Now and then, it’s important to retreat. I most often enact the time-honored tradition of moving away from the bustle in order to build a cabin, climb a mountain, consult the stars, or just get some perspective in times when I feel overwhelmed by the newness of an environment, some hysterical novelty, or too many ideas that come crashing together all at once. These last few days in the very early part of 2008 have seen a jarring smashing together of all three aforementioned conditions. My teaching and pedagogy, my relationship with the Web, and the natural conflict-slash-synergy between theory and practice, unexpectedly, have been rolling and roaring around like monster trucks at a rally. (It occurs to me that I might need to unpack the word “rally” in this context…)
When I started this blog, I told myself that I was going to resist the temptation to promote, advertise, or otherwise manhandle any particular Web application, interface, social site, in favor of talking about pedagogy. Classrooms are classrooms, I say. It is the premise of this blog, in fact, that slam teaching – if it is a practice at all – can be practiced no matter what the medium, locale, grade level, or subject matter. It is an approach which is not dependent upon certain or any technologies. Teaching is teaching is teaching, as Gertrude Stein might say. (It occurs to me that I might need to unpack that phrase if I compare it to Stein…) Teaching involves a guide, a pupil, and a text – which, in my pedagogy, can be anything from an actual text (written, visual, or otherwise) to a subject agreed upon by general consensus. That I can think, nowhere does teaching happen without those three ingredients.
At the same time, and perhaps exactly in the spirit of this blog and the notion of slam teaching, I feel I’m learning to teach for the first time. Part of this may come from the fact that, at least within the pages of this blog and within the quiet introspective walls of my own investigation of the practice, I am beholden to no one. I am free to invent teaching for myself, to consider at my intellectual, philosophical, and emotional leisure. Take tea with my pedagogy. “Have a biscuit, please, and tell me about experiential learning.” The truth be told, though, I am beginning to feel that I’m more sharing instant messages back and forth across quantum space with my pedagogy, and there are no biscuits to be found anywhere.
The Internet makes me uncomfortable. It always has. On the one hand, the use of e-mail and instant messaging technology has helped me maintain some of the most important friendships of my life so far. I have been able, almost exclusively because of e-mail, to speak in letters to my friends; I have had whole relationships over e-mail and the Internet; and now, I blog. On two blogs – this one, and on my personal blog. These days, my friends stay up with me more by reading what I write on these blogs, and not as much by e-mail. In a way, these blogs are a broadcast of my thoughts; they are not, generally, a broadcast of the events of my life, and they are very generally directed. I never know who will be reading. I’m exposed and autonomous, identifiable and anonymous. By my reckoning, this is an inevitable product of the relationship between humans and their machines, especially as we use those machines to represent us.
The Web is about representationality, not about reality. You do not know me, nor my teaching style, by reading this. You do not know me by reading my other blog. You do not know me by Googling me, nor by downloading my picture to your desktop. To you, I am a concatenation of images – even images of words, images of text – and not a human being at all. You cannot hear the click of my keyboard as I type this. Even if we Twitter back and forth with one another, all you can really know is the simultaneous presence of my representation and your own.
More than once in my classes online, I have mistaken a girl for a boy. A name on the screen does not always convey sex, never conveys gender. I find myself trying to read between the lines for clues which might winnow out the representational from the real. Am I a nice guy, you might ask, or did I torture puppies when I was younger? Can you get a “feel” for me here online the same way you could if we stood in a room together?
These are, I suspect, old arguments about virtuality. I have this notion that people once resisted talking on the phone, long ago when our communities could be measured in blocks and backyards, when they could just as easily walk over and talk to you in person. There’s always resistance to a new way of communicating with people. And, the truth is, I’m not sure I’m resistant, exactly… But there are moments, moments when the need to retreat becomes pressing, that I remember the instinct to be cautious.
A lot of people are talking about Web 2.0 as if it will be revolutionary; as if it will utterly and permanently change human culture. When people talk about this, they talk about it excitedly. I follow the tweeting of several teachers who find the possibilities of collaboration intoxicating and hopeful. I hear the news about how incredible the new technologies are. I myself have Skype-d with Clay Burell a day away in Korea. For free. The simultaneity of that kind of communication is, indeed, more than a little inspiring.
But what I keep coming back to – what I think we must come back to before we move ahead – is that what happens online is only always representational. I see Clay’s Twitter photo and I think he looks a little tired (sorry, Clay); I see his iChat pic – the one with the goatee – and I think he looks refreshed and energized. (I myself tend to upload only those photos that do not show me as I am, but as I am in relationship with a digital media). I cannot know how Clay really feels, how he really looks, even if we chat on video. In the end, I can only know this if I meet him – which, in all likelihood, I may never.
What are the implications of this representationality when we teach in its realm? What are the implications when we decide to collaborate there? My students will only know me, ever, as Sean-the-teacher; you will only know me as Sean-the-author-of-blogs. Is this enough to form community on?