X-posted to Teaching Thursday.
This blog post is an effort to understand the fairly lackadaisical interest in participating in the Teaching Thursday blog among my colleagues at the University of North Dakota. It got me thinking about the nature of teaching conversations and whether they are suitable to a blog.
Anyone who follows the happenings on the internets is probably familiar with Malcolm Gladwell's recent article in the October 4 New Yorker: "Small Changer: Why the Revolution will not be Tweeted". In this article, he argued that the connections produced by such social media sites like Twitter and Facebook are "weak ties" which are unlikely to hold up to the kind of social pressures that real revolutionary action will both require and endure. He begins his article with the students who participated in the revolutionary Greenboro sit-in of 1960 and noted that the four participants had deep social connections as roommates at North Carolina A & T or as friends from high-school. These social connections, characterized by regular physical proximity to one another and a significant body of shared experiences, enabled these four brave students to have the confidence to imagine radical ideas and to maintain their resolve in the face of adversity.
Other pundits, like Clay Shirky, have challenged the idea that such dedication is necessary to generate revolutionary change. Shirky, particularly in his most recent book Cognitive Surplus, has argued that the internet and social media sites become conduits funneling myriad rivulets of surplus energies together making the great deluge of internet knowledge possible (manifest in sites like Wikipedia and The YouTubes).
These two positions intersect with the mission of this blog. The idea for this blog was to capture the hundreds of short (and long!), thoughtful, creative, conversations about teaching that go on weekly across campus into a central place. The hope was that the blog could become an alternative source for stimulation for busy colleagues who missed a great program offered by our Office of Instructional Development or were not in the hallway at the second two colleagues were unpacking a tricky issue or did not have a moment to read the newest book that presents a new solution to the latest problem. Over the last three months, I extended this effort to Twitter once again trying to funnel energy and ideas from across campus into a single conduit.
Follow us on Twitter at OIDatUND!
So far, the blog has had its moments, but they have been few and far between. Over the last three months, I've been promised many, many blog posts, but always "in the spring semester" when, of course, the songbirds return, the snow melts, and other obligations drift away on the first warm, scented breeze. I expect that some of these posts will come to enliven our blog, but even these contributions (which I know will be excellent), do not really represent even a fraction of the exciting conversations I have had about teaching. Of course, we are all busy, all of the time, and finding time to write is a challenge.
Having read Gladwell's article, I began to wonder whether the experiences of teaching actually resist blogging as a medium for communication. Perhaps this is because so much teaching on campus represents spontaneous responses to spontaneous issues. Could it be that our day-to-day teaching activities - a troubled student, a particularly bad classroom experience, or a brilliantly successful assignment - all exist within such a complex matrix of variables that communicating how something succeeded or failed in writing would be either a monumental task unsuited to the limited medium of blogging or somehow impossible to articulate in a useful, generalized way?
In saying this, I do not mean to suggest that understanding how to become a better teacher is impossible through public reflection -- obviously the research conducted by various academic departments in teaching and learning have both real practical value and a robust disciplinary tradition -- but to wonder whether many of us on campus do not think about teaching in a way that lends itself to even the modest structure of a blog post. Teaching is an emotional experience full of frustration and excitement as we join the struggle to achieve goals that, in most case, are very difficult to articulate. Of course, we can all enumerate formal learning objectives, classroom goals, content expectations, and the like, but I wonder whether these are the things that really motivate us as teachers. For me, teaching is about realizing goals that extend far beyond the classroom. These goals are resistant to clear quantitative or even qualitative evaluation and they often exist at the fringes of my ability of articulate them in a rational way at all.
In short, maybe this blogging experiment reveals the limitations of media dependent on the kinds of "weak ties" that Gladwell assigns to Facebook friends and Twitter colleagues. Face-to-face meetings, intimate seminars, conversations over strong beverages, and hallway insights depend upon the strong ties of shared experience to have value. Extracted from that context, everything seems mundane and hardly stuff that matters. The teaching revolution will not be blogged.