The Lonely Narcissism of the Disconnected Instructor


Yeah, I know the image above is kinda fuzzy, but that is how feel right now. Fuzzy, indistinct.  A lens desperate to focus, but failing because it isn’t designed to shoot what it is trying to shoot.  Too micro, but I will try especially since I promised my web compere, Susan Watson, that I would.

My big philosophic goal this semester is to create a connected learning classroom. As far as I can discern from my own incomplete understanding of connected learning principles this means that “I” must move to “We”. I must give up my centralized, hub structure and move through a decentralized one and ultimately be one node in a distributed systems. Suffice to say, so far, I am at the abject failure portion of the narrative. I am almost as far from my goal as I can get. Of course, the system I am working within does not think that way at all. Here’s what I mean.

Take the syllabus…please . The syllabus is the classic, expert-based, top down hierarchical tool for making sure the map is laid out and that everyone gets on the bus to one destination. I am there although I am working on what Michelle Pacansky-Brock calls a liquid syllabus . They are probably anathema toward each other so there is that. I have rendered unto Caesar with my university syllabus. I hath covered my ass.

If I was to move more toward the distributed mode I would likely want to …well…I am not sure if there is an alternative to a syllabus that truly supports the distributed model that I think connected learning is. It would have to be something that encouraged disconnected nodes to begin to “fire and wire”. That would mean learner choice over projects, learners ‘wiring’ toward other, learners moving freely both inside and out of the institutional structures, learners taking the initial conditions of the course and emerging toward other nodes in the distribution grid.

I think this means that the syllabus needs to evolve from a control mechanism with system feedbacks and feed forwards (status quo syllabus) and toward a simulated ecology where there are a very few initial rules that are allowed to emerge as they will. The one area where I am doing this is the “Google 20%”-style project that I set up at the beginning of the semester. It is a call to “make”. And it can be anything so long as it has a culmination of some kind by semester’s end. It doesn’t have to be completed, it just has to manifest as some “thing”, some process, some showing.

Students hate it. At least at first they do until I model it with my own 20% version. This year mine is going to entail adoption of meditative practice and an ongoing ‘noticing” of what is happening in my life as a result—online journal, site, blog posts, audio, multimodal creations (PopcornMaker, Zeega). I will show them my barebones plan next Wednesday.

Other notable failures to move toward distributed, rhizomatic systems include the fact that  I am still the putative benevolent center of the learning hub. I make assignments that return to me. They are one group. I lead discussion. And many more failings that are a direct result of the structures we swim through, the initial, institutional contexts–registration systems, discipline requirements, email systems…you know, the full catastrophe that is university life. (See image below.)

wkumascotInteresting deviation from centralized norm, from my own fail mode? A game and a discussion. The basic premise of the my composition philosophy is the academic conversation. My central text is Cathy Birkenstein and Gerald Graff’s book, They Say/I Say. In our discussion I am moving to get students to stop looking at me when they are responding to what their classmates are saying. I want to just be the referee. I get to call penalties. In fact I should get a ref’s flag and a whistle. I did something very like that when I played the Name Game yesterday.

ncaa-football-indiana-wisconsin-850x560I play with icebreakers throughout the year especially ones that require the use of names. I mean it should be pretty obvious that one of the initial conditions needed for connection and community to emerge is that those involved should know each other’s names. If you don’t know the Name Game or its multiple variants, it is simple: you are responsible for knowing everyone’s names. The first person speaks her first name. The second person speaks the first one’s name and add his own. And so on and so forth. I act as referring and game master. If you just go around the room one at a time it is unfair to those who have to recite all the names at the end, so you switch it up. You interfere. You try to confuse. You put James next to Jamiel. You make them move randomly in the naming. You tell them to close their eyes. You have them compete, but you don’t say they can’t cheat. Mostly, I improvise as the game keeper. That worked.

Maybe there are more simple games I could play that woudistribnodeld hinge on other important initial conditions. Maybe turn the choosing of research questions into a game. But, again, I am thinking in terms of what I can do. I need to switch to node mode. How can I be part of an equitable community or move toward that distributed network? Awareness is my struggle right now. I will continue to hail my failings. Perhaps I will learn from my fellow node-lings.


4 thoughts on “The Lonely Narcissism of the Disconnected Instructor

  1. Struggling is where things are at. I don’t mean that to sound flip but to recognize that your reflection is a deep part of your own learning process. Your piece had me thinking of a guest visit to a college classroom a few years ago, when I was asked to present about digital storytelling. I had activities set up, hands-on … you know … CLMOOC ethos, and the classroom of future teachers were not at all interested. They wanted to be told what they needed to know, not discover it for themselves. The professor told me later this mood is becoming more of the norm …. and she postulated it was a result of standardize testing and classrooms prepping for the testing. Who know.
    I suspect, Terry, that your students may not appreciate the shifts you are introducing until a few years down the road. For now, you have your own reflective stance as your guide. Keep on keeping on.

    1. Thanks for stopping by. They are confused as a rule, being first semester freshman ;). Confusion and struggle are what I am about. And the reflection is…hard. It really is true that classrooms are full of ‘strategic’ students, the kind who ask in frustration, “Just tell me how to get an “A”. But there are bright eyes, too, and I am hoping the ‘glaze’ I see on some of the others will clear a bit as they return to the naturally curious stance of a beginner’s mind. A bit of laughter, some courage on my part to stick to the principles I know are worth following, and the occasional ‘buck up, lad’ will make all things possible. Thanks for the ‘buck up, lad’.

  2. Terry, damn you, you always fire my neurons to the point that I have too many things to try to communicate. This is a good thing. But you know that.

    First question is why you used the word narcissism. I didn’t feel narcissism in this piece!

    Second, thank you for sharing your immediate failures and reflections. 🙂 Failure and reflection are (at least to me) the keys to substantive progress. Now, trying to explain that to a.) freshman and b.) old-school in-a-rut teachers are, to me, parallel problems. There are teachers at my school who do no reflection and have no interest in risk-taking. One teacher’s PDP goal last year (at least in its first iteration) was (and I kid you not) – “Chapter Two.”

    Which brings me to the liquid syllabus – how do you conceptualize this to students? Because I need to conceptuaize it to teachers and this is the first and biggest roadblock for some. What if you are trying to connect with people who aren’t curious, motivated learners? What if they just want to sign off on a sheet that they “completed the professional development module”? These aren’t people who will explore a viral concept in a syllabus. We have begun to evolve our staff into a learning community, but still have some who literally don’t care if they learn anything new.
    I love the fact that you are trying the google 20% idea. I actually think this would work better with my kids than my teachers. I think modeling your own 20% and meditative practice is genius. I guess I am trying to create Connected Learning in two modes – one for staff PD and one for students. Too many things in my head right now, and not enough people ready to jump in. And as you said, I will also be the “putative benevolent center of the learning hub” by default. I’m the one excited by it, needing to figure out how to light that volcanic flame in others. I keep thinking that in its initial phases of implementation, it really will be about engagement and taking a very strong leadership role in order to create buy-in, which hopefully can eventually become more distributed as the fire [hopefully] spreads. I just feel such a huge responsibility to make that happen. (So it seems my comment is far more self-centered than your post.) Your Name Game is such a simple but powerful reminder that we are connecting to REAL PEOPLE. You have driven that home to me with your human compassion and willingness to connect on a human and friendship level.

    I have added no edification to your post but I share your willingness to fail loudly.

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