Dear 2016

I’ve written this post, variations and fragments, bit and pieces, stops and starts, in my head over the past week. And when I open up the text box, it all melts away. The words refuse to be made concrete. The thoughts resist being articulated. My whole self shuts down at the thought of making sense of anything that happened this year. But my mind keeps trying, keeping me awake, keeping my heart racing, keeping me from focusing on anything else.

I sent Christmas cards this year for the first time ever. I used to give them out to friends at the holidays, irreverent jokey ones, that were just a simple (and cheap) way to mark the occasion. Being an academic was never particularly conducive to actually mailing cards: moving, poor organization, end-of-semester rushes…And besides, there was social media. Who needed a letter recapping the year? Look at my Twitter/facebook timelines.

But this year, this year I needed to reach out, I needed to write out addresses, sign my old, long-abandoned signature (Love, Lee) which I used to use to close out all of my emails (to friends), all my notes, all my letters. I needed to tell people in my own, imperfect way, that I was thinking of them, that I was missing them, that…

That I needed them, still, in my life.

Again, my words failed me in writing the cards. They are largely impersonal, largely general, largely not enough. I know that the simple act of sending a card isn’t enough, but I thought that maybe the gesture would help. This summer, I wrote (and mailed!) a long, heartfelt letter to an old friend I had lost touch with and missed desperately. It was, as most things I do, admittedly too much. And it was met with silence. I couldn’t risk that kind of vulnerability again, not at this point in the holidays, this point in the semester. And if I cannot be too much, then I am not enough. So I settled for not enough.

All I could come up with for most of the cards (which were perfect for me to send) was to tell people I missed them or was thinking of them and for 2017…to be better.

Maybe I should have instead wished for 2017 to be simpler, because this year has not been simple. 2016 has been a betrayal, in a lot of ways. Promises were not met or kept, lies, so many lies were told, what I thought I knew, what I thought I believed, if not evaporated, then became so intangible as to no longer had enough substance to provide any sort of anchoring.

Simple does not mean better; things can be simply awful or simply horrible or simply evil, but the simplicity is easier to handle, because it’s not untangling a mess of obscuring vines. But it is not a betrayal. It is what has been advertised. It is clear. It is simple.

Does it make it easier?

I do sincerely hope that 2017 is better. And for many of my friends, people I love, who had horrible things happen to them this year, I hope it is better, because easier may be out of reach. Collectively, we had many betrayals this year, losing those heroes and touchstones we looked to, making those personal tragedies seem amplified. And it is a mark of getting older, that friends’ parents’ health take turns for the worse, but when their child passes from the world, or gets so sick that you are rendered helpless… Others have lost a great deal over the year, if not everything. I have watched, largely helplessly, people I love suffer and at once endure this year.

My own personal tragedies were minor but also deeply private and personal; if anything, my year was marked by major public positive milestones (a book! a full year at the new job! professional recognition! started coaching swimming again!). But in those moments of personal, private, unseen betrayals and hurts, there were more friends than I ever imagined who reached out to me to tell me they loved me, and that they were there for me. I made more friends this year than I have in a long time. It is not a small victory, it is not a meaningless victory, to meet kindness.

I don’t know how else to write this post than to say goodbye to posts that remained unfinished this year. They represent the various states of unfinished that I experience this year. Maybe someone else can finish my thoughts for me. Maybe I just need to let go.

The first one was going to be titled “The Uncoolest Person in Indie Ed-Tech.” It is strange to start the year getting a shout-out in Audrey Watter’s invaluable Top Ed-Tech Trends posts (read this year’s posts right now; I won’t be offended). It’s imperfect, and there was going to be a forced comparison of myself to Jared from Silicon Valley, and I was still struggling with weaving in the series of articles dealing with how maintainers matter more than innovators.

Here it is:

In September, UMW announced Groom’s replacement: Jesse Stommel who left the University of Wisconsin Madison to become the new executive director of DTLT. (Stommel’s thoughts on “Leaving Wisconsin.”) Also joining DTLT: Lee Skallerup Bessette. With these hires, it appears that DTLT will remain a site of important, student-centered (feminist!) ed-tech innovation. – Audrey Watters, Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2015: Indie Ed-Tech

Last fall, I went to the dlrn conference which took place at Stanford (see my initial reflections here). Most people knew that I was going to be starting in less than a month at DTLT, original home of Domain of One’s Own. I knew that this was a “big deal” – I applied and accepted the job because of the work that was being done at UMW through DTLT. But once I got to the conference, it began to dawn on me just how big a deal it was.

Most informative was DTLT’s outgoing director Jim Groom and OU’s Adam Croom’s presentation on The Indie Ed-Tech Movement (full transcript of Adam’s part here). They compared the different indie punk movements to various Indie Ed-Tech movements and centers. It was a great talk. I love a good analogy and counter-narrative, and this one also provided a great framework for me going into this admittedly unfamiliar environment. It was raucous and provocative.

My talk, on the other hand, Embodied Staff: Affect, Gender, Status, and Work, was a quieter reflection, filled with images and analogies of knots and threads, frayed, dropped, bound, and untangled. Who does the care work? Who has a voice in these larger conversations? Who is allowed to be called an innovator? It was quiet, filled with more questions than answers.

The more I thought about it while I was at the conference, the more terrified I became. I wasn’t Black Flag, I was NKOTB who improved to Ben Folds. I was pop music and nerd rock. I was about to be invited to sit at the cool kids table, and I felt hopelessly ill-suited. I was the annoying younger sibling, trailing along, asking awkward questions, making awkward suggestions, and making myself just useful enough to be tolerated and then (grudgingly) accepted.

What, I thought on the plane ride home, was I getting myself into? And how, I worried, was I going to make it work?

I can’t help but notice, looking at the two presentations now, the gendered nature of our two talks, with my references to sewing and care, and Jim and Adam, comparing DTLT to Black Flag, when I put them together side-by-side. Their presentation was everything I had always wanted to be; my presentation was a reflection of who I am, the person I had long tried not to be. The person at the front of the movement, at center stage, was the one we always remembered, the one who brought about change.

Who were the people in the indie punk movement who helped get the guys on stage, from show to show, feeding them, making sure they maybe, from time to time, went to see a doctor. Maybe no one. But I doubt it. They were important, too. But history rarely has time for those who care enough to help someone else shine.

The next post was in response to swirling conversations around the role of the university and education and the liberal arts. I wanted to incorporate an image that has stuck with me over the years, Bethany Nowviskie’s Resistance in the Materials. To be titled, “Resistance in the Curriculum,” I wanted to write about how my colleagues and I resist certain twin pressures we face in our Digital Studies program to be both “practical job training” and traditional liberal arts. The resistance, then, is built into our curriculum, in how we teach the course.

I’m torn now, with how I wanted to end this post. After the election, I said a variation of the following to the students: We have done you a disservice. We sold you these courses on job readiness, or transferable skills, or maybe just that you would get to play with cool tools. Instead, we should be telling you what these courses can really do – see through the bullshit, resist the bullshit, strike back. The resistance, then, still is in the curriculum. Here it is:

In June, I co-taught a workshop on Digital Pedagogy at HILT, and I was grateful that we had a small group of participants who were all from teaching-centered institutions, and also in various stages of developing a program or track in Digital Humanities/Digital Studies. It fostered an environment that was devoted to co-learning and co-development on many different tracks and aspects of digital pedagogy.

One of the first activities we did was to define what digital pedagogy meant to us. You can see all of the definitions (along with the whole week-long course) on our course Google Doc, but the most provocative definition of the concept was:

Using technology as a catalyst to transform our teaching towards being process oriented, to think critically about tech, and doesn’t emphasize teaching ‘transferable skills.’

This, to me, is one of the core tensions in the intersection of digital pedagogy with digital humanities/digital studies – these are courses and programs that are largely built upon and promoted with the idea of helping students attain these “transferable skills” around technology and technological proficiency. Particularly in the battle over the relevance/irrelevance of a Liberal Arts degree, these kinds of programs (the one that I am a part of included) are framed as a response, criticized as a capitulation at best, a violation of the values of the Liberal Arts at worst.

But this is an oversimplification, of course, as most of these debates are, particularly as they play out in the media, providing a seemingly endless supply of click-bait, breathlessly prophetic, anxiety-inducing pieces that proclaim your child’s future will be forever in doubt if they do or do not choose the right major/school/approach/etc. Faculty are also susceptible, fearful that their livelihood, their raison d’être, their identity, will be devalued, defunded, erased, even more than it already has been.

The joke is that the academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so low, but for parents worried about their children’s future (me) and academics worries about their futures (me, again), the stakes are real and powerful and terrifying. Resistance, for me, then, is resistance to the narrative of fear, to being reactionary, to having my pedagogy dictated by these negative impulses, to taking that fear out on my students.

I learn very little anymore unless it holds some sort of practical purpose. I’ve tried. I seek out opportunities, usually, that will force me to learn something new, which, as an adult, involves my job. Because it’s not just that it’s practical, it’s that it also has to be necessary. In other words, I don’t do much learning “for fun” or “for the sake of learning” anymore.

One of the few places where what I needed to learn intersected with a joy of learning was learning new things because of my teaching. New classes brought up new challenges, new pedagogies and technologies saw me learn new skills. It felt necessary, to me, to start doing peer-driven learning and taking a more process-oriented approach. No one forced me to do it, no one except myself.

Well, and my students.

All of this is to say that learning for learning’s sake, for the fun of it, for the joy and intrinsic value of it, is hard. The narrative I briefly allude to above is powerful. It has pervaded our culture (some would argue it is the basis for our culture). When my students are confronted with my pedagogies of resistance, they themselves resist and even rebel. This isn’t how we learn, they protest. This isn’t what we signed up for. This isn’t useful. And I’m not alone.

It didn’t come as a surprise, but it was no less disappointing, to read the latest report from the AAC&U showing that transparency and a problem-centered learning approach works to help at-risk and/or non-traditional students in post-secondary institutions persist and succeed. This, in and of itself, is a good thing. I’m all for transparency! And problem-centered learning is a good thing! However, when they defined transparency, I was a little taken aback:

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As a faculty developer, this should be applauded as a best-practice starting point for every faculty member. As a critical digital pedagogue, this represents instead of a starting point, a closing off to possibilities, serendipity, creativity, and agency. These guidelines are in particular targeted towards those students most at-risk, and I have to ask, is this the best we can do? Is this, once again, taking away opportunities from them in the name of helping them? I have done all of these things while teaching writing at my former institution, a rural comprehensive university that served the poorest area in the United States, Appalachia.

It was doing exactly what is described in that box to the students who they say will benefit the most from me doing it that lead to my resistance.

Some would argue that it is from a place of incredible privilege to write something called (Higher) Education as a Bulwark of Uselessness. It is a provocation, to be sure, and I think a useful and necessary one, and I am grateful to Luca Morini for writing it. Read it alongside the annotations as well as Maha Bali’s thoughts. Think about your discomfort with what he is arguing here. This is another form of resistance, another tension, another way of thinking about what it is that we do as educators in higher education.

And so now we get to the point in the year where, well, the election happened.

I don’t do well with anger. I never have. I learned from a very young age that anger was a destructive force. Rather, it was rage, but it came from anger, and when it was unleashed, the damage that is left in its wake…

Those were lessons learned implicitly. Explicitly, good girls didn’t get angry. Actually, good girls didn’t do anything except be as placidly agreeable as possible, ideally happily agreeable, but placidly was good, too. The times that I did allow myself to get angry, or rather, I could no longer forgive/forget/explain away whatever litany of injuries…

There are a lot of ellipses. There are a lot of spaces and places and gaps and unfinished spots, especially around anger. This is a year where I dealt with anger poorly. This is a year that I have felt angrier than I have in a long, long time. There are too many spaces where I have remained silent for good reasons and for not-so-good reasons. An unfinished post, that was supposed to say so much, but in the end, said nothing much at all. I am still “Sitting with Anger” poorly:

I smell like cigarette smoke. I catch the smell at unexpected moments throughout the day, a reminder of the night before. Wine and bourbon and homemade cheese and bread weren’t enough, so we went outside and smoked a pack of cigarettes, and I sucked down each one, faster than the last, numb, so numb. We weren’t watching any of the coverage, opting instead for beautifully-shit documentaries of chefs and their stories. I was staying off social media, as well, but my husband, who is a political scientist, was getting texts from his friends and colleagues. We knew what was happening, even if we were trying to avoid it.

He, mercifully, didn’t tell me the results when he woke up early to catch his train. “Go back to sleep,” he said. I did, and I hit snooze so many times, because I was hungover from booze and cigarettes, because I didn’t want to know, really know, what had happened. I realized that I had to get my daughter to chorus and we were going to be late, so I rushed out of bed to wake her, and also why I didn’t take a long, long, long shower.

I burst into her room, trying to wake her, to reminder her we had someplace we needed to be. And she looked at me and asked, who won? Trump won, I told her, and I watched her face fall, and then screw up into a look of both disbelief and utter disgust. What if he does all the things he said he would do? she asked. What if he takes you away? What if he takes my friends away?

The best thing, I told her, was to be kind. Kind to her friends, friends who probably have parents who voted for Trump. Be vigilant and speak up against those who are unkind to others.

I smell the cigarette smoke on me. It lingers on me like the look on my daughters face. People come through the office in various states of shock, disbelieve, and sadness. We go through the motions of work, because we can’t imagine anything else. Or, like me, the thought of being home alone was just too much to bear.

I stay silent on social media. I am afraid that anything I say will ring hollow. My daughter is afraid, but others are more afraid, and have been living with this fear for a lot longer. I am not an American citizen, but I don’t have to carry my papers with me everywhere, because everyone assumes I am American. I have to remind people repeatedly, that I can’t vote.

I stay silent because I have friends and former students, from my former life, living and teaching in one of those places that went heavily for Trump. I am not surprised by the election results because I lived where I lived for as long as I did, and have listened and heard from too much of my social media circles, who are gaslighted, harassed, and hated.

I am angry at myself for being swayed by the media’s narrative crowning Clinton before the votes were cast. I am angry that my daughter, and too many others, feel afraid. I am angry that I am too afraid to say anything on social media. I am angry

There’s a line that keeps going through my head as I thought about writing this post. It’s from Casablanca:

I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

Every time I sit down to write, to address this year in any sort of meaningful way, these words, or some variation of these words, keep ringing in my ears. I’ve seen the movie many times, and I know the context of these lines, that then Rick goes off and (presumably) takes up arms of some kind against the Nazis. It’s not lost on me. But words…words have always been my arms, my weapons, my chosen means of resistance.

But I’ve been stuck.

The best I was able to do was a few weeks ago, writing about hope, or at least finding hope. I have to keep repeating this, by Elizabeth Mackinlay:

I have learned to leave my words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs in the stuck places in between, hoping that in their marvellous incompleteness, they do the kind of work intended.

The kind of work intended. I am not even sure anymore what kind of work I intend with my words, however incomplete or stuck they are. Two people, very dear to me, two people who know my words well, independently, told me that what I did best was write what was hard. I don’t know how I did that, and I’m not sure I know now how to do it again.

Tonight is the longest night of the year. Daylight will creep back into our days, slowly, imperceptibly, especially as the temperatures dip and either the clouds move in, or the sun provides no real warmth. But there will be more of it, starting today. I tweet just about the same thing every year on this day, reminding everyone of the days once again, starting tomorrow, overtaking the night.

This year, friends found love, had babies, published books, won awards, created beautiful art, found new and wonderful careers, graduated, love and wrote fiercely, and showed incredible loyalty to one another. If 2016 was a betrayal, it is not because of the people in my life. I only hope I can come through for them, one day, when needed.

The last piece of unfinished, unpublished writing is from my journal.

…while I have let people down (and I have let so many down), I have been there for others when no one else was or could be. Being too much can be a superpower. Feeling too much can be a superpower. Some wanted me to harden, to calcify. Better to be too hard than too soft. Safer. But somehow, it didn’t happen, despite the best efforts of others. I didn’t develop the armor it was thought I needed. Instead, I got softer.

There is strength in that softness. There is suppleness and smoothness, and a potential to keep reshaping. There is room for folding and unfolding. Unravelling and mending. I choose soft as my superpower.

Dear 2016, you did not harden me. You did not tear me apart, not irrevocably, and you did not make it so that so many pieces were lost that I became something I wasn’t. I will mend. I will hold space. I will not despair. Dear 2016, you taught me who and what matters to me. I was made for these times:

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.

Dear 2017, watch out, I’m coming for you.

Assessing Non-Traditional Assignments Design Sprint

When I advocated for this Design Sprint over the summer to be a part of our Digital Liberal Arts series, I envisioned the opportunity to bring in Fine Arts faculty to describe and walk other faculty through their process of assessing the kinds of work (art) their students produce. I thought it was time to have a productive conversation around “subjectivity,” assessment, creativity, and experience/expertise. I thought (and still think) that there are untapped opportunities for faculty from a variety of disciplines to collaborate on what assessment means and how we go about doing it (and, above all, why).

But then the semester happened, and things didn’t go as planned. The design sprint ended up looking quite different.

I started by asking, what *is* a traditional assignment? And while the various disciplines represented had different assignments that had been (and in many cases, still remain) the standard, they all shared one important commonality: they were all text-based.

These traditional text-based assignments have evolved over time (thanks to word processors and other technologies, they’ve gotten much, much longer), their modality has largely remained the same. The norms themselves, have been entrenched into our disciplines, reinforced implicitly and explicitly throughout our academic training.

Which is why it never surprises me when I ask the question, who taught you how to grade an essay (or whatever traditional, discipline-specific assignment), everyone looks blankly at me and shrugs. No one ever (or, depending on the discipline, rarely) explicitly taught us how to grade and assess what we are expected to grade and assess as TAs, as adjuncts, as junior professors.

And yet, we do it, and we’ve been doing it.

We know what a good traditional text-based assignment is in our discipline is because we have been normed into recognizing it. But we rarely take the time to sit down and reflect on what those norms are. Which is what I asked the participants to do next, list the “writing norms” and the “disciplinary norms” for their traditional, text-based assignments.

For the writing, there was the usual expectation of having a purpose or argument or thesis, supported by evidence, and presented in a way that was compelling, convincing, and made sense. It involved understanding the purpose and audience, and selecting the proper language level that corresponded with those twin influences (while admitting that for much of those traditional, text-based assignments, the audience was “the professor.”).

Oh, and following directions, which basically means, follow the norms.

For the discipline, it involved citation style; proper (or at least appropriate) theoretical or methodological approaches; understanding the proper use of primary versus secondary sources; and use of tables, figures, equations, notations, etc. Each discipline represented of course, had their own answers, but this encapsulates the general standards that each disciplines defines and reinforces.

The thing is about these norms is that they are, in fact, values. And the values themselves aren’t necessarily attached to a specific modality. At least, not all of them. Listing these values gives us an opportunity to re-evaluate what we think is most valuable in any given assignments, and allows us to start building a set of criteria that we can build upon when it comes time to assessing non-traditional assignments that are becoming increasingly common, taking advantage of the technologies that are available to us.

The biggest challenge, however, is admitting that we are all largely novices at this kind of work. No one ever explicitly taught us how to grade and assess each of our traditional assignments, but we have years of experience reading and writing these kinds of assignments ourselves, through our graduate school courses, our literature reviews, our own essays for courses, our research publications, our theses and dissertations, our exams, and our own grading experiences.

Just as we don’t expect a first-year undergraduate student to produce a publishable piece of work in our disciplines, we should not expect that we are as able and as confident in our work assessing the kinds of scholarship that now exist and that our students (and colleagues) are producing. We are novices, and that is a deeply unsettling position to find ourselves in.

Or, it can be deeply freeing. It gives us to opportunity to re-examine our values as educators, our values as practitioners in our disciplines, and our values when it comes to assessment. Because our experience and our expertise doesn’t just disappear, it just needs to be reassessed and realigned.

It can also be deeply humbling to assess work that we ourselves don’t feel confident that we could reproduce or do ourselves. We can turn away from that moment, or we can choose to celebrate it, that our fields are evolving and changing and growing. We can help our students understand the standards, norms, and values that have informed our disciplines and negotiate how these can be incorporated into the new kinds of work they are doing.

But it can only happen if we have that list of values, having gone through the process of prioritizing, so that when we open those files, those submissions, our students have produced for us, we feel like we can engage in the conversation that meaningful assessment requires of us.

We also talked about metacognition and reflection, and framing of assignments, but the purpose and timing of the design sprint was really about helping faculty get through the grading that they were facing right then and there, in this moment at the end of the semester.

I also put a call out on Twitter for resources, and this is what I got, as well as ones I knew of previously:

Finding Their Place on the Web: Ed Reform by Undergrads

This is a lightly edited version of a talk I gave at MLA 14 that is still seems relevant. 

In 2014 (or rather, in 2010 when I first created this project), doing a class blog is neither cutting edge, nor particularly revolutionary for many of us. For the students I teach, however, it was, in fact, an important and empowering act. I teach at Morehead State University, in rural eastern Kentucky, in the heart of Appalachia. The majority of our students come from our “service region” which includes most of the poorest zip codes in the nation. The region itself isn’t well-served, either, by technology; affordable high-speed internet is unavailable, if students are even able to purchase computers at all. Many of my students come from failing schools where technology is used only to drill for improving test scores, and curriculum is completely taken over to achieve these goals. Many of their teachers, as well, are ill-equipped to integrate technology into the classroom. A blog, therefore, for many of my students, is a radical act.

I aim, also, to make writing relevant for my students. Authors such as David Sobel (Place-Based Education), Georgia Heard (Writing Toward Home), and Robert E. Brooke (Rural Voices) emphasize the importance of integrating place-based learning into the writing classroom. We also know that writing in a more public setting improves the writing, and gives the students increased ownership in their work. But one thing that I have also learned about my students and where they are from is that they are often spoken about and treated as a “problem” to be solved. The recent SOAR Summit on and about Eastern Kentucky reflected that attitude in many of the tweets that were generated, as well as the press surrounding it. Youth, to look at the list of participants, were invited, but it certainly didn’t feel like they were welcome to participate. They are the ones who are leaving or coming back from college with few job prospects, after all. They are also the ones who are dropping out of high school at an alarming rate.

I challenged myself to figure out how to empower my students through using digital tools in a place-based assignment that also integrated our required textbook, Reading the World: Ideas that Matter. In it, there is a section on “Education” that include readings from Paulo Freire, Seneca, Richard Feyman, John Henry Newman, and Kisautaq Leona Okakok. I began the unit by asking the students to free-write on the question: Why does high school suck? For many of my students, this was the most they had written all semester on their own. Ten minutes stretched into 15 minutes and many could have probably written for the entire class period. This opening activity grounded their thinking about education in their own experience, rural or urban, and prepared them to read seemingly unrelated readings (to their own experience) with a critical view of understanding the purpose and role of education in their lives.

We debated the role of education (creating citizens, getting a job, personal enrichment, economic driver, etc), but also discussed how we learn. Students were then challenged to research current issues in education that they were interested in exploring, sharing their results with the class. We created an informal annotated bibliography/shared resource that students could pull from for their eventual “essay” which I called an op-ed. They then moved on to specifically looking for op-eds about education and education reform, to study form and content. Finally, we moved on to the assignment which was to write their own op-ed/blog post that addressed the one issue of their choosing that they thought was the most important.

I created the blog, Ed Reform by Undergrads, which the students would contribute to.

Many of them were excited by the thought that their former teachers may in fact read their missives on their educational experiences. Students combined their own experiences with analysis of national trends to craft reforms that spoke to the specific challenges they faced or saw their friends and family face. We worked hard to balance the passion they all felt about their subject with being able to communicate effectively to their audience. We asked questions about the best resources to support their arguments and position. And my students worked together to help each other do their best work.

The blog also served another purpose; the English 200 class that produced the blog consisted of second-semester Freshmen or Sophomores, so more experienced writers. I reproduced the same assignment in my Developmental Writing class, where they used the blog posts as models, and while they weren’t expected to publish their op-eds on the blog, they were expected to comment on the blog posts. I wanted to create a sense of community between the different groups of writers, and introduce public writing to my developmental writers in a more gradual and somewhat “safer” way.

The blog itself continues to generate traffic, largely because of SEO-friendly titles that the students came up with themselves: Why Homework Sucks, Why NCLB Sucks, Why School Lunches Suck (I seemed to have opened the floodgates with my free-write question…). But it is empowering to know that middle-school and high-school students both in the region and beyond are visiting this blog as a resource to inform their own ideas and arguments about their education. This is a place where students can speak to other students, to educators, to parents, to politicians, in a way that they did not feel they could before.

The blog, as well, for me, stands as a counter-narrative to the idea of lowered expectations that my students face, that they can’t “do” this kind of work, that it’s too dangerous and damaging to them, that we need to focus on the basics in private. As my own department looks to reform the Freshman Writing sequence, this blog stands as a testament to what they can do when given the opportunity to do meaningful writing. We find ourselves in a self-defeating cycle of lowered expectations: give the students less and less creative and innovative writing, and they will do poorly, causing us to create even more simplistic and stifling writing assignments. Our students can and will read Seneca and Freire, can and will understand them, and can and will write eloquently about them if only we help them ground the work in their own realities.

Learning to Code – Why Now?


This semester, I’ve put myself in the strange position of being a student again, in my colleague Zach Whalen’s DGST 395 class, Applied Digital Studies. It’s strange for a number of reasons (for me at least), least of all is being a student in the same space as students who either a) took my DGST 101 class last semester or b) are taking my DGST 101 class immediately before 395.

I can at least say that I’ve embraced certain aspects of being a student: I’m not quite as diligent at doing my homework, and I can still participate in small group discussion derailment like a pro. But while I missed the homework post talking about what I learned while group teaching The Peripheral (what I learned: it really helps to have a PhD in Comparative Literature and more than a passing familiarity with any given genre in order to be able to teach small pieces of a novel and then talk about them), this next assignment is, I think, a must for me.

We have to each, individually, write a manifesto about why we are learning to program.

This is the entire reason, for me, for taking this course.

But of course that needs some unpacking.

We’re using Nick Montfort book Exploratory Programming for the Arts and Humanities, and he says in his introduction that I don’t need a good reason for learning to program or to code; what book that teaches a language or a musical instrument contains such justifications, he asks? (None, that’s the answer.) I read that part his introduction and the snarky student inside me cheered: THIS IS MY REASON AND NOW MY MANIFESTO IS FINISHED: BECAUSE, THAT’S WHY. THE AUTHOR SAID I DO NOT NEED ONE.

The snarky student inside me likes to talk in all-caps. Also enjoys taking the easy way out.

This is where being a student gets complicated for me – to participate in the metacognitive aspects of this class (aspects that I encourage my own students to engage in) are exercises in vulnerability. And while I know my students can read my blog, where I’ve never exactly been shy about oversharing and making myself vulnerable, it’s entirely different when the probably of them reading my work because it is directly appearing in their field of vision.

(*Waves to the students*)

Now, I shouldn’t feel this way. I constantly and continually make myself vulnerable in front of the class; I make mistakes, I admit my own shortcomings, I share the things I’m not good at, that I struggle with, and those things that make me human (like Snapchat – they keep trying and I keep not getting it). But, I’m still in front of the class. I’m not worries about losing my position of authority. And this, honestly, takes away some of the feelings of vulnerability.

All of this is really a round-about way of getting to why I want to learn how to code, in particular, right now, in Fall of 2016, as an Instructional Technology Specialist focusing on pedagogy.

Because, as Montfort points out in the Appendix of his book, it’s easier to learn anything (but particularly coding) in a group. And for me, I need the group setting as well as the structure of the class. I’ve tried to learn how to code on my own for a while, even since I started dabbling in Digital Humanities four or so years ago, and I haven’t been able to, despite all the books and all the online courses and bootcamps and apps and opportunities.

It also doesn’t help that I haven’t been able to really figure out, for myself, why I should learn to code; I don’t have a project that required it. I felt like I needed to be “legitimate” in DH (building is a big deal in DH, for better or for worse), but that feeling of legitimacy wasn’t enough to push my to learn it on my own.

Which is a long way of saying, I want to finish what I started four-plus years ago.

I also believe that having a better understanding how our “black boxes” work, especially if I’m teaching Digital Studies, is important, and learning about code, if not learning everything there is to know about coding (in one language or another), is part of my job. I’ve written before about having enough of an understanding of coding as a form of empowerment, just one I haven’t really embraced as fully as I could or should.

I also want to better understand and communicate with my colleagues in DTLT who do know and understand code. I want to be able to “think computationally”, to push myself to learn not only a new skill, but a new way of thinking. The “hook” for me, particularly with this book is the idea of creative coding – I need some more creativity in my life, professionally and otherwise.

I’m at a crossroads, and I’m in a space where I can decide what comes next. Even if coding isn’t what’s next for me, I can put a period on something from my immediate past that never got finished. And, hopefully, it can serve as a kind of palate cleanser and create space for figuring out what’s next for me.

Why do I want to learn to code? Because.

Because I played with LOGO when I was in elementary school. Because I played with LOGIC on our family’s Commodore 64. Because I watched my dad copy lines of code form a magazine to inevitably make some transcription error that caused the program not to work, and because he didn’t understand the code couldn’t tell where he made the mistake. Because I learned HTML as a Freshman in college and then gave it up when I did graduate school because “playing on the Internet” would make me appear unserious. Because it’s about damn time.

Because I’m going to have to teach it next semester.

That seems like as good a reason as any.

Faculty Development for the 21st Century and Beyond

This is a talk I gave for a job interview almost two years ago. I’m still pretty happy with it, and I thought it was time that I share it here. 

I’d like to start my talk with a question, but perhaps not the question you would expect. My question, and how I am framing this discussion today belies my background teaching writing – it is a question about audience: Who does faculty development ultimately serve? The answer would certainly appear to be obvious, as it is right there in the title: Faculty, of course! However, I would point you to the mission statements of both Chapman University and of your own IETL.

To provide personalized education of distinction that leads to inquiring, ethical and productive lives as global citizens.

To promote the value and practice of excellent teaching that facilitates student learning.

I have a deep appreciation of both those mission statements as they focus on aspects of learning. And when we talk about learning, ultimately we must also think about the student. And thus when we talk about who we, as faculty developers serve, we can never forget that the student, along with their learning experience and outcomes, are ultimately who we all serve.

This tension can be best seen in the difficulty in the development of good Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (or SoTL). It was best articulated to me by faculty developers from the University of Wisconsin System who do a week-long workshop with faculty from across the state every summer, in order to facilitate the production of SoTL work. During their presentation at the POD conference in Dallas, they stated that the hardest part for faculty was turning their “teaching problem” into a “learning question.” Faculty development must always have these intertwined constituencies under consideration when working with faculty: on the one hand, you have the faculty who are sitting in front of you, but behind them, the students that they teach.

The university is a complex ecosystem where multiple parties work in a variety of ways to fulfill the goals of the institution. Faculty development is one piece of that ecosystem, much like the classroom, the lab, the library, the cafeteria, the admissions office, and other units on campus. There is an analogy that I like to use with my students when I am teaching them, and in particular when introducing a more active, peer-drive, project-based learning approach, an approach many of them are quite unfamiliar with and uneasy about. I took it from Douglas Thomas and John Seeley Brown in their book A New Culture of Learning, and it is the image of the Petri Dish.

What are Petri dishes used for? Experiments, where elements are added together, creating a nutrient-rich environment, in order for something to grow (or fester, as I would often joke with my students). What you add will be dictated by what you want to grow. And the growth is a complex process that does not always happen the way you planned. And what grows, when either expected or unexpected, can be quite beautiful.

I also like the image of the Petri Dish because it has clear boundaries, both in terms of transparency and in terms of boundaries. Good faculty development has clear guidelines, services, and accountability, while (as always) respecting the privacy and confidentiality of faculty members who visit us, while also always being encouraged to interact and play a role in sustaining and growing the “nutrient rich” environment. We need to create these safe spaces for faculty to come and learn and grow. As your Institute is a faculty-driven initiative, I have no doubt that you have strived to create such an environment, and looking at your poster presentation from the aforementioned POD conference, I see that you have grown something really special here at Chapman. But the landscape, the environment, will always be changing and evolving; it is up to the leader of the Institute to be able to react to these changes and maintain a place and a space for productive growth.

The Petri Dish is not a perfect analogy; no analogy ever is. One can read the previous slide as another analogy of the university and all the various units, with their own environments, growing on their own. There is transparency, but there are also walls, keeping the various spaces isolated from one another. This can be danger to creating proper conditions, when we cut ourselves off from parts of campus, or parts of the mission of the university. I return to the idea of student as being an important concern in our work as faculty developers. Faculty development, and an Institute or Center for Teaching and Learning, can move beyond the Petri dish, and instead be a place to integrate into the various ecosystems of campus.

So how do we create the proper conditions? I’m going to continue my talk with a story. My academic background is in Comparative Literature, so I’m drawn to the power of a story. I’m always looking for the narrative thread, the clever turn of a phrase, many possible meanings, intertextual references, and (as you have already seen) illustrative, if imperfect, analogies. About a month ago, my seven-year-old daughter made a skirt. I will admit to not knowing how to sew, how to read a pattern, or even owning a sewing machine, but about six months ago, my daughter started to ask about learning how to sew. Rather, she started begging me to teach her. So I began to put a plan into motion to help her achieve her goal of learning how to sew.

First, was to find someone who knows how to sew, as well as procuring a proper sewing machine. I began to work my social media circles to find the best resources to get started, both for her and for myself. Thankfully, my mother (who knows how to sew) was coming to visit, and was bringing a sewing machine as a Christmas present. My mother taught my daughter how to use the machine, and my daughter, in turn, taught me. We moved on to making a skirt, watching a YouTube video about how to read, pin, and sew a pattern. The day after watching the video, we started to make the skirt.

We quickly discovered that our scissors weren’t quite sharp enough and were too big for my daughter’s hands. It would have also helped to have a ruler. But we pressed forward, with my daughter and I trading duties. She even made a mistake and had to undo her work and start all over again. In the end, the hem wasn’t quite straight, but she wore it proudly on the first day of school, because as she said, that way, everyone knew it was special and that it was mine.

So, what was the point of this story? I think it illustrates, in a microcosm, what faculty development should and will look like in the 21st century. Much of it probably won’t surprise you. It looks shockingly like good pedagogical practice. Faculty development should be focused on process, not just results. Unlike the skirt pattern, faculty development, in fact all learning, isn’t nearly as neat and formulaic. It should be collaborative, and draw on the resources that are available to us. It also needs to be responsive to the faculty, the student’s, and the collective community’s needs, strengths, and motivations. We also need to have access to a variety of tools and resources in order for faculty to have a choice and use what is most appropriate. This ties into the need for faculty development to be community-driven, a model that you have already adopted here at Chapman. It also should be varied in its development method, taking a multi-modal approach. The workshop is just one way to deliver faculty development. And because we are focused on the process, productive failures (and reflection on them) are to be encouraged.

Again, none of this is particularly surprising. There is a nascent community here at Chapman, and until I understand it better, I hesitate to suggest prescriptive solutions (although feel free to ask about specific challenges or issues you are facing or are anticipating during the subsequent discussion). But I do want to introduce a few more radical elements to create a productive and sustainable environment for your teaching and learning community here through the IETL. Those elements are vulnerability, affect, and trust. The three, to me, are intrinsically linked. We cannot teach, nor learn, without being vulnerable, in admitting that there are things that we are not expert in, and that we need help. The willingness to be vulnerable and come forward asking from help is often a result of affect, of strong feelings towards either the subject matter to be taught, or feelings towards the students themselves, often both. These feelings can lead to research-based, sound solutions to whatever the challenge might be, but there must be that feeling that things need to change, strong enough to overcome the vulnerability. Finally, there must be trust, in order for the faculty to agree to work with you and each other in order to create and sustain the change.

As individuals or as peoples, by fighting for the restoration of [our] humanity [we] will be attempting the restoration of true generosity. And this fight, because of the purpose given it, will actually constitute an act of love – Paulo Freire

I want to end with where I began. I chose both my title and slide image because of the literary imagery they evoke: Don Quixote. Both Duck Dodgers and Buzz Lightyear can be read as contemporary reinterpretations of the infamous errant knight, tilting at windmills, imagining themselves guardians of a code and tradition or mission, one that we can see is incompatible with the reality of the world they are living in. I wonder if you can see where I am going with this. One could read the contemporary faculty (at least how they are portrayed in the media and elsewhere) as being engaged in a kind of Quixotic journey, powerlessly tilting at windmills, Cervantes stand-in for technological advancement, and guardians of The Institution. Perhaps some faculty even believe this of themselves! But who would these knight-errants be without their trusty side-kicks, their Sancho Panzas, their Porky Pigs, their Woodys? And if we truly believed that being a professor has become some sort of parody, then we wouldn’t have faculty development.

But I want us to sit with this potentially uncomfortable analogy for a moment. I put it here as a serious acknowledgement that the landscape of higher education, pedagogy, and teaching and learning has changed for faculty, and quite rapidly, over the past ten years. The changes in technology, in our students, and in our institutions, have been profound and, at times, bewildering. I include myself in this characterization, having taught at the collegiate and university level for over 15 years. I was Buzz Lightyear, blindly and not a little naively barreling my way into the classroom, just as my mentors and teachers had done before me. One of the reasons I got into faculty development is because I was left on my own to navigate these changes, and while I was successful, I knew that there had been too many missed opportunities. I built a virtual community and a body of knowledge, and I want to bring that experience and expertise to help build the IETL and the faculty capacity. I want to be a part of the community here at Chapman University, and I’d like to spend the rest of the time today getting to know you and your culture here. Thank you.

Many Hands, One Manuscript

The Acknowledgement section of my book, A Journey in Translation: Anne Hébert’s Poetry in English, (WHICH IS OUT) is four pages long. That’s what happens when you’ve been working on something for more than fifteen years. And even that, to me, seems excessive. No one write that many pages of acknowledgements. No one thanks everyone. Not in the humanities. Thank your supervisor, thank who funded you, thank your family. Done.

At the same time, four pages is INCREDIBLY restrained for me. I could have written 200 more pages about the writing of the 244 pages the book ended up being. Four pages seems, to me, like too few to capture just how much everyone I did mention meant to the writing of the manuscript, and all of the people who didn’t make it in there because their influence and support were the kind that is hard to articulate in an appropriate way (“Thanks for helping to keep me alive and relatively sane!”).

There are a couple of reasons that I keep dwelling on these four pages that proceed the “meat” of the manuscript, the actual scholarship. There are people, so many people, who have cared for me and about me and my work. We do not celebrate nearly often enough those people who took the time to care. It is a community of scholars and friends and peers and acquaintances that make a piece of scholarship like this possible. Were there days (and days and days and days) of me alone, in archives, at my computer, in my office spaces, in libraries? Yes. But they were all because of the support of others that I was able to do the work that I did.

Especially because I have long been in positions where this kind of scholarship is not required or even expected. I was a contingent faculty member before moving into alt-ac positions in faculty development and instructional technology. I changed countries, making the relevance of things like translation and Canadian and Québécois literature even more spurious for my academic employment. I love and believe in my research, but it was the love and belief of others, in me more so than my work, that pushed me to not give up on what I was doing.

And so I want to tell some stories about the genesis of this manuscript, because really, it’s about one author’s story of her poetry being translated and transformed. This is an imperfect and abbreviated story of how this all transformed me.

It doesn’t start without the decision, of course, to go to Sherbrooke instead of, say, McGill or Concordia or, well, any of the large number of English-language institutions within a two-hour drive of where I grew up. But instead I decided to flex my supposedly bilingual muscles in Sherbrooke at a French university, studying English.

For the three years leading up to the class that introduced me to Anne Hébert’s poetry and their translations, I made some of the best friends, who helped me become someone who was really bilingual, rather than just having jumped through the various hoops in high school to confirm that I knew French enough to pass a test. Fun fact: I almost failed my French grammar class at Sherbrooke. But I started dreaming in French after all those years.

We all code-switched, regularly, and without even thinking about it. We were constantly translating ourselves and each other, depending on the situation, the conversation, the topic at hand. I remember my early days at Sherbrooke, out at the campus bar, unable to follow the conversations in French that were going on around me. I remember all the times I misused words and expressions. Those moments left me feeling foolish and lost and alone. But I made some of the best friends of my life during those years.

Julie and Sean in particular, you didn’t get a mention, but thank you for giving me another chance and becoming my friends.

I do mention Richard Giguère’s Québécois poetry class in my acknowledgements, because it was his class that specifically started this journey. But while I was going through my old files, I found that I had kept the paper I had originally written for his class, complete with his annotations.

Original AH Translation Essay

As you can see (if you go to the end), I got an A-, largely because I had completely disregarded the sonority of the original French poem. But re-reading the 30 (!) page paper, I was struck at once at how naively confident I was in my writing, but also that the paper was pretty good. It was, as my writing always has been, filled with typos and sloppy mistakes, on top of being well-researched, but poorly cited in terms of following any given style. As my copyeditor (who got a big thank-you in the acknowledgements as well) will attest, I haven’t really improved in the intervening years.

The paper, though, is a flight of fancy, written in a flurry of energy and enthusiasm. I remembered that feeling, that excitement, the drive I had to write that paper, to do the research, which stuck with me for all these years. Where did that voice go, I wondered. Was it still in my manuscript, buried deep beneath the academic prose and insecurity that graduate school breeds?

I’m grateful that Dr. Giguère fanned that flame, and made me feel like this was something I could pursue, and that it was something I was if not good at, then not horrible at either.

See here where I thank the alt-ac women in my life. That still stands.

I’ve written before about how things fell apart for all of us in our PhD program. And I did what I do when faced with a stressful situation in unfamiliar surroundings: I threw myself into the water. More specifically, I joined a Masters swim team. And those teammates got me through my last year of graduate school.

They kept me sane. My days (and nights and weekends) once spent stressing about teaching or my research or the department politics were now filled with swimming and camaraderie and laughter and physical exhaustion and friendship as we all tried to balance our studies with our swimming. But unlike the competitive college team, we were much more laid back, which suited all of us just fine.

I was only on the team for a year, but those teammates were at my wedding and remain some of my best friends. We came together at just the right moment in each others’s lives, around a shared love of swimming. We were different majors, different ages, different ability levels in the water, but none of that mattered, not that year.

I started to feel more like myself than I had since I moved to Edmonton that year. It gave me the confidence to keep going and not give up on finishing my PhD. They reminded me how much I valued a diverse community around me, that I needed a life outside of my work (but also work outside of my life).

So to the 2004-2005 Penguins Masters Swim Team, thanks.

When I gave up my tenure-track position to keep my family together and moved to rural Eastern Kentucky, I made an irreparable decision about the path of my career and my research. My scholarship had to take a backseat to the reality of a heavy teaching course load and little-to-no institutional support. Thus is the reality of contingency. I wasn’t prepared, however, for how personally isolating my new geographic location would be, and how professionally isolating my various “downgrades” in status would be.

But I had started the ball rolling on my second research project, still had all this research and writing on my dissertation, because of the year in a tenure-track position; I had spent my first (and only) year on the tenure-track having a baby and setting myself up for tenure down the road. When I left said tenure-track position, I kept the ball rolling on all of these projects because, well, I guess I didn’t really know what else to do. Contracts had been signed, manuscripts had been sent out, and I somehow held out the naive hope that this was some temporary blip and I would one day be a tenure-track faculty member again.

Stop rolling your eyes at me.

But of course, working in isolation takes a toll. No one valued my work with many going so far as to actively (but in a caring way) discourage me from doing it. The futility of it all weighed heavily. I wasn’t taken seriously where I worked, and because of where I worked, most others didn’t take me seriously.

So I wrote. And I spent money that I didn’t have to go to conference, not in the hopes anymore of getting a job but in the hopes of finding a community, a place where my work was valued. And I found it online, and I found it in EMiC.

I’ve written elsewhere before about how much being included in the project meant to me. And I’ve said thank you in the book. But I need to say it again.

A bit more on my social network.

My presence of Twitter lead to a couple of important connections that lead to my manuscript getting finished. One of them was my work that I did for Academic Coaching and Writing; if it weren’t for my digital presence, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to work with a coach and get a final push on reshaping the dissertation into the manuscript it became.

It also lead to the EMiC opportunity because someone who knew me from Twitter found me at a conference and made a recommendation that I reconnect with a former colleague.

It lead to me being able to move into a faculty development role, which lead to a professional renaissance, and money to actually pay the bills.

I got archives at the last possible minute to incorporate into my manuscript from someone I knew from Twitter whom I had never met but was willing to help.

But what my network also allowed me to do was to rediscover, over and over, the excitement I had around my research topic. Finding a community of researchers who were also interested and excited by my topic, finding new archives at the last minute and then being able to read new letters and new records into my manuscript…I was that 22-year-old again, writing her last undergraduate paper, and finding out at the end of it, there was more, and knowing in that moment, I was going to keep writing this. I was excited, delighted even, again and again, through the latter stages of this process because of people I met and knew online.

That last little anecdote is a small, tangible example of how important and supportive my larger social network has been. Even if it didn’t lead to a job or finding a coach or getting my hands on a piece research, my community online has provided so much positive reinforcement over the years, celebrating with me, as well as comforting me when things were difficult. And I, them.

We were in this together, through writing and teaching and career transitions and publications and rejects and births and deaths and and and.

There is a lot of ugliness and hatred and assholery online, specifically on social media. But it’s not only that. And I’ve been lucky that my experience has been largely positive, and even empowering. It’s a privilege. But it’s one that I am grateful for, and work to nurture and expand.

The book exists because I have, at various points, had people around me who supported me both directly and indirectly. I did not write this book alone.

And I don’t celebrate it alone, either.

And as much fun as it is to celebrate virtually with all of my friends and family, it was really special to have a book launch/birthday party thrown by my still-new coworkers. I think they all know, but it touched me so deeply that they would come out and celebrate this with and for me, because…

Most of the time, the way things have gone for me and my career, any party thrown in my honor is a goodbye party, because I’m leaving, again.

It’s a complicated feeling that begins to develop when the only parties you get are the ones that are thrown because you’ve leaving town.

But to have a party because you’re there and you’re staying and they’re happy about that and proud of the book you’ve produced, that meant a lot to me.

And it meant a lot to me too that my new co-workers put up with my taking days off with little notice to hole up in my basement to work on my manuscript in a flurry so I could meet a deadline that had suddenly appeared. And my nerding out over new archives. And tearing my hair out over copyediting.

None of which are directly related to my current job.

It means a lot to me that I have people that I can share this with in these moments.

I’ll leave the last words to my 7-year-old son, who goes around telling everyone that they need to buy my book:

“You’re a real author now, Mom. Everyone is going to know you. That’s awesome.”

On The Tragically Hip

Today, all of Canada, and most Canadians around the world, are suffering from a massive emotional hangover. Last night, CBC broadcast, live, the last ever concert by The Tragically Hip, as their lead singer. Gord Downie, has a terminal, inoperable brain tumor. You can read here a piece trying to explain to Americans what The Tragically Hip means to Canadians. There are so many of them floating around the Internet, starting from the moment he announced his prognosis to now, the final show of their final tour.

I wrote one, quickly and emotionally, as a note on facebook. I refined those thoughts, on growing up, on national and national pride, and being, as Gord described the band during the show last night, “scrapping and being really weird,” through the lens of another Canadian band that I loved, Barenaked Ladies. I loved BNL first, and then came around to The Hip.

This has been a rough year for losing our (long) generation’s musical heroes. We lost Bowie. We lost Prince. Both deaths were sudden and unexpected and left us reeling, with Bowie leaving us a good-bye letter disguised as an album. There wasn’t a chance to say goodbye, to be able to let us, the fans, let them know while they were still alive how much they meant to us. Gord gave us that chance this summer. I am grateful for that chance. This is no small favor to the fans. This is no small sacrifice for a dying man to make. A farewell tour.

I couldn’t make any of the concerts live this summer. I love concerts. I love the experience of a live, collective experience, screaming and singing and moving (and I would think in this case, crying) together. I haven’t seen The Hip nearly as many times as many of my friends did, but I remember those shows, those moments. A Hip concert was the thing that brought together the two disparate groups of friends that I had; first, my swimming and my school friends, then my Montreal (Anglo) friends and my Sherbrooke (Francophone) friends. I also couldn’t make any of the many viewing parties that sprung up, still being able to share the experience in a public, collective setting.

But in another way, I’m glad I was home watching it in my basement. It was intimate and it was personal and it was still beautiful. Being at the show meant that I wouldn’t have been able to see the raw emotion on Gord’s face, all the times he broke down into tears, especially during Fiddler’s Green. But I was far from alone; I was watching alongside my best friend, as we texted each other; I was watching with my friends from high school on facebook; and I was watching with my larger network of Canadian ex-pats on Twitter. We shared our memories in a way that we wouldn’t have been able to in a concert environment. We wrote through the memories and the grieving and the celebration.

The show itself did not disappoint. How could it? I was especially grateful for the reminder of how good the album Phantom Power was. I was glad to be able to hear the greatest hits and sing along and cheer as the opening cords started and I not-so-silently squeed and then bombarded my husband (and Twitter) with memories and meaningful lyrics. You can read the entire set list here, and while they didn’t play everything (Boot or Hearts, anyone?), it more than met the expectations that we all had for a final show.

I’m a greedy fan, however. I wanted more show, all the songs, but especially the songs that meant something to me. I was at once grateful for the experience, and simultaneously tweeting the songs they hadn’t played it. Namely, the song “Ahead by a Century” from Trouble at the Henhouse. As the two and a half hour set went on, and they played song after song that I thought would make a good farewell, I worried I wouldn’t get to hear the song I most wanted to.

There were so many good ways they could have ended. They did “Scared” from Day for Night, the album that changed my view of The Hip permanently for the better. I still have no idea what the song is about, but the last line is “It’s been a pleasure doing business with you” which would have been good. I would have sworn that the last song would have been “Nautical Disaster”, a song during which Gord is known for going off on long, incoherent and incomprehensible tangents. What a perfect way to end.

And the more I thought about it, the less I wanted the show to end with Ahead by a Century. They came out of an unprecedented third encore, and launched into an early hit, “Locked in the Trunk of a Car” could have also closed it up (“LET ME OOUOUOUOUOUOUT”), but “Gift Shop” (“The rest of the world/becomes a gift shop”) was followed by the opening cords of the song I no longer wanted to be the last.

It was too much. The song starts with the innocence and care-free nature of a hypothetical youth (first thing we’s climb a tree/and maybe then we’d talk/or sit silently/or listen to our thoughts/With illusions of some day/cast in a golden light) which is followed by a line that every single Hip fan knows and possible has tattooed somewhere on their bodies and their souls: No dress rehearsals/This is our life.

And that’s when the hornet stung me.

The next verse and the chorus is about the reality of life and getting older. But the last line, the last line of the concert, the line that Gord was going to leave us with was, “And disappointing you is getting me down.”

I’m crying just typing this out and remembering everything that The Hip has meant and will continue to mean to me and to my friends and to an entire generation of Canadians. I tweeted the following:

They never once did. There was never a scandal, there was never any seedy rumors or bad behavior. There was music and stories of kindness and collective experiences and generosity and the music and the shows and the friendships and the lyrics and the music, always the music.

You never, ever, ever disappointed any of us, even in saying goodbye and being generous enough to share some of your final moments with all of us. If we are mourning, it is because you never once disappointed. Never. You were more than we deserved, you were exactly what we needed, you were everything we ever hoped for in a band.

What a rare and wonderful and beautiful gift.

You never disappointed us. Please don’t let it get you down.


Reflections on Praxis at DPLI2016

It’s done. I did it. We did it. It was hard and challenging and exhausting and invigorating and inspiring and just so much fun. But it’s over, and I’m left trying to make sense of what exactly happened last week during Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute 2016.

I taught the Praxis track, and you can see my preliminary syllabus here, but as you will see, things changed, as they should, especially if you embrace student-centered learning and the co-creation of knowledge. Which I do. At least, I try to.

(This whole process was inspired by Audrey Watters who taught the Action Track. I wish I had done this earlier, because I swear I don’t remember what happened on Wednesday. Not well. But I’ll try to recreate the week. You can see a long, heavily curated Storify of the week, focusing on our track.)

Monday was magical. We all came together in a space and allowed for ourselves to be vulnerable and creative. I first asked them to get to know each other by creating a picture of what their ideal class would be, prompting them to think figuratively about their pedagogical philosophy.

I then handed out index cards, in order for them to write down their three to five most important pedagogical values, with the goal of giving them a resource they can take with them beyond this week to remind them of those things most important to them when making decisions around their teaching.

And finally, we started to imagine what our dream course would be, with no curricular, institutional, or resource limitations. Very rarely do we get to engage in these kinds of big, bold, imaginative thinking when it comes to the courses we teach.

(Feel free to steal any of these exercises. Just warmly and accurately say that it was all my idea.)

My track was already starting to take my “this is your course, to make of it what you will, and to do in it what you will” by continuing to talk and talk and talk and talk and talk when I was trying to nudge them towards their goals.

Which was awesome. It became a theme.

The two keynotes Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning really helped reinforce a lot of things I had already said (as well as being thought provoking and awesome). Tressie McMillan Cottom put up two questions that she keeps returning to when making decisions around the Master’s in Digital Sociology, while Cathy Davidson celebrated collaborative, participant-driven pedagogy and “stealing” great ideas from other great teachers.

When we got back into our class space on Tuesday morning, we were all feeling overwhelmed and a little mentally exhausted…which I did nothing to alleviate by crowdsourcing what we wanted to do over the rest of the week. That afternoon, we crowdsourced a digital tools document, as well as begin to have a critical discussion around tool selection, accessibility, and values, started around the barriers people in the class people encountered using Google Docs, as well as the values therein.

And that I chose to make a doc and not a spreadsheet.

No one really remembers what happened on Wednesday. Seriously. I think we spoke a little about how we go about designing our courses, but then folks were off to the races themselves, creating their courses and assignments for the upcoming semester. We also talked about creating community within and outside our course spaces, but then:

That afternoon, during the unconference, I had the pleasure of participating in a raucous VConnecting Session, connecting with pedagogues from around the world, and generally making me feel like a superstar.

Thursday (OH GOD WE’RE ALMOST THERE), I had the honor of setting the daily intention, and said something similar to what I had told the participants in the Praxis track the day before: I was deeply appreciative of the time and resources the devoted to coming to DPLI, and that I also acknowledged the amounts of affective labor and trust that they were placing in us and each other.

And then, we got to talking about assessment. We solved all of the problems and have revolutionized the practice, but we forgot to write it all down, so…

Not really. We had a good airing of grievances and analysis of the boxes we all contend with at our institutions and within our disciplines, and began to explore ways to make space for a different kind of assessment of and for our students and their work.

And then, for the final afternoon, we unconferenced our way into whatever they still needed or wanted to work on, including setting them on with their own Domain. It made me so happy that only days after being introduced to the concept of an unconference, they were confidently using it in their own practice.

Is it Friday yet? I think it’s Friday now. Friday kicked off with a joint keynote of Martha Fay Burtis and Sean Michael Morris, and then, for our last activity as a track together, I had the participants write three superpowers they had and three areas where they still felt they needed help (stolen from Cathy Davidson’s keynote). They wrote them on the whiteboard, and then people put their names by the superpower they wanted to gain. Everyone got to be a hero to someone. And everyone also got a helper for their area where they needed to grow. I was trying to help them find their tribe.

I think they did.

I’ve finally found time to finish writing about this, a week later. Life, of course, doesn’t slow down, and at this time of the year, it just ramps up. The faculty at my institution have all gone back on contract, and so my days are filled with faculty consultations, opening events, faculty development activities, not to mention getting my own class up and running. But I approach it this semester with a renewed sense of purpose and energy; I did, in fact, learn as much from the participants in my track as they did from me, if not more. But I also was reminded that I had, in fact, found my place, found my tribe, and was doing the work I have always wanted to do.

My one hope is that each of the participants, at one point in their lives and careers, get to have that same feeling.

30lbs and a Two-Piece

Last summer, I finally relented and agreed to buy my daughter, then 8 years old, a two-piece swimsuit. She had been begging for one since she was old enough to express an opinion, which means since she could talk.

That’s not exactly true. When she was younger, she wants the ruffliest, most blinged-out swimsuits she could find. You know, the kind completely and totally unsuitable for swimming. The kind that look cute but are completely impractical if you wanted to actually swim; those ruffles and sparkles, when wet, weigh a ton and limit your range of motion. So, I said no, and insisted on the most practical, swimming-enabling suit I could convince her to wear. Often, it still had a lot of sparkle.

My issue with getting her a two-piece were the same: I wanted her to have swimsuits that allowed her the full range of movement and activity when it came to being at the pool or the beach, and most two-pieces just didn’t cut it. And, most suits that were appropriate were way more money than I was willing to spend.

I just used the word “appropriate.” I don’t really like using it to talk about buying my daughter a two-piece because the default assumption on what I mean by the word are things like “modesty” or even “age-appropriate.” I thought, and still think, that it’s appropriate for my then 8-year-old to feel good enough in her own skin that she wants to wear a two-piece. I want her to feel confident, comfortable, and, above-all, like she can do all the things she wants to do in the water.

We settled on a neon-floral print tank-style two-piece. Thick straps, minimal ruffles, solid fit. She wore it out. And I decided I had to buy my own two-piece.

Growing up, for a long time, I didn’t have issues with my body. I swam and I was good at it and my body was the thing that made me a good swimmer. It’s not that people didn’t try; one time in elementary school, I was told that I was going to have ugly broad shoulder from swimming, and at a school where the most popular girls with ballerinas and figure skaters, this was the worst insult they could find for me, the weird, slightly smelly, girl who swam.

No, it wasn’t until the equivalent of middle-school that I finally was burdened with the knowledge that my body was not my own to love. Standing in the bathroom with some friends, we were taking turns listing all of the things they would change about themselves (read: their bodies). Except, when it was my turn, I said that I was pretty happy with myself and wouldn’t change anything. They all turned and stared at me, in stunned silence, before one of them finally spat out, “Well, that’s the most arrogant thing I’ve *ever* heard,” and then they all rolled their eyes at me and walked out, leaving me, and my “arrogance,” behind.

But I never, ever felt uncomfortable or self-conscious in a swimsuit. Pool parties or class trips to pools or water parks were a brief reprieve for me from usual tween and then teen anxieties. Years of swimming (and years of being exclusively in a swimsuit) made it easy for me to walk around in front of everyone in a small layer of Spandex. And while I understood my friends who were more self-conscious in their suits, I didn’t understand the ones who just sat around in their bikinis, somewhere between mortified and bored.

In a lot of ways it was easier to be in a swimsuit around my friends and classmates, rather than other swimmers at swim meets. As I aged, and puberty hit, my body no longer looked like a “swimmer’s” body. There were two basic types for girls: tall and skinny as rails – lean and mean and sinuous, or broad and built – large and hard and thickness. I was curvy and (even worse) chesty. There were so many fat deposits on my body I could never get rid of. I felt betrayed by my body.

My body continues to betray me. I stepped on the scale this week, and it was official: 30 pounds overweight. I haven’t been this heavy since immediately after my son was born. I was doing ok with my weight, surviving the job transition and living without my family, the move, the holidays, but it couldn’t endure a major depressive episode. I slid, and the weight piled on.

My body will continue to betray me. If the research wasn’t depressing enough, my genetics will ensure that I won’t ever be thinner or lighter, at least not without the kind of effort that would encompass my life in a way that would be as destructive as the depression. I look exactly like my grandmother and my aunt, from our faces to our coloring to our body types. I look at my face and see theirs, I look at my body and I see theirs. It is too much.

It is terrible to say, but if I am grateful for anything, it’s that my kids both got the genetics of my mother and my brother; my son is in the second percentile for weight despite eating nothing by cheese and bread, with some bananas thrown in for good measure, while my daughter, the ballerina, can out-eat everyone in our house and keep the shape needed to get anywhere in her chose activity.

But I also know that this doesn’t guarantee any less stress when it comes to body issues for my kids as they grow up, as they age. I work hard to make sure my kids have a healthy relationship with food. No being made to feel guilty about seconds (or thirds), no insisting they clean their plates either. Eat until you are full, eat good foods to fuel you, eat delicious foods to feed you, don’t deny yourself the pleasure of the foods you like. Listen to your body. No being made to feel self-conscious about how their bodies are shaped, formed, or looking. Embracing that all bodies are good bodies, capable of many different things.

Which means practicing what I preach. No more talks of diets, or calorie counting, or working out to lose weight. Dad runs to help his blood pressure, Mom does yoga to get strong again. We make better choices about snacks and meals, because our bodies need different fuels, and some fuels are better than others. I try so hard not to show how much it hurts me when a dress doesn’t look right anymore, or I can’t get pants done up. I try to hide the pain and the shame I feel when I look at myself in the mirror and wish I could change my body, melt away all of the extra fat around my middle, which keeps expanding and stretching.

The first time I ever wore a two-piece, it was when I went away to Florida for training camp with my college swim team. I didn’t have one, and I was the only girl on the team without one. I bought one when I got there, wearing it the entire time. I was the only one who didn’t have a bikini to change into when not training.

It was my Freshman year, my first time living away from home, and I wasn’t fitting in on the swim team. My schedule had me in class during practice just about every day, and I no longer had the motivation to get up and do morning workouts. I didn’t really get along with any of the other girls on the team, and I was acutely feeling how mediocre a swimmer I really was. I had been sick, as well, off and on, the entire semester thus far, due to taking poor care of myself.

But there is a picture of me, at the end of the camp, with my training group. I’m standing in front of the four guys, hands on my hips, tanned, hair bleached light from the sun and salt water, smiling. And, there, where I had never noticed them, were four clearly delineated ab muscles. I had abs. I had never noticed my abs, too embarrassed about my gut to ever show that part of my body.

I quit the team soon afterwards, unable to find the motivation to keep swimming. That summer, my last one lifeguarding, we had the choice of purchasing a two-piece alongside the usual one-piece Speedo we would always get as a part of our uniform. I got one, but I was freshly embarrassed of my post-swimming, Freshman-weight-gain body. I didn’t know how bad it would get, weight-gain wise, for me.

When I decided last summer that I would get a two-piece, I didn’t realize how complicated a process that would be. But then again, I should have; shopping for jeans has long been a fraught and complicated affair. Why would getting a two-piece be any different?

I didn’t want to just go with a straight up Speedo-style two-piece. For one thing, the style now was thin straps, and thin straps just weren’t going to offer enough support. Because, I had suits for real swimming. I wanted a suit for hanging out at the pool or beach with the kids not doing much more than ensuring they don’t drown.

So many of the suits, as well, are modeled and marketed for women much thinner and…flatter than I am, making it almost impossible to see if the suit would provide enough coverage (those lovely stretch marks my son gifted me) and support. And, because I started mid-summer, many of the styles I was interested in were already sold out in my size.

My size. This was also a bit of a challenge. Not quite plus-sized, but *just* outside of the size-range of many traditional brands. It’s fabulously frustrating. It’s also why I own many, many dresses from a small handful of brands and designers that actually make a size that fits me well. I mean, for now.

I took to Twitter (as I do for most things), to try and find little-known or boutique brands. The Canadian small label Nettle’s Tale was suggested to me, and I immediately knew that these were suits I would wear, but also a business I wanted to support. The women in the promotions are of all shapes and sizes, ages and races, wearing the same suit, to show how it looks on all types of bodies. They have honest sizing that is easy to understand, and recommendations for different suits for different body types.

I now own the equivalent of five of their suits, including a lovely one-piece.

I live-tweeted the whole ordeal of finding the suit, and so I also quasi-live-tweeted the wearing of said two-piece suits to the pool. They were jokey, largely: “Wore my two-piece today at the pool. No one died. Apocalypse averted for another day!” One day, a girls, maybe 11 or 12 shyly came up to me to compliment me on my suit, telling me it as pretty.

Maybe it was the way I carried myself that summer – fresh off of four months of yoga, where I could now do a push-up for the first time in forever, and was feeling stronger in my body than I had in a long time – that made it so easy to wear that two-piece. Even when my mom turned her nose up at the suit when I took it out of the box to show her. You’re going to wear *that*, she asked? And as I wore it, she kept subtly giving me a hard time about it.

Never mind that she used to always wear a two-piece when I was growing up. I have a picture of her in one, from a vacation, where is is probably the same age as I am now. It was ok for her to wear a two-piece, the message was then, and it still was today, because she had the right body for a two-piece. She no longer did. I never had, and certainly did not now. But last summer, it didn’t matte to me.

This summer, it’s a different story.

We went to the beach yesterday. I put on one of the two-piece suits, but all I wanted to do was hide under a giant cover-up. But I love the beach, and I spent a lot of money on these suits, so I was going to wear the suits, to the beach, and I was going to smile and sit in the sun and splash in the water and enjoy the time with my family, even if I wanted to hide away and never come out so that no one ever had to see my body.

Of course, no one care. No one gave me a second look. And, there were so many different sizes and shaped bodies wearing all kinds of suits. The beaches closest to where we live right now are distinctly working class. And I realized how much class has shaped my view of whether or not it was ok for me to wear a two-piece based on my body.

There was always an implicit (and sometimes explicit) message about the kinds of women who would wear a two-piece “when clearly they shouldn’t.” That they were low-class, with all that that implies. Growing up, that was also wrapped up with the issues of language, with low-class Québécois being seen as less-than for wearing two-pieces. I realized I wasn’t just ashamed of my body, but ashamed of how I might be perceived as low-class. Low-class because I am clearly unhealthy. Low-class because I should know better. Low-class because it looks trashy. Low-class because it looks like I’m lazy and don’t care. There are rules about bodies, beach bodies, and I wasn’t following them. Only low-class people don’t follow the rules.

This particularly weight – the weight of my upbringing, my biases, my perceptions, my deep-seeded need to be seen in a certain way – is far heavier than the extra 30lbs or so I’m carrying on my body. This weight, these expectations, so deeply ingrained from being alive in this body in this world for almost 39 years, is even more difficulty to lose, to shed. No diet, no exercise plan, no disciplined regime will rid me of this weight. That is the weight I see and loath when I look in the mirror.

It became more important than ever, for me, to show my kids that it was ok to wear whatever kind of swim suit that they wanted, to be comfortable in their own skins. That my body hadn’t, in fact, failed me. I am working so that they don’t have that extra weight of what society wants them to think about their bodies, policing their bodies and their attitudes towards their bodies.

And so I wear my two-piece. I walk around in my two-piece. I swim in my two-piece. No one died. Least of all me.

On Failure

My kids are on the swim team this summer, for the first time in their relatively short lives. They both love the water, and have taken swimming lessons occasionally on our various stops to here, alongside my attempts at teaching them how to swim (a total failure, despite my continued instance that I USED TO DO THIS FOR A JOB AND WAS REALLY GOOD AT IT), but the first few practices have revealed that the lack of consistent and formal training has left them literally and figuratively behind just about all of their teammates.

This has been hard on both the kids in different ways. For my son, who taught himself to swim when he was two, it has been tough on his ego to know that, no, in fact, he doesn’t know everything about swimming and may still have something to learn from someone else. For my daughter, who needs to be the best at everything and often is, she has been confronted with the reality that sometimes that isn’t as easy as it has been.

As a parent and former swimmer and coach, this has been challenging for me, too. I want them to excel and I feel badly that I didn’t do more to prepare them (admittedly, I feel the same way when I watch my son play soccer). I want them to enjoy swimming, because it brought me so much joy for so many years. But I also know that being last and lapped and struggling isn’t fun.

And so, I told my son that anything he has ever accomplished hasn’t come without some work and some effort, even if that work was unpleasant, and that those struggles happen in public. He has never really embraced the public struggle, in anything, always waiting to do things on his own time, in his own way, and only sharing with others once he had it perfect. It’s a process, and you will get better. Nobody starts from perfect.

I told my daughter that she just needed to keep working, working on her technique, sticking with it, and not being so worried about being the best, but instead just making small improvements every day. They will make a difference, and one day –

“I’ll win! Just like you did!”

I laughed. Honey, I told her, I never really won anything the entire time I was a swimmer. But the trophies, she said. Those trophies were for most dedicated swimmer, the one who was there the most, not the one who was the best. I never really won first place, individually, in all my years of swimming. I even stopped improving my times for the last four or so years I swam.

She looked at me incredulously, like I had just poked a hole in a long-held view of who I was in her mind: Champion Swimmer. Nah, I said, failed swimmer who wouldn’t give up. Failed swimmer who wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything in the world. I can have “failed” and still find satisfaction, and even joy, in those experiences.

I just finished writing a piece for Women in Higher Education on that recently-viral Failure CV. I didn’t have a hot take to share in the moment because that last thing I needed or wanted to focus on were my failures as they compared to the (supposed) failures of others. And, besides, I couldn’t take another person (read: white male) being celebrated for things I had done previously and been vilified for.

Because so much of my old blog(s) were about failure. Repeated, crushing, trivial, self-inflicted, systemic, personal, social, public, private fails. Going back over some of them, I a) can’t believe I ever wrote about them in such a way and b) can’t believe I haven’t learned anything from it. Going back over the comments, I understand why I never went back to re-read the posts; I don’t remember the lessons I learned through writing those posts, I only remember the lessons that were taught to me from those comments.

Of course, I also cringe at how naive I was, how uninformed, how gullible, how ridiculous so much of it sounds now. Not that I stand before you today hardened and jaded, but instead just more aware of the larger conversations I was desperately trying to be a part of. And thinking about how much of it, seemingly failed. I learned the wrong lessons, I failed to have the kind of impact I dreamed of having, I failed at even improving as a writer.

Which is, of course, the wrong lessons, once again, to learn.

But failure, as a result, is clearly on my mind. And success. And how terrified I remain of both of those things. Or that I’ll even know the difference when they happen.

But the kind of failure my kids are grappling with is a very different kind of failure that I was grappling with. And how they deal with those failures, how I dealt with my failures, are very, very different as well. I think what I am writing about is actually anger and frustration in the face of failure, and how that reaction is perceived and received.

Roxane Gay recently wrote a piece in the New York Times, Who Gets to Be Angry?  Rightly, she points out the gendered and racialized differences on how anger is received. And in her conclusion, she points out:

But anger is not an inherently bad thing. Most of the time, it is a normal and even healthy human emotion. Anger allows us to express dissatisfaction. It allows us to say something is wrong. The challenge is knowing the difference between useful anger, the kind that can stir revolutions, and the useless kind that can tear us down.

The anger and disappointment that I expressed in all of my posts on failure, on my failures, on higher education’s failures, was dismissed and disparaged in all the ways Gay describes (“When women are angry, we are wanting too much or complaining or wasting time or focusing on the wrong things or we are petty or shrill or strident or unbalanced or crazy or overly emotional”). I did not meet these failures with stoic acceptance or strengthened resolved; no, I met them with anger, which is the cardinal sin of a failed female academic.

I’ve tried to channel my anger in productive ways, like blogging for those who couldn’t, by being a part of a community of fellow disenfranchised “failed” academics online, by speaking out and speaking up every chance I could. But for so many of us, that anger hardened and we turned away from teaching in academia, in a lot of ways accepting the failure, not ours anymore, but more systemic, and finding new, more successful paths, but still mourning the academy we idealized and wanted to desperately to be a part of.

The failure that my kids are struggling with is one that is not career-defining or life-altering. They are young, and if swimming isn’t for them, so be it. I failed at an awful lot of sports before I finally accepted that I was a swimmer. My daughter is a dancer, ballet to be precise, and she has already shown a great deal of dedication and determination to that particular activity, one that she loves. My son has not yet shown any sort of interest in one activity or another, but when he does, I’ll talk him through the bad days, reminding him to channel his anger and frustration in positive, constructive ways.

And maybe, like all too often does in my writing, it comes back to love. My greatest frustrations and moments of anger generate from those things that I loved and cared for the most: teaching, higher education, scholarship. My daughter loves learning and ballet, so her greatest frustrations come from those two areas of her life. We have flashes of anger when we are momentarily thwarted. We have deep-seated anger when it involves those things and people that we love.

To bring back Gay’s essay, so much of the anger from the current election cycle comes from a place, unfortunately, of love, misplaced though it may be. Who or what do you love more? Who are what are you most afraid of hurting that thing or that person that you love most? And what, if anything, are we willing and able to do about it?

Of course, how we express that love, and the anger it can fuel, or at least how we’re allowed to, differs. There is so much anger in me right now generally about the state of the world, the state of affairs, the state of politics. I am powerless, in a lot of ways, unable to vote and participate in the political process. I am largely removed from the classroom where I used to be able to teach in such a ways that may make a difference, channeling my anger in somewhat productive ways.

And so I’m back here, at my keyboard, blogging. We have failed each other in so many ways, out of love, out of desperation, out of anger. I don’t see that ending anytime soon. My heart breaks every day my daughter comes home, worried that her dad and I, as well as many of her friends, will be deported, sent away. Getting angry doesn’t serve much purpose, to me, to make my kids as needlessly and unproductively angry as the parents who are telling their kids that this is a good thing. Because the potential is there, as the people they love most in the world are being threatened.

And maybe that’s another failure of mine, but it’s one that comes from love.