Ecotones and Crossroads: Re-imagining the Spaces of Learning in an In-between Time — Computers and Writing 2009

Barbara Ganley, Centers for Community Digital Exploration

Barbara Ganley is Founder and Director of the new national organization, Centers for Community Digital Learning, Barbara Ganley has spent her career exploring integrated learning across formal and informal contexts. For nineteen years as a lecturer in the Writing Program and English Department at Middlebury College, and director of Middlebury’s Project for Integrated Expression, Barbara taught innovative courses in creative writing, composition, arts writing, and Irish literature and film. An active implementer of new media and Web 2.0 practices within writing classrooms since 2001, her research interests include the multimedia essay as a means of academic and vernacular discourse and social software as a vehicle for personal expression, community-building, and connected learning. Since 2004 she has kept a professional blog to explore the pedagogical, philosophical and theoretical underpinnings to the emergent learning outcomes in her uses of digital and communication technologies in the classroom and out in the world. You can find her blogging at

These are my lightly-edited liveblogging notes.

[Note… based on the content of the Twitter feed, I think there may be more to talk about with regard to this talk.  Lots of people thought the talk was aimed at the wrong audience. I’ll need a while to think about that, since I wasn’t part of the Twitter discussion, so for now, here are my notes.] 

Began by warning the audience that the presentation would be interactive, and asking everyone to move. I and Karl were tethered to our laptop cables, so we just swapped rows and stayed where we were.

Asked who was on twitter… a good show of hands. Asked people to contribute on Twitter

#cw09 Ecotone

Ecotones or crossroads.  [Literally, my experience with Colossal Cave, when I moved from understanding Colossal Cave only through the 1970s game, to understanding it as a real geographical location.]

[My own comments are in square brackets.]

We are familiar with being between disciplines, departments,
classrooms, internal and outer worlds, so we are familiar with being in
this space.

The possibilities of using the social media means
that we are reaching crossings that are evermore vast and more intimate
and narrow at the same time.

Ganley was immersed in Elbow and
other writing process teachers, but in 2001 got very involved in
classroom blogging; students did all their work out in the world in a
transparent, connected space, but it became impossible to stay in the
classroom anymore. Writing was an opportunity to work with students in
public, and she encountered more walls within the academy, rather than

We know about ubiquitous computing, we are comfortable with it. Noted unrest in Iran — do we know yet how controlled our understanding of that experience is?  In the academy, we continue to use terminology that emphasizes the gap between us and them; the rest of the world is out there on Facebook and texting, but what do we as writing instructors?

Writing a matter of learning to shatter the silences… are we writing to change ourselves, the world?  Or, why are we doing this at all?  “We’re comfortable in those spaces… or are we?”

Have we progressed far beyond the model of education that we went to school in? Are we dressing up the same old practices in new clothes?  Don’t we still believe in the same academic essay we’re assigning our students again and again?

At UBC, students said in their own personal learning environments, the only things they do online for school are the things they know are going to get them better grades. It’s all about the grade, yet we know that students are doing really interesting things outside the classroom. [Yes, I agree with that — I recently had a student who did all sorts of creative photography outside the classroom, but settled for the bare minimum, in terms of creativity and engagement, in the classroom. Another student lamented how rarely her in-class work felt “fun” for her major.]

We still assign a whole lot of reading, and ask them to think deeply and passionately “for Tuesday, and for Thursday, something else.”  Every single course requires the same papers progressing towards an academic essay.

We do embrace progressive pedagogy (bell hooks) but we don’t change enough.  We may introduce bits and pieces of instructional pedagogy, but we’re still assessing according to the old models.  Students will do what we ask, so long as their work “counts” for their grade.  Why train 100% of our students for a profession that 10% of them will persue?  Few of our students will actually become academics, so why train them in this mode?

Galbraith — when faced with the choice between change and the proof that it’s not necessary, we all get very busy with the proof.

Shirky — systemic bias for continuity creates tolerance for the substandard.

Chris Lott — TTiX — a quantity of lightweight engagements.  We don’t ask our students to engage in passionate work with what writing really is.   Why are students so scared to engage with small community story telling.  (People who showed up at a youth storytellinig workshop were expecting to be taught how to tell stories to kids, but instead learned as the kids told stories to each other.)

Are we so concerned with speed and scale, why in higher ed have we not paid attention to the innovative K-12 work in spite of No Child Left Behind?

Print-based (digital) writing. People who say they are doing digital writing are really doing print (.pdf .doc) — the professor is usually the only audience.  Now, peer-review is pro-forma… kids have self-identified as writers and non-writers, successful and non-successful. 

How are we bringing our students into their local communities, authentically? To reach out across the world?

Papers that students write only because they want the grade are not engaging deeply with what they care about.

Game — we have cards with an image on it. 

[We are asked to come up with a metaphor.  My image looks like a pot in front of a kitchen sink. so “Everything but the kichen sink” springs to mind. Probably too literal!]

Karl’s card has a telephone booth, and brought up “Superman.”

Because the booth is in a lonely snow-covered area, I also think of the rapid change — the phone booth holds the promise of distant communication and heroic transformation, but it’s old tech now.

Ganley encourages the audience responses… suggests that we did a better job expanding someone else’s metaphor.  When we rely on canned discussion, that’s adjacent monologue — student directing the discussion to us.  How many class discusions are dominated by the five who get As, and the rest of the class is quite?  “We have to make writing safe. We have to go back to the joy of writing… Stories help us bond, stories help us build bridges, stories transmit culture.”

We have forgotten the power fo story in playful exercises where there is no grade, but designed to help us trust each other. Imagine if students were coming up with the exercises. (“Believe, theirs will be better than yours.”)

What do we mean by “deeply digital” rather than “half digital”?

1 Rheingold “Mindful connectivity.”  Not being online all the time, but going online because there is no better way to do what they wanted to do.  “Do you think Shakspeare would have only used text, if he had digital storytelling?”

Being deeply digital means being aware of audience. People no longer want to be famous for 15 minutes, but to 15 people (Dave Weinberger)?  People take cell phone pix of political events in order document their participation, rather than take a “good photo”.

Are we asking students to write in different ways to different audiences.  (Lots of Twitterers, I only saw Karl’s hand when Ganley asked who uses Twitter in class.)

One audiencde member said he wants to keep Twitter social — doesn’t want to colonize it.  Barb takes him to task, saying he has a student attitude.

Brainstorm an assignment in Twitter.

(Send students to an event, have them comment on a guest speaker.  Have students go to different places during a large event, and report on what they see there.  Have students take a walking tour of the community, or do larp (live action role-playing).

Elevator pitches. Great tool for bringing back to the community what people find out there.

Cheryl — asks why mandate students to use Twitter, when some students will use it otherwise.  (Ganley replies — we don’t all come to all the tools equally, we need practice. Classroom is a place where we can safely experiment.)

Reflection — Ganley is “a slow blogger” — blog infrequently and at length.  ePortfolios asks for reflection across the semster, but also refers to reflecting as you go, reflect in that raw moment of discovery when everything is still a bit confusing. Writing letters to the self.

Digital reflection — safe place where very student, no matter the ability, feels able to contribute.

Often, we connect only in that semester, only in that class. Are you connecting semester to semester, across the university? Asking them to connect what they know in other classes, what this has to do with the world, community?  Primary schools do this very well.

If we connect, experts can join the class serendipitously.  (Mentions the phenomenon of published people Googling themselves and joining in on the class.  You can also ask experts in the field.)

Contact zones: being online all the time -> segregating ourselves into affinity groups, entering little echo chambers, joining up only with people who think like us.  Frank Rich on hate crimes and willful ignorance. Bring students into contact with each other and the world.

Katherine Hayles says to see elit only through the lens of print is not to see digital lit at all.

We study more and more the scholarship online is in multimedia — why not do more of that with our students?  UVa’s digital history students go around rural Virginia, and learning from those locations (digitizing them and presenting, as undergrads, their findings.)

Creation: How much do we ask our students to fail, and fail gloriously?  If some students don’t fail, then the teacher is failing.  If the teacher doesn’t make an idiot of herself, then we’re not trying

hard enough.

Are we digital practitioners?  Are we teaching digitally?  If we’re not out there playing, then we can’t find these ways to help our students.

Says students shocked her with their own creativity.   [I can’t read the URL of the tool the student used for a project using the voice of Jack Keroac.]

Mentioned going to Flickr and leaving notes as a poem,.

Told us to go to a Flickr picture and add comments…  sounds like a great way to storm through the internet and have classes anywhere. 

[There’s a scene in the movie Waterland, where the teacher seems to be bringing a busload of students through the very historical scenes he’s describing… and of course there’s The Web is Using US  that co-opts web spaces to make a presentation.]

(Ended her formal presentation in silence, with vibrant images and a brief line of text that we had to watch —  the delivery kept me from typing or multitasking. The final statement equated multimodal learning to improvisation and jazz.)

How do we evaluate these new works?

Karl’s response was exactly what I was thinking — eportfolios. (But will they respond in the form of an essay, or could it be multimodal reflection?)

Ask students to evaluate — what would look like success at the end of your project? Let students explain what they feel they need to learn on their own. As a group they come up with the criteria, then they decide individually and together what they feel their grades would be, and they defend that. (Her students had to argue for their grade.)

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