Who will we be?

Spring semester 2012 is upon us. We cannot turn away now.

So how will we face the next three months together? With grace and dignity and a will to win. I have recently been reading a lot about leadership and philosophy because of another part of my job… There are multiple parts of my job as a university professor. You’d think all I’d do is teach, but no. Not so much.

Teaching is my favorite part of the job, though, and writing with my students is part of why it’s so much fun. Writing in a blog–writing fun x 100.

So writing, leadership, teaching, philosophy and all that. What do we make of it all? The way we lead each other in learning? I truly believe that the best teaching is done by everyone in a class, not just the teacher of record.

An epic win in higher education is more than great grades (though those are super to have–even necessary for some of us), it’s about learning and knowing and being able to trot out our knowledge in ways that matter to us and those in our lives–to make it all better. And by “all,” I mean whatever matters to us: work, home, school, sports, music, cooking, writing, conversation, the perfect cup of coffee.

We’re going to lead each other in intriguing ways and surprise each other with what we think, how we think, and the way we travel through learning: “lead me, follow me, or get out of the way” is a quote from Gen. George S. Patton that I think is apropos for how I want to work this spring–I want to lead, I want to follow, and I want to say: “don’t stand around in the walk path, please, because I’m on a mission and can’t really walk around you if you’re standing in a big clump.” I might amend the phrase for our purposes in this class to read: “lead us, follow us, or get out of our way” as we’ll each bring something unique and special to our class and we’ll each take the lead at one point or another, and we’ll follow and learn… and woe be to those who clump around in our walk path.

Onward, fellow travelers, onward.

Connection is why we’re here

Today, we watched Brene Brown on TED… to think about connection because we’re getting connected to students at Oklahoma City University through our blogs and their wikispaces. “Connection is why we’re here,” says Dr. Brown. We’re down with that.

Embracing vulnerability is one way to make a connection that seems difficult to do in a society where we are all “connected” online, but in some ways, we’ve never been so disconnected. Substantially writing is one way of connecting.

Being a blogger in a writing class letting people know who we are–being seen is being vulnerable. It’s a hard thing to be seen. We can hide behind a 14-character Tweet, or a Facebook status update, but it’s hard to hide behind a big ‘ol blog for a class when you have to write a lot of posts and talk about things that are uncomfortable, or when you have to write what you really believe. It’s taking a risk, and that’s scary.

Will readers dismiss what we say or praise the words we write? Will readers believe we are worthy of their time? Will we feel we’re worthy? How do we get over the stage fright we all feel when others see our words? What will everyone in my class think about me as a person when they see my writing? Will that change how they see me?

Historically, a student writes, and only the teacher sees that writing. Sometimes, a writing class (I hope most of the time) is structured so that students see everyone’s writing, on a regular basis. Ideally, students should also have authentic audiences. I’ve seen students who are flattered by followers of their blogs–they’ve seen how they are worthy. Their writing matters. It matters not just for the teacher, or for peers, but for someone else in the world whom they do not know.

Being vulnerable as a writer is beautiful thing–what’s the point of writing unless there’s an audience? (Well, personal journal writing is great for writers. A writer’s notebook can be an amazing tool for producing writing, but it’s a private thing… until the writer chooses what parts to make public.)

Typically, writers want feedback–they want positive feedback, for sure–but they perhaps want to say something that makes a difference to someone and then hear about that. Even writers undertaking the forced march of writing in college classes want positive feedback–constructive criticism. (I remember giving my mother a draft of a 30 page paper I had written. I thought it was so great, so intriguing, so insightful, so well written. I was very proud and couldn’t wait to hear what she thought. After she finished reading, she said, “You have a typo on page one and a missing comma on page three. Other than that, it seems pretty good.” Huh?)

Or rather, people want connection; they want interaction (unless, of course, you’re Titus Andronicus). Writers are no different–it’s scary to admit we are vulnerable, that we might need others, and we are so OUT there with our writing on blogs. If we are rejected as not-worthy people, and especially as writers, what happens to us? We are pierced through our hearts and we bleed.

We might even be moved to say things like:

I hate writing.

English is/was my worst subject.

I have always been bad at writing.

I can’t write.

I’m no good at spelling.

Commas–nobody can understand those stupid rules.

We step out of the way of the thing that makes us feel like dirt, in this case, writing. We avoid it. We avoid having anyone see our writing because we don’t want to deal with that sort of ugly.

Blogging in a class–can’t get away from writing in public, can’t get away from having others read our writing, can’t get away from being vulnerable, can’t. We’re out there. We’re required to read our blogs, to make comments, to think, to respond, to share our own writing. It’s part of the class: required, mandatory, obligatory. No way out.

How hard is that?

Could be mighty hard, but it’s a good kind of hard. Brown said vulnerability, necessary in order to live a “wholehearted,” isn’t excruciating nor exhilarating for the wholehearted, but it is the thing that makes them beautiful.

Vulnerability is the connection.

Are we worthy? Of course we are. And how do we know that? We’ve proven it to each other by being our own readers, writing for ourselves. We did that.

We are the connection. And we are beautiful.

Why we have a network in our class

Each class I teach, I hope to create a network of friends, classmates, peers, colleagues. I’m inspired by Steven Johnson’s use of the term liquid network in Where Good Ideas Come From. It resonates with me for a few reasons: hanging out having coffee, tea, talking, learning. In his TED talk, he mentions the first coffee shop in England. In his book, I’m digging deeper into the things he highlights in the talk.

But I don’t want to talk about that right this moment. I want to talk about how observation is part of writing/thinking/learning and developing our brains into fabulous tools that enable us to enrich our lives every day. Just what we’ve been doing this semester in this class so far… Steven Johnson’s work is along for the ride, though, especially his book, The Ghost Map. And I’ll circle around to it again.

Here’s my story about observing the world around me and how it got me to National GIS Day on 16 November 2011 and the particular button (below) and why Steven Johnson’s work is connected in a couple of ways.

River Region National GIS Day (AUM)

In the fall of 2010, I was deep into organizing AUM Writes! (a celebration of the National Day on Writing), teaching a Victorian poetry and prose class, a professional writing for nurses class, and going wild with a button maker I’d just purchased. I’d made a hundred different buttons that fall for the writing celebration, for each of my students, for many faculty members, for all the English and Philosophy professors in my department–a bunch of different designs–unique to various folks. I was having a blast.

I taught Steven Johnson’s TED talk on his book, The Ghost Map, in both my Victorian class and my nursing writing class (who is this guy’s publicist because he’s everywhere?). The map Johnson is referring to in this book is the one created by Dr. John Snow to understand the cholera outbreak on Broad Street, London (the Soho area) in 1854. He is considered a father of Geographic Information Systems (GIS). I didn’t know that until one day…

I was walking back from Victorian class to my office and passed a poster for National GIS Day. I thought. Oh, interesting. My colleague, just down the hall in Sociology, Terry Winemiller, teaches GIS. Then I stopped when I saw this map on the poster:

John Snow's Map of the Cholera Outbreak in London

I had JUST been talking about this map as a jumping off point for two things in my classes:

  1. In Victorian poetry and prose: This map is a good illustration of how congested and filthy and horrific city living conditions could be for the poor in mid-19th century England. The map works as a visual prompt to talk about sanitation, food, demographic changes, architecture, and more. Such knowledge can inform and change the way we look at literature and history and knowledge. Reading about London in the mid-century is a whole lot different than looking at a map that shows deaths from cholera.
  2. In professional writing for nursing: Nurses today need to embrace the history of healthcare to understand how to manage in crisis situations–anywhere they happen to be. By learning about how medical professionals of the past explored the spread of diseases, modern nurses can be ready for anything. (Of course, we read about Florence Nightingale, too, and Henri Dunant post-Battle of Solferino whose memories of that battle inspired the founding of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Geneva Convention of 1864.) I do love the Victorians.

So. I stopped into Dr. Winemiller’s office to say hi and compliment him on the GIS poster. I told him what I’d been doing with the Snow map. We talked for awhile. The end result was I took a GIS class in spring 2011. I started out great, but then I got busy toward finals week with three conferences, finals, and administration for summer and fall schedules. Nuts. I was able to conceive of a project (mapping the growth of Writing Spaces), write my proposal, gather all the information I needed, even predict an outcome, but I couldn’t finish it entirely; I then tried for summer. No. But this fall, it’s coming together because the grad assistant in GIS I met when I took that class is now my collaborator. He’s like totally lightening fast with the software–I needed that since I was rusty to start and then took off a few months to do my day job.

Now, we’re getting ready to present our work at a conference on GIS. I see so many literary and writing applications for GIS. Did I mentioned I’ve subscribed to National Geographic since I was born? I love maps and globes and visual knowledge. I’ve always loved traveling because it involved maps. When I first got a phone with GPS map gizmos, I plotted a hundred places I would go to–from Key West, Florida to Homer, Alaska; from Montgomery, Alabama to Santiago, Chile. When I first discovered the extent of the travels of Frederick Tennyson (Alfred’s older brother), I wanted to map them out. Of course I did.

That I should somehow end up with a connection to geography is not surprising news to me. A student in a Dickens class I taught in 2009 mapped Little Nell’s and Oliver Twist’s journeys. I thought it was a brilliant project. She was taking a class with Dr. Winemiller at the same time she was in my Dickens class. It all comes together in a collision (or a series of collisions):

Writing instruction, writing, Victorian literature and history, geography, nursing, maps, traveling, poetry, Dickens, blogs, GIS, Steven Johnson’s two books.

You see, I’m part of a liquid network. I have slow hunches that collide with other slow hunches and unusual things happen. I’m keenly aware of the connections I have with many in several disciplines and how they are deeply important to my intellectual path. What some might even call dabbling, I call fulfillment, vast and delightful life-long learning, destiny.

And that’s why we have a network in our class–you need to go on journeys like this in the next few years. Keep your eyes and ears open to see and hear all you can. Keep your mind open to all that your educational experiences may bring to you. And keep your liquid network flowing.

On being a writer for one year

Last year about this time, I decided I’d write at least 1,000-2,000 words every week in a blog. I didn’t come close some weeks, but other weeks, I cranked out 8,000 or more. Sometimes it was great, or it felt that way. Sometimes it was awful, or it felt that way. I found that I tended to be repetitive and use the same words and phrases. I would get tired and cranky and not finish a post. Sometimes I would just trash something I was working on because I got fussy. Once last spring, I was so ugly about some things going on that I detached from the web entirely for about a week: no email, no Facebook, no blogging, no nothing. I scared more than one person (not my intention), but it was something of a vacation that I needed. Being too plugged in has it’s drawbacks–as some of you know too well.

I still wrote in a notebook, even though I detached from the web. I have about seven that are currently going. I have one for this class that I haven’t worked in much–though I have taken some good notes in it. I have one that I’ve been very dedicated to for about a year or so. Many parts of blog posts or other things (academic-like articles) were born in that notebook. It’s one of the most important to me of all the notebooks I’ve had for years. I don’t use it as much right now because it’s falling apart and getting full, but I like it. I had dozens of notebooks years ago but lost a lot of them in a flood. (When I lived in Texas, I lived through a flood and at least five tornadoes–one through my backyard, and, well, Texas in general. I heard someone once say, “If I owned Texas and Hell, I’d rent out Texas and live in Hell.” Here’s another one: “I’d rather walk through Hell in a gasoline suit than live in Texas.” Why so negative? See the above about the flood and tornadoes. Or did I mention that I was attacked by a cow once? I was. Or at least, I was threatened.)

So I’m writing, writing, writing, all that time. I was partly writing because of a friend of mine said, “You have lots of great ideas, you should write about those in a blog.” And I thought, why don’t I do that? I’ve been writing for years and never doing much with it. I was just a writer. I never had time to publish a whole lot, though I have a couple short stories and poems floating out there somewhere, and I wrote for the Desert Business Journal in Palm Springs for awhile in exchange for gift certificates for dinner, oh, and I almost forgot, I published as Ed Woodworth in a few aviation magazines. I actually sent off the essays as E.D. Woodworth, and was accepted as Ed, and paid as Ed (I think they really wanted to believe I was a man since I was writing about general aviation and public relations). I think Ed Woodworth is fabulous. I even have some college friends who still call me Ed.

It feels right to write so much (whoever I am!). Like the flood gates were opened just about the time the dam was going to bust and the writing is like a blessed relief. I never thought of it that way prior to this, but letting the writing exist somewhere is better than keeping it closed up in a notebook for no one but me. Who does that serve? Only me. And while I do believe the world revolves around me to some extent (my mother always said that sort of thinking was a major character flaw), I do understand that, as a teacher, I am supposed to teach things: engagement, curiosity, flexibility, responsibility, summary, analysis, interpretation, synthesis. I’m also supposed to make my classes places for creativity that are safe and encouraging spaces. I’ve always written at least one assignment with my students, but in the last year, I’ve written more for me and then eventually much more with my students–or rather alongside my students.

And I can say this: if I can do a bajillion things and still write 300-1,000 words in a few blogs each week, my students can, too. And that’s why I’ve kept writing: it’s you. I need you to do what I ask you to do. I need to do what I ask you to do. I can’t always do the exact same assignment (you have different things to learn than I do), but I must write in public, in front of you, so you see that I’m a writer who is teaching writing first, then nearly everything else I am comes after that. Nearly everything.

I used to tell my students, my friends, family, anyone who would listen for a few minutes, that writing could be the key to success in any field. I know, I used to edit for all kinds of journals, magazines, newsletters, and so forth. I worked for a post-graduate banking institute for awhile as a writer, editor, and gopher. Banking. Yes, banking. I saw the successful people writing their way to more and more success. They could articulate and communicate their ideas no matter how complex and to a variety of audiences as needed. They published in trade magazines, in academic journals, and in newsletters. They wrote persuasive proposals to change law, policy, curriculum, minds. I read many journals in fields as diverse as helicopters, petroleum engineering, accounting, Victorian literature, and writing studies. Those who can write do this: they win the battles AND then they write the history.

Period.

When I say I want you all to be writers, I don’t mean William Faulkner or Dan Brown or Edith Wharton or Tom Stoppard–although that would be great. I mean I want you to be writers in your chosen professions, writers who can change the worlds you live in, writers who can change minds, and change your lives, if you need to do that. Being a writer, really being a writer, writing all the time, for a sustained period of time, can revolutionize who you are, the power you wield over your existence, and determine how will will manage your future.

I certainly have changed for the better by being a writer. I was a fine person, but I had really stopped writing. The kinds words of one person directed me to a path I needed to be on, and I needed to write.

In the last year, I’ve posted a lot of writing online in several blogs (along with lots on separate pages), but I wanted to count up all I might have written just in blog posts to get a sense of what I’ve done in one year, from Oct. 20 to Oct. 20–The National Day on Writing 2010 to 2011. I wrote about 116 blog posts in that time. Some contained a single haiku, but many were 2,000-3,000 words. And I wrote a 6,000 word essay and an 8,000 word essay as well. So I’ll average the posts to 800 words per post and add in the two essays as they were really connected to posts and were born of my new online open writing activities.

(116 x 800) + 6,000 + 8,000 = 106,800

That could be about what I’ve written in one year. HOLY TEXTS, Batman, I really cranked it out. Oh. I forgot I started writing a book: that’s about 21,000 words I’ve written, too. But to be fair, I think about 10,000 words were written before this year and/or were directly inspired by blog posts, so let’s just say it’s 11,000 words added into the 106,800 so we get a total of 117,800 or thereabouts.

That seems crazy. I was guessing aloud to a friend that I had written maybe 70-80,000 words in the last year, but this estimate is actually well over that. I wish I had a nickel for every one of those words: that would be about $6,000. Nice. I’d buy a new car.

I haven’t edited those online words too extensively; for the book, yes. I edit that all the time. I write and write and write and then I edit endlessly. I have to stop that.

117,800 words. How can that be? How did I have a life? And yet, somehow I did. I went to weddings, parties, traveled to see friends, went to five conferences, spend lots of Saturdays doing absolutely nothing except heft the remote control and watch television. I read lots of books for fun (science fiction mostly) and watched 88 hours of Farscape plus the movie. And I re-watched Firefly about four times–the two movies plus all the episodes for it’s too-short one season. I also read a ton for the British lit class I taught and for the two long essays I wrote.

Hold your horses. I forgot about a consulting gig I had last spring. I had to come up with training materials for 18 hours of training (stuff I had to write and share with 60 faculty members at another college–I should count those words, too, but I won’t).

And that’s not including the writing I did for summer or this fall so far that is administrative or “other.” I’ve lived a ton in this short time, this one year. HOWEVER, I have not gone out with friends much or had folks over to eat or visit. I have spent a lot of nights and weekends writing and creating and getting ready for presentations. I have ignored, to my peril, loads and loads of emails and, no doubt, hurt some people by not responding in a timely way or at all. My bad. I had to make choices how to spend my time, and my time needed to be spent writing. I had some things to get out of my head, and there was no other way to do it.

You all take up to five classes a semester, what I would consider a full-time job and a half if you’re doing it right. And if you’re doing it right, as writers, you are doing about 300-1,500 words per week in a variety of ways. Count sometime how much you write each week: Facebook, Twitter, email, texting, classes. How much are you producing? I bet it’s in the thousands.

If you’re writing, you’re practicing a writerly life, you’re being a writer. Keep going and keep count. Nothing makes splashier or more spectacular headlines for families than: STUDENT WRITES 7,000 WORDS A WEEK, MAKES GREAT GRADES IN ENGLISH.

Write now, write away, write on.