"maybe it's 'cuz 'cuz
we're all gonna die die"

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Bleetzork post: second postscript

If I was humbled before, now I'm embarrassed. Gardner Campbell has now commented on my "Bleetzork" post and chided me -- graciously and gently, but correctly -- for taking a superficial and dismissive tone with regard to subjects I basically know nothing about, and I can't help but agree with everything he said. Read it for yourself. Again, I'm sort of stunned that anyone read my random little post in the first place. I guess that's just naïvety, really. (As Martin Lindner once said in a long-ago Twitter post, "web 2.0 rule: always more people listening than one thinks" -- or something like that; I'm quoting from memory here.) I was trying to express my personal frustrations in a way that was clever, ironic, witty and honestly self-deprecating at the same time, and I guess my tone misfired fairly badly. My apologies to Campbell and anyone else I might have offended. The way I intended the post to read, the criticisms and frustration in that post were ultimately aimed at myself. They stemmed primarily from my own inability to figure out what is behind the apparent success of others and reproduce it. The point is, I think that a lot of the conversation that goes on online is oblique, complex, and multilayered, and there is more to it than meets the eye -- much of this complexity doesn't necessarily show up on the surface. As a result, outsiders cannot easily get what's valuable about it. As I think Groom was pointing out, you have to stick around for quite some time -- I'm guessing here, not having experienced it myself -- before the medium's power to cultivate conversation and foster intellectual synergies becomes evident.

The other thing I was thinking about is that in my own, limited, idiosyncratic, ADD-warped experience, blogging as a medium has some serious drawbacks. With its apparatus of links, snippets of microcontent, and truncated feeds, I find that for me blogging encourages a particular type of quick, spontaneous, off-the-cuff writing and reading. It reminds me of the sort of writing I used to do back in the ancient days when people kept in touch via letter. For me, a blog entry is like a letter. When I write -- or, I should say, wrote -- letters, I tend to allow myself to wander along a chain of associations in ways I wouldn't if I were writing a conference paper or journal submission. I revise them, but only lightly; to me, immediacy and spontaneity are part of the appeal of letters, and the same goes for blogs. As a result, when I read a blog post, I typically invest less time and energy than if I were reading a scholarly paper. There are so many of them, and they tend to be so allusive and elliptical. I skim through them in feedreaders. I click links and forget where I came from. I get interrupted and don't come back. If the posts are long, I get tired of looking at the screen and start fidgeting with the mouse. As a result, I have a hard time dealing with heavy, deep, demanding ideas in blog format. For me, that's one of the consequences of the physical medium itself. (On the other hand, the multimedia genre-experiments that some people have recently put online -- I'm thinking of Levine's "Fifty ways to tell a story" project, or the Slideshare narrative in Ganley's bgexperiments blog -- I find tremendously provocative and engaging.)

I guess ultimately the thinking behind my post was about something a little different from what actually made it into the text. It's not that I think the idea of social web technologies in the classroom is not valuable. I know it is; and I know people have been using these technologies with great demonstrated success. The problem is me. Fundamentally, I find teaching tremendously difficult. Temperamentally, I don't think I'm all that well suited for it, and while I try my best to let others be the judge of this, I generally don't think I'm particularly good at it either. I keep plugging away at it because I believe it's valuable, and because I care -- I honestly want to do better. I embraced the promise of the Web as a teaching tool a couple of years ago when I participated in a seminar run by NITLE -- the seminar was exciting and fun, and it made a very deep and lasting impression on me. But the Web has, frankly, not transformed my teaching, and I was probably very wrong to think that it could. For me -- and I don't mean to imply that this was true of anyone else, but it certainly is for me -- the temptation became very strong to try to substitute technological gimmickry for the rigorous thinking about my own discipline and teaching that I was very reluctant to do. The temptation would not have been so strong if the potential for transformation hadn't been so enormous and so apparent. Personally -- and I stress again that this is just me I'm talking about -- I'd rather bookmark ten interesting news stories and set up an RSS feed to pipe them to a blog sidebar than do the hard thinking to figure out exactly what pedagogical purpose could be served by a careful analysis of one of those stories.

I draw several tentative conclusions from this, and I stress "tentative" -- I want to come back to this discussion in the future. First, simply put, I like making things, and I don't do it enough. One of the reasons I like fooling around with the design of webpages is because it speaks to the side of me that is interested in craft and in aesthetics. I derive immense pleasure out of getting things to work right and look just so. Cobbling together a Yahoo pipe to tweak the content of one of my RSS feeds and have it pop up in a blog sidebar, formatted just right, is very satisfying; it reminds me of the feeling I used to get as a kid putting together Lego models. And as an academic, I have very few opportunities to indulge -- or, perhaps a better would would be "honor" -- this side of my personality. Maybe that just indicates a lack of balance in my life. It seems that I can only permit myself to fool with stuff that way if I can justify the time spent, in some kind of roundabout way, by postulating a connection to teaching. Maybe I should just allow myself a certain amount of time to mess around with Web technologies -- who can deny that it's fun? -- without trying to cram it uncomfortably into some kind of professional activity, given that I've never really been able to make a good fit between the two.

The obverse of this is that, in the social and professional world I inhabit, this stuff is totally alien. The IT folks at my institution are stretched very thin -- my impression is, they're too busy showing people how to archive their Blackboard courses, show their PowerPoints on a projector, and run the poster printer to think much about the teaching potential of the social web. My professional organization only recently started conducting the majority of its business via email and web. And my closest colleagues here are not particularly interested in what I'm doing either. Their reactions range from benign, amused skepticism at my nerdiness through "Ivan Tribble"-style aversion to anything that requires too much technical expertise or experimentation (remember Tribble's scornful mockery of "Professor Turbo Geek"?). As a result, whenever I'm messing around with innovative technology, just to see what it can do and what happens if I try to put it to work, most of the people I associate on a day-to-day basis think I'm wasting time. (I mean, even when I tip them off to genuinely useful web tools, the response is often: "Boy, you must spend an awful lot of time online!") And colleagues' reactions are nothing next to the contempt of many of my students, who have already seen plenty of educational gadgetry come and go. Thus, to allay my own guilt and everyone else's suspicions, I find myself insisting, sometimes almost disingenuously, that there's an immediate, foreseeable, quantifiable pedagogical payoff.

I have to wind this up and do some grunt work, but I want to post this, so I'll just add a couple more things and leave it at that, hopefully to be addressed again in the future. I want to apologize again for implying a dismissive or hostile attitude toward the work of the folks at UMW and elsewhere, people whose work I've been following for some time and whom I have a great deal of respect for. What frustrates me is this. First of all, I have a powerful tendency to avoid doing the hard conceptual and creative work of teaching. Correspondingly, I inevitably tend to look for quick, effortless solutions. At my institution, probably like everywhere else, we're constantly having technology rammed down our throats in the abstract with very little guidance about its use in concrete terms. For a while (these rules have changed now, thank God) we even had to justify proposals for new faculty hires in all departments by showing, among other things, for how the new position would augment and take advantage of information-technology innovation. This sort of environment sends highly mixed messages to faculty. Techology is important, teaching is important, but trying to think critically about how they interact -- it's hard to find a serious forum for that (again, I mean here, locally, not online). This feeds my own natural inclination to spend too much of my limited time developing a superficial mastery of new, eye-catching technology (and making sure the administration knows about it) and, on the other hand, to give short shrift to developing reflective, critical assessments of the way I'm actually putting that technology to use. I find this to be particularly true in the case where there is relatively little formal guidance available to faculty -- whose time and energy is limited -- who want to develop responsible assessment models for using novel pedagogical strategies and techniques, whether they're founded on innovative technology or not.

To sum it up: I think what I was originally complaining about in that first post was not about critiquing what anyone else is doing, but rather about feeling lost -- simultaneously left out of the social aspects of Web 2.0, on the one hand, and left behind by the explosion of exciting technological developments. Until I actually get my head straight about what I'm trying to teach, and manage to state to my own satisfaction what exactly it is that I want my students to get out of my classes, all the technology in the world won't help me teach better. Technology can't support my goals if I don't know what they are. Similarly, dialogue and conversation are no good to me if I can't figure out anything substantive to say. I probably shouldn't be admitting to feeling this way publicly; after all, I come up for tenure this year. Anyhow ... my point is really about my reaction to all this innovation going on in the educational world that I seem unable to replicate or take advantage of because there are still some crucial gaps in the foundation of what I'm doing. It all looks so compelling, so exciting, so -- dare I say -- fun. But so far my attempts to exploit these new ideas and techniques have foundered on a fundamental failure to articulate objectives and goals. Which is very hard to do.

Two other things from Campbell's comment that I want to highlight, because I think he corrected me in important ways. First, design matters. My comment about "fooling with" a course website instead of really thinking hard about it implied otherwise. But in fact Campbell's point makes perfect sense. I have no qualms about spending a long time thinking about the layout of, say, a paper handout I give to my students and how the physical artifact will support or alter their thinking. Again, I would say that I think what I was really thinking about was not a bogus design-versus-content dichotomy but, once again, the superficial-versus-profound dichotomy. For example: I remember once realizing that it was eleven p.m. and I had just spent an hour trying out different the font sizes for the tags in the del.icio.us feed display in my blog sidebar. This would have been fine, except that what I had actually sat down to do was write a blog post for the students about what had happened in class that day, and I was using the excuse of "working on the site" to avoid thinking about something that I really needed to think about. Thinking about design wasn't in itself the problem, but the desire to avoid thinking about something else was. Maybe I'm unusual in this respect, but as I've said, I find that kind of temptation or distraction to be a real problem sometimes.

Another point from Campbell's comment referred to my suggestion that online conversations are often so oblique as to exclude outsiders. In the event, he notes, outsiders do periodically get drawn into the conversation, so empirically that is simply not a fair characterization. Again, he's right, and he points out, not quite in so many words, that Jim Groom's immediate and extraordinarily thoughtful response to my post is in itself a refutation of my implied claim about the vacuousness of online discourse. All I can say to that is, that's an important point, Campbell is right, and my gripes were pretty stupid.

Hm. Once again, I'm all over the place. I didn't think when I started writing this that I'd end up here. But I do think this is, for me, one of the fundamental issues: my own tendency to be distracted by my fascination with craft, design, and technique from the harder underlying questions. That tendency, I think, is reinforced by the physical medium of online communication itself.

As to the theme of "failure," which happens to be one of my favorite things to talk about, especially in relation to humanistic scholarship on religion ... more on that some other time. If you've made it this far, why then, you're a trooper; thanks for bearing with me.


Bryan's workshop blog said...

What an awesome post!

One should always listen to Martin Lindner. And to Gardner Campbell.

Is it possible that your pedagogical strength isn't front-loading, but following emergence? That is, unleashing a group on some tool or environment, then seeing what works once it's in play?

Nathan Rein said...

Bryan ... thanks for reading, and especially for such a generous comment. Perhaps you're right. I suspect that if I weren't coming up for tenure right now, I'd have an easier time taking a slightly more playful and open-ended approach to these things.