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Rockin Robin

Well, gosh. Far more insightful people have commented on Twitter at this point. But I need a break from a night of marathon administrative work, and I thought I’d take it that break in my blog by chiming in.

Several years ago, when I began experimenting with the open-source tools available to us through our Bluehost accounts in DTLT, one of my goals was to find a tool that would allow us to foster a sense of community in our division. At that time, we were all working in geographically separated places across (and between) campus(es). Every week, we would get together for one or two meetings, but it was never quite *enough*. It seemed that an awful lot of tacit knowledge and water-cooler conversation (which, make no mistake, I consider a vital part of the office community) was getting lost or simply never happening. We needed to be a team, but we didn’t have the mechanism to come together.

So, I set out to find a chat tool that we could all log into together and maintain a kind of presence in. I hoped that the tool would foster connections, the connections would foster community, and the team spirit would just follow. I settled on a Flash based chat tool that had lots of problems (but only cost $5). A few of us regularly hung out in the space, and once an amazing conversation ensued, but for the most part the room was empty and the conversation was quiet.

At the time, there were several “Shoutbox” plugins for the content management systems I was experimenting with. I installed these and considered using them but ultimately shied away from them. They just didn’t seem immediate enough. I didn’t think they would capture the dynamic give-and-take of conversation the way I imagined a chatroom would.

Now, after spending a few weeks living in Twitter I realize I was completely wrong! Twitter is essentially a shoutbox on steroids. It doesn’t try to be a synchronous chat tool. Rather, it provides you with a small space to easily post “status” information — some of the best kind of information according to some. You’re not meant to have chats (or even conversations — at least not in the sense that we typically conceive of conversation) using Twitter. There isn’t that sense of overlaid speech; it doesn’t seem to get as easily convoluted or fragmented. Heck, it limits the number of characters you can type. Talk about controlling the conversation. . .

It’s an extended version of the Facebook “poke.” (No jokes, please.) It’s a way of saying “I’m here.” It’s also a way of quickly sharing a link, a thought. . .hmmm, perhaps even a piece of tacit knowledge?

Okay, occasionally, the tweeters get a little out-of-control and start doing the “chat thing.” But that always seem to die down to background noise.

I know, I know. It’s ephemeral. It’s fleeting. It’s got the disposition of a nasty cat. It eats into our blogging activity (Sorry, I don’t buy that. I’m blogging more since I started using Twitter, and I’m convinced they’re related).

Look, all I know is there is something about this tool that makes it easy for me to foster connections that otherwise seem hard. I don’t Skype my Twitter friends; I wouldn’t necessarily login to a chat room with them regularly (I would wonder why they would want me to.) But I’ll tweet with them all day long. And I hope they keep tweeting me.

Plunging

I wasn’t sure if I was going to post this up here, but Gardner suggested I should. In the spirit of, well, everything that’s been going on lately, I’m going to take his advice.

The following is the text of a (brief) address that I delivered this spring at the induction ceremony for UMW’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter. Through a series of complicated events, I was asked to step in as president this semester, and one of the presidential duties was delivering a “charge” to the inductees at the ceremony.

For all kinds of reasons, preparing and delivering this was particularly hard for me (as is publishing it here). But, in the end, I’m proud of what I said, and I’d like to share it.

I fear that some of the tone is lost in written form, but what the heck.

(Thanks for the push, Gardner)

As I prepared my remarks for today, I sought advice from a friend on what to speak about. She recommended that I talk about what PBK means to me.

That advice made me stop and think about coming away to my first year at Mary Washington College, 15 years ago.

I’m not sure how the topic came up, but at some point in one of the final moments before I flew the nest, my parents and I had a conversation in which they challenged me to graduate from this school Phi Beta Kappa and Summa Cum Laude. Then they did something completely out of character — they promised me that if I achieved this goal, they would buy me a Mazda Miata.

I must admit I thought long and hard about whether or not to tell you all this story today. Quite frankly, I know how it sounds: Parents bribing a young adult with promises of material gain in return for academic achievement.

But in order to understand the importance of this conversation I had with my parents — and the importance of the events that followed, I need to give you a bit of backstory.

Simply put, my parents are teachers and learners. Growing up, I knew this without really understanding it. They instilled in me a sense that learning and seeking understanding was, simply, necessary. It was necessary like breathing or eating or sleeping. My parents were always teaching, instructing, and challenging me, and they were always pushing me to take control of my life by expanding my mind. In our house, no topic of conversation was off-limits; no book was banned or censored. Basically, if I was interested enough to ask the question or pick the the book up off a shelf, it was my adventure to have.

In the end, I know now that through their encouragement — and their faith that I could handle the challenge of intellectual inquiry and exposure to any idea, my parents gave me one of the greatest gifts a parent can give a child: a sense of the eternal mysteries of life and a challenge to spend my own life trying to understand those mysteries. That gift was far more important than any toy, any fancy clothing, and, certainly, any car.

My parents understood, in a way that I couldn’t at eighteen, that the challenge of making Phi Beta Kappa might take me further down the path on which they had already launched me. Along the way, I was sure to strive for good grades and a commendable transcript, but, now, I believe they knew that along the way I would also find landmarks far more meaningful than grades or awards.

The promise of the Miata was just the requisite “prize” that somehow seems to need to be tagged onto these parental challenges.

At the time my parents presented me with this challenge, I wasn’t prepared to accept it. First, I didn’t really understand what it was they were asking me to strive for. On some level, I knew that getting into PBK was an honor, and that it symbolized “hard work” and “academic excellence.” But at 18 years old, I didn’t know what college was for and I didn’t know what my place at MWC was going to be. It took a while to find out.

I know now that part of the reason I did find out the answers to those questions was that I had chosen a school that harbored a hidden treasure: a faculty who understood the meaning of education and who were willing to enter into a conversation with me about the life of the mind and the process of intellectual inquiry. As is often the case, my admittance into this conversation was gradual enough that it felt natural and almost effortless, but it was also marked by extraordinary moments of understanding — moments at which my mind seemed to expand so that I could suddenly see a landscape that was usually muted and dim. I treasured those moments, and it was the promise of them that carried me deeper and further into the conversation, and farther down the path.

In the end, I did graduate Phi Beta Kappa and Summa Cum Laude. But, in the end, my parents did not buy me a Miata. Quite frankly, it was a more extravagant promise than they could keep. But, by that time, I didn’t care. Along the way, I had stopped caring about cars and challenges, grades and transcripts. I had stopped wondering why I was here and what I was supposed to be doing with myself. I had jumped into the deep end of my education, and I just wanted to keep diving farther.

So, for me, Phi Beta Kappa represented coming into my own, as a learner and as a member of a community of like-minded learners. I believe, induction into this society should come towards the end of your college career because it is often only towards the end that we gain the courage to take the plunge and commit ourselves and our lives to the path of learning, inquiry, and intellectual communion. Out of that communion, I know that tremendous ideas can take shape and amazing challenges can be met. I urge you to fully engage in the society this chapter represents and to keep on diving.

A bit of blog nostalgia

I’m still in a bit of a post-Faculty Academy holding pattern, and today I found myself searching for ways to procrastinate unpleasant administrative duties.

So, I decided to take some time and review my blog archive. It occurred to me while looking it over that in a few months I’ll have been blogging for three years, which seems like a really long time, actually. That’s kind of weird.

We talk a lot about the blog as a mechanism for reflection and narration (of our own thought processes), but, honsestly, I’m not sure I’ve ever taken the time to do my own reflection. (Again, it would be nice if I started to take my own darn advice.)

The exercise was pretty fascinating.

First, I discovered that, unfortunately, I seem to have lost close to a year’s worth of posts. When I transferred from B2 to WordPress in the summer of 2005, something must have happened that borked my entries. Actually, I’m thinking it was a subsequent WP upgrade that caused the problem, and I just never noticed until now. So, I’m only getting the first paragraph of so of my first year of blog posts. That’s a bummer. Luckily, somewhere on my PowerBook I’ve got the original B2 database backup. A summer project for me will be figuring out how to extract the missing texts.

The thing that struck me most while going through the posts was how totally inaccurate my internal chronology of ideas was. Things that I had thought about quite some time ago seemed like much more recent revelations. Other ideas that I had only recently had seemed so internalized it was like I had blogged them three years ago. It made me wonder how screwed up my general mental chronology must be. The only reason I know it’s the case with the blog is that I’ve got a record I can trace. Without that record I’m at the mercy of my own inadequate memory. There seems to be something to ponder, there.

I was also taken aback by the posts that I had completely forgotten about. There were ideas that might as well have been someone else’s, but since they’re on my blog, I guess I wrote them! How disconcerting.

Ultimately, it’s just amazing to have this mental narrative to mine and reflect upon. And I’m not a prolific blogger! Actually, it makes me think I need to seriously commit to a more serious blogging commitment. It never occurred to me that going back through my blog would affect me that way. . .

If you haven’t recently re-read your own blog archive (and I know it will take some of you MUCH longer than it took me ;), I encourage you to do so. Then blog about what it was like. . .

Barbara’s Workshop: Random Notes & Thoughts

Notes from Barbara’s workshop:

* no two classes should necessarily have the same goals. Before you think about the tool or technology to use, think first about about the kind of class dynamic that you are hoping to foster and generate. A few questions: “what kinds of teaching will you do in class?” “How will your students spend their time out of class?” “What is the relationship between content and process?” “How will you make your pedagogy transparent?” (Transparent pedagogy — something to ponder)

* the play between “group” and “solo” varies according to the class goals.

* how do you spend the first few weeks of the semester? What’s your “opening act?”

* another question for students: “what in my life has brought me to this course?” Tell a story (dig. story) of one particular moment in your life that explains why you’re in this class. . .

* Bonding over digital storytelling — powerful force/magic

* great exercise on identifying learning moments, trends, commanilities, good stuff. Must to back to Barbara’s blog to take a look at the whole program

Feel the Power

The first day of Faculty Academy 2007 is wrapping up, and I’m enjoying the ITS Monster Mashup Show.
Overall, it’s been a great day: wonderful presentations by our guest speakers: Barbara Ganley and Alan Levine and a smorgasborg of sessions by UMW faculty. I wish I could have been in all of them; I’m looking forward to the podcasts.

Both Twitter and Google have been on the fritz today, and I choose to believe it’s the power of FA, pumping through the “tubes.” Luckily, we only use our power for good. 🙂

On Making Messes and Faculty Mentorship

I’m watching a panel discussion among Angela Gosetti-Murrayjohn, Susan Fernsebner, and Laura Blankenship, moderated by Steve Greenlaw. Sue just referred to a point in Barbara Ganley’s presentation earlier: is blogging already becoming passe? And, if so, what’s the next tool we’ll be embracing on the horizon? Or, as Sue put it “what mess can we make now?” (I’m paraphrasing; that’s basically what she said, though.). I love it.

Making messes is one of the parts of my job that I like most. It’s related to risk-taking, actually. I feel very lucky to be in a job that allows me to make messes and learn from my mistakes.

Another great thing about this panel is the fact that Steve is moderating. I knew that he had played a part in getting Angela to consider using blogs for her Afterlife and Homer courses, but I didn’t know that he’d also talked Sue’s ear off about blogs on a commute from NoVA to Fredericksburg–and is, at least partly, responsible for her own use of blogs this past year. Steve is a great example of the kind of faculty mentor that we need more of. Thanks, Steve.

Just to be clear, I feel very lucky to work at place like UMW that does have lots of faculty mentors like Steve. Faculty Academy is a great example of that!

Inspired by Barbara Ganley at FA

Barbara Ganley’s plenary presentation this morning felt to me like a call to arms–a reminder of how transformative blogging can be if we are willing to give ourselves up to the process of “slow blogging” that she discussed.

The word that resonated in my head afterwards was “risk.” A few weeks ago, when Jerry, Steve, and I presented at UCF, I had an interesting conversation with a faculty member afterwards (whose name I can’t recall at the moment) about the fact that at the heart of so much of what we are pushing faculty to do is the willingness to take risks. That willingness transcends personal choice in many ways–I think that the real willingness probably needs to happen at a higher, institutional level in order for it to filter down to individual faculty (and students). What would our lives be like if we all worked at institutions that valued risk-taking and were “okay” with the idea that, sometimes, the outcome of risk is failure.

These days, risk seems like a completely foreign concept to the business of higher education. Institutionally, aren’t we tending to make choices based on “good business models” and “market research?” Can those practices co-exist with risk-taking? I’m not so sure. . .and if risk-taking isn’t a part of the larger culture, how can we ask our faculty (much less our students) to be comfortable with it?

Or, am I wrong? Is part of the essence of risk-taking a grassroots commitment? I’m not sure. . .