The Story of My Tattoo

I haven’t posted in quite a while, thinking I’d like to branch out to other writing topics that may not flow with the teaching & learning, academic vibe I’ve been fostering here.

So speaking of “branching out” ….

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“Tattoos puncture and disrupt; what was once unseen appears” (Deborah Davidson, The Tattoo Project 2016:1).

What is that appears? Ostensibly, my tattoo is a willow branch, hopefully going a little bit with the anatomical flow of my arm and hand.  What people can see when a tattoo is visible is often just the shine of a story, the hint of meaning.  And even the question of why a tattoo is visible or when it’s visible, all share in the hidden meanings of body markings.

My tattoo is a reminder.  I’ve been forgetting a lot of things lately, losing track.  “Where did I leave off? What was I doing?” seem eternal questions as I enter a new era of life, poorly indicated by the term ‘aging.’ I wanted my tattoo to certainly be somewhere that I could see, but somewhere that even nagged at me a bit, that was insistent.  I use my hands constantly – on the keyboard, cooking, knitting, gesturing, and I see my tattoo now in all of these contexts.  What does it remind me of?

It reminds me of my childhood, climbing and playing under the two willow trees, one in the front yard and a larger embracing one in the far back yard. It reminds me of when the tree in the front had to be cut down and I hid in the bathroom for a morning weeping.  It reminds me of appreciating my sister’s daring, she could climb much higher than me. It reminds me of the happiness of three siblings playing, when there is always something to remember that wasn’t happy.

I felt creative and supported by love in and under the willow trees.  In this part of my life, I find myself returning to my creative core. My tattoo reminds me that I’m writer, a thinker, a maker.  I am a creator of good writing, beautiful knitting, and deeply nurturing relationships. The process of getting this tattoo, in a wonderful Ink shop run by women, was a rite of passage into a life where I am a grandmother, a published writer, a seasoned creator of the delicious and delightful.


Stuff that Matters but does not Count

Selene's Drawing of FamilyJumping in to #digiwrimo (a month of exploring digital writing) with an activity about what would constitute our “unofficial CVs”. I’m already wide-eyed and breathless with how apt that question feels.  I feel like I’ve been talking about what (doesn’t) count with colleagues, friends, peers, and pretty much anyone who will listen for years. What matters? What counts? Why do these questions so often yield oppositional “data points?” Recently the context for these questions has been my work in a couple of different faculty fellow roles on my campus, supporting my fellow “mid-career” faculty and recently collaborating and creating peer-to-peer learning opportunities about the intersections of technology and pedagogy.

Mostly, my work in academia (what I teach and write about) has focused on the body. And that’s where so much doesn’t count.  Our sleep doesn’t count. Eating well doesn’t count.  Being pregnant and having babies can count against you. Sitting too much and not getting enough exercise doesn’t count.  I hear the phrase “carve out” all the time when my colleagues and friends talk about self-care.

For me, some of the “stuff that matters but does not count” includes raising my two amazing children, one of whom was small and adventurous as I finished my dissertation and the other who was small and chronically ill when I got tenure.  The CV does not include this information. Nor does it include the Halloween costumes I sewed or the cooking experiments I tried in order to find a food that wouldn’t make my younger child ill. It doesn’t include playing Legos on dark winter mornings or staying awake past midnight when a teenager finally wanted to share her stories.

These days worry that my recent forays into (producing and teaching) digital storytelling and participatory media won’t count. That working intensively on teaching and learning issues on my campus won’t count.  Creating brand new classes that push students to engage in digitally creative “maker” style participatory work … this stuff goes into the “new preps” category, and is counted by number – how many new preps do you have? If you want to “count,” you have to buy yourself out of teaching to focus on publishing. Do I even want to become a full professor, I have wondered over and over?  Hell, yes.  But I won’t compromise. Not on the Halloween costumes. Not on creating relevant active learning experiences for my students.

Who doesn’t want it all to count? When “counting” means receiving the recognition and engagement of my peers for all the hard work that goes into the daily life of this profession.

For this digital writing month, I’m going to write.  I’m not sure what yet.  I didn’t know I was going to write this post tonight.  But I’m determined not to compromise – whether my words count or not.

Image credit: drawing by Selene Emad-Syring

Scaring Away the MOOC Monster


Why are “massive,” “open,” and “online” often seen as threats within the hallways of higher education?  MOOCs have become the scary monsters under the bed, unpredictable in the dark bedroom of teaching in the age of the Internet.  Are they going to destroy everything professors, administrators, and even students hold dear about teaching and learning?

The distinction between cMOOC and xMOOC is pedagogically very significant for understanding the impact of networked learning on higher education. While the mainstream press has generally approached MOOCs with curiosity and some degree of balance, much of “MOOC Mania” in the higher ed press has been of the fear and loathing variety and readily lumps both styles of MOOCing together.

While xMOOCs “extend” the traditional, lecture-based classroom into virtual environments, cMOOCs have been quietly revolutionizing what we can do as learners and as educators. (If you’ve never done so, take a peek at ds106 for a really cool example.) I’m currently participating in the second networked learning opportunity coming out of Northwestern University’s Masters in Learning and Organizational Change program. Piloted by an unsung hero of connectivist learning, Jeff Merrell, this open learning community (primarily visible on Google+ and on Twitter #MSLOC430) is associated with a face-to-face class of MSLOC students, creating special challenges around the fine lines between openness and structure.  For those of us engaging only with the connectivist open part, we get to re-connect (some of us met a year or so ago in Exploring PLNs, another open MSLOC gig that focused at a meta-level on defining and delineating the nature of personal learning networks, while allowing participants to almost effortlessly make new PLNs). Participants encounter and grow their curiosities as much as their knowledge through our discussion comments, blog posts, and comments on each others’ posts.  The etiquette is to comment, and I have found the pressure to not just “lurk” but also to say something extremely refreshing.  Academics often don’t want to say anything until it is polished and publishable.  Connectivist MOOCing often means a more raw approach, one in which the writer/commenter feels vulnerable and exposed.

Perhaps more messy than massive, cMOOCs can be confusing at first glance. Dave Cormier reminds us that focus is central; you have to have a reason for connecting, for engaging. What am I trying to accomplish by adding another piece to my overblown schedule, spending most of a Friday reading, thinking, and engaging with questions about networked learning?  I want to reflect on how I learn what I learn, so that I can apply those reflections in my teaching.

Instruction is not equivalent to learning.  Such a simple statement, made here by Steve Downes, where he argues that the “clear-instruction-is-all-you-need” philosophy is the central problem with most learning management systems (like Moodle or Blackboard), and ultimately with much of the obsolescence of traditional classrooms.

Maybe MOOCs will go away if faculty and administrators dig their heels in hard enough.  But most likely this impulse is more like closing your eyes and hoping the monster is really just a dust bunny under the bed.  Networked learning is not going away.  And the coolest thing about it is that it means we finally have to relinquish control of the classroom and allow it to become a cooperative, collaborative space – whether virtual or face-to-face.

Faculty dialogue that can actually contribute to shaping change in higher ed has to get off the restricting dualism of choosing between the MOOC-bashing or the MOOC-celebrating bandwagons and attend to the specificities of new pedagogical practices. We need to try, participate, make, and do.

Technology and Moral Panics


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I was recently asked to speak with our local weather reporter, Ben Dery, for a broadcast feature story on “technology and eyesight.” Before we began our conversation, Ben asked me over e-mail, “how much time is too much to be on a computer or tablet?”  While he spoke with a local optometrist about the eyesight angle, Ben was curious about how I would answer this question as an anthropologist studying technology practices.

A little bit of my response ended up in the story, but I wanted to flesh out my thinking on this question, as it has meaningful implications for the intersections between society and technology, the body and everyday practices.  I’m really interested in what this question (how much time is too much to be on a device?) says about our society.  It indicates that we are worried about technology. We are concerned that we are spending too much time looking at screens. This is a popular topic of discussion in the public sphere, though not so much when we as individuals are immersed in our screens. We don’t tend to reflect on how much time we are spending on computers, tablets, and smart phones while we are on them. The cultural and historical moment we occupy is one characterized by this concern about the very technologies in which we lose ourselves so deeply that the machines and motions, the embodiments and engagements readily become naturalized.

But as such, this historical moment is not particularly new.  Human societies and public intellectuals have often expressed fears about new technologies. In the 1930s, radio was thought to be overstimulating for both adults and children, interfering with children’s homework and preventing them from sleeping well. In the 16th century, public intellectuals stated that the printing press would unleash overwhelming amounts of information that would be harmful to the mind. The ancient greek philosopher Socrates warned that writing would create “forgetfulness of the soul.”

Sound familiar?

It’s interesting, too, that Ben found in his conversation with the optometrist that the impact of device screens on eyesight was negligible.  Most myopia is genetic and isn’t really effected by how much time you spend looking at screens.  So, what exactly is this fear all about?

Stanley Cohen popularized the term moral panic in the social sciences in his now classic Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972). While Cohen was talking about subcultural groups (the mods and rockers of his monograph), he did point to the notion that threats to the social order often stimulate popular culture and news media rhetorics of alarm and anxiety, often based in exaggeration. So are we experiencing a moral panic around new technologies in contemporary cultural formations in which those technologies are integral to daily practices? Is your iPhone threatening “the social order”? Do you perceive it that way or is broadcast television raising alarms over questions (technology and eyesight) that aren’t ultimately that alarming?

Cultural moments occupied by fear or at least significant worry and anxiety, are interesting to think with.  I find myself curious about the circumstances under which technology suddenly becomes “natural.”  And about our capacity to remember when it was not.  Why do books, papers, notebooks, even pencils seem more “natural” to us than tablets, laptops, and smart phones?

A pencil was and remains a powerful technology. Ultimately, technology is about the ways we use tools, the ways we accomplish tasks, the things we make, do, and think. Technology isn’t new, but we have to be willing to reflect on our own discomforts and anxieties about the role it plays in our daily lives.

Piloting Kaos, Landing It

Navigating the chaos of good, powerful, fun, energizing learning environments doesn’t mean you have to give up wildness, beautiful messes, multiple perspectives, passion, or creative energy. I’ve been learning intensively lately, which brings me tremendous joy and pleasure in daily life, even as it brings huge-feeling responsibilities for landing what I’m learning and taking off from there to new, productive chaos. This week, immersion in the KaosPilots method for inspiring innovation in higher education has brought me back to this blog.  I am compelled to land the plane, so here we go!

Thanks to Mike Mullins and Virajita Singh, who worked long and hard at organizing and fund-raising,  Simon Kavanagh brought the Kaos Pilots in from Denmark for a landing in Minnesota.   Simon led a group of 15 higher education teachers from two University of Minnesota campuses through a 3-day immersive teaching workshop. Our purpose was to step back from our ordinary routines, get inspired, messy, and creative; moving through chaos and control into true collaboration.  And we really, authentically, beautifully did it. In just 3 days.

Breaking from ordinary routines

Whew. A monumental amount of organizational juju was necessary to get 3 days set up in the middle of a semester, in the context of teaching, parenting, deadlines for grants and proposals, and a LOT of meetings over pressing issues at work.  But I won’t go into all that; suffice it to say it would never happened without amazing help from dear friends, old and new.

Much more fascinating for me was noticing the extent to which this workshop functioned with low/no tech and encouraged a remarkably technology-free environment. At various moments we worked with markers, glue, various colors and sizes of sticky notes, scissors, magazines (for cutting up), enormous swaths of paper, charts, posters, small notebooks, and our own (often favorite, and much discussed) pens. A few of us made notes into iPads or phones, occasionally photographing a poster or chart, but for most of us, most of the time, very few devices were open or being used. One result of this was certainly a vast reduction in multi-tasking.  When there was a break, some folks scurried to catch up on e-mail, but mostly, we continued to talk, share snacks, and make plans – even at the breaks. And we drank a lot of coffee!

Now let me clarify: there were no rules about closing laptops or putting away devices.  No one said, don’t run off to go shopping during lunch. The workshop leader never said we couldn’t multi-task during sessions if we wished.  The attention of all 15 of us was fairly constantly compelled and occupied by what was happening in the room(s), with our co-participants, and the questions/exercises we were asked to engage in. A quick taste of this:

Early on we were asked to take blank paper and a marker and partner off with someone, look into their eyes and draw a picture of them (while maintaining eye contact) without looking at the paper. Then we wrote a question about the person we’d been starring at, signed our work of art, and gifted it to them.  Looking around, we found another partner and off we went to do it again.  At the end of 20 minutes or so, we each had 6 or 7 works of art reflecting our identities back to ourselves.  In one, my colleague pictured me with lots of hair squiggles, a big cartoon smile, and the question “how can we work together?” In another, a colleague drew what appeared to me to be several faces, two in profile, one straight on, and one at the top of the head that looked like a moon. “Who is your favorite band?” was the question.  When asked to choose one that would be our “theme” for the workshop, I chose the multiple face and wrote “messy and multiple” as my theme.


Getting Inspired, Messy, Creative

A second exercise on the first day gave two groups a stack of Legos to arrange according to a set of instructions.  Each one in the group had only a piece of the instructions, and we could not talk or use words (even written words).  We instantly experienced chaos (ok, “kaos”). Leaders emerged and receded, methods of creating a common (though nonverbal language) emerged.  But mostly we failed. We all tried to control the situation.  I felt my anxiety crescendo into sadness, and threw my hands up in despair. I stepped back and let the others continue, knowing I had failed at my piece of the structure.  Then one of my colleagues made eye contact with me, gave me a questioning gesture that related to my instruction, and boom, I was drawn back in. Still not successfully, but after the time was up, we had all learned a powerful lesson about how chaos and control interfere with collaboration.

Using the I Do Art method for setting up our workshop, we discussed our intention, desired outcomes, agenda and the roles/rules/responsibilities we wished to live by for the 3-day timeframe. Our workshop leader often did not reveal what would happen next, enhancing the sense of chaos, but also the sense of excitement.


Moving through Chaos & Control into True Collaboration

The biggest chunk of workshop time was spent in smaller teams, working on a specific project. Those of us who wished to propose something we wanted help on, formally presented project ideas to the whole group on the morning of the second day (a new class, a program, an interdisciplinary cohort, whatever we were cooking on). Three projects were chosen by everyone by simply walking around the room and joining a group based on the project presentation, who you wanted to work with, etc.  We all chose which projects we wanted to work on.  Work began with a re-presentation from a project-leader about what the heck the project was about (my project was a new cultural anthropology course on Participatory Media Methods), and then leaders stepped back and let the chaos ensue.  We began by creating an enormous collage about the project. This was loads of fun and our group’s (remarkably comfortable) silence reminded me of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow.

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From the collage and from our previous Lego exercise, we created one word or short phrase stickies around “SKA” (yup, lots of jokes about music) – Skills, Knowledge, & Attitudes. We created a “vision statement” for the project (that one took a lot of extra coffee). Following our “I Do Art” agreements, we paid attention to our roles and different leaders emerged at different moments in the project.

We used a rubric provided by the workshop leader to organize our project into a backward design; in other words, we designed from the stickies and vision back to the specificities of the course components, outcomes, and products:

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Sometimes we revised the provided rubric, before filling it in with our stickies; this:

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became this:

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We learned about the project from each other and paid attention to our own impulses to control:

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Later, we noticed that we had bonded as a team when one of our members pushed back against the workshop leader’s advice about how we should proceed.  This incident really made me think about how teachers unintentionally create dynamics for students to negotiate, and how those dynamics can make or break learning.

In the process of presenting our completed designs back to the group as a whole, as well as to several invited guests, we received useful feedback to take home with us. Finally, we sat down with our teammates and enjoyed an “appreciative inquiry” session in which we gave each of our teammates our thoughts about: you served the group well when you . . . . and what I would like to see more of is . . . . .

Other small exercises ensued as the plane began to slowly come down into lower altitudes and then we pilots of chaos landed with a shout out to the whole Minneapolis campus quad about what each of us stands for as teachers.  The energy of that landing carried me back home and brings me into the next arc of the semester with a very different comportment towards each of my projects. I am taking my time, acknowledging the obligations and excitements of being a pilot, and remembering to land the damn plane before taking off again.


I want time. Not the kind on the clock. I yearn for the kind of time that makes you forget time exists. The kind of time that being thrives in while forgetting being-towards anything.

In his astute essay on “why faculty members work so much,” Philip Nel titles his query “In Search of Lost Time.” He ends the list of dead-on reasons for why we work so much, with a resonant plea to be less productive.  Why? Because  we need time to think, space for “sustained thinking,” “time simply to be.”  Nel advocates for faculty members to “not work,” particularly when we are subject to the lure of “doing what we love” which opens our time to exploitation.

My work life holds many joys of late, including amazing opportunities to share creative innovations with old and new colleagues.  But one of those joys is definitely not becoming more and more of a time-keeper.  Making sure we are hitting the right points within the designated time frame.  Making sure everyone’s voices get heard before the (invisible and silent) bell rings and we all move on to the next thing.

The next thing is the presentation next week, the book chapter due, e-mails unanswered, the class preps and grading waiting patiently (or not so much). Increasingly it is fighting for our programs, for what we have spent time building and creating, in an era of budget cuts and program closures. The next thing is also the second shift, and sometimes the third.

Time spent.  Spent time.  Lost time.  Unlike Nel, I’m not too worried about lost time.  I just want a different time.  A different typology, genre, character, phylum of time. One in which sun and air and light figure over any clock.  One in which thoughts move like water over the earth, towards and then away from the shore.  One in which the movement of my hands knitting, my legs walking, my lungs breathing, my heart remembered in its alternate punctuality, all draw me back to the long spaciousness of time in which anything and everything is possible.  And for a time, I simply consider the possible. Inactive, perhaps, but fallowness drawing new energy for activity. Fallow in appearance only, deeply considering what is possible and how.  Perhaps this is not less productivity, but deeper productivity, a quickening of creative power.


Cultural Translation

I believe we learn better when we learn through our bodies, with our bodies, involving our bodily beings in the task of thinking expansively in order to learn. I have been thinking about the body as a site for cultural translation for several decades now (I’ve kind of lost count). Cultural translation allows something new to enter the world, not unlike linguistic translation.  But it is not nearly as reliant on language.  So the body emerges as an excellent translator.

I began this ride by wanting to understand how acupuncture, a health care practice many thousands of years older and originating in a vastly different part of the world than modern medicine, could “catch on” and become a go-to healing modality for many Americans.  I studied this question as an anthropological fieldworker for many years, interviewing acupuncture practitioners, patients, and even the “celebrity” acupuncturists who wrote books and ran schools. I observed clinical practice, talked with acupuncture students, and put my own body on the table for needling.

There on the table, I got curious about the needle itself. What were those sensations the acupuncture needle provoked?  It didn’t hurt, exactly.  But it didn’t feel like anything I’d ever felt before.

Twirling the needle is a technique used by acupuncturists during a treatment to stimulate the movement of Qi (“chee”), or vital energy, through the body.  Twirling the needle connects the acupuncturist to her patient on the table, links the person the table with her body, and opens up the possibilities for a specific experience of embodiment rooted in physical sensation.  The needle literally points the way to the body for both the acupuncturist and the person on the table.  “Do you have it?” asks the acupuncturist while twirling the needle, referring at once to the acupuncture point, the peculiar sensation of Qi, and to the acupuncturist’s own attempt to reach the patient’s body.

Sometimes the question, do you have it? is verbalized, sometimes it is a glance at my face, a listening ear attuned to my grunt or groan of confirmation.  Do you have it? What is it that I have when I feel the sensations that most acupuncturists describe as a Qi response? When the needle is inserted, I feel a prick or a pinch, a surface sensation that quickly dissipates and deepens, a dull ache, a tingling, a heaviness, sometimes a spreading warmth, sometimes a thin stream of electric sensation moving, like the first quickening of a fetus without regard for its mother, from a point on my arm to another point in my belly.

Like acupuncturist-author, Harriet Beinfield, I feel “more of myself” (Between Heaven & Earth 1991, p. 3).

This transformational moment can be a powerful metaphor for understanding how we learn in and through the body.  The body is our translator. Instead of a needle, we might experience an injury or give birth to a child or undergo surgery.  We might only wake up one morning with a new sensation, quickly call it “pain,” and perhaps lose our opportunity to experience a transformational moment. What can I “hear” my body telling me through this new sensation? What are we “talking about” today? The sensations of the body allow something new to enter the world every day.

What can we learn if we harken to the translator?