Blogs and Baobabs

I do not much like to take the tone of a moralist. But the danger of the baobabs is so little understood, and such considerable risks would be run by anyone who might get lost on an asteroid, that for once I am breaking through my reserve. “Children,” I say plainly, “watch out for the baobabs!” Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “The Little Prince.”

I’ve long thought of blogging as a way of unschooling or deschooling within the framework of schooling. Why not simply deschool entirely? Edupunk it all? For me, that’s a waste. The framework of school can be a helpful point of focus, and at its best can convey a sense of occasion that would not be so strong or inviting without the lovely intensity of an expert imaginatively convening a group of fellow learners, or a group of learners imaginatively convening themselves around an expert, a wise expert who knows how to prize students. I am painfully aware of how seldom one finds wisdom, love, intensity, strength, and prizing within the structures of school, especially these days with the almighty gods of assessment and accountability and so forth installed in a pantheon that has little to do with cognition or relationship. But the abuse of an institution does not necessarily mean the institution itself has nothing to offer. School at its best gives a shape and a collegial society to my yearning for betterment. “Do It Yourself” doesn’t mean “do it by yourself.” School ought to give one a way to find the former without concluding that the only way forward is the latter route.

But sometimes I wonder whether schooling’s distortions can be overcome–or to put it another way, whether school can create within itself spaces for deschooling, moments of release from the dead hands of “rigor” and professorial imitation. Where is the recess for the mind, the space in which freedom within a general sense of direction and purpose can elicit self-surprise, emergent phenomena, essayistic discovery?

For me, blogging has been that recess. Its rigor arises from the non-trivial effort it takes to focus on something while one is exploring it, to focus on it by exploring it, and then to try to create an enjoyable, interesting experience for the reader.  Joy, interest, and focus are rare in the land of college writing, even when one requests or invites them. Instead, at least in my experience, one gets book reports, meandering attempts to ape authoritative writing, or rushed slapdash vacuity that can’t have made much sense even to the desperate writer during the overnight frenzy it took to produce it.

I began using blogs in my classes because I was very tired of papers beginning like this: “For hundreds of thousands of years, men and women all over the world in society have….” I was tired of my best writers producing stilted academic prose. I was tired of my worst writers either stressing so much over the mechanics that their papers got worse, or paying so little attention to what they were thinking and writing that any spark of interest or joy or wisdom that lurked beneath the awkward diction and inept sentence boundaries was snuffed out long before the comma splices began.

To use blogs in this way, I have had to develop an entirely new vocabulary of encouragement, nudging, framing, and evaluation. I have had to examine my own allegiance to the academy (frankly, I find myself working harder to justify the academy surrounding me than I do to justify the blogging within it). And as I have worked within the academy to help my colleagues understand the value and nature of this essayistic endeavor–and to recall that the word “essay” means attempt, not accomplishment–I have had to meet, greet, and push back against many objections. How will I grade it? What justifies this terrible invasion of the student’s privacy? Why should I endure–even encourage–sloppy informal writing that’s not up to academic standards? These questions and their many kin imply assumptions I no longer share, a separation that makes it difficult for me to find persuasive replies. I find we may no longer speak the same language–and given the pervasiveness of these assumptions within school, I feel like the foreigner. But I still try.

Several months ago, I was talking with a colleague about an opportunity for his students to blog, and I tried to explore the new vocabularies and conceptual frameworks I’ve tried to develop as I seek the recess of the mind blogging affords. (Yes, I hear you: “recess” signifies both what I advocate, a kind of cognitive playfulness and inventiveness, and what my colleagues fear, or say they fear, which is a receding emphasis on rigor, formal argument, etc.) I advocated blogging as a place in which Carl Roger’s “freedom to learn” is vividly present as an ongoing source of strength and inspiration within the course of study, even over a lifetime of learning. The blog offers a space, I said, in which the teacher can exercise the humility and delight Heidegger recommends as the highest and most strenuous calling within education, the teacher’s willingness “to let learn.” My colleague replied, “It may be learning, but it’s not academics.” I’d never heard that distinction made so sharply and explicitly. I was amazed by the implication that learning alone wouldn’t make the grade.

In my mind’s eye, I could see the baobabs of academics surrounding the little asteroid of learning, a little asteroid soon to be split into pieces, its fragments sent spinning through a void that must one day, in an ultimate irony, consume the baobabs themselves. But not until those sad and wandering little spheres are reduced to rubble.

Colleagues, I say plainly, and to myself as well: “Beware the baobabs!”

Last week two examples of these baobabs came into my view. In both cases, I’m sure that the professors meant well–and I do not mean that at all condescendingly, since not every professor does in fact mean well. Yet the awful pressure of academics upon learning is everywhere within these articulations, dismayingly so. Even as I write, I feel my own failures and struggles emerging, but I have to say it anyway: it’s probably better not to require blogs at all than to require blogs that are strangled by the baobabs of academics. Save the academics for term papers and other more formal assignments! Instead, preserve a zone in which we can “let learn,” in which there is genuine freedom to learn.  I won’t link to the authors’ websites, as I do not intend to attack them, and because what I believe to be the problems with these specific examples represent a far wider set of attitudes and practices. I single out these two assignments as examples only, ones I happened to run across. It would be unfair to hang the entire weight of my critique on them alone. I also want to salute both these teachers for actually putting their syllabi online instead of trapping them within a “learning management system.” But I feel I must speak plainly.

Here’s the first example.

Blogging (15%): One of the key aspects of your work this semester is our course blog, on which you’ll write frequently, using your posts to respond to our course readings, to draw your classmates’ attention to articles and artifacts you’ve found, and so forth. You are required to post at least one entry each week, which should directly engage with the week’s readings, before the start of class on Monday; this entry should be as formal as a printed reading response would be, paying attention to the quotation, citation, and explication practices involved in close reading. Other entries are greatly desired; these can be as informal as you like. You can explore issues that have been raised in previous class discussion, but you must significantly expand on that discussion and not simply rehash what’s already been said. You can skip two of these reading response posts with impunity. You are also required to read your classmates’ posts and leave at least two comments each week, before the start of class on Wednesday. (Note that you don’t have to post the the two comments at the same time; just make sure that week-to-week you get those entries and comments in.) This weekly requirement is meant as a minimum acceptable level of participation; I hope that you’ll all contribute more, creating an ongoing, engaging dialogue.

Some observations. The tone veers between encouragement and a kind of hectoring, with occasional instances of what feels like peremptory insistence on what the students “will” do, what “is desired” (by the teacher, presumably), and what kinds of behaviors will not be punished (skip two posts “with impunity”). I have no problems with requirements when it comes to blogging, as I’ve written elsewhere, but I do think it’s unwise to try to require commitment by specifying all the forms it must take; one gets commitment to specifications, not to values, and it’s almost certain that the fundamental desire for “an ongoing, engaging dialogue” will not be fulfilled. Instead, one is most likely to get, at best, a simulacrum of such a dialogue geared to what students believe the teacher will find engaging, not what the students themselves find engaging. There can be overlap there, of course, and I fully believe the teacher can and should lead the students into much deeper engagement than they are likely to encounter or realize on their own. But that requires detection and extension of what they’re already engaged by, and this blogging assignment doesn’t appear to be framed in that way.

To state it more simply, the item missing from the initial catalog of what students will use the blogs for is “to explore your thoughts, interests, and puzzlements in relation to this course of study.” Then the reader’s response is over-specified, and we end up with an academic assignment, not a blog. At what point is “what is desired” awakened within the learner, not simply imposed upon him or her? Such awakenings need canny nurturing and all the arts of intellectual seduction.

Even more seriously, the required reading-response post is a formal assignment whose strictures are so definite and school-familiar that I can’t imagine the completion of that required post will feel like an invitation to more informal posting afterward. That’s not to say that a formal reading-response exercise is not valuable. On the contrary. But I wouldn’t call it blogging, and I think the assignment inadvertently conveys a set of values and expectations that is antithetical to the real power of blogging within a course of study.

The professor must judge the difference between significant extension and rehash, between committed effort and lackadaisical coasting, between emergent insight and irrelevance. No question. But blogging provides a space in which that judgment can be rendered flexibly, lightly and joyfully, as an invitation to exploration and quality of commitment.

Here’s the second example. Given that there’s a list, I’ve commented item-by-item.

Blog Participation

1. Comments of 500 words or less on the class blog that are helpful to the class will be worth 10% of your grade.

I’m not much on “class blogs,” as I think blogging needs to be personal, not in the sense of divulging private information, but in the sense of emerging from and feeding back into the personhood of the learner. I’m also confused: are the students publishing blog posts of their own, or simply commenting on something already posted? The latter is particularly restrictive and typically involves a teacher’s felt obligation to supply “prompts.” Such promptings can be fine in other contexts, but in my view they make blogging into something pretty much teacher-centered, and thus something other than blogging. And why the limit on length? Comments over 500 words may be unwieldy or distracting, but this is a matter to be discussed within the class, in my view, not specified on a syllabus.
Also, I’m interested in whether the class has a mechanism for signalling what it finds helpful. Or does “class” not mean “group of learners” but “the material I the teacher am covering?” If the latter is true, then the baobabs have truly done their work.

 2. You may make as many comments per week as you like. However, you will only receive credit for up to two comments in any given week. The real goal of the blog comments is to help you internalize and think about the material on an ongoing basis. Cramming comments does not help you with that, nor does going back to comment on old subjects . I will have random cut-off dates for participation grading throughout the semester. They will not be pre-announced. Therefore, you should consider every day to be a possible cut-off date.

I understand that commenting doesn’t work if students either flood the channel with thin and thoughtless material just to get “extra credit,” or bunch their comments together after several weeks of ignoring the ongoing dialogue. I certainly agree with the “real goal” as it’s articulated above. That said, the idea of random cut-off dates brings in a note of surveillance and gotchas (every day’s a hangin’ day!) that doesn’t invite commitment so much as it inspires either a) dread or b) a desire to find another way to game the system. It’d probably be better to discuss these issues in the class meeting without trying to over-engineer an airtight system of discipline in this way. But then I’ve never agreed that a syllabus should be a contract. The commitment needed for a rewarding course of study is too big and too delicate to be specified exhaustively within a single document. If one tries to do so, the result is legalistic behavior on the part of the students, in my experience.

 3. I expect to see at least 5 well thought out comments, with links to other sources, posted over the course of the semester by each of you. Less than 5 that will result in a bad Blog Participation grade. , but sheer volume of comments will not get you a good grade either.

Five comments over the course of a semester aren’t enough, in my view, if one wants the thinking to be ongoing. Also, I understand that volume alone isn’t worthwhile, but if I had a lot to say, I’d feel inhibited by the way this requirement is phrased. There is plenty of discussion here of teacher expectations. I’d love for students to expect to see comments as well. How to awaken that expectation? That’s a core question.

Along those lines, I also miss, here and in the first example above, any thought that linking to other bloggers and commenters is valuable and encouraged. That’s a shame, as such links are part of the soul of blogging. They demonstrate a valuable way to “think like the web” and participate in the care and feeding of the noosphere. They also encourage an ampler, more imaginative view of what libraries and books are all about in relation to that noosphere.

4. You must sign each comment with your first and last name. If you prefer to use another identifier, like a screen name, you may discuss with me.

I can see a justification for this requirement, but it’s stated pretty harshly, like a specification for a term paper.

5. Spelling and grammar counts – big time.

Yes, they does. Oops. The real point, though, is that loading all these English Professor Rules onto blogging is a) likely to discourage students from unbuttoning their minds and hearts enough to let you know what they’re really thinking, and b) likely to cause embarrassment when one’s own spelling or grammar isn’t right. We all make mistakes in spelling and grammar. We should be rigorous about weeding them out of formal prose, but relaxed about them in the informal space of free-range blogging. Good spelling and proper grammar serve the writer and reader well, but they are not requirements for insight or engagement and risk strangling both in the cradle if the writer focuses on spelling and grammar first. And yes, “big time” sounds both snarky and aggressive to my ears.

6. As noted above, when grading, I will have an independent party review your blog participation and write down proposed grades. I will then read and grade your blog participation myself. If the proposed grade and my grade differ, it is my policy to give the HIGHER grade to my students, unless there is a strong legal deficiency in your participation that my independent evaluator missed. So far, that has never happened.

“Legal deficiency” and “independent party review” sound like efforts to forestall complaints and ensure “objectivity.” In my view, these efforts frame blogging as yet another battleground between teacher and student in which victory is high grades or freedom from student grumbling. I feel an arms-race mentality lurking in both teacher and student in these kinds of statements. I’m reminded of MAD. Framing blogging in this way is in my judgment entirely counterproductive. I’m not sure it works well for any assignment, but it sure won’t work for blogging.

Every time the teacher speaks or writes, the students encounter not only information but a meta-statement about the nature and purpose of the relationship between teacher and student. A syllabus loaded with lists of desired-by-the-teacher behaviors sends a powerful meta-statement that in the case of blogging robs the medium of its primary value for learning. Ditto over-engineered and over-specified assignments within a student blogging requirement. Once again, learning has been transmuted into academics. Sadly, that’s the philosopher’s stone in reverse. Or to return to my initial metaphor, it’s a growing asteroid done to pieces by the destructive, voracious root systems of School Baobabs.

For my students, I hope blogging will be that visible, share-able space that records and thus feeds their own curiosity–and that of their peers as well. Blogging should be like Steve Crocker’s “Request For Comments.” For a moment, the learner can think aloud without so much fear and without striving to be a bon élève. For a moment, we can remind each other that On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux. There will be time for all the rest of what we should do or believe we should do in school. Blogging is a time for something else.

27 thoughts on “Blogs and Baobabs

  1. I agree with your philosophy. I enjoyed your metaphore and the examples given clarified your points. As required for my post-grad study, I’m using a blog to document course artifacts and reflections that then need to be refered back to in the final assessment piece. We are not expected to comment on other’s blogs, but are expected to participate in semisynchronous connections (Facebook group, Twitter). Blogging certainly has a different ‘feel’ about it – I know I’ll keep mine going when the course is complete.

  2. Thank you so much for this– it’s perfectly timed. My new semester starts today, and I’m going to have my Calculus students blogging. I’ve spent the last month agonizing over the instructions I’m going to give. I think I’ve avoided the major issues you pointed out.

  3. Love this. I haven’t had a chance to run a course blog yet, but I hope to soon and this will go a long way in getting/keeping me on the right track.

    And of course you can always be counted on for a great epigraph!

  4. Thank you so much for this post. You would think after years of talking to faculty about using blogging in classes, when faced with how to explain this to my own students, I would feel more comfortable than I do! Your thoughts and advice in here help me to “own” the approach that I want to take.

  5. Hullo Gardner. Nice. Yes. Mess, mistakes, exploration, reciprocity in learning. Similar to permaculture in gardening perhaps. I think learning is a more diverse and robust phenomenon than the crumbly asteroid? Perhaps in the context of academia the forms of learning which are selected for can be a bit crumbly or a monoculture crop or standardised fruit or vegetable sizing. Probably because as with fruit and vegetables the attributes which are more regular are more systemically palatable or easy to put a value(price) to? One of the interesting things about blogs is that, like adventures or misadventures in facebook, they have the potential to have a halflife for better or for worse =) and to be an asset or seedling stash for extra curricular thinking, projects, collaboration, conversation? ie they feed back into the wider ecology of learning? Blog on =).

  6. @Carey Thanks for commenting, and good luck with the project! I’m especially happy that you’ve already found the blogging to be valuable and worth extending beyond the life of the course. Blogging changed my own professional practice, pretty dramatically in fact, and I’ve been wrestling with those changes ever since. Sometimes it feels less like wrestling and more like flying, and other times it feels less like wrestling and more like a firefight, as that different feel you speak of makes some people very uncomfortable, for reasons I don’t entirely understand (and that sometimes makes me very sad and puzzled).

    @Kate I love “mathdancing,” and I think you’ve framed the assignment for your students very well indeed. One of the most important framings is one’s own blog, and you’ve got a fine one. Rock on!

    @Hilllary I really needed an epigraph for this one, as I didn’t want to write destructively, even though I confess that both of the blogging assignments I analyzed were quite upsetting to me. I look forward to the day you put together your own course blog. You too are a wonderful blogger. I’ve learned a great deal from you, obviously, and the world is richer for your voice within it. Thanks.

    @Martha How cool to watch you teach this course! Your students are lucky. It’s great to know that my thoughts are helpful. You’ve watched (endured?) my stubborn insistence in this regard for many years now. I confess that there’s a feeling of despair and futility that comes from trying to work through these questions for a long time while the great juggernaut of academia (not to mention this crazy life) bears down on all the little tentative stirrings of freedom. Hard to figure all that out. But a privilege to labor in these vineyards with you.

    @lucychili I meant the asteroid to stand for personhood as expressed in the desire to learn, a particular aspect of personhood to be sure, but the one I think about a lot. I was talking with a colleague the other day about the way empathy fuels curiosity and may indeed be a necessary part of curiosity. I myself experience curiosity and inquiry generally as a form of yearning that emerges from a deep part of the self. Perhaps that’s why I’m (unusually?) sensitive to the way the monoculture crops of academia strip from the soil a necessary nourishing capacity.

    I wouldn’t equate blogging with Facebook, by the way!

  7. Facebook is not equal to blogging but they both are places where people express themselves and which contribute to their digital portraits. Some kind of investment in personal voice.

    Thank you for the explanation about personhood and learning.

  8. @lucychili I think blogging represents a different and deeper kind of investment than Facebook. If it didn’t, academics (many of whom are on FB) would not find it so difficult to think about, practice, or incorporate into their classes authentically. Blogging is essayistic at heart. It’s a socially networked essayistic enterprise–a strange duck and thus very valuable indeed.

  9. Wonderful post! And The Little Prince is one of my absolute favorite books. It reminds me of the wisdom that lies within innocent souls, especially children. I think, in many ways, we can look to them for inspiration on how to “avoid the Baobabs” and to truly engage in passionate, unadulterated excitement about learning. I think about how kids just jump in head first into what they are curious about, not worrying about mistakes or small errors. In many ways, I think (as you way more eloquently state in this post) that blogging is that invitation to play. To play in the midst of learning, without fear of punishment. Think of what happens to children if every time they experiment and learn but don’t get it right, they are reprimanded. Eventually it leads to always playing it safe and never taking leaps of adventure and creativity that lead to all of the most amazing things and inventions we know today – art, science, etc. I recently watched Being Elmo, a documentary about Kevin Clash, the creator of the character Elmo on Sesame Street and a wonderfully creative individual. As I watched the documentary, I was moved, nay stunned, by how supportive his parents were as he learned to make and manipulate puppets. They always encouraged him to learn and do more, even when there were mistakes along the way. He is now one of the most successful puppeteers to ever live who has created a world-wide icon for children. Wow. To think – I as a teacher have the ability to support that kind of invention and creativity to learn, explore, CREATE without penalty. Or, I can crush it as the Baobabs do the asteroid. And so those bright and shining stars begin to fade. May I always strive to call out the stars, the glow, within my students. And may I always create a space for them to freely learn with excitement and joy, free of the fears this world and the academy so quickly place upon us.

    Bravo on a (as always) fantastic post. Loved reading it.

  10. Wise post Gardner as to the the stewardship of dancing with other emerging selves.

    Makes me reflect upon the concept of lifelong learning as more learning lifestyle.

    Your exhortation appears to me to suggest that we blog to thrive that results in evidence of learning valuable for academics.

    Aren’t we all such glorious works in progress? I am so thankful to be more than a survivor through engagements such as this forum allows. Thank you for sharing you, which helps me cultivate me. Iron sharpens iron.

  11. Maybe Megan Johnson touches on something here:

    Isn’t *learning* simply what we do…naturally…from birth until death…for no other reason than because that’s the way we are and because it is inherently fun to be curious, to engage, to try, to see what happens, to be surprised, to puzzle, to try again, to *play* with somebody else doing the same thing…ad infinitum…?

    So, about *education:* Why are all those fences around the playground?

  12. Beware the baobobs, indeed! As the one who proposed the “Blogging (15%)” for my class, I thought, “Good thing I talked with Gardner before I went public with that baby!” How easily I slip into that sort of mindless march unawares. Thanks. I needed that.

  13. I did not hear about “Blogging” before and I think as you said “a way of unschooling or deschooling within the framework of schooling” I don’t have any experiences with this kind of teaching but it will be. This will help me to read the class articles as well as to identify colleagues’ topics related to week’s topics. I am really excited to know what the result of this good start.

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  16. As a student of Andy’s class I was surprised to be assigned a reading that critiqued our class syllabus (: but I agree with the point that was made about how requiring students to “engage with the reading” does in a sense limit the potential of blogging by making these assignments more or less simply reading responses. With that said, I am still excited to explore blogging, even if it is required.

  17. Whew–what wonderful responses! Let me try to slip in a few replies:

    @Megan As always, you touch my heart. I will look for that documentary; thanks for the heads-up. I think too of what Ken Robinson has said and written, and Stuart Brown, and many others. Perhaps the biggest lesson here for me is to keep before me the many friends and colleagues who are also committed to these values–and to know I am far from alone. Thank you.

    @Barbara How lovely to go from dancing to iron sharpens iron: that’s exactly the range of metaphors we need. We need to be there for each other in both capacities, traveling on that long road with many a winding turn. Thank you for the poetry of your response.

    @Bill Exactly. This is why I say pedagogy is a technology. Learning occurs naturally. Pedagogy should harness that natural energy and make it bigger, faster, better, the way the sail catches a breeze and sends the boat scudding through the open seas. I vastly prefer a sail to a fence–I think we should do more to make those breezecatchers for each other as fellow learners.

    @Andy Glad this was helpful! I’ve been very fortunate to have excellent teachers along the way. I’m happy I haven’t dimmed their light too much in the retransmission. 🙂 I can’t wait to see how things go for you and your class this term. I have learned so very much from you already; I am grateful for the chance to learn more.

    @Mohammed I’ll be following along, for sure, and I share your excitement about where it may–or will–lead. Thanks for commenting.

    @Michael at the hyperlinked library: Really glad this post was helpful for you as well, and I’m honored you’d share it with your students. I’ll be following along here too. Thanks for stopping by.

    @Eric Actually, this post was not in response to Andy’s syllabus at all. Neither of the two quoted assignments were from VT. I really don’t want to identify them, for the reasons I’ve stated, but I can tell you that Andy’s not one of them. 🙂 And I think it’s great to have folks engage with the reading, and even to ask or require them to do so. The trick is how one specifies–or overspecifies–that engagement. My larger point is that an overly academicized “term-paper-by-other-means” assignment misunderstands and misrepresents the power of blogging, and can give the illusion of a kind of progressiveness while subtly reinscribing all the power structures and “administered intellectuality” that the academy is so good at enforcing. I envy you your opportunity to study with Andy. I know it’ll be a fantastic experience.

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  19. There is so much goodness and irony here. I’m agog. I’m mother to unschooling children and delighted to find your blog, Mr. Gardner. I’m clapping and linking.

    My eleven year old daughter blogs without instruction, oversight, or grades. I encourage her through comments, but otherwise work hard mostly to stay out of her way. In return, I get to sit back and watch her grow intellectually and academically. Imagine, without any syllabus at all.

    Are unschooled children asteroids? I’m not sure, but they fly light, fast, and easy without the burden of those baobabs. The irony of this discussion, listening to professors trying to figure out how to unburden themselves so they can teach in a fundamentally non academic sphere is, well, trippy. Had you all been unschooled, this would be as easy for you as it is for my daughter. Academia is supposed to be a tool in service to intellect, not the other way around. Right?

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