Message in a Bottle?

To be honest, I don’t know if this post should find a home here at Slam Teaching, or if it belongs more on my personal blog. I am posting it here, I think, because of late I’ve developed a sort of burgeoning community of teachers concerned with the state of teaching and learning – all of whom communicate with me primarily through this blog, through Twitter, and through e-mail. This “community” looks in reality like a cluster of web pages, lines of text, and the occasional synchronous conversation (also most usually text). I suppose one of the reasons I’m posting this, in fact, is because this “community” right now seems both incredibly involved and engaged, and utterly distant.

I have to admit some disappointment. I am disappointed by my latest post (“of Rules and Relevancy“), by my approach, and by the frankly self-important tone of the post. I admit that there are times when I get frustrated because someone does not see things the way I see things, and I use my command of the language to… well, to squash the opposition. But blogging that frustration seems to me unhelpful – to anyone, but especially to anyone who reads the blog. I don’t know that writing from the desire to make a point is really in the spirit of the Slam Teaching idea; it does not welcome other thought, nor does it engage openly with a new idea. It is, if you’ll pardon me, flatly masturbatory.

Which I suppose leads me to why I’m worriedly writing this post. I am concerned about my “place” in a community of teachers online. What do I mean by that? What do I mean… I mean that, at least as far as I am able to participate in that community, my participation seems a performance. When I write a blog, I am not necessarily responding to anyone in the community, I am not engaging in the dialectic of that community with any directness. I write, and then I expect or hope for an audience for my writing. I hope for feedback to come up against my ideas. I suppose I hope somewhere to find a place where my ideas and the ideas of others meet, entangle, and start talking.

I still don’t think I’m being clear.

When I blog, it’s a practice of writing, first and foremost. I want to practice my language; I want to build some kind of argumentative position. It’s an exercise, a lot of the time, of form. I feel like I’m creating drafts of pieces, rather than writing communiques to any who might read them. Essays toward something I may one day take and own for myself, not messages in bottles.

I see posts on Twitter going from one teacher to another teacher – excitement about collaboration, agreement on issues, etc. – and these seem as evidence for some kind of community forming. I myself enjoyed a long talk with Clay Burell via Skype a few nights back, and in that moment felt like maybe I could understand how this online community could take shape.

But at the same time, I cannot shake that when I sit down to write a blog post, I’ve no idea if it’s relevant. I’ve thought some about the title of my recent posting and sort of chuckled (chuckled sardonically) to myself because I wonder if I’m anyone to talk about relevancy at all. A recent Twitter-and-blog-comment discussion with Penelope of Where’s the Teacher led me to conclude that I may not be able to be of any help or relevance to middle and high school teachers, that my ideas are only applicable at the college level where teachers are freer to explore pedagogical approaches.

I suppose what I worry about is that I am here babbling away into the ether, assuming that what I have to say actually says something… when in fact it may seem the naive chatter of a self-important idealist. One who, frighteningly, chairs a department.

But even beyond that worry, there is my pondering whether the Web 2.0 auto-authorship revolution truly leads to the formation of community. Blogging, tweeting, and the like… If we write simply because we’re allowed to, and no one can stop us, does that necessarily mean that what we have to say is relevant to anyone besides ourselves? At the moment, I feel like the worst kind of teacher: lecturing blindly out at a mass of students who wait and wait for what I’m saying to snag on the meaningful.


9 thoughts on “Message in a Bottle?

  1. Sean-

    I think you’re worrying too much. 🙂

    The loose network of educators-who-blog&twitter is not a community. Community is by its nature smaller and more cohesive. The communities that I find and spend time in online are smaller pieces of the big picture–the Utata group within flickr, or the particular forum I used to hang out on within a poetry board. I see the value of the network of teachers online as being that it is a catalyst in which communities and collegial relationships can form.

    I write for myself, mostly. The blog is a chance to get the mass of thoughts out, and knowing there’s an audience is a chance to make myself write coherently. I enjoy reading what others say, and the conversations that we have, but the writing is for me. I don’t see anything wrong with that. Relevance is so individual that I don’t think you can predict which posts will be relevant and which will fall flat.

    I guess that can feel like a bad lecture, but it’s part of the nature of the internet…you write what you care about and hope it snags.

    Also, of course you’re an idealist. You’re a teacher! 😛

  2. Interesting, the psychology of blog-writing, isn’t it? Slippery, too.

    I’m feeling restless right now, so I’ll only drop in to say that a) I just like to write like never before since I started blogging, and that’s a pro that outweighs all cons many times over; b) like all writers tell all other writers, and all teachers (?) tell students, some days feel better than others, and that’s the writing life, so of course some attempts (“essais”, in French, which I think is etymologically pregnant) will be better than others; c) the attempts that are good at least get a chance for life that they wouldn’t get buried in some journal or Word document.

    That said, the shoes feel tight sometimes. For me, it presages future quests for different shoes to choose. And our Skype conversation, by the way, is one such shoe. (By the way, please link to me when you mention me, so I can use Technorati as a convenient archiver of our connective thinking. It’s so much more than ego – it’s connectivism. Managing those thought-connections in related blog posts, comments, etc, is hard and can use all the help it gets. I’m expecting some app to come along one day that will do it for us visually, in a web, but it won’t if there are no hyperlinks. Make sense?)

    Okay, gotta run.

  3. Well, ODP, thank you for articulating some things I’ve been feeling myself. Although your post is long and I cannot begin to speak to most of it, parts of what you said reminded me of something I just wrote this morning:

    “I hope upon hope that I will be able to not only tap into some of that online goodness these people (speaking of some well-known edtech gurus) share with us, but also contribute something of value to it. I am still learning how to network and collaborate online with my cohorts around the world. I am clumsy and I do it in fits and starts. I’m not sure if my efforts are laughable or progressing. I’m rarely sure if I’m connecting or offending. I know my blogging attempts are pure fumbling in the dark right now. Does everyone start this way or am I just inept? In the past I thought I was pretty socially savvy, but this online community-building is very different. That course I took a few years about online teaching, learning, and leading doesn’t seem to be doing me much good….”

    I’ve only been involved in this edublogotwitosphere thing for about 6 months; prior to that I was an avid lurker who was too timid (and too busy!)to jump into the mix. I’m just proud that I finally made a start. At first I was a little disappointed in how small the “payoff” is for all the time I spent reading blogs, web sites, and tweets. How selfish. What great professional development these writers have given me!

    Then a few months went by and I thought that if I got involved in the conversation I would be a part of the community and it would be a give-and-take situation. To some degree I am starting to have glimpses of what it would be like to be a member of the club, but on some days I also feel like I’m watching the popular kids do their thing through a glass window. Frankly, I’m not sure I want to be them and spend all my time online but I confess a small part of me is keeping watch for advancement opportunities. Sometimes I’m not participating for the good of the profession. I’m participating for the good of Suzanne. Regardless, I think some people find my online voice to be abrasive. Perhaps that’s why people rarely tweet back or comment on things I write. Maybe I have nothing new to say. Who knows!? I guess I keep deciding to let it go. My father always said, “What other people think of you is none of your business.” I assume these moments of confusion and uncertainty about the community-building thing are all part of my learning process. I’m honestly not meaning to be pompous or blame my shaky steps on others.

    I’m afraid I don’t know if we are performing or lecturing; it seems like some of the conversations I observe are reciprocal, others are pronouncements. Isn’t that okay? My own blog is a strange, uneasy amalgam of personal anecdotes, rants, thoughts about teaching, and mostly nothing of any substance at all. I guess it’s as much a personal blog as a professional blog. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. I think your own blog should be what you need it to be. Miguel Ghulin has written some great posts around that idea in the past few months, if I remember correctly

    Anyway, I’m just commenting here because I wanted to thank you for echoing a few of my thoughts back to me in your post; it’s validating. And I did not find your last post to be rude; I felt you were playing a bit of the devil’s advocate with us and you brought to the table a perspective I might not have considered. Thanks for challenging my thinking.

  4. I didn’t expect to be responding to responses so quickly, but here we go. Internet connectivity is a strange and unreliable animal.

    Penelope, you make a good point about this network not being a community. Clay, who has positioned himself as one hub in a growingly connected group, talks about the need and therefore reliance upon connectivism (an interesting and new -ism that seems especially relevant to what might be forming here between people – a philosophy of being connected, a culture of reference). This is less about a community, where you imagine people taking tea or sharing walks (or, I do anyway; Woolf’s a favorite of mine), and more a collection of potential resources. Like arranged marriages. Or like nomadic folks who cluster together to share in order to thrive. I mean, that makes us all sound a little like scavengers… But isn’t there a certain hunting-and-gathering mentality to this connectivist lifestyle (or maybe impulse)?

    Certainly, there is a longing for community. At least for me. I’ve made the mistake, I think, of considering this edublogotwitosphere (thank you, Suzanne) as a kind of substitute for the type of community I once had. Working entirely online, I miss a community of flesh (that seems almost erotic), a community of sound and movement. But even without that mistake, there’s also this sense of a relationship between connectivity and import, or quality. As Suzanne gets at, we want to be able to be among the “cool kids” who just seem to know how to do it right.

    It occurs to me that there is nothing at all new in this online networking. We’re all still the same humans, forming the same kinds of relationships and groups, just via a new medium. I’m still the same Sean (not Sean-as-blogger and not Sean-as-teacher, but the Sean who’s sitting here in a music studio in Austin typing) who wants to help, has the desire to push ideas further than maybe they can bear, and who loves to have new people to joke with. The difference is that I am a better wordsmith than social speaker, so I am able to engage here online where in a crowd of strangers (and, today, musicians) I am more a wallflower than anything. Some connect better – some are better politicians of connectivism – than others. Maybe what I do best is write, not connect.

    I agree with Suzanne, and with the way Penelope practices: “your own blog should be what you need it to be.” What’s interesting is that I think, without an audience, I would post to Slam Teaching a lot less, and only as relevant teaching moments presented themselves. And I’m not sure I’d’ve decided to connect the Twitter-group of teachers to my ODP blog.

    I don’t mean to say I don’t appreciate all the wonderful feedback on these blogs. I do very much appreciate any and all readers here. I guess I’m just wondering what it is that I want from this, what I can expect from this, and where I imagine it might go.

    Thank you all,

  5. I posted about feeling similarly about a year ago. I think the comment I received from that post was helpful and may be to you as well, so I’ll link it here:

    I think what Clay said rings true for me too – I want to be one of the cool kids that has a readership of 500 or something. And I want people to think I’m a good teacher – especially since I’m so fresh out of college and don’t have much experience.

    Bloging is interesting because it’s possible to publish much faster than other mediums. I think bloggers experience more concern over the audience aspect because we are able to publish so quickly and sometimes, we worry, without thinking about our audience. But I think more people get something out of our blogs than we know. And I just blogged the other day that I blog because it makes me a better teacher, not as much for an audience.

    I liked your post the other day and added it to my shared items.

    Not connected well, but Im out of char on cell.

  6. Sean,

    Since my blog is both personal and professional (I find it difficult to separate the two most of the time), I feel no angst about always being educationally relevant.

    Like Ben, I would love to consider myself “one of the cool kids” but I’m not willing to compromise my writing to attain that goal. My blog is my Voice and it is not to be tampered with!

    I love Twitter and experience some misgivings about how valuable my contributions to my PLN are: do I take more than I give? No one has criticized me yet for being backward or irrelevant, so I continue to read and respond.

    The more complete a person you are, the more valuable you will be as a resource for your students.

    Don’t question the validity of your postings, just keep them coming!


  7. Sean, I really like the constant 2nd-order-ness of your blog. You aren’t just thinking about teaching. You’re thinking about thinking about teaching. And so, here, you aren’t just writing about teaching, but now writing about writing about teaching. And it’s not just an exercise. So often we do things because people do things, even before thinking about why people do things and whether or not we should do the things other people do.

    Walking into a classroom is a different experience for every teacher, for every student, for every class, for every place we call a classroom. It seems that “walking” onto a blog has a similar quality.

    I’m struck, though, how much my voice on here (whilst commenting in the blogosphere) is like the voice that I bring to a classroom (at least when I’m a student in one). I’m the sort that sits back, a sort of floating head that swoops down every once and a while to enter the conversation, before swooping away almost as quickly.

    Maybe, there is something to this idea that the internet is becoming like a giant classroom…

  8. I have been thinking alot why I like to blog. I started off blogging to help other teachers. Now I blog to help me learn. I blog to practice writing and language. I blog to help me understand. I am not sure about my PLN or what I really want to learn. It is not about instructional technology, but it is all about learning. I have learned more in the last three months since I started blogging than I have in a graduate program I am doing on-line. What is learning? The learning in the graduate program is so confined. I would love to be in classroom that has no grades and have some one to collaborate with my journey. I would like to have some one comment on my learning. All in all I have so much to learn.

  9. A recent Twitter-and-blog-comment discussion with Penelope of Where’s the Teacher led me to conclude that I may not be able to be of any help or relevance to middle and high school teachers, that my ideas are only applicable at the college level where teachers are freer to explore pedagogical approaches.

    –doesn’t this suggest that one value that all of this has for you is that it’s, er, helping you learn? If discussions in this disembodied community of brains and hearts are disabusing you of some illusions, isn’t that a good thing?

    One thing’s for sure, at least. We’re all data in our own experiments in this brave new web. I don’t know how much ultimate value to assign to any of it right now (or to anything else, really), but I do get off on the historicity of it all. We’re more science fiction than ever before, by several quantum leaps. And they only seem to be accelerating. Goodness knows what it will be next year. But it’s both unsettling and exhilarating. If there weren’t so much expression and learning going on, I’d compare it to one destructive drug or another. But right now, I’m holding out for comparing it instead to one of those potent substances shamans choose instead to call “medicines.” But maybe I’m wrong.

    P.S. Somehow it bears stating here that it was surprising to me to read your remark in another post that I form some sort of “hub,” because I really don’t feel it. Blogging still feels fairly lonely, though tweeting feels less so through its affordance of lapidary humor or foolosophy. But I’ve felt lonely and without community since roughly the end of college. So in a sense – call it pathetic if you like, I won’t contest it – I’ve enjoyed more community sense entering this world than I have in the last 15 years or so.

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