A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucie’s Day

A little over seven years ago, I did a podcast series I called “A Donne A Day.” That fall I was to teach a seminar at the University of Mary Washington on the writings of John Donne, and I wanted to have a stock of poems ready for students to listen to as well as read. It was a good series, I think, one eventually completed by my students in the seminar. Most of the audio links have broken during several file migrations, and I’ll fix them tomorrow, but I need to put this post up tonight before St. Lucie’s Day is past.

I also need to post this tonight as a timely thank you to three former students who shared their remembrances of this class and this poem on Facebook today, led by the initial status update of Emily Williams. It was a wonderful class in every way. The students were bright, quirky, eager. We dove into the poetry with rigor and abandon. I attended my first Renaissance Fair (trippy indeed). We had a wiki, and a podcast series–and we had each other.

Thank you, Emily, for remembering the class and posting the poem. Thank you Anna and Charlotte for posting your memories as well. Thank you, John Donne, for the grim art you did not hold back in this extraordinary lyric. I hope my reading suggests at least a little of the poem’s power and depth.

And thank you once again, Michael Roman, for being a great teacher, and for introducing me to this mindbending poet and his work. You were exactly the teacher I needed, and you led me to Milton as well (though I didn’t know that at the time).

I hope you are still teaching, somewhere. I know you are still teaching me.


A Long Goodbye: Alex Chilton

A parting post for 2011, unrelated to education or technology, except for the recording, playback, and transportation technologies that helped with my “edification by puzzlement,” to use the evocative phrase of James Fernandez…. It’s an elegy for one of my favorite musicians, but for me it also stands for many other things, as all deeply felt things do.

Reposted with a few revisions from a burst of writing I did yesterday on the Steve Hoffman forum:

You know, I was really so wracked about Alex Chilton’s death, and then Andy Hummel’s right after it, that I haven’t been able to think straight about any of it until recently. I too was (and am still) one of those Alex fans people complain about. My brother and another close friend used to kid me (ok, mock me) in the late 80’s because of my Alex/Big Star fixation, then in full flowering because I’d seen Alex eight or nine times in that decade. I didn’t have to go too far to find him. For awhile there he was gigging the mid-Atlantic area three or four times a year, it seemed. He played Charlottesville at least three or four times while I was in grad school at UVA. I saw him in Roanoke once and put my wife up to asking him about “I Am The Cosmos,” which I’d just heard courtesy of a friend at Back Alley Disc in C’ville. I figured Alex might open up a little more to a beautiful woman than to me at that point, and he did–he told her he thought it was a really great song, and told her the story of how he first met Chris back when he’d go hear him play in the Jynx back in Memphis.

So many memories of that decade, finally getting to meet and occasionally interact with someone whose music had been so important to me.

Sometimes Alex would be prickly, or would say things that made no sense to me at all. He seemed so casually dismissive of the best of his own work, and would spend so much energy on what seemed to me then like hipster piffle, songs like “Volare.” That song still seems like hipster piffle to me, I have to say. But in that same show, at the 9:30 Club in D.C., he did a breathtaking electric version of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” How could someone go from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again so quickly and perversely? I was deeply puzzled and in truth torn about it all. In my mid-20’s, seeing this musical hero every few months it seemed, and trying to figure out my own artistic and professional story: I could feel broken-hearted, inspired, and deeply intrigued at every show he did. And of course mixed emotions are perfect fuel for any obsession….

Other memories: Going up to Alex the first time I saw him, at the C&O Club in C’ville, and getting him to sign his new album, “Feudalist Tarts” as well as “Radio City” (photo above).  My friend Robin McLeod, the fellow who’d introduced me to that Big Star record about ten years earlier, was standing next to me. Alex was slumped in a chair–he’d been battling the flu–but was very polite. When I praised the sound of “Radio City,” he said “Well, that’s because of John Fry; he’s the reason the record sounds so good.” When I told him how much the record had meant to me, he said, “Thanks–I want you to listen to some of the material in the second set tonight; there’s some real melodic stuff in there.” I remember Alex with his three piece (Doug Garrison, drums and Ron Easley, bass) playing “You Get What You Deserve” (also at the C&O club in C’ville)–only time I heard him play that. When he got to the bridge and the “oh, oh-oh, ohhhh” part, I was dancing madly and grinning like a fool.

Once I went up to him during a set break and asked him why he didn’t play more of his Big Star material onstage. (Before the Big Star 2.0 reunion, I heard him play “September Gurls” and “In The Street” most every gig, “When My Baby’s Beside Me” two or three times total, and “You Get What You Deserve” exactly once.) He said, “well, the music’s pretty good, but the lyrics just lay an egg for me.” I asked, “Even something like ‘O My Soul’? I love those lyrics.” He said, “Nah, Chris didn’t finish that song before he left.” I said, “Well, I guess it’s also pretty hard to play a song like that live.” (I was really fishing at that point–plus the 1974 WLIR concert hadn’t been released yet.) He looked at me and said, “It’s not the hardest song on the album.” I asked, “What is the hardest song?” He said, “Daisy Glaze–we tried to learn it in rehearsal this afternoon–heh, forget it.”

I just couldn’t help myself. I knew his power pop radar was intact. I could tell it from the way he played Lou Christie’s “I Wanna Make You Mine” and the melancholy, soulful “Nobody’s Fool,” a song written by his former producer and vocals mentor Dan Penn. But then he’d riff on something interesting but ultimately unsatisfying, like “Boogie Shoes,” and I would try to resign myself to enjoying what I could and giving up on the bigger hopes.

But other times, the hope flared up again, very intensely. I remember Alex coming up to me out of the blue at the 9:30 Club to chat; we talked about record stores and radio stations in Memphis, and I told him I had made it to the short list for a job at what was then called Memphis State University. He said “Hey, that’s cool, maybe you’ll get it and move to Memphis and I’ll see you around there.” I tried to stay calm throughout the conversation, but it was tough. I gave Alex a cassette of some Son House after one of the shows, and he said he’d never heard any Son House before. I hope he liked it. I met Anna Lee Van Cleef, his girlfriend at the time and photographer for “High Priest,” after another show, the one Chris Stamey opened for. Chris was showing folks his new Wurlitzer electric guitar (a beauty), and Alex was holding court across the room, sitting next to Anna Lee (also a beauty).

Alex smoked a lot of pot those days, or so I was told, and it wasn’t like we were going to have a real intense or focused conversation anyway, but still, every one of those short little fanboy encounters was very important to me, as well as deeply puzzling and strangely worrying.

There seemed to me to be something about the deep structure of the universe that the music of Big Star communicated, something sad and powerful and joyful and melancholy and wry all at once. To me, Alex had been a channel for this communication, and I was trying to figure out how all that happened, trying to explain something to myself I suppose. Later, as I began to discover the heart and soul that Chris Bell had given the band, as well as the crucial roles Jody and Andy had played in the whole undertaking, I began to understand how complex that channeling really was. But I never really changed my mind about what was being channeled. I don’t think I will ever change my mind about that.

The last time I saw Alex was in 1994 at the Fillmore in San Francisco, where my friend Robin was living at the time. The reformed Big Star was playing there at exactly the time my family and I were traveling back east to my new job in Virginia. Robin and I got to the Fillmore early so we could stand near the front. We heard the opening act (can’t recall the name, alas), then heard Counting Crows (playing under a false name, for reasons I can’t recall–probably contractual). Then we saw both bands helping to set up the equipment for Big Star. I thought at the time that this was their way of paying tribute to the band. It was a moving sight. Then Big Star came out. It was an amazing set, start to finish, and I was in truth more than a little shaken up to hear all those songs that had shaped my life, songs I never imagined I would hear live. But the moment that sticks in my mind the most is the moment the band came out on stage. For a second or two I made eye contact with Alex, and I thought perhaps he recognized me when he nodded slightly. Robin saw it too, and thought the same thing. I can hope it’s true.

The recent box set got way under my skin, absolutely. The photos are truly magnificent. The bookended photos of Chris and Alex on the CD portfolio are especially poignant.

Three days ago, Alex would have been 61 years old. Almost two years later, I’m still saying goodbye.

How strange, or maybe not: writing the above sent me back to Bruce Eaton’s blog, which I had not visited since just after Alex’s death, and where I found a ton of great stuff, including fantastic interview material from Andy that didn’t make it into the book, as well as a post with a link to a completely fantastic tribute to Alex.

Feeling a little less alone, now, after reading these words by Barbara Mitchell:

There are tortured artists and then there are conflicted ones. Alex was definitely the latter. He lived off of – and simultaneously tried to destroy – his own legacy. The guy was a monumental talent and an honor to work with. He was also perverse, arrogant and a provocateur extraordinaire. And sometimes an utter sweetheart. A Sphinx without a riddle, as former Chills guitarist Steven Schayer described him. [emphasis Mitchell]

I wish I could have known him a little better, even if I couldn’t ever get the riddle straight, much less the answer. Funny how we all think we’re looking for answers. Maybe it’s really the riddle that’s hard to find, or even accept. Maybe during my 1980’s search for Alex Chilton, the riddle I was looking for was my own.

December boys got it bad.

Happy New Year.

And so 2010

2009 was a very full year for me. Over thirty presentations, in locations ranging from Delaware to Wyoming to Ohio to Denver to Tucson to Sweden–and of course Baylor University, where I did many presentations and facilitated many others in my role as Director of the Academy for Teaching and Learning. A new role with the New Media Consortium as a member of its Board of Directors. A trip to Barcelona to participate in the Open EdTech 2009 conference. The blog was quieter than I’d like it to be (I have a lot of back-blogging to do), but elsewhere the cycle of presentations kept me at the keyboard for a great deal of writing. I presented again in Second Life, a keynote address for the NMC’s fall symposium, and held two classes there. In the first part of 2009, the ATL welcomed Hillary Blakeley as its first Graduate Fellow, and about the same time we got our first office manager, Melissa Bilbro. In the fall term, we welcomed Ashley Palmer-Boyes as our second ATL Graduate Fellow, and we began our first Faculty Fellows program. Summer 2009 was my first time administering and participating in the Baylor Summer Faculty Institute, the flagship faculty development program on our campus. I also had my first opportunity to collaborate with Baylor’s Electronic Library and Central Libraries in the Educational Technology Showcase.

While all this was going on, I also taught my first two classes at Baylor, both of them First Year Seminars entitled “From Memex to YouTube: An Introduction to New Media Studies.” One student in the spring got his work featured in a showcase on the Doug Engelbart Institute web page.  A student in the fall term will present with me and with Baylor E-Learning Librarian Ellen Filgo at the 2010 annual meeting of the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative. Along the way I also wrote a short essay for EDUCAUSE Review, collaborated on another essay with my fellow ELI Advisory Board members, and contributed to an ELI white paper on Learning Environments.

And there was much more besides, far too much to itemize here.

By the end, I was ready for the holiday break, but I hadn’t counted on “break” becoming literal–I slipped on black ice while walking the dog outside a motel in Salem, Virginia, and broke my ankle. It was a relatively minor break, and I’m pretty much off crutches, but it does hurt a bit … well, rather much at times, but nothing unbearable. All hail my wife Alice, who did all the driving on the way back and got us here safe and sound to ring in the New Year.

Yesterday we stopped at Chris Bell’s grave in Bartlett, Tennessee, to pay our respects to the founder and visionary behind Big Star.

This afternoon my son and I watched Blade Runner together. Ian’s a budding filmmaker and he wanted to see what all the BR fuss was about. Now he knows. Tonight the family played its way through the Beatles Rock Band game. The credit sequence took forever, but I was so intent on hearing all the studio chatter that I sat through it all. The game designers know how to please the Beatles geeks, without a doubt. Our reward for our patience with the IP scroll was an encore performance of  “The End.” Then we found out we’d unlocked the 1963 Beatles Christmas record. We’ve long known those records at our house, but it was a pleasant surprise to find the 1963 record among the treasures in the game.

A good way to begin 2010.

Are online social networks a net gain for humanity?

I’ve been asked this question, with real urgency behind it, twice this week. The first time was a “Live at 5” interview segment with KWTX TV here in Waco (Channel 10 for those of you following along). The context was the Ft. Hood massacre and a blog posting that praised the alleged shooter’s actions. (There’s been widespread notice of that blog post in the blogosphere and on mainstream media.) My answer in the interview was that the question about online social networks was really a question about civilization. Whenever people communicate or collaborate, the potential for good or ill is magnified. The Internet magnifies the magnification exponentially, yes, and the difference in degree may yield a difference in kind, but at bottom we’re still dealing with people and culture and communication. We invent these information and communication technologies because we are human. That’s where the analysis should start, or so it seems to me. But it’s still an urgent question and I have no ready answer beyond a firm conviction that more conversation is better than less conversation, more learning is better than less learning, and that freedom is worth what it costs. I am aware, however, that the price can be extraordinarily high, and I agree with Milton that there’s a difference between liberty and license, and I’d be lying if I said that I believe humanity is always and everywhere on the upward path.

Yet I remain optimistic, and strive for what Paul Ricoeur calls “second naivete,” the one that comes after the initial disillusionments, after the painful but necessary acquisition of robust skepticism and the habit of detached analysis. But that’s matter for another post.

Today the question appeared in a no less urgent but slightly different form in a very thoughtful comment on this post. The urgency here is that of a fellow parent, where the question literally comes home. I answered the commenter on the post, but I wanted to republish my comment here because the commenter inspired some fresh thoughts that I’d like to be in this space as well. The part I feel most deeply tonight surprised me, and it’s in boldface below. Some days the passing of time and the pain of separation intrude sharply, their edges keen.

“Is it a good thing that with these tools we expose so much more of ourselves to so many more folks? Who knows?”

The answer is “no one,” I guess–but there are some interesting guesses out there, including more than a few of mine littering the landscape.

Some folks believe we will be brought closer in ways that will resemble the intimate knowledge villagers had of each other (for better or for worse–those small towns can be social minefields) before the age of cities and suburbs. This is part of what McLuhan meant by the phrase “global village.” Others suspect that we’re going to see even more dramatic changes in how we conceptualize and experience all sorts of relationships. I tend to fall into this camp, as does my friend and colleague Michael Wesch at Kansas State (he’s an anthropologist who’s done some astonishing and wonderful work in this area–look for his presentations on YouTube). I think we may, if we’re patient and resourceful and discerning, approach the condition John Donne describes in Meditation 17, the “no man is an island” meditation, when he says that in Paradise we will be like books in a library “lying open to each other,” reading each other into being in a kind of infinite fellowship.

Though I’m painfully aware of the dangers and unintended consequences, I’m also optimistic about these changes, these possibilities. I’m optimistic in part because I’m a teacher and teachers are committed to optimism. But I’m also optimistic because we experience so little of each other in a lifetime. Even with loved ones, we have very little time and opportunity for deep communion. If there’s a way to transcend time and space and the busyness of each day and know each other in greater depth, breadth, or both, I’m willing to give that a try and see where it leads. Sometimes it leads to cool folks with cool cat avatars–and that’s not only fun but rewarding when the conversation ensues.

Milton's Empyreal Conceit

Waco to Dallas / Fort Worth to Nashville to Murfreesboro to Nashville to NYC to Barcelona to Madrid to Dallas / Fort Worth to Waco, with a trip on Wednesday to Hakone–not in Japan, but in Second Life. A teleconference presentation for the University of Wisconsin at Madison. And a telephone interview with Professor Lawrence Lessig. Add it all to my class and my ongoing work at the Academy for Teaching and Learning, and the result is a pretty full sixteen days.

Over the next few days I’ll be blogging about some of what made those days so full and rewarding. Today I want to share my presentation from the 2009 Conference on John Milton, the event I had just completed when I published this post. I presented my first scholarly paper at this biennial conference in 1991, and I’ve presented a paper at each conference since, with the exception of the one in 2007.

The poetry and prose of John Milton still captivate me. I suppose they always will. His work is inexhaustible in extent, in variety, and in sheer beauty. And for all his celebrated intellectual and political accomplishments, Milton’s work matters most to me as poetry, a genre I actually have the temerity to try to define in the paper I gave at the 2009 conference.

My ambition was sparked by Milton’s own, of course, particularly in the way he tried to imagine heaven, which for him was dynamic, a place of desire as well as fulfillment, a place of copious joy. That was the subject of my paper: what Milton terms an “empyreal conceit,” a heavenly imagination, by which I take it he means an imagination of heaven as well as heaven’s own imaginative force, one that in his mind was essentially poetic.

I’d long wanted to meditate a little on the ending of “Lycidas” as well, and this paper offered me the chance to do so. Many of my ongoing thoughts are here, but the bit on “Lycidas” made its debut at this conference.

It’s unusual to podcast a paper delivered at a scholarly conference, at least in Milton studies. Some of my ed tech friends in Barcelona found it hard to imagine me standing at a lectern reading a paper to a room of fellow English professors. Yet this mode, too, can be one of active learning, for me as well as (I hope) on the part of my listeners. To try to speak to a room full of expert colleagues who’ve devoted their lives to thinking about, writing about, and teaching the work of this great artist is quite daunting, but it’s also an extraordinary experience of shared commitment, shared wonder, shared contemplation. At its best–and this conference is as good as it gets, in my experience–this scholar-to-scholar colloquy can be both challenging and inspiring. At its worst–ah, but no need to go there, now. The worst of these scholarly exchanges are too frequent and well-known to need rehearsing here.

For now, then, my most recent small contribution to the ongoing work of my fellow Milton scholars. For non-Milton scholars: even if you know little or nothing about Milton, you may find something to grab onto in this presentation, which is a love letter of sorts from me to Milton the poet, the master of verbal arts whose poetic gifts seem to grow every time I read him.

But of course, I’m the one who’s growing.

Thank you, John Milton; thank you, fellow Miltonists. See you in 2011.

At the 2009 Conference on John Milton

Three Miltonists: (l-r) Louis Schwartz (University of Richmond), Gardner Campbell (Baylor University), Stephen Buhler (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

Happy birthday, Dad

My father would have been one hundred and two years old today.

I grew up with an older dad. When he was my age, I was not yet two years old. I have a brother two years younger than I am. What would it be like to begin to raise a child at 50? He’d married late, at 43. For seven years he and my mother had tried to conceive, with no success. Then, as sometimes happens, the long and frustrating wait was suddenly over, and within three years of his 50th birthday he had two young boys to raise.

He worried about being older. He worried about a lot of things, truth to tell: were we warm enough, had we had enough to eat, did we have enough money for the Scout camping trip, did we know how to be careful, especially around water (he’d had a nephew who’d drowned at Myrtle Beach, and the death haunted him, then doubled the haunting when he had boys of his own). But I remember that he worried a *lot* about being older. Once we’d grown to our twenties, he fretted that he hadn’t played ball with us enough, and I knew from that just how intense his worries had been.

Sometimes we’d run in the yard, throw the ball back and forth, get nutty. I remember how quick he was on his feet, though most of the time he moved at the same pace all the other adults did. He could always catch me, though he never pursued me to punish me. It was always in sport, as I remember it now. He was a bit grouchy, often, sometimes outright grumpy, but when he decided to play the fool he carried the part off with panache. I remember one Christmas Eve, coming home from the Lutheran midnight service where we’d had real wine at Communion, unlike our usual Baptist grape juice. My dad carried on all the way home and insisted we should open our presents as soon as we got into the kitchen–which we didn’t, of course, because we never opened presents before, oh, 5:30 or 6:00 on Christmas morning. And he hadn’t had more than a thimblefull of wine, anyway. But for whatever reason, he felt the spirit, and he got goofy, playful, wacky. My brother and I laughed until the tears ran down our faces. So did our mother, come to think of it.

My father was usually the one who gave me my bath when I was a small child. As he dried me off, he’d talk about the mysteries of how blood circulated through the body, of how the stars were so numerous and tiny and far away, of how George Beverly Shea could make such a massive sound with his voice as he sang. He’d often talk about how he “studied” something, by which he meant “wondered at it.” Sometimes he’d talk that way about special effects or trick shots in movies. “How do they get a picture like that?” he’d ask.

I never knew whether he was as naive as he said he was. He might have been: he was raised on a poor subsistence farm on Jennings Creek in Botetourt County, Virginia, the youngest of five children. His father was older when he was born, too; in fact, my Grandfather Campbell, whom I never knew, was born in 1867, just two years after war in Virginia had subsided, and not all that far away, at least by Texas standards, from where Lee had surrendered to Grant. On that farm where my dad was raised there was no electricity, no running water, no indoor toilets. I saw the house once. It was more than a shack, less than a house;  a cabin, I guess. The porch sagged, just as you’d expect. I remember the cabin had about four rooms, and that the room at the back was full of bees. No one had lived in the house for decades, but no one had disturbed it either. My father knew the way back. I don’t think I could find it myself, now.

My dad loved school and did well in it. A couple of his report cards survive. He was a great reader. When I knew him, he read the newspaper every day pretty much completely, except for business and sports, two subjects he never showed any interest in that I can recall. He followed world and national news closely. And he loved to read the funny papers, which is what he called the comics. On Sundays, my brother and I would sit on his knees while he would read us from the funny papers. We’d always marvel together that Barney Google rarely appeared in the comic strip that still bore his name. Seems Snuffy Smith had taken over.

Loving school wasn’t enough for the youngest child, though, and after sixth grade there was no more local schooling for my father. His brothers went further; one went to college and became an engineer of some kind. But for some reason, probably because he was the baby and the last to leave home and loved too well by his parents, my father stayed put. He went to sixth grade twice so he could stay in school one more year. And then that was that. For about a year before he died, my father would tell me that he wanted me to hurry up and finish my Ph.D. so he could call me doctor. I did, and he did, though I’m not at all sure he knew what a Ph.D. was. But I’m not sure he didn’t, either. He could surprise you that way. I remember one night playing Trivial Pursuit, the kind of game he’d never play. He wasn’t much for board games of any kind. A quiz game would be even less interesting. But he could surprise you. The question came to him: who was leader of the Soviet Union after Stalin? I was dismayed, figuring that my father would quit in disgust, his lack of education too painfully on display. “Malenkov,” he said. We all thought,  is he joking? We looked it up and he was right. He snorted that we would doubt him, and then he smiled, a little mischievously, and pretended to doze in his chair.

His wife of thirty-eight years, Genevieve Gay Gardner Campbell, died in 1989, when she was sixty-nine and my father was almost eighty-two. He lived in the house they’d shared, the house I was raised in, built by my mother’s father (the only grandparent I really knew–and another story altogether), for about another eighteen months. After that, he was too feeble to stay at home even with a sitter who’d cook and clean for him, and he went to live in a nursing home, with the predictable decline soon thereafter. He died ten days after my wife, my son, and I had arrived in California, where I was to begin my first tenure-track English professor appointment at the University of San Diego. I spoke to him only once after I got there. After that call, he was in the hospital and too sick to speak, weighed down with the pneumonia that would eventually kill him.

During those eighteen months of Indian summer, though, my Dad and I had some grand days, cutting up and playing the fool sometimes, and sometimes going in search of the perfect Roanoke Valley hot dog. The best time of all, though, was the night of October 24, 1990, when I called him from the delivery room of Chippenham Memorial Hospital in Richmond, Virgina, to tell him his grandson Ian Woodworth Campbell had been born. He was overjoyed, elated, and within about a minute said, “I wish your mother was here to get this news.”

My dad came up to Richmond for Thanksgiving that year. The photograph captures the first meeting of Ian and his Granddaddy Campbell, with Ian’s mother Alice holding our infant boy, our beamish boy with the preternaturally alert eyes. My father has two straws in his shirt pocket because a hand tremor meant he could no longer negotiate a drinking glass without spilling it. He carried straws with him wherever he went so he wouldn’t have to ask for one or risk not having one to use. Yet he could hold Ian, and did on several occasions. And in this photo he reaches toward his grandchild with a gesture of great tenderness, with a peace and gladness in his eyes that matches the maternal joy in Alice’s face. There’s something very still and lovely about this photograph, something that makes me think of how my father might have looked at me when I was that small and that tenderly held by my loving, patient mother.

Fatherhood was sometimes a worry for my father, but his love for me and my brother was clear, strong, undoubtable, always. He taught me wonder, and taught me by example that regrets were never the whole story, or at least they didn’t have to be.

I love you, Dad, and I miss you every day. Your grandson Ian, your granddaughter Jenny, and your daughter-in-law Alice join me in this.

Happy birthday.

Granddaddy Campbell, Alice, and Ian

OpenEd 2009

I’m way too tired to write anything coherent besides “wow” and “whoa!” and “thanks,” but I will thrown caution aside for a moment and forge ahead. In fact, I will live recklessly on the edge of sleep and refer to a film that doesn’t usually win much respect from cineastes: The Big Chill.

Of course I love that movie, even though I’m too young to identify with the 60s-era boomers and too old to identify with the Meg Tilly character who gives them their comeuppance (mostly). I loved it not because of the generational conflicts or the political angst (yes, sanitized from The Return of the Secaucus Seven but still compelling, in my view) or even the catalytic death with all its ramifications. I loved it because it was a great story about friends, a great story about a reunion.

OpenEd 2009 was many things for me, but among the best of those things was the fact it was a reunion. Strangely, it was also a reunion with people I’d never met before–at least, not met face to face. For here I met folks I’d followed on blogs and on Twitter for several years, but now were seated across a table or a circle of chairs. More on that strangeness in another post (as well as some overdue shoutouts).

What I love about these reunions is summed up in my favorite moment from The Big Chill. The friends are sharing  a meal, seated together around a long table. The talk has gone here, gone there, gone around various topics and at various tempos. Then suddenly Glenn Close, who’s been silent and a little withdrawn (and understandably so, given what she’s experienced), raises her head and looks around and blurts out words to the effect of, “I was always at my best with you people.” I don’t think she meant she’d never failed them or had a bad or awkward moment with them. I think she meant that they had always inspired the best of her to emerge.

So that’s how I’m feeling this evening. Reunion. Thanks to all who participated, thanks to all who continue to inspire and challenge me. Thanks to Brian, Chris, Scott, and Dave for organizing this head-and-heart-fest. Thanks for this reunion.

Puttin' in the fix

I’ve upgraded to WP 2.8.3 and run through some of my usual copy-and-paste-and-hack “fixes” for some header problems the ol’ blog was having lately. Actually, *I* was having the problems; my blog was the helpless bystander.

In any event, please let me know if Gardner Writes is not rendering properly in your browser. The header image should be clickable and should display the image of me on Hergest Ridge. I’ve tested in Chrome, Firefox, and IE8, and so far all is well. One day I’ll make it all perfect and pass the W3C validator as well. But not today.

Special thanks to Jim Cofer for this screencast, which helped me get my efforts a little more front-to-back instead of my usual back-to-front (though I’m sure I’d qualify as one of his “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” folks).

Keepin' it CUNY

Better late than never dept.:

I’ve been thinking a long time about the annual symposium on communication and communication-intensive instruction sponsored by the Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute at Baruch College of the City University of New York. I’ve been privileged to participate in the symposium twice: in 2008 as a discussion facilitator, and this year as a discussion facilitator and as an afternoon workshop leader. Both were extraordinary experiences. The setting is inspiring, for one thing. It’s hard to go wrong with the sweeping Manhattan vistas afforded by Baruch College’s Vertical Campus. Yet the deeper inspirations come from the conception of the event itself. The idea is to gather academics and business leaders together to exchange experiences, plans, strategies, dreams, questions, and quandaries centering on the idea of communication. Intensive table discussions are framed by keynote speakers. This year, the discussions and speakers were supplemented by afternoon workshops, including one led by my friend Alan Levine of the New Media Consortium. (I’m always delighted to benefit from the halo effect of being on a program with Alan.) As is fitting for a symposium, a banquet concludes the day’s activities. Hard work, open dialogue, and conviviality. Would that all days could be so!

What I keep thinking about is the nature of the particular magic at this symposium. Mikhail Gershovich’s leadership is crucial. He’s obviously earned the trust of all the participants and (even more impressively) all the administrators and patrons whose goodwill and collaboration are vital to the success of any event on this scale. He’s also got a terrific staff, folks I’m proud to call colleagues. (A special shout-out here to Deputy Director Suzanne Epstein.) This year I was also fortunate to work alongside Luke Waltzer, Matt Gold, and Boone Gorges, whose presence and contributions were consistently amazing and challenged me to take my game to the highest level I could imagine. Just to give you some idea of the intensity and excitement in the air at CUNY, I already think of these events as reunions, so warm and committed are the people who help to shape the symposium and fuel the inspiration at Baruch College. You wouldn’t think that roughly twenty-four hours could be so full and rewarding, but I’m here to testify that they are.

The real genius of the symposium, though, is the way in which two different populations meet and mingle (I almost wrote “collide,” which is true too). Putting businesspeople and academics together reveals just how different these worlds truly are. Sometimes those differences run along stereotypical lines. Academics chatter, businesspeople have a job to do. Academics theorize, businesspeople act. More often, though, the differences are instructive. Academics and businesspeople at the table together, responding to a question or a discussion prompt, find themselves eagerly learning from each other, taking notes on each other’s conversation, making reading lists, exchanging contact information to keep the conversation going. For a splendid several hours, both academics and businesspeople can be amphibious, each group living in another world, at least provisionally, as learners and fellows. This aspect is what inspires me most deeply. We cross domains, we connect domains, we debate difficult questions. We tell each other stories. It’s at such moments that I get that university feeling, the one that keeps me hopeful about the possibilities of true community born of unity and diversity.

In fact, I’m tempted to call this symposium an embodied metaphor, or perhaps a working paradox. Something uncanny, to be sure. This year the effect was even more pronounced in the selection of the keynote speakers. May I speak for a minute with open-mouthed admiration of the brilliance of addressing the topic of “Audience” by inviting Jeff Jarvis to talk about how it’s all about the audience (or perhaps the group “formerly known as the audience”) and following up later in the day with Peter Elbow’s talk insisting that it isn’t necessarily about the audience at all? That opposition, or better yet that paradox, becomes even more urgent in an age of social media, when one-to-many, one-to-one, many-to-many, one-to-a-few, etc. (you can work out the permutations) are all live rhetorical alternatives, and any utterance can shift from one mode to another literally overnight. (See Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody and Scott Rosenberg’s Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It’s Becoming, and Why It Matters for more detailed ruminations on this uncanny state of affairs. Both are essential reading, in my view.)

My own small contributions to this year’s event focused on these uncanny paradoxes and tried to put them into play as catalysts for deep reflection and passionate conversation. In the final stages of preparation, I hit upon a clip from 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould to try to portray my own sense of wonder at the communicative world we are building. There’s good there. There’s danger, too, and harm to be sure. But my goal was not to sort it all out or to make an explicit argument about it. Rather, I wanted to complicate the questions, and to help guide the conversation away from polemics and punditry and rapid judgments. Most of all, I wanted to awaken a sense of wonder modeled on Gould’s alert and creative immersion in the humanity that surrounded him, all mediated through acts of communication ranging from radio to conversation to food on a grill. Listen to this! Now, what can we make of it?

I had a great time trying to get at what’s rich and strange about this world. I hope the participants did too.

I’m very grateful to Luke Waltzer for blogging my session and posting the videos. You can find a video recording of nearly all of the session in several installments beginning here on the Symposium blog and here on the Schwartz Institute blog (featuring one of my favorite domain names ever). Although the camera is usually trained on me, be assured that whatever good things came out of the session were woven out of what everyone in the room contributed, as you’ll hear. You’ll hear, I hope, that same sense of communicative excitement and wonder that I found in the clip from the Glenn Gould film. The internet at our fingertips, our lives articulated together in this moment, and an intense set of questions and examples from each participant.

As I finish this long-postponed thank-you, I think of transformation and beauty. I think of Ariel’s tricksy and moving ballad early in The Tempest.

Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange

A random connection, perhaps, but in its music and its ironic acceptance of loss and uncanny redemption, the song resonates with me as I think about this experience. Jim’s post on CUNY clarifies this resonance even more for me, and underscores my sense that no small part of this magic resides in the mission and character of CUNY itself. An ocean of resemblance on the bedrock of New York. In short, a wonder.

When a Facebook status update just isn't enough

Thirty years ago today a great, great thing happened: Alice and I were married. 10 a.m., outside in the Mary Washington College Amphitheatre, which scores of Governor’s School students had swept clean for us the day before. It was a hot and humid day, but the rain held off, the ice cream held out, and the adventure began.

Alice’s father, a Presbyterian minister, performed the ceremony, assisted by my uncle Fred Gardner, a Baptist minister. Yes, an ecumenical service indeed. Apparently the combination was magic, and it can now be revealed, dear reader.

My father was my best man. He’s been gone now for seventeen years. My mother died twenty years ago this September. My uncle Fred passed away several years before that. They are greatly missed, every day. I like to think they would still recognize us as the kids they knew. We’ve lived and lived through a lot in these thirty years, but we’re both pretty stubborn about hanging on to that spark.

I am grateful for that spark. And I am grateful for Alice.

The adventure continues.