The Reverend asked me a question

about blogging in my classes. What is my method? How do I communicate to students the reasons for blogging, and how do I get them to commit to the exploratory spirit of the endeavor in a school context that emphasizes frequent incremental assessments of items on a task-list?

As I talked to Jim, I realized that I do have a method, or methods, but in the spirit of those methods I’ve resisted writing much about them here. In my experience, the paradox of real school is that it’s extraordinarily powerful when it happens, and at the same time very fragile along the way.  (Robert Frost on poetry: “The figure is the same as for love.”) As I try to get to the magic and guard the fragility, I try not to talk about either too much or too analytically. That said, and at the risk of talking both too much and too analytically, I also try in several ways to encourage the class (encourage=give heart) to blog as part of the journey to the magic. Here are a few scattered thoughts, with no time to edit or polish them, about some of the ways I’m aware of trying to encourage the class.

1. In my mind, and in the way I talk about blogging, I distinguish between a requirement and an assignment. Blogging is required, but not assigned. My requirement is simple: blog x number of times a week, blog in relation to what we’re studying together, comment on another blog x number of times a week, blog and comment substantively. I go back and forth on the quantitative requirement. Specifying a number is a sure way to turn a requirement into an assignment, and I resist it, but we are all human and time can’t be ignored altogether, so I’ll typically specify a number. What I will not specify is what “in relation to” means, or what “substantively” means. I will however discuss and muse aloud about what they mean, and emphasize with all my heart and mind the many ways in which we can (and should, and hopefully will) conceive of relation and substance as we study together. And I will try to take some of the pressure of “what does the teacher want?” off our minds by reminding them that I do not “grade” the blogs, but instead consider them holistically as evidence of their general commitment to this course of study.

None of those ideas is in any way unique to me. To name but one obvious influence, there’s the way Barbara Ganley talks about and dwells within blogs in her teaching. (The first time I heard Barbara talk about blogging, in New Orleans in 2005, I realized that my intuitions about blogging were sound and could and should be extended even further. What an inspiration Barbara’s presentation turned out to be! I owe her much.) But even here (and I think Barbara would agree) the trick is to bring a version of the blogosphere itself into the use of blogs in the classroom. Otherwise, it’s new wine in old bottles. Students will rightly view blogging as merely (insert traditional assignment here) by other means.

I suppose if students are not a little confused about blogging at first, they’re not really on the road to grokking it.

2. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the distinctions and relations between community and culture. I’m thinking that the problem of scaling is the problem of transition from community to culture. Civilization offers many ways to think about (and despair over, and hope for) such transitions. Education offers relatively few outside of team activities. Michael Wesch seems to me to have grokked the relation between community and culture–aided no doubt by his own training as an anthropologist, but even more crucially aided by his proclivities as a digital artist. He teaches at a large state school. He doesn’t often, if ever, have the luxury of six students in a seminar, the extreme luxury I’ve just enjoyed in my UMW Milton seminar. Yet he’s figured out how to empower both community and culture in his teaching, and how to make that culture recursively pervade each community within it. (Jerome Bruner’s The Culture of Education becomes ever more important for me in this regard. Why has this book not changed the world already, or at least permeated the conversation about education? Perhaps it has, somewhere, and I need to find that somewhere….)

For me, blogging and the peculiar character of its distributed conversation makes that community-culture continuum especially visible and accessible to thought. Such a peculiar genre, blogging; it accommodates and facilitates many different uses, as Gene Roche has been exploring recently. In my own experience, learning from the folks who inspired me to get into this and sustain this in the first place (Gene, Jon, Bryan, Brian, Barbara,  to name only five early influences), the blog combines the essay, the lecture, the letter (“this is my letter to the world”), the message-in-a-bottle, the Q&A session, even the delicious bits in a jazz solo that quote (allude to, link to) motifs and melodies from other jazz solos. (I love the bit in Toots Thieleman’s solo in “The Man I Love” that quotes his own melody in “Bluesette.”) There’s a both-and character to blogging that resonates very deeply with my other portmanteau commitments, my other complex devotions. Plus it can be insanely, shake-your-jagged-locks-in-the-sun playful (and often is). And recursive and gloriously bootstrapping.

So when I talk to my students about blogging, I try very hard to emphasize how they’re likely to experience both community (tighter bonds with their fellow learners in the course of study) and culture (participation in the greater blogosphere, with unpredictable and often lovely results). Fractal returns, spiraling in and out depending on where one is looking at the time. And whenever we get pinged from the outside, I talk it up with Jim-Groom-sized enthusiasm the next time we meet. It’s easy, because I’m just as jazzed by the phenomenon as I hope they will be.

3. This last bit is probably the most important, and one of the many reasons I hate to fall silent here for any length of time. I offer to my students my own testimony about the ways in which blogging augments my own work as a learner and teacher and writer. For me, it’s no different than the way I talk about books I’ve read, movies I’ve seen, thoughts I’ve had, thoughts my students have inspired in me. My blog is an account of my journey as a learner, a process of shared inquiry that both documents and shares the quests for knowledge and meaning–and collaborates on the building those quests inspire.

Sometimes faculty worry that student blog posts will merely share ignorance and error. Students worry about this too. No one wants to be wrong, particularly out in front where everyone can see. I have three thoughts in response to this entirely legitimate concern. One is that any conversation about what one is learning will tend to reinforce one’s commitment to that task. One’s learning is reinforced even through sharing questions and uncertainties. (I think I’ve got some good neuroscience on my side to confirm this thought.) The second thought is related to the first: blogs are great for sharing knowledge and the experience of meaning, but they’re also great–perhaps even greater–at cultivating and sharing a habit of inquiry and a set of heuristics of inquiry. Blogs are hydroponic farms for heuristics, hypothesis-generation, metacognition that continually moves out to other metacognizers and back to one’s own reflection. The third thought, and I say this with some caution, is that there’s a way of conceiving blogging that lets us say, to paraphrase the poet Phillip Sydney in his “Defense of Poetry,” that “the blogger nothing affirmeth.” That is to say, the activity of the blogger is not primarily to assemble facts into a persuasive argument, though one can do that and there are many shades of argumentation possible in a blog. Instead, the blogger’s voice sounds through its many wanderings as it imagines a better world that might emerge from this “brazen” one (again quoting Sydney). Or to get even more fanciful, while still poetic, the blogosphere can be the place where we collaborate on a beautiful Grecian Urn and also, in the face of overwhelming odds against it, witness our collaborations come to life, so that we need never choose between frozen perfection, authentic mourning, exuberant joy, and deeply shared life.

And then, among other things blogging means being intellectual in front of other people, and helping to broaden the definition of “intellectual” in ways that are, in my view, desperately needed in higher education and at large. Much more to say on this in another post.

I told my students this summer that Milton imagined a life, a marriage, a community, a culture that would be defined but dynamic. It seems to me that much human endeavor aims to unite those two excellences. Defined, so we can have identity and know the other *as* the other and not just an extension of self.  Dynamic, so we can grow, merge, combine, split, overlap, move in an exquisite dance of personhood and family, individuality and deep belonging. Blogging is thus just another way–but what another way!-to experience that human dream, and to make some little part of it come true.

22 thoughts on “The Reverend asked me a question

  1. Brilliant! I wish I could have such coherent and eloquent “scattered thoughts”!

    It’s obvious that a comment from an outside authority (an author you are discussion, an expert on a topic) would raise the level of activity, engagement, but was curious if you observe any inflections (either individually or as a group) in the level of activity from within as your students start to get feedback from each other or yourself. If so, are there patterns to when that happens, or what it takes to trigger, or ….?

    Finally, I have a great new bumper sticker! “Blogs are hydroponic farms for heuristics, hypothesis-generation, metacognition that continually moves out to other metacognizers and back to one’s own reflection.”

  2. Ah, Gardner, whenever I read one of your elegant, exquisite posts (or listen to your talks–that recent one at UBC on the poetry of computers, for example) I wish that I could have studied Milton with you. But studying blogging and poetry and ways of living by reading these posts–no, even better, by participating in them by responding, by pulling a thread or two of your thinking into my dawning thoughts–is quite extraordinary, too, for I have the time and space to have as many arguments-with-you-in-my-head as I want or I can just blurt out the first response I can think of in a way that no time-defined class period ever let me. I can return again and again to your posts and find something new each time– you are the Blogger Poet or the Poet Blogger, or the Blogger Bard. You exemplify how blogging– as simultaneous message to culture, community and self, as you say–encourages us to go past that first skim of a thought and weave a rich, ongoing record of our creative, our intellectual explorations, and in the process, move our readers.

    Blog on, Maestro!

  3. More than a comment, this is simply thinking in loud voice.

    The way you reflect on the fine distinction between requirement and assignment is probably a good articulation of the tensions inside my head. Now I have precise language to keep on reflecting about it. Every time I decide to invite my students to innovate their learning ways, I keep thinking of the footprints they bring from the analogical education world about grading and observable measures of their progress.

    While reading the first two paragraphs, I had a question lurking at the back of my mind: what would Barbara say about this? Then you make the links explicit and she joins you adding her voice to the comments. It’s a pleasure to read you both.

  4. The points you make about blogging that really strike deep within me are the same ones Claudia is making when she says “Then you make the links explicit and she joins you adding her voice to the comments.” Yes, yes yes! This is why I am so enraptured by the blogging ideal in the first place: it is the human connection made evident, made visible, made possible & inifinite. The fact that someone can have an idea, can write down that idea, & then, in writing the idea down, cite his/her sources WITHIN the idea & allow ample (rootless, endless) space for others to expand upon that very same idea.

    I have daily visions of ways that I can further expand my own connections with others, such as mailing food that I like or making individualized mix CD’s, but nothing allows the kind of freedom of interests that a blog does — at least nothing free & easily accessible. It is the ideal educational platform! Educational in the sense that we all learn from one another & speak to every soul with our collective ideas. It used to be that here, here was the teacher & there, you are the student — now learn. Now, & especially with the strides you are taking using the blog in the classroom, the form is thus: I am the teacher, but only in the sense that you are listening to me & providing me with your attention as I stand atop this platform; you, however, will be your own teacher to yourself, your fellow students, & possibly even me, when you spread your ideas into World Wide Oblivion.

    The classroom says: Learn!
    The blog says: We are educators all!

    Brilliant post, sir

  5. Who would have thought that lurking behind that conversation at Hard Times was this post? Well, I would. I sat mesmerized listening to you think out loud and then you post this. This is the seminal post for any would be educational blogger to read – student or teacher. I can only echo Alan’s comment of “Brilliant”!

  6. Hi G!
    How’s life? Have you moved yet?
    Was just reading through your blog. Good stuff! As always.
    I love CO and am looking forward to the new job. Have been working on an article and in the yard and shopping and watching lots of TV. No complaints here. 🙂
    Hope you’re doing well!

  7. Yes, yes and yes! I am excited that you and these great ideas are coming to Baylor (and that you’ll be housed in the library where I’m trying to foment my own little blogging/social software revolution…)

  8. Another excellent meditation, Gardner. I’ll be sharing it with faculty here at Davis. Many are interested in blogging, few actually do it because of some of the fears and anxieties you’ve mentioned here. Thanks!

  9. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: my favorite thing about blogging for your classes was being encouraged to take an active role in my own education.

    The way you frame the requirement says, very clearly: “here is an opportunity–do as little or as much as you see fit.” I think it’s brilliant. It’s that whole definite-dynamic thing in action. Every student knows what, and how much, to write in a blog. (Maybe they won’t admit it, or maybe they’re used to the typically unimaginative ‘assignment,’ but I firmly believe that we are all capable of figuring the blog thing out.) This is the ‘definite’ part of the equation–knowing, in your gut, how to respond to the requirement. But it is also dynamic, because among students, the expression of that definite quality is both creative and varied. Fluid. Dynamic. Everyone is responsible for their own journey, and for their colleagues’ journeys. Suddenly students are sharing more than just textual analysis and scholarly sources. And suddenly the professor is not the class’ only source of energy. As Brad said above, We are educators all.

    The tricky part is getting students to trust their own brains, their own guts, their own instincts as SCHOLARS. Part of the problem, I think, is that we have a hard time reconciling exploration (or plain old doubt) with any kind of authority. But as I see it, ‘authority’ is not the same as being right, or being factually correct. Authority has more to do with entering seriously into a scholarly discussion. Authority is saying, “I’m here to figure things out.” Maybe you’ll never get to the bottom of anything, maybe you’ll chase your tail forever, but–by gum–you’ll be doing so as part of an earnest exploration!

    Anyway. Those are my two cents, and if I seem zealous it’s because I came to see myself as a real scholar precisely by blogging for Dr. Campbell’s class. You know that whole ‘dialogue’ that critics are supposedly engaged in? Well, I’d never actually seen any such dialogue until I was invited to participate in one. That opportunity–that invitation–plus Dr. C’s willingness to share his own journey as a scholar… well, it made all the difference. It made my studies more than just an artificial activity to pass the time in school.

    And yes, I realize the audience in this comment has shifted numerous times. I don’t have the energy to make it consistent.

  10. OK, I’ve read this post about a dozen times now and will probably do so another dozen before I’m through. You’ve inspired me to ask students to give Blogging a whirl in my Advanced Academic Writing class this fall where I’m also introducing them to Walker Percy’s “The Loss of the Creature.” Heady stuff, so I’m sure they will have lots of questions to ponder and puzzles to work through as they seek to make sense of his profound thoughts and lack of specific direction, which may well mirror their own (both). Having never blogged before, I will also enter some uncharted but clearly important territory. Since you both inspired the Blogging and introduced me to Percy’s philosophies, I thought I’d share that tidbit. Thanks for sharing your thoughts so freely–they are always insightful and inspiring. Happy

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  15. In this article I will explain the educational benefits of blogs in viewpoint of me also based on what I believe of some reading articles related to our week subject. As international student using English as second language, I prefer using blogs as a communications tool in the class which let me explain my opinions and ideas with my classmates in simply way and faraway from language barriers. Moreover, using blogs in classroom is highly motivating to students, especially those who otherwise might not become participants in classrooms.
    Also one of the blogs benefits is to give students good opportunities to read and write. Students prefer “write their drafts online within a protected environment, peers leave comments to help them revise and edit, and when they are ready, they take the natural step of publishing content online to the real world” [1]. Blogs provide a space where students and teachers can work to further develop writing with the advantage of an instant audience. Instructional tips can be offered by teachers, and students can practice and assistance from classmates reviews. Also, a class of older students can help a class of younger students develop more confidence in their writing skills.
    David Parry, University of Albany said in his article [2] “the speed of reading in the age of the digital has changed, and we need to help students navigate this”. This will be one of the big pedagogical issues in the 21st century, surfing around webpages, scanning information, might be in practice valuable for a quick knowledge gaining, but it does not lead to in-depth reading. He argued two separate mental practices for reading. one, the quick analysis to find what is worth reading, and the second, a switch to slow analysis to carefully consider what has been found. This kind of technologies will lead to make students easy to scan, and then to select what they want to read.
    Finally, I think these kinds of digital technologies will be the good way to make the education more efficient and I hope to be one of my skills in teaching classes in my country in the near future.

  16. I totally agree with Alosha. However, I think that we need to distinguish the different between bloogging for educational purposes, and the private habets and political reflections, as well.

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