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 had the honor to be the keynote speaker at the University of North Florida’s 3rd annual Academic Technology Innovation Summit. 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

Gregory Bateson I

Some men seem able to go on working steadily with little success and no reassurance from outside. I am not one of these. I have needed to know that somebody else believed that my work had promise and direction, and I have often been surprised that others had faith in me when I had very little in myself…. I therefore have to thank many people and institutions for backing me, at times when I did not consider myself a good bet.

“Foreword, 1971” in Steps to an Ecology of Mind (University of Chicago Press, 1972, reprinted with a new Foreword by Mary Catherine Bateson, 2000)

What I saw on Monday

Roaming the vicinity of Virginia Commonwealth University, I found a spot just across from Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church where I could get a few action shots:

united states whoa tight

New Zealand racer closeup

france 1 close

australia 2 close

USA. New Zealand. France. Australia. It’s fascinating to me to watch the time trials, watch the bicycles and their riders in their caravans: motorcycle, bike, car following. Like the transit of a planet, the procession has a period, a rhythm, a time. Yet the photos reveal globe-spanning difference and subtle changes in expression. Joy, concentration, effort. All kinds of time.

Later on, I was delighted to find students from the Anthropology of the Crowd course (part of the Great VCU Bike Race Book project) sitting in the library and debriefing each other on their day. They were excited by the experience of learning while participating in an event within a course that required them to make a kind of festive contact with strangers from around the world. That’s an interesting set of circles, both intersecting and concentric. The world in Richmond, themselves in Richmond, citizens whose accents enacted journeys from Broad Street sidewalks to lands far away.

The students were joyful.

Great VCU Bike Race Book debrief 1

Is this not study? Is this not study abroad?

Great VCU Bike Race Book debrief 2

A professor in Massachusetts

Thoreau and WaldenI went to the woods to see the woods Thoreau went to, hoping to feel more of the why that he felt. Thoreau didn’t erect that sign, of course. Someone else did, later. Did they betray him or his work by doing so? Did Thoreau even write those words without irony? Was / is Walden a cruel hoax, an aspiration, a bit of self-indulgence, an inspiration, a record of life-long learning, a mass of undecidability (and then how would we know?).

What are the essential facts of life that Thoreau assumes can be so confidently identified and proclaimed?

What does life (if that’s the “it”) have to teach? What does it matter what life teaches if death is inevitable? Why so many negatives in that last sentence, three in total? (How would we grade such a sentence?) How can Thoreau be so sure of his motives? “I went to the woods because”: how can we accept any such direct, simple statement of motives as anything but glaring self-deception or, worse, obfuscation, sleight-of-mind? Is it a trick? (The antecedent for “it” may be unclear, I admit it.)

I remember making many kinds of meanings as I stood behind the camera and took this picture. I imagine I would like to share the “I” who was there to take the picture, but that person is not pictured.

With all the complexities and uncertainties and critical-thinking born-and-bound modes I can and do bring to bear upon the words on this sign, in this setting, in the larger context of an August afternoon near a public pond just last year, many years after I have read Walden, I do believe, anyway, that I can learn from Thoreau, and not just about Thoreau. I sense his living hand, then warm and capable, stretching toward mine. Though I cannot map or fully articulate what that meeting is or will be, I do believe he is as sincere as one can hope, and that I can trust him enough to meet him, and trust both of us to do our utmost not to betray our meetings and the hopes those meetings might yet revive.



Meeting on the Motherblog

Yesterday was Day 3 of the first annual (do you hear me, o ye gods? first annual) University Seminar on General Education at Virginia Commonwealth University. Yesterday we took a long, hard, and occasionally (contentious? spirited? anxious? dismayed?) look at Tier II of the Core Curriculum at VCU. Tier II is the heart of what constitutes the University general education curriculum, as opposed to the parts of gen ed that are defined (if that’s the right word) by individual undergraduate units such as the College of Humanities and Sciences, the School of the Arts, etc.

This information is specific and public. It is defined, described, accessible, open. Yet it was a surprise to many of my fellow seminarians–I hope they will permit me to speak of myself as in their company, as I want to be–and released a good deal of energy into the room and the conversation and indeed the rest of the day and long into the evening, as you can see in their blog posts.

For those blog posts are also public, and you can find them most easily on the University Seminar on General Education motherblog. Most of my own homework has been devoted to making that motherblog, and to trying to make that motherblog more useful. Perhaps I can make it more aesthetically pleasing as well, soon. I hope so.

I have thanked my colleagues for their candor and their commitment, their willingness to engage with what Jon Becker has taught me to call “learning out loud.” I thank them here as well, publicly, openly. While I have been intensely ambivalent (a tamer word than the tempest it occasions in my soft brain) about faculty culture ever since I emigrated there in grad school (University of Virginia, 1980s, best of times, worst of times), I remember as I read my colleague’s blog posts how inventive and funny and, yes, poignant they can be–sorry, we can be–when we have an opportunity to be our best selves (here it comes, this is vital) along a shared learning arc. That arc is what Danielle, Jeff, and I have worked on prior to this week. That arc is what all of us in the seminar are now building together. Perhaps it’s a rainbow bridge to Asgard, or perhaps it’s the disintegrating rope bridge in Friedkin’s Sorcerer.

That is, the one the strange companions try to cross in a monsoon, driving a truck filled with nitroglycerin.

As today’s Vannevar Bush reading reminds me, we have met the nitro, and it is us, our own grand challenge and wicked problem: human ingenuity. They’re my species, but what’s up with that ingenuity business? Net gain for the planet? Are we what Terra had in mind when she rubbed her coalescing chin and said, “hmm, what shall I evolve upon my shores?”

But in all of this welter-skelter, the best way I’ve ever found to make it all visible, to create at least the strongly implicit and encouraging space for meeting, linking, thinking, and making, is the motherblog, what I learned from Barbara Ganley over a decade ago, when I also learned that as passionate and energetic as I aim to be, there was a yet more vivid place to aspire to reach, the place in which Barbara made her meeting spaces. Not for the first or last time, then: thank you, Barbara.

Oh, and for the TL;DR resistant who have made it this far: please, for the love of all we profess in education, comment on the seminarians’ work, won’t you?

Appreciatively yours,


Curriculum Cooking

I’m at the end of day two of VCU’s first annual University Seminar on General Education. There’s more to say than I can possibly articulate in this small space of time, but I do want to mark this phase of the experience with a metaphor. Metaphors are how I mark my experience. (I was going to qualify that sentence with various hedging “arguably” and “perhaps” locutions, but thought better of it.)

Thanks to a wonderful suggestion by Suzie Fairman, my division’s Coordinator of Operations, we closed day one of the seminar by adjourning to a kitchen-school and cooking together. Tapas! Team. Nourishment. Fellowship. Direct instruction (recipes, kitchen rules and etiquette) along with informal learning and a good deal of improvisation. Not a bad metaphor for the way we’re trying to imagine (and re-imagine, and design) a general education curriculum (or environment) cooking with connection.


Credit: Jeff South


Credit: Jeff South

Now for a little more weight on the metaphor: see how this context problematizes the often pernicious dichotomies between “sage on the stage” and “guide at the side,” or between “group work” and “individual reflection.” And I freely confess, and loudly celebrate, that it was hard to quarrel with the very tasty results.

Below, more cooking, in a setting that could benefit from the liberal application of that metaphor:





Here I leave the further elaboration as an exercise for the reader(s).

Tomorrow, our midpoint. What will be the feast we prepare together?