Finding another Voice

2013-01-12 10.40.15 am

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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Toward Blogcraft

2013-01-10 08.23.19 pm

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.