Tl;dr: I did some stuff. It sorta failed. Maybe I learned something. I suspect so. Maybe not. Kept on. You keep on!
One might call it the “James Dean” effect–die young and make a beautiful corpse. Unfortunately, I am neither young nor beautiful. Fortunately, I am not a corpse. Yet this week has already seen some incandescent failures or as some might say in kindness–some fiery results.
Maha and Kevin both were concerned. I wrote back to Maha indicating that all was in flux but OK and to Kevin I responded to his voice with my own. I have promised more reports from the field, more feldgangs (field walks). This is one.
So much pride cometh before a pratfall.
So proud of myself that I had created a YouTube playlist for my freshman comp classes that would reinforce what we were working on this week-argumentation essays. Now that I look at in the clean light after the storm I see it for what my students saw it as–just another foisted thing, another dull scene in the saga of being a strategic student. I created it as a gift, but to their eyes it was just another intrusion in the zero sum game of academia.
Above is my pride and joy, utterly scorned by my students. Well, not utterly scorned by my students as you can see below.
But almost utterly. There is a glorious brutality to numbers that forces you with a slap to the face to wake up. But to what? In part…to the foolishness of excessive scaffolding, to the impossibility of managing chaos and the unknown unknowns that float through our lives like black swans paddling furious and unseen. Nicolas Taleb would say that I need to wake up to “the critical issue … the artiﬁcial suppression of volatility — the ups and downs of life — in the name of stability.” I think I do that. I think I am aware of it in my teaching. I know that the more locked down I approach the classroom and the more I try to “teach”, the more volatile it gets. That volatility appears in the my playlist through disaffection. They ignore me. In no uncertain terms, they ignore me. And I know this because I asked them in class about it. What playlists? The data of the analytics doesn’t lie. What playlists?
But crickets are a good source of information about the ecosystem. Their absence tells us even more. Perhaps email has failed. One student mentioned after class was over that she subscribed to so much stuff via email that she often missed important signals–out of sight, out of mind, never seen, neglect benign. Or perhaps when confronted with my playlist, students saw noise not signal. Or perhaps it was and is noise. Just bad vids. Here is a copy of the email I sent them but with my reflective annotations for this post. Should I send this to them? Probably.
But I do know that a sizeable minority saw the little throwaway at the end of my email., hence they saw my email. They told me they enjoyed it so we all watched it again in class.
Lesson learned? I originally learned this lesson from Vizzini in The Princess Bride, but obviously have forgotten it.
When you go up against a talking porcupine, expect to lose. But all is not lost. Today I will send another email reminding them of the playlist as a way to take another look at a template on how to write an argument paper and as an opportunity to send me questions if they have them. But that’s not all. If you read on you will get two free Google 20% projects that arose from my debacle.
Students have been doing this assignment at their own pace all semester. Some have presented publicly and some privately. I had two present yesterday. Both made me proud to have made this open-ended and ‘odd’ assignment (or so both colleagues and students alike tell me).
Derek’s was simplicity itself–a comic
He approached me before class to ask if this was OK as a Google 20% Project. I said sure, but… I wanted to know more about how it came about. And he proceeded to tell me about his art universe, a peek into the rich and full world of his imagination that I would have had no way of accessing without the assignment.
It is the memory of his voice and his excitement and his authentic self being validated that is what I wanted from the project. Sensing an open vessel, he filled me full with the story of the kinds of tools he used and how much time it took to make this and his own history with comics and on and on. At the end he was startled that anybody cared about what he was interested in.
While Derek’s presentation was a private one, James’s was public.
James works in a genre known as “anime music videos”. Simply put (and believe me there is nothing simple about any of this) AMV afficionados pick an anime episode or episodes and mashup an appropriate song with clips from the anime. Music and clips are matched for rhythm and appropriate lyrics. This is serious, next level remixing here. James said this amv took 8 hours to make. His first one took a week. He does it all on a little notebook computer. Now I do a little mashing up myself with a cool tool called Zeega, but mine is child’s play compared to what James does.
This is all part of a larger universe known as cosplay and I am always very keen to observe how peers look upon each other’s worlds. I think that James’s peers were stunned into respectful, awed silence. I know I was. I would like to take credit for that, but I can’t. I just lucked up into having James in my course and in providing him with a public venue. I got the opportunity to ask him some very public questions so that he could shine on a bit brighter.
I think I failed here, too. I realized immediately after Derek’s presentation and after James’s that I should have done this at the beginning of the semester. Instead of restraining volatility, I should have released this kraken at the beginning of the semester.
What would have arisen from that? I will tell you. Something even more compelling and unknowable that would have reflected the happy act of faith in the motive power of human beings set free to learn as they would, an act so disruptive that I hesitate to even use that repulsive, cliched term.
All of what I have done is what Sean Michael Morris in a recent blog post calls ‘scholarship in the act’. I trust that this post complements his abstraction with a messy dollop of practice. I know mine is too long. That’s why I prefaced it with a “tl;dr”. Morris’s post bears quoting at length because it fits my own practice and is a nice emotional conclusion to our recursion, to our feldgang.
My philosophy of teaching assumes a scholarship in the act, and a reflective scholarship at that. I not only believe that the best teachers learn deeply by teaching, but that each of us has an obligation to pass on to students not only what we learn, but the contemplative process by which we came to it. I don’t believe as much in subject matter as I do in process. I don’t believe as much in methodology as I do in practice (one being how we plan to teach; the other, what really happens).
My practice relies on the element of surprise, and upon mindfulness. I believe, as Thomas P. Kasulis put it in “Questioning“, that:
A class is … a process, an independent organism with its own goal and dynamics. It is always something more than what even the most imaginative lesson plan can predict.
Because of this, one of the most important skills a teacher can possess is mindful attention, and a willingness to see where a class is really headed, and not stick so tenaciously to his plan that he misses the brilliance of collaboration possible with his students.
The ever-evolving digital learning environments available to teachers today offer up millions of possibilities for instruction, learning, and collaboration. But all of these are only possible if we pay close attention to the technologies we use, the methodologies we inevitably must disrupt, and the innovations available not within our own minds, but within the minds of our students.
So with mindful attention I admit freely to being too clever by half and I admit to losing out to a pumpkin eating porcupine and I admit to enjoying every damned minute of it. I admit to failing incandescently.