At The Center of Learning

A few years ago, a colleague gave me the advice that if I was going to become a leader who advocates for the professional development of and for faculty, then I need to make sure that I removed the word “Center” from the name of the place where I wanted to do my work. My main career goal, at the time, was to work towards leading a Center of Teaching and Learning. A Memoir.

Questions haunted me. Can we ever truly name such a location? By having a physical space aren’t we privileging the work of face-to-face teachers? Doesn’t this traditional place cater to the full-timers while ignoring the adjuncts? Would this place become the hub of active ideas that we then share online? The Center of Teaching, so to speak, is the classroom, but where is the center of Learning? For whom? By whom? How will we know? Who is at the center? Where is the center? What is the right mission for this work?

Everything. Everyone. Everywhere. I began to fret about the direction of my career.

“When the budget cuts hit,” my once and future advisor said, “they will look for that word first. Center. Bah! Start drafting the cover letter for your next job before you write your T&LC’s mission statement. Face it. All your good ideas will spiral down the drain the moment you try to send these ideas up the chain.”

Truth be told, I have a tendency to befriend and love optimistically pessimistic skeptics who are brutally honest.

When I shared my ambitions with a teacher who is also a friend, he said, “You know, I don’t need your development. Sheesh! Who the hell do you think you are? That phrase—professional development—it’s insulting. I’m already a professional. I’ll show you what you can develop.”

Dirty jokes ensued. We changed the subject.

To add injury to insult, I was trying to advocate for the adoption of open educational resources and I couldn’t quite connect my vision for student success with faculty professional development. I couldn’t quite communicate that there is always already a center of transformative change by choosing to use OER. It’s not just about training. It has very little and everything to do with educational technology. It’s not that black and white.

Before I elaborate on the various failures I experience(d) as a leader-wearing-training-wheels, I have to admit that I still have so much to learn. A very wonderful organization has invited me to write an article and I’m at a loss. I’ve started a dozen rough drafts and they’re all awful. How do I sound like I know what I’m talking about while simultaneously begging for help? Why do I care about authorship and attribution when I think I’m at my best convincing people (I hope)—it doesn’t matter as much as we have been trained to think. Why do I care about publishing an article?

Here’s a short list of what I feel like saying. I need to borrow a refrain from Dorothy Allison. Here are two or three things I know for sure that will end up in this article.

1] Witnessing faculty members adopt open educational resources is one of the greatest joys of my life. I’ve had conversations in bathrooms, libraries, parking lots, computer labs, bars, and faculty offices that have altered my perspective about teaching and learning. Forever. I don’t think a center of teaching and learning is a place; it’s The People who gather together. Open education has a history like all uses of technology in the classroom; this we know. What is unique to this center of learning is that faculty members become students again who are learning new ways to hone their craft. As one faculty member said recently, “I feel like we’re taking back the production of knowledge in our disciplines.” YES! Students benefit directly from the adoption of OER—whether that’s financial or pedagogical. If you want to argue whether one is more important than the other, well, you’re reading the wrong bloggy blog.

2] The results of this work are not instantaneous nor can they be captured by budget cycles, spreadsheets, beautiful charts of data, and or glossy brochures. This work is a slow dance. A heavy lift. A joyful discovery. Serendipity. Randomness. Intentional planning. Strategy. Blind optimism. Wishful dreaming. The return-on-investment spans across the academic calendar in unpredictable ways. As long as I’m there to witness the spark that creates the fire, then I know I’m doing the right work. A teacher said to me recently, “I don’t remember anything from the workshop your company did a year ago, but I remember it was awesome. I wasn’t ready for OER adoption then, but now it’s perfect for me. Can we start over?” No need to start over, I said, you’ve already begun by stating that you’re ready to do this work. What do you want to learn? That’s where we’ll start, I said. Flint, meet Kindling.

3] The real magic happens when faculty teach themselves. Think of your work as embodying the function of training wheels on a bike until teachers are ready to ride on their own. Your Teaching and Learning Center should own this work, and it’s all hands-on-deck for this transformative change. The effective adoption of OER needs a center of gravity, as my colleague Nate Angell says. Whether it’s a TLC or your VPI. Whether it’s your best adjunct or your President. There has to be A Person who helps keep everything a and everyone together. Every spoke is only has strong its hub.

The best institutions have a inter-departmental strategies to help faculty. If you can do all of the hard work of organizing the space, marketing the mission, validating the mission, and executing the idea—the better off you are at the center. You have to be patient. You, as the leader, may be ready to do the Lindy Hop, but your dancers are still figuring out their partners and their music. That’s okay. You have to be patient. We pay a lot of lip service about meeting students where they are. Why don’t we do the same for teachers?

Every workshop I have done lately, I’ve started by asking faculty what they want to learn. I take notes. I listen. I try to solve problems. The hard part about writing an article about this work is that I won’t get to ask my readers that question. You hope what you write is of some use. You hope that somebody gets something from it.

Whatever my article becomes, my center of gravity is to tell my circle teachers the same message.

You can do this too.

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The Right Kind Of Eyes

Over the last couple of weeks, I traveled 8, 496 miles by foot, by plane, by car, by thoughts and dreams. I’ve moved into a new role where I travel to do workshops, and I’ll be honest: I love working with teachers so let me show real affection by writing grammatically fraught sentences about my new jobby job.

Before I arrived home, I hadn’t cooked a meal in 18 days. Ridden a bike in 17 days. Seen my mister and our beloved pup in 16 days.

But then again I should see the positive: I hugged someone I haven’t seen in 15 years.

For the first time 14 years, my friends went backpacking without me (don’t hate me y’all, I’ll make it up to you). I suffered 13 days without good coffee. Oh, I tried 12 different new hoppy beers. Traveled to 11 different states. Did not sleep well for 10 days. Helped facilitate 9 very different yet similar workshops. Lost the concept of an 8-hour work day.

Laid on a beach for 7 hours only to scorch the hell out of my skin. Visited 6 different academic institutions. Laughed out loud alone 5 times in public. Told the same joke 4 different ways. Bought 3 cannoli from my favorite deli in Boston’s North End and ate them all while people watching. Got seriously lost 2 times because of a dead cell phone.

All for one thing: I love talking to teachers and teacher leaders about open education.

Teachers fill the hole where the students used to be as my colleague/friend Alexis says.

I’m still processing this trip and another one is about to begin, so let me tell you a story instead.

I had a magical weekend in Rhode Island at Newport. I got blistered by the sun, but let me go on.

I went to First Beach alone at night to listen to the waves and a drink a beer. Tiny little crabs covered the beach. The sound of the tide was deafening. Saw the blinking lights of sail boats on the horizon. Heard sounds of beach parties in the distance. Laughter from a couple I tried to ignore as they walked by. Stars.

I grabbed some hours to myself in Newport because I’ve always wanted to check out that slice of America. Lovely. Hectic. Touristy. Humid. History-rich. Hot. Expensive. Nice place to visit. Beautiful. It felt glorious and lucky to be close to an ocean that won’t give you hypothermia when you walk into it. The Pacific, as much as I love the Northwest, does not fulfill the need that I have for warm waters. Hot springs. Baths. Showers. Beaches of the Atlantic.

Being at the ocean felt particularly wonderful since I had been reading Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan.

Finnegan witnessed the surfing craze of the 1960s in America while growing up in Hawaii and California, and he went on to travel the world chasing waves while discovering his inner rider and writer. I envy him. Not for the time period with which he lived, but for the days he lived just chasing waves. His memoir is a bildungsroman from male middle class America. Having never surfed before, I’ve always been intrigued with the beauty and the grace of riding a wave. As a fan of the “arm-chair travel writing” genre and, wait for it, the memoir, I fall for a writer who can make me understand his passion. His love. His motivation. His vision. Her passion. Her love. Her motivation. Her vision. You see. You know this.

Finnegan’s book reads like a really lovely long New Yorker essay.

There is one chapter that I love from Finnegan where he reflects on a picture that frustrated him because the photographer captured the moment after the moment that felt special to him.

Did you catch that? The moment after The Moment.

What he owned. What he cherished. What he wanted to remember. For fans of Roland Barthes, the photographer celebrates the studium while Finnegan mourned the absence of the punctum. To another viewer, I’m sure both could be present. Or absent.

Finnegan describes The Moment he wishes was captured:

[he] disappeared into that wave. That was a shot that [he] coveted: not this moment of anticipation, was the heart of the ride. But pictures are not about what a ride felt like; they are about what ride look like to others…[this shot] shows a dark sea; my memory of that wave, meanwhile is drenched in silver light (p. 314).

What the ride looks like to others. The wave. The surf. To others. What the photo captures. What he remembers. His memory of the wave “drenched in silver light.” Gorgeous.

He goes on:

Style was everything in surfing—how graceful your moves, how quick your reactions, how clever your solutions to the puzzles presented, how deeply carved and cleanly linked your turns, even what you did with your hands. Great surfers could make you gasp with the beauty of what they did. They could make the hardest moves look easy. Casual power, the proverbial grace under pressure, these were our beau ideals. Pull in to a heaving barrel, come out cleanly. Act like you’ve been there before. Make it look good (p 334).

It’s easy to see his New Yorker essay style here:

gawking at the transformation of ordinary seawater into beautifully muscled swell, into feathering urgency, into pure energy, impossibly sculpted, especially edged, and finally into violent foam (p. 335)

 

He claims that surfers are oceanographers, and there is pure no science to understanding the sea. At this point in the book, he’s really hit the sweet spot of helping a non-surfer see how surfing is music, science, art, and skill (p. 335). Although he is not comfortable with calling surfing a religion, he’s at his best when explains how he learns to see the ocean during his best days surfing. How the ocean is never predictable. Never the same. Never easy to predict. Never easy to claim. Never still.

And guess what? All I could think about was the art of teaching and learning. How many teachers are facing the same challenges. How there is no pure science to understanding how to teach. How learning is never predictable. How technology feels like this unpredictable wave getting in the way of teaching. How there is an ocean of choices.

As I’ve met teachers all over the country, I can’t help but put myself into their shoes. How I want to leave them thinking, I can do this too.

Nobody has summed up this feeling for me better than the recent post from Sean Morris:

Pedagogy is an agile business, and it is also the demesne of compassionate labor. Without agility and compassion, the management of technological infrastructure doesn’t support learning.

…we forget that the most valuable technology in education is people, and their willingness and capacity for invention, discovery, and reinvention.

With the right kind of eyes, you see the people first, not the technology. Always. Yes.

 

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800 Word Memoir: Chin Up

Recently I lost a knitting project. Walking in some corridor of one of three airports, I lost a small bag containing a scarf that I was working on here and there. There and here. For months. Row by row. Stitch by stitch. No more.

I didn’t notice that I had lost a few months of memoir as fiber.

It didn’t notice until I had the itch to knit. I reached into my cavernous travel bag only to discover that my delicious yarn and giant worn wooden size 17 needles were gone. Poof. Gone.

Size 17 needles are fat thick big needles for you non-knitters. I like big loops of yarn and I had wound those skeins by hand. So tight. For traveling. My yarn stash for the road.

Silky red fiber, big smooth needles. Gone. Dammit. I hope somebody finds my tiny knitting bag and finishes that scarf. Or makes something else. Something. It pains me to think that yarn ended up in the trash. Wound so tight. Then undone.

Chin up. Let it go. Tell a quick story.

In summers gone by, I used to write “outdoorsy” articles, and my friend would take photos of our adventures. I treated my many trips into the backcountry like research. Like anecdotal fodder for a small magazine. Like chapters of a memoir. Like I was on the hunt to gather the perfect words to describe the forest. Like I was a writer.

It’s a habit I can’t break.

Only these days, I’m in front of a computer more than I am a mountain stream. Last weekend, I went dark (as we say) because I had a backcountry quota pass to the woods of the lovely mossy Olympic National Park. Those woods. That rain forest. Those mountains. That green. Those lakes. That valley. Those waterfalls. That meadow. It reminds me of how much I love (and miss) the Washington landscape. How much I love green mossy woods.

Once I left the backcountry, I packed up my presentation clothes, my notes for the jobby job, and my laptop to fly to Houston, Texas. I’ve only been to the airports in Houston, and it immediately reminded me of Atlanta, Georgia when I stepped outside. The South: hot blow dryer feeling of wind, the sauna-like humidity, the extraordinary heavy feeling of the sun.

While I waited for a ride from the airport, I opened up my email on my phone to see the latest letter from Queen of Cups by Queen of Cups. This week a lovely little story appeared in my email. In the 100 degree heat, I read the following:


 

 Tarot Card of the Week: Queen of Swords

Queen of Swords: She is, above all, truthful, not interested in tricks or deception and will always tell you how it is. The Queen of Swords is not one to be deceived or manipulated. She is worldly and wise, can size up a situation, and is clever in the way she navigates life. However, she isn’t closed to new experiences and knowledge, quite the opposite, she’s eager to experience and learn. She has a good sense of humor, but is also straightforward in a kind way. She is the queen of direct communication, is highly intuitive and sharply perceptive.

You can count on the Queen of Swords to be candid and tell you how it is in any given situation. In short, she is witty, experienced, astute, and forthcoming.

This card asks us to be honest with ourselves and others, to be candid and direct even when that’s difficult, to retain a sense of humor, and to stay conscious and alert, able to intuit the reality of any given situation.


Instantly I was reminded of the class I took from a community college teacher who wrote a book on astrology. At the time, I had a high-school diploma, a smattering of university credits. A lost college drop-out waitress.

In this class, our final exam was to guess the teacher’s sign. I failed miserably! I hadn’t paid attention to him at all. I spent time studying the art on the cards. Look close at The Queen of Swords.

See the bird. Blue of the sky. Layering of clouds. The gathering of the clouds on her coat. The butterfly on the chair. The butterflies on her crown. Art.

The tarot card is like a well-place adjective among nouns and verbs. A story. Symbolizing nothing. A mirror of what we want to see. Under the stars. Look close.

This tiny letter from Queen of Cups seems like an old idea. Simple for a digital literary magazine. Send writers a prompt. Digital joy. As I read this week’s letter, I thought of an old idea that may still be good somewhere.

Might still be a good idea somewhere.

Like here.

~800 word memoir

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400 Word Memoir: Kickball

If you had asked me when I was seven years old what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, I would have said, “Play kickball. Everyday.”

Quick story about playing kickball (a memoir):

Ten years ago, I took my dog, Elroy, for a walk in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood.

A gaggle of  millennial hipster kids were playing kickball.

I let him off his leash in the park. Click.

Elroy busted into a run towards their game. I yelled for him. He ran faster.

As a heavily tattooed woman unfurled her arm to pitch the ball, Elroy intersected.With all four paws. Pounced on top of the red kick ball. Opened his mouth. Bit down hard.

Before anyone could stop him, he attacked the ball like it was something he needed to kill.

Pop.

He panted. Laid down to chew on the deflated ball. Avoided eye contact with humans.

Half of the players started cracking up laughing, while the other half looked angry.

There was no other ball.

Game over.

I caught Elroy, clicked his leash. Apologized. Said I’m so sorry thirty times.

I didn’t have my wallet or a phone, I explained. We were a few miles from my house. I offered to come back with money for a new ball in an hour.

No, said one of the team captains, that’s fine.

No worries, he lied. Fake smile.

Eventually Elroy and I walked away. Wished them well.

A guy in the outfield said, “Dude! Now what?”

Geez, I felt bad. Walked away faster.

Fast forward a decade, Elroy is over 11. With five fewer teeth, a lot more gray hair, weakening eye sight, substantial hearing loss and less muscle mass. Still. Something deep within tells him to kill the red ball.

The dog park is not fenced.  I didn’t see the kick ball game happening. Again, hipsters.

I let him off the leash. Click.

He took a 90 degree turn. Bolted straight for the kickball. The pitch rolled towards the kicker.

Crap!

Some lady yelled “Hey! Little dog!” Raised her hand like she had a treat. Brilliant.

Treat! Elroy made eye contact. With Me. With Her. With me. Ran back. Click.

The woman who distracted him laughed so hard as I shared Elroy’s history of youthful bad behavior with kickballs in city parks. Criminal record.

“Maybe he has something against hipsters. Or kickballs. Hilarious either way–I love this little dog.”

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Caring Is Sharing Is Caring

This week I did several workshops with faculty that I met for the time first time, so I want to update my blog to be a bit more hospitable with the bloggery. Thank you so much for trusting me with your ideas about OER, pedagogy, and the future of your institution, new friends. I see nothing but good things ahead for us. Nice to meet you, dearest faculty.

As readers of my bloggy blog know, I am beyond thrilled to meet people who are interested in open education, and I try to remain true to my roots as a teacher in order to meet faculty where there are about open education. LMS transitions, new initiatives, administrator churn, and the adjunctification of your colleagues is tiresome–this I know. My role with Lumen Learning, as I like to see it, is to make your job easier.

Here’s a confession: I’m mildly horrified that I’m seen as “an expert” when I’m so eager to learn something new from people I’ve never met before. Always. Where the real magic happens for me is when strangers teach me new ideas and we eventually become friends. Colleagues. Comrades. Confidantes. Allies. Learners who trust one another.

As I write this confession, I realize it’s my humble way of saying that I don’t have all the answers. Sometimes I’m not sure what the right question is but I’m willing to sit next to you and figure it out. I’m willing to listen until we figure out the right question together.

Let me confess something else to you: I’ve somehow been able piece together a living talking about the one single thing that saved me from myself. The one single thing that made me climb up a mountain of happiness out of a valley of despair. The one single thing that saved me from teacher burnout. The one single thing that I think I did well as a teacher. The one single thing I think succeeded at as an administrator. The one single thing that brought back me to life the writer in me that I had mourned as dead. The one single thing that blew up my network. The one single thing that has helped meet so many incredible people. The one single thing I think will change higher education in my lifetime. The one single thing. The one thing. The only thing.

The one single thing that makes me work harder than I know I should. If you are a faculty member, you may identify with this feeling as being in love with your discipline. It feels like your region of expertise.

Here’s my region, so to speak, summed up in a title of title of book that I’d love to write. Someday.

Open Education Changed Everything For Me: A Memoir

It really started with knitting for me. Knitters are incredibly generous, and I think I caught the contagious sharing bug by investigating the communities of Ravelry. The fabric of transformative change is a story that we weave together. As a community.

So let’s talk about how it’s fun to plan as a community.

Let’s talk about what you might be planning as a faculty member. What you are planning as a teacher. What you are planning. Your plans. Your teaching.

When I’m not working, I try to read as much as possible. You do too, right?

Have a book suggestion? Share it with me! I picked up a book recently titled Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger and I’m 100 pages in. So far there isn’t anything Earth shattering that I didn’t already know (Merci beaucoup, English Literature teachers. Once you’ve read Proust and Nabokov, what can really surprise us about existence, am I right?)

Berger’s book is a quick read, as I would’ve said when I worked at a bookstore. So far, there are two points that I think are worthwhile. One rooted in capitalism (which I have a hard time finding palatable) and the other rooted in networking (which I love). When I look at the Library of Congress categories for this book, it reads as follows:

  1. New products 2. Consumer behavior 3. Popularity

Berger mentions the vente privée, or the exclusive french company who embraced the online private sale (p. 52). Stay with me for a minute perhaps you were not one of the Favor’i des Internautes’–moi aussi.

In the book, Berger gives several examples about creating the illusion of scarcity for consumers. My mind goes to horrid images of people stampeding one another at big box stores for a sale television during the holidays. Long lines during the Friday before holidays. Consumer behavior that disgusts me, I’ll admit. Saddens me. Pas moi.

However, it’s interesting to note that the vente privée makes people feel like “insiders” which connects to their sense of social currency. People like to feel special. How do we feel special? By sharing something with somebody else. Lo and behold, I know a smarty pants who tells faculty all the time that education is sharing. It’s a thing that makes people feel special. People like to feel special. We like to feel like we are the chosen one.

What if the vente privée feeling was about a good idea for teaching? Only the resources aren’t scarce. In fact, the ideas are so damn abundant on the internet that they can be difficult to harness.

When I think of the faculty who have really succeeded with OER, they felt special. Like they were on a mission. Like they had something unique to contribute to the world. Like they were the ones. Like The One. The felt joy of seeing their work used and remixed by somebody else is something special to witness. They felt the joy of feeling chosen to do this work. It’s contagious. It’s worth sustaining.

Berger writes:

Making people feel like insiders can benefit all types of products and ideas…The mere fact that something isn’t readily available can make people value it more and tell others to capitalize on the social currency of knowing about it or having it (57).

This feeling, he writes, is a source of motivation. For me, my motivation is to someday experience a workshop where I did not have to explain to a faculty member that there are no OER for their discipline.

There is always one discipline where there is nothing readily available. Not even a failed repository. Nada. Rien. They either lose interest or they become motivated to create something. They want to feel special by contributing. By creating. Something.

The next point that I’m just now getting to in Berger’s book is a reference from The New York Times article “The Mysterious Cough, Caught On Film” by Denise Grady. Berger describes her ethos as a writer as someone trying to give readers “just a little bit of that excitement that she had felt back in chemistry class decades before. An appreciation for the magic of scientific discovery” (95).

The rest of Berger’s book can turn to complete crap and I’ll still find it worthwhile to have read the following sentence as it relates to why Grady’s article went viral:

When we care, we share (96).

When we care about education, we share.

When we feel special, we share.

It’s happy feeling that makes us feel special. That’s contagious, right? That’s worth sustaining right?

Truth be told, I dwell in Possibility.

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In Medias Res

Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea forever. ~Will Self

Many years ago, I attended a typical committee meeting as one does in higher education. A beloved colleague leaned over and said, “You really should ditch that paper notebook.” He paused to wrinkle his brow to look like he smelled something awful.

“People in technology won’t take you seriously if you write by hand,” he said.

People In Technology.

He meant people in The Field, of course. Ed-tech. EdTech. Educational technology. The field of Education in technology. Of technology. With technology. Alongside technology. 

I tried to take his advice to heart. I begrudgingly typed in boxes to record “Events” and “Tasks.” I made lists on electronic documents. It lasted for about two weeks and the next thing I knew I had piles of bar coasters with notes in my purse. Matchbooks from gas stations with quotes in the glove compartment of my car. Notes on the back of grocery stores receipts. 

Then I tried to not carry a pen. That lasted for two days.

I can’t give up the paper notebooks I’ve now have kept for decades. 

Over the past several months, I’ve been getting to know my new job and how this position connects with educational research, courseware creation, curriculum development, and open education. And lucky for me, all four of my interests collide during the work hours. And still I carry the paper notebooks. 

My last two posts have been a smattering of thoughts and I’m still working on that longer thread of an idea. Today is not the day to weave those together.

Here’s the thing.

I took two really intense yoga classes this past weekend, I struggled to do three of the poses well because I injured my leg earlier in the week during a mountain bike ride. It was a stupid crash–a slow-motion-over-the-handle-bars-knee-slam-into-a-rock-kind-of-crash. Bruised bone. Bruised ego.

During my struggle to kneel comfortably in the yoga class, my teacher told a story about how she changed her method of teaching by listening to another teacher. She said that she used to instruct from a place of fear. Advising students to work through the pain. Avoiding pain. Living through pain. What she learned from this other teacher is that pain is just another sensation. Why avoid it, she asked. Why not see the pain as message from our bodies as another sensation that we are getting stronger. More flexible. Better. It’s just another sensation.

I wrote that anecdote down immediately in my journal when I got home.

Here’s the other thing.

Someone I love dearly shared with me that he’s had a writing break-though lately. He’s often oppressed by the blank page. The blinking cursor. The blank stare of a lit keyboard. The expectation of the finished project.

This I understand.

Copying down a passage and then taking notes of my thoughts about the passage makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, he shared. As an aspiring writer yourself, he said, this is something you can do. Something you can understand. Copying down this passage makes me feel like I’ve written something good.

In my mind, I thought of the phrase in medias res. Having a passage to tease apart feels like you’re a writer in the middle of things. In the middle of something.

I’m in the middle of reading this incredible memoir titled The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch. Here’a passage I wrote in my notebook:

Have endless patterns and repetitions accompanying your thoughtlessness, as if to say let go of that other more linear story, with its beginning, middle, and end, with its transcendent end, let go, we are the poem, we have come miles of life, we have survived this far to tell you, go on, go on. 

You will see you have an underlying tone and plot to your life underneath the one you’ve been told. Circular and image bound. Something near tragic, near unbearable, but contained by your irreducible imagination–who would have thought of it but you–your ability to metamorphose like organic material in contact with changing elements. The rocks. They carry the chronology of water. All things simultaneously living and dead in your hands.

Having a passage to tease apart feels like you’re a writer in the middle of things. In the middle of something.

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The Warp & The Weft

I struggle with the warp. It gets tangled. I loathe the math. The endless knots. The noisy spindles. A loom requires a delicate touch that I have yet to master. Someday.

Unlike measuring the warp, I find building the weft is pure joy. It’s an easy motion of back and forth. The shuttle moves quickly between the rows. You can “throw the shuttle.” Meditative. Deliberate. The ups and downs of tying the warp is necessary, I know. The warp will eventually support the weft. They’ll eventually need one another. You can’t prefer one over the other. Weaving on a loom requires a delicate touch that I have yet to master. Someday.

The different fibers, the loom as machine, the creation of fabric is all so satisfying. So interesting. So appealing.

Here’s the thing.

I really have nothing to say (a memoir) but I want to write about weaving. Eventually–wait for it—I’ll weave the following ideas together.

1] My friends @ordinarysublime and @nooksackknitter participated in this amazing project! Humble brag that I know two of the 51 artists. From the looks of this review it’s a pretty stunning show. My favorite words are in bold.

From The LA Times: For Ellen Lesperance and Helen Mirra, the message is woven into the art

The works of Ellen Lesperance and Helen Mirra on view at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena lay out a quietly powerful network of ideas around work, bodily presence and activism.

The show opens with a collaborative project initiated by Mirra in which she asked 51 weavers each to create a textile according to her specifications. Each piece is roughly square, made from undyed yarn, in dimensions that match the length of the weaver’s arm. Each has seven stripes, whose width is determined by that of the weaver’s hand. The works are little self-portraits, recording the measurements of the hands and arms that made them.

The pieces highlight how physical labor is measured and embedded in the warp and weft of weaving, which is essentially a grid. This typically impassive structure here serves as a meeting point where the impulse to reduce everything to numbers meets the irreducible physicality of the body.

2] I wrote about weaving on December 10, 2015. Here’s the post:

The Warp & The Weft

In a search for an image to explain the warp and weft in fabric, a simple image appears from wikipedia:

An artist named Kumi Yamashita also appears in the same search (source). She removes part of the warp and the weft in fabric to create something new.

She describes her delicate and precise art:

 

Sometimes there is something beautiful about things falling apart. Undoing one thing while simultaneously creating another.

 

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(Note to self, here are more threads from the warping board) See also Many Paths To & For Personalization (source).

3] Walter Benjamin: Work on good prose has three steps: a musical stage when it is composed, an architectonic one when it is built, and a textile one when it is woven.

Until then, here are the frayed fibers/words that I have yet to tie together.

 

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Two Thoughts

I’ve spent the last week sorting and sifting through the various places on the interwebs where I’ve posted ideas about learning. At the time, I didn’t tag, categorize, hyperlink, or organize any of this work but I did take notes in my paper journal. This vapor trail of my ideas is thankfully recorded somewhere. Some of it connects to the jobby job while most of it connects to the hobby job. Lately, I’ve completely lost the hobby job, so indulge me with this post. I need a bit of thinking aloud with my magic machine on this lovely Sunday morning.

Back in December, I posted Many Paths To & For Personalization as a start to collect ideas for an article. Or for future bloggy blogging. Whatever. I didn’t finish the hyperlinking. Looking back now, it’s a record of my thoughts from that day. I wrote:

Both sources cited above examine different pathways for teaching and learning using educational technology. When we want to improve the conditions for teaching and learning, it’s important to remember that there are many paths to the same goal.

At the time of that post, I was planning to come back to it and sort out those thoughts more. Cite more of the sources. Explain more about why I care. Something.

Here are two thoughts from my weekend adventures that I will connect to this December post. It’s an idea I keep chasing in my mind with the hobby and jobby jobs.

Thought 1: Last week my yoga teacher said, “there are some bodies that are strong but they have problems with flexibility. It’s satisfying for the body to be and feel strong for those folks. Flexibility is a challenge. The flexible, however, they struggle with not feeling strong. They envy the ease with which strong people can hold their poses.” She looked at me, and said, “I bet you struggle with flexibility.”

There’s something here with a connection to the way we teach and learn. But I don’t want to talk about that today.

Thought 2: Because I have really smart friends, I like to borrow a book from one of them and fall down the rabbit hole of what they’re into as thinkers. It’s a good way to catch up with people. I’ve borrowed The Mountain Poems of Stonehouse by Shih-Wu, Red Pine (Translates) from Tami, and it’s beyond lovely. I’m particularly drawn to the translator’s explanation about what it’s like to translate poetry. Everything is beautiful about this book. He writes:

But just as there is no perfect dance, there is no perfect translation. It can always be better. But not today. Today it feels perfect. Just don’t ask me tomorrow (xxv).

There’s something here with a connection to the way we teach and learn. Today it feels perfect to not write about that.

I’ll leave you with my favorite poem, thus far:

Stripped of conditions my mind is at rest

emptied of existence my nature is at peace

how often at night have my windows turned white as the moon and stream pass by my door

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This Giant Sea of Information

“We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” ~Roger Ebert

Tonight I watched Life Itself, the documentary film on Roger Ebert. I’m a sucker for old photos, Werner Herzog anecdotes, and incredible film clips, so it’s a good documentary in my book. I learned quite a bit. It’s been awhile since I’ve watched a film, but I’ve thinking about writing a lot today. How much I miss it. How I write plenty of words throughout the day– it’s just not the same as telling one story. Sitting with one idea.

During the documentary, Ebert describes how blogging helped him retain his voice in the last years of his life. The epigraph above stuck with me throughout the film–especially his mention of a machine that generates empathy. It’s such a lovely way to describe film. Writing. Stories. Teaching. Learning.

Prior to heading to work today, I decided to read and comment on one blog post. It was a radical act of self-care on my part to just read and think about one thing. I was reminded of my experience with writing with the Federated Wiki and the post brought some thoughts together for me.

Here’s the thing.

Without realizing it, I use music as an example when I explain open education to folks who are new to the idea. As much as I love the open education community, I’m most interested these days in the people who are new to conversation. When I try to teach them how it all works, I find it’s easiest to talk about music. I can be quite the broken record (yay puns). I think it works because everyone understands bands who cover songs. They understand that a band can at once attribute the origin of the song while they aim to make the song their own.

A year ago, I  wrote a post titled Creating our own personal little lakes. Or ponds. Or puddles. It’s a monster post full of digressions about my experience  about the smallest federated wiki. Allow me to quote the best part as it relates to explaining cover songs. I started with describing Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs singing “Old Salty Dog Blues.” Then I move on to Doc Watson’s version. This is an American folk song from the 1900s, and I wrote:

Check out the folks dancing in this video. I am totally busting those moves on New Year’s Eve! Those cats know how to party—check out the skirt on Doc’s daughter and the champion step dancer’s shoes. Pay attention to how he breaks it down at the end–style, my friends, is dying art.

Now check out Cat Power’s version from her Covers Record. Critics diss on her for this album because it’s not original (note the album title, Sir Geniuses). I beg to differ–it’s such a creative album. All of these songs are her very own.

I might have a hard time stepping to this tune, but I love Cat Power’s version all the same. Just for another reason. I don’t always feel like stepping. 

People practice by imitating songs they love—that’s how they learn how to play. Art students practice by imitation. Knitters follow patterns created by somebody else. Cooks follow recipes written by others.

Maybe I just have fun talking about music, but I think this framework can work. By the time you’re ready to talk about platforms, licensing, customizing, etc. folks new to open education already understand the concept of adapting and adopting. Just as a band adopts a song to cover.

I recently shared another new set of songs with somebody new to open education yet very familiar with Cat Power covers. Buddy Holly’s-Crying Waiting Hoping is perfection pop and the origin of the song’s lyrics. It impressed me that the person knew about the Buddy Holly song. Even The Beatles got in on a cover with an early demo, he told me. 

My favorite iteration/adoption/remix of this song is Cat Power’s.  Maybe I’m just nostalgic for a southern voice. Maybe I’m crying, waiting, hoping that we’ll live in a world where people won’t kill other people. Crying, waiting, hoping that my queer friends will be safe. 

In the blog post I mentioned above, I asked how we can take this giant sea of information to create our own personal little lakes. Or ponds. Or puddles. It’s an idea that I can’t let go of yet I don’t think I quite articulate it well either.

I started this post with a quote from Ebert because I was so smitten with the idea that film can be “a machine that generates empathy.” Maybe how we teach and learn with this giant sea of information needs to have a machine that generates empathy to empower us to create our own little lakes. Or ponds. Or puddles.  

[Something that] lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.

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None of Us Ever Become Experts

About two weeks ago, I attended yoga for the first time, I’m sad to say, in months. I walked to the studio seeking out two hours of suffering and total escape that I can’t seem to achieve on my bike. When I’m on the bike commuting, I’m worried about cars. When I’m on my mountain bike, I’m worried about how long my companions have been waiting for me. When I’m living my daily life, I’m easily distracted, and that style of yoga is the only elegant reprieve from the gerbil wheel of my mind and thoughts.

When I got to the studio, I laid my mat on the floor, and promptly fell asleep until the teacher turned on the lights to start class. Turns out, everyone in the room except for me and one other person were there to celebrate the last class of a fellow yogini. The teacher began by apologizing for the tears that were going to fall during our class. Apologies, she said to the two of us, this was not going to be a typical class, we’re losing a member of our community. She complimented the yogini, a beautifully fit woman leaving Portland for a job in Seattle, for her unwavering dedication to the studio. To their community. This final practice was going to be the yogini’s 2,704th class. Clearly by the tears in many peoples’ eyes, she was going to be missed.

The departing yogini then spoke up and said, “It may sound impressive that I’ve taken so many classes, but I want all of you to know that it’s never gotten easier. This yoga is never easy. Everyday feels like my first class. It’s important to protect this space as a place where we all feel safe to learn. None us ever become experts yet we continue to do this together. That’s what  has mattered to me. We continue to do this together.”

None of us ever become experts yet we continue to do this together. That is, truly, what matters. I was pretty moved by her little speech, and of course, I left studio thinking about teaching, learning, and leadership.

Here’s the thing.

When I work with folks newly interested in open education, I’m sometimes seen as an “expert” and it’s an uncomfortable place for me. I’m kind of a hack and charlatan who is willing to stand in front of people—like that yogini above—to share what I know. To share what I don’t know. To fail in front of people. To share ideas that I can’t prove will work. The most important part of what I do (hopefully) is to try to improve the conditions of where and how we learn. Together.

A year ago, I had a meeting with a book publishing agent, and ten minutes into our meeting, I could tell she was totally confused by what I care about as an educator. We met at a coffee shop, and I was presenting about OER as professional development.

Here’s my title and blurb:

Book Nerd, Meet Tech Geek: The OER Movement Improves Faculty Development

In my work as the Director of eLearning (tech geek), people are often surprised to learn that my background is in English studies (book nerd). Learn how open educational resources (OER) provide pathways for student-centered success while fostering collaborative professional development among faculty members. Discover strategies learned from starting a small grassroots OER movement on campus that will help you avoid common pitfalls and failures.

I need to admit that I remixed that title several different times in 2015 (it was a busy year). I now know that sometimes book publisher folks send agents looking for “talent” at academic conferences. She was a lovely gal, and she bought me a coffee. So tell me, she said, who is your ideal reader?

Anyone who thinks I remind them of Joan Didion?, I thought. Community college leaders who are looking for ways to substantiate funding for professional development centered on OER. I want leaders to care about adjuncts since they teach most of our courses, I said oh-so-academically.

Describe your perspective on OER. What’s your most effective method of gaining that audience’s attention?

I stand up on the table like Sally Field as Norma Rae with a sign that says UNION & OER, I thought.

Well, I try to understand their local barriers to this kind of radical change in pedagogy. I try to empathize. I talk about decreasing textbook costs as a catalyst for major change in higher education. I think this movement will progress in three phases. We’ll start with textbook costs, then we’ll address pedagogy, and then we’ll save adjunct teachers from burnout. It’s not that cut and dry, of course. There’s more to it than that, and it’s not a linear progression of transformation. It may not happen in my lifetime. When I can, I generate data from both the students and the teachers, I said oh-so-academically.

Hmm. So let me get this straight, how does OER connect to professional development? How does a teacher put a line on her CV about this work?

Somedays, I think CV should stand for Crap-tastic Vocation instead of Curricula Vitae, but I didn’t say that. Well, it’s not work that is directly valued by institutions at this point in time, but I believe in the future it will be. Someday. In the meantime, it’s the only meaningful professional development that I see that directly connects to the student experience. More importantly, it’s the only radical choice for adjuncts seeking true academic freedom in horrific labor conditions. I don’t have the data to support this, but I’d like to tell a story about why this work is valuable. How I’ve witnessed real change in the way people teach.

Okay, she said, so would you provide a business plan or some sort of metric for administrators to follow? Do you have charts that would accompany your narrative?

Who would ruin a good story with a chart or a business plan for the love of cats? Sheesh! The Quant Kills The Qual in My Heart: A Memoir. No. If that’s something you think is necessary, I think I could create something like that with a little help of my friends. (Oh my gawd, I’m citing Ringo Starr. Deep swallow of the coffee to end this meeting. I looked at my watch).

Chances are, if we publish this book, she said, it will take three years or more to publish. How will you work to keep this idea relevant in the meantime?

Wow. Is it too early to start drinking? I started packing up my things. I’m not sure what I’m doing is like that. I don’t own this idea–there is a community of people who care about these goals. Hopefully in four years things will be a lot different than they are now. Somebody somewhere could have a much better idea than me, and I’ll help them.

We shook hands. Exchanged cards. Smiled pleasantries. Promised to be in touch. I never heard from her again.

Here’s the other thing: I’m kinda done with academic publishing cycles. It’s part of that Crap-tastic Vocation (CV), and it’s part of the gig. You see, I had this realization playing Giant Jenga in a bar in Austin with two lovely colleagues. As we played a good game while chatting and laughing, I got to thinking. I think I’d rather focus on the piece-by-piece of what feels like progress rather than focusing on the performance. The game of the academic performance just seems like a waste of time.

For those of you unfamiliar with Jenga, it’s a game where you start with a tall tower of blocks and you take one block from the bottom few rows and you add it to the top. Eventually, you end up with a precarious mix of balance and hope (like yoga). Depending on who you play with, you might get help from your competitors. It’s a fun group game where you accept that one of you will lose with great flair and spectacle. The tower will fall. It will be messy. A group dynamic can take over where you help one another. Best of all, you can have a conversation and digress as long as you remember who’s turn it is. You can heckle and help one another. It’s fun for a community of people.

Or you can play with competitive types who offer no assistance. You’re on your own. There will only be one winner. The process is not as fun with these folks. Winning–or forcing somebody else to lose–is the most important action of the game. That’s not so fun to me. You focus so much on the tower that the block-by-block seems a means to the end rather than the purpose.

The tower will fall no matter what. Block by block, we will figure it out by trying to build something different. Block by block, we will figure it out. Either way, it’s going to be messy.

I’m kind of stuck on this Jenga metaphor about leadership, but I’m not sure what I have to say about it. For now. Maybe you will, dear reader, and that’s the beauty of open education. We share as we learn. Block by block. If I can go back to the words from the beloved yogini above, then I have my conclusion. For now.

This ______ is never easy. Everyday feels like my first class. It’s important to protect this space as a place where we all feel safe to learn. None us ever become experts yet we continue to do this together. That’s what  has mattered to me. We continue to do this together.

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