Zombies Rebels & Federals: #UMWFA12

I spent the better part of the week before last in Fredericksburg, Virginia at the University of Mary Washington’s “Faculty Academy.” This is a small event, spread over two days, and oriented primarily towards sharing among UMW faculty, staff, students, and guests. Michael Branson Smith, Mikhail Gershovich and I were happy to schlep down from New York, share some stuff happening at CUNY, and absorb some of the inspired commitment to innovative teaching and learning that so obviously infuses UMW.

There were several highlights of the trip for me. I studied much about the Civil War while in graduate school except, but not really the military history, and I’ve been listening recently to David Blight’s fantastic lectures about the war. It was a trip to learn that the notorious modern-day carpetbagger Jim Groom and his family live on the hill that the Union Army of the Potomac failed miserably to mount in an assault on Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in December, 1862. The Union eventually took Marye’s Heights and the town in May 1863, and a year later Brompton House — which is now the residence of UMW’s president — served as the Federal Hospital for soldiers wounded in fighting to the south.

Brompton House
Brompton House, Federal Hospital 1863-1865, currently home of UMW President Richard Hurley

The town hums with the memory of the war to an extent that’s really difficult for those of us from the North to grasp without actually visiting. It seems every street is named for a general, historic markers dot several corners, and two separate, beautifully-maintained cemeteries house the remains of the war dead. If I had had more time I would have explored the battlefield more thoroughly and taken a tour or two; on next visit, I’ll be sure to carve some out.

I was however shocked to encounter three funkily undead Federals dancing to Fela Kuti’s “Zombie” at the base of Marye’s Heights.

Despite such spookiness, I’m pretty sure there will be a next visit because Faculty Academy itself was such a great event. It was actually lower energy than I expected it to be, which created a sharing, conversational vibe throughout Monroe Hall. Folks wandered in and out of sessions, and every presenter I saw was quite relaxed. I toured the “Media Carnival” that opened the event: Tim Owens showed off DTLT’s makerbots, Giulia Forsythe got folks doodling on the walls as part of a workshop on visual note taking, and Jim and Grant Potter described the DS106 radio ecosystem and brainstormed with faculty about teaching and learning opportunities. I then checked out a presentation by Jeff McClurken and his students Amy Benjamin, Shannon Hauser, Megan Whiteaker, Caitlin Murphy, and Micelle Martz about “Four Years of Digital History” at UWM. This session gave me some great ideas for the digital history class I’ll be teaching with Tom Harbison at my college this fall, particularly around balancing the allocation of class time between discussion and working on projects and also purposefully constraining the project options that students have to minimize the chance of students being stuck in neutral when there’s so little time in a semester to make something new. Jeff is awesome, of course, and the students spoke quite excitedly about how formative the experience of taking digital history was in their time at UMW.

Grant Potter gave the keynote on the first day, and even if he hadn’t just hanging out with him for a few days would have been inspiring enough. Grant’s a motherfucker, in the best and only the best sense of the word. He plays the hell out of a guitar, left handed and upside down; ran afoul of various Chinese authorities during a six year stay there by violating local expectations around broadcasting, web access, and, believe it or not, ice hockey; negotiated a full time work-from-home appointment with his current employer that allows him to reside 3000 miles away; and is just a really, really nice dude. His keynote was entitled “Tinkering, Learning, and the Adjacent Possible,” and as much as anything during the week it captured the essence of the experimentation that so many of us are doing with technology in education… keep moving, keep trying out new things, iterate the good, always embrace the unexpected, and never, ever let risk get in the way of a good idea. Add in that he shot out Ornette Colemen, Miles Davis, and Charles Mingus during the week… well, let’s just say I’m a big fan.

That afternoon I saw a great presentation by Zach Whalen about electronic literature, and then saw how Andrea Smith goes paperless in the classroom (she’s a master of the keyboard shortcut). Then, Michael, Mikhail and I did a presentation on our dream of federating publishing platforms across 24 campuses. Michael talked about the CUNY Commons and Commons in a Box project as potentially providing the piping, Mikhail talked about the administrative hurdles to adoption, and I explored how federation might impact curricula at different stages of a student’s career. Thanks to all the UMW folks who came out to see us, and especially to Giulia Forsythe for producing these amazing visual notes of our presentation:

cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo shared by giulia.forsythe

Hearing more about Giulia’s art was one of the highlights of the second day of the conference. Us CUNYs were frankly honored to be on the receiving end of one of her treatments. She puts so much concentration and creativity into each of her pieces, and it’s rewarding for a speaker to have their arguments digested and then presented back to them in such an appealing way. I felt our presentation went well, but after seeing Giulia’s drawing of it I felt even better about the breadth and flow of what we had shared.

Giulia offered one of the two keynotes on the second day of Faculty Academy, and talked about how the ds106 community that originated at UMW has given her the “tools and inspiration to unleash her creativity” upon her professional work. It was amazing to hear that though she’s been a lifelong artist, she only recently began to express this talent in her work on faculty development at Brock University. Both Grant and Giulia show what can be accomplished when creative people insist on bringing their unique perspectives and skill-sets to bear on their work inside of the academy in an integrated way. They each embody a profound rejoinder to the narrow specialization that the academy overwhelmingly prioritizes, and higher education would be better off with more folks like them.

We could also use more people like David Darts. David followed Giulia’s keynote with one of his own, and there was much to dig about his talk. I loved the way that he engaged with his slides, letting some speak for themselves and using others as prompts to a story or a statement or an observation. I felt that I wasn’t seeing a presentation as much as I was just hearing him relaxedly share his thoughts with us. Even more, I dug the extent to which David’s art is animated by an ethical engagement with processes of information flow. David invented the “Pirate Box” as a way of enabling students in his classes to easily share large media files that they were studying and playing with without risking exposure via the web. He shared the code, the project quickly spread internationally, he then watched something he had created take on a life of its own, beyond his control. The story of the Pirate Box is in many ways a manifestation of the process that so many of us thinking about teaching and learning in the digital age aspire to. We ultimately want the experiences and curricula we shape for our students through to guide them to a point where they think boldy, ethically, and generatively about both how to use technology and how to engage with information.

All three of the keynotes reiterated to me that the ultimate goal of the work much of us are engaged in is to empower ourselves and our students to digitally make our own social structures instead of merely adapting to the ones that are handed to us. It was great to be in a place where such a committed range of educators are seeing how many directions the pursuit of that goal can take us. So, big ups to Jim, Martha, Andy, Jerry, Tim, Alan, and the rest of the UMW crew. Thanks for having us!