Preparing for teaching in the Fall, Or the Manuscript that Ate My Summer

This is a post that I wrote in late July, but never had the chance to finish. As I have a spare moment now that the manuscript is in, but the class papers haven’t yet arrived, I’ll post it and a series of other thoughts I’ve been meaning to get out….

I’ve been feeling overwhelmed lately as I contemplate the time remaining this summer and the things I’d planned to do during the so-called summer break. The manuscript due to my editor in early September is taking longer than I thought and so many of the other goals this summer have fallen to secondary or tertiary status. This includes delving in as much detail as I’d like into responding to recent posts by Shannon, Steve, Mike, and Gardner. Most depressing to me is that I’d love to spend lots more time on my fall classes this summer, especially my new First-Year Seminar. Then came Barbara’s beautiful post (Midsummer Preparations for Fall) on what she does in the summer to create new fall classes to make feel even more behind….

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve already spent a lot of time on the fall classes, including the new one, and I’ll have it ready on time. [I think the students are really going to like it.] But I’d like to have been able to spend a good month really getting them just right (or at least closer to where I’d like them to be). But balancing my scholarship, my instructional technology interests, and my teaching has been difficult, especially as I attempt to keep all that in balance with the time spent with my wonderful family….

Why I Love Working (& Teaching & Learning) Here

As I’ve been working on my big summer project (the revised book manuscript), I’ve been eagerly following Gardner’s summer course entitled From Memex to YouTube: An Introduction to New Media Studies. Then this afternoon (just a few hours before class started), Shannon twittered that she wished she could see the class’s final presentations. I echoed her with a plea for Gardner to setup a webcam and soon suggestions for places to host it came in from our local twittersphere. By the time class started a ustream account had been set up and the event was being streamed, live. It spent most of the evening on ustream’s front page. Anyone could drop in and see the projects of the people in the class.

I wasn’t able to get to the stream until it was more than half over, but when I did I remembered why I like working where I am so much. Why?

  1. The students were amazing. They had great projects and they were incredibly enthusiastic about the class and their own work (and, dare I say, their learning). [See an Alaskan summary of a few of them here and the full video stream from here.] These kind of students are why MW is such a great place to work.
  2. Not a small part of this excitement, interest, skill, and creativity was due to the class environment set by Gardner. Play, interdisciplinarity, technology-enabled creativity, intellectual rigor (the good kind), and real engagement all were at work here, in a Real School class. Cool colleagues are why MW is such a great place to work.
  3. While I watched the students present, I was engaged in a chat with people from all over the continent (Alaska, Arizona, Texas, Canada) many of whom had heard about it from the invite Gardner and Martha put on their Twitter networks. As I chatted with DTLT friends (Jim, Jerry, Andy (on vacation!), and Martha), faculty colleagues (Sue, Gardner), people I’d met at conferences (CogDog) or people I knew largely from the blogosphere (D’Arcy, Chris, Vidya), and students in (and out of) the classroom, I thought to myself: “These are really bright, really engaged, really interesting people, and I can’t believe how much fun this is….”
  4. As I was watching the student presentations, I also found myself engaged in three or four chat conversation threads at once. It was chaotic, it was crazy, and it was probably not for everyone. That kind of multi-threaded conversation drives some people mad, but in this environment it just worked for me. Discussions of projects, of software, of Doug Engelbart, of Carl Jung, of the impact of the process of authorship on the author’s view of other work, of films and film theory, of numerous bad jokes, inside jokes, sarcastic jokes, and ROTFL jokes, of the wonder and awe of the final presentation of the night–an amazing movie by Serena that brought many of us watching online to the brink of tears.
  5. I want to take this class; and if that isn’t possible, then I want to team-teach it with Gardner; and if that isn’t possible, then look for the history version, coming soon to a seminar room near you. [Adventures in Digital History!] I love that I teach at a school where there is room in the curriculum and the minds of the people I work with for these kinds of explorations.

Now, admittedly, this post has a little of the fanboy aspect to it. The reality check is that not every day feels like this in this job. There are days when I would love to have 1/10 of the energy I felt tonight. There are conversations with colleagues or students that leave me drained, not inspired. There are days I plod along, rather than lead and innovate. I know that.
In fact, in the middle of this amazing few hours, I found myself in a brief chat with a colleague where we both acknowledged how special this extended moment was and how we wished it could always be like this. So, where do we go from here? Well, we need to hold on to (and brag about) these moments until they are more common. [Hence this post.] I want to harness this energy, bottle it up somehow and feed it to everyone I see: students, faculty, administrators, learners all. This is what learning can be. This is what Real School is all about.

How can you measure or quantify the feeling of excitement, engagement and learning that took place tonight? [Yes, I use those terms deliberately.] We need to figure out how to replicate these moments, not in a cold, cloning kind of way, but in setting the stage for creativity, learning and innovation in and out of classrooms, and then taking advantage of those moments of opportunity to share them.

But for tonight, I’m just going to keep smiling.

Data, Information Overload, and Selling the University (in a good way)

Martha’s written another wide open exploration about the soul of academia in the form of a discussion of what data collection means. I responded in her comments, but I wanted to develop it a little more here.

I wonder if this focus on data and rankings isn’t just another of a series of poor attempts made to deal with the information overload that all of us have been facing? Both faculty/administrators and prospective/current students/parents have to figure out some way of addressing the role of the increasingly expensive collegiate experience. Colleges have to justify their prohibitive expense and parents (and increasingly students) want that justification spelled out for them (and want a measurable return on their investment). The vast amount of data available today about schools and the college experience means that parents and students are easily overwhelmed in their choices. A ranking system allows those parents and students to cope with that overwhelming set of data, providing a set of “concrete” justifications to hang their decisions on. Rankings systems (based on that data) also allow colleges to address (at least in appearance) questions of fiscal accountability (without really exploring substantive external or internal questions about the links between “value” and “education”). It’s not a perfect system, but the structure that data built does allow a kind of compromise method for all these actors to discuss higher education in a manageable way.

But ultimately this system is far from perfect and reveals a substantive failure of academia to properly identify and explain its role. The argument we should be loudly and broadly and proudly making is that the educational experience Martha and Gardner and Steve and so many others are writing about (learning focused; interdisciplinary in all the best ways; playful; collaborative and individualized; potentially, though not necessarily, technology-enabled) is worth the money spent because it does make graduates better enabled to succeed in the work force, as well as making them better citizens, better friends, better voters, better people….

The data-driven approach to education (epitomized by the US News and World Report Rankings, but perpetuated by many others) appeals to people (and always will–it’s easier and it’s minimally satisfying). Of course, if we consider quantitative literacy as important as written, aural, and visual literacy–and what good liberal arts program wouldn’t?–then we could teach students (and their parents) as well as our fellow academicians how to look behind those stats to see the assumptions behind them. And let’s turn all that data (and the tools for presenting it) in our favor. Admittedly, many of the benefits we’re talking about are not easily quantifiable. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t quantify them or present them in new ways. That’s why it’s so important that we develop ways to make individual and community educational experiences visible to ourselves and to others.

And so we’re back to umwronco in at least a couple of its forms. Our work is cut out for us; Martha’s right that this is a pivotal moment in education. I recognize the potential “dark underbelly” she refers to, but I continue to be excited by the sheer possibilities inherent in higher education and the potential of academia to lead the caravan through the 21st century.