Open Letter

Dear students friends,

Yesterday I typed a long ramble about writing assignments in introductory literature courses, and in the process of that I went off into at least five directions, none of which really pertained to my point.

What you need to know about me, right now, before we get started, is that going off onto multiple tangents (and sometimes tangents within tangents within tangents) during a conversation or discussion or writing workshop is a signature move for me as a teacher human being. It’s how I think. It’s what my creative process would look like if you could jack into my brain. (Please don’t. You’ll get in the way of the hamster on her wheel.)

We might begin the hour talking about Marissa’s characterization of a young journalist in her first job and end up laughing about mink farms, after an odd detour into sexual revenge and a few YouTube video shares. (No, this never happened. That I remember.) Or we could be focusing on the idea of work, and work relationships, and find ourselves cataloguing all of the crappy bosses we’ve had the misfortune to work under, in the process forgetting about Marissa and her semi-formed journalist, notepad and ideals in hand.

Most of my tangents involve stories. That’s another thing you should know, up front. If you say something like “The narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper sounds kind of crazy,” I’m going to think about how I felt right after my daughter was born: freaked out, lonely, desperate for adult human companionship, and trapped in my house. A prisoner of motherhood. And I’ll want to tell you that story. I’ll want to tell you so badly that I will just do it — interrupting whatever flow you thought we had going in the discussion. And my story will of course provoke your stories, make them pop up out loud, spawning their own associated stories, ad infinitum. The next thing you know, it’ll be the end of the hour and you’ll think yourself no more enlightened about Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story or characters than you were at the start of this wild outburst of associations.

It’s as if I’m driving a school bus into unknown territory and you’re all captives in it. As I drive, I make sudden turns and strange stops. You feel the lurch and bump of the poorly suspended vehicle and sometimes wish you had a seat belt. Your fellow passengers will be singing — loudly — songs you can’t stand to hear. You might feel compelled to shout your own. Others will be goofing off with paper footballs. Some will be staring out of the windows with abject expressions. The sun will begin to go down. You may notice that we haven’t seen any signs for gas for a good many miles, and since we’re coming out of the mountains and heading for what looks like unbounded desert, you might be — understandably — uncomfortable. Frustrated. Angry.

Where the hell is this woman going? you might think. How long until we get there? Is it a place I want to be? Or even This. Must. Stop.

The truth is that I sometimes don’t know where we’re heading or even how I’ll know where to stop. But (you have to trust me here) I usually find a place to stop that seems right, and when we look back at the road we’ve taken, we begin to see how it makes some sense.

The place we stop offers us a new perspective, a fresh vantage point on where we started. And that point of view allows us to reimagine, or understand, or connect — and this is the best verb I can think of in this context — where we started with where we’ve ended up. This connection becomes our “aha” moment. Our epiphany. What we’ve learned.

I must confess that I’m usually ashamed of myself for having taken us to this place, for having picked a road filled with strange turns, sudden stops, reversals and occasional dead ends. I leave classrooms with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, thinking So that happened.

But I’m writing this now to defend, in advance, my tendency to go off on tangents, to turn down unexpected roads that may lead to nothing more than a broken down shack or a blowing plastic bag against a wire fence. Because it’s very possible that this shack sparks in your mind the image of an old man, scratching out his life story on an warped board with a piece of charcoal, an old man who connects the story you’re writing or reading with someone important to you who you never, until this moment, fully saw or understood. That old man, writing his life story, might be you in 70 years, or your imagination at this moment, or the embodiment of the author (Melville, Gilman) in your imagination. And once you make that connection, looking back at the story we’re discussing or the story you’re writing, you’ll take your understanding of the story to the next level of intensity.

That’s when we can all get back on the bus and head back “home.” In the quiet, tired and strangely comfortable with each other now, the experience ending but still fresh in our minds, maybe the magic intensity of that ineffable connection will solidify into an idea, an insight, an action plan that you didn’t have when you got on the bus.

That’s the ideal, in any case. And it’s one of the reasons why, even though they can scare and embarrass me, I give myself permission to keep doing it — driving off into tangents again and again.

Hey Autumm, Challenge Accepted!

Still learning how to navigate the ever changing river of technology that has intersected with (and braided itself into) higher education generally and St. Norbert College particularly. To that end, I’m headed to Digital Pedagogy Lab next week, and looking forward to hobnobbing with the digital pedagogy hoipolloi. My colleague and friend Autumm Caines has thrown down a challenge: she wants us to reflect on the experience as she does in this blog:

How is DigPed Lab different? A reflection and a call

Here’s my response:

For those of you only on the fringes of “the know” about these things, I used Screencastify to create this vlog and then uploaded it to YouTube to share it.

Dave Eggers blows my wee mind with The Circle

The CircleThe Circle by Dave Eggers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This novel is funny — not funny ha-ha, but funny ironic and funny fucking scary, to be honest. It’s hyperbolic, yeah, on the surface, but the ideas it explores (complete “transparency”) are the endpoint of a current movement in information “sharing” and digital storage. You could believe, as does the anti-hero Mae, the novel’s protagonist, that complete transparency is wonderful. That “sharing is caring.” Or you could believe, with her ex and others, that we’re headed toward the Ultimate Nightmare.

I found myself thinking about this novel while going about my day, connecting its ideas to things like: the cloud, Facebook, Google whatever, working in “the open,” documentation, cyberbullying, our own SNC communio, mental health, contemplation, “space,” … I’m going to stop here to avoid 100% transparency. This would probably be a good novel to include in my next Introduction to Literary Studies (but I’d have to change my theme to Technighmares or something, or “Brave New World”) but I’m afraid that my readers, younger than Mae, will be as caught up in the ideology as she is, and thus unable to get any ironic distance from it.

I recommend this novel to all of my ITS and ed tech friends. Love it, hate it — I’d like to talk about it. I’d like to “share” it, FFS.

View all my reviews

A single node in an amoral universe

Ah, it’s a new year, a new “administration,” a new set of variables (alternative facts?) at work on our reality. I’m still listening to my podcasts (in between audiobooks checked out from the library), and the theme(s) keep clustering around our current obsessions (fears?) — racial equality (white supremacy), immigration (American “exceptionalism”), authoritarian regimes (do I need to put anything more into this parenthesis?) … Just typing this list is making me not only tired but emotionally bankrupt.

I’m currently listening to an episode of Krista Tippet’s On Being devoted to “Tech’s Moral Reckoning,” with Anil Dash, and though I should listen to the end, I find myself getting distracted with all of the information and ideas filtering through my head (it should be noted that I am also pursuing, in other areas/moments of my life, mindfulness practices, and that technology — the simple overload of information, mostly digital, bombarding me 24/7 — is not helping me to stay anywhere NEAR the present moment), (and it should also be noted that the rampant proliferation of parentheses in this post is more than ample demonstration of that fact), and think that the only way to find some momentary focus is to start typing into this open space. When I started this monumental sentence, I think I was planning to say something about the role of technology in what I imagine (that is, make into an image in my head) as a literal rip in the fabric of being that plagues us all in the United States. But this three sentence paragraph does all the work for me.

Think of it as a poem, a metaphor, for my state of “mind.”

I’m torn into digital bits. My attention wanders between digital texts of my own and others’ creations. I can’t seem to find the thread to sew this all into a recognizable animal. I mean, seriously. What the fuck am I thinking?

I’ve got a blog where I noodle on about my reading with my creative writing students.  I’ve got a Twitter account (see embedded insert) where I tend to retweet all the quips that #attack and #dismantle the #headcheetofromhell and his #minionsofmalice. (Needless to say, checking on Twitter raises my blood pressure.) I’ve got a Facebook account where I try to be positive and upbeat; but again I find myself drowning in information, glimpses into lives near and far, cascades of faces and statuses and pictures and … I didn’t check the account for two days and got 96 notifications. I’ve got a new Instagram account, and a Snapchat, and Google+, and GroupMe, and LInkedIn, and Slack.

And of course this domain of my own. Which is the last place I ever go. Here I sit on the internet, tooting my own horn, a place to organize everything (“one ring to …” — fuck it. I never did like that series), a lone and probably dying star (node) in the middle of a vast and indifferent and (now it would appear) probably unethical universe.

Concurrently, I’m using an MLS (Moodle) to connect with my students, Google Drive to read and respond to their work, and Twitter to share it with others outside of our group. I’m getting over 100 emails a day. I’m texting my daughter and others from the time I wake up until shortly before I go to sleep. I’m reading my books on Kindle. I’m taking two MOOCs (one on St. Norbert and another, ha, on Mindfulness). I’m using the Headspace app to practice at least 10 minutes of meditation a day. I’m listening to Spotify. I’m getting my news through The Daily Skimm.

And what’s the point of all this?  I don’t know. Perhaps it has something to do with the “fact” that I too am ripped into bits, that I can’t even communicate with myself, that I’m alienated from the present moment and thus from myself and others and I’m using as my alibi the very technology which is prompting me to explore the ability to connect and communicate and be present. Which makes me as crude and hypocritical (not to mention hypercritical) as those who offend me.

All this to say: I don’t know what the point of “all this” can be. Can there be a single point?

Podcast Animal

I’ve found a new way to lose myself (forget you, Netflix Showhole): podcasts.

Here are a few that have risen to the top of my playlist lately:

Invisibilia: This show, featuring two women whose voices are notoriously similar (in fact, I still can’t tell them apart), pulls apart the invisible forces that make us who we are — emotions, personality, thoughts, and so forth. I’m always fascinated.

Politically Re-Active with W. Kamau Bell & Hari Kondabolu: Great discussions of important racial issues, complete with gentle nudges to people, including myself, still blind to some of the ways in which our whiteness privileges us.

The Moth:  Ordinary people get up in front of a microphone and tell their stories without notes. I always learn something. And I often get teary.

StoryCorps: Like The Moth, this podcast involves story telling. But it’s derived from a conversation between two people. Sometimes, these people know each other intimately. But sometimes they’re strangers. I really like the way these very short snippets of lives make me think deeply about everyone who passes me on the street. I always think: who is that person? What’s her story? What moments is he remembering?

This American Life: Like Invisibilia, this podcast dives into topics of relevance to us today using a narrative model (interviews with experts, interested and interesting people). I’ve learned a lot from it.

Modern Love: A classmate from the MFA program at the University of Arizona, the talented editor and writer Daniel Jones, edits this NYT column and now serves as commentator to these dramatic renderings of the personal essays he publishes each week.

Dear Sugar Radio: Advice from two amusing pundits on life and love.

On Being with Krista Tippett: I feel spiritually uplifted and challenged after listening to an episode of this.

The Nerdist: Where else can I figure out just what’s getting discussed in the latest hipster dufus hangout?

TED Radio Hour: Saves me from wading through digital square miles of TED broadcasts on YouTube by pulling together relevant snippets into a feature length exploration.

Basically, I’ve had my ears plugged with NPR stories for weeks now, and I feel enlarged by the experience. Again and again, I learn that we need to communicate, and to connect with each other, in order to create a more cohesive and loving community.

Digital Corners

Learning about how to manage your “digital profile” is an ongoing endeavor, and one best launched in youth. At this point of my “becoming,” I’m having trouble remembering where to go and when; even my Google calendar isn’t enough to keep me on track. Now that I’m trying to keep track of all my digital foot- and fingerprints, I feel as if I’m losing track of my limbs.

This website for instance … With a strange shock I remembered, the other day, that I’d built this place. And then forgotten about it. So here it hangs, alone, in the webverse. After a renaissance in Twitter sparked by my January course in Digital Pedagogy, I’ve fallen back into Twitter neglect. It’s hard enough to keep up with the demands of Facebook posts (personal and for Faculty Development). I’m relegated to lurker, and binge reposter.

Is maintaining a digital presence quite like electronic housekeeping? I fear the aptness of the metaphor. Given the grungy corners in my physical and mental houses, I suspect cobwebs will spin and then dangle from this website and Twitter and various other electronic spaces by May, and it will be a cold day in July when I come back with my digital broom.


Like, I can’t get this to go upright. Seems fitting.

Learning as I go

As part of my online course to learn more about digital technologies I can use in the classroom, I’m learning how to put together this website. My method is haphazard — I’m dinking around in WordPress, trying to figure out how things work. So far, it’s been a slow process.

If you’re reading this (which seems unlikely), and you’d like to give me some tips, feel free to do so. I need all the help I can get.