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.