Category Archives: Open Everything, Open All the Time

If I build it, you should have it for free except for my wicked book of haiku on love, sex, cowboys, and Italian cathedrals.

Might could be the case I’m into controlled chaos

In the American South, I have learned to say “might could” in a situation that is uncertain. And it might could be that I’ve put myself into a situation, the outcome of which is most certainly uncertain.

I’m taking a MOOC right now (E-learning and Digital Culture) and signed up for one after this (can’t even remember, but I know they’ll send me an email).

Then I signed up for another MOOC that I swore began May 18. I was so excited–that would have been after my spring term ended and just as summer began–perfect timing. I’d be finished with my spring MOOCs and starting my summer teaching (only one class this summer!). But not so. It starts March 18–smack into the middle of my spring term and not something I will be able to work into my routine in a reasonable way.

So. I’ll be unreasonable. I want to take this in a big way: a composition MOOC, “Composition 1: Achieving Expertise.” I’m just going to do it to the best of my ability. I’ll engage as I am with my current MOOC and invest early.

I’m dying to see how composition will be handled on such a large scale and how it might accommodate thousands of students and their writing. I know it’s going to be a terrific experience, because how could it be otherwise if I’m learning something? The instructor is an acquaintance, and I respect her thinking deeply. In fact, it was her article on performance and observation of writing instructors from a year or two ago that is changing the way I do that part of my job.

I know there are MOOCers who take a lot of classes at once, so I know I can do this. Partly, I know this because: 1) it’s free; 2) I don’t have to complete the thing. In fact, I may not have to do much work at all to get a lot from it. It’s not like I’m taking the course for freshman comp. I took freshman comp already (got a C and  a B in Comp 1&2, respectively). What I wonder is this: if such a course as this one might have made a huge difference in my writing life when I was starting college. I was a lousy writer, not because I was bad but because I’d had almost no training of any kind. Writing to me, upon high school graduation, was a mystery that only a few could figure out, or it was a gift that even fewer were given. Writing well was NOT something I could learn to do. In fact, these ideas were reinforced at nearly every step of my educational life.

I wasn’t taught to work on making my thinking clear then correcting for errors. I was encouraged to write it perfect the first time. Perfect. Oh. No pressure. Multiple drafts? What? Never. Multiple drafts were for the weak. We wrote and turned in what we wrote, all first drafts: good, bad or horrific. Spelling mattered right away–in the first and only drafts–and so did penmanship. I actually had a penmanship tutor for a whole school year because I was so lame at handwriting. (I did get to the point where I could write gorgeous cursive–but my “writing” was still crap.)

I was stunned when I finally learned the secrets of writing well (far into my college career): 1) writing can be learned; 2) thinking is more important than correct comma usage; 3) writing takes practice; 4) multiple drafts can be really deeply profoundly madly important; 5) proofreading can be learned and should be done last; 6) writing is collaborative; 7) writers need mentors (human mentors or mentor texts); 8) writers need to know the genres they are trying to write; 9) writers need to read a lot; and 10) writing is revision. This is not all I know about writing now, but MAN, if only I’d known about some of these sorts of things when I was younger.

Now, I try to teach writers these ideas (and more) by allowing a lot of freedom in the classroom. “Just write,” I say. I hope I haven’t swung too far the other way from: “Just write perfectly.” But I consider this chance I have to take a freshman comp class in my PJs for no cost but my time a wonder. Holy composition & rhetoric. What an opportunity. I can see what a colleague in my field is doing–get ideas, share my learning with my fellow students, and maybe even learn more about how to be a better writer. I know I do things in my blogging that might be confusing, so perhaps I need to learn something new/old to help. Why not? (Things I think I do as a writer, or habits, or tics I’m sure I have or suffer from: I write a lot of first drafts and don’t always revise–OMG–yes, I just said that; I overuse fragments by writing in phrases rather than independent clauses; I tend to write like I talk–totally; I think I abuse semi-colons; I write/type fast and make more typos than I care to admit; I will use a single word to make a statement. Nice. Right. Showoff.; I ramble around a topic and sometimes don’t always occasionally once-in-a-while frequently end up wrapping the whole thing up in a tidy bow at the end; I fool around a lot pretending to be a whole lot better than I am by using a $20 word when a $5 word might do (what a brat, right?); I’m pretty self-indulgent, too.

As a writer, I might could use some sustained thinking about writing and being a writer and achieving expertise. What is that anyway? Expertise? It might could be that I could polish off some of my expertise trophies I have shoved onto my shelves and left alone for too long.

I have nothing to lose but time. And really, that’s the only gift I have that I can’t get more of. I’d like to use my time in a positively, forward-movement, open kind of way. Life-long learning–it’s been hip to me since 1990 and a personal philosophy.

Hurricane from space.

Hurricane from space.

So what if my life is chaos? I’ve been called a hurricane and a whirlwind. Okay. I’m down with that. But surely I have some control over when I create or participate in the stormy chaos. Or do I only wish I was in charge of me? Wouldn’t it be great if I was actually making forward progress while storming through life? Might could be the case.

In April, there’s a Writing II class that begins. Taking that would just be adding to the storm, the chaos, the madness. Nope. I’m not going to sign up for it. No way. Not gonna happen. Ain’t my thing. Can’t do it. Never. Shoot. Might could be I’m already signed up.

[Image source: here.]

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Filed under Magic and Writing, MOOC Journeys, Open Educational Resources, Open Everything, Open All the Time, Writing is Beautiful

Surrender

I have recently begun to understand the concept of surrendering in an entirely new way. I used to think of surrender as only connected to battles won/lost, as in Lee surrendering to Grant, of Umezu to MacArthur, France to Germany, Emperor Napoleon III to Kaiser Wilhelm I, king of Prussia, and so forth.

Louis Napoleon Bonaparte III surrenders to Wilhelm I (2 September 1870)

It’s a humiliating thing to surrender after being defeated. In fact, some cultures have recommended that losers fall on their swords, literally and metaphorically. Winners write history and all that.

But, if one is surrendering to save lives, is it still ignoble? Can surrender be a good thing?

To be humiliated is bad. To experience humiliation could be a bad thing, too. But to have humility, that’s a fine thing. Being humble is right, most of the time. To be modest, respectful, to be seen as having virtue–those are qualities associated with being humble. But not the kind of humble that is extremely poor, or shabby, in rags. Dickens writes a lot about humble folk–some are good, some are evil–either designation depends largely on whether they have humility or whether they seek to humiliate others.

The fascinating thing about English is that our language encompasses such a range of meaning in one word. It comes from the Latin word, humilitas, being lowly or submissive, which comes from humus, “i.e. the earth which is beneath us” which also refers to “any organic matter that has reached a point of stability, where it will break down no further and might, if conditions do not change, remain as it is for centuries, if not millennia.”

Well.

There are some interesting connections, eh?

If I surrender to something bigger than myself, am I being humble or am I being humiliated? Or is surrendering in some cases, the noble action, the right course? Can the right thing to do be easy? Ever?

I think surrendering to a cause can be a fine thing. I’m thinking of Rhett Butler. I recently wrote about Gone With the Wind and how it colored my view of the South (having never set foot in the South prior to four years ago). As a consequence of that rambling/writing/thinking (as I explore my encounters with and understanding of the Civil Rights Movement), I’ve been thinking a lot about his character. He is the epitome of a man who knows how to surrender right (correctly) and still be a man. Does that mean he’s open to who he is, fully aware of his place in the world? Perhaps. Perhaps that’s the best kind of man.

Rhett Butler playing cards in a Yankee jail (1939)

He surrenders to opportunity, to Scarlett, to the Cause, and doing what is right, actually, most of the time, despite the fact that he has pursued a somewhat unconventional path (getting booted out of West Point and being the black sheep of his family–and gasp–a professional gambler who associates with women of ill-repute; obviously, he is not accepted by respectable gentlefolk). He even surrenders to his understanding that Scarlett will never “get” the love available to her through him–so he leaves her–and he doesn’t give a damn. She really is a ninny. But he isn’t. He’s fairly well educated and savvy and, even, heroic. Scarlett is opportunistic in a savage way that he is not. Though she is as much a survivor as he is, Scarlett lacks Rhett’s grace. And she never rises to higher level of self-awareness. I’m not sure I could read GWTW again because I would want to strangle her throughout, but if I did re-read, I think I’d have a lot more respect for Rhett Butler’s character than any others (Melanie Wilkes is pretty sympathetic but not dashing like Rhett).

Through this thinking/writing, I’ve come to understand the inevitability of surrender to a cause that one cares about deeply. This is not a bad kind of humble to cloak one’s self in. I like to think of myself surrendering to the situation I find myself in (and I’ve made a few spectacular surrenders recently) and still being able to make the most of it, like Clark Gable as Rhett Butler in the photo above playing cards. I may be locked up, in, or locked down, but I’ll never be locked away indefinitely. If the Yankees get me for running the blockade, I will nonchalantly throw my jacket around my shoulders, have a cigar, play some cards, knowing I’ll get out in short order. Perhaps that sort of surrender diminishes my chances for being humble, but I think I would rather do that than surrender in humiliation.

It’s just a matter of degrees one way or the other. Given the opportunity to choose, I’m in Rhett Butler’s camp. I perceive his way as the easy way, but it might also be the right way.

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Filed under Old Stories and New Thinking, Open Everything, Open All the Time

Kick Buttowski: Not what you think

For those in the world who do not watch children’s cartoons–I’m so sorry for you. There’s one I just encountered this summer called Kick Buttowski. He’s a 12-year old boy who’s a suburban daredevil. His name is Clarence Buttowski. “Kick” is much better than Clarence.

Kick Buttowski... on the Disney Channel. Tune in and see daredevil greatness.

Kick has a suburban family: mom, dad, sister, brother, best friend.

  • His older brother, Brad, sings in a boy band (at least once) and is as obnoxious as the older brother in Weird Science (which I’m sorry to admit I’ve seen): Chet (I even remembered his name).
  • His younger sister is evil but looks so sweet.
  • Parents–don’t really know much about them (the dad really likes his car “Monique”; the mom was a former boat racer).
  • Kick’s best friend, Gunther–a rotund blonde-haired kid is as funny as he is unaware and strangely clever.

Kick goes to a suburban school. He’s great at stunts and not so great at school. One of my favorite episodes is when Kick’s dog eats his homework. (That actually happened to me, only my dog, Friday the 13th, ate a student’s paper. Also had some cats attack a few student papers. Turns out Elvis and Col. Parker–who were my favorite cats ever–really enjoyed stalking alligator clips and occasionally the student papers got in the way.)

What I love about Kick is that he embraces his daredevil desires and lives each day with abandon.

A body could learn a lot from Kick; I actually have. If I forget that I’m watching a children’s cartoon and think about being mindful of what I’m doing–being present in the moment–not such a bad thing to remember. And if I can achieve that sort of out-of-body experience with my writing and my teaching–then I have done something grand indeed.

Pucca ready to eat noodles.

I had a similar experience when I watched Pucca. Again, if you missed this, you have missed something special. She is a young girl, perhaps 10 or 11 and the niece of three bachelor noodle makers–she works in their shop. Not only is she present to the noodle making (and delivery of the same), her uncles are masters at noodle making. She’s adorable, but when provoked, she is a bad ass ninja who cannot be defeated–greater than even the ninja boy she is entirely in love with, Garu.

She’s got some friends (a crazy girlfriend, Ching, a sweet sword-fighting girl who carries around a magic egg-laying chicken on her head) and Abyo (he regularly rips off his shirt when practicing Kung Fu–think Jacob from Twilight).

Pucca lives in Sooga, a village that includes every conceivable type including Santa who hangs in the village when he’s not working, a Jewish deity who was a former ninja, villains and good folk, and Policeman Bruce, Abyo’s father, who utters “over” whenever he speaks: “Pass the cereal, over.”

When I first started watching this cartoon, I was annoyed that Pucca doesn’t speak, that there are visual punctuation marks (sort of) to signal emotions, that there were all these nutty characters that I couldn’t really get a handle on. However, I soon came to love how odd the show was and to particularly appreciate Pucca as a strong and capable female character. I can’t say how much I loved taking a sword class (Haidong Gumdo) at about the same time in my life when Pucca was regularly available to me, because I cannot find the words to describe the HUGE powerful amazing remarkable incredible way it felt to yield a sword and smack Bob’s torso with it… Bob, the Body Opponent Bag. I love weapons and forms. I do not love hitting real humans.

Pucca kissing Garu--Garu alarmed... always.

But I liked Pucca for the way the characters (mostly children) totally focused on martial arts–not to say that’s all they did–but they focused on the study of martial arts and worked at it and pursued prowess. I also had a soft spot for the way Pucca was mad for Garu and tried regularly to kiss him. Sometimes he was angry to be kissed and sometimes it actually turned him blue (ill), but no matter Garu’s reaction, Pucca was triumphant. It was a running joke that Ching had a crush on Abyo and Pucca liked Garu–though Pucca’s passion for Garu was an awesome thing to behold. Often the four of them saved the village, the heavens, the world. But Pucca’s kiss was the most spectacular moment of the episode.

Pucca and Kick are much alike in their single-minded pursuit of a goal. I appreciate that very much. I like watching children characters work in this way, bringing every ounce of their beings to the action at hand, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing, but always there–in the moment with something less than fear–in the moment with bravery, courage, total commitment.

That may be what I like about these cartoons the best–the commitment. I do commitment weird. I commit to some activities with passion and no fear and for years I bring the love. Then it’s over–people scatter and it’s not sustainable. Or I move and my relationship with a group is no longer sustainable.

What shapes me now is the digital world of a commons. I do not have to be apart from my commons should I actually physically move–I’m not physically with my commons now. If I chose to live in New Zealand, I could still work with Writing Spaces. If I decided I wanted to teach literacy in the Yukon Territory, I could still work with Writing Spaces. If I wanted to live in Greece and sail around the islands, I could do that and still work with Writing Spaces. If I no longer worked with Writing Spaces, I could still advocate for it, use it, and be proud of the work that group created–wherever I lived. Like Kick has daredeviling, like Pucca has Garu and her ninja skills, I have writing and editing and thinking and growing and being part of something that doesn’t have to keep me rooted to one spot. It might be the ideal project for a person like me who has a lot of rabbit in her. Admittedly, the rabbit is less spry and less likely to bolt than in the past, but Writing Spaces and the writing that experience has prompted me to undertake, the ideas I’ve mashed up over the last year–better than being in one place for 25 years (something that would never happen). It’s a comfort I haven’t ever known before professionally. Never.

And on top of that, my teaching has changed in deep and profound ways–not outwardly–but inside where I was regularly unsure of what I was doing. Not now. I have 35+ other teachers working with me in that OER alone. If I include other teachers who have created other OER, we’re talking now thousands of teachers supporting me. And the style of teaching I advocate with my practice is loose and dynamic and demanding–it just keeps getting better and better the more OER I know, adapt, and use.

I said yes to Writing Spaces just about a year ago, and it’s been transformative. I’ve written about that before here and in other places. I’ve shared it with friends, all my students (and I mean all), college writing teachers, college WAC instructors, high school teachers, middle school teachers, USAF officers, welding teachers, and more. I do often sound like a preacher… So what. Knowing this OER, knowing the ideal of the commons, knowing something about intellectual freedom, understanding how the world has changed because of open… it’s like being a suburban daredevil who amazes his less fearless peers, and it’s like being a little Korean girl who kicks ass and kisses the boy she likes.

That is exactly what it’s like. Who gets to say that about their jobs?

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Filed under Cartoons and Composing, Open Educational Resources, Open Everything, Open All the Time, Surprising Information, Writing and Identity

Help!? I have three kids, two jobs, a busted car, and I’m taking 20 credit hours

Recently, I was lurking in a listserv reading about what folks wrote about the tech gap that exists for a lot of students and what that means for students who are in the gap (I wanted to offer up Writing Spaces as one of many open educational resources available to students and teachers to help students save money on books so they could afford the technology we require, but I didn’t want to be IN the conversation, I just wanted to observe it and think about it). I want to be pushy but not this week.

One person mentioned that some professors might counsel a student that if everything was falling apart, a student shouldn’t be in college at this point in her life–go get life figured out and then come back when she’s ready.

I get that. I was one of those perennially challenged students. Some one was always dying, getting divorced, being shot, driving into an elk, and then having to live with me; I had too many dogs, too many classes, too many jobs, and too many people living in my house–always. I just barely managed to get through it all and survive final examinations every term (always with some heinous virus and fever), but I managed.

One final exam week, while I had a fever of 102 degrees F, I got a ticket for speeding to the pharmacy to get a prescription filled, took three exams in one day, had my bank issue checks to someone else with my account numbers (so I ended up with NO money–they fixed it, but there was a day of utter fevered panic), lost one of my dogs, fell down the stairs to my basement and sprained my ankle, and got bit by 27 spiders as I tried to get one of my cats out from a hole in the wall of my garage. So I was hot from the fever, got really sick from the spider bites (ended up sleeping about 20 hours after the week was over), and cried about 18 times that week and 15 the week after because I started taking grad classes the week after the term was over and I had to show up with 27 spider bites all over my ankles–one of which was swollen and bruised, and no one wanted to sit next to me once they got a load of my feet. I mean, would you want to cozy up to someone who looked like they’d recently been really sick and had splotches and bites all over their feet and one foot that look like it had been twisted? I believe I also had an eyelid twitch that week, too, because somehow I felt perfectly ghoulish, and that would have been the just-right finishing touch.

At that point in my life, I did not have three kids and two jobs. I had a lot of dogs, two rogue cats, a broken-down old house with a billion things wrong with it, two and a half jobs, and a truck that would occasionally just stop working while I was driving. I won’t even go into the personal stuff (not apropos for this blog, so I’ll only say this: it was a seven-year battle royale involving an attorney who smoked a corn-cob pipe, the IRS, kitchen utensils, and a 1965 MGB).

I told all my professors what a wreck I was (full disclosure is sometimes a good thing). I asked for extensions; I asked to be added late to classes; I asked to change projects three weeks before the end of a term; I asked for incompletes; I asked for mercy; and I asked for direction.

I got everything I wanted because I worked my ass off as a consequence–so my ethos was solid. I was a mess, but I was viciously determined, and bless them all, my profs knew that. And I do mean viciously determined–I gave up everything when I needed to in order to do my academic work. I refused to go out with friends except on Friday and Saturday evenings and only after 7 pm. I never watched television. For about seven years, I didn’t even own a television. I had one at the beginning of this era, but it broke after it turned everything green for six months (my grandmother’s 140 lb. color television from the 1970s), and I couldn’t afford a new one. C’est la vie.

If I had 12 novels to read in a semester, I did whatever I needed to do to read those books (including, gulp, The Grapes of Wrath, the worst book I have ever read four times… I have a mad crush on Steinbeck the man, truly adore him, but his writing gives me the willies big time). I didn’t go on vacation–no spring break trips. I didn’t even hardly go to the movies unless someone took me out on a date. And when the truck stopped working, I walked to school or rode my old beat up Schwinn beach cruiser (public transportation wasn’t invented back then–and it was uphill both ways and I had no shoes and it snowed all the time).

One professor told me that she thought I might do better if I figured out how to manage my life, then came back to college. College, she said, wasn’t for everybody and perhaps a break was in order. What I couldn’t articulate then, but what I get now, is that college was the only thing keeping me together. I cried, of course, because she had tapped into my fears that I really wasn’t college material and went away feeling unworthy of the college experience. But I was viciously tied to it all, so I dried my tears, figured out a way to manage, and I plowed through her class and made her eat her words. I totally decimated the curve she insisted on using to grade and got the only A in the class. That didn’t endear me to my classmates, but it was a way I could prove to myself that I did belong in college despite the chaos of the world around me.

I also know now that some folks invite the chaos in. Me, for instance. There’s a knock at my door. What a surprise! Look, it’s Chaos. Our conversation goes like this…

[Chaos] Hi. I miss you. Can I come in?

[Me] No. I don’t miss you at all.

[Chaos] Yes, you do. You miss me a little bit, don’t you? C’mon, you know you do.

[Me] Oh for pity’s sake, I miss you a little. Sort of.  But it’s been so peaceful. Couldn’t you bother other friends until the end of this one semester?

[Chaos] No.

[Me] Okay, come on in. You can have the bedroom upstairs in the front. No spitting in the kitchen sink, clean up after yourself, no jumping on the waterbed, and you have to help walk the dogs every morning no matter what.

[Chaos] Thanks. You’ll hardly notice I’m here.

Not so much. I always noticed Chaos a lot (he NEVER follows rules) and I still notice, but there it is–that’s who I am: me letting Chaos in. I opened the door. I caved. It was me. I could have done something different. I didn’t. I don’t.

I have friends who are like bedrock. Chaos never gets in. They plan and stick to the plan and find immense measures of success that everyone can quantify easily–classic measuring sticks that everyone recognizes. My measuring stick for success is like a long noodle. Wiggly, uncertain, magnificent, and eventually, something that can be eaten to great satisfaction.

I love this next noodle maker. It’s like a noodle dance. I like to think if I’m using something as tenuous as a noodle to measure the success of my life, then I’d like it to be a noodle made this way, with lyricism and joy.

Or my measurement for success in college or life might be more like Martin Yan carving a chicken in 18 seconds.

I take a giant cleaver and hack away now! Nothing can beat me when I have my cleaver and Martin Yan with me!

When I now talk to students about the chaos in their lives (because they tell me–as their professor), I speak from experience about how to make choices one can live with. If you let Chaos in, Chaos stays in. Now you have to deal with it. Make choices about what you can do every day about your education. If you have to choose between going out with friends and reading the book you need to read: do the reading. If you have to decide between watching a movie and writing the paper that is due: write the paper. If you have to choose between caring for the dying person in your life and doing homework: take the homework with you because dying people sleep a lot, and you can do the homework. My mother wanted me to do my master’s degree work when I was watching her die. It made her happy. She said the sound of the keys on my laptop soothed her. I’ve cared for a lot of ill folks who never resented me reading or writing while I was there. They were proud of me. What I had to do was get over my own emotions in order to keep my mind focused. It’s being vicious with yourself that can do it–there’s a time to get hit by the ball for a walk, and there’s a time to step up to the plate and bunt the runner home.

I took three years off once to work in aviation. I had to go away from grad school–but I didn’t quit. That’s another really important point we need to remember when talking to our students: I went on hiatus. That’s all. Because I was always going to find my way back to school–no question. How we talk about something is how that thing becomes. If we quit, then we quit, and it’s over and done with: fat lady sings. If we go on hiatus, we have a summer off between the hectic schedule of shooting a hit television series–it’s only a break. We name what we do and it is that which is named–I, as a writing professor, as a rhetorician, should be more aware of that than anyone. So I try.

My advice is now always this: find a way because there is always a way. Always. Be open to the way that comes to you, because if you’re the kind of person that lets Chaos in to stay in your extra bedroom, then you need to be open to whatever path the world reveals to you.

(I try to never mention the hiatus–it’s one option, certainly–but it should be a last option.)

When I found myself confronting a whole chicken one day in my apartment and wondering what the hell I was going to do with it, the electrician fixing the wiring in the living room told me he was finished… and asked what I was going to do with that fabulous-looking chicken (it was gorgeous–I bought it from a meat shop thinking I would roast it, but I had no idea what I was doing). I said that–I have no idea what I’m doing; I’m crashing and burning right now. He said, “Well, miss, it just so happens, I used to be a butcher.” I thought I would cry. I had guests coming in an hour and the chicken had thus far defeated me. He cleaned up, took my cleaver, and whacked my chicken apart in less than a minute, started the whole dinner for me, wrote down the directions for the best chicken stew ever so I could finish and make a great overall meal (and look like a star doing it), and off he rode into the sunset.

Now my cleaver is a valued kitchen tool and chickens no longer vanquish me. Neither do noodles, long or short.

And I made it through college–several times.

If students want advice and help from me, they’ll get it. I tell them: there’s always a way.

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Filed under Open Everything, Open All the Time, Survival and Success

The academic sting, or gambling in the academy

I just starting watching The Sting. I’ve seen it many times, but not anytime lately. I recall loving it, as well as the soundtrack, and the clothes, the scenery, the horse-racing (that was really only a means to the con)–all of it. A dear uncle had a box at Hollywood Park, where I spent a lot of time learning to read a racing form, play to a hunch, and trust an odds-maker or two. I started betting when I was ten (some adult would place the bets, but I did all the work). Sometimes, Uncle Bob and I would share a bet if we both had a strong feeling about a horse. Once we bet a horse at 20-1 to win–and we ended up taking everyone out to dinner. I actually told the waiter to give me the bill, then my uncle slipped me half the cash for the bill. I’m not sure I ever felt so grown-up until I was actually grown-up.

The first thing I noticed about the movie was Paul Newman’s eyes and Robert Redford’s smile, of course–they were stunning. Who didn’t love them in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? It was a great movie–still is, so is The Sting.

The second thing I noticed was that the sting they perpetuate, a wire game, is quite elaborate with lots of people involved and precise timing mandatory for success. Would I be wrong in comparing their process with writing an academic paper? I don’t think so. Morally wrong, maybe just a little bit to make the comparison, but I don’t think I’m technically wrong.

Let’s be clear: academics are not trying to spread misinformation for monetary gain or revenge* as in the film, but the process involves a lot of time, oppressive (sometimes) research, extensive planning, understanding one’s audience, finding the right “media” for presentation, gathering resources from near and far, and so forth.

(*Paul Newman’s character does say, “Revenge is for suckers. I’ve been grifting thirty years and I never got any.” But this doesn’t mean revenge ain’t at the heart of what’s going on.)

Or is all of this strolling around in horse racing, the 1930s, and confidence men just another way my rose-colored glasses allow me to see everything in terms of my job(s) in the academy (the Victorians were no slouches when it came to con games in and out of literature)? Could be. I do tend to allow whatever I’m doing to shade my world, to funnel knowledge or information to me, based on a current focus. That’s what happens when one lives open.

When I taught a class on Dickens, everything came up Dickens. Every week, Dickens was in the news or in a magazine or online (newly found letters, a old ring discovered, a revival of a play based on a novel, etc.)  That semester, if I’d gone to Las Vegas and bet “Dickens” at roulette, I would have won. If I’d gone to the track and bet on a horse named “Dickens,” with 30-1 odds, he would have won by a nose, for sure. It will happen again, just as it does with every class I teach, writing about Star Trek, writing across the curriculum, educational writing… doesn’t matter, that’s what I see for the whole semester. Maybe if I started teaching the same classes over and over again, that would stop happening, but I doubt it. I think it’s more about me than the job I do. So. Thank goodness I’m a teacher and not a flim-flam artist. I think I wouldn’t be very good at the latter. (Or, as I told my students in spring term when we were studying mystery, maybe I’m so transparent and open because I’m the world’s greatest spy ever. Mystery solved.)

Flim-flamming is not an accepted academic endeavor (unless, of course, you are Thomas James Wise and think you can bamboozle the world), and that’s NOT what I’m saying. I am saying that academic work is a bit like gambling. You study and work hard and read constantly and deeply and teach and hunt and dig and research–you are betting, gambling, that the work you do matters and that someone cares what you have been doing. It’s a chance you have to take that the work you do has relevance. It can be as scary and risky as a con–or so I assume. (I have never engaged in that sort of work–so I can’t say for sure, though, truly, grad school felt a lot like that, or so I assume. I mean, I couldn’t have been the only one sitting in a class in a doctoral program waiting for the PhD goons to come knocking on the door to say, “Excuse us, the admissions folks made a mistake. Elizabeth, you’ll have to come with us. We’re going for a little ride.”)

The academic sting is all about the audience, the purpose, the guts of what we do as scholars–our sting isn’t a bad one, but it is a game of persuasion, a business partly based on our trying to find the right ethos to keep working, writing, creating and being part of a community. But we can’t get away from the persuasive part, can we? “I’m right, see all this work I did–proves it”–that’s what we do. We argue for our point of view, rightness, justice, teaching this rather than that, reduced class sizes, the process method of teaching writing, interactive teaching, collaborative endeavors (the commons), technology in the classroom, open education (which is totally right, by the by, like Writing Spaces), etc., and when we get our way, we can be as delighted as some grifter conning some mark (all the characters in on the sting in the movie are SO happy when they “win”). Only I hope we’re all doing it for ethical, good reasons and that our results do no harm (though, frankly, administrators know how hard it is to stay idealistic in hard economic times–shoot, in any times, good or not so good).

One of the petty criminals mentioned as a possibility for inclusion in the big sting operation is “The Big Alabama in from New Orleans”–okay, that doesn’t make sense, but I kind of like it as I’m from Alabama now, and New Orleans has terrific food and music. I never heard that before because I wasn’t IN Alabama before and hadn’t been to New Orleans before I saw the film for the first time. Lenses.

Like any gambler, then, I keep on doing the work for my academic sting, and baby, it’s a whole lotta work; it’s extensive and elaborate: I have to read all the time; write constantly; stay in touch with what’s happening in my field(s); do research; think; revise my writing; do more research; let my thinking out for a romp through this blog; and hope that what I’m doing will matter. I can’t help myself: “Hi, my name is Elizabeth, and I’m addicted to the academy.”

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Filed under Open Everything, Open All the Time, Surprising Information, Victorians Everywhere, Writing and Gambling

Oh no. I really did that, didn’t I?

I have being doing some things in my blog that might bother the web savvy. I’ll get to the details soon, but number one is that I don’t really care if anybody reads this. It’s for me. It’s my place to think and write when I need to get writing handled and get it out of my head and in a place that I can’t take back. It’s too easy as a writer to do a lot of writing and never share it for a variety of reasons. My issue is that I have to get the thinking out of my head, and I never did a really super fantastic good job of that before this blog. I tend to let ideas grow, but sometimes I will let them fester when I don’t do anything with them. (Such an ugly word but one that exactly explains what ideas do when they are left to rot in a mind. Okay, in my mind.)

Because the audience is me, I also haven’t done anything to promote the site, share with others, tell anyone it exists, get it on Reddit or Digg, or follow other blogs and get into the blogosphere (a relatively new word to my vocabulary) by developing relationships with other bloggers. You’ll notice my blogroll totals one other web site–it’s not even a blog. For now, I’m okay with that. But if I want to change my blogging experience, I know how. Here’s why…

I’m a participant in the ongoing creation and life of a really great open educational resource, Writing Spaces. And the folks at Writing Spaces are just about to bring to the world a terrific style guide on writing for the web. It was started by Charlie Lowe and Michael Day as a collaborative project for the Computers & Writing conference… well, it was part of an unconference associated with that conference. A writing sprint is really what it was, like a code sprint where open source software programmers/coders get together to make a bunch of code everyone needs. (Like I even knew what that meant before this unconference, but it sounds like it could be fun.)

So this sprint happened: a lot of writing professors and teachers and designers and web gurus and writers got together to write this guide over a few weeks. I dipped into it occasionally to see how the writing was going because I didn’t have much to say on the topic. I write like a writer for print, not a writer for the web. I write long blog posts (1200-2000+ words); I have all my links open into new windows (I really like that as a web user); I don’t mess around with code (or I didn’t until I read the guide–more on this later); I don’t tweak my own site much (though I took time off from being here in April and just now changed the template and included my art in the header–inspired by the guide). In truth, I do a lot of un-savvy things for a writer on the web. (Perhaps this makes me charming rather than annoying. Wouldn’t that be great? I can dream.)

The editors, Matt Barton, Jim Kalmbach, and Charlie Lowe, have done a really great job of managing to bring together a lot of writing by a lot of people: 16 people wrote this work. In not a lot of time. They had general categories they developed, then they all pitched in and wrote what they knew, what worked for them, what they taught their students, what they consulted with clients about, what was right and good. They live in Florida, Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, California, Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota and more. Some were at the conference in Ann Arbor, MI, but some couldn’t make it. Regardless, the writing mostly happened before the actual conference; the editing (a lot of work–and getting it all pretty for the web site must have taken hours) and copy editing (not so hard because the editors did so much) came after the conference. Very cool thing. I’ve been part of the commons, but not in something like this before.

At the first C&W conference I attended last year at Purdue, I decided I wanted to become more hip to the world of the web, so I committed to being open even before I was truly open and decided I’d let myself learn about all things online in any ways I could. I even graduated from a faculty development program at my school in teaching online last year (how on earth did I work that into my schedule?). But I just didn’t work much on understanding how words and space worked on the web. As I read through the finished text to copy edit, I did three things: 1) prayed to the web gods that I didn’t make any mistakes that would make my colleagues look bad; 2) desperately hoped that I would not do something awful to the code (because I don’t have many code skills… yet); and 3) marveled at everything I was learning. I took about twice as long to copy edit as I normally would have because I kept reading and getting distracted by links to sites I would browse around in and end up reading for awhile!

When this thing gets published later this week, I’ll put the link in here (on the word “here,” actually). But until then, let me say this: WOW! I know the difference between HTML and CSS. I created a web page and fooled around with CSS, too. I re-learned about content strategy and did these things: read a blog post by Steve Krause; played with an online color tool; thought deeply about how I wanted to use the guide in my summer WAC (writing across the curriculum) class; realized the web was more than the Encyclopedia of Arda and the few places I visit regularly. And I also learned these things: that I shouldn’t have my links open into new windows; that my posts should be shorter; that animated GIFs are no longer cool (thank goodness I never dreamed of doing that); that I should really get into Twitter (obviously, I could practice concision–something I really don’t do much of or very well); that one of the contributors likes Star Trek (“Damnit Jim” in a section title); that I should embed video in my site rather than link to it; that I should be kind to my readers with appropriate design; that I can do a lot more on the web and in this blog than I imagined.

Will I change my troubling ways because of this work? Not everything, not all at once, but I’m stunned to find that this post will be very close to 1,200 words, on the shortish side for me. I still made all my links open to new windows. (Perhaps that makes me a lovely but determined writer in transition rather than an obnoxious, stubborn Luddite. Okay, I’ll never do it in any other place than this blog. Fine.)

And to think, up until a few days ago, I was happy to write somewhere that was more accountable than my own desktop or a paper journal. I never have a pen when I need one anyway.

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Filed under Open Educational Resources, Open Everything, Open All the Time

The open WPA: Dancing around in open land

WPA is not an acronym for Works Progress Administration (later the Work Projects Administration)–which some folks have suggested when I casually mention, at fancy dress-up cocktail parties, that I’m a WPA. WPA means Writing Program Administrator. But I can understand the confusion. WPAs often do a lot of progressive work (and projects from now until the 12th of forever), things that mean forward movement, going places, building programs, and such.

Though FDR’s WPA is an fairly old entity that was part of the New Deal, I’m okay with the comparison. The work the WPA did was needed and good (millions of Americans found work through that agency for eight years from 1935-1943), and benefited, I’m sure, my own antecedents. So. I’m not at all offended by anyone thinking I might be affiliated with such an important movement/agency/group/organization, though I do usually end up explaining what my WPAness means. Sometimes I just say I’m a writer. It’s easier than saying I’m a WPA and a lot less stressful than saying I’m an English teacher (so many people look aghast, and breathlessly say, as they back away from me, that they were awful in English: “Oh, look there’s Sam and Lena, I really must go say hello, excuse me, won’t you?” To Sam and Lena: “Ugh, Elizabeth teaches English–stay away–or least don’t say something stupid.”). Saying I’m an English professor is worse, and a Victorian literature professor, why, that’s even more catastrophic, I’m sad to say. The Victorians were sort of judge-y.

However, my point in this post is not about how hard it is to say what my professional life is or isn’t. My point is to write about how I’ve gotten to be such an open person, specifically an open writing program administrator. To be perfectly honest, it’s a thing that bleeds into my personal life in more than one way. I don’t think I could be an open person at work and then be closed at home. I had to re-think my own existence, to be slightly dramatic about it, and all that might mean in the last year. I’ve become open to new things, new ways of working, new friends, new sights, new sites, new language, new everything and open everything. Lately, since August last year actually, I’ve been engaged with what feels like very progressive projects by embracing all things open. I’ve read several books about open (with a few more to go), hefty articles (from law review journals even), light and fun articles (in some casual blogs and magazines), serious work from rhetoric and composition scholars (in academic journals in print and online and in blogs)–all about open things.

What baffles me most about this reading is that I lived parallel to the history I’m reading about now. I’m not really riveted by 20th/21st century history or events. Usually I read 19th century history/literature and that feeds my Victorian literature teaching, or I read happening-right-now works on teaching writing. The whole open thing was going on while I was an adult, and I never really learned much about it while it was happening. But I have friends now who were IN it. I had friends who were in it then, but I had no idea what they were talking about while they were talking about it. In the 1990s I was doing something very different with my life than the open advocates. Which is all to say: it was as it should be. No regrets. If I’d gotten it then, I’d be a different person than I am now–and that wouldn’t be good. I’m good just how I am. Right. Now.

But I’m deeply profoundly madly serious when I say: right now, open is the thing that will make me happy for a long time to come. I do cycle through intellectual and physical fads some (in 2009/10, I read every Michael Chabon book; I took karate classes like I was the next Bruce Lee until I had to hit people and mean it), but open is, as I explore it more, an undercurrent running with the river of my life, not against it. It’s always been there, I just never called it what it is.

I used to joke about being a scholar of liberation studies because everything I read or did with my mind was always about freedom–mine, specifically, but if I could support anyone else’s freedom, I was on board with that, too. I felt like the one thing I could do, and do well, was read, and persuade others of the wonder of reading, and that the one thing no one could ever take from me was what I learned, and that learning should always be liberatory (I mean, really, how could it be otherwise?). I was completely drawn to writers who were politically aware and somehow actively trying to change the world: Byron, Shelley, Barrett Browning, Dickens, Gaskell. In the 20th century, the one genre I was driven to read was spy fiction–all about spies who worked for governments who sought freedoms for its people. Sure, there was betrayal, but it was so scintillating and scrumptious when the good spies won (they didn’t always).

Occasionally, in the 20th century, I’d be hooked into other genres: I started reading Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent series when I was in 7th grade and finished when he finished (a great series that mirrors a lot of political change from the late 1950s through the mid-1970s). I cared about the way politics worked and how freedoms mattered to a people and how a people might give a lot to ensure freedom for all, risking life and limb in battles here and over there. (“Over There” is a song my grandmother, Blanche Kennedy, used to sing to me when I was little–she used to also sing, “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”; I think my early interest in geography is explained by my grandfather’s involvement in WWI, his globe with little x’s on each country he’d been in, and my grandmother’s singing to me the songs of the Great War). My life was surrounded by the political. Home life was infused by the political; voting was one of the biggest events of each year; every man in my family, and some women, served in a branch of the military until my generation.

And OER is political. I want to extricate myself from political things these days, mostly, but this isn’t one I can ignore. The underlying freedom from cost to students and other teachers inherent in OER means something to those in poverty. Education is liberation. Free textbooks (online) or books published inexpensively to meet local needs (OER can often be remixed and reused to suit a particular educational situation)–this enables education. I’m a WPA at a school where poverty is an issue. Alabama is not the wealthiest state–we’re 42nd for income per capita. We’re ranked 9th for the number of folks living below the poverty level (below the poverty level–didn’t find anything about everyone living around and just above the poverty level). It makes sense that the condition of not having enough food, adequate shelter or clothing would have an impact on one’s education. When text could be provided to schools for less than the current outrageous spending for textbooks–what could that savings be spent on: computers, wi-fi, printers? It’s naive for me to think that a savings in one area of education would automatically beget largesse in another, but I have hope. Always hope. Being involved in open and working on OER (editing, writing, advocating) is, for me, nothing short of my duty as an educator and a citizen of the world.

That sounds high and mighty, doesn’t it? Well, it is. It’s a high and mighty thing.

Recently, I was on a panel about OER at the Computers & Writing conference. One colleague, Craig Hulst, talked about whether we had an ethical obligation to create OER when we could and when it was right (when it’s right was the focus of Charlie Lowe’s talk, my other colleague on the panel)–all of us are involved with Writing Spaces, an open educational resource. The answer to Craig’s question–did we or didn’t we?–was “Yes, we did. We are ethically bound to share our knowledge.” Of course, I believe this. I have said before, here and just about anytime anyone asks me about being open: if you attain ninja rank and you do not teach and share what you know, you risk losing your ninja membership card. Or you could burn in hell.

The right path is clear, isn’t it? (Or was I just over-the-top again? Ah well. If you’re not living on the edge, how can you see the view?) If I’m going to be a WPA, and I’m going to be for some time to come, I hope, then I need to be an open WPA. Or I could lose my ninja card. That would totally suck.

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Filed under Open Everything, Open All the Time, Reading & Writing