I say all this, yet supposedly I’m one of the “good guys”: I teach small classes where we mostly sit in circles and discuss current events and view wacky-but-insightful websites and interrogate visual literacy and collaborate with community organizations doing field work and hands-on curatorial work and writing and arts-integrated experimental learning . . . yadda yadda yadda . . . . Like I said, my classroom is not the sort directly critiqued by the video.

And yet . . . And yet I just spent 3 hours reading a book on metaphor theory–a densely written, scholarly text with almost no pictures. I had to retrain my brain to concentrate on the writing, sometimes reading passages to my slumbering dog and using colored pencils to sketch out the complex ideas unfolding in the text. And it was glorious. If I assigned this book my students might not read it unless I somehow coaxed them through it and helped them read it page by page. My personal techniques with the colored pencils and so forth could serve as models but ultimately learning from the reading of dense text is about sitting down and wanting to figure out your own methods for learning from words. According to Wesch’s students (and they’re probably right) most of my students would not read the book just because I assigned it–even if class discussions and reading responses were part of the assignment my students might not read the whole book but rather just enough portions to get the gist of it. Does that mean my students are lazy or does it mean that they’re savvy consumers of text?  Neither. That’s my point. That’s my dilemma.

Of course, I could assign more interesting texts. And shorter texts. And texts composed as comic books. And podcasts. Yes I do all those things. But I’m still not convinced that reading 8 or fewer books per year is OK, or that I’m a good teacher if I exhibit empathy for students who believe books are an outdated source of relevant knowledge or entertainment.

We’re living in this transitional phase where highly motivated teachers are doing everything we can imagine to navigate the space between how students want to learn and what we believe they need to learn. (Notice I didn’t say the gap is between how they want to learn and how we want to teach. I’m operating under the assumption that we want to teach in whatever way will help them learn. An attachment to a particular pedagogy is not necessarily the problem here. I also didn’t say the gap is between what they want to learn and what we want to teach–though I do believe that’s part of the dilemma.)

One of the things I believe they need to learn is how to actively (not passively) learn–and active learning doesn’t only mean being entertained and engaged by the learning; it also means deliberately doing the learning. Among the things teachers like me need to learn are: how to teach them to be (and to want to be) active, deliberate learners of things–even things that might not appear to be immediately relevant to their personal lives; also we need to learn what is most important for them to learn–what things will spark their desire to learn more on their own, and how can we best equip them (intellectually, personally, and otherwise) to do that digging on their own?

So what does any of this have to do with books? A lot.

My background is in rhetoric and composition studies. I believe that writing helps us learn. I believe that reading helps us learn. For a dozen-odd years I’ve taught writing in ways that I hoped would help students learn. The raison d’etre of academic writing is that it helps students to learn what they’re studying and to communicate they’ve learned it. We don’t teach academic writing so that students will do academic writing for the rest of their lives (unless they become academicians). We teach academic writing because it helps students synthesize, interrogate, articulate, and otherwise engage and demonstrate what they’re learning. Reading good scholarly writing helps them get better at it. Reading any kind of writing generally helps them get at least somewhat better at doing their own writing. In turn, getting better at writing typically entails getting better at thinking through one’s ideas, composing them coherently, demonstrating knowledge. Our great hope is that compulsive Facebooking and texting will somehow also enable students to remain sufficiently literate (as readers and as writers and thinkers) to continue strengthening their abilities to digest, interrogate, communicate, and demonstrate knowledge derived from non-Facebook sources.

I’m a reasonably optimistic person. I’m willing to set aside my Postman-esque concerns about Farmville and Twilight and so forth for now.

So it’s within that context that I’m beginning this thought experiment: What if the purpose of first-year composition isn’t to teach academic writing? This isn’t a new question, really. Lots of us in rhet/comp do multimodal composition pedagogy–meaning we have integrated visual literacy and digital composition into our writing courses. What might be different about my thought experiment is that I’m removing the words altogether. If the purpose of the first-year composition course is to help students locate, synthesize, and demonstrate knowledge, could that be done entirely through the kinds of 3D assemblage my visual rhetoric students did last spring? Or via a primarily visual composition with a spoken or written explanation? Or via a community-engaged, applied learning project accompanied by reflection that might be spoken or written or sung?

The answer is No, to the extent that first-year composition is a service course to other academic disciplines expecting us to teach MLA/APA citation formats and grammar and the writing of literature reviews. But if our goal is to teach the acquisition of knowledge and the synthesis of ideas–would it become our job to teach composition as a cognitive act as well as a communication task? Would it require us all to learn how composition–the arrangement of information–connects with the acquisition and transmission of knowledge in all its forms?

What then?

And shouldn’t we already be teaching that?