Larry Lessig interview

I was very fortunate this fall to be asked to interview Larry Lessig for the EDUCAUSE Now podcast series, produced by Gerry Bayne. Gerry produced a teaser for my piece as well as a full-length feature interview segment. He was also kind enough to supply me with the raw audio of the entire telephone interview I conducted with Professor Lessig. I’m podcasting that extended interview here because the last bit didn’t make it into the EDUCAUSE productions. I certainly understand why: for the last ten minutes or so, I took off in a different direction, probing Professor Lessig’s recent decision to put the Lessig Blog on indefinite hiatus. There were some puzzling statements in his valedictory blog post that I wanted to clarify if I could. I also wanted to register not only my disappointment but my dismay at his decision–and to suggest, as respectfully as possible, that his decision was a terribly ironic follow-on to his stirring defense in Remix of the importance of blogging, a defense that included a haunting passage on what blogging had meant to him because of, or despite, his own emotional vulnerabilities. As someone who’s lapsed into blogging silence far too often, I understand very well how draining it can be over the long haul, and I can only imagine the technical challenges–spam, chief among them–of an A-level blog like Larry Lessig’s. And a third child: yes, even with only two I can well imagine how number three would ramp up all the family responsibilities. The new job, ditto.  That said, I also feel very strongly that we’ve only begun to explore this medium, and that it’s vitally important to have voices like Prof. Lessig’s in the blogosphere to demonstrate that exploratory, essayistic, informal writing has academic worth–or should. Is it possible Prof. Lessig doesn’t realize how radical an act his own blogging was?

As you’ll hear, I wasn’t entirely successful in my quest for clarification, especially when it came to Prof. Lessig’s new job and the role it seems to have played in his decision. I hope I was successful, though, in conveying to him how important his work as a blogger continues to be to me and to many others. (The comments on his last post are quite moving in their gratitude.) And I hope his voice will emerge into the blogosphere yet once more, not within an omnibus site like the Huffington Post, but on a domain of his own. It’s the repeated, continued forays in those domains of our own that define us as bloggers, that tell our odysseys–and that offer a paradigm beyond branded pundit aggregation.

I’m grateful to Larry Lessig for taking the time to speak with me, and to EDUCAUSE for the opportunity to do the interview. It was a daunting and exhilarating experience. NB: the first ending is followed by a coda, so keep listening.


In memoriam: Dr. Leslie Hope Jarmon (1952-2009)

Dr. Leslie Jarmon

This time, as it has several times before, the Thanksgiving season came with mourning, too. Wednesday I learned that Leslie Jarmon had passed away the night before, on November 24. The news shook me. I’d had no idea Leslie was sick. I had followed her progress with a major grant to develop areas in Second Life as distance education affordances for the entire University of Texas system, and I was looking forward to seeing the project get underway. Selfishly, I hoped I’d have a chance to work with Leslie at some point on the project. For I was, and am, a fan of Leslie Jarmon–after being in her presence for one day.

Here, in brief, is that story.

Last year about this time I went to a regional meeting of the Texas Faculty Development Network at Texas A&M. I’d been at Baylor about three months. Baylor had just joined the TFDN. The whole experience was new as new could be for me. The meeting was very cordial and the folks there welcomed me with fine hospitality. At the end of the day, at a public lecture, I got to hear a great Nobel-prize-winning scientist talk about teaching. A memorable trip in every way. But the climax was meeting Leslie Jarmon.

As I recall, the meeting was about halfway through when we took a lunch break. During the break, the talk turned to online education. Suddenly, I heard the words “Second Life.” Looking up, I saw a preternaturally alert woman at the end of the table. Her eyes had enough light in them to illuminate the entire room. She spoke with warmth, intelligence, and urgency about the opportunities virtual worlds presented to all educators–and to students too. I felt such a passion for creativity and connection radiating from her. And I felt a jolt of energy coming through me as well.

So we began to talk. I learned of her work, of her time with the Peace Corps, of her plans for innovation in faculty development at UT-Austin. The more we talked, the more energetic and inspired I became. I soon forgot all my newbie cautions and began to chatter excitedly (those of you who’ve been around me know that moment).

I forgot myself. A lovely, lovely forgetting.

At some point, I brought up Robbie Dingo’s “Watch the World,” one of my favorite works of video art (I’m not sure what else to call it). My bringing up something so dear at that moment testifies to the way Leslie put me entirely at my ease–but it also testifies to a rare gift for sounding the depths in a person she’d just met. Leslie’s animation matched with my impulsiveness led the meeting organizers to play the video for the group. By the end, I was teary, as is usually the case when I watch that video. Leslie just smiled at me, a smile full of shared understanding. An extraordinary smile.

The meeting rolled on after that. We decided on various aspects of the upcoming year for TFDN. We discussed other topics. The whole time, though, I was alight with the happiness of having met someone who not only understood, but who would also teach me.

At the end of the day, we said our goodbyes. They were cordial goodbyes, and a little weary as well, given that we’d been working away at the discussion all day long. I prepared myself mentally for the upcoming lecture and the ensuing drive home to Waco. And at that moment, Leslie surprised me again, this time with a big hug and a smile that could melt the ice caps on both ends of the earth. In short, she touched my heart and soul.

I looked forward to our next meeting and to the conversations ahead, but alas these were not to be. Yet regret is not the moral of this story. You know the moral as well as I do. A few hours in the presence of an honest, full-hearted, extraordinary person can mark one’s life forever. And for that I am very thankful.

As I see other tributes to Leslie on the web, I see that my story is far from unique. I can’t say that I’m surprised. Remarkable people are pretty much full-time. That her middle name is “Hope”–something I learned from her obituary–makes the poetry of her life complete. That I learned of her death from a comment on my blog makes the poetry of our meeting complete.

There’s a memorial to Leslie in Second Life: Her avatar’s name was Bluewave Ogee.

I grieve for her passing and offer my condolences to all her family and loved ones.  And I give thanks for this remarkable person who made a shy newcomer’s heart swell with joy and excitement on a December afternoon one year ago.

Extreme tweeting yields Wordle: more on Lilly 2009

I’ve got 389 tweets with the #lilly09 hashtag from last week’s Lilly Conference on College Teaching. I estimate that a little over 300 of those are mine. The rest are responses, queries, retweets, encouragement. No doubt a few are unaccounted for because in the heat of the moment I forgot to append the hashtag. Nevertheless, nearly 400 tweets from a three-day conference is still a pretty healthy number, especially since so far as I know I was the only one using that hashtag. (Nothing in the conference materials said anything about a conference hashtag, unless I missed it.)

I’m still not entirely sure what drove me to tweet the conference so extensively. Part of it was a habit I’ve gotten into from other conferences. Part of it was that there were very few tweeters at this conference, so I felt a little more duty-bound to get some stuff into the stream. Most of it was that the sessions were typically thought-provoking and valuable. (I lapsed into silence now and then, rather than post snark.) I’ve gotten way behind on my conference blogging, so I thought that micro-blogging with Twitter would be better than trying to blog about the conference weeks later, the situation I’m usually in these days.

There’s a lot more to say about the conference, of course, but for now, a Wordle created by Joe Fahs of Elmira College out of the many posts in that Twitter stream. As I’ve come to expect from Wordle, the distribution (and Joe’s artful manipulation of the visualization) tells its own tale of the experience. A tale that resonates with the truth of what I found there. My thanks to Joe, and to my wonderful PLN on Twitter who keep me thinking more about possibilities than about liabilities.

Wordle of my Lilly 2009 tweets

Real school will surely come

I tell myself that over and over. I’ve known real school. Real school exists in pockets, eddies, updrafts, sudden currents, all over the place. I’ve met several extraordinary people at the Lilly International Conference on College Teaching who are doing extraordinary things in the service of real school. Doing these things with next to no funding, with crippling teaching loads, with essential and inspiring support removed in the middle of new projects. The determination and fierce joy of these teachers takes my breath away. I hope my presentation this morning made some contribution to that spirit.

I’ve seen the continuing obstacles as well, including a weird, persistent impulse to name *recall* (as measured on tests) as not only a necessary component of education (I agree here), but as a sufficient definition of learning (I couldn’t disagree more). I’ve heard about curricular reform that ends up as little more than yet another list of requirements. Old stories that retain the power to depress. I also heard a wonderful teacher talk about a program to help students write academic papers, and then say he couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to write that way. It was intended as a throwaway, a quip, a laughline, but I wish there had been time to entertain that thought with the seriousness it deserves.

And I’ve heard students say how they’d like more of their education to be like independent study, with faculty as guides and rich information habitats crafted within great library resources. Those desires came out as a result of the best question I’ve heard all week, a question a faculty member asked that student panel: if you could throw away all of what you now know as school and start from scratch, how would you like your education to be?

I wish I’d found the woman who asked that question. I’d sure like to shake her hand. She too is a member of the secret society for real school. Her question goes a lot farther with me than questions about “critical thinking,” a phrase that’s by now so threadbare as to be more hole than stocking. I tweeted my frustration over that phrase early on in this conference, and Mike Wesch tweeted back: “How about creative thinking instead of critical thinking?” I retweeted “Amen. +1.”

And then I listen to a PowerPoint-laden lecture that concludes with a call for banning technology from the classroom. By “technology,” I think the presenters meant information and communication technologies, aside from the instructor’s PowerPoint, presumably (I’m just about fed up with the sloppy shorthand of “technology”). We need to ban “technology” from the classroom, you see, so students will concentrate their attention on what the teacher is saying and do better on the test.

I hope they confiscate the books, too, and all the other distracting technologies: pens, pencils, paper. What could be more important than what a teacher is saying?


We’ve got to learn to ask better and braver questions about school. I’ve met people here who are doing just that. When will those questions take hold? Or if Seymour Papert’s right and school reform is impossible, where can the secret society for real school build a house where work is play for mortal stakes? Not a pillminder, not a feedlot. A real school.

I have to believe it’s possible.

Social networks don't exist in the abstract

Channeling Alan Levine’s “Being There” thesis tonight:

It’d been awhile since I’d logged onto Facebook. Obviously the joint’s still jumping. Last time I’d checked in, though, it all looked very busy and co-optive to me. A superchatportalfeedgame environment. Carnivalesque at best, but the smell of all the funnel cakes and the strained voices of the barkers were getting to me a bit–at least, that’s how it felt.

But today I logged on again, not to experience Facebook, but to look for connections, accept some friend requests, find the birthdays. But that’s the Facebook experience, you say. Yes and no. Considered in the abstract, Facebook becomes a superchatportalfeedgame environment. But in it, even with all the blare and busy stuff, are my friends and family, and they’re enjoying the rides and keeping the ties a-binding.

I don’t want to say that I suspended my critical awareness while I was in there today. I don’t think I did, actually. But I did suspend something. Disbelief? Judgment? I’m not sure. I do know, however, that thinking in it instead of thinking about it yields different results. And that’s also something to think about.

Besides, I got two great links from my son who’s away at college, and who’s missed very much around these parts. The first was this thoughtful account of video games and diegeses and metanarratives. The comments are also quite a wonderful read. The discourse here would not be out of place in a senior English seminar–or in any introduction to film studies. Also, and it’s selfish of me to say so, when my son said “here, you’ll really like this,” and behold, I really liked it, I felt, well, understood, and close, and connected. Being there meant being with my son, for that moment; Facebook was simply the platform (though of course there’s nothing simple about that platform).

The second link was not directed to me, but I was curious about it because of the way my son framed the link with a short comment on his wall. So I went there, too, and learned more: more about repressive governments, gaming culture, dissidents, and my son’s own growing political awareness.

It wasn’t a dinner-table conversation, but the connection had its own strength, integrity, and authenticity. And the platform enabled the connection–but only if I was there and answerable.

Being there indeed. Thanks for the reminder, Ian.

Fra Lippo Lippi: Beauty, Connection, Meaning

Fra Lippo Lippi

Fra Lippo Lippi

No less contradictory and complex than his Andrea del Sarto, Browning’s character of Fra Lippo Lippi stands for a wholly different attitude toward art and beauty. This artist sees all the tangles that Andrea del Sarto does, but those tangles never spiral into cloying self-pity, angry accusations against beauty, or philosophical paralysis. Instead, this riven artist also mends the tears between creation and human experience, between person and person, between wonder and the disappointing brokenness of life. For Fra Lippo Lippi, this remains a sweet old world–and not so old, either. Its sweetness is not mere decoration or distraction. Beauty is not merely ornament. Shared passion is not merely debauchery or impiety. No, sweetness and beauty and shared passion are part of the world’s intense meaning. They connect the visible with the invisible. This sweet old world, impermanent, a Herclitean fire, is one important part of “the assurance of things not seen.”

“What’s it all about?” asks Fra Lippo Lippi, a question Hal David would reframe with Burt Bacharach many years later, though the question must surely predate Bacharach, David, and Browning altogether. It’s a question stimulated by tragedy, but it’s also a question provoked by beauty, by the stirrings of the body, by the simple pleasure of an overheard melody. The idea that “what it’s all about” must lie entirely elsewhere in a world disconnected from the material universe is anathema to Browning and his crazed, promiscuous, blessed monk. These artists seek wholeness, and at the same time recognize that such wholeness must not be sentimental or prematurely asserted. It’s hard work and very painful work, too, to see the world clearly and see it whole–never mind the additional work of sharing that vision with others.

But that’s the calling:

This world’s no blot or blank for us–
It means intensely, and means good.
To find its meaning is my meat and drink.


Andrea del Sarto: Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt

Andrea del Sarto

Andrea del Sarto

I’m one of the keynote speakers for the New Media Consortium’s Symposium for the Future this week (the other is the amazing Beth Kanter), and I’m hoping to stir things up a bit by placing some wildly diverse concepts in conversation with each other. The title alone demonstrates the “wild” part pretty well: “Two Painters, One Poet, and Some Sweet Soul Music.” Plenty of surprises and it’s fun for the whole family, so y’all come.

The one poet I mean is Robert Browning, and the two painters are Andrea del Sarto and Filippo Lippi, each of whom is portrayed in a dramatic monologue by Browning. One of the things I hope to explore is how these two artists, as imagined by Browning, vividly inhabit two contradictory attitudes toward art, risk, nature, love, and, oh, the meaning of life in relation to those things. A far cry from technology, unless one considers art a technology, which I most certainly do. And even if that seems a stretch to you, I think you’ll find that these two poets’ attitudes toward art and vocation map quite interestingly onto attitudes toward information and communication technologies–or computers more generally–at this stage of the game.

Here’s an extra resource for my presentation: a podcast of me reading Browning’s “Andrea del Sarto.” Next up will be “Fra Lippo Lippi” (an alternate name for Filippo Lippi, “Fra” meaning “brother,” as in monk). I hope my readings convey some of the complexities of these portraits, and that I can illuminate some of the connections in my presentation on Wednesday. Whether or not the latter ambition is realized, we’ll always have Browning….


From Murfreesboro to Barcelona

Janus - two faces looking in opposite directions

I’m sitting in JFK Airport, NYC, waiting for the plane to take me to Barcelona for OpenEdTech 2009. I’m tremendously excited to be joining such an illustrious crew for the OET experience. And it’s my first time to Spain, so my anticipation is pretty much off the scale. At the same time, I’m leaving behind a lovely two-day conference experience with Miltonists from the US and Canada (and perhaps other countries as well–I need to review the registration list).

So as I look ahead to a great session with visionaries every bit as determined as I am to bring positive change and catalytic innovation to higher education, I look behind to a classic scholarly gathering: professors taking turns reading papers to each other, fielding questions about their work, and hashing out the finer points in the hotel bar. (Sometimes there’s even some busking in the bar by members of “The Miltones”–but that’s matter for another post.) In most respects, the Milton conference is unchanged in terms of its processes from the one I attended for the first time in 1991.

But here’s the point–and it’s one that I find myself making from time to time when I think about all that’s broken about the academy. There are times when scholars reading papers to each other yields wonderful results.  Delivering a sustained argument over the course of twenty minutes, and listening attentively to that sustained argument, can be an extraordinary educational experience. Not always, and maybe not even most of the time (though I proudly claim that the Miltonists yield a very high percentage of fine presentations), but often enough that we shouldn’t lose sight of what this experience can bring, or how we might share it with our students.

Of course I can’t share very much of this experience with you, as almost none of it was recorded. Of course not all the papers were equally interesting or equally well delivered. Of course there are many ways in which Web 2.0 could augment the conference and make it more meaningful and powerful for those of us who were there in person–and those of us who could not be.

Once again I’m struck by the need for our thinking to be both-and, not either-or, when it comes to thinking about education. Or to put it more simply: it’s complicated.

More stories from the Milton conference ahead. And I’ll be doing my best to blog the OpenEdTech conference as it happens–despite the jet lag and my touristy goggle-eyes. I’m grateful for both these opportunities, and mulling over the striking juxtapositions I’m living through.

Eddie Dean grabs the brass ring with a new Ralph Stanley memoir

The first college class I ever taught on my own was back in 1982: a section of freshman composition at the University of Virginia. I’d just gotten my M.A. and I’d led a discussion group as a TA, but this was the first time I was truly flying solo. The overall format was pretty well set: one two-to-three page paper a week on a topic or theme of some kind. I decided to get creative. With co-conspirator Alice, I devised an assignment that asked students to write as observant and detailed a paper as they could about a statue of a winged aviator that stood just outside Alderman Library. The bonus prize went to the students who were shrewd enough to discover that the same guy that did Mount Rushmore did the statue. A few of them got it, though most got stuck at the statue’s shiny crotch, polished by years of student “veneration” as they made their way into the library. The rest of the statue was green, but the crotch was burnished bronze.

In any event, one paper I got exploded all my expectations. In this paper, the statue came to life, slung a backpack over its shoulder, and made its way to Manhattan, where it walked among the city streets with panache and caused quite a spectacle. I took the paper home and read it to Alice. I said, “I’m not sure what to say about this paper, but I am sure there’s something quite extraordinary about this writer.”

That writer was Eddie Dean. Having talent like that just appear on a class roster as if by magic is one of the great, great rewards of the vocation of teaching. I did the best I could to keep up with his talent, but even then I knew that my first job as a teacher was to Do No Harm. I didn’t want any of the things I *could* teach Eddie to alter one bit of his native genius. In some respects, I suppose I was trying to enact that wonderful motto of Heidegger that Hillary B. unearthed in the course of her reading and blogging: I was trying above all to “let learn.”

I hope my teaching was of some use to Eddie, but given his many accomplishments as a professional music journalist over the ensuing years, I am confident I did no harm. I’m also very, very proud to say that Eddie’s second book is now out: the Ralph Stanley memoir that he’s been working on for years. Here’s the article in the NY Times, and here’s a tasty little piece of nastiness from The Boot. I look for widespread acclaim for the book and for Eddie’s labors in putting it together. And I can’t wait for the third book to appear–though I imagine Eddie’s ready for a book breather at this point, a breather of great extent.

Order five copies for the Halloween season, ten for Thanksgiving, and a gross for all your December holidays.

They say strangers should be welcomed, as one may thereby entertain an angel unaware. Turns out English 101 should be welcomed too, for I entertained an Eddie Dean unaware.

Yes, let learn!

And rock on, brother.

Eddie Dean and me, Christmas 2008

A Christmas Reunion with Eddie Dean, 2008

Learning At Baylor

With apologies to Kevin Creamer at the University of Richmond, whose newsletter title I shamelessly copy here (imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, they say), I offer this first podcast from the Academy for Teaching and Learning at Baylor University. It’s a conversation with Dr. David Arnold, Ralph and Jean Storm Professor of Mathematics, and it ranges widely, from cryptology to teaching to math for non-math-majors. David was great fun to interview–smart, engaging, and a great sense of humor–and I had a great time getting to know him and his work. I hope the fun and conviviality come through in the podcast, as well as David’s deeply thoughtful approach to learning and teaching. My thanks to him for his time and energy.

I’ve got several more of these interviews “in the can,” as they say in the biz, and I’ll be conducting more of them in the weeks ahead. As always, your feedback is welcome.