Damn kids these days…

Image of a kid playing terrorist

One of the greatest plagues of the educational blogosphere is the whole idea of labeling generations of learners in these pre-fabricated categories of millennials, digital natives, immigrants, NetGens, or what have you. Now I have no more evidence that these terms are harmful, as the innumerable people who insist on using them have that they are remotely useful. That said, if you are in education and you spend a lion’s share of your time thinking about teaching, learning and scholarship, than what use would it be to frame a whole generation of people under a banner that simply reinforces the obvious: computers are ubiquitous in the wealthy, Western world for distributing information, and we have to wrestle with that if we are serious about education. That’s it in a nut shell, we can theorize the import of this cognitive process over that, and imagine how the brain is being “re-wired” as we frame the various populations out their as experimental subjects, or we can actually engage the process through the tools that are available.

I often find the educational theories to be less than compelling, and I tend to fall back on either one of two things: “literature” and movies (I put literature in quotes here because there is no real term for literature to describe a wide range of tastes as there is for film with a less loaded term like movies). Those things drive me, and while theory can be fun, it is often a way of helping me get excited about things I already love, like literature and movies. So, I have been pretty blown away by a blog I have been reading lately (more on that later), and it got me thinking about a lot of these issues, more specifically, it got me thinking about Jon Udell’s post “The once and future university.” I actually find myself coming back to this post regularly when thinking about these issues, particularly because it examines the space of a college education as a kind of unique experience “outside of the flow of normal time.” The other quote I remember from the post actually comes from Rick Perlstein’s NYT Magazine article “What’s the matter with college?” Following is the quote I am referring to:

You used to have to go to college to discover your first independent film, read your first forbidden book, find freaks like yourself who shared, say, a passion for Lenny Bruce. Now for even the most provincial students, the Internet, a radically more democratic and diverse culture …. take care of the problem.

The idea that rung true for me here is that college is traditionally understood as a space outside of the “flow of normal time” because it allows you to be a freak and makes possible the conditions for the discovery and sharing of mind-bending, off-the-wall, and generally cool stuff. That is one of the best and hopeful definitions of what college might be, yet it begs the question whether it is limited to the physical space of a campus as it once was? If this experience is premised on a connection between people, ideas, and culture that frame a series of personal relations around meanings and ideas, we are beginning to see other ways, in their infancy mind you, in which this connections can be re-imagined and re-mapped. Yet, what is essential is the ability to foster and sustain an open and tolerant marketplace for ideas that might encourage others to passionately dig into things alongside others who provide camaraderie, guidance, feedback, and enthusiasm. Moreover, a willing and intrepid interdisciplinary engagement with one’s culture in all its liberal art facets, which includes politics, sociology, economics, science, literature, film, philosophy, religion, art, drama, etc.

Yet, there is a fine line here to walk when talking about college, learning, and some kind of cultural rite of passage. I discovered this for myself while an undergraduate, for while I enjoyed taking a 20th century British literature survey course, I found it infuriating when my professor stood up in front of 300 people and suggested that reading T.S. Eliot’s “Wasteland” made us all somehow different, an act that would make the transition back into the world “you all left behind” difficult. Such a relationship to experiences and learning seemed, at least for me, to dangerously flirt with the idea of culture and passion as an intellectual rite of privilege, difference, and ultimately power. Once you walk down that road, where does it end? Does the fact I took a seminar on Joyce’s Ulysses make me anything other than a masochist steeped in ironic modernist propaganda of art as salvation and artist as deity (a modern malady only cured by a Samuel Beckett sponsored rehab)? While I think literature and movies are great and all, I hate that they are often leveraged for some kind of invidious distinction, rather than a means to a transcendent (or just psychedelic) communion and commonality.

Image from Let Us Now Praise Famous MenThe passage by Perlstein captures this idea of passionate communion over ideas and unique cultural connections that arguably lie marginal to the canon, but this same energy is without question at the center of the greatest works in the Western Canon as well. James Agee nailed this in the introduction to his and Walker Evans’ masterpiece Let Us Now Praise famous Men when he insisted that what we so often praise and place on a pedestal in terms of art loses the impact it made when people first read, watched, or listened to it. The act of engaging in a work is an act of mental and bodily submission. He then calls for a re-reading of Shakespeare or a re-listening of Beethoven. If you want to re-acquaint yourself with these works and their revolutionary spirit you have to put Beethoven’s Seventh on the phonograph and “turn it up loud” and then “get down on the floor” and “jam your ear as close into the loudspeaker as you can get it and stay there, breathing as lightly as possible, and not moving, and neither eating nor smoking nor drinking.”

You won’t hear it nicely. If it hurts you, be glad of it. As near as you will ever get, you are inside the music; not only inside it, you are it; your body is no longer your shape and substance, it is the shape and substance of the music.

Without the book on hand, I quoted from here.

This is a book I have to return to because I think Agee’s notion of internalizing the work so that it doesn’t ever become and object of distinction to beat others with over the head is essential to an honest education. Rather, the moment provides an opening for rapture and revolution. For me, that is the idea of an education, a losing oneself within a thing and believing, if only for a time, and pushing it beyond a limit. How do we measure this? Does the fact that we have more information than ever at our fingertips change this? Are educational theories themselves always already poisoned by a systemic view of learning?

Probably, and that finally brings me to my small point. It isn’t only in the experience of putting your head to the loudspeaker that such moments occur, it’s in sharing the experience out and taking a risk on trying to relate, or even narrate, what you saw or heard or felt in your own imaginative way. And this is what I have been experiencing lately with Brad Efford’s Judges 5:27, a blogger who is consistently blowing my mind in some powerful ways. Now some might call him a netgener, or even a millennial, or a native, or some other offensive term that would only further distance the moment of communion that is ripe and ready. But all that nonsense is besides the point when you interact, spend time with, and forge a relationship beyond the meager boundaries of age, education, and degrees. A space that Perlstein hints at, and which exists as interstitial moments of sharing the freaky thoughts that thrill us, or the narratives that creatively dog us.

Brad Efford has been doing this with impressive regularity over the past months, and just this past week or two he has stepped it all up a notch. And while his blog intersects with classes and projects at UMW as needs be, it is the platform of a thinker who is sharing such experiences freely (by this time I have talked about him enough that I am bordering on just plain annoying, or maybe even cyber-stalking), but I find it important to my sense of this space as something more than a technologist. For an integral part of what we must be doing is pushing the boundaries of engaging, communicating and encouraging a networked approach to openly thinking and sharing ideas and interests. This is the crux of the changing role of instructional technologists, and we need to be focusing on this reality rather than the getting wholly sucked back into the technical tool talk. Why aren’t we forming communities around ideas and sharing out beyond the obligatory dead celebrity post or how we did, indeed, download Firefox 3 with 8 million other people. If the educational community honestly believes that these tools are revolutionary for the future of education (and folks recite this mantra all the time like its inevitable), then why do we blog so robotically? Where are the communal connections within the institutions? Where are the academic accretions into a stark and creativity raw community of peers who are thinking about an alternative form of expression? Why do we feel the need to report?

Reporting is not the experience that will transform this space, rather I think a fearless imagining will and Brad exemplifies this beautifully. Read his post on perspective and song which illustrates the point through an amazing examination of three versions of “O Death.” His sharing on the problem of music and concerts and his own way of dealing with it. Or his philosophical ruminations about the most hopeful and bizarrely amusing de-contextualized fragments of people the internet provides us with. Or yesterday’s post, a stunningly well written narrative that frames some fascinating questions age, authority, and power I have read in a while. In fact it is the unabated energy, faith, and willingness to share creatively in this last post that inspired me to think about all of this. And it is this kind of distributed possibility outside of any classroom, but very much germane to the classroom and the educational experience, that makes these spaces the one’s that interest me most these days

My strangely long, overly righteous, and problematic point is simply that “being there” in this space in terms of the latest tools or downloads is only part of what the experimentation is about. It overlaps at points, but the idea is to form meaningful relationships around a creative sense of sharing, a freezone of imagination that will push you to continue thinking and creating long after you return to the normal flow of your job. The communities surround us, I am proud part of several of them, and they are not limited to any one classroom, but have been known to emerge there on occasion. How do we move our communities out of the often limiting logic of educational theory and the latest tools in order to span the range of ideas that will demonstrate and exemplify the power of the distributed space for learning on a wide range of axes.

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9 Responses to Damn kids these days…

  1. Jen says:

    The people harmed by the banner labels are the “immigrants.” For 10 years people have been waiting for these folks to retire or die. They’ve lumped them all into one category and given up on them. I can’t accept that. I assume that if they can read, they can learn this stuff.
    Regarding collaboration, I am constantly seeking it and sometimes it works. Today I received my admin login and server access for our new WPMU server 🙂 Someone’s paying attention and working from your reports!

  2. Brad says:

    “It overlaps at points, but the idea is to form meaningful relationships around a creative sense of sharing, a freezone of imagination that will push you to continue thinking and creating long after you return to the normal flow of your job.”

    Oh Lawdy, Jim, yes!! This is the exact kind of point I have been trying to make across so many different examinations of media; as much as I am growing to love education, I am always so frustrated by its forgotten limitless nature. There was a point last spring where my lung suddenly & without warning just shrunk in on itself, & because of the way I had grown up, the only way I knew how to deal with it was to write about it. But if you are a writer, you need an audience (an idea I am toying with & arguing vocally with myself about recently), & luckily I was in Dr. Campbell’s Film/Text/Culture class. My blog became my outlet, despite its initial foundation as a classroom assignment. It was something new, some space of my own that I hadn’t thought of before. I continued along with it, sometimes writing about class discussion, sometimes just describing as vividly as I could whatever dreams I had experienced the night before. The way I have been coming at education ever since my second semester of college has been like this:
    1. Live Life.
    2. Learn.
    3. Connect The Life Lived With the Information Learned.
    If there is a way to make a child learn without realizing they are in class, that they are just learning because it is giving them experience & maturity & stories (Oh God, this is all about gathering moments to share to your kids! I have had lengthy discussions about how I only want to live my life in a way that I can learn as much as possible so that I can pass every moment I live down to my children. & then they will pass it to their children, & so on. The beauty of education is not that we are learning, but that we are growing up through our moments of educational exchange! If I can influence someone’s life while at the same time having them influence my own – this is the life well lived!) – if there is a way to do this, I will discover it & kids, we twentysomethings, we will grow to know better & we will not make mistakes!
    (But ha! Do you see how impossibly naive this is? & that is why education is so necessary, why it is so beautiful! You don’t live to learn; you learn to live. I am so adamant about this issue!) Thank you for this post!

  3. Andrea says:

    Ever read any John Holt? 😉 Also look up unschooling, but try not to be scared off by the radical unschoolers who also un-parent.

    Brad’s onto something, but I don’t think it’s naive at all. I know it works.

    For example: think of a child who has grown up in an environment where they are encouraged to follow their natural inclination to amass as much knowledge as they can. A baby starts out this way, so does a toddler. only when they become school-age we start putting up walls around them, insisting it be done this way or that or let’s try the latest new thing in teaching.

    how ’bout we answer their questions? We let them explore? We act as a mentor and facilitator, not treating them as an empty vessel that needs to be filled with our pompous idea of “we’re smarter because we’re bigger”.

    And I think you and I both still have this sense of learning all the time, taking things apart to see how they work, let’s remove or tweak this bit of code to see what happens. *That’s* what I’m talking about and that’s the kind of thing that gets snuffed out in a lot of kids – too dependent on someone else telling them what they should think, how they should learn. Fill in this box, circle these letters, pass this test now you can forgot what was so important last week.

    Your edu-punk-ness is starting to mesh up with the educational anarchy and the unschooling slant of some homeschoolers. 🙂

    And I just wanted to add with my youngest, I recently realized I did accomplish something important – she has no idea that there are “school” books and regular books. To her, you learn from all kinds of books. She thinks workbooks are hysterically funny, answering all those silly questions. (She’s 7.5)

  4. Barbara says:

    Ah, Jim, I leave the country for a few weeks to return to this cascade of excellent posts from you (love the whole edupunk conversation. It’s going to take weeks to think through all of your points, your questions, your riffs.

    What you, and Brad, and Andrea write about here touches upon much of what always bothered me about teaching within a formal institution of education (I thought for a time that I could quietly subvert the same-old same-old by refusing the mantle of expert and the regimentation of learning, and that it was essential to do that from within the industry itself). Now that I see real potential for a radically different approach from sequestering 5-to-22-years olds from the world for hours a day/week/month/year/decades/childhood to “learn” according to authority-produced and scripted curricula, I’m jumping out of school and into something far messier: overlapping, intersecting learning communities with as many approaches, styles, ideas, questions, and answers as we can get. No educational theory will be touted, no tools pushed. No one-size fits all approach. And no isolation either.

    What you say about communities, and your final question about formal learning communities in particular: “How do we move our communities out of the often limiting logic of educational theory and the latest tools in order to span the range of ideas that will demonstrate and exemplify the power of the distributed space for learning on a wide range of axes” is right on target. Looking forward to seeing how you explore possible answers.

    And I love what you say about the difference between reporting and imagining–sharing our wildest ideas, daring to imagine and to think beyond what we thought we could, playing, questioning, being okay with making a mess of things from time to time. Thanks for such a lovely, thought-provoking read in post after post.

  5. Brad says:

    This is all so fascinating for me because I feel like I am kind of a spy here, the non-educator in a sphere of educators (though I do not profess to know everyone’s profession here, I think I am right in guessing I am the student among us?). I love taking all this in, learning about learning, but not because I am building plans to use all these ideas in an educational environment. Rather, because I am a student, these ideas are able to filter through me to become a part of my own school-work. Whereas an educator might say, “Let’s use blogs as a medium for writing output in the classroom,” as a student my role has been to say, “Hell, let’s deconstruct the blog & use it for everything! Writing assignment? Hell, if you’re gonna make this informal, I can tear this apart.”
    You see, my point here is that the role between educator & student is so vital, & perhaps is something we are missing out on. The educator should not just be looking for new ways to push the “edupunk” envelope, so to speak, but should be finding out how to make the student extend their educational experiences outside the classroom. In my mind, the educator should not be an educator at all! S/he should just be a catalyst for the student movement! You can teach & expand ways of teaching, but encouragement of ideas & elaborations on concepts are more key to a student’s life than a book or a lecture or a blog. I applaud the educator who shakes things up & is able to work off the cuff to incorporate any idea, any hand-raise into something bigger, something beyond their planned notes. Then again, where do I stand to say something like this? I am the student here, maybe I should be the one bending over backwards to conform to the educator’s style or lesson.
    How fascinating all of this is to me!

  6. Andrea says:

    I’ll out myself as a homeschooler of 14 years. 🙂 3 of my 4 children have never attended formal schooling of any kind.

    The oldest had 2 years of public school in grades 6 & 7, and then he went to a 2 year college and is currently on a work term. He did fabulous.

    2nd oldest just “graduated” and is again job-hunting to save for college.

    And yes, they get plenty of socialization. Our house is loaded with books, librarians know us by name and they are always asking question (which we answer).

    So that’s the point of view I’m coming from. 🙂

  7. Andrea says:

    Darn, got a good thought after hitting submit: In short, we’re a family that sees ourselves as students of life.

  8. I.T. Happens says:

    Dear Mr. (the very Reverend) Jim Groom,

    we regret to inform you that, due to your recent rash of long and overly thought provoking posts, you are in danger of being permanently removed from the central aggregator of the National Union of Instructional Technologists (or NUIT, pronounced Knew-It).

    Not only are you making some of our older “digital immigrants” nervous, your recent rants are creating uncomfortable stirrings within our younger “net gens” who are starting to talk amongst themselves and fraternize outside of regular working hours. This cannot be tolerated as it directly contravenes section 802.11b of the NUIT bylaws that prohibit such networking.

    We respectfully request that you return to ranting about WPmU and all things Netflix. We will all feel more comfortable that way.

    Yours in perpetual anxiety,

    I.T. Happens,
    National Union of Educational Technologists and Co-chair of the Society for Recovering LMS Administrators

  9. Reverend says:

    I can only imagine the beauty of you behind a WPMu initiative, you have a whole bunch of very lucky faculty and students. As for the “digital immigrants” being the victims, I definitely agree, but I would argue that the “digital natives” are just as likely to be turned off and scared away from such terminology. It almost forces them to make fun of us 😉


    You’re a rockstar, and this quote of yours prove it: “as much as I am growing to love education, I am always so frustrated by its forgotten limitless nature.”

    Exactly, where is this idea of limitless nes you refer to, that is the key to the wonder of such a process. Without it, we might as well be breaking up rocks on the side of the road. In many ways, my work here has brought that idea of limitless possibilities closer to my soul than anything I have do up and until now, and it is a pretty intense fire.

    As to the question of the term (or is it the idea) “educator” getting in the way somehow, I agree. And correct me if I’m wrong, but one of the things I have seen in Gardner’s classes is the ability to catalyze thought that is not tied to any one text, ideology, or way of reading. He seems to galvanize passion and multiplicity, which is a unique and powerful combination. When I saw th image of you in the hospital last Spring, I was kind taken back and blown away all at once. I oddly never expected ayone to be so bold, yet I knew when I saw it that that was what it is all about. You’ve been pushing the blogging boundaries for well over a year now, and whether you like it or not you have been an integral part of this conversation for me. And that is where the blurring of relationships, roles, and age needs to happen, and when it does I think the sense that we are doing something elsee, whatever we call it, become apparent.


    I knew you were a home schooler because I follow the atypical life, and I saw your comments on Downes’ post about home schooling. y wife and I were fascinated by that discussion, and I think it is an entire element of this world that gets somewhat ignored (and I plead guilty to that). I cringe when I think about all my over-the-top exclamations about the institution, education, etc.,and all the while there are thousands that have decided to re-imagine ducation all together and truly do-it-themselves. I think we both know that with a tool like WPMu :), you can create a rich community of students from all over the world, affording the distributed, social interaction that so many mourn with home schooling. There are some fascinating possibilities with the tools we all talk about. I have been thinking about the Downes post/video a bit, and I tend to agree that schooling depends on a community of difference that might challenge some deeply held cultural and religious assumptions so that we can begin to appreciate and struggle through identities. But I don’t think home schooling precludes this (despite the fact it is often used as a argument against it), particularly given the ubiquity of synchronous and asynchronous collaborative publishing possibilities all around us, not to mention video and audio and all kinds of other media.

    I also love that you frame this group as educational anarchsts, it makes me that much fonder of all of you! Suffice to say, I have some more reading and talking to folks like you about homes chooling, and it is a topic my family is quite interested in. Thanks for all the goodness.


    You were missed, and thanks for the kind comments. It means alot from Educations greatest renegade outlaw. During the whole EDUPUNk thing I found myself thinking a lot about you, particularly your decision to make your way outside of the instituions. For many said that EDUPUNK and education within the institutions as they are now is an oxymoron at best.

    It’s funny, because being at UMW I don’t feel the heel of the “man” on my neck at all, particularly given my boss is a woman and she is a great innovator and thinker when it comes to so many of these tools, education, and navigating administrative gridlock. But beyond that, the question of where I stand in an institution is a strange one for me I am grappling with, I love UMW, and specifically DTLT, and having seen the inner workings of another insitution I got scared and knew immediately that what we have at UMW is unique, and if it should ever disappear I might have to be walking a similar road as you. Which is economic suicide for a poor bastard like me, but I cant help but think we need another Black Mountain College!

    @IT happening

    I apologize. Truth be told, I have been off my meds. I am going to see my shrink this coming Monday, and all should be back to normal shortly. I’m truly sorry for thinking out loud in this state, and will be sure to numb myself up good for the coming years.

    In solidarity,

    The ever-good and drugged-up Reverend

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