Learning Subjectives: Joining #rhizo15

I have been looking forward to #rhizo15 for a few months now. I was traveling during the last round of #rhizo, but I keep seeing people I enjoy using the hashtag, so I’ve been chomping at the bit to join in! Despite that enthusiasm, though, I am coming to the party a week (or three) late, since April truly is the cruelest (grading) month when you teach on a north american semester schedule.

So I am DELIGHTED to see the first prompt: learning subjectives.

Okay, honesty gut check moment: delighted is the second thing I felt. The first was confused. Was “learning subjective” a term I should be familiar with? Was I about to be exposed as a fraud, a dabbler in pedagogical theory rather than an expert? That kid in class who didn’t do the homework? Someone who doesn’t know the terminology?!

Then–after reading Dave Cormier’s introduction–then I was delighted. “Learning Subjectives.” Of course! What a great term/idea/reversal/introduction!

Learning subjectives encapsulates my reason for joining the #rhizo15 party: it’s where the cool people are. My goal in joining #rhizo15 had always been to get to know more people, to share ideas, to widen my learning network, to benefit from others and to articulate my own ideas about teaching, and thereby to learn from and for myself, as well. In other words, my motivation to participate has been about the “subjects” rather than the “objects” of learning.

And this realization has caused me to reflect on a formerly unexamined assumption I had about students at my liberal arts college. Students choose classes because of the classmembers all the time. Sometimes they choose based on the professor. Sometimes it’s based on a friend who is taking the same section. Sometimes their choice is based on what other students have said about past versions of the class. Bottom line: student class choice is heavily shaped by a network effect. (This may not be true of larger institutions; but at my 1,700 student college, everyone really does know everyone, at least by reputation.)

So, a new learning subjective for me: how do I line up my learning subjectives with my students’?


Making Jane Austen: 3d Printing, Digital Commonplace books, and Reading Realism

Fall semester has just ended, my desk is piled with papers to mark, and I find myself procrasti-planning future courses. I’ve been re-reading Paula Byrne’s The Real Jane Austen, a biography written through traces of material culture extant from Austen’s life and featured in her novels. As others have written, Byrne’s biography is an innovative approach to understanding Austen, and reads like a “delightful rummage through a Regency chest of drawers” (Looser). Such an approach offers a sense of intimate access to the writer’s lived experience, an achievement that makes reading the biography both satisfying and self-aware of biography’s generic voyeurism.

Byrne (writing for a generalist audience) reads Austen’s life through material objects–such as an Indian shawl, her famous writing desk, her topaz cross– from her life and her books. Eschewing the traditional chronological approach, Byrne offers new insights into Austen’s experience by historicizing and contextualizing the objects that Austen interacted with, often by connecting Austen’s personal experience to world events through materialist history. Byrne’s approach is fascinating, though at times a bit too quick to draw conclusions from limited evidence.

I’ve been thinking since first reading the biography that it would be the perfect choice for an undergraduate course in Austen, since the biographical chapters would sync up beautifully with the novels, and offer arguments and insights to test out through close reading and research. And this morning, I just had a realization: what about adding in a making component to the course? If realism is the attempt to represent common experience by remaking it in fiction, then what better way to study Austen’s realism than by reversing her fictionalization, and making solid the objects from her fictional and historical worlds?

In my previous version of my upper-division Jane Austen seminar, I taught students to “dance like Jane Austen,” following the guidance of Cheryl Wilson’s article on dance in the classroom. Students loved it so much that we transformed our final into a ball–literally. Students created period-appropriate invitations, reserved a ballroom on campus, secured funding through student government, researched, created, and hosted card games for non-dancers, performed  their “accomplishments” for guests (including playing violin, reading an Austen-inspired story, and teaching us all to how dress appropriately), and, of course, danced like Jane Austen. They also made food (from white soup to bread pudding) and generally exhibited their learning by inviting faculty and other students from across campus to learn about Austen by dancing, eating, listening, and playing like it was the eighteenth century.

That was the funnest course I’ve ever taught. The project–student-inspired and student-organized–brought the class together with a common mission and goal, and turned reading and studying into a joyful celebration. I hope future classes will want to do the same!

That experience–in which students’ final projects became their research and writing about their material contributions to the ball–motivates my interest in teaching Austen through her material traces. The next course could include:

1. 3d printing or handcrafting objects from Austen’s world: Byrne’s chapter on the ivory miniature suggests likely objects for printing, and we could also potentially make miniatures of the Barouche, the writing desk, the bathing machine, etc. Additionally, we could hand craft silhouettes or vellum notebooks.

1a. I might even ask ALL students to make a silhouette of a loved one in class as a way to begin the semester?

2. Make and play games: 18th century card games, baseball, even other childhood games.

3. Dance and dress: Dancing we can do; students are always fascinated by the clothes, and I’d need to think more about that. Costumes are not easy; for our ball we offered gloves for dancers who wished to be woman-identified, and cravats for man-identifying guests.

4. Materiality of the book segment of the course: last time fabulous Whittier College librarians Mike Garabedian and Becky Ruud brought an early edition Johnson Dictionary along with many 18th century texts to class, for students to handle and explore in order to understand the material experience of reading in Austen’s time. The class also did a “reading and writing by candlelight” exercise which was fantastic; I’d like to develop this segment more. (Whittier has a first? edition of Cowper’s poem The Task, which is too long to read, but which would be useful in thinking about home decor (sofa) and modes of thinking/living.)

5. Digital commonplace books: last time, students created and constantly updated digital commonplace books on Tumblr. This assignment met with varying levels of success. Some were brilliant, some were largely reblogs of images and gifs from Austen films. Very few completed the close reading portion of the commonplace book assignment.

6. To essay or not to essay? That is the big question. Maybe a multimodal essay instead, where students could include images, hyperlinks, text, and film clips alongside their research into their chosen object of interest.

6a. Another option for a project would be to turn the tables, and ask students to choose an article from their own lives that embodies a surprising conjunction of ideas, and then write their own personal (digital) essay about how that object represents an aspect of their character. That would be an interesting way to begin to defamiliarize the concept of “character.”

7. Object of Student’s Affection: final project could be for students to select an object from Austen’s novels or letters (or films? hm…), “make” it (digitally or handcraft or 3d print), and write a research paper about how its material history opens new insight into one or more novels.

8. I need to think through how I’d integrate Austen on film into the class. This is ALWAYS a big deal when teaching Austen, as the films can be such powerful filters that reading the novels pails in comparison to their interpretive power.

8a. Maybe focus on the LBD (Lizzie Bennet Diaries) and the creation of character in the staged reenactments by a single, carefully chosen article of dress (the hat, the bowtie, etc.) This would get to both FID as a style in the written novels (I see LBD’s reenactments as a theatrical version of FID) and also the costume question and the film issue…

Well, I have too many ideas and only a year to plan them! Note that I don’t yet have access to a 3d printer, so that would be a first step if I pursue this course concept. So, friends and readers, what do you think? Suggestions please!

Regret, Gratitude, and Hope: The Last Week of Class

One thing I love about my life in academia is its seasons. Living in Southern California, I find it difficult to distinguish between summer and winter by the weather, but I always know where I am in the year by the semester clock. I am always either approaching a new semester, bringing one to a close, or anticipating the next. Academic life is full of beginnings and endings, of fresh opportunities, and regrets at the daily (hourly?) mistakes of teaching and advising. While research just keeps moving forward at its own slow crawl, teaching is endlessly various. Marathons disguised as sprints. Fourteen week bundles gift-wrapped with intensity and pathos.

Can you tell that another semester is about to end?

The final week of class is always a period of mixed emotions for me. I am, every time, filled with gratitude that we all survived the long haul voyage we began together in that distant, nearly-forgotten past–three months ago. I have long since given up on the idea of using the last week to “catch up” on all the content that every semester I chuck overboard from my ambitious syllabi to keep the class afloat during the mid-semester wallow that always seems to bog down our progress. Instead, I think of the final week as a period of reflection and discussion with students. A kind of intensified advising period, with a bi-directional glance back at what we’ve accomplished and forward toward what comes next. Will students want to continue to study a certain type of writer, or issue, or problem? Will they NEVER EVER want to study a topic again? Will they, too, have a sense of arrival, of nearing a new port? Will the material or experience of their semester classes have nudged them into difference from their pre-semester selves? Will they, too, feel that they will need to regain their land legs as they adjust to their slightly shifted perceptions?  I always leave a semester feeling transformed in some way. Do they?

As we all swim to the surface of the semester, our perspectives change. The minutiae of the semester falls away, and the shared experience comes to the foreground. The frustrations with technology failing, missed deadlines, or experimental assignments fall away, and I am left with a sense of nostalgia. Each class, each semester, develops its own unique character. And the final week of each class I anticipate the approaching farewell with sadness.

But, to be honest, also with JOY! School is almost over! Just as I yearned for the summer holidays in elementary school, so, too, do I yearn for the end of the intensity of the semester. Loved ya, class. But we’re all ready to move on, aren’t we?

Teaching in the wake of the Ferguson non-indictment

Yesterday, it was announced that there would be no indictment of Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Michael Brown in Fersugon, MO on August 9, 2014. Demonstrations around the US took place last night, and continue as I type these words. Images of demonstrations and words of both anger and hope from thousands of people around the country fill my Twitter feed and invade my dreams.

Today, I teach my last class class before Thanksgiving, a national holiday that celebrates the founding, or initial colonization, of the United States. As Thanksgiving draws near, I always point students’ attention to the fact that our national mythology of Thanksgiving makes invisible the perspective of the people who are native to this continent, whose lands and rights and, in many cases, lives have been taken from them to enable the founding of a nation built on a dream of equality. I will do so again today. And today, I must also acknowledge yet another example of the ways that my beloved country fails to live up to its values.

The contrast between what I believe in as an American citizen and what I see happening in my country has rarely been so stark.

My identity as a citizen of the US is built on a belief that we share values equality and fairness and hope. I believe in those values; they have formed me and they guide me. And therefore, I cannot walk into my class full of smart, articulate, interested students, many of them people of color, without acknowledging the injustices so apparent in the news today.

Learning–creating meaningful knowledge–does not happen in a vacuum. The events around us shape our lives and our thoughts and our motivations. Being able to think about and discuss the difficult realities around us is the goal of a college education. Becoming confident that our perspective matters, and our voices are important, is a key outcome of a successful liberal arts education. Learning to think through important ideas and issues in the light of historical perspective and varying points of view, that is a purpose of college. I hope that students graduate from college more likely to initiate difficult conversations, more likely to broach topics of national or local or personal importance, more likely to risk the danger of expressing an unpopular opinion. And I hope that they are also more likely to listen to others’ viewpoints, to offer their attention and sympathetic imagination to their discussion partners. In short, I hope that all class members–students and myself–can learn to be both more courageous and more kind by practicing mindful discussion in the classroom.

I have been following the Twitter hashtag #Fergusonsyllabus, and it gives me both hope and guidance. So today, though it is “off the lesson plan,” I will initiate a discussion about the Ferguson decision. I want my students to know that they are safe in my classroom to express their thoughts and emotions, to ask questions about things they (and I, often) don’t understand. Our class is a space to think and discuss the topics that matter to us in the world because all learning is connected. I don’t know where this discussion will take us, but it is my job, I believe, to initiate the conversation.

Since I am a literature professor, and my best ideas come to me by reading, today I will offer my students this poem by the great African-American poet Langston Hughes. It encapsulates my anger and frustration with our delayed and inequal but oh-so-important American Dream. And it encapsulates my personal investment in the urgent importance of coming closer to realizing that dream. Here’s a short section of Hughes’s “Let America Be America Again.” The entire poem is available here:

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

Cool Stuff #TvsZ Players Made

#TvsZ 6.0 is in its final hours, but I can’t help stepping away just to record a few–sadly few!–of the many amazing media artifacts that players have created in the past few days. Here’s a sample, and there’s much much more. What a wealth of imagination, creativity, collective learning to use new tools, networked knowhow, and sheer fun! Enjoy.

Here’s an amazing visualization of the #TvsZ interconnections, via TagsExplorer:


A metaphor to bring all teams together:

 A flipbook to gather team #dragonboVine’s cartoons:


A flipbook to gather the missions and artifacts players created:

A team manifesto made by #teamtech:

A #danceparty video (shared, not made, but still cool):

A #teamdragonbovine cartoon #myth:

The #TvsZ website:


#TvsZ Scoreboard:


One of the development documents we used to build the game:


And here’s a quick, informal post-play discussion among the leaders for #TvsZ 6.0:


When cows can fly: In the heat of the #TvsZ 6.0 moment

#TvsZ 6.0: A giant game of Twitter Red Rover

This weekend, I’ve been playing #TvsZ 6.0 with friends and students. The game is both like and unlike previous iterations. I have loved every version I’ve played so far, but this one may be my favorite.

Why? Because, though I love zombies, it turns out that getting rid of zombies has opened up more imaginative freedom for players. Zombies are such a dominant narrative, that when we are within that paradigm, as fun as it is, it controls our sense of possibilities. The various zombie tropes we know get deployed, reworked, and remixed in endlessly fascinating ways.

But take away the zombie master narrative, revise the underlying game action from involuntary or even violent transformation (#bite) to the more constructive valence of community building (#recruit), and the ethos of the game transforms. We still play for fun, and players feel loyalty to their teams (more on that in a moment), but tweets tend toward “I want you on my team, so I #recruit you” rather than the “I’m going to get you despite your protest, so I #bite you”.

Of course, there’s still a LOT of trash-talking (and I may be among the worst offenders in this realm). I don’t have time to paste in tweets to show this, but search on the #TvsZ hashtag and you’ll see the banter among players from different teams.

Why I’m a #teamtech member

I began as a #teamtech member because I figured it would be the less popular of the two initial teams (nature vs technology). Also, our plan as we developed the game concept was to invite players to hack the binary of the two original teams, so I figured I’d be moving on to a third team in fairly short order.

Very quickly–more quickly than we’d planned–a third team (#bovine) established itself, and for a while a fourth (#dragon) and even fifth team (#fish). Then the cows and the dragons combined forces in what can only be described as the triumph of creative imagination: and so was born the team I call “the flying cows”, team #dragonbovine, a group of fun-loving, firebreathing flying cows.

I immediately wanted to join them. Who doesn’t love the sheer silliness of it? And I was gratified when a few #DB players made attempts to #recruit me to their team. Part of me really wanted to join them, to glory in the linguistic punning and visual potential of such an imaginative identity.

But I resisted, out of a sense of loyalty to my (at the time, dwindling) team. Ah, what a tough call 🙂

Technology, Nature, and Imagination

As I think of it now, these three teams embody three sets of values and bases of human thought. They are, clearly, not incompatible. In fact, I’d argue that the (constructs) nature, technology, and imagination are entirely interdependent and deeply interconnected. And maybe that the real beauty of this version of #TvsZ: instead of opposing sides (humans vs zombies), this time we have interconnected, interdependent perspectives working separately but with awareness of each other.

If I were trying to build a game that would suggest an avenue of hope for our collective future–a future threatened by so many challenges at both local and global scales–I’d want something like #TvsZ 6.0, as it has emerged through the players’ own initiative. We need technological solutions to some gloabal warming challenges, but we also need imagination and creativity and lightness-of-touch to choose among and advance those solutions, and we desperately need people who care deeply about our environments, be they natural or participatory communities.

Many players embody this ethos. Here’s one example. One player was confused about the rules, and another player helped her out:

#Teamtech ethos

So what is the ethos of #teamtech? I can’t speak for my teammates, but my sense is that we are motivated by a desire to improve our collective way of life by recognizing the sheer variety and richness of human innovation. We defend the pursuit of knowledge for it’s own sake (#gogeeks), and we trust that people in teams imagination (the flying cows) and nature will balance us with their wisdom and kindness.

Plus, we seem to love to make Star Wars, Star Trek, and other nerdy film references. #Gogeeks!

Playing Together to Experience Belonging

#TvsZ 6.0 Starts Friday 11/14 Noon EDT – Sunday 11/16 6pm EDT

This weekend a group of faculty and friends I met on Twitter will be hosting a new edition of Pete Rorabaugh’s epic Twitter literacy game, #TvsZ (new website coming soon). Our version, 6.0, is a significant hack of the original game. We’ve changed the underlying narrative premise, and therefore rewritten the game actions to work within the new paradigm. We are in the process of updating and building the new game components. (Sign up and join in!)

I am incredibly excited about participating as a host in this game that I have enjoyed as a player. Here’s @Bali_Maha’s great, simple explanation of how the game will work and why it’s useful for students. Here are some slides that explain the basic structure of game play, brilliantly updated by @JRDingwall.

Playing the game last summer led me seamlessly into hosting the game this fall. The sense of community and solidarity and mutual support I feel with my fellow player/hosts is a really new phenomenon for me. A new kind of belonging, a networked belonging. The very fact that collectively we cannot actually remember how we all came together to work on this (via Google hangouts, blog posts, shared documents and lots of email, because we are spread across many time zones) attests to the community-building effects of #TvsZ as Pete has designed it. Coming together through the game, our group has been working to reimagine the game. We decided to build a new underlying structure with the goal of bringing our students together to play with each other and potentially find their own new way of belonging.

Why did we decide to reimagine the game premise? We had many long intellectual discussions about this, and we had some good reasons: wanting to avoid a violent premise, wanting to find a broader narrative with more global appeal, etc. But as I think of it now, I believe we wanted to redesign the game because reimagining the game is part of PLAYING the game. The feature we all agreed instantly that we want to keep–and foreground–is the crowd-sourced creation of new rules during game play. The emergent nature of the game invites players to become more than “users”; players become “builders”. And that leads naturally into wanting to build more deeply, to wanting to host an instance of the game, and to reimagine it each time to embody the network that plays it.

What’s new in #TvsZ 6.0?

So what’s the new structure? Zombies, the basis of the original narrative, are a narrative menace with a cultural context. They do not resonate the same way in different parts of the world, and we wanted to make the game as internationally appealing as possible. In the past, #TvsZ began with a Twitter account “PatientZero” who would #bite other players and turn them into Zombies. This metaphor brilliantly concretizes the “virality” that the game seeks to achieve: “going viral” is one of the highest forms of internet success. But it turns out that, as we prepare to play #TvsZ 6.0, a terrible epidemic is taking the lives of many people in West Africa, particularly in Liberia. In light of this, it seems disrespectful to turn a viral epidemic into a game at this historical moment.

In contrast, #TvsZ 6.0 will begin with “Scouts” who will #recruit new members to their teams to work together to survive an unspecified global disaster. The (initial) teams will be Technology and Zen, a binary that I hope the players will hack as they play. Teams might undertake missions, or collectively write their own histories and legends, or create their own team manifestos.

Will this new version “work”? Will it still be as fun? Zombies–with all their cultural baggage–are such a popular trope right now that a game version had built in appeal for many (but not for all!). Will a game based on team-building and collective action be as fun? I don’t know. I HOPE so. Only our students–and you, if you choose to play–will be able to answer that question.

So here’s to a weekend of Twitter Fun. I hope you’ll join us. Let me know if you plan to play–and what you think of it when you do! Above all, this game is an opportunity for players to meet new folks online who share common interests in net literacy, connected learning, mindful social media use, critical pedagogy, and/or in living playfully.

Public scholarship and undergraduate teaching

“Certainly those determining acts of her life were not ideally beautiful.  They were the mixed result of young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion.  For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it. …But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive, for the growing  good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.” (George Eliot)

I’ve been participating–with varying degrees of engagement, though with unflagging enthusiasm–in #connected courses this fall. As with so many other MOOCs and mooc-like online learning experiences, I find myself most engaged by the small conversations that happen around the edges of the organized course content. This is why I like Twitter, I think. I like to dip my toe in the endless stream, to be aware of what people are talking about, to engage, to meet others, to browse some of the blogs I would never otherwise encounter. I am, I suspect, a fox by practice even if a hedgehog by conviction, to abuse Isaiah Berlin’s immortal metaphor.


In other words, I like to separate myself intellectually and physically from the task at hand and move to another before the first is finished. Catch up with my own teaching and research obligations. Reconnect with my family life and my personal goals. Some people call this juggling. I think of it as an extension of my pleasure in browsing used book store shelves: even if I find a book I want to purchase right away, I love to look at all the others, to gather a pile of potential purchases and weigh them against each other before purchasing more than I can read in the near future.

One thing I love about online learning is that I can engage in it in fits and starts; it gives me the pleasure of browsing among an endlessly fascinating variety, and putting off committing to any individual endeavor that will necessarily narrow–and deepen–my engagement.

And this kind of self-paced engagement is, I am realizing, something my own students would love to do as well. Every semester, about halfway through, the energy in all my classes flags. I know that I need to step up my game this time of year, to plan a bit of a tap dance or sales job to help my students focus and commit to the topic at hand. Sometimes I’m more successful than others; but I always know I need to do more, to become not only professor but also entertainer-in-chief.

I often try to plan “fun” assignments for mid-semester. When I teach Jane Austen, I schedule “Dance like Jane Austen” day at this point. Or this is when we watch a film in class and live tweet our comments rather than discuss them. Or learn to enrich the visual and aural and design-based elements of whatever multi-media blogging platform we’re using that semester. This semester, for example, my students will be playing a game on Twitter, though that won’t begin for a couple more weeks.

I’ve always accepted the mid-semester doldrums as necessary evil of the academic calendar. Much like the halfway point of a long run, it’s the most difficult from a motivation standpoint, even if not the most challenging or difficult. (And if it IS the most difficult, then it’s sure to be even worse. It needs to be a time when students gather their energy since they don’t have reserves to spend.)

What does this have to do with public scholarship?

I’ve been thinking about how to inspire my students to redouble their efforts and reengage in the academic challenge, which has caused me to consider, as I so often do around this time of year, how to teach better next time around.

My lightbulb moment:  I want to propose for next year: Seminar in Public Scholarship. I was thinking about “connected scholarship”, but while Mimi Ito’s work and all I’ve learned via this #connected courses experience is a huge influence on my thinking, I think my potential students will intuitively understand the word “public” more easily, as they browse their choices in the catalog.

What would be the purpose, the “why” of this course?

I teach at a small, private liberal arts college in California. Our students are the products of a public education system in California that has suffered decades of neglect and worse. As the Connected Learning Network’s “Agenda for Research and Design” points out, parents of children from wealthier backgrounds are pouring ever-greater resources into their children’s lives to compensate for the gaps in public education, while parents of less wealthy families do not have that same ability. Our students are often from California’s less wealthy families. Our students are often first generation collegians, seeking a college degree for the promise of a future that will catapult them into the kinds of jobs and careers that they desire–careers often defined by autonomy, flexibility, prestige, and relatively high financial remuneration. Unfortunately, as Ito et al state succinctly: “A college degree has become a requirement for most good jobs, but is no longer a guarantee of acquiring one” (17).

Even if college is not a direct route to a “good job,” as many of my recently graduated students have discovered to their woe, I still believe that the work we do here, the learning that happens here, can be transformative and helpful in our students’ lives.

But how? That’s the real question, and that the question that so many private colleges are asking themselves in today’s market, with the manifold burdens of rising tuition, skyrocketing student debt, and a meandering or uncertain path from liberal arts into the “good jobs” that so many of our graduates need and desire.

I, a modest English professor who studies nineteenth century literature, am not going to solve all these social problems (though I am so very glad to read and benefit from the great work of folks like Mimi Ito, Elizabeth Losh, Cathy Davidson, Howard Rheingold, Gerald Graff, and many many more who together, I believe, will make a huge difference), but I do want to change my own teaching practice so that I address the real needs and concerns of my actual students. No surprise there, that’s a baseline value I imagine all #connectedcourses participants share. So, why do I imagine that a course titled something as obscure as “Seminar in Public Scholarship” will accomplish this?

But first, a “digression” into what students want:

What do my students want from their college classes? They want to learn, to have access to a world larger than they understand and older than any of us can imagine. They want to have a teacher who is a guide and a mentor who will make sense of that world, who will shine a light that organizes all the seemingly unconnected or disconnected strands into a coherent and knowable package that will directly impact their own lives. They want an entertainer, who will transmit to them knowledge in delicious and endlessly various nuggets. They want a warm and caring human being, who will forgive them their human failings, and inspire them to become better versions of themselves.

At least, that’s what I imagine they want. (Gosh, I think I need to ask them! How have I taught this many years and never actually asked!)

What I want, on the other hand, are students who do the learning themselves. Who look to me as an expert, but who enjoy the process of making new knowledge for themselves. And what I’ve realized is that these two concepts are not so very disparate. A few times in the past few years I’ve felt at moments that students’ needs and my own teaching desires were energizing each other. Twice now, I’ve felt close to achieving a surprising approximation of this kind of learning. This semester, teaching my connected courses class, and last year when teaching an Austen seminar which connected to both scholarly discourse and Austen pop-culture life online. In those two classes, especially, there were periods where students own interest was driving the content. This level of engagement was uneven among students, and waxes and waned during the semester. But the possibility that student interest could motivate class discussions, could enrich assignments so that students worked well beyond expectations, could obviate the need for “edutainment.” Now those are moments I savor.

Finally: why a seminar in public scholarship?

What I now think I want to try is to build a seminar that leads students through a few steps toward taking control of their own education. I keep working at this, and I think I’ve realized the missing ingredient. Students NEED access to all those qualities I listed above as their ideal teacher. And I, flawed and limited human that I am, cannot fulfill all those roles. On good days, maybe I’ll embody one or two. On bad days…well, enough said.

I alone am not enough to enable my students to envision themselves into their own personal ideal, and stimulate them to work toward that ideal, and give them all the resources they need to get there, and console them for the difficulties they encounter along the way…etc. I think no single teacher actually is enough (though I know there are amazing teachers out there who get a LOT closer than I ever will). Maybe that’s why most academics I know live with a low level of “imposter syndrome” always at work in our souls. We see the need, and our inability to fill it, and we wilt a bit.

But, here’s the thing: somewhere, at some point in history or on the map, someone exists who can be the perfect mentor for each individual student at each moment of her learning trajectory! Voilá! That’s the promise of connected learning, and, especially, of personal learning networks. But there’s a catch:

What is clear from the existing literature is that currently it is generally educationally privileged youth with effective learning supports at home who are able to take full advantage of the new learning opportunities that the online world has to offer and to translate these opportunities to their academic and career success. …[but]…

The emerging hypothesis that undergirds our approach is that the majority of young people need more supports to translate and connect their new media engagements toward more academic, civic, and production oriented activities. We advocate for more focused research that examines both in-school and out-of-school supports for self-directed, interest-driven, and technologically enabled learning through the lens of equity and opportunity around envisioning various ways to interact with the world as a scholar. (25)

So, my “Seminar in Public Scholarship” is born. I want to scaffold in a process by which students can find role models (in the largest sense) to help them articulate what kind of post-graduation person they want to become. Then, after they have created their own “why” for their education (or at least for their engagement in the individual course) then we can work on the literacies of twenty-first century connected learning. In the past, I’ve started with ideas, and skipped directly to skills. This time, next time, I will start with asking them to create their own “why”, their own image of their future “best self” so they can then learn those things that will help them become that self.

Perhaps, like Eliot’s Dorothea, most of us spend ourselves in diffuse avenues. But maybe, if we are very lucky, we can become, like Dorothea, a positive benefit to the world we inherit. I know that the language I use of “best self” comes loaded with Ruskin’s assumptions and Victorian oversights, and that Dorothea is hardly a heroic role model. But these ideals live in my mind and inspire me to continue to work. And maybe–maybe my students need to find their own guiding light, who though limited and imperfect, might embody the values and strivings that inspire them?

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? As I type out these final sentences, I realize that many of my #connected course colleagues are probably already doing versions of this. Please share your strategies in comments!

A few of my inspirations for this (way too long) blog post:

How do I keep the research/conversations going during the semester?

This is a perennial question for me, and one I have never “solved” adequately. Some semesters I get more of my own research done than others, but I always find that I feel unsatisfied with my ability to remain connected to my larger academic discourse community during the semester.

I teach at a liberal arts college, which I love, but which means that my 3/3 teaching load is fully on my own shoulders. Each course is an individual prep, and I rotate courses on a two-year schedule. So I do a lot of prepping in order to stay up to date in the fields of my active courses. I find I need to catch up on each field, reinsert my brain into those concerns, and reread all the materials for each course–for each course each semester.

This rotation of courses means that, in any given semester, I am likely NOT teaching a course directly related to the article or project I’m working on for my own research. I just can’t move through projects that quickly. So my research trajectories don’t line up with my teaching very well.

Recently, though, as I’ve been doing more and more digital pedagogical experiments, they are enabling me to realign some aspects of my work with teaching. That’s exciting.

And I find that, if I can carve out time to interact with my Twitter account multiple times a day I can stay connected to my colleagues.

So–my resolution this semester is counterintuitive: spend more time on social media–especially Twitter–in order to stay “in the conversation” with my own research and with others who are doing related projects.

Have you ever made such a resolution? How do you keep your head in your research during heavy teaching times?