#YesAllWomen – A Response to Rape Culture

This post first appeared on Educating Modern Learners, and I’m finally republishing it here in reaction to the recent light sentencing of convicted rapist Brock Turner. The intended audience for this piece was K-9 teachers, but I share it here because it needs to be said, over and over, we still have far to go. 

When I was in Grade Nine, I was in a math class with my best friend. We were both “good girls,” geeks even, placed in the advanced classes, competing for highest GPA. I was also a tomboy, wearing athletic clothing (often oversized reflecting the styles of the time), with no makeup and little attention paid to my hair. We sat in the front of the class, and next to us sat two boys. They were “cooler” than we were, and at first we enjoyed their attention. Until they started groping us, sticking their hands up our shirts and our skirts and shorts. The teacher (who was male) did nothing save ask us all to “keep it down.” We asked them, begged them, to stop, and when they didn’t, we moved, but instead, the harassment got worse, with them hurling insults and curses and rape threats at us. Again, the teacher did nothing, save ask us to keep our voices down. We avoided the boys in the hallway or outside, as they continued to make lewd comments and gestures at us whenever they saw us.

We were 14. It was not the first time I was sexually harassed and assaulted at school, but it was by far the most scarring because of the complete indifference of the teacher towards the boys behavior. By simply telling both us and the boys to “keep it down” we were sent the message that a) the boys behavior was ok as long as it was kept to a whisper and b) somehow the girls were at fault as well. I shouldn’t have had to preface the story in the previous paragraph by describing what kind of girls my friend and I were and what we typically wore, but in the almost 25 years since the math class from hell, not much has changed, and if I hadn’t, how many of you would have leapt to the conclusion that we were somehow inviting this kind of attention through our dress or behavior.

#YesAllWomen

My story is not uncommon. Look at the #yesallwomen hashtag on Twitter (or from a WOC perspective, the earlier #fasttailedgirls), and you can see the damage that young girls, now women, have suffered because this kind of behavior has been tolerated in our society and institutions. If I didn’t tell anyone about what was happening in my math class, it was in part because I didn’t believe anything would be done about it and in part because I believed that this was “typical” behavior to be expected of a 14-year-old boy. I also was not a trouble-maker, and saw that fighting back or complaining would cause too much trouble, so I endured. I sucked it up. I remained silent.

But female students are refusing to stay silent any longer. The #YesAllWomen hashtag empowered a number of young women to protest the dress codes that schools often impose on girls, in the name of keeping girls “safe” and to keep the “focus on learning” and to “keep distractions to a minimum.” I wore oversized tracksuits and sweats, but that didn’t stop those two guys from harassing me. And who was more distracted, the boys, or my friend and I who were the target of a barrage of insults and taunts daily? Girls are more than their physical appearance, and boys can and should be taught to treat women with respect, regardless of dress. Girls should not fear going to school because of unwanted sexual attention. Or to be publicly humiliated by the school because of what they wear.

Possible Legal Issues

Recently, there have been a number of lawsuits against US institutions of higher education citing violations of Title IX due to the colleges’ handling of sexual assault on campus. 55 campuses are currently under Federal investigation for possible Title IX violations. Universities are more concerned often with optics than with justice. Students are being expelled for reporting rape. Professors are being denied tenure and terminated for speaking out. These students in college who are perpetrating these assaults didn’t become this way when they entered the hallowed halls of higher education.

Certainly, we can throw out the cliché “it starts at home,” or throw up our hands and blame “society”; but we cannot let the institutions that we do have direct control over off that easily.

Changing the Culture

If it is happening outside of school, it is happening inside of school, too. We can act and work to change the culture within our institution, one that doesn’t blame and shame girls, or excuse boys. We can make and actually implement policies that protect all the students, as well as a charter of values that create an environment where the policies are rarely invoked. We can look at the classrooms we create, the materials that we use, the language we utter, and decide we can and have to do better.

Title IX applies as much to high schools as it does to colleges, and it isn’t just about sports. How many girls at your school are afraid because of sexual harassment? We are creating unequal learning environments because we continue to ignore, excuse, and sometimes even encourage the objectification of girls within the school system. And this isn’t about punishing girls either, getting rid of dance or cheer or fashion shows. It is about educating students, all students about respecting the personhood of their fellow classmates.

As a parent of a young daughter, I will tell her that unwanted sexual advances are unacceptable and that if they happen to her at school, that I will help her raise hell about it. As a parent of a young son, I will teach him that his gender/hormones/peer-pressure does not excuse treating anyone in a demeaning and degrading way. And if I hear that he has behaved that way, he will be held accountable. And I won’t explain it to him by asking him if he would want me, his mother, or his sister treated that way.

I will tell him, that’s not how you treat another human being.

Keep Fighting

Years ago, when I had just started blogging, unemployed, trying to start a business, taking care of two kids under the age of three, in a new town, etc, etc, etc, I had also started yoga, something I never thought, ever, I would do.

Then again, I had never imagined I would find myself in the situation I was in at that moment, so I figured I might I well try it. I wasn’t sleeping, so I chose one that was meant to be done at the end of the day, calming the mind and the body.

If you’ve done yoga, then you know that the end of the practice is spent in a kind of meditative state. The Yogi encouraged us to ask ourselves in that moment if there was anything that our inner-voice wanted to tell us. Typically, I would roll my inner-eyes, and half-heartedly asked myself, well, what ya got for me? Then then one day, I heard an answer.

“You are exactly where you are supposed to be.”

It became a mantra for me over the next few years, as I struggled with the failure of my business, the years in my contingent faculty position, and many other things, things that all felt like failures, setbacks, and roadblocks. I held on to that message, maybe one that I needed to hear, but one that I certainly didn’t believe, nor did I even want to hear, in the moment it came to me.

Maybe the universe does send us messages. Maybe I’m just stubborn, and my subconscious even more so.

Fast-foward six years. I’ve done yoga off and on over time, even joining a yoga studio during my brief sojourn in Lexington. But I always carried a copy of that particular yoga video, to return to when I wants to do a series that was familiar and effective. I started doing yoga again, recently, in an effort of self-care.

A quick detour here about self-care and depression: it’s really, really, really, really hard. When you feel like you just want to sink into nothing, it’s difficult to find the motivation for self-care of any kind. Yoga always helps, but I have to start getting better before I can really start doing yoga again, because if not, it just exacerbates things; look at how horribly out of shape I am and who am I to take time for myself anyway so what is the point of any of this?

I dusted off the familiar sunset yoga sequence, and found myself at the end, asking my inner-guide if there was anything that I needed to know.

“Keep fighting.”

Keep fighting? KEEP FIGHTING?

When I got the job in Lexington, leaving my contingent teaching position behind, I slowly let go of many of my side jobs and places where I fought the hardest. At least, I thought I was letting go. I certainly didn’t think I was giving up. And even if I was, I was tired. I had spent the past five years working multiple jobs to help make ends me and try and hustle my way out of my professional situation. It’s not an unfamiliar fight, one that I fought alongside fellow contingent academics, freelancers, and unemployed members of my larger social media community.

The last piece of that period of giving up and/or letting go was shuttering my Inside Higher Ed blog. And, really, when I look at the majority of the things I let go of, most of them were writing projects, assignments, and spaces. I was tired, and I couldn’t write anymore. I didn’t want to write, I couldn’t write anymore. What was once the easiest, or at least most obviously effortless, thing I did became the hardest.

I hated writing.

Academic writing, blogging, essays, freelance pieces, even emails and tweets, I hated them all. I was exhausted from all the words, words that (in that moment) never seemed to make any difference. Or maybe that had served their purpose so no longer necessary.

I began resenting being known for being a blogger, a prolific writer. There is more to me, I screamed, than my words, but I was really worried that I was no longer what everyone associated me with, and that I would just let them all down by my loss of words. Or, the loss of confidence in my words. What if there was nothing more to me than my words? What was I if not all these millions of words spread out over the internet? What was left?

I wasn’t writing for myself anymore. I was writing to piss off the trolls, I was not writing so maybe they would leave me alone. I was writing because people had told me my writing had meant something to them, I was not writing because people had told me that my writing was awful and useless and pointless and so many other awful things. I was writing because it was my job, I was not writing because it was no longer my job. I was writing because I thought I wanted to be a part of the conversation, I was not writing because it was all just noise. I was writing because I thought had something to say, I was not writing because I thought someone always seemed to say it better. I was writing because people seemed to care, I was not writing because people seemed to care.

When I started blogging, I wrote for myself, but I was hungry for an audience, for attention, for a community. At the same time, because I didn’t yet have any of this, I just wrote. I didn’t care about narrative and being perfect and polished and having the hottest take (all the time) and sticking my foot in it. I just wrote.

And now, I seem to have come full circle. I’m writing again, for a few different places, including here. And I’m in a place, here, where I can say, once again, this is my space, and I’m going to write whatever I want to. I don’t have to worry (as much) about shoehorning it into some sort of professional narrative, or its (relative) virality, or even if anyone reads it at all.

Keeping fighting. Maybe what I’m fighting for is to get my voice back. Maybe that’s the thing that I had been slowly losing over the years, the big, loud, messy voice that found a place on the web. I thought I had found a place where I could be that person, professionally, but I wasn’t that person anymore, not really. I stopped writing for myself, as myself, so of course I felt like no one heard me anymore.

But of course, work is never far away from my mind, even when I’m in a space I’m trying to claim as my own, because nothing in my life is separate from anything else. I read my colleague, Deborah Schleef’s piece Who’s Afraid of Domain of One’s Own, and think to myself, well, me. What does it mean, to me, to enter this fourth phase of my mature digital presence (undergraduate, upstart academic blog after a long pause, big-time blog, and now this)? This is my space, and a space that is wholly and totally my own. What does that even mean?

I am, also, after everything falls away, a teacher; I have been for as long as I have been a writer. And a practitioner (or at least a dabbler) in what it is that I teach. I tell my students to embrace the messiness, to try and to fail, and to make space for those experiences and experiments and play and passion. My messiness, my own bumbling and failures and do-overs and trying again, done often publicly, has been well-documented, and lately, I have been moving away from that, while trying to push my students towards it.

“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.” – Virginia Woolf

I have my own Domain, and it is mine to do with what I please. What an incredibly terrifying and liberating and privileged and intimidating opportunity. And, I am in a position to truly make it my own, regardless of if the writing matters for ages or only hours, or maybe not at all. And for it to be messy and complicated and incomplete and imperfect and full of digressions and personal and intimate and rife with run-ons and asides and topics that seem unrelated and blog posts that become essays with no heading breaks because that’s how I write and that’s who I am. Evn if it’s “wrong.”

This is how I keep fighting. This is my domain. So long as I finally write what I wish to write, how I wish to write it.

The Fog is Lifting

Timehop is helpfully reminding me of the time back when my son, only a few months old, screamed and cried about about 90 minutes every night when we put him to bed. Of course, it felt like hours (and some nights it was). And even though it only last a few months, to our family, it felt like an eternity. It started right around April and continued into the early summer, just in time for the end of the semester for me. And then one day, without warning, it stopped.

As I lay in my own bed, recently, crying and unable to stop, my poor husband at a loss as to how to comfort me, I pulled on this memory, this trying moment in our family’s life, to reassure him, to reassure us: this is just a brief moment, a brief challenge, that right now feels like it will last forever and never end, but it will end, and it will be better. We just have to get through it in this moment the best we can. Our son eventually stopped crying, and I will eventually stop crying, too.

It came without warning. Or maybe, there was warning, just signs I was unwilling to acknowledge were actually signs: I couldn’t write anymore, my attention was waning, I was having trouble sleeping, I wasn’t enjoying anything, not really. I thought it was the stress of moving, of starting a new job. But it had been going on longer than that.

I’ve written before, both more and less publicly, about my struggles in the past with depression. I have followed the same pattern as I had in the past: blame anything and everything else for my darkening mood, make major life changes to try and fix the thing that is unfixable. Most times, I can cope, I can pass, I can hang on. But this time, I fell over the edge.

It has been a really, really difficult couple of months. The worst possible time for it, too, in a new job, trying to take care of a family that is also trying to deal with massive changes. As if there ever is a good time to find yourself unable to stop crying, unable to focus, unable to control mood swings, unable to silence dark thoughts, unable to articulate any of the crushing feelings.

The reasons I finally sought help are both too personal to share and not wholly mine. But I found myself on the phone, crying, trying to get help. Over and over, I answered the same questions: no, I wasn’t in immediate danger of harming myself or anyone close to me; yes, I had had thoughts of self-harm. Health care bureaucracies are challenging to deal with in the best of times. When you are depressed and already predisposed to giving up on self-care, and are forced to admit to person after person that you are having mental health issues, telling and re-telling versions of the same story, breaking down over and over.

I was diagnosed. I was told I was doing remarkably well. I was prescribed medication. I explained, as best I could, why I was going every week to see a doctor to my kids. I tried to be kinder to myself, to articulate what I needed, in a given moment, to just endure and survive. I reached out to friends again, people I had been avoiding because I didn’t want to be “that friend.” I started writing again, even if it was just for myself. I waited to start getting better.

And thus, not long ago, it started to happen. That tweet started a tweet-storm that attempted to explain what it had been like, what I was going through.

And now, I’m writing more publicly, again, about this, and hopefully, about other things as well. I’ve been too quiet for too long, too quite for me. And for far too long now, I’ve been writing afraid; afraid of what others will think of it, afraid of the judgement, afraid of letting people down, of being a disappointment. But I think, now, it’s time.

I’m trying to get back. I know, however, that this reprieve is as temporary as the depression that preceded it. I might as well do as much as I can in the meantime.

Praxis – Digital Pedagogy Lab Tentative Course Outline

If you’re reading this, you probably already know that I’m going to be teaching the Praxis track at this August’s Digital Pedagogy Lab here at UMW (Sign up today! Spaces still available!). I’ve written elsewhere about my approach to the course (Intimacy! Vulnerability! Fun!), but I was inspired by my fellow instructor, Audrey Watters, who is teaching the Action track, to share the beginnings of my course outline for feedback (and advertising).

I’ve pasted it below, but I’m also opening up the Google doc version for comments, suggestions, and (as always) praise. This is a very preliminary version, so please be kind.


This track will be an in-depth application of pedagogical philosophies to our day-to-day practices in our classroom spaces. Participants will collaboratively support one another in the development of assignments both large and small that reflect a critical digital pedagogical approach. We will be also be working on solidifying the language we use to describe and explain our practices to our students, peers, and beyond. Finally, participants will have the opportunity to think about how these individual activities can fit into a larger course or program. This track will be less about specific tools and more about talking through ways we can empower our students to use them in meaningful ways.

Goals:

  • Translate our critical digital pedagogies into practice in our classroom assignments and policies.
  • Create meaningful learning experiences with students.
  • Removing barriers and opening paths to experimentation and creativity.
  • Strategize ways to collaborate with and communicate our pedagogies to diverse stakeholders.

Questions and Provocations:

How do your assignments reflect your critical pedagogy? What are your critical pedagogical priorities? Where do you find support for the potentially experimental and unconventional assignments in your classroom?

“What Will Start Taking Shape By Friday” Project:

Participants will have a collection of resources, as well as their own assignments and/or syllabi that incorporate their critical digital pedagogy.

Recommended Readings:

“Play” by Mark Sample, from Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities. https://digitalpedagogy.commons.mla.org/keywords/play/

“Learning in the Collective” by John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas. http://www.digitalpedagogylab.com/hybridped/learning-in-the-collective

“How Not to Plan Your Entire Course” by Chris Friend. http://jitp.commons.gc.cuny.edu/how-not-to-plan-your-entire-course/

“We have Personalization Backwards” by Mike Caufield. http://mfeldstein.com/we-have-personalization-backwards/

“Bob Ross-ing It” by Lee Skallerup Bessette. http://readywriting.org/uncategorized/bob-ross-ing-it/

Tentative Schedule:

Monday 8/8
Introductions
What are our values?
Magical Thinking*

Tuesday 8/9
Looking for inspiration, evaluating
How do we adapt for our students and institution?
How do we compromise? What do we never give up?

Wednesday 8/10
Looking for tools.
How do we prioritize?
How do we “hack” the tools?

Thursday 8/11
Workshop our assignments
How do I talk about this to my colleagues? To our students?

Friday 8/12
Presentations and feedback

*So…what does this mean? I think we spend too much time focusing on the limitations placed on us and not enough time dreaming and imagining when it comes to putting our pedagogy into practice. Magical thinking is a space where there are no limitations, and we seek to conjure up the stuff of dreams. Or, nerd out over the perfect possibilities of our pedagogies.

Bob Ross-ing It

Jess: What is this sorcery?
Me: We didn’t need Harry Potter; we had Bob Ross.

It’s late afternoon in the office, and, looking for something else, I happen upon The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross on Hulu. I decided that there wouldn’t be a better way to end the day than with 30 minutes of happy little trees.

Jess, a co-worker, had never seen an episode of The Joy of Painting or had even heard of Bob Ross. We spent the next 30 minutes mesmerized by an episode of the show, where in that time he produced a complete painting replete with the usual mix of clouds, trees, mountains, water, and such. I whooped like I watching a hockey game. “Wait for it! He’s getting out his knife! OOOOOOOH! THE FAN BRUSH! HAPPY! LITTLE! TREES!”

If you’ve never seen an episode of the show, then click on the link above and watch one, for free, on his YouTube channel. If you’ve never met me, then you probably don’t know that Bob Ross and I could not be more opposite in our demeanor. Jess giggled when Ross would say, “now, let’s get crazy,” his tone never changed from the soothing, even tone while I was cheering, YES! CRAZY!

Watching the show, now, after not having seen an episode in years, put into sharp focus how much my approach to teaching and learning has changed, how much it has stayed the same, and how, inadvertently, it was shaped by Bob Ross and his show about painting. And how much it still can.

“It’s so important to do something every day that will make you happy.”

My first introduction to Bob Ross was sitting in my grandmother’s living room with her, watching it on PBS. Nanny was an amateur painter herself. She had painted when she was younger, but gave it up, picking it up again after kicking her 40+ year smoking habit. In the 20 or so years between when she picked up her brushes again and then passed away, she probably painted almost 1000 paintings, large and small.

To me, what Bob Ross and my grandmother did and really what any artist does was like magic. Ross, in particular, made it look effortless. And it certainly was filled with joy. My grandmother, for whom my other strongest memory was of her listlessly lying on her couch and smoking the day away, was changed after she started painting again. Joyful was never a word anyone would use to describe Nanny, but she was certainly happier and livelier once she started painting again. I would visit and she would show me the various paintings she was working on, the folded over pages in magazines and sticky notes in calendars she would use for inspiration for her next 10 paintings, at least. I loved listening to her go on and on about her painting.

For me, though, there was no joy in painting, or in any art, really. All thumbs and with hopeless sense of depth and shadow, painting held no joy. And I didn’t understand effortlessness in any realm. I saw there were people who possessed it, like Bob Ross, in all different areas. Even swimming, the things that brought me joy (if I could sell a book or tv show called The Joy of Swimming, I would), was far from effortless for me. Red-faced, tear-streaked, and bruised (yes, bruised), in either practices or races, I would cringe at how my times stayed stubbornly the same.

Bob Ross was soothing, insofar as he would reassure me that anything was possible, if I just worked long and hard enough at it, but at the same time I knew that, really, I could, but it would bring me no joy. I would watch, with my grandmother, bewildered by this man who was so self-possessed, so self-assured, so much the opposite of what I felt all the time. I took joy in their joy, but struggled to find it for myself.

“Gotta give him a friend. Like I always say, ‘Everyone needs a friend.'”

My last two years in Sherbrooke, where I did my undergraduate and Master’s degrees, three of us lived in a spacious apartment downtown, further away from campus, but within walking distance from things to do, places to eat and drink and dance. Weekends often found our apartment filled with people who came out with us and then crashed at our place, too drunk to drive, too broke to take a cab. We would spend the day recovering, eating ramen or mac and cheese, watching TV (we had cable). And, a few times a year, often around mid-terms and finals, PBS would be doing their pledge drive, and there would be a Bob Ross marathon on.

Sherbrooke is a French university, and so unsurprisingly, most of my friends were Francophone. PBS wasn’t something they typically watched, let alone this guy with an Afro painting landscapes. They had never heard of Bob Ross, and I converted every single of them into being a fan of the show. We spent hours, sitting all together on the couch, a couch that had been in student apartments in Sherbrooke for over ten years, passed from brother to brother to sister. It was huge, and we would all fit on it, together, for a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, with visions of happy little trees and lazy rivers dancing in front of us, and Bob Ross reassuring us that, really, everything was going to be ok.

That was the couch where later I would spend almost a year, listlessly watching tv, and those were some of the friends who got me through it, made sure I ate, made sure I wasn’t always alone despite my best efforts, sat with me in silence watching with me, because there wasn’t anything else to be done with me or for me. When we watched Bob Ross, all together, exhausted, stressed out, hung over, I felt safe and it got me through. I, in turn, shared what food I had, my facility with English (most were classmates in English Studies), and a place where they knew they would always be welcome and never be judged.

Those moments, those are the moments I take with me from my time as a student at Sherbrooke. They were moments of magic, really, in times of varying degrees of chaos for most of us. I stayed and did my Master’s because I found joy in literature and I had amazing professors, but it was with my classmates and my friends that I found moments of effortlessness. They were mundane and fleeting and almost impossible to predict and recreate, but they were there.

“Water’s like me. It’s lazy. Boy, it always looks for the easiest way to do things.”

Of course, nothing is ever effortless, although there are always things can seem to come more easily, more readily, more beautifully to some than to others. For me, there were always two things: writing and teaching. Or rather, writing and speaking passionately about stuff that I am interested in in front of large groups of people. But the two are often conflated.

I write blog posts, in particular, the way Bob Ross paints on his show: with a general idea of what we want to accomplish, but open to “happy accidents” along the way. It appears (and even sometimes feels) effortless. Or, less kindly, like I didn’t put any effort into it. But there is the always effort, always the practice and thinking, technique and time.

I wonder if there is a b-reel of unaired episodes of The Joy of Painting where the painting just didn’t work that day, or the happy clouds turned into a mess or the happy trees just didn’t stand. I hope there is, because of all the abandoned, unpublished, private, scrawled, and unlovable words I have written over the years. Or perhaps episodes that did air where Ross felt like it wasn’t his best work or his best effort, but there it was anyway, like so much of my writing, too, that goes out and just…fades away.

What there is also is the memory, in my students and in myself, of failed lectures (so many failed lectures), exercises, activities, and even entire courses. The Joy of Teaching, live, with an audience of critical, disinterested (long-live the gen-ed I’ve always taught), overwhelmed, and underfunded students. The lasting record of those courses are etched in evals, for better or for worse. They stick with me. They remind me of all the things I am not in attempting to create or recreate a moment of magic, of learning, of connection.

“Be so very light. Be a gentle whisper.”

I haven’t been writing nearly so much lately. The blog post, as flexible and versatile as it is, just wasn’t working for me anymore. There was nothing but effort, heaviness, pounding on keyboards, abandoning words, abandoning ideas before they even became words because they didn’t feel like blog posts, but something else. I didn’t know what. Something more like this, I suppose, something more like me.

I push too much and I try too hard and I plan and stress and worry and there is a weight that I carry with me, especially when I teach. Generally, I would not be described as being light or a gentle whisper, and I tend to hold tightly, too tightly. Bob Ross is the epitome of chill. I have, as they say, no chill. None whatsoever.

In my imagination, there is a point where, despite its flexibility, Bob Ross tires of painting landscapes in a half an hour. Did he dream of murals and large-scale landscapes, or maybe miniatures or (gasp) watercolors? Or was he just so chill, so in touch with who he was and what he was good at that he was happy, content to paint in 30 minute intervals?

I get restless. I throw out what was working, maybe for something better. Again and again. Bob Ross provides a stabilizing voice, a predictability, a flag-bearer for owning who you are and what you do best. He just wanted to get us to all love and enjoy painting as much as he did. And he just trusted that he could get you there.

“If you do too much, it’s going to lose its effectiveness.”

From a recent piece in the New York Times, examining the lasting popularity of Bob Ross, the closing paragraph:

[Kowalski] has a theory about why Ross has endured. “If you listen closely to Bob’s programs, he never says ‘I’m going to teach you this,’” Ms. Kowalski said. “He never assumes that he knows more than you do. He says: ‘We’ll learn this together.’ And I think — even though people don’t realize it — I think that’s what his big turn-on is.”

And then one semester, I learned to let go, at least somewhat. And I keep working on letting go, and letting my students become a part of the learning experience, rather than me carrying on, telling them, I am going to teach you this. I wanted to make room for happy accidents, and so I had to stop planning my courses within an inch of their lives.

I remember my grandmother, excitedly sharing her painting, her inspiration, and most importantly, her paintings themselves, with me. Those paintings still grace my walls, and my children, who never met her, know the stories behind the paintings, and the woman who was so much more than my grandmother. Every student in my classroom is so much more than that, and they deserve to have moments of excitedly discovering and sharing their interests and even passions.

But the students often didn’t know how to react to this looser format in the class. Maybe (probably) because I don’t radiate the zen-like calm that Bob Ross does, or maybe it’s because the students aren’t used to a professor who says things like, hey, that’s interesting, let’s explore this further, and model the process, warts and all, with them.

Maybe I still haven’t figured out how to recreate the necessary environment to have such epiphanies, such moments of quiet intimacy. My intimacy is too loud and too overwhelming. How do I create a variety of spaces, loud and quiet, safe and unsure, crowded and vast, limited and endless?

Like what Bob Ross does, in 30 minutes, over and over again, on his canvas?

“You can do anything you want to do. This is your world.”

It’s not perfect. It’s never perfect. It’s messy and it’s unpredictable and it’s scary. If the students are challenging to convince, faculty can prove to be…almost impossible. Faculty often see the classroom as the canvas where they can do anything they want, instead of seeing the students as being empowered to paint their own pictures.

I want to paint for faculty a different picture of what their classrooms can be like, what their students can do, what they role in the process can be. The Joy of Teaching Differently. How long did it take Bob Ross to get to a point where he could feel comfortably and confident and ultimately capable of being the teacher he was? When do I get to that point?

One way for me has been to write and keep writing. To keep sharing words as openly and as honestly as possible. Maybe there is no zen-like calm, but there is, hopefully, an authenticity. Here is what I did, here is why I did it, here is why it worked or it didn’t. Here is how I’ll try to do better next time.

Bob Ross had 30 minutes. I have 15 weeks, others 10, some a whole series of courses. If poetry is never finished, only abandoned, what about our courses, or, more appropriately, our students? There are always, always things that have to be left unlearned. Particularly in my situation, the situation that most faculty now find themselves in higher education, we are together for a semester in a course, and then we abandon each other, unfinished.

I have 15 weeks to try and recreate the world, hopefully iterating and improving each time. The students have 15 weeks to hopefully start creating and exploring their own world, to be abandoned, torn down, forgotten, or maybe, if there are moments of magic for them, becoming a place to keep building, to keep trying, to keep learning.

“You need the dark in order to show the light.”

In every episode, there is at least one moment where Ross cleans his brush and then beats it to clear the water out. It is his one moment where he gladly admits he is letting out his frustration. This is part of the process as well. And even that, he manages to make joyful and magical.

I am not Bob Ross, nor will I ever be. I will, probably, always be too big and too loud and too much, despite my best attempts at balance. The cracks will always show. There will continue to be many, many happy accidents, big and small.

But there are still things that I can give to my students, give for my students. The imperfect can be beautiful and valuable and will not end the world. That effortlessness is to be admired but is often difficult to be recreated and that’s ok. There will the other moments. It’s ok to get excited, and it’s ok to be disappointed.

Can I create a privileged space for them to feel like they can achieve these goals, less tangible, and more open-ended? Because that is a privileged space, one that the students not only won’t be accustomed to, but might never had had access to? That is something I can do, cracks and messiness and loudness and all.

I’m going to start my classes now by showing them an episode of The Joy of Painting. I might be setting the bar too high, or creating unrealistic expectations in my students, but I figure, why not? At least for a moment, we can have a shared experience of magic.

All quotes from Bob Ross unless otherwise noted are taken from here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/bob-ross-quotes_us_563138b3e4b00aa54a4c9271

 

What if I Never See You Again?

Last week, I was at the Educause ELI conference. I have more thoughts about the conference, particularly as it relates to my new role at DTLT and UMW, but for now I want to reflect on the experience of the conference itself.

Going to ELI meant that I was able to more fully connect with a new network and community of people, particularly people who are at liberal arts institutions. I am at the intersection of two new realms: Not only is this my first job at a liberal arts institution, it is my first job in what can be loosely considered instructional technology. While the focus of ELI isn’t exclusively the liberal arts, there is a group now for SLACs.

But, I already knew a lot of the people through my social networks, and a lot of people knew me because of my blog and Twitter presence. I had earned a certain degree of (for lack of a better word) legitimacy even though I was also a newbie. I might have felt out of place (largely a result of my own impostor syndrome) at the beginning of the conference, but by the end, I knew that I belonged within the community and network.

And then, the rumor hit that Twitter was scrapping their current format and moving to an algorithmic format. What does that mean? Currently Twitter shows tweets from your followers chronologically. They want to change the format to allow an algorithm to decide which tweets you see.

This news sent shockwaves through my network, and across Twitter at large. And as we began discussing the implications of such a change, it became very clear to me what one of my biggest fears is with a change like that: what if I never seen those people and parts of my network again?

There are two pieces to my social media presence: my network and my community. Can an algorithm tell the difference? I don’t always reply or like a tweet from my community, while I RT resources from my larger network to the benefit of, largely, my community.

That’s probably a simplistic example, but I learn the rhythms of my community within the network. I know I’ll see the latest news from, say, the NYT (shudder) form various sources, RT, and scheduled tweets throughout the day. But I have to learn when and where members of my community are active, reading, tweeting, listening, responding.

My community is important to me. It’s big and loud and messy and generally wonderful and supportive and I learn a tremendous amount from them. There is value in that. There is value in my larger network, too, but what happens to community when an algorithm takes over?

The flip side of this fear, of course, is what if no one ever sees me again? What if my presence is erased from the community. Of course it took writing this post to realize that, ultimately, that fear is real in me. For someone who has built her reputation and credibility through public platforms, what happens when they are taken away. I’ve already let go of one, but what if the other is also taken away?

I’m working hard in my digital students class to get students to try and see what is often overlooked or erased, to hear what is often lost in the noise. Somehow, in a moment, I was able to find a space so I could be heard and seen. I have worked hard to see and hear. But what happens when we are silenced, erased, forgotten?

It’s a selfish position, and one that has been explored more generally (and we’re going to explore in the course), but for someone who went from being geographically isolated to involved in some of the most important conversations around the future of higher education, I know what the stakes can be.

That, and I’d really miss everyone.

Teaching and Learning as Paying Attention

Last semester, I taught a book and an author I have long loved and studied, but haven’t been able to engage much with in a classroom setting: I am a Japanese Writer by Dany Laferrière (yes, he’ll come up a lot in this space). The book is a meditation on identity, authorship, creativity, and memory. I knew it would be unlike just about anything the Introduction to Literature students had ever read.

One way into literature that I like to introduce students to is to look for patterns. You might not know what it means, but when an author keeps coming back to a theme or an image or some other noticeable repetition, then we, as readers, should stop and take a look. What is also interesting to me, as an educator and scholar, is how we each notice different things, based on our own embodied self and experience.

One pattern that I hadn’t noticed in the book was how the author refused coffee and only drank tea in the narrative. A number of students picked up on it and pointed it out. They weren’t sure what it meant, thought about the connection to Japanese culture, but were stumped beyond that. What they didn’t (and really couldn’t) know what that the author’s grandparents lived on a coffee plantation and one of his other autobiographical novels was called An Aroma of Coffee.

So then we looked at the scenes where he refused coffee. Each one was an instance of his radicalized identity being emphasized in some way as a Haitian living in Montreal. We looked at the scene before and after it. We noted the significance we get from only reading the text but then also knowing how the reference may fit into his larger canon.

Pay attention, the author is telling us. This might be significant. Take notice, take note.

These moments of shared revelation (I told my students honestly that I hadn’t noticed the coffee vs tea and we were going to try to make meaning of it together) happened quite a bit in this class. I was taken to task in some of my course evaluations for being “disorganized” but really I was trying to model a version, my version, of trying to make meaning. Learning is messy. Often it begins as a disorganized mess, and we weave our way into something more meaningful.

I am conscious, as an educator, that one of my responsibilities is to introduce students to things they may not have noticed before and to try and start making meaning from them. This semester, I’m teaching Digital Studies 101, Introduction to Digital Studies. I was thinking about the class just as Hook and Eye was blogging and tweeting about #inclusivesyllabus, a challenge to take a hard look at who and what we teach in our classes.

And so I made the commitment to try and assign a majority of women and people of color authors, scholars, and activists in the course. You can see the full syllabus here, but it is a work in progress. This is what I told my students the class will be about:

The theme of this class is going to be Absence, Invisibility, Erasure. We will be focusing specifically on interrogating what is not seen, not recognized, marginalized, and even silenced through the digital. We will also be looking at approaches that address these gaps and lacks. 

The first act was to assign the Afrofuturist novel Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson. What does Afrofuturism have to do with digital studies? We’re going to find out (a lot actually, but I’m still formulating these ideas and reading all the things), but this particular novel (among many other things) provokes us to imagine the digital from a different cultural heritage and perspective.

And I built out from there. The suggested readings and resources for the modules will consist of a number of different sources and perspectives, including Model View Culture, Auntie Pixelante, Tressie McMillan Cottom, and others.

(In other news, I need to get my links organized…)

I want these discussions to be varied and to have these voices brushing up against each other, to notice the differences, the spaces, the gaps, the silences. To have the students ask, if they have never thought of these issues, why not? If they have never heard these perspectives, why not? And what does that mean? And what will they do?

I believe very deeply in empowering students to take ownership of their learning. But I also believe in my role as someone who facilitates a space where they are confronted with the limits of their knowledge, of their perspective, of their worldview. This class, then, for me, is an opportunity for all of us to pay attention, notice, and then create and learn.

Let’s see how it goes.

Telling and Retelling

Dany Laferrière has a new book out. It’s a(nother) retelling, another version of his arrival in Montreal as a young man, fleeing Haiti and dictatorship, in 1976. I have been fascinated by his constant and continual revising of his life story through varying levels of autobiographical fiction. I also just love his writing.

I sat down to start reading the book the day after I found out I would be saying goodbye to my old blog space. The email had come the morning before, over the holidays, after a great upheaval in my life. It was just one more thing I would have to say goodbye to, to let go of.

This particular version of Laferrière’s arrival story is one that is for a different audience (a newly arrived immigrant to Montreal in 2015) and one that has been informed by 40 years of living in Montreal, 30 years of being a celebrated author, and a handful of years of being a member of the prestigious Académie française, and thus, in the words of the organization, immortal.

So how does all of that, change in audience, change in position, standing, change in life (he’s now a grandfather), change in the world at large, change the story?

I didn’t get very far into it because it trigger too many thoughts, too many emotions, too many parallels with my current situation. It resonated in a way that caused me to have to put the book down and think.

And write.

Because this is my story’s reboot. Five years ago, I started a blog. And now I’m in a completely different place, personally and professionally. And so I have a new space, too.

So my mind wanders back to the literary research I’ve done, and thought I had left behind, and the life I’m currently rebuilding and rewriting. What does it mean to rewrite your life? What does it mean to have your life, in various forms, on various platforms?

I want to go back and read the book now. It feels good to want to read again.