Paying (for) Attention

Today is #NationalMentalHealthDay. For myself, every day is #MentalHealthDay. I wish it were so for everyone. But care and concern about mental health is just one of many, many parts of our daily context we ignore as [whatever the larger-scale equivalent of sensory gating — selective attention?] kicks in to, ironically, maintain our sanity in the face of living with all the things.

And I know we can’t pay attention to everything, in life or in teaching. In education there’s a standard litany of resistance: I don’t have the time, it’s not our job, those things aren’t the point of our classes. Simple pragmatic pitfalls abound, not to mention much deeper problems: we don’t know what all the things are, we don’t know what they mean when we do, we don’t know how to address them anyway.

Nor am I surprised that most actors in higher education—faculty, staff and administrators alike—pay little attention to things like mental health (before the point of evident crisis), wellness, the effects of socio-economic status, attention (and its attenuation), even basic awareness of metacognition…not to mention the attendant need to reframe entire conversation by employing different rhetorical approaches and less divisive and demeaning metaphors.

I’m not surprised because my experience is that most educators have trouble enough bringing basic elements of rich pedagogy to their teaching. This trouble is magnified in online teaching and learning to an almost ridiculous degree, resulting there in a selective attention that is practically partial blindness: teachers who I know care about students and are engaging, supportive classroom teachers that employ unconscionable methods (or perhaps more accurately, unconscionably employ no intentional methods and processes) in their online classes. It’s no great surprise that educators who are unable to recognize the problems of having no presence for, or engagement with,1 their online students aren’t likely to delve into the considerably more complex areas of the humanity within them as embodied by their homes, families, backgrounds and incomes.

This stuff is hard. Recognizing our own privilege and trying to change takes humility. Allowing for failure and operating in a manner that admits the chaos and shifting notions of control takes bravery. Trying to achieve a posture oriented toward collaborative flourishing, class after class, hour after hour, and moment after moment takes flexibility. And all of this is often demanded within institutions which largely don’t recognize subtlety or trust their teachers2. Like I said, it’s hard. But is it really harder than the position our students are in, lacking the inherent privilege necessary to maintain an artificial divide between class (in multiple senses) and life3, and paying (also in multiple senses) for our privilege to do so ourselves?

  1. And I mean, in many cases, literally no presence or engagement beyond being identified as the instructor in a syllabus…and even then I’ve witnessed teachers using hand-me-down information where even that was wrong. ↩︎
  2. The lack of trust that leads to shoehorning human beings into artificial matrices of measurables may be the most perverse symptom of a sick system. ↩︎
  3. Or learning and self. ↩︎

Disappearing Act

Before I (re)start (ed)blogging1, if that is indeed what ends up happening here, I feel like I should think about why I stopped.

Because I worked in education and technology in the early years of the modern era (1995ish)—and because I had fallen into early use of the Internet (BITNET!) and primitive email (and eventually the web) as part of my creative writing efforts and a desperation to connect with other writers outside of my little Alaskan town, with all the tendency toward confessional writing you’d expect from a poet in those days—I naturally “blogged” and only a little less naturally wrote about education and technology.

I owe pretty much all of the career I’ve had (and my never-ending impostor syndrome) to friendships2 I made during the subsequent golden age3 of blogging, before [insert your preferred suspects here, usually to include the rise of social media] gutted the scene.

Looking back at my writing over those years—I still have a lot of it scattered around in files despite my propensity to metaphorically4 burn my writing every few years—my questions and my (lack of) answers have remained remarkably consistent:

  • What comprises pedagogy as we roll into a (deeply unevenly distributed) networked and digitized age?
  • What does the social part of learning look like in the light of new technologies and their effect on society?
  • Are we witnessing the emergence of a new orality5?
  • Does the space where networked and collaborative writing technologies overlaps with tools of creative augmentation and multimedia represent a new genre?
  • Is now our chance to break out of the seemingly endless cycle of pioneering, rebellious, skeptical educational thought emerging and fading away with (at best) barely perceptible impact on education as most will experience it?6

I used to think, not just with blogging but also through my work and teaching, that I was finding my way toward some answers7 and might even have something original and useful to contribute to the discussions.

Then, in a perfect storm of job changes and near self-obliteration at the hands of unrelenting depression, something—many somethings, in fact—broke in me and an externally imposed period of isolation turned, seamlessly, into a self-imposed silence.

The sequence was8 roughly: nothing left inside → nothing at all to say → nothing worth saying → nothing new to add to what my betters were saying.

I’ve continued writing, just not about education9 and rarely in public.

So I’m using the 9x9x25 Challenge, the last number quite literally10, as a way to restart some kind of public writing practice.

If you’re looking for superb solutions, powerful profundity, fascinating facts or prescient practice11, you’ll probably want to look elsewhere.

This is a place for parentheticals, a fortress of footnotes and an address for alliteration.

On my mind lately (AKA things you might find here in the future) at least loosely related to education and technology:

  • Mindfulness12, meditation, attention and focus.
  • The stale fiction of intellectual property.
  • Creative constraints and their relationship to practice (in multiple sense of the term).
  • The value of learning by heart13.
  • The problematic concept of “digital citizenship.”
  • Positive productivity.
  • Ephemerality.

We’ll see what happens…

  1. I was blogging before weblogs and blogs were referred to by those names. 
  2. “Friendships” not “connections.” 
  3. The good old days of blogging felt precious at the time and the window of that golden age was short: by 2008 I was part of a “The Blog is Dead! Long live bloggers” panel at another stalwart part of those halcyon days, the Northern Voice conference
  4. mostly. 
  5. See: Walter Ong and the Gutenberg Parenthesis. 
  6. For that matter is it even possible to be part of any such change within an institution? 
  7. Insert Ron Howard in Arrested Development voice-over voice saying, “he was not.” 
  8. Is. 
  9. Except when it turns up, usually in the shape of “the system” in journals or letters. 
  10. I’m a big fan of this kind of creative constraint. And of cheating those constraints, as I am with these footnotes. 
  11. Or Oxford Commas except where needed. 
  12. for teachers, for teaching, for learners, for learning, as teaching, as learning, &c. 
  13. In the most Ancient Greek sense of understanding and committing within our core.