The Network Emerges

As Stu Card remembers it, “There was this thread of ideas that led from Vannevar Bush through J. C. R. Licklider, Doug Engelbart, Ted Nelson, and Alan Kay–a thread in the Ascent of Man. It was like the Holy Grail. We would rationalize our mission according to what Xerox needed, and so on. But whenever we could phrase an idea so that it fell on this path, then suddenly everybody’s eyes would light up, and you’d hit this resonance frequency.”

Mitchell Waldrop, “The Dream Machine: J. C. R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal” (Penguin, 2001), 363.

We’ve now begun the second iteration of our New Media Faculty Development Seminar at Baylor University. Last week was our first meeting: hello, what’s your name, what’s your role, what do you hope to learn this semester, and what’s one thing we should know about you (a “fair warning / full disclosure” moment, for fun)? Turns out the hardest question, both last time and this time, was “what do you hope to learn?” Food for thought there….

As we did our introductions and “disclosures,” I felt the onset of group identity: ah, this is who we are! Several folks in the room knew each other already, several did not. All were intrigued by the mix. I thought I could hear that intrigue growing in their voices as we made our way around the tables. Honors program prof of “literature, media, and learning.” Astrophysicist. Business prof. Recent Baylor graduate. K-12 edtech director. Biologist prof. Rhetoric prof. E-Learning librarian. Classroom technology director. Academic consultant. Seminary prof. Social Work prof. Film studies prof. Sociology grad student. Neuroscience grad student. And on this day, a visitor from a nearby “node” of the networked seminar, sitting in to see how things would start in our Baylor seminar.

A rich mix.

Introductions done, we turned to the shape of the course, with a quick overview of the syllabus and a brief preview of the individual readings we’d be doing together. My goal here was to pique interest and curiosity and thus to stimulate early sign-ups for facilitation slots. It must have worked, as half the seminar had signed up for their first choices by the end of the next day. That said, I did worry that I had spent a bit too much time on the “syllabus tour,” as I could see the late afternoon energy-sag in my colleagues’ expressions, a few glazed eyes, and at least one nodding head (and I don’t mean nodding in assent, either :)).  And I could also feel myself lingering too long on my description of each reading, as I savored the memory of the essays and thought with pleasure about the way this new group would encounter them and make sense of them within the context of their own reading and the group’s discussion.

Time for a break.

Then with about a half-hour left (I need to hire a time manager–whom does Time report to, anyway?), we turned to Janet Murray’s introduction to our text, The New Media Reader. I asked for a “nugget,” by which I mean a passage that was troubling, exhilarating, puzzling, revelatory, whatever. A passage that elicited a strong response of some kind. I find this “call for nuggets” much more effective than “going over” the essay or asking for more general responses. The text is always richer and stranger than any paraphrase can convey. As I glanced around the room, I saw one book filled with highlights. Naturally, I called on that colleague. And was I ever rewarded–or rather, were we ever rewarded. Jim lighted on one of the most interesting passages in the essay, a paragraph in which Murray describes the hopes and anxieties ICT elicits from its users. I asked who else had marked this passage. Several hands flew up around the room. I had a strange feeling, as if I’d suddenly inhabited one of the Kindle’s “popular highlights” moments–or as if the “popular highlights” had tapped into this very moment. And I marveled once again at the ways in which my electronically mediated and face-to-face environments are so thoroughly interwoven. Hopefully, for the good….

All too quickly the session was drawing to an end. After one more Murray nugget from the group, I played Mike Wesch’s immortal “The Machine is Us/ing Us” for the group. A few of us had seen it before, but it seemed to be new to most. As it played, I could sense its power in the room. Certainly I never tire of it. Each time I view it, it seems more witty, heartfelt, complex, and urgent than it did the last time. One of the ATL Grad Fellows said later that she always felt like standing up and cheering at the end. I know that feeling; I share it. In fact, I could feel my teeth chattering with excitement after it was over (yes, that happens to me; I have a little of that “Lloyd Dobler nervous talking thing”). I blurted out something about the wonderful way in which Mike uses the very technologies he’s describing to craft the document he shares with us. One of the seminar participants looked up and asked, “So, would that be a metatext?” Bingo! And off we went on a short tangent about metamedia in which I got to quote my favorite Alan Kay aphorism: “A computer is an instrument whose music is ideas.”

I glanced at the clock and saw we had gone over time by a minute–but I had one more thing to share, something that at that moment seemed the obvious and only way to end the session. I played the clip from the very opening of “The Mother of All Demos,” the one in which Doug Engelbart asks what value we, as knowledge workers, could derive from interacting with our own instantly responsive computers throughout each day. I said, “That question leads directly to Mike Wesch’s video–and beyond. And that path is what we’ll be exploring this semester.”

With that, five minutes over our time, we were done for the day.

And yet not done, either, for the network was emerging. Several blog posts have already come into the Baylor motherblog. Blogs posts are coming online from McClennan Community College, from Houston Community College, from the Monterey Institute of International Studies, from St. Lawrence University, from THE Pennsylvania State University, from the University of Central Florida, from the University of South Carolina Upstate. More sites are coming online this week: Tulane, Case Western, Rice. It’s possible the University of Queensland may join in as well, making this truly an international network. (See the full directory here.)

All these sites will be reading along with us at Baylor, gathering their own local participants’ contributions, feeding aggregated resources into the Networked Seminar Portal, contributing to the podcasts Alan Levine is facilitating along with many other crucial contributions from the New Media Consortium. There’s a discussion forum to elicit conversations and connections among the networked sites–a great place for the larger conversation, which along with the networked groups also includes individual participants from Occidental, Mary Washington, Millersville, Santa Monica College, the Doug Engelbart Institute, and the New Media Consortium.

In my heart, I feel as if the seminar never starts or stops. It continues, and gathers force, and knits many talented, hopeful, and committed learners together into an experience that’s much bigger than any one institution. I don’t know how it will all play out. It’s hard to maintain commitment and energy over twelve weeks. I believe in these readings, though, and the “resonance frequency” they inhabit and excite. I believe in the strong desires of many colleagues to be truly answerable to this extraordinary moment in human history. I believe in what Jerome Bruner calls “the possibilities of communal mental activity.” I believe in real school, and I hope this networked seminar is an instance of it–powerful, and powerfully shared.

I hope it looks, and acts, like the Internet at its best: eyes lighting up, nodes coming online, the network of networks emerging. A complex harmony with the sweet force of one note, pure and easy. A resonance frequency.

Let the music begin.

5 thoughts on “The Network Emerges

  1. Am enjoying this sequence of posts describing your classes/courses greatly, with a reasonably large amount of envy mixed in. Great inspiration and example. Thank you.

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