Category Archives: Survival and Success

MOOCing for my students… as it turns out

The MOOC I’m in at the moment, E-Learning and Digital Cultures, has had an impact on my freshman composition class. I wasn’t expecting that. I sort of kind of really believed that the MOOC and my students were two separate entities.

In the interest of remembering this first MOOC experience and the way it connects to my teaching, I want to record some of the things I “discovered” in this first week and how this translated to my freshman class. (Who woulda thunk this could happen? But it did. And it seemed so natural and easy and right.)

After week one in the MOOC, I found these things:

  • 40,000 people is too many for me–my semi-loathing of huge crowds in physical space translates to online. It gives me the willies to even think about getting into Twitter with 1,000s of people involved.
  • The same for Facebook. Now that there are over 4,600 members of our group, I’m freaked out a bit. I like what everyone is doing–helping each other and being thoughtful–but it’s too big. Or I’m a big ol’ chicken and I need to get over myself. (It’s probably that last.)
  • I love what happened pre-course and am so happy I set myself up to learn as I wanted to–with a small group of amazing thinkers, that is:
  • Quad-blogging as we’ve adapted it. Early on someone introduced this concept and we adapted it for this experience–having picked a group of 4 or so bloggers to connect with through the course.
  • Now we have done the Google+ Hangout twice (once with three of the four, once with two of the four–recorded!) with plans to do it again each week of the course.
  • I’m very happy to feel connected to these brilliant people.
  • Four is a very fine number. It’s .01 percent of 40,000. Nice.
  • I love the decentralized feel of the course–no talking heads to direct me too much. I thought there would be more teacherly guidance. But I like this free-form learning. I like the incredibly low-stress learning environment.
  • I even don’t care that I’m not totally getting everything the professors might have intended for me to “get”–I’m doing this for me: to learn more about how MOOCs work, to play with and learn more about digital tools for teaching, and to see what happens.
  • I enjoyed the videos and readings (though the one article from 2001 is ancient by digital standards).

And this is where the overlap to my own teaching has happened–in doing the actual work of the course. As I watched the videos, I thought: we’re talking about this very thing in my freshman comp class. We are only creating digital/online writing the whole year (and honors comp sequence that runs through both fall and spring semesters). We are focused on public memory, memorials, and monuments (this spring in Montgomery, AL and New York City), but everything we do is online–we are connected at the hip to the machine. OH MY WORD. So I did this:

  • We watched Bendito Machine III and then The Machine is Us/ing Us.
  • I asked the students to particularly pay attention to connections between the two.
  • After some discussion we re-watched them (they’re short), and then talked about subtleties we missed the first time around.
  • THEN we talked some more about how we are training ourselves AND the machines in various ways… and student said something that triggered our watching of Eli Pariser’s TED talk on filter bubbles. It was just so appropriate that the “machine” is also being trained by algorithms of some kind or another that give us specific information tailored to our searches, but also by what the machine learns about us regarding our choices, our location, our socioeconomic status perhaps. Who knows? Google could be sending us different search results based on our shoe size for all I know.
  • Students learning about information literacy and writing online must be also thinking about what that MEANS not just how to do it.
  • Having a larger context for this sort of existence online is crucial, but I hadn’t thought of putting it in terms that these short films did, and frankly, I wouldn’t have come up with this combination alone. I needed the “crowd-sourcing” of this MOOC to help me think in this way.
  • The students were terrific about this unexpected twist in our learning–they always are. I thank my lucky stars that I’m blessed with the best of the best in disposition and determination to learn and think and keep blowing up the box (we don’t even think outside the box–when we encounter a box, we blast it to smithereens).
  • Next class period, we might watch the other films and another TED talk and think more about our digital culture that we’re creating. NEVER dreamed that the crossover from MOOC to comp classroom might work so well.

But, then, I am a firm believer in Serendipity and let it wash over and wave (crashing sometimes) through my life at will. It’s my way. Frank Sinatra has his way, or rather “My Way“–I have mine. And I don’t think I could be happier doing it differently. Actually, my way looks and sounds just a bit more like this: Judas Priest’s “You Got Another Thing Coming.” If it weren’t for my semi-loathing of huge crowds, I’d have said my way looks exactly like this, in a stadium with 80,000 MOOCers, I mean, rock and rollers:

If I had a rock and roll way--it would be like this. I hope.

If I had a rock and roll way–it would be like this. Judas Priest–still proud and loud.


Filed under MOOC Journeys, Survival and Success, Writing is Beautiful

The truth today, not the truth for tomorrow

I’ve recently had to change my schedule a few times based on the needs of others. I was greatly amused by a colleague who said this to me:

Did you see my email about the schedule change? Well, it’s the most recent email about the most recent change. I’m sure it will all change again. For today, it’s the truth.

I loved that. For that day, it was the truth. Tomorrow, everything may change again, and there will be a new truth. That’s okay. I changed my calendar, changed my email and pop-up reminders for the change on the calendar, and changed my thoughts about how to handle the schedule change, as one change has an impact on many things. No big.

Since I’m a fan of change (“fixed fortifications are a monument to the stupidity of man”–one of the Pattonisms guiding my life this spring term), I thought, bring it, bring on the changes, I can adapt to anything.

I remember the exact moment when I thought: I can endure anything; I will survive no matter what. Throw the worst at me, and I can take it for at least one day. And if I can take it for one day, then I can take it for one more day. And one more day after that. I will not be defeated except by beheading.

My moment of epiphany was a long time ago actually, and might explain something about who I am now. I read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1962) (the story of one day in the life of a man imprisoned for over 3,600 days total). I was required to read it for a 20th century European literature class (in translation, of course). I loved that class and my 19th century European literature class, too–these gave me such a fine context for reading what became a focus for a good part of my life: British literature, and then publishing and writing studies. Oddly enough, I think, it was just around 25 years after the original publication that I read the book–it felt real and fresh to me actually. We were still in the midst of the Cold War, a post-WWII era ushered in by Stalin, dominated by Stalinist ideas. The Berlin Wall had not fallen yet. My life was partially defined by the Cold War–what person living through the end of the 20th century wasn’t defined by that? For instance:

  1. I am a child of Rocky and Bullwinkle. I watched these cartoons as a child, owned the VHS, now own the DVDs.
  2. My father was a member of a Civil Defense League meant to stop the Communist threat right on the shores of California before reaching the American heartland. (How they would do that, I’m not sure, but we lived in LA and he owned a 10 gauge side-by-side barrel shotgun. Honestly, it would have scared away a few folks perhaps.)
  3. I read a lot of spy fiction with my mother throughout my youth–good spies were American and British; bad spies were Russian (and/or East German).

I was keenly aware of the Eastern Commie Hordes who I was told might storm the shores of my state (so close to China and Russia) to take me and my fragile life any moment to be reprogrammed in the socialistic evils in a Gulag or on re-education farm. The Solzhenitsyn book just reinforced the horror of that kind of regime and the concept that I was somehow in peril because of Stalin and his legacy (I still say things might have been different had Trotsky not been exiled and then gotten an axe in the head–I won’t even talk about Mao here).

Solzhenitsyn after his release from the Gulag in 1953.

I knew something of Solzhenitsyn as a writer, as a protester, of his imprisonments prior to being assigned this book, so found his story credible. I also understood that the book was about just one day in the life of an ordinary prisoner, a regular Joe-six-pack dude, Ivan Denisovich Shukov. And what I learned from that book is that survival is about daily survival–live through a day, greet the next day breathing and putting one foot in front of the other, again, until another day can be gotten through. I don’t remember details now at all, just that it was cold, dark, scary, vicious, full of hunger, thirst, fear. All that year I was in school, I worried about a 1,000 things that I thought were so very important. But–epiphany!–Shukov got through worse than anything I experienced, and all in one day and ended that day with something like hope of kindness. I can survive one day of disappointment, of heartache, of loss, of emotional misery. My worries are petty worries about a chipped nail or a bad hair cut, about how I miss someone, not about whether I will die of starvation or hypothermia or a beating. I also remember thinking, no way I’m ever in a situation that is worse than a Russian Gulag. That shut up my complaining pretty quickly, at least for that year.

I still think it’s important to consider myself in relief to others less fortunate. I have an easier time of it than a roofer. Smelling tar makes me nauseous. I do not carry buckets on my head 10 miles to get clean water for my family. I am not beaten or stoned for saying the right thing at the wrong time. I have never wanted for food unless I was too lazy to go out and get it. I have never been afraid of being torn from my home in the middle of the night by police-state-sanctioned thugs to be held against my will in perpetuity without trial (despite what my 1950s-influenced relatives might have believed about the Red Scare). I’ve never been in a war-torn area. I’ve never even, really, been threatened by anyone.

The truth of my life is all around me is fairly tame, quiet, and supportive, and that truth is generally unchanging. I could be attacked by a herd of mad cows tomorrow and die in a freak stampede accident, but still that’s not a daily threat. I am fully aware of my relative safety and fully aware of how and why I have that safety and privilege. Sadly, I take it for granted too often.

My truth is that I am truly safe… always, even during change. It’s good to remember this when my heart is breaking a little or the grocery store is out of my favorite spinach/artichoke dip and I have to find something else among the 25,000 items in the store I want to eat, that I can afford to eat (which would be anything, I suspect), that I can buy nearly whatever I want without thinking twice about it (but I WANTED the spinach/artichoke dip).

When I am inconvenienced or when I am frustrated that I can’t get my wi-fi to work, I only need remember Shukov, Solzhenitsyn (and so many others), and all they symbolize, then and now, of the incarcerated without cause, the beaten without reason, the killed without meaning, the silenced without hope for freedom of speech, and I can thankfully hush my whining mouth, change my small plans, and live another day in utter peace. If Shukov could find that his one awful day could almost be happy, that there could/can be meaning despite every attempt by oppressors to make life devoid of meaning, then, really what could we get through if we were determined to survive or had reason to live?

I’m not demeaning the life I live by poking a bit of fun at my chipped nail dramas in contrast to those who have suffered greatly–the life I lead is predicated on the freedoms I’m allowed and for which I’m profoundly grateful–I know that and celebrate it. What I mean is that I know how good I have it.

In direct and personal contrast, I knew a man who was part of the Bataan Death March and his health (physical and mental) was changed forever after… he survived that and was imprisoned for nearly the rest of the war–how long, I don’t remember. He was lucky, though, because he was a doctor and was allowed to semi-care for other prisoners. He was haunted and hampered all the rest of his life by that experience, though. I knew both him and his wife, and we had dinner a few times–sometimes listening to music after dinner, moving the furniture around, and dancing to old records. They had a property care taker who I’d dance with, and then we’d switch partners. (Such an odd moment of my life to remember now that I think about it.) The doctor and his wife were both very aged when I knew them (I took care of their dogs sometimes when they traveled–all named after fellow prisoners of war). The doctor didn’t talk about his ordeal much, but once he did, and I asked him how he managed to survive when so many others didn’t. He said because he needed to–the other prisoners of war needed him to live. So he did.

When I think about surviving for another day, I think of him, I think of Shukov, and Solzhenitsyn, and I want to believe I could do that–get through one day, no matter what, and another day, if I needed to survive. At the least, I have learned from them that survival can happen, in the worst of circumstances, and that there are real and good reasons to fight for life.

Small changes that rearrange my time? These mean nothing to me. It’s just part of the truth for that one day. And on any one day, I’m grateful for everything and embrace whatever the truth is for that day.

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Filed under Old Stories and New Thinking, Survival and Success, The Truth or Not, Writing with Heart

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