Hacking a WordPress Hacking Workshop

The inimitable Boone B Gorges wrote a great post yesterday about the WPedu community, and how we need to do a better job of inserting ourselves in the larger WP community — and sharing the work we’re doing. I’m trying to take his words to heart. As I mentioned in my comment on the post, I’m a reluctant sharer of my WP work–mostly because I tend to think it has little value to anyone but me. But there are other reasons, that are probably (sadly) tied up in the whole “imposter syndrome” that infiltrates most of academia. Even a lowly staffer/mid-tier administrator (like me) at a University can fall prey to this disease. I aim to overcome it.

To that end, I’m going to try and blog more in this space about the work I’ve been doing with WordPress over the last 6-12 months, particularly working on aggregation methods for learning communities. I got into Web design/development years ago because I loved how it allowed me to architect experiences. I got into higher education at the same time because I really do believe that education is one of our society’s highest callings. Blending my passion for education with my passion to craft experiences is basically what drives me. Over the last seven years or so WordPress has become the platform upon which I can enact these passions. To be able to make code do things that affects people’s behaviors and feelings seems almost magical to me. And, as I’ve said before, I believe strongly that the fundamental nature of the code we work with speaks to the values we’re trying to embrace in the practices that our code enables. I love WordPress because it affords me possibilities. It affords me possibilities because it is open.

All of this is on my mind as I prepare to fly tomorrow morning to San Juan, Puerto Rico and conduct a couple of workshops with students at the Universidad del Sagrado Corazón on hacking WordPress. Given that this is the challenge that’s been looming ahead of me for the past few weeks, Boone’s post couldn’t have come at a better time. I kind of needed a kick in the pants to just get over myself and start imagining that I might have something valuable to offer these students. I’ve spent most of the past 2 months (since another inimitable, Antonio Vantagiatto, extened this invitation) wondering how the heck I was qualified to conduct these workshops.

I think I more or less know how I’m going to approach the program. I want to start by stepping back and talking a bit about the philosophical foundations that underpin the work that I do in WordPress — this includes my own biography as a English degree undergrad who moved into the world of ed tech and finally found herself working more and more as a programmer hacker. People are always amazed when they find out I studied English as an undergrad. I never quite understand why. Don’t they know that code is poetry? Seriously, I’m going to talk a bit about the relationship between code and poetry — a relationship that I’ve always found fascinating. I’m also going to talk about code as a tool for building experience. Finally, I’m going to talk about the way our values and politics (small “p”) inhabit the code we work with.

From there, I’d like to talk about my own organic growth in the world of WordPress. I think that the experience I’ve gone through learning how to work with this system (and attempting to bend it to my will) has taught me more about learning than any other experience in my life. When I started working with WP in 2004, I was just a blogger. The files that comprised my blog installation were thoroughly opaque to me. As I’ve developed deeper skills with WP, I’ve learned to essentially speak a new language —   the language of the application. I understand how themes are built, how templates are arranged in a hierarchy. I understand how functions provide a fundamental syntax around which I can craft a space. I understand how plugins extend the language in both predictable and unexpected ways. When you hear a foreign language for the first time, it’s almost impossible to imagine that you will ever be able to decipher it. That’s how I feel about my first experiences of WordPress. While I know I’m still not fluent, I’ve learned enough now to believe that I can figure out what the things I don’t know mean.

Finally, I’ll be spending time with the students asking them to actually DO something in WordPress. This has been the hardest part of preparing for the workshop. I’m not entirely sure how comfortable they are with the system. For all I know, they can code circles around me in WordPress! In the end, I’m going to approach this on two fronts: I’m assembling a resource for them that points in useful directions based on the kinds of thing they want to do in WordPress. I’m not providing answer; I’m just providing pathways. Then I’ll go in with a list of challenges/activities that we can tackle. Everything from basic tweaking of a theme to writing a plugin. Based on what they’re interested in, we’ll pick a few to work on in groups and see where it gets us.

That’s Friday’s plan. On Saturday I meet with a smaller group of WordPress developers at the University who are working on a grant project. I’m hoping to show them the work I’ve been doing with aggregation of posts and latest content both within Multisite and from external RSS Feeds. Hopefully, we can carve out a plan for them to use some of this in their own work and maybe even start building it.

I can’t remember ever being this excited — or this terrified — about leading a workshop.