Looking for Whitman, or “Shut the Front Door!”

Well, if I am gonna be honest with myself I have to admit that I have been a total “beauty school dropout” this semester, I have been trying hard to keep up with my various duties, but the tidal wave that is my life right now has washed away all my good intentions. In fact, while I have a bunch of very exciting things happening in my life (house, child, cable TV), I have also effectively sidelined myself from the most amazing class experience I have yet to witness in my 38 years. What professors Brady Earnhart and Mara Scanlon, along with fifteen of the most diehard Digital Whitman students have been doing at UMW is nothing short of amazing.  And while I usualy like to be in the comfortable position of soaking up the limelight, and saying how this and that happened cause of my mad instructional technology skills, I can only humbly watch from afar with wonder at what has come forth from this experiment.

While I haven’t been blogging about the Digital Whitman class at UMW (which is part of the multi-campus Looking for Whitman experiment) nearly as much as I had intended, let me just say that it is the single most amazing example of a distributed conversation through blogging I have yet to witness. They are all going blog wild, and the conversations that are emerging both in class and spilling out in all kinds of amazing ways online is far more than I ever dreamed would come of this experiment. First of all, Mara Scanlon has turned into an  a-list blogger in my mind, just take a look at her recent posts on John Wilkes Booth and Whitman as an American Idol in popular culture—this is downright awesome blogging—and she is pumping these out almost daily.  In fact, the energy level of the entire class is amazing, look at Allison Creire’s recent post on the class trip to Washington DC—which I freaking missed because of my house—that is both intensely candid and precise about just what this learning experience has been all about:

Reflecting on this feeling of “good” and enrichment, my mind was drawn to Paulo Freire’s essay “The Banking Concept of Education”….Freire’s essay describes how limiting education can be, how the teacher/professor can fall into a pattern of narration, while the students become “containers” that mechanically memorize facts and promptly forget them after spewing them out on a test: “Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor.” This, sadly, is the mode of education that is most familiar to us. However, this course breaks that mold, nay it shatters it! What we have developed in this class is what Freire calls “authentic thinking,” which, “does not take place in ivory tower isolation, but only in communication.” Communication is our middle name; in class, students are speaking 80%-90% of the time. We are physically connecting to what we’re learning about. Instead of mindlessly “consuming” Whitman’s letters, we went out and saw them, were inches away from them. The reason we all feel personally connected to Walt Whitman is because he has become more than information and we have become more than “containers.” This is what it feels like to be a student.

And you better believe this course breaks that mold, in fact Allison’s very next post about the Whitman Lincoln platonic and unrequited  love affair was commented on by Darrel Blaine Ford, a Whitman impersonator who has been interpreting the Gray Poet for 7 decades—-as Missvirginia likes to say “shut the front door!

This past Saturday,the entire class went to Washington for a walking tour of Whitman’s DC, as well as a visit to the recently re-opened Ford’s Theatre. And as a final stop, they went to the Library of Congress archives to view various letters written by and to Whitman (including Emerson’s famous letter to the young poet as well as another form Fannie Fern), his Civil War haversack, glasses, cane, and much more they will be documenting on the Looking for Whitman Field Trips blog. It was by all accounts a transcendent experience for the class, and they were all glowing when I saw them tonight, they even did a freaking hippie group hug which is saying something—though I was excluded, damn it!!!

Something has happened in this class that is truly rare, and I think I’ve seen a sense of ownership, community, and trust amongst this group this is not only rare, but somehow new. I mean just look at them in the LOC archive looking at Whitman’s hallowed haversack:

Image credit TallerSam’s “Walt Whitman’s messenger bag”

They all know the value of what they are experiencing, and everyone of them is relishing it. The ability to view items from the archive that bring the ongoing discussions of the particular Whitman that emerges through a week’s readings into a material nexus of time and space with the actual man opens a door, and they all courageously walked through it.  I’m still on the other side of that threshhold, but I am amazed at what I can see through the cracks. This class embodies the comraderie and community that, for me, epitomizes the best of Whitman’s poetry and politik, and while I am sad I’ve been such a deadbeat, I’m absolutely thrilled to even tangentially be a part of the consuming passion that is driving this group on.  I am convinced they will each find their Whitman, and he will be both sweeter and more tender to the touch for all their critical longing that has been buttressed by a rare in the power of vision. Search on UMW Whitmaniacs, you’re in the journey, and the unfolding of your depth and breadth of America’s poet will prepare the strapping generations to come. You will breath taut life into a new nation for imagining what learning should be about, an animated a longing for serendipitous discovery that must be worked insanely hard at to truly surprise and enrich. Procreative knowledge wantonly shared in the unflinching openness of a new day.

Digital Whitman, the bava salutes you, and is your undying tech slave!

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5 Responses to Looking for Whitman, or “Shut the Front Door!”

  1. Allison Crerie says:

    SHUT THE FRONT DOOR! I was just quoted on bavatuesdays! I feel honored.

    As for Digital Whitman, I know, without a doubt, that it will be one of the few (if not the only class) I remember 20 years from now. Hell, there are some courses from my freshmen year that I’ve already forgotten (not yours, of course). Our class sums up what Mary Washington is to me, why I ADORE this school, and why I will be crying like a baby on graduation day.

    Thanks for the shout out, Groom. 🙂

  2. Aw, dearest rev! You speak so highly of us! We all realized the intensity of the project, our prof’s passion, and that it could change our lives and how we view our world. I don’t know any true student of life who wouldn’t want to be a part of that kind of experience. You should look at my blog posting for Oct. 27th, you’ll see that this class (of the entire project) may be the only one taking it so seriously. I’ll see you in an hour and a half!! Kudos on your post and making us feel loved and forgiving :))))

  3. Cole says:

    This looks like an intense experience in the making. I’ve been part of that once as a teacher and sadly none as a learner — unless you count the time as a teacher as also a learner. It is amazing to see real community emerge in a learning space … I always wonder what about the course makes something like that happen — and I know, much like you, that it has more to do with everything than with a single person’s design or technology decision.

    Please keep giving us a peek into the class … it looks transformative on lots of levels. And I’d also just stand back and marvel at great teaching and great learning — not everything is because of something else. Nice to have you back!

  4. Mara says:

    Dear Tender-hearted Beauty School Drop-out,

    Thanks for this lovely post (and the wholly unearned but exceptionally pleasing compliment). This class has been an astounding journey, one that has almost killed me in its intensity and its demands but that I can barely think of bringing to closure. (The students asked last night if we couldn’t just keep on going next spring. Here we come, Looking for Whitman conference!) Much more to come from the Whitmaniacs on the Library of Congress and walking tour, including for me a post on the dogging question, why are we brought to tears by seeing paper and leather when we see the same items digitally? . . .

    And you know even though you were dissed on the group hug that you are firmly in our company of camarado/as, twithead, so crack open a Walt Whit, strap on a beard, and jump back in.

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