To Steve Jobs

I have to admit that I was really choked up by the news of Steve Jobs’ death last night when I got on twitter just as the news was breaking. Which I was reading on my iPhone. And then I got on my MacBook (the last old-school white one I’ll ever own) to read tributes, reactions, and watch the Fail Whale tell me that Twitter was over-capacity as we all took to social media to collectively mourn Jobs.

I was just old enough in 1984 to remember the first big Apple commercial that ran during the SuperBowl (although I think I probably saw it the next night during the evening news). It scared the crap out of me, but there you go. I had never seen a commercial like it. We didn’t own an Apple (we had a Vic 20 and a Commodore 64), but in what would be junior high, one of my best friends and I would stay up until 3 AM writing our own scripts for our favorite TV shows on her Apple computer (I have no idea which one it would have been. It was around 1990-91). 
I was late coming to Mac computers myself. I owned PCs, unfortunately, but when Blue Screen of Death started appearing far too regularly, I got my first MacBook. I’ve been hooked ever since. I spent entirely too much money on a second generation iPod (the one that still had four buttons on top). When I opened the box, all I could think of was that it was the prettiest thing I had ever owned. Two things that Apple, under Jobs direction, did best: design and usability. I loved my iPod, and I loved having all of my 8000 songs all in one place. 
But it was perhaps one of George Lucas’ cast-offs that, for me, is one of Jobs’ greatest achievements: Pixar. If it wasn’t for Jobs’ belief in the little computer animation company that went on to create the Toy Story movies, The Incredibles, and other classics. My daughter was never into princess movies when she was really little, but she adored the Pixar movies. We all loved the Pixar movies. Her first full movie in the theaters was Toy Story 3, and we were able to have our first full family movie, little brother included, when we went to see Cars 2 (which, regrettably, wasn’t Pixar’s finest moment, but whatever). 
It is really my kids lives that will be and currently are being shaped by what Steve Jobs shepherded into the world. My daughter knew how to work my iPhone before she was 18 months old. She could find videos, her puzzle app, her number match app, Tap Tap Revenge…Neither of my kids understand why they can’t just swipe their fingers across my computer screen to make it work. Their world, they ability to connect, to collaborate, and to learn really have the potential to be greatly changed by the inventions Apple brought to us. But, as Seth Godin said in his brief tribute, A Eulogy of Action
I can’t compose a proper eulogy for Steve Jobs. There’s too much to say, too many capable of saying it better than I ever could.
It’s one thing to miss someone, to feel a void when they’re gone. It’s another to do something with their legacy, to honor them through your actions.
Steve devoted his professional life to giving us (you, me and a billion other people) the most powerful device ever available to an ordinary person. Everything in our world is different because of the device you’re reading this on.
What are we going to do with it?
I think that’s the real question now. What are we going to do with it? Steve Jobs did, in fact, change the world by putting tools in our hands that we never had access to before. Now, it’s up to us to make this world a better place using them. I hope for my kids’ sake that we do. Personally, I keep asking myself, how am I going to use these tools to help my students learn? I started this process through my peer-driven learning experiment, but I need to integrate this thinking into all of my courses. 
I honored Steve Jobs in my own way today, but reading my students the riot act, for not performing to my expectations, for not even attempting to achieve their best. I doubt it was anything close to his infamous tirades, but while I hate being negative and berating my students, it was nice to know that Steve would probably have approved.  

Perils of Going Paperless

I’ve been trying to go paperless this semester. Homework is done in the form of “blog posts” on Blackboard (I know, I know, lay off. Baby steps). Papers are submitted electronically. Free writes have been replaced with discussion board questions. I’ve embraced (or at least I’ve tried to embrace) electronic interaction. 

But (and, from the title, you knew there’d be a but), it has had it’s problems. The first one is that we’re almost halfway through the semester and I know only a few of my students’ names. I’ve admitted to this shortcoming before, but now that I don’t hand back work to them on a daily basis, I’ve lost one of the only ways I had to really put names to faces. Now, this is a terrible thing to admit (sorry any of my students who might happen to be reading this). But I wasn’t prepared for this consequence of going paperless. Now, I’m struggling with my picture roster, and frantically searching for Prof Hacker posts on the subject. It’s not too late, right? 
Another unexpected side-effect of going paperless has been how my lectures have been effected. I teach one-hour periods. In the past, the students typically wrote 10 minute free-writes at the beginning of class, to get us all focused on the task at hand. Now, I’ve moved the question I would normally ask in the free write as either an online discussion question or a blog post question. This has been advantageous because I am able to read what the students are thinking and where they are in their understanding of the readings before I go into class. But, now my classes seem to finish 10 minutes early, after 50 minutes. Like, when it ended all the other times when I would do the 10-minute free write. My internal teaching clock is still set to 50 minutes. 
Other problems have no been totally unforeseen. Many of my students comes from economically precarious situations, so their access to a reliable computer and internet connection can be… inconsistent. So students, at least for the first few weeks while they learned the lay of the land (where the computers are on campus and when they can access them), were often late getting work in, and I was spending a lot of time explaining (and re-explaining) how to access blackboard, and where tech support was on campus. 
But even when I tried to help my students by bringing them to the computer lab, I hit snags. Can you imagine computers that a) don’t have Flash installed and b) won’t let you install it? Yeah, neither could I. Until it happened and half my students couldn’t complete what I had planned to do in class. Or how the computer in my classroom died and it wasn’t fixed for two weeks, severely impacting my ability to put handouts up rather than printing and distributing them. While I appreciate that many of my students have limited access to technology, I get frustrated when we can’t help them prepare for the late 20th century, let alone the 21st century. 
So, I’m still figuring this out. And, let me tell you, it’s the unreliable technology (don’t even get me started on Blackboard) that’s really making it hard to keep doing it. And, yes, I know that using WordPress, Google Docs, Twitter, are easier, more reliable, and more user friendly. Next semester. There’s always next semester.
And, unless the students choose pictures of themselves as avatars, I still won’t know their names. Wait, on second thought…

Peer-Driven Learning: The Power of Play and Wasting Time

As a follow up to my last post on encouraging play, and the subsequent #FYCchat, I’m thinking about the groups in my peer-driven learning class that have been the most “creative” in their project ideas. One of the worries that was expressed during the chat on Wednesday was that when we encourage creativity and play, it looks too much to the outside observer that we’re not “doing” or accomplishing anything. Or, that we’re wasting time. 

I’ve written about this issue before, what my “job” as a teacher actually looks like in practice: Coach? Editor? Maternal Figure? All of the above? None of the above? And when I started this peer-driven learning project, I had to once again radically reconfigure what a teacher does. And, a lot of the time, to an outside observer, it looks like nothing much. In fact, if one was to walk into my classroom, they might assume that none of us, myself or the students, are doing much of anything at all.
One particular group of students, a really good group, was killing time the other day during class time. They had their direction, decided on individual assignments for the rest of the week, and were just hanging out together. They weren’t being disruptive, as the whole class is typically a fairly noisy affair, with groups working out their projects. But I knew they weren’t “working.” One of the students had his iPad out, and the others were looking at it, asking what certain apps do, how he liked using it, etc. Another group member saw the DC app, as in DC Comics. Thus began a discussion about how DC was rebooting their entire line of comics, with each super-hero starting all over again at Issue 1. And then, magic happened. This particular group is working on the broad subject of human nature, specifically examining the question of why people commit crimes/transgress laws. Could we, one offered, make a comic book? Within five minutes, they had found an affordable ($2) app allows you to modify photos to looks like a comic book. The group decided, they were going to make a comic book. 
I was thrilled. Thinking about it, though, this idea might never have occurred if the students hadn’t been given the time and the freedom to simply sit around and talk. I know that it helped that I encouraged them to think of different ways they could present their materials, but the idea of the comic book might never have come about had the students not had the time and space to just relax and talk things out. I know that I’m being redundant in this paragraph, but to most, what I let them do is tantamount to misconduct or negligence in my role as their teacher. Instead, they’re creating something really interesting. 
Another group, on their own, decided that they were going to use Facebook to communicate and collaborate with each other. As one of the students put it, I’m on it almost all the time playing. Not any more, I exclaimed! Once again, the line between working and playing is blurred; the students are now working in a virtual space that many see as a waste of students’ time and a massive distraction, a place where they go to socialize (at best) or gossip (at worst). It made me realize that perhaps I should start using Facebook to better communicate with my students. 
Time. If we want our students to be more creative and playful, we need to give them more time. The pressure of deadlines, the limited resources, the overwhelming amount of work students often are faced with, all of that acts to create students who actively work to avoid thinking about their school work. My students are actually pretty relaxed, loose, and dare I say it, enjoying their experience in class. All because I give them time. 
Even it looks, from the outside, like we’re wasting it. 

Peer-Driven Learning: Forcing Students to Visit the Library

Today, with my Peer-Driven Learning class that is less self-motivated than the other, we went to the library. The class decided that we were going to get our “required essay” out of the way first. The required essay needs to be “an analytical essay that connects multiple texts across disciplines” (to quote our Gen. Ed. Student Learning Outcomes requirement). We are still working on the broad topic of “Wealth, Poverty, and Social Class” and we’ve been brainstorming ideas as to what to write about. But, the essay requires multiple sources from across disciplines, and I knew that this wasn’t going to happen without some help.


So I assigned a short annotated bibliography. I know, this is old-school me assign/they do format that we are trying to avoid, but I am so glad that I am requiring this particular mini-assignment. The annotated bibliography is due Friday, and we met today in the library to do research. Keep in mind that this is a 200-level course and most of the students are Sophomores. About halfway through the class, one of the students came up to me and asked if she was able to check out a book and if so, how to go about doing it.

Oh dear. This lead to some very interesting conversations on Twitter about how my experience is not unique. 


In each of my classes I stress how important it is to physically go to the library to do their research. I also mention that their tuition pays the salary of the reference librarians who are there to help them do their research more efficiently and effectively. In the same way that I am a “trained” expert and thus hired to be their teacher, the reference librarians all have Master’s degrees in Library Science; they are also “trained” experts hired to help us do research. Their jobs, their raison d’etre is to help you do research. Why else do you  a) get a Master’s in Library Science and b) go work at a primarily undergraduate university library? 

But it also brings up a larger issue that I have been struggling with all semester with my peer-driven classes: how much can I “force” or require them to do? How do I find a balance between what they want to do versus what I know they need to (or at the very least should) do? The annotated bibliography was not their idea, but when I introduced the requirements for the essay, they were dumbfounded. Multiple sources? Across disciplines? Research? The library? 

When I typically assign annotated bibliographies, I ask for one book, two peer-reviewed articles, and then two other sources of any type. I expect a very brief (1-3 sentence) summary of their source and then a brief description of how they will use the source in their paper. I think in a class of less-than-motivated students, this can be an effective tool to help them refine their topic and start to move in the right direction. And I’m curious to see how much guidance my other peer-driven class is going to need when we get to that stage later in the semester (they wanted to save theirs for last). 

Needless to say, it was an eye-opening experience today, having students unable to find books on the shelves or know that the books could be checked out. But, like I expect my students to do, I learn and I adapt. And I readjust my expectations. 

Peer-Driven Learning: Encouraging Creativity and Play

This week, one of my peer-driven classes was finishing up their project proposals. They will be responsible for teaching two classes, which includes presenting a project that they will then hand in (this is a writing class, so they have to hand in something that is written). As I was going around the class, listening as their brainstorms were beginning to coalesce into a more solid proposal, I kept hearing something that troubled me: powerpoint. Four our of the five groups were planning to use powerpoint in their lessons. 

A shook my head. Do you like, I ask, when your professor uses powerpoint? Most of them shook their head. What happens when a powerpoint presentation starts? They answered that they tuned out, only focused on what was on the slide and only planned to learn what was on the slide. Then WHY would you want to recreate that in your own lessons? Blank stares. It’s what we’re used to, some answered. Because it’s easy, others added. 
The students in this class have four weeks to prepare for their presentations. I sincerely hope that they didn’t think that they would be spending four weeks on a powerpoint. But it shows how set in our ways we all are when it comes to just about everything. Students want to learn differently, but when presented with the opportunity to create a different learning experience, they chose the same old, ineffective tools. In my other class, when invited to explore options for their class assignment, most students didn’t even look at the options I provided for them. 
This inspired me to tweet out to a peer of mine, Kathi Inman (check out her blog/site for her class at USC; this is thinking differently about education). Below is our conversation on Twitter:
Ok, it’s a little truncated, but it really did make me think. How do I encourage students to play and explore, and thus find the space to be creative in my class? Should I have perhaps required them to find an example of innovative pedagogy/project themselves, rather than provide it for them? There’s still time to do that in my other class, where we are doing projects at the end of the semester. But it also makes me think about whether or not I’m doing enough in my own practice, in my own classroom to facilitate play.
In other words, should I require play in a peer-driven classroom? It becomes difficult for me to think about what I should or should not require of students. I have said over and over again that they are allowed to do just about anything they want to, but it seems like they either don’t believe me or have no idea just how creative and free they can be. It feels like I’m splitting hairs, but this is what it takes to make a class like this really work. 
I’m not the only one asking these questions, obviously. Kathi is experimenting with this (see the coding project her students are doing). Dr. Davis is using art and design as a basis for getting her students to think differently about what skills they will need in the future. The 2010 HASTAC Digital Media and Learning competition was based around games (scroll to the bottom). Over at DML Central, they are looking at making education more like Kindergarten for life; more making, tinkering, and remixing. Also, projects are a more creative way to learn, as well as more relevant to what future employers want. 
I’m still working through these issues. How do I introduce these concepts and options to my students without taking the classroom back over from them? There are so many rich and varied examples out there. Here are just a few:
Even just going through this list of fantastic and innovative projects, put together by a group of inspiring education and artists, I feel overwhelmed. And then I remind myself: think about how your students must feel. 
The list goes on. 

Efficiency =/= Innovation =/= Quality

I’m going off my blogging schedule. This might turn into a longer, more developed post for uvenus or elsewhere, but I need to write this and put this out there right now. While I’m angry. And reeling. 

Today on Inside Higher Ed, there was yet another post about disrupting higher education. Earlier today, I ran into a colleague who had spent the morning in another department, collaborating. “It’s the theme of my semester” she exclaimed excitedly. I sighed. I would love to be more collaborative, more innovative in my teaching. But, I don’t have the time. 
Professors are currently being (excuse my language) shit on for being luddites, inefficient, and unwilling to change. I represent the most “efficient” part of higher education; the non-TT instructor who teaches a lot of sections of a large course (not as large as some, but still pretty big considering I’m supposed to be teaching writing). I have limited professional development opportunities/funding (which is better than none at all, which is what many people in my position have access to). I teach five classes. 
I’m efficient. I’ve figured out how to efficiently grade 100-150 papers, multiple times a semester. That also means that I have to sacrifice quality. This is, obviously, a dangerous thing to admit. We’re told we need to be more collaborative. But, when? All the free time that I have when I’m not teaching, preparing to teach, or grading? I’ve innovated one of my classes this semester, and I have to admit, my other classes have suffered as a result; they are more standard, more “canned” than I would like. Why? Because I don’t have as much time to devote to them. But I’m efficient (even if the technology isn’t). I’m just not very innovative and I know the quality isn’t what it could be.
I want to use technology, but when I do, I find that it fails because the institution doesn’t invest in the support needed to help me and my students. Pens and paper never fail. Last week, I couldn’t do an activity with the students because the computers in the lab didn’t have FlashPlayer (seriously) and wouldn’t let anyone install it. “Innovation” is thrown about as a buzz word, and there are software packages being purchased and then “introduced” to us every day. But when do we have the time to learn about them and integrate them into our classes? For example, we upgraded to a new Blackboard version this year. When was it available? A week before the semester started. 
This semester, I haven’t had time to breathe. If this semester has taught me anything, it’s don’t try to change what works because it’s exhausting, thankless, and ultimately difficult to measure (which is of course what everyone wants). The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. But, what if you decide to change what works? I was a good teacher before, why am I reinventing the wheel? There are few incentives, but also few rewards for changing how we teach. There’s no time to slow down and think. 
I want to cry. I’m the model that apparently everyone in higher education wants to recreated: large classes, lots of section, canned delivery. Why? Why do we want to do that? I don’t even want to do that. I don’t want to be the model that higher education re-creates en masse, like McDonald’s. Trillions served the same unhealthy meal, the same way. Sure, we all get to eat for cheap, but at what cost? 
What the hell are education reformers thinking? Innovation is expensive and time consuming. You fail more often than you succeed. But in this world, there is no room for failure. Efficiency is only good if quality doesn’t decline. But what if the quality isn’t where it could be? We’re stuck in a death spiral when it comes to talking about education reform. I’m sick of it. So should you. 

Peer-Driven Learning: I’m No Cathy Davidson

I received an interesting set of questions in the comments on my last peer-learning post: 

I’ve read Cathy’s piece in the Chronicle of HE. I hate to be a bit of a wet blanket but having had some experience of designing, leading and being part of peer driven teaching and having been an early member of the so-called ‘anti-university’ set up in London in the late ’60s– I have a few questions that I’d need to know in order to determine if this is an idea that can be realistically applied and allow students to graduate with some kind of marketable qualification (however and whoever determines the ‘market’).The type of class isn’t clear. Are they postgrads/post-experience/mature/straight from secondary school? Are they doing an elective or is it a compulsory class?Will their grade make a difference to their degree and does the degree have to meet any institutional or external (eg professional/regulatory body accreditation criteria)?In fact, what does the grade signify? Is it simply a metaphorical ‘fig leaf’ to cover your back or is it a rigorous measure of the learning and self-instruction?

I’ve been wanting to do a post since the beginning outlining all of the ways my peer-driven class is different from Cathy Davidson’s classes.  I could point “anonymous” to my previous posts on my peer-driven classes that outline more carefully what the purpose of the class is, etc. But, just to reiterate, the class that I am reformulating as being peer-driven in ENG 200 or Writing II. This is a required course for all students, regardless of major. They have already taken ENG 100 or traditional freshman composition. Our student learning outcomes are essentially to have students read primary sources from across disciplines, discuss, and write about them. We have a choice of two almost identical textbooks to assign to them, and a list of required assignments, both large and small. At the end of the day, if the students are using the textbook as a guide, they will be fulfilling the requirements of the course. Most of my colleagues that I’ve told that I am letting the students decide what they want to read from the textbook have shrugged their shoulders; any readings from the book will be challenging and stimulating.

There are some very important differences, of course, between my course and Cathy Davidson’s course. While Cathy Davidson seems to have had a weekly schedule that students followed (more or less), my class has been shaped exclusively by my textbook, which we would never be able to get all the way through. Both my classes are completely different in terms of our assignments and week-to-week layout. One class is much more “traditional”; the students have picked the readings, but we are working on them together, as a class. The other class has broken off into groups and will be teaching their own two-class unit, complete with a project based on their readings/lesson. It’s early, but each class is having some good results.

My students didn’t “chose” to take me, specifically, for this course. Sure, there are a handful who had me last year, but most of the students selected my sections of ENG 200 because it fit their schedule. They certainly had no idea that I was going to turn the tables on them. I have a higher cap in my class (18 students sounds like a dream) and no TA. I don’t have tenure, and I am teaching three other classes on top of the two peer-driven courses. Our college has a high number of first-generation college students, as well as a poor graduation rate and low ACT scores for incoming freshmen. The majority come from our service area, which is largely poor and rural. If one of my classes is less ready to embrace peer-driven learning, I can’t say I’m terribly surprised. Actually, that one of the classes so readily embraced the format is perhaps more surprising.

I don’t have a ton of experience being an “innovative educator” nor does what I write about or do in my classroom cause our PR office to have palpitations. Thanks to Cathy Davidson, turning your class over to your students isn’t met with hang-wringing and fainting (seriously, read the first chapter of Now You See It to see how much negative national press Cathy Davidson has inspired). Or, thanks to the fact that I toil away at an out-of-the-way university insulates me from any notice. I’d say it’s a bit of both. I help create one of the most exciting and innovative (to me at least) academic programs/organizations (HASTAC), so I’m starting from behind, so to speak, compared to Cathy Davidson. I’m still learning to let go and embrace all of this.

My job, as I understand it, is to help students become better writers but also more independent learners. I want them to becomes 4-year-olds again, where the world was exciting and new and they wanted to learn about everything. I want them to learn how to create a community, to support one another in their education, and just think differently about anything I can. I want to help them think more critically about their world and how they fit into it. These are my goals regardless of how I teach, but I think teaching this way will be more successful. Even if the rest of their educations are “by the book” both literally and figuratively, I hope they will take what they have learning in my class beyond university.

Is it sustainable for every single program on campus? I don’t know. I’m not as optimistic as Cathy Davidson, although I’m getting there. I’ve said time and time again that it’s my own failure of imagination that I cannot think about how to do my class or university differently. But I know I am doing something right as my class buzzes with excitement and begin to come up with their own innovative and creative ways of looking at their readings and the issues they bring up. I can’t measure that.

I’m not sure if I want to.

Peer-Driven Learning: Readjusting Expectations

Programming Note: I’ll be taking a break from writing weekly Bad Female Academic posts, mostly because I don’t have anything left to add. That’s probably because I’m teaching again and am trying something completely new, trying to create a course based on peer-driven learning. So instead of Monday posts on gender in academia, you’ll be treated to posts on my ongoing adventure in allowing my students to decide for themselves what we’re going to learn and produce in our class.

Week one is over, and I’m staring down the reality of week two. Last week was hit and miss. The students seemed to really respond to Paulo Freire and the idea that there is, in fact, a different way to learn (well, lots of different ways to learn, but you get my drift). When I told them to pull out their cell phones and start texting their answers to question and that those answers would appear (anonymously) on the overhead, it was like I had just cured cancer. A teacher who was encouraging them to text, to use the technology that was most available to them and with which they were most familiar with? I blew their minds. 
Their blog posts (sorry, not public) on their initial reactions to the class and the readings were positive. One of my favorite quotes from a student was that they’d been trained to sit and not talk in class the same way a dog is trained not to pee on the rug. Another student also astutely observed that learning technology is only useful if it allows us to learn in new and different ways, instead of recreating more efficient versions of the banking concept. There seemed to be a consensus that the class was different, exciting, terrifying, would be a lot of work, but it was work they were willing to undertake because they “knew” (or at least claimed to know) that it would mean that they would learn more. Students were emailing me to ask about contract grading or if we could use tumblr instead of blackboard. I was psyched. 
Then came Friday. This, I said, is where the hard work begins. Now we have to start making some decisions and actually designing our course. What, I asked, do we need to decide? In my first class, there was silence. Absolute silence. I am proud to say that I waited it out, but it was painful. I have a number of students in the class whom I had last year, students who I know have something to say from reading their blogs, and yet, there was nothing. We finally got through a list, and their job over the weekend (I didn’t want to call it homework) was to participate in a discussion (online) about each of the elements we need to decide on, offering ideas, brainstorming, and, you know, discussing. Communication, I reminded them, is a key element in making this class work.
My other class was better; I barely had time to get the question out of my mouth when a hand shot up and said: “Grading! How will we be graded?” We all laughed. This class had already proposed to break off into smaller groups, and each group would/should have a technologically savvy person in it to guide communication and innovation. They also want me to agree to learn something; one student offered to teach me how to weld. Another student asked if we were limited to our physical classroom in which to hold our meetings. We got threw the list and they, too, had the responsibility of discussing their preferences online so that next week, we can start narrowing our options and making choices. 
The discussion, thus far, at 9:30 PM on Sunday night, has been a relative failure. Very few students have even post or participated. I created an internal wiki to share other innovative class and project ideas, so they could be inspired (I know, make it all public! I’m working on it; most of this is really, really new to me, too). I’m not even sure anyone has looked at it. Most of the suggestions that were made were vague and not well articulated (We should read about Class, Poverty, and Wealth because it looks interesting). I was ready to throw in the towel, declare this whole experiment a failure when I took a step back and remembered that this is really, really new for them, too. No one has ever asked them their opinion on what they should learn or why they should be learning it. While I might have been completely exhilarated by the opportunity as an undergrad, I was a massive dork (still am, obviously). My students will need a little more patience and guidance before they believe that this is for real and that this can and will work. 
I also have to remember that I no longer run on a student’s clock. Did I honestly expect an excited and intelligent exchange of ideas by 2 PM on Saturday afternoon, the first weekend of the school year? I did, and there is my problem. As the weekend has drawn on, the discussion has gotten more interesting, and more people have posted. I half-expect to wake up tomorrow morning and find that the whole class has been decided while I slept (not likely, but you get the idea). The whole idea of this class is to let the students run the show. Of course the students aren’t going to work at the same times I would do my own work and preparation for the course. I need to readjust my expectations to meet their reality. My only fear is that they won’t give themselves enough time to actually discuss; they will just post something and forget about it. 
Communication, true honest communication that represents an exchange of ideas, is something that is completely foreign to these students, both outside, but especially inside, the classroom. When I told them that I had commented on each of their blog posts, they stared at me in disbelief. It never occurred to them that one of the great strengths of social media and other technologies is to truly level the playing field between professor and student. I am just one voice in a sea of voices all sounding off on the issues in this course. The work that they produce isn’t simply to earn a check mark or credit towards a letter grade at the end of the semester. We’re all readjusting our expectations, and these things take time. 
Time, and patience. And, the strength not to lose faith at the first sign of trouble. 

Peer-Driven Learning: The Challenges of Letting Go of Control

Tomorrow is my first day of crowdsourcing my course, or, perhaps more accurately, working with my students to create a peer-driven course. We had our first class(es) on Monday, where I introduced the concept and we went through the syllabus, such as it was. I assigned two posts from Cathy Davidson’s HASTAC blog, as well as the Paulo Freire essay on the banking concept of education included in their reader, in an attempt to inspire and challenge them, to help them see things a little differently. 

First, the good news. One of my classes seemed really excited about the possibilities. I could see them smiling and nodding their heads and wheels starting to turn. One of the students (he took me for both of his English classes last year) has already emailed me about “contract grading” and if we could do something like that in the class (my response, after shrieks of joy, was to say that it was up to the class and if he thought it was something we should do, then make the argument). Tomorrow, I’m going to use a text messaging instant survey service to gage my students’ attitudes and see where we stand on some general issues in the course. I am very excited about this. No one has seemed to have dropped my course (yet).
Now, the less good news. My other class showed little enthusiasm and looked more terrified than invigorated by the possibility of deciding the direction of the course. I feel unmoored by this experience; usually, I’d have my first two weeks of classes down cold and I could skate through the first few weeks on my charm and well-practiced lectures and exercises. Now, I’m completely without a rudder. And, apparently, relying on heavy-handed, cliched symbolism. I have a plan, but I don’t want to have too much of a plan, in case I fall back on my well-trained habit of lecturing and steering the course where I think or would want it to go. 
And I, too, am terrified. There are few places in my life where I feel completely and totally comfortable; one of those places is the pool, another is in front of the classroom. When I stepped in front of a class for the first time to really teach, it didn’t take long for the nerves to disappear and for me to feel like I was right where I was supposed to be, right where I wanted to be. In the same way I had always felt “right” in the pool, I felt “right” while teaching in front of the class. This is a rare feeling for me. I’ve always felt slightly awkward, slightly out of place. Even in academia, I don’t quite fit (that’s one of the things that Bad Female Academic has been about). But put me in front of a group of students and tell me to teach them…
Maybe it’s because I was in a position of authority and (relative) control; so much of my life growing up felt outside of my control that it was nice to finally be somewhere where people respected me, listened to me, and (dare I say it) had to do what I said. Don’t get me wrong, I never took that for granted or took advantage of my position of authority, and I work hard to make sure that I deserve my students’ respect. But that power, the feeling of being in control, it’s something that I am already worried about missing. 
I know this will make me a better teacher. But will that be as personally fulfilling to me? This is a selfish, selfish question to ask, but I think it’s a question we need to ask ourselves as educators because this could be one of the reasons we are so resistant to radically changing how we teach. There is a sense of fulfillment and pride in seeing our students learn and succeed. But, if we’re really honest with ourselves, there are other reasons why we teach, more personal, more selfish reasons. Those reasons often remain hidden, unexamined. 
I am giving up a large portion of the control in my class. I am re-learning how to assert my authority in ways that don’t involve dictating what my students need to do and when. And it’s really, really hard and really, really scary. 
I must be doing something right, then. 

Now You See It: Get This Book. Right Now.

I finally finished Cathy Davidson’s new book Now You See It. It comes out today (August 18th). I am so glad that I decided to adopt this book for my Freshman Writing class on “The Future.” I am excited and invigorated by the hopeful and optimistic tone that the book takes. This is a book that everyone should read. 

Everyone. 
But, here’s a list of the most important people who should read the book, and why.
1) Educators: This book outline where education reform needs to go, and for those educators who are already there (or desperately trying to get there) who face opposition or derision from administrators or parents, this book is your justification. We love “science” and Davidson makes sure that she has enough science to back up her claims about the benefits of things like social media, video games, and collaboration, to convince even the hardest skeptic. Teachers should assign it to students, it should be adopted as the campus-wide book assigned to students and faculty to read and discuss. 
2) Parents: All of that hang-wringing about how we’re raising our kids? It ends here. It might depress you to know that your child’s school is nowhere near as relevant as it could or should be in order to prepare them for whatever the future economy is going to look like, but at the same time the message (or one of the messages) that I take away is that it’s never too late. I’m making it sound like Davidson advocates a truly laissez-faire style of parenting, but what she explains is that those habits that we chide or don’t understand in this technological age are not to be feared, but embraced. That, and that we should learn from our children about those things that we don’t understand. Not what we want them to tell us, but what they are really saying.
This book is all about getting us to pay attention, to disrupt our perception of the world so we can learn something new and truly change and (to a certain extent) evolve. There was a passage towards the end of the book that brought tears to my eyes:

To believe that the new totally and positively puts an end to the old is a mistaken idea that gets us nowhere, neither out of old habits nor finding new ones better suited to the demands of that which has changed. John Seely Brown calls the apocalyptic view of change endism. Endism overstates what is gone…When I talk to my students about the way we select the worlds we see in our everyday life, they often ask how they can possibly possibly change the way they see. It’s easy, I always answer. I’ll assign you the task of seeing differently. And you will. That’s what learning is.

I needed to read that tonight, staring down the reality of trying to teach my course differently, in order to get the students to see things differently. I’ll be writing a more detailed review later, but I wanted a chance to be emotional, a little hyperbolic, and effusive in my praise for this book.

Buy this book. It will change your life because it does exactly what Davidson does with her students. She assigns you the task of seeing things differently in this book. It is a book that demands to be re-read, reflected on, and discussed. I hope you buy it, share it, talk about it, and have the courage to allow it to change you.

And remember, if you’re on Twitter talking about it, use the tag #NowUCit.