Teddy the Porcupine VS Myster E or Failing Incandescently

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.









18 thoughts on “Teddy the Porcupine VS Myster E or Failing Incandescently

  1. Doesn’t look much like failure to me.

    Failure is 1) takîng no risk 2) taking fatal risk.

    I come back to Google 20%.
    I come back to just in time help.
    I feel that I would go back to point zero în Talking Heads Stop Making Sense.
    No point giving scaffolding for something they don’t want to build. I am sceptical about the scaffold as a concept – it might implie that our scaffold is in fact the framework for our mould.
    Maybe the students are the scaffolds to their own learning – maybe they just need to feel imbalance, abyss, of being out in open. Reminds me of conference of Stephen Heppell. I suggest forgetting u are a teacher and that they are students ànd that classroom is a classroom, and that grades/curriculums are built on predefined plans. (But that is just me 🙂

    1. [what Simon said]

      I cannot look at those two projects and use failure in the same breath. Or even different breath. And you are correct in appreciating how much work can go into doing a 4 minute video remix. It’s way more than clicking a few buttons in an app to do one that well. I would hang those projects on my trophy wall.

      In all my ds106 classes I saw the usual spectrum of amazing work, disappointing work, and a whole lot of stuff in between. The energy and joy I get from the amazing work sustains the rest of my energy.

      If you really want your students to use the materials, then you ought to be more prescriptive, I hate to say. I do not know if that’s the entire message, hoping there is a bit of a gently, inviting opening. When I see a list like that, my eyes get watery too, its like a shopping list.

      I’d imagine you bring the same personality to your student communications as in the blog, and elsewhere? Gawd I see so much instructional material devoid of human presence.

      Personally, I think you might be trying to be too flexible and option oriented. If you hint that its optional, than most people take the option. If you really wanted them to watch the playlist, then say it.

      I went away from doing those sorts of requirements in email. I put all my requirements on the public course site, and just refer to it by link. I gave them a lot to do, and developed some patterns for what is essential, and reiterating as a check list at the end– http://ds106.us/category/the-site/spring-2014-gmu/

      There is a two way partnership here- a course succeeds a lot on what you bring and design for the experience, but students have some responsibility to step up and put themselves into it; a passive learning experience is not very viable.

  2. I am at the same point with word ‘failure’ right now as I was with the word ‘hack’ a couple of summers ago. I own them now and don’t consider them to reek with dank connotation. I suppose the concept of failure is a bit Platonic. We have in our heads that ideal thing, that holy schema that is supposed to absolve and redeem simultaneously. Another name for that is a chimera. I propose we use the word like a head fake, as safeties in disguise.

    Scaffolding is an ugly word if we use it to mean the Way, but if it means just another way to try to do something then no probs. Every thing, thought, history, or act is a potential scaffold in this sense.

    For years, I have been trying to translate to different terms for student/classroom/teacher and the whole catastrophe that is ‘education’. People build their own scaffolds for learning, but lest we forget a scaffold is only temporary for the build or the repair or the repainting or …We need to own the scaffold. That is what learning is–owning the means of knowing.

    I would be lying if I said that I could forget a role I have played in the play called “School” for so long. The point is that it is but one role or as the Bard would have it , a roll. But there are plays within plays within plays. And roles within rolls. I play the gig what brung me, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t whisper in an aside to the audience, “What a farce this bungling commerce of school is!”

    As for the abyss, I am thinking of a conversation I had with a student the other day about the best schooling I ever had. I owned my own business for ten years. I was a chimney sweep. That was an abyss my friend, one that was make or break for me, my family, my life. That was the best schooling…and the worst. Fear is a very bad long term teacher. It is thorough, but ultimately corrosive, even deadly. But proper tension and the capacity to roll with problems and punches and power are what my business demanded over and over. I have never seen its like in any school I have attended or been a part of. I have never had so much skin in the game. I learned. I was voracious for knowing and doing. I wasn’t scaffolding a damned thing in that biz unless it was a real scaffold for re-pointing a chimney.

    I will look into Heppell. I would be grateful for your help on that.

  3. It might take me a few weeks to properly reply to your very rich post, Terry.
    That kind of ‘failure’ is nowhere near failure if it leads to reflection and conversation with valuable contributions from your colleagues.

    I’m in a similar situation as the coordinator of a co-curricular writing group. I thought that co-curricular gave me the freedom to deconstruct what students understand about learning about writing in the traditional classroom. I created a Facebook group and I keep posting this and that, asking questions, urging students to make it their space, to share things they have stumbled across and loved. Crickets. It’s not happening. Obviously I don’t want to make it compulsory but they keep coming back to ‘how much do we have to do to get diploma points?’ I despair. I might have to blow the whole thing up, and while they’re shocked reorganise everything and throw them in.

    Thank you for the post, I’ll revisit to mine for golden nuggets. At the moment it’s full of highlights – nothing stands out because there are too many, haha.

    1. I think failure is painful but OK as long as you don’t get ‘killed’ in the process. Sometimes you can be resurrected into a better place ;-). I always screw up when I am acting from the tip of the hierarchy instead of the soup of the folksonomy. I think our systems drive our folk to act strategically. Don’t be too hard on yourself.

  4. I forgot the associative trail on “porcupine” to Bill Viola’s story of “The Porcupine and the Car” (at the end of brilliant essay “Will There Be Condominiums in Data Space?”)

    Late one night while driving down a narrow mountain highway, I came across a large porcupine crossing the road up ahead. Fortunately, I spotted him in time to bring the car to a stop a short distance from where he was standing. I watched him in the bright headlights, standing motionless, petrified at this “dose encounter of the third kind.” Then, after a few silent moments, he started to do a strange thing. Staying in his place, he began to move around in a circle, emitting a raspy hissing sound, with the quills rising up off his body. He didn’t run away. I realized that this dance was actually a move of self-defence. I cut the car headlights to normal beams, but he still continued to move around even more furiously, casting weird shadows on the trees behind. Finally, to avoid giving him a heart attack, and to get home, I cut the lights completely and turned off the engine. I watched him in the dim moonlight as he stopped his dance and moved off the road. Later, while driving off, I realized that he was probably walking proudly away, gloating over how he really gave it to that big blinding noisy thing that rushed toward him out of the night I’m sure he was filled with confidence, so pleased with himself that he had won, his porcupine world-view grossly inflated as he headed home in the darkness.

    There’s many a different perspective on such encounters, our own often not matching the other’s.

  5. Both project spoke to my heart, and that’s how I will leave it. But .. not quite … your post was a powerful ode of honesty and reminds of the power of reflective practice. From what you consider failure arises the sparks of something larger.

  6. Failure? So you failed in getting students to watch videos? Don’t think that was ever the key learning outcome

    But you succeeded in empowering students to take pride in what they enjoyed doing? That might be more important than any other outcome. Heartened for you 🙂

    Because as i was reading this i was worried you were going to say the google 20% thing failed. It clearly didn’t. For these students at least.
    Sure they were talented beforehand, but isn’t everyone? The problem with school and uni is that they rarely get a chance to use their talents in class. So many ppl lose their touch or lose faith in their talentedness. You gave em space and it paid off big time.
    I hope that matters so much more than the playlist. That their work matters more than yours

    1. The ultimate failures were two-fold: first, I failed to get their attention and second, I failed to realize-again-that just because I teach it doesn’t necessarily follow that they learn. In fact, that failure is a deep and ongoing one that mocks us all. WE TEACH. THEY LEARN. What a joke! Or perhaps it is an ideal example of a non-sequitur.

      I do not empower. Empowerment arises from the self and the conditions of the self. At best I provide conditions that I think might help give rise to their own empowering. I cannot make anyone take pride. That, too, is impossible. Again, I just guess at the ecosystem that might provide good soil for that to happen. My heartenment? I thank you for thinking so, but for every heartening seed growing from the soil, how many die in the furrow? Disheartening.

      I cannot and will not take credit for their success. And that is OK by me. I will however embrace the ‘suck’. At least I can be sure of that. I don’t view ‘failure’ as a pejorative term. I work the best way I can to create conditions that might allow learners to learn. I suspect that the Google 20% project is a better ecosystem for some, but nor for all. That, too, is a failure of sorts, but it is a radically valuable one. Next time around I might do the Project at the beginning of the semester. I might not call it what I called it this time. Who knows? I might provide a greenhouse with trellises and controlled environments and rigid ‘growing’ schedules for those who choose that while providing open ground for others to plant and till themselves. I now understand in my body and heart that one size does not fit all, that their mileage may vary. I understand that choosing the path of least resistance as a learner is not necessarily a bad idea for ‘strategic’ students but that it might be a learning death sentence for others. I have so many different students with different motivations coming from different backgrounds that failure is inevitable if learning emanates from me unless that learning is my own.

      I hoped that it would be obvious that what I intended by my post was not my own work, but I suppose I failed at getting that message across. I own the failure as all learners must. Failure is inevitable. I am proud of my failings. Perhaps you mean that I am too proud of my failings. Pride cometh before a fall, but in my case perhaps pride in the fall is just as bad. The playlist was not really related to the Google 20% Project. It was another assignment I had made for an argument paper they were to write. I didn’t make that clear. That assignment …well, that is another set of results that we can chat about another time.

      I am so grateful for the chance to respond to your challenging remarks. I probably come off as being a bit more dogmatic and even hyperbolic than I really am. I am a farmer and a former small businessman. I am nothing if not pragmatic. I learn from failure and that is why I appreciate it. One has to DO something. One has to move beyond theory in order to fail. And that is what I am doing now more than ever in all our learning spaces.

  7. Terry, love your last comment. The first word my mother ever used to describe me was pragmatic. If it doesn’t work, we move on and try something else. We are not married to the theory or the practice, only to the idea that we want something to work. The problem we encounter is trying to measure what “works” means. You have some of the same struggles I am feeling right now with our PBL program. I have a blog post or two in me just dying to come out, but for some reason my mind tells me right now to let my reflections incubate. I think, though, that something is getting ready to emerge from my brain that might resemble synthesis.

    I wrote a comment on this post Nov. 18 and now realize it never showed up.

    This really struck home: “I understand that choosing the path of least resistance as a learner is not necessarily a bad idea for ‘strategic’ students but that it might be a learning death sentence for others. I have so many different students with different motivations coming from different backgrounds that failure is inevitable if learning emanates from me unless that learning is my own.”

    1. Ahhh, the lost post, the lost comment, the lost pic, the lost weekend.Paradise Lost. Perfection never gained. Pragmatics rule in school…at least they do for me…theory is the spell that guides the busy hand.

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