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