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” ….

Photo on 7-21-17 at 9.52 AM #2 (1)

“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


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?

“Going Digital”

This is a digital story that I made as part of our faculty collaborative in the Office of Information Technology at U of Minnesota. Faculty fellows made video shorts or digital stories to represent nearly 18 months of research oriented towards pedagogical change in a specific course. All of these projects will be published in an eMagazine before the end of the year. Just thought I’d share it here, as well!

I’ve been exploring the Center for Digital Storytelling’s model of DS for a little over a year now, and have integrated this style of DS into several of my classes. I plan to do so again next semester. What I really like about this model of DS is the emphasis on writing as a creative process – the script becomes the anchor for the whole project, and is supported through a Storycircle process that allows creativity to emerge in community rather than isolation.

My Personal Learning Network is in the Hallway

Participation has always been easy for me.  I love to dive in, sense what the others are up to and what motivates each person, and magically create the glue that makes it all come together.  But not online.  Online, my greatest skill so far is lurking. I have lurked online for many a day, in many compelling contexts.  I have lurked on Facebook, hesitant to share my own updates, I’ve lurked on my favorite social media site for knitters (Ravelry), I have lurked in xMOOCs (traditional lecture-style classes on a massive online scale, (Coursera’s a great example.) and even in cMOOCs (production and connection oriented, though also massively open; my absolute favorite [and the one with the least fanfare] is DS106). Turns out you really have to participate in a connectivist MOOC or it makes no sense at all.  And so, now, here I am, signed up for an “open online seminar” on Exploring Personal Learning Networks.  No one is calling it a MOOC, which makes me sigh with relief – I don’t have to explain to my own network of family, friends, and colleagues, yet again, what a MOOC is. This one is not exactly massive (around 115 of us, I think), and it is very connectivist.  But the organizers (yay for Kimberely Scott & Jeff Merrell) have gone a long way to lay out a welcome for novices.  Every step of the way, how to connect in this connectivist realm is clearly marked, options offered, tools explained.

But, for me, the question remains: why engage online?

As a teaching professor, I believe in meeting students where they are.  And so my recent research has been about figuring out: where are our students these days? To what extent are online engagements naturalized for them.  It turns out (and I’m writing about this more formally these days), that like any of us, today’s college students engage online based on what they want to do, what they have to do, and what they get pulled into immersively.

But building a Personal Learning Network is not something I am compelled to do online.  For me, PLNs begin in person.  Even after decades of e-mail, I prefer to walk down the hall, up the stairs, around the corner, across buildings, travel to conferences, to other campuses of my university, etc in order to interact with my PLN.  These are the folks that inhabit the work spaces of my daily environment, friends and colleagues that I went to grad school with, share the microwave with, plan next year’s class schedules with. They are interdisciplinary professors who share my passion for pedagogical methods, and collaborators with whom, as often as not, plans are cooked up in the hallways as we run into each other.  Why turn from this PLN to a fully virtual one? How??

I’m getting more and more of a sense of the “how.”  Joe Moses’ comment to me during my first ever Tweet Chat meeting last week, “as I learn, I try to make something useful out of it, share it, get feedback, repeat” echoes Harold Jarche’s seek/sense/share paradigm, in which I especially like his emphasis on narration or “working out loud.”  You mean no one will be annoyed?  Well, Harold doesn’t promise that, exactly, but he does highlight the possibility of bringing “focus to the information sea we swim in.”

But why turn away from the hallway, the physical spaces I occupy with my co-workers and learning network? In a beautifully argued post on one of my favorite sites to get overwhelmed on, Alison Seaman says that learning “how to participate and share knowledge competently in online spaces has become a necessity” and later, “knowing how to engage in these virtual spaces has become crucial for full participation.”

So I am only a partial participant when I learn from those in my immediate environment?  Maybe not, but lurking is not participation either.  So here is my blog, there is my Tweeter feed.  Check me out on Google+.  Whew.  Participation is not as easy as it used to be.

how to participate and share knowledge competently in online spaces has become a necessity. – See more at:
how to participate and share knowledge competently in online spaces has become a necessity. – See more at:
how to participate and share knowledge competently in online spaces has become a necessity. – See more at:

Digital Natives

Yesterday, a study at Georgia Tech attempted to quantify the number of “digital natives” around the world:

To qualify to be counted, young people (15-24 year olds) must have spent at least five years actively using the Internet. This is a very different definition of digital natives from Marc Prensky’s coining of the term in 2001, which identified young people as inherent multi-taskers, grabbing at new technologies, jumping in and engaging without much of a learning curve. Their brains were even wired differently, argued Prensky, which is why they didn’t need lessons in how to use new media software, social media sites, and hardware like smart phones.

I find it interesting that the notion of the native in anthropology is inherently a notion of the other – the anthropologist is not one. Thinking of our students as “digital natives” is simultaneously an alienating move and one that indicates specific differences in what I’ve come to call naturalized technology practices. The contemporary divide for professors and students does sometimes occur around technology, but I’ve found through a recent research project (more on that later), that professors move towards content creation, innovation, and trying new tools more often than their students, oft-called “digital natives,” who tend to stick with what they already know. Learning to work with NTPs (naturalized technology practices and NTEs (naturalized technology environments) means we can learn to direct backchannels, engage storytelling practices by pushing them (disrupting) past simple self-representation, turn the classroom into a laboratory of cultural analysts, repurpose artifacts through ongoing iterations of a course.

It also means that I am spending a big chunk of this morning doing a tutorial on iMovie!