Wireless Weekend Reflections, Part 1: Losing My Words

As I mentioned in my last post, last week I ended up in the hospital for what we feared was a stroke. The symptom? I was no longer able to speak coherently. All of a sudden, what I meant to say and what I actually said no longer matched up. I was playing with the kids at the preschool, and suddenly, nothing I was saying to them made any sense. It wasn’t gibberish, but it wasn’t related to what I we were doing or talking about. Thankfully, kids are more accepting of silliness, so they were easily dissuaded from asking too much about what was wrong, and I was wearing sunglasses so no one could see the abject terror in my eyes. My head had been hurting and so I had previously texted my husband to come and pick us all up. By the time he got there, all I could manage to (haltingly) say was: can’t talk. He promptly took us home, scared one of his colleagues into coming over and babysitting, and we were off to emergency.

I was shaking and crying, full of panic and dread. My thoughts still seemed coherent, but the words couldn’t or wouldn’t come out of my mouth, at least not with a great deal of effort. Talking, you may imagine, has always been one of my strong suits. While others shuddered at the thought of doing presentation, speeches, or, say, an oral comprehensive exam, I run straight to them. A high school teacher once gave me a back-handed comment when I volunteered to read my writing, and she exasperatedly exclaimed, “Oh, you always make your writing sound better than it is.”  I teach, in part, because it involves public speaking, which I am very good at. What if I couldn’t talk anymore, at least not with ease?
I was losing my words. I couldn’t express myself. If I was having a stroke, what else would I lose? My other metal faculties? My memory? My intellect? After ten years, heck, thirty years of developing my brain and finally being able to really use it in a meaningful way, what would it mean to lose it? I recently wrote that ignorance is bliss, but, when faced with a very real possibility that I was about to once again have ignorance force upon me, I lost all bearing. This could not be happening.
(Looking back, I wasn’t worried in the least about either the loss of my physical faculties or losing the memory of my husband or kids. I was athletic in the water, but I have never been particularly adept on land, and while I have no doubt that any physical disability would be hard, it isn’t my most prized skill set with loads of money invested in it. My husband and kids, on the other hand, is much more troubling. Part of it, I think, has to do with the idea that “love” would transcend any sort of mental loss, which I know to be false. I’m still working through that question.) 
Who would I be if I was no longer a teacher, writer, educator, thinker? Would I lose my ability to speak, but still be able to read and write? Would I still be a quick study and enjoy pondering and asking questions, or would I stop being able to learn new things and form new ideas? What would be left of me? And a realization that I am not proud of ran through my mind: I could turn into my “worst” students. Or at least, the worst stereotype we have of our worst students. It was more than I could handle. When the doctor told me that my CAT scan was clean and that it was probably “just” a migraine, I wept with relief. 
I still have my words. But I am now at a loss as to what I am going to do with them. And I chose, in part, to be quiet for a few days. 

A Weekend, Unplugged

Sundown Friday saw the start of National Day of Unplugging. I didn’t know anything about that when I decided, on Thursday, to unplug as much as possible over the entire weekend, starting at about noon on Friday. Events this past week have left me…unmoored, and I needed time to think about what happened and what I want to do with the information. Some of it I will write about here. Other things will be referred to vaguely, much later, for fear of my job. 

It started last Saturday when I stepped on a rusty nail in our backyard and ended up in the ER to get a tetanus shot. While the money would be reimbursed by my insurance company, a mix-up over my “official” name on the insurance made me pay my deductible out-of-pocket. Leaving me no money to attend this weekend’s THATCamp Southeast. I was fully intending to “attend” virtually, but when I landed in the ER again on Wednesday, this time with symptoms that could have meant I was having a stroke (it wasn’t; best guest is it was a migraine), I wasn’t sure I had the mental strength to attend virtually a conference I really had my heart set on attending. 
A few other events not related to my physical health forced me to think about what Faber, the old English professor in Fahrenheit 451, says to Montag about books: it’s about the time we take to think about what they have to tell us. I needed to take the time to unplug and think about what had happened to me over the past week, and even the past year. Without Twitter as an “easy” outlet for my venting and without the blog to allow me longer rants and rambling. Without the pages and pages and pages and pages of writing on education, higher education, and everything else to distract me with “meaningful” and “useful” reading. I love the people and blogs I follow, but this weekend, I needed to be with my own thoughts for a little while.
I’ll admit I didn’t unplug completely. An entirely different post is needed on the expectations placed on modern professors to be accessible at all times to their students’ via email or other electronic contact mechanism, but I had required that my students complete an online reading quiz over the weekend, and Blackboard is notoriously buggy (to put it nicely). And I didn’t want to return on Monday to piles and piles of email in my personal inbox. So I checked my email a few times a day. But I turned the wireless off my computer and ignored all of the vibrations on my phone. 
I also didn’t do any grading (even though I should have), nor did I do any reading for my class. I watched as little TV as possible. This weekend was all about my mental health. I went for a hike on Friday afternoon. I finally finished reading a novel I had been trying to get through (it was amazing). I wrote, long-hand, about ideas for a personal research and writing project. I baked. I played with my kids, a lot. I spent time actually talking with my husband (as opposed to right now where we are working next to each other). All of it was an attempt to try and figure out, what next? 
I still don’t have any answers. But it did feel good to take the time for myself. I’m hoping that I’ve gotten enough distance from the events of last week to begin to write about them. I can’t wait to read about everything that happened at THATCamp. I have briefly looked at my Google Reader and see a long (and interesting) reading list awaits me; Dr. Davis is blogging at a conference, which is always a treat! And, I think I might have finally found something interesting and not academic to research and write about. 
Absence makes the heart grow fonder (gag!), and I miss you all terribly. I hope you’ll come with me this week as I try to work through what going on. This time, back online.

How and What Do We Keep (and What Do We Lose) in the Digital Age?

My grandmother used to clip and save everything; it wasn’t a successful reading session if she hadn’t marked off at least two pictures she wanted to eventually paint and clipped an article that she thought one of her daughters, grandchildren, or friends would be interested in reading. When I went away to university, I used to get letters from her that contained articles that mentioned my old high school, my old swim team, or future job possibilities, among other things. I always loved getting those letters. 

I also have very clear memories of my grandmother wanting to show me an article or picture she had found and being completely unable to find it among the piles and piles of magazines and newspapers. She was in no way “drowning” in her magazines and papers; she recycled out what she didn’t need or want every week. And once she had showed you what she wanted you to see, out it would go. But my grandmother used to get so frustrated when she knew exactly what she was looking for but could not for the life of her find it.

I wonder sometimes how my grandmother would be in this more digital age; would she be emailing me links, bookmarking page upon page in Delicious? Would she still get overwhelmed, even without the physically piles and pages, and lose what it is she is looking for? I’m not very good at bookmarking links, marking tweets as favorites, or starring emails; I tend to get overwhelmed and purge frequently. I also figure that if I need it, I can google it. And then, I, like my grandmother, couldn’t find an article I knew existed. I knew what site it from (nas.org), and I knew what it was about (the university of the future), but I didn’t have the right keywords in order to find it (kept searching university and future, rather than Academic things to come).

Thank goodness for Twitter.

An article about teaching students about how much the internet remember about them and the value of erasing parts of ourselves from the net got me thinking about how much is gained and lost, remembered and forgotten, in this digital age. I’ve worked with archives for my dissertation research, and the idea that these letters and manuscripts could be more readily and easily available both excites and dismays me. I’m excited because, hey, we all like easy access and dismays because I loved being able to hold the letters in my hand and read not just what I needed but also what was there. Having things easily indexed and searchable may be faster, but sometimes the joy is in the journey. What could be lost is something extraordinary that you weren’t necessarily looking for.

I also lament the potential loss of future archival materials because we no longer write physical letters; I know that gmail now archives EVERYTHING, but my old university email addresses did not; I’ve lost poems, important and meaningful letters, and fantastic conversations because I didn’t realize that my emails weren’t being automatically archived on the server. As I’ve already written about, I save everything I can when it comes to my informal writing; losing these emails actually bother me. I don’t think that they’ll be worth anything to any future scholar, but how many future subjects of interest’s letters have been lost because they didn’t realize that they messages weren’t automatically archived?

We also, for a time, have lost the ability to see the evolution of a piece of writing; unless you purposefully saved versions of the same draft, or the version with the feedback/Track Changes, then all we have left much of the time is the final version. Part of my research involved watching how a translation came to be, looking at various drafts, edits, and feedback the translator did and received. Google documents could allow us to watch a document be shaped and evolve, but unless we consciously save the steps, then the process will be lost.

Digitally, I’ve lost my wedding pictures when my husband’s computer’s hard drive was replaced without them first asking if he wanted a back-up of the old one. I lost all of my poetry from a period of five years because I accidentally left my diskette (yes, it was that long ago) behind in the computer lab; I don’t actually have a complete hard copy of them all, and, at the time, I didn’t have my own computer to back them up on. We have learned the hard way that ebooks can be taken away quite quickly and easily, making it hard to predict when our notes and annotations could be unceremoniously ripped from us.

Then again, I’ve had my “office” broken into when I was a PhD student (just before my final comprehensive exam) and all of my books stolen; pictures and documents can just as easily be lost in a fire, flood, or other disaster; and an irresponsible, careless, or oblivious person can just as easily throw out a physical letter as they could delete an email. My own research has gaping holes because a flood wiped out almost all of the personal papers of the author I was studying. And I also know first hand how fantastic it is to physically find something you might not have been looking for but because you had to search through everything.

As academics, whether you are a digital humanist or not, we need to pay attention and rethink how and what it is we keep and what might be lost.  

Guest Post: A Different Kind Of Trailing Spouse

This is my first guest post here at CollegeReadyWriting! This is by Heather Scarano (@HeatherScarano on Twitter), a wife, mother, professor, and wife of a college baseball coach. She blogs over at http://nobluffing.com/. I like her writing, and as a fellow trailing spouse, I wanted to share the similar and yet different kinds of challenges she faces. 
Enjoy.
There is something about the fragrance of February that I love.  A walk outside this time of year invigorates the body and encourages the soul. The freshness in the air and the smell of moist earth and wet grass are glad reminders that Spring is near. But there is something else about February that makes me happy: it marks the beginning of baseball season. 
As a college baseball coach’s wife, I look forward to February, when at last the hours, months, even years of preparation are tested in nine-inning contests of skill, speed and strategy. 
Being a coach’s wife has its benefits. I have front-row seats at the games, which I enjoy watching with my two young sons.  Each new season I am introduced to a new group of guys and have the privilege of getting to know them and their families.  I also travel to tournaments and tag along on Spring break trips to warmer, beachier places. 
Whenever our family has moved to a new college or university, we’ve found instant friendships within the institution’s athletic department.  And we have never suffered from being unknown in a new community. 
But being the wife of a coach isn’t eternally pleasant.  We move a lot.  And to places I’d frankly rather not be.  Baseball coaches and their families do not live only in sunny places like Florida, Texas or Southern California.  They live in the rural Midwest, too. 
And now that I am working at the same college as my husband, as a coordinator of a writing center and instructor of developmental English, I’m learning that the label “coach’s wife” isn’t always useful.
It is one thing when you’re not working in higher education to brush off a comment like, “So, have you always been a cleat chaser?” as immature and unenlightened, but it’s an entirely different thing when you are facing these stereotypes while at the same time trying to establish credibility in your first year of teaching.
For the record, I am not a cleat chaser.  Joe and I met during his last semester of his fifth year of college, and we did not go to school together.  The only baseball I ever saw Joe play was as an outfielder for the church softball team.  While we were dating and newly married, he worked as a landscaper, limo driver, newspaper delivery boy and Starbucks barista.  I never imagined he’d be a college baseball coach. 
I’ve also had to deal with people who suspect or infer that I am in my current position – that I got my job — because of my husband.  Maybe I ought to get around to hanging up that diploma of mine.
I’m discovering that there are other challenges as well.  For example, what do I do when two baseball players in my introduction to composition course do not complete their first writing assignment?  Do I tell their coach, who will undoubtedly chew them out, or do I handle it on my own?
One night last week, at the end of a long day and after the kids were in bed, Joe and I were sitting together on the couch.  I was venting my frustrations about the lack of motivation I was beginning to see in some of my students.  Without thinking about the possible consequences, I mentioned to Joe that his baseball players were two of several students who did not hand in the paragraph that I’d assigned.
Encouraging academic achievement and cultivating attitudes of respect are priorities for my husband.  I should’ve known what would happen next.
Later the following day Joe told me, “I buried those guys.  I embarrassed them in front of the entire team.  I asked them if they thought they should be on scholarship if they can’t complete simple assignments.”
Oops.  I wasn’t trying to get my students in trouble.  Now I felt like a tattletale.  
There are other issues I will need to figure out, too.
With the first home doubleheader of the season just days away, I’m wondering what to do if one of my baseball-player students hits a homerun, or makes a diving play at third base?
Do I stand up, yell and slap my little boys high-five, as I normally would?   Or, would it be better for me to tone it down a bit – stay seated, clap quietly and smile?  How do I transition from teacher, to coach’s wife, and back to teacher again while still maintaining boundaries and some semblance of respectability? 
Or, what if one of my students sees me in my yoga pants, or chasing my wild, two-and-a-half-year old up and down the hallways of the hotel when we are in Florida next month on Spring Break?  Will he still be able to take me seriously at 8 a.m. the next time we have class?
Despite these conundrums, I am enjoying my new career in academia.  It is not the career I envisioned for myself (I was thinking more along the lines of award-winning international journalist, read: Christiane Amanpour) but now that I’m here, I think I’m finding my niche.
Joe is in his seventh year working with college students, and I am now beginning to share his passion for these burgeoning adults.  The college years are a brief but transformative time, and as their tutor and mentor, I have a big role to play in my students’ personal development.
As an English instructor, my job is extremely meaningful.  What could be more valuable than helping students become better communicators, especially in this socially-networked, hyper-communicative world in which we now live?
I could also see my role developing into a faculty advocate for student-athletes.  What many academics fail to see, I fear, is that student-athletes may be some of the most disciplined, hard-working students of all.  The average college student does not get up for 6 a.m. workouts or spend hours in the afternoon at the gym or on the field for practice.  When the other students are at home for the semester break, at the beach for spring break, or in their beds on a snow day – the student-athletes are on campus, practicing or playing games. 
I have a mission, and it is not at all different from my husband’s — to help develop young adults into responsible, respectful, capable human beings.  Our goals are the same, though admittedly we use different means (and tactics) to get there.
Still, there is one thing that we can always agree on: February is an awesome month.  Just like the scents of the season, the sounds are hopeful, too — the trickle of melting snow dripping from roof gutters and sloshing down streets, and the cheerful songs of returning robins and sparrows as they titter in the trees. Add to these the ping of a metal bat connecting with a leather-covered, cork ball, and the thump of an 88 MPH fastball meeting the catcher’s mitt, and the ambiance of approaching Spring is complete.

“Pump Up The Volume”: Lessons about Social Media, Education, and Change

In an interesting coincidence, my post for the University of Venus about why people in higher education should blog (agency and action, people!) came out on the same day that the now-former president of Egypt finally stepped down, a product of a revolution fueled by social media. So while I read comments (ok, one comment) on the post about how futile it was to write about our anger and dissatisfaction, a dictator was brought down by that same seemingly futile anger and dissatisfaction. 
But the comment does bring up a good question: who is really listening? I would argue that if your feelings and perspective are shared by others, then you are speaking to while simultaneously creating a community, and leaving an archive that can be found and read by those who might not even know that such a community even exists. But really, at the end of the day, there is something, as I wrote, really empowering about finding your voice and finally using it honestly and authentically, even if your audience is potentially non-existent. Because you never know what could happen.

The movie Pump Up The Volume came out when I was 12 or 13 years old. It starred Christian Slater, who, at that time, was my super-dreamy dreamboat. And in this movie, more so than say Heathers, he pulled off being both rebellious and insecure, which is like candy to a 13-year-old’s fantasy life (that metaphor made no sense). Slater plays quiet, insecure Mark Hunter, a new student at a large high Arizona high school. But at night, he becomes Hard Harry, broadcasting an illegal radio show using the ham radio his parents bought him so he could theoretically talk to his old friends back on the East Coast. As Hard Harry, he behaves outrageously and says outrageous (but truthful) things, things that “the man” doesn’t want to hear (and plays awesome music; this movie was my introduction to Leonard Cohen). Mark doesn’t have an audience; he broadcasts his show for no one but himself and a theoretical audience of his peers. 

It should be noted that the movie opens with a Billy Idol wanna-be being thrown out of school, along with a couple of other rough looking teens and Hispanics. That same Billy Idol wanna-be is sitting in a field at night and happens to come across the Hard Harry Show. The news of the illicit show and shock jock (Howard Stern wasn’t yet in syndication, so I don’t even know if the term existed yet) spread like wildfire across the school (the term now would be “going viral”), with students passing around tapes of the show they made themselves. It was bedlam at the school, and soon he was Public Enemy Number One, especially after Hard Harry didn’t dissuade a student from committing suicide.
The movie ends with the FCC coming in and shutting down the “illegal” broadcasts (he didn’t have a license; which is as laughable as the EPA being the reason that the Ghostbusters were shut down). But before that happens, a sympathetic teacher, informed by questions Hard Harry was asking, uncovers the corruption and fraud going on in the high school; those students who were expelled in the opening scenes were removed because of their low tests scores but the school was still drawing state money for them. It should also be noted that Hard Harry’s father was a big-wig working for the school district who was also completely ignorant of the fraud going on under his watch. It was, in fact, the angry and lonely rants of a young teen boy that brought down the system that was failing the students.  After we fade to black, we hear a tentative female voice asking, “Is anyone out there listening?” and she is joined by a number of other young voices, broadcasting themselves, inspired by Hard Harry and the impact he had on his community. 
Now, we have blogs, YouTube, Twitter, facebook, and any number of other means of adding our voice, creating community, and affecting change. And, twenty (gulp, really, this movie is 20 years old) years later, many of the issues the movie addresses, albeit sometimes subtly, have been exploded: focus on test scores, unequal educational opportunities based on race, general fiscal corruption, and the dangers of a powerful and misguided bureaucracy. What goes viral nowadays has more to do with gross-out humor (which Hard Harry did a lot of) and pop culture. But, as we see in Egypt, there is the great potential for ordinary people using their voices for real change. I think Pump Up The Volume can teach us, ahem, volumes about the power of individuals using their voice to create change, especially in education. 
To co-opt the expression from Hard Harry: Blog Hard, everyone, Blog Hard. 

On The Outside Looking In on the Digital Humanities

*I wrote this about a month ago and it was meant for the University of Venus. But given the “debate” going on at this year’s MLA Conference (specifically the panel #openprof and #newtools, and in particular the post on the Chronicle Brainstorm blog), I thought I would share my own perspective as an “outside” looking in (and trying to figure out how I fit in).
When I started my PhD, there was a new program just getting started, called Humanities Computing. Students in the program pursued Masters degrees, taking a mixture of HuCo (as it was called) classes and classes from their “home” humanities department. There were a few students in Comparative Literature who were pursuing a Masters in HuCo. The rest of us had come from traditional literature departments, and we viewed our HuCo classmates with curiosity. What, exactly, are you doing?
One student analyzed a short story according to how many times certain words occurred in the story and at what points. He proudly showed us the graphs he plotted and showed that the graph exactly pinpointed the climax of the story. We all nodded impressively, but wondered to ourselves if you couldn’t figure it out with a good close reading. We also wondered how this could possibly compare to the complex theoretical readings we were doing, which was obviously more intellectually strenuous.
One thing stuck with me, though. When I asked the HuCo student what he could do with his degree, he told me that he had already received a number of lucrative job offered. The technological and analytical skills he was acquiring was in high demand. So much for our intellectual superiority.
There has been an explosion in interest in the digital humanities. Say what you will about the decline in traditional print media, but it still stands to reason that when the old Grey Lady, the New York Times, features something, it means it has hit the mainstream. And so it would seem that the digital humanities have hit the big time, such as it is. (And yes, I do see the irony in this).
Despite my initial condescension towards (one) idea of what digital humanities is, my own dissertation benefited from the increased digital availability of electronic archival resources. I would never had known about the various archives I visited, in which I found never-before analyzed letters and drafts, had it not been for the electronic availability of searchable archive databases (and Google). And, while I loved going through the old letters and manuscripts, if the materials had been completely digitized, I would have been able to avoid taking out a $10,000 line-of-credit in order to pay for the travel to the archives so I could complete my research.
But some skepticism still remains. Recently, a video made the rounds, questioning the sanity of any student who would look to do a PhD in Political Science. The student wants to study politics; the professor warns that the student will spend his days doing “regression discontinuity.”  My husband has a PhD in Political Science and I know first-hand the pressure he faced to do more quantitative research, rather than the qualitative work that he loves. I worry that this is the direction that the digital humanities will take all of the humanities.
I love the idea of making documents (aka data) of all kinds more accessible to interested parties (and not just “scholars”), as well as discovering more innovative ways of presenting the data. But I hope that we haven’t moved into a “post-theoretical age” in that we go back to a time where simply making an observation was good enough, even with the help of a computer.  We still need the theorists to help us interpret the increasing amount of “data” we are able to access and reorganize.  As was asked here on Inside Higher Ed, where are the humanities in the digital humanities?
Finally, I worry that there will be an even larger generation of “lost scholars” than there already is. We know the number of tenure-track jobs in the humanities is dwindling. What happens to academics whose traditional academic training has left them entirely ill equipped to compete for the new (if still tiny) number of jobs that are available. Do we go and get another PhD?  Try to radically reframe our research interests to fit a rapidly evolving field? Or just give up?
For me, I have the luxury of being able to try to adapt. Can I create a website/database that allows readers and researchers to more fully explore the inter- and intra-textual references that an author has across their writing and other artistic output, one that is crowdsoured? I have no idea. I am still on the outside of the digital humanities, trying to hack my way in (haha). But I have some stability in order to explore the theoretical questions and technical aspects of the project. What of the adjunct teaching an overload of classes at multiple institutions? I hope there’s space for all of us at the increasingly small table. 

Gotcha! How Open is too Open?

I’ll admit it. I made a mistake this past semester. It’s the kind of mistake that seems trivial at the time but can quickly escalate into a crisis. And I should know better. I’ve been warned repeatedly against making the kind of mistake that  I made. I’ve read about other professors who have made the same mistake and paid dearly for it. Yet, there I was, unable to stop myself, only seeing the error of my ways after it was perhaps too late.

I talked about politics with some of my students. 
My students are chronically unable to find my office, so twice a semester, instead of class, I have informal meeting time in my classroom where students can come and talk to me about the paper I have just handed back, the assignment they are working on, and their progress thus far during the semester. I get more students than just my office hours, but not much. This past semester, a few students hung around the classroom and started talking about politics. Let me reiterate that this was not a formal class nor was I offering a lecture. I joined in their discussion about politics. I explained the Canadian parliamentary system. We compared the Canadian Left and Right to the American Left and Right. We had been talking about education reform, and so discussed the various politics of the current wave of reform. 
I admittedly said some inflammatory things but made sure that a) I made it clear that this was only my opinion and b) I backed up those opinion with some pretty solid reasons.  I played devil’s advocate with my students and their ideas and opinions, regardless of their political views. This is my job as their teacher; to help them improve their critical thinking skills by, in one way, challenging them. They, in turn, challenged me and taught me about American and local politics. I was enjoying myself and enjoying the opportunity to get to know some of my students and to have them get to know me.
One of the students, however, was continually playing with his iPhone. It didn’t alarm me; students are almost always doing something on their phones, even when I’m lecturing, let alone when I’m having an informal discussion. But I did think it was strange that he kept holding it up periodically. Trying to get a better signal? It only dawned on me after everyone had left and I was walking home that he may have been recording me on his phone. Recording our discussions on politics. A recording that could be edited and posted on web.
Shit.
If you are at all paying attention to higher education, I don’t have to go into the recent scandals involving professors who have been video recorded and then dragged through the mud online (like him or as described here). There have been questions about how much “freedom” a professor has in their classroom, especially with organizations such as FIRE ready to pounce (and rapidly disseminate) any evidence of bias or academic misconduct in the classroom. All I need as a contingent faculty is to have my face, voice and (probably misrepresented) politics all over the blogosphere. 
So far, so good. I’ve set up google alerts for any variation of my name and my university’s name (it’s only damning if it names names) so I can (maybe) be one of the first to know if it hits. And I might just be acting paranoid because of all of the attention lately to the illicit video taping of professors. But it scared me. And it made me wonder if I would have to fundamentally change who I am as a teacher.
I have written elsewhere that what I always admired in my favorite former teachers was their openness with us; they were human beings who shared with us their personalities and showed us a little bit of their lives outside of the classroom. I want my students to know me so they feel comfortable taking chances, offering opinions and even challenging me in my class. How can I ask them to trust me if I don’t trust them? But with the risk of being taped and misrepresented, how open is too open now for me with my students? I include time in my office and when I run into them outside of class or even off campus (it’s a small town) because who knows who is watching or listening? 
I can’t let the fear of being caught (caught doing what? Offering opinions? Asking questions? Being human?) change how I teach. But I will definitely now think twice before opening my mouth to talk about politics. At least when a student is paying a little too much attention to their phone while holding it up like they’re trying to take my picture.

*I wrote this post before Christmas. Last night, I participated, on Twitter, in the MLA panel “New Tools, Hard Times: Social Networking and the Economic Crisis” (check out the backchannel here). Apparently, I’m already too open by blogging as myself. The take-away from the rise in technology in higher education? Don’t be yourself. Sorry, Academia, I can’t, I won’t, do it. 

An Admission: I am not a Geek

Out in the bloggesphere (I have no idea how to spell this and spellcheck is wholly unhelpful), there was a minor scandal in regards to Patton Oswalt’s call for Geek Culture to die because it doesn’t really mean anything anymore. The responses came fast and furious, but what stuck out to me through it all was that I really am not a Geek.

I’ve always considered myself a Geek. I was good in school, not tremendously popular, loved Star Wars, Monty Python, science fiction, Star Trek: TNG, played in the school band, and was on the debate team. I had a wide-eyed naiveté and immaturity that was increasingly socially awkward the further along in high school I got (seriously, what 15-year-old goes and sees Aladdin eight times in the theater?). Thankfully, I had a wonderful group of friends with whom I could “geek out” with. We wrote our own Star Trek: TNG scripts (fan fic, as it would be called now), had Monty Python movie marathons (with no booze or drugs) on Saturday nights, and generally did geeky, good kid things while many of our peers were out drinking at whoever’s parents were out of town/didn’t care.

But.

We weren’t the geekiest kids in high school. We didn’t play D&D, we weren’t a part of the stock market club, nor were we complete social outcasts (one of our core group went on to be senior class president). And while I was in the band, I wasn’t really a band geek, a la “This one time, at band camp…” I didn’t know how to speak Klingon, didn’t know what Middle Earth was (seriously), and was generally wary of those who, you know, seemed a little too invested in these things.

There was one area where I totally geeked out: swimming. My friends at school tolerated it, but I was obsessed with swimming. I never noticed my friends’ eyes glazing over while I talked about the sport. But I was even too much of a swimming geek for my teammates; my passion for the sport far outstripped my talent, and so I was that girl who killed herself swimming for no seemingly good reason. Because of my lack of talent, I was essentially bullied all through my tweens and early teens. I outlasted those naysayers, and once I was one of the team leaders, I tired to make sure that everyone felt welcome on the team; if you loved to swim, then you were embraced.

Hang in there. This gets back to teaching and higher ed.

So although I always considered myself a geek, I am quite happy to shed the title, if only because of the smug, self-satisfied, and, dare I say, elitist attitude of some of the responses to the essay calling for the death of geek culture. They, those who are outside, late to the party, wanna-be geeks, will never understand or could possibly ever call themselves real geeks. We, long-time, long-suffering, all-knowing geeks, will never bow to the mass media co-option of geek culture. And I agree that as long as there are weird (read: different), slightly obsessive, socially awkward teens, there will be geeks. To claim ownership, exclusivity, and superiority, however, is exactly the thing I hate about “geeks.”

And it is exactly that “geekiness” which can make academics insufferable and terrible teachers. Let’s face it, most professors are geeks in the sense that they are obsessed with their academic interest, which are typically highly specialized and often obscure. You’d have to be obsessed to get through a dissertation and then the demands of the tenure-track. This obsession can go one of two ways: the passion can infuse their teaching or the obsession can fuel a feeling of superiority caused by the idea that you are a persecuted geek whom no one could possibly understand or appreciate. But, let’s face it, the obsession also makes them excellent academics.

In part because of my own history of being bullied and not letting it destroy my passion, I am the type of teacher who wants to share their passion in the classroom. I geek out about teaching. I geek out about helping students become better writers. I geek out at the opportunity to teach students about literature. I geek out when I get to turn students on to “reading” again. And God forbid anyone ask me about my current research interest, Dany Laferrière.

But, it would seem, I am not a geek about it, which makes me a great teacher, but a poor academic.

My fifty-foot paperclip made of foam rubber

My advanced-level writing students had one final assignment to do after their education reform blog posts; I asked them to design (or redesign) their own university-level course. The bulk of the assignment would be spent justifying their choices (How will it be taught? By whom? Where? How will students be evaluated? What assignments/work will students do? What are the learner outcomes?), but this assignment was an opportunity for the students to re-imagine the university course as they know it.

When we first started talking about education reform in class, I showed them Sir Ken Robinson’s animated video about changing the education paradigm. In it, he talks about divergent thinking and asks how many different uses we can think of for a paper clip. The idea is that if you can imagine the paper clip to be “fifty feet tall and made of foam rubber,” among other ways, then you are pretty good at divergent thinking (and thus are more likely to be creative). I told my students, this assignment is your opportunity to try imagine your own fifty-foot paper clip made of foam rubber and what could be done with it.
Like this class was for me.
Look, I know that for a lot of people, assigning students a blog post instead of an essay and having them read up on and write about current events isn’t groundbreaking. In fact, more often than not, my class resembled any other typical university writing class. Part of the reason is because the class is considered a general education course, and thus has to meet a whole list of university-imposed guidelines, standards, and learning outcomes. And, being a new, non-tenure-track instructor, there is only so much boat-rocking I am willing to do, just in case.

But, creating this class was still a challenge and an adventure for me. It was unlike any writing course I had taught before. I experiemented, and it seems to have paid off. Next semester, who knows what the course will look like? I’m learning as I go, and expanding what I am willing (and able) to do. I’m also hoping that my students will offer some ideas in their assignments.

Their ideas for courses sound great so far. One student thinks it would be a good idea to offer a cooking class for Freshmen. Another wants there to be a general education course in debating, to teach students how to argue and listen effectively and not just yell at each other. And yet another wants to bring students out into the field to do local sociological studies. I am eager to see how they imagine delivering the course; will it be the same-old lecture-essay-test format that so many of the class they have taken use, or will they try to move beyond that?

I told my students that I was going to miss them and this class when the semester ends next week. The course wouldn’t have been nearly as successful if they hadn’t been willing to come along with me for the ride. I had two sections, forty students, who have worked really hard and have been fantastically receptive to my crazy ideas. Part of my goal in this class was to show them what their education could be. I think that another small goal was to show myself, too.

Seconds Thoughts about Blogging, Part II

My students have handed in “final” drafts of their blog posts. I put the final in quotation marks because the post isn’t final until it goes online. But even then, because the student can go in and modify it as much as they want (as can I, but I’m going to restrain myself, intruding only to fix broken links and other formatting issues), it is never really “final.” More about writing and publishing on the Internet that I need to get used to. Publishing anything online is permanent in that it is almost impossible to get rid of, but never concrete in that it can be edited, modified, and reshaped. So much to think about, teach, and learn.

But I digress. I have now read and assigned preliminary grades to my students’ blog posts on education reform. Most of them are pretty good. Some are better than others, both in terms of their ideas and their style. Lots of bitterness about standardized tests and poor teacher quality (keep in mind, these students are mostly the product of rural schools). Some didn’t follow directions, and others let their emotions get the best of them. A few, however, have made me once again re-evaluate the idea of putting these posts online, theoretically, for the world to see.
One of my students argued that we can solve the problems of urban education by creating public boarding schools. Another compared the cultures of different races to show that we don’t need education reform but we instead need to reform cultures. Yet another accused all teachers of being lazy alcoholics who have serious mental issues. 
Uh-oh.
Interestingly enough, we had spoken (albeit briefly) about the idea of residential schools when we watched the trailer for the documentary Schooling the World.  Is our only understanding of what it means to be educated sending our kids to school? But we also talked about the challenges that schools and teachers face in overcoming the issues and challenges that students face outside of school. Taking the kids away from their families, though?
I promised the students that I wasn’t going to be evaluating their actual suggestions but instead how well they argue the reform they propose. But it was hard to stomach a proposal that looked to recreate one of North America’s darkest chapters, the residential schools. When I was a PhD student, I taught a man who had been a product of the residential school system in Canada. He told me stories about his experience there, and I couldn’t help but think of him as I read about my student’s grad plan for reforming urban schools (get rid of them and send them all to the country). 
And I cringe at what kind of reception an idea like that will receive when it goes live online, both for me and the student. Part of me thinks that I have obviously failed at teaching some of these students the critical thinking skills, or knowledge acquisition skills, they need. Will people reading the blog think these reforms are all ones that I advocated for in class (disclaimer, they aren’t)? Will my student be equipped to deal with the possible mean and vicious backlash that the post will inspire?
But part of me is also proud that I created a classroom environment where students feel like they can take intellectual chances and possibly “fail.” There was something refreshing about reading a few essay that weren’t about how terrible standardized tests are or how awful their teachers were in high school. As misguided as I think their ideas are, some students genuinely tried to think outside of the box for this assignment. For that, I am proud.
But, I’ll let you, dear readers, be the ultimate judge. Visit edreformbyundergrads.wordpress.com. My ego can take it. But go easy on the students. I know the road to hell is paved with good intentions, my students really do mean well. There will be posts appearing throughout the week. Keep visiting or follow me on Twitter (@readywriting) for up-to-the-minute updates.