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.
The 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.