A conversation with Susan Albertine about Faculty Collaboratives

Virginia’s Faculty Collaboratives “Innovation Hub,” the site of an upcoming connectivist MOOC called “Open Learning,” is now open! (Makes sense, yes?) Please visit our Faculty Collaboratives/Open Learning hub to join up and explore the journey that awaits.

You may wonder, “what’s Faculty Collaboratives?” I put that very question to the AAC&U’s Dr. Susan Albertine, designer and leader of this initiative. In part one of our conversation, Dr. Albertine explains the history, mission, and aspirations of the project.

In part two of our conversation, coming soon, Dr. Albertine expands on the idea of “mind-liberating” education at the heart of Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP).

Virginia is proud to be one of those thirteen LEAP states Dr. Albertine describes. We’re also a Phase 2 Faculty Collaboratives participant. And because Virginia!, we’re doing something unique with this cMOOC learning opportunity.

Join us!

Remembering Bart Prater

Bart truly was the Wizard of Rock. He was also one of my best and most generous teachers.

The summer of 1977 was golden for all sorts of reasons. Star Wars premiered. (We didn’t yet know it was “A New Hope,” much less “Episode IV.”) I met the young woman I would end up marrying–well, met her again, but that’s another story. And I had a dream summer job. Three of them in fact. All of them were radio gigs. All of them were strange.

For three afternoons each week, I worked at Beach Patrol, a weather-forecast service managed by the celebrated Dave Moran and sponsored by Hawaiian Tropic, “the tan of the islands” (thanks, Dave, for the correction here!). I sat in a house in landlocked Salem, Virginia, and called radio stations at various beaches up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Over the phone, I’d deliver a customized weather forecast tailored for each beach area, and I’d play a Hawaiian Tropics commercial. All very professional, and all very theatrical. Radio magic. For extras, Dave told side-splittingly funny radio stories, and one of my colleagues was Gary Cooper. No, not that one, the other one.

On Sunday nights from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. Monday mornings, I’d babysit the banks of automated 10.5 inch reel-to-reel decks loaded with “beautiful music” at WLRG (“Large FM,” 92.5). I’d also program the commercials for the next day, putting pins into holes to trigger the cues that would play the spots at the correct times throughout the day. Most scientific.

Each of those gigs was thrilling in its own way, even the overnight mushy music gig. But the best gig of all was the graveyard shift at WROV, 1240 AM, midnight-6 a.m. every Sunday morning. There I was, playing rock-n-roll on the hottest hometown station, the one I’d listened to since elementary school on a little green JC Penney six-transistor radio. I was in the control room where all the greats had inspired my rock dreams: Jack Fisher, Rob O’Brady, Fred Frelantz, more. All extraordinary, larger-than-life disc jockeys, the guys who’d answer the phone when I’d call in and try to get concert tickets, the guys (and they were all guys, then, alas) who seemed to have eerie powers of concentrated hipness and wit.

But the greatest of all was Bart Prater. And in the summer of 1977, he was my boss.

I had followed Bart Prater (rhymes with “crater”) since he’d joined the WROV roster in the late 1960s. Up from Marion, Virginia, the new guy started out as the nighttime DJ, “young Bart” the upstart, the one with the long hair. As a joke, the other WROV DJs trapped him one afternoon, dragged him into the studio, and cut his hair, live on the air. Well, that’s what they said they did. It was radio, after all.

Within a few years, Bart’s career went supernova. He moved to afternoon drive after Jack Fisher left. He became program director, responsible for hiring, firing, and managing all the on-air talent. In 1974, he helped break the Doobie Brothers’ immortal “Black Water.” And in 1975, he arrived: Billboard named him DJ-of-the-year for markets of under 1,000,000 population.

Bart’s voice was an utterly compelling blend of deep baritone resonance and crisp, cutting consonants. He spoke with the same cadence and timbre as Rod Serling. Bart didn’t seem to have to work at producing the sound. He just spoke, and every syllable was imbued with his intense, witty, sometimes loopy, sometimes nearly surreal on-air personality. He’d say things so quickly, without underlining any punch line or milking any response, that I sometimes wouldn’t get the joke until the song had been playing for a minute or two. His wordplay could rival Dylan’s, or Steve Martin’s. You could almost accuse him of muttering, but he was such a stickler for great articulation that he was the farthest thing from a mutterer. It was just that his jokes and patter were so inside, so self-contained in Bart’s own world, that it really did sound sometimes as if he were talking to himself–but you were welcome there too.

Sophomore year at Wake Forest University, I took a course called “Radio Practicum.” I fell in love with radio all over again, this time not just as a listener, but as an announcer myself. Classical, jazz, progressive free-form FM rock. Heaven. As the academic year came to a close that spring, I wondered if I could find radio work at home for the summer. I could indeed. Three part-time openings to apply for. Beach Patrol. Large FM. WROV.

I went down to the converted Quonset hut that housed the WROV studios, identified myself at the front desk, and sat down to wait for Bart. I had my little reel-to-reel tape with me so he could hear how I sounded on mike at Wake Forest’s WFDD-FM. I looked around the reception area and tried hard not to hyperventilate. I’d been there before, not only to pick up the occasional contest prize but also to visit the broadcast room itself as a WROV High School Correspondent. This time, though, was different. This time I was going to ask the Wizard of Rock for a job. The lowest spot possible in the line-up, but what did that matter? I would be a DJ on WROV, and my boss would be the Wizard of Rock–if I got the gig.

An office door opened and Bart Prater stuck his head out. He looked around, saw me, asked me if I was Gardner Campbell (I believe I said yes, but who knows? I was petrified), and invited me in to his office. He asked me to sit down. I vaguely remember doing so. Bart was very low-key, very polite, and very focused. He threaded the tape up, listened to my voice, and apparently liked what he heard enough to offer me the job. I went from petrified to elated in half a second. Then he asked me a question I had not anticipated.

So, Gardner, what will you use as your air name?

I hesitated.

Well, Gardner, I’ve always thought Bob Van Dyke would be a great air name. Bob was our WROV Diamond Keeper last spring, and I really do think the name would suit you well. What do you think?

What did I think. I thought he could suggest Tommy the Tuba as my air name and I’d agree enthusiastically, if it meant I could be a DJ on WROV. I didn’t say that, of course. I just said, “Sure! That sounds great!”

And so my gig began. Every Saturday night I’d come in about 11:15 or so and get ready to go on the air at midnight. As Bob Van Dyke, I’d do my thing on the Rock of Roanoke, Oh Lordy 1240, playing the songs, hitting the network news feed at the top of the hour (a special skill I finally mastered), filling out the transmitter logs, noting when the commercials ran. And every time I clicked the microphone on, I’d try as hard as I could to be as funny, hip, and memorable as Bart. As you might expect, I failed to reach that goal, in part because I was trying too hard, but mostly because Bart was inimitable.

My air shift was effectively over at 5 a.m. each Sunday morning. The last hour was all religious and community programming on LPs with a half-hour on each side. That left me with about an hour to roam around the station, looking at the old 45s, the production rooms, the moderne-styled transmitter with its tubes aglow and faintly humming, and the pictures hanging on the walls. Several of those photos were of Bart. One framed item was not a photo at all, but Bart’s first-class FCC license. That license meant Bart was qualified not only as a DJ (that required a “third class license with broadcast endorsement”), but also as an full-fledged radio engineer. In other words, Bart was qualified to be on the air, and he was qualified to build and run an entire radio station all by himself. I could only look on in wonder. I had no idea.

But best of all, even better than the weird phone calls and the stalkers (yes, there was one), even better than the thrill of sending out Heart’s “Barracuda” to the entire Roanoke Valley from the fabled corner of 15th and Cleveland, even better than all of these, was the weekly critique session with Bart Prater. For it’s true: every week Bart would sit down with me, the guy who was as green as grass and on the lowest of the low shifts, and spend nearly an hour listening to my airchecks and offering me private lessons in effective radio announcing. Bart taught me that things move forward in time, so the song title should be the very last thing you say before the music hits and you stop talking. Bart taught me to let my voice come out naturally, without forcing it, and certainly without the exaggerated tonsil-swinging AM style he called “puking.” Bart taught me to slow down, to trust the moment, and to enjoy myself.

As we listened to my airchecks, I heard some howlers I just knew would get me fired. I’d step on–that is, talk over–the song’s vocal. My patter was sometimes bad in ways I can’t easily describe. “Dumb” doesn’t quite do justice to the insane irrelevancies and flat “jokes” I would hear spilling out of my mouth. Once to my horror, on that little cassette that recorded my airchecks, I heard a record take about five seconds to come up to speed as I was introducing the song and yes, stepping on the vocal. Those turntables did not reach the right speed instantly, and I hadn’t taken that lag time into account when I cued up the record. So the beginning of “Hey Jude,” which starts with the vocal of course, sounded like “hohhhhhhaaahhhhhhhheeeeeeeaaaaaaaaayyyeeeeeeee Jude”–really loudly, because the station’s audio compressor was tuned for maximum impact. And all the time I was bleating away. I was mortified and couldn’t look Bart in the eye as I heard the song wowing its way to life as I kept on talking over Paul McCartney’s voice.

Bart never mentioned it. He had some kind of strange gift that could distinguish between lack of aptitude and lack of experience. I guess he assumed the latter was susceptible to education, and the mistakes would be fewer and farther between as I learned. A simple gift, really, but surprisingly rare.

And he was right. I got better over the summer. A lot better. I grew confident. My patter improved. I had more fun. I could experiment more, with better results. I could answer the phone, cue up a record, get the next spot ready in the tape-cartridge player, check the transmitter meters, and prepare to hit the news at the top of the hour with no more than a second’s lapse. And I was ready to say something short, sweet, and rocking when I clicked the microphone on.

At the end of the summer, at our last meeting, Bart looked at me and said, in the voice of the Wizard of Rock, the only voice he had and the only voice he would ever need, “Well, Gardner, you’ve improved about 1000% since you started working here. Good job.” I shook his hand and thanked him, and I said goodbye.

That was the last time I saw Bart Prater. The next summer I worked construction–the pay was better, but my heart wasn’t in it. The summer after that, I graduated from college, got married, and started working at a station in Fredericksburg, Virginia. And every time I’d go back home to Salem to visit my folks, I’d listen for Bart. I heard him in the last glory days of WROV, and I heard him when he jumped to the new FM rocker, K-92. On that new station with no static at all, Bart was still great, but it wasn’t the same. The Wizard of Rock belonged on the Rock of Roanoke. Bart Prater belonged on WROV. And in that golden summer of 1977, Bart made me believe I belonged on WROV too. What began as a polite fiction for the benefit of a young student just starting out in radio became a reality by the end of that summer. The student was ready, and the teacher appeared–one of the best teachers in the land. The Wizard of Rock himself. He taught me essential things about radio, and he taught me some vital things about teaching, too.

I paid tribute to Bart and the Rock of Roanoke at the Digital Media and Learning conference in 2015, with an Ignite Talk about radio.

But no tribute is enough for the gratitude and admiration I still feel for Bart Prater. His death last Wednesday hit me hard. I was moved by two hometown remembrances, one an article in the Roanoke Times, and one a great 1997 interview with Bart done by WDBJ television:

And I resolved to write this post.

Bart ended every one of his air shifts with, “never whittle toward yourself, or spit into the wind.” Good advice, though I also remember that other lesson he shared with me, in one of our first private conferences: things move forward in time.

Sometimes I wish they didn’t, because those things now include a big empty space where a wizard once lived.

Thank you, Bart. I won’t forget.

EDIT: I just found a remarkable “scoped” aircheck of Bart from 1972. (“Scoped” means spots, news, and voice breaks.) The aircheck showcases some fine examples of Bart’s great delivery and wicked ad-libs.

We join Bart as he shares his summer vacation slides … on the radio.

It’s also a fascinating time capsule. Those commercials, those jingles … and don’t miss the news about 14:00 in. Muskie vs. McGovern vs. Jackson vs. Humphrey. Vivid stuff.

2017: Quarks, Love, and Insight

Quark structure proton

Two ups, a down, and some gluons.  A hadron; later, perhaps, an atom.

I used to do a little warm-up exercise in faculty development workshops. I called it “Quarks of Learning.” The question was simple: what are the elementary particles and fundamental constituents of learning? The responses were always interesting, and revealed a surprising amount of agreement among faculty from different disciplines. The adventure, then, was to discuss how one might build learning experiences out of those fundamental constituents.

I liked the warm-up for a lot of reasons. There were not any obviously wrong answers. The agreement was surprising. We weren’t getting waylaid by typical categories of “skills” and “content,” a false and pernicious and very damaging dichotomy. And the exercise seemed to be self-dramatizing, in a way, as the pleasure of listing these fundamental constituents, and the engagement that pleasure empowered, seemed itself to be a fundamental constituent. We found ourselves in productive community, aligned yet varied, thoughtful and creative, having a good time building something together out of ideas that didn’t usually emerge in “faculty development”–and certainly not in “training.”

Over time, and in varying roles within institutions of higher education, I’ve thought a lot about these quarks of learning. I’ve tried to support curricula within the English major that would keep those quarks embedded in the design of the major. I’ve tried to do similar work with faculty development in pedagogy, in teaching and learning technologies involving networked personal computing, and in the large and comprehensive structures involving colleges, faculty, and academic programs (including a degree program) across an entire university. All along, I’ve wanted those quarks to be more powerfully present, in all the discussions and planning, than talk about “operationalizing” and “branding” and so forth, as I have many times seen how the fundamental constituents vanish–or are erased–in favor of talk about process that serves the institution much more than the learner.

For a long while, I advocated for “interest” as the fundamental constituent of learning, the quark of all quarks. I still believe that interest, and the psychology of interest, are fundamentally empowering elements of all learning. As time has gone on, however, I can see that interest doesn’t quite resonate with my audiences the way it does with me. As the psychology of interest and curiosity becomes more sophisticated and pervasive, that may change. As I become better at explaining myself, ditto. To this point, however, it has been difficult to make the case that the kind of interest and curiosity I care about is fundamentally different from the “look, a squirrel!” varieties of endless superficial distractions.

The two quarks I’m working on now, therefore, are love and insight.

I’ve had something to say about love elsewhere, and I’ll have more to say about that in future posts. Tonight, at the start of a new calendar year, I will write a few things about insight.

I presented my first talk on an insight-oriented education in November, when I was honored to be the opening keynote for OpenEd 2016. I wanted the talk to be about insight, to be itself insightful, and to help to stimulate insight in others (in this case, the audience for the talk). You can see the opening video montage I created here. And you can see a Periscope recording of the talk made by the redoubtable Robin DeRosa here. I’ll have more to say about that OpenEd keynote in subsequent posts. At this point, I’ll simply say that I was working from Jonah Lehrer’s account (in “The Eureka Hunt”) of the neuropsychology of insight, as well as from ideas regarding sustainable psychotherapeutic improvements stemming not from medication but from what we used to call the “talking cure,” and which now seems to be about the power of language and story in particular to re-wire the brain by means of patients’ insights into their own circumstances, histories, and personalities.

Those areas alone merit and require a great deal of work. Little did I know that another enormous journey of discovery in this area was about to begin as well.

One of the more remarkable things that emerged from my talk was a tweet I received from an indispensable member of my personal learning network, Morris (Mo) Pelzel. Mo’s first tweet to me about Bernard Lonergan, the one that alerted me to Lonergan’s Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, is just out of Twitter-reach tonight. I’ll need to download a new version of my Twitter archive soon so I don’t lose that tweet! It was a vital moment. But at least I have the follow-up for you below.

Mo opened to me an exhilarating, difficult, yet utterly direct and moving text that took everything I had said about insight to the next level, and helped me understand that I was right: insight was indeed one of the quarks I sought. The word, the idea, the core reality of insight bridged the affective and cognitive realms more effectively than interest had. It connected with deep self-awareness. It was strongly aligned with ideas of creativity and imagination, but resisted being limited to only the arts, or only the humanities.

Most of all, it was a quark that met one of the prime requirements for quarkdom: it would be difficult for anyone in higher education to say, out loud, that insight was dispensable and played no necessary role in education. Or so I hope. And: once insight is in there, I reason, it becomes very difficult to retreat to reductive views of anything regarding learning, assessment of learning, expertise, pedagogy, etc. Like love, but with a more powerfully cognitive presence in most conversations about learning (alas, but I’ll take what I can get), insight would be the quark that was not only a fundamental constituent of learning and thus of school, but also a quark whose presence would liberate discussions about learning and schooling from the deadening technocracies that surround them.

So here and now, at the close of the first day of 2017, I offer a bit of Lonergan for you. His writing is extraordinarily ambitious, dense with meaning and implication. At the same time, his subject is so important, and the need for the thoughtful engagement he advocates and demonstrates is so urgent, that the book reads to me like a special edition of a newspaper written just before a crisis, not simply in response to it. I can’t pretend to grasp it all, yet. Parts of it may be beyond my reach. But the parts I do get thrill me. They help me think. They help me understand. And as I go along, Lonergan teaches me how to understand him better.

Here, then, now:

First, then, it is insight that makes the difference between the tantalizing problem and the evident solution…. Secondly, inasmuch as it is the act of organizing intelligence, insight is an apprehension of relations…. Thirdly, in a sense somewhat different from Kant’s, every insight is both a priori and synthetic. It is a priori, for it goes beyond what is merely given to sense or to empirical consciousness. It is synthetic, for it adds to the merely given an explanatory unification or organization…. Fourthly, a unification and organization of other departments of knowledge is a philosophy. But every insight unifies and organizes. Insight into insight [the project of the book, Lonergan tells us], then, will … yield a philosophy…. (4-5)

[I’m skipping items five and six because a) they’re too difficult for this already lengthy post, and b) seven and eight are crucially important.]

Seventhly, besides insights there are oversights. Besides the dynamic context of detached and disinterested [i.e.: not self-interested] inquiry in which insights emerge with a notable frequency, there are the contrary dynamic contexts of the flight from understanding in which oversights occur regularly and one might almost say systematically. [Yes, indeed–one of the reasons I have been reading books about the 2008 financial meltdown as well as the tragedies of the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia–not to mention watching Titanic over and over.] Hence, if insight into insight is not to be an oversight of oversights [what can I say? the man has a sense of humor], it must include an insight into the principal devices of the flight from understanding. Eighthly, the flight from understanding will be seen to be anything but a peculiar aberration that afflicts only the unfortunate or the perverse. In its philosophic form, which is not to be confused with its psychiatric, moral, social, and cultural manifestations [rather large exceptions here, but let’s keep going], it appears to result simply from an incomplete development in the intelligent and reasonable use of one’s own intelligence and reasonableness…. [I’d say that such incomplete development is partly a failure of education, and that much contemporary schooling, especially at scale, not only neglects but indeed tends to block or thwart such development.] (5-6)

[Again, skipping two elements, for reasons as above.]

The present work, then, may be said to operate on three levels: it is a study of human understanding; it unfolds the philosophic implications of understanding; it is a campaign against the flight from understanding. The three levels are solidary. Without the first there would be no basis for the second and no precise meaning for the third. Without the second the first could not get beyond elementary statements, and there could be no punch to the third. Without the third the second would be regarded as incredible, and the first would be neglected. (6-7)

[And now Lonergan writes with even greater urgency.]

Probably I shall be told that I have tried to operate on too broad a front. But I was led to do so for two reasons. In constructing a ship or a philosophy one has to go the whole way: an effort that is in principle incomplete is equivalent to a failure. [A beautiful analogy and for me a home truth–as well as one of the principal failings of higher education’s approaches to “educational technology.”] Moreover, against the flight from understanding half measures are of no avail. Only a comprehensive strategy can be successful. To disregard any stronghold of the flight from understanding is to leave intact a base from which a counteroffensive promptly will be launched. (7)

I have used a more gruesome analogy for my own version of Lonergan’s last point when I say one cannot have a “pet cancer.” Very often it seems to me that bureaucracies and especially technocracies are pocked with strongholds of the flight from understanding, so much so that it becomes quite an adventure merely to identify the valiant and embattled strongholds of insight among them. And even when those strongholds of insight are acknowledged, there is usually a sense that they are rare and special, and thus not essential or fundamental. Therefore everything else can be defined as business as usual, “operational” in a very narrow definition of “operations.” When those “operational” elements become in fact more strongholds of the flight from understanding, they become malignant–and it is in the nature of malignancy that it strives to overtake and feed on, thus ultimately destroy, the good. And the shuttle explodes, or burns up on re-entry, metaphorically and historically speaking.

Lonergan’s final argument for my post tonight circles back to why his endeavor matters. He insists it’s practical to work through a complex and difficult philosophy of insight. It’s operationally relevant! Vitally so. “But to be practical is to do the intelligent thing, and to be unpractical is to keep blundering about. It follows that insight into both insight and oversight is the very key to practicality” (8).

I’ll come back to some of these points as I continue to work though Lonergan’s book. But now, here, then: we must build and offer our learners an insight-oriented education. Do you hear talk about an insight-oriented education when you hear “student success” discussed? If not, pull the emergency stop. Help to avoid a civilization-sized train wreck.

What I am discovering about my “quarks of learning” is not simply what must be included in all learning design, but the very ground I must stand on myself, those aspects of real school that are non-negotiable. In this way, I begin to have insight into insight, myself.

Much to explore. Thanks, Mo.

Happy New Year.

Lonergan, Bernard. Insight: A Study of Human Understanding. 5th edition. Ed. Frederick E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran. Volume 3 of the Collected works of Bernard Lonergan. University of Toronto Press, 1992.

Confessions of a Computer-Mediated Communications Addict

Yes, I’ve been going through the closets lately. Here’s something I caught that might be of interest: a closing keynote address I presented at the 2002 Mary Washington College Faculty Academy on Instructional Technology.

It was an interesting in-between time. Our Assistant VP for Instructional Technology, David Ayersman, had left MWC in 2001. Our first CIO, Chip German, would arrive and begin his work in the fall of 2002. I had led the Instructional Technology Advisory Committee for several years but had not yet become an administrator. That step occurred in the summer of 2003, at Chip’s instigation, and would change all that followed in my career.

And I had not yet read Doug Engelbart’s Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework, or Vannevar Bush’s As We May Think, or any of those writings. I had never even heard of those people. I had no clue whatsoever about the “resonant frequency” of this stream of thought. No blogging, no podcasting, no Bluehost Experiment, no domain of my own, nothing. As you’ll see from the talk, it was all listservs (surprisingly sturdy and useful then) and what turned out to be ugly, slow, and ultimately disappointing Blackboard discussion forums. (I don’t think I’d discovered the Steve Hoffman Music Forums at that point, either–a new moment in my experience of discussion forums that would eventually turn me away from Blackboard and its ilk for good.)

So this paper tumbles out of my closet, and I caught it. In this talk I see that nearly a decade of working with computer-mediated communication had brought me into the thought world of dreamers who’d imagined and helped to build my future–ironically, unmet dreamers whom I had yet to discover. I see that my discovery of those dreamers ended up radicalizing me, in a way, as what I would read just two years later awakened me to the scope of those dreams and their liberatory potential for teaching and learning. Those dreams, and those dreamers, seemed to me a secret history of shared yearning, flawed and stained as all human endeavors are, but one that asked the central questions about the most salient concerns. It was an intellectual rebirth for me, but also the beginning of a trial-by-fire in some respects.

I see how ready I was for my next teachers to appear. I see a discontinuous moment ahead that I could not have anticipated. (I see that I am already using the word “bootstrapping.”)

I am trying to draw some lessons from this moment that comes into a new focus, fourteen years later.

I also like the muddle-mull-meal idea, which I’ve never used since in any talk I’ve given or any paper I’ve written. Maybe you’ll like it too.

Confessions of a Computer Mediated Communications Addict_final-2

An Encomium for Diane McColley

One day in class, thirty-six years ago, my first great Milton teacher. William Kerrigan, said that “we practice biographical criticism because we want to know whom to thank.” Something about that teacher, in the context of that subject, at that moment in the semester, and at that moment in my life, made the saying stick. I’ve never forgotten it.

While I hope it will be awhile before I can thank Milton in person, I have been lucky to be able to thank many others who have influenced my life, including that first Milton teacher. One of the amplest opportunities for giving thanks came almost twenty years after that initial lesson, when I was humbled to deliver an encomium for my second great Milton teacher, Diane McColley. The occasion was the Milton Society of America’s annual banquet meeting, where in 1999 the Society gave Diane its highest recognition: the Honored Scholar award. Awardees get to name their encomiasts, and Diane had asked me to serve in that role. The night remains one of the highlights of my life.

Why do I share this with you now? I’m writing an article on Milton. I’m also going through old files from my time at Mary Washington College (now the University of Mary Washington). I’m thinking about pasts, and futures. I’m trying to remember and recover a grateful mind.

When I saw this encomium, after many years, I could see evidence of a lighter, more graceful, more grateful self. And while no one could do justice to the heart and mind of Diane McColley, I tried my best, and I see in my attempt the great gifts Diane has given me. For a moment I am at peace.

Encomium for Diane McColley

cri de cœur

August Friedrich Albrecht Schenck - Anguish - Google Art Project
“Anguish” By August Friedrich Albrecht Schenck (1828 – 1901). Details of artist on Google Art Project [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.


I don’t really like polemic, most of the time. I think it often just feeds the beast, as Martha might say. I don’t like polarization or pointing fingers. I truly aspire to “generous questions … questions that invite honesty, dignity, and revelation.” But there are times when I must voice my outrage and sorrow.

I’ve spoken several times over the years about the abominations that are most online course registration systems. The example I typically use is a Nikki Giovanni seminar at Virginia Tech where the information in the course registration system is so vacantly unhelpful as to be, practically speaking, nihilistic. Such displays of casual disregard, in this context, move from irony into tragedy.

giovanni course 1 giovanni course 2

One may object that the point of the course registration system is simply to facilitate a transaction. That belief, of course, is precisely my point. A key moment of learner agency should not resemble online banking, or worse. C’mon people. Netflix does better. Amazon does better. Craigslist does better. Even the Division of Motor Vehicles does better, for crying out loud.

And I am crying, out loud.

But wait. It’s worse than that, as Jon Becker’s recent blog post demonstrates. (Go read it. I’ll be here when you get back.) Not only do we use Banner (or whatever) to strip out all the meaningful information from the moment when students actually choose to devote a substantial part of their lives and energies and financial resources to enroll in a course of study–meaningful information like a course website, a welcome from the prof, a syllabus, a full course description, heck, even a complete course title–but then we turn around and make these impoverished little information slivers nearly impossible to find.

This is probably the worst example in academia today of how decision-makers working on “business information systems,” in both universities and the vendor-land that supplies their habits, ruthlessly (and perhaps ignorantly, but that’s no excuse) pull up, by the roots, the values that could be strengthened and indeed amplified by the web-enabled affordances that could be bought or built.  It reflects the destructive idea that the internet is a utility only, a set of super-fast announcement channels, a clutch of electronic four-color brochures, a warren of pneumatic content-delivery pipes, a non-network of isolated transactional sites for decisions about learning that are drained of meaning or discovery.

Unfortunately, it appears that most faculty have acquiesced to this destructive idea. It may be that most faculty actually agree with this destructive idea. This is where the anguish really starts.

If higher ed were not so stubbornly resistant to the open web, and if faculty acted more vigorously (or at all) to experience the greatness of the web for themselves, and insisted on web design for the entire university that functioned as effective learning environments fostering richly connected learning, we might yet be that fabled city on a hill. If higher ed truly believed that all of us have a stake in a digital commons, a commons we must contribute to and be nourished by, we might help build a future we’d want our children to live in. But we have insisted on our status and comforts, slandered the web we should be helping to build alongside our students, defined meaning too often as “those things we know and will tell you about in your courses,” and outsourced nearly every possible zone of online learning innovation, invention, and discovery to the vendors who peddle digital soma that will relieve us, gently and with peaceful slumbers, of the need to change our lives.

 

Epigraphs for a new semester

A response to new learning:

“It wasn’t shocking; it was mysterious and beautiful; one felt no resentment, only a different kind of joy, and a curiosity that was new to me.”

Robert Hughes, “My Friend Robert Rauschenberg,” in The Spectacle of Skill (2015).

A favorite Baudelaire aphorism, on the purpose of study:

Je resous de trouver le pourquoi, et de transformer ma volupté en connaisance.
I made up my mind to find out the why of it, and to change my pleasure into knowledge.

Robert Hughes on the “unspoken but always present motto” for his book and television series The Shock of the New. In Hughes, “The Shock of the New,” The Spectacle of Skill (2015). (My friendly amendment: not simply to change pleasure into knowledge, but to charge each with the other.)

A reminder of our stewardship as scholars, and our failings:

“Repeatedly, we will find scholars using theory–or simply attitude–to burn through whatever is small, tender, and worthy of protection and cultivation. Academic cool is a cast of mind that disdains interpersonal kindness, I-thou connection, and the line separating the self from the outer world and the engulfing collective.”

Lisa Ruddick, “When Nothing Is Cool,” in The Point.

And finally, a crucial observation about writing:

“[T]he real challenge of writing is not mechanical, but epistemological: how we say something isn’t separable from what we know and how we think we know it.”

Angelika Bammer and Ruth-Ellen Boetcher Joeres,”Introduction,” in The Future of Scholarly Writing: Critical Interventions, ed. Angelika Bammer & Ruth-Ellen Boetcher Joeres (2015).

 

 

A taxonomy of student engagement

Last November I was honored to be the keynote speaker at the University of North Florida’s 3rd annual Academic Technology Innovation Symposium. The event brought me into contact with a number of talented faculty, grad students, and staff at UNF, and the sessions I was able to attend (I was on an unusually tight schedule) were fascinating. I learned a lot, and I tried to tweet out most of it. It was actually my first full-on conference tweeting in a while. It was good to get back to a practice I really enjoy. So I have UNF to thank for that, too. Special thanks go out to Deb Miller, Director of the Center for Instruction and Research Technology, who invited me and managed this fine event, as well as Yentl Dunbar and Justin Lerman, who very capably handled all of my travel logistics.

One of the greatest pleasures of the trip was a joyful reunion with a colleague and friend I’ve known for over fifteen years, the redoubtable Andy Rush. Andy’s working with some great folks, the job looks like a great fit for his talents and interests, and it’s hard to quarrel with the weather (at least in November), the seafood, or the beauty of that extraordinary campus. (Plus Danny Gottlieb works in the jazz program there–a program for which UNF is justly famous.)

And I’ll tell you something about Andy Rush: the man knows from bags of gold. An alum of the early days of the UMW-DTLT Dream Team, Andy is a powerful contributor to all things multimedia, multimodal, webby, and inventive. LIke we said, bags of gold.

So I saw Andy again, in action and in conversation, and I met cool smart people trying to bring all sorts of magic and collaborative inventiveness to teaching and learning … and I had the chance to try to work out some of my own ideas in the company of folks who’d help me think about them and make them stronger, better. Which they did. As you’ll see, a couple of the questions following my talk stopped me dead in my tracks, and usefully so.

Here’s what I was working on:

Blended Learning – A Taxonomy of Student Engagement

What do we mean by the words “student engagement”? My talk proposes that the answer is far from obvious. I will sketch out several possible meanings, describe what I take to be the character and outcomes of each variety, and suggest why school itself makes it particularly difficult to foster certain kinds of deep and sustained engagement. I will conclude with some thoughts about how hybrids of online and face-to-face learning experiences can best encourage such engagement.

That’s the abstract I submitted, and it’s fairly close to what I actually talked about. Along the way, however, I wove in some ideas the abstract only hinted at. In particular, I wanted to work the idea of taxonomy that I’ve had such trouble with in the case of poor Dr. Bloom. I wanted to keep the genre or framework, so to speak, but do something much wilder and messier and more passionate.

Part of my desire on the day of the talk was driven by events of just that week, including teaching I had done just two days before. The abstract indicates that I have thoughts to share with my colleagues at UNF, and that was certainly true. What I found, however, was that my life in the week had turned my abstract into a second-person query aimed at me: Gardner, what do you mean my student engagement? How would you map it? Why was that class two days ago so difficult and even painful for you? What had you hoped would happen?

Parker Palmer opens his magisterial The Courage To Teach with just such soul-searching. Although I didn’t think of it at the time, it occurred to me a few days later that I was following his example. I hope so. It’s a great one.

So here’s the video my friend and colleague Andy Rush made, on a day when layers of time and thought (as is clear from Andy’s blog as well) blended. A different kind of blended learning, perhaps, but no less important than any other.

And for the record, once again: I am so not kidding.

A candle in the window

My blog was pretty quiet in the year just past. I count twelve posts.

Something is wrong.

Many things are wrong, in fact, but just yesterday a former student taught me an important lesson about the thing that is fundamentally wrong, at least as far as my blog is concerned.

I’ve been pretty active on Facebook, craving the contact, the immediate rewards, the comforting network there that seems so much more tangible, knowable, known. It’s a gated community and that’s certainly the main point of what now appears to me to be my retreat there. I expect I will continue to crave that network of friends and family and colleagues, perhaps now more than ever before. No terrible thing, that craving: the gates are also a circle of trust, which is how I got my lesson yesterday. And yet the circle immediately expanded into a much larger realm, one in which a larger circle of trust, one I had drawn myself but forgotten or neglected (they amount to the same thing), lay waiting for me.

My former student’s husband was driving on the highway when two deer hit his car. The car was a total wreck. He was fine. The torrent of gratitude one feels at such a moment came pouring out of his wife in a status update on Facebook. In that update, she remembered something she had learned from another Mary Washington professor, an Ethiopian scholar who emigrated to the US and taught at Mary Washington for many years. I worked with him for over a decade. His name was Taddesse Adera.

What did the young woman recall? What learning outcome appeared as a moment of terror yielded to a torrent of gratitude?

She remembered that Taddesse had taught her that in his culture, people were never counted, for anything that can be counted can be taken away. In that remembering, she resolved she would not count her blessings in this intense moment, but rather think about the depth and expansiveness of her blessings as they spilled over any possibility of measure or containment. And in that resolve, she remembered her teacher. Memory became memorial.

When the student is ready, the teacher appears. How marvelous in this moment of readiness for this grateful woman to have a dear, wise teacher appear before her once again. And in the responses she received, other Mary Washington students shared in her gratitude, for her husband’s safety as well as for Taddesse Adera’s lessons–for they too had been students in his classes.

As the comments continued, the young woman wrote again, and the circle expanded. She had felt the presence of her teacher Taddesse so intensely in that moment that she went to Google to find the marks of his works and days. In doing so, she found a memorial I had written on my blog just after Taddesse had died, suddenly, in early 2006. The post spoke to her, and she shared it with her Facebook network.

And now I saw the post again, many years later, and I remembered something.

Sometimes my blog advances an argument, or tries to. Sometimes it aims to explore (or affect) the metaphysics. Sometimes it’s just thoughts, more or less unshaped, Sometimes all it is, is writing. Me writing. Gardner writes.

Reading what I had written about Taddesse, though, reminded me of what my blog is, at the deep heart’s core. These moments of love, or pain, or wonder, or confusion, these are important moments. Not every moment, and not all equal, but more of them than we can well remark upon, and more that should be discoverable, and unpredictably so. More moments we can reach for, and bring close.

One of my favorite scenes in The Year Of Living Dangerously comes when Billy Kwan, looking at the pictures of the new reporter in town, asks the empty room the essential question: could this new arrival be the unmet friend?

The wider circle of trust is the faith that the world has more unmet friends, more hands to hold, more hearts to mark and remember. I started blogging because I believed in the possibility of that wider circle, and marveled at the ways in which the Internet and the World Wide Web had symbolized that possibility and demonstrated the yearning that had animated many of its builders.

The young woman’s love for her old teacher, my love for a departed colleague, a link that leads to a memorial that still lives. A departed colleague and years of my own life now long past. A loss of faith interrupted by a young wife and mother’s joy, and a hyperlink to a past self who rebuffs my deflated disbelieving present self. A past self, now present, remembering a fine student and sharing in her joy, remembering a colleague who helped to nurture and shape my growth as a scholar and teacher, and whose life once again illuminated mine. A live link to help me recall why I blog.

A candle in the window.

"there's a place I got when I'm all alone." Photo by Psyche Della. CC-by-nc.

“there’s a place I go when I’m all alone.” Photo by Psyche Della. CC-by-nc.

The great search

“Van Morrison is interested, obsessed with how much musical or verbal information he can compress into a small space, and, almost conversely, how far he can spread one note, word, sound, or picture. To capture one moment, be it a caress or a twitch. He repeats certain phrases to extremes that from anybody else would seem ridiculous because he’s waiting for a vision to unfold, trying as unobtrusively as possible to nudge it along. Sometimes he gives it to you through silence, by choking off the song in midflight: ‘It’s too late to stop now!’.

“It’s the great search, fueled by the belief that through these musical and mental processes illumination is attainable. Or may at least be glimpsed.”

–Lester Bangs, Astral Weeks,” in Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island, ed. Greil Marcus