The Universe and Universities in a Digital Age

What a delightful surprise it was to be invited to be the keynote speaker for the rebooted Baylor University Educational Technology Showcase event at the end of March. Although I left Baylor for Virginia Tech over twelve years ago, I still keep up with several Baylor colleagues, and I credit my time at Baylor with some of the deepest and most transformational opportunities I’ve been offered as a professor and as an administrator. That topic deserves its own blog post (which I plan to write as soon as my final grades are in for this semester at VCU). For now, I’ll share the talk I gave for the recent event, as it reflects not only some Topics Of The Day (as Charlotte Bronte once termed them), including of course generative AI, but also ideas I’ve been working on even before I came to Baylor in 2008.

The conference’s theme was “RE:Connected: The Future of University Culture and Technology.” I found the emphasis on university culture inspiring, and I wanted to honor the organizers’ vision by doing something big and a little audacious in my talk, so I cast a wide net that brought in not only generative AI but influencers, the name-image-likeness stats for big-time college athletics, Jane Jacobs, and a Roman Catholic philosopher named Alasdair MacIntyre. Oh, and news coverage of the “information superhighway” from thirty years ago, too.

I am very grateful to Baylor for inviting me back, after lo these many years, to share my thoughts with colleagues yet once more. It was an honor and a privilege.



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43 Cheers

Today my wife Alice and I have been married forty-three years. We greeted each other with a hug this morning, as is our wont. After we wished each other a happy anniversary, Alice leaned her head toward mine and said, “Nevertheless, we persisted.”

And that, my friends, is in fact what she said.

So tonight I salute our persistence, and I publicly state, not for the first time and not for the last either, that I am a very, very lucky man indeed.

Pictured below is a scene from early in our marriage in which Alice’s loving gaze carries just a hint, just a casual warning, of the exasperation I was no doubt busily eliciting at that very moment.

I would like to take this opportunity to apologize for whatever I was doing, or about to do, in the moment pictured above. Still, she is adorable, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

Here’s another photo from our salad days, when we were about to make the second big move of our young lives: from Charlottesville and graduate school (and the dissertation I had become expert at not writing) to Chapel Hill, NC and Alice’s dazzling one-year-and-a-summer progress through a two-year Masters of Library Science degree program.

And here, earliest of all, is Alice holding a cake made for her bridal shower. The cake reads “Three Cheers for Alice and Gardner.”

Cake saying Three Cheers for Alice and Gardner

Today, it’s forty-three cheers for us. A cheer for each year.

And here’s to many more.

It takes some gumption to share a life for a long time–or at all, for that matter.

Nevertheless, we persisted.

And I hereby declare: Gardner loves Alice. Still, and always.

Happy anniversary!

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An Advent Meditation

My meditation follows the reading from the Gospel.

From the Lectionary for December 22, 2021:

Luke 1:39-56 (New Revised Standard Version)

Mary Visits Elizabeth

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Mary’s Song of Praise

46 And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

56 And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

I came of age in the mid-1970’s, a few years past the initial wave of enthusiasm for encounter groups, but there was still enough of the 60’s in the air that I actually participated in some belated versions of these meetings. The basic idea involved sitting  in circles (or occasionally, standing) and committing to earnest, candid, and vulnerable conversation. Such sincerity is easily mocked. Along the way, most adults learn the survival value of a kind of jovial guarded irony, a way to deflect the risks of encounter by making smart remarks and joking about kum-ba-ya. I do it too, especially if faculty colleagues are nearby (we’re typically an irony-dependent bunch).

But I remember the encounter groups that worked, the sincerity that took root deep within my being and blossomed into correspondence, into revelation. I still yearn for such encounters. A real meeting: not the office kind we have too many of, but an encounter in which my heart leaps up, challenged and transformed by the surprise of the other. A new piece of music. A movie I had almost skipped. The “unmet friend” who also yearns for earnest, candid, and vulnerable conversation, whose yearning, in a welcome surprise, sometimes exceeds my own.

The miraculous enwombed encounter of two new lives, one a prophet and one the Messiah, strengthens and comforts my yearning. Their faithfully expectant mothers greet each other, and their encounter fills them with the Holy Spirit. I imagine Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, standing nearby. His disbelief is entirely reasonable, but the angel who stops his tongue had greater things than irony to announce. And though he does not yet know it, Zechariah is even now preparing for the encounter he will one day welcome, sincere and open-hearted: when he meets his son and finds his speech restored, just in time to say his name.

The Embrace of Elizabeth and the Virgin Mary

By Unknown author –, Public Domain

(For the story of Zechariah’s priestly skepticism, see Luke 1:5-23.)

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cPanels and domains: two takes

I just left two long comments on Tom Woodward’s April post about Domains and cPanels and such. The first comment vanished, so I immediately thought “operator error,” in other words, “I messed up.” So I left another version later on, but in the meantime Tom had responded to say that the spam filter was not used to comments and was particularly afraid of long comments, so the first comment is now posted. But the second one is also long, even longer, and I was glad to have written it, too.

So I’ll post both of them here, because I can. Think of them as two coyotes howling at the October moon. Or maybe just Oblio and Arrow, strolling companionably through a blasted landscape. You know, a boy and his dog.

Comment, take one:

I thought hard but strangely (perhaps) about choosing WordPress. Everyone else on the team formerly known as the dream team chose B2Evolution. (Remember that?) I’m not sure why and given that I was supposedly in charge perhaps I should have asked. On the other hand, I was just starting our Bloghost experiment (later we moved to Bluehost, another story) and maybe I was right just to cheer them on without asking too many questions. Anyhow, even though it was theoretically multisite, B2Evolution rubbed me every wrong way it could. It was clunky, buggy, ugly, and didn’t have a very helpful community. In the environment, I always wanted out. For my own blogsite, from the get go, I chose WordPress. It was, by comparison, sleek and eminently tinker-inviting with themes, widgets, etc. It looked like the Web. Most of all, when I read “code is poetry,” I said “these developers are kindred spirits and I’ll have what they’re having.”

Which brings me to two thoughts about the project now known as DoOO.

For me, the idea has always been that the interface is not a commodity but a learning environment, or should be. That’s Alan Kay’s line, and I think he’s exactly right. He also said, in another instance of his tremendous insight, that there should be invitations in the environment. Little things that say, implicitly, “would you like to tinker with this?” I don’t want people to understand Cpanel. What I want them to do is tinker with the Web, and Cpanel makes that tinkering pretty easy in terms of installing and uninstalling. But Cpanel has no generally attractive invitations. (I see invitations everywhere but I’m a known gate-crasher, or was once.) So anything that puts a little “would you like to tinker with this?” invitation into Cpanel, or any interface, is a Good Thing in my (pedagogy and digital fluency) book.

All of that said, I find nearly zero faculty who want to tinker with the Web. They’re all too busy, many of them with genuine Matters of Consequence, some of them with the MoCs that are discussed in The Little Prince. Of course, I think that being able to tinker safely and easily within a global lightspeed telecommunications network during the greatest increase in communicative capacities in all of human history is not only a good but a necessary thing. I’ll never stop thinking that, though I am increasingly suspicious that it’s too late to make much of a difference in this matter.

I am entirely confident, however, that any DoOO project needs to have faculty operating and tinkering within their own domains. Otherwise it’s faculty dropping off projects at the Kinkos (or ALT Lab, or DTLT, or whatever) or it’s more of the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do instructor demands that end up sounding like trombones going wah-wah-wah.

Somewhat along these lines, I cried real tears when I read this blog post written this semester by one of my students, for my Rise of Social Media course: Media Literacy

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading.

Comment, take two (not yet on Tom’s post, and maybe it doesn’t have to be now):

Who knows. I’ll try again. It won’t be as good but it might be shorter. 🙂

When we started our cPanel experiments at DTLT in the fall of 2004, everyone but me chose B2Evolution. I had already chosen WordPress. So much for leading by example. 🙂 I found B2E clunky and ugly. When I was in there, I wanted out. I had chosen WordPress because it looked more like the Web and was eminently tinkerable. Most of all, when I saw their motto was “code is poetry,” I said, “I’ll have what they’re having.” So I thought hard about my choice, but strangely too. And as it happened, it all worked out. (Eventually everyone at DTLT switched to WordPress, which is pleasant to recall.)

Now about cPanel and the Conversation That Never Ends (not that it should, I guess): I don’t want people to learn cPanel. I want people to tinker with the Web, because we’re in the middle of the largest increase in human expressive capability in the history of civilization. That’s what Clay Shirky wrote in 2008 and it’s true today, too. I also vehemently agree with Alan Kay that a) every interface should be a learning environment and b) in every learning environment there should be an invitation to tinker or explore or figure something out. Interface plus invitation to tinker/explore/figure something out = learning environment. And we desperately need more professionals in higher education to regard the Web as a learning environment. I mean <b>the Web</b>, not Canvas or any other LMS.

cPanel is a potential learning environment. I see invitations everywhere in cPanel, but I’m wired up that way. So maybe cPanel needs to be pruned or shaped or otherwise massaged or tinkered with so there are invitations visible and attractive here and there, the way a botanical garden immerses the visitor but also stimulates curiosity, the desire to know more. (I don’t find automobile analogies very useful anymore, if I ever did. Treasure, or gardens, or the music of the spheres, I’m there.)

But the bigger problem is not cPanel. The bigger problem is that most faculty do not have any desire to tinker with or on the Web. Most faculty are consumed by Matters Of Consequence, either real or the kind discussed in <i>The Little Prince</i>. So they drop their projects off at a “Kinkos” (ALT-Lab, DTLT, etc.) and expect to get something back that they do not understand or need to understand beyond How To Fill Things In The Blanks. Now the students see that their faculty have no real depth of understanding about the interface or learning environment, and so they comply and fill stuff in but the conceptual frameworks are missing, and so it all becomes Just Another Online Assignment. That’s a worst case, which means it’s the rule, rather than the exception, in my experience.

The dismal experience many students have had during the pandemic of “asynchronous online classes” that are simply infodumps from an absent professor, facilitated by sleek autopilot LMS environments, is probably more common than anyone wants to know about, much less admit. I love the Canvas phrase “Express Capture,” which means straight-to-Kaltura lecture recording but suggests No Due Process Needed, pedagogically speaking. (Scales well, though, right?)

Unless the faculty themselves are invested in Domains Of Their Own [which name seems increasingly misleading to me, for all sorts of reasons], the students will readily perceive that it’s all just wah-wah-wah from the trombones.

I know Web Workshops Of Their Own has no Virginia Woolf vibe, so I won’t propose it as an alternative, even though I think it’s more descriptive at this point. I also like Ted Nelson’s “Thinkertoys” but that’s obviously a non-starter for folks involved with Matters Of Consequence of the Little Prince variety.

And in conclusion, I shed real tears when I read this blog post, published as a weekly reflection in my Rise of Social Media course this semester: <a href=””>Media Literacy</a>. I don’t think college is much better than the high school environment this student recalls.

I sometimes think, late at night, that it would be interesting if every single LMS went down, and every single person developing web-facing learning environments of any kind went on a semester-long paid leave, and faculty actually had to learn a few things. Shocking notion, but it does make me stare at the ceiling for awhile.

(Sorry, not shorter; if you made it this far, thanks for reading.)

Afterthought: we all have time for cars, but do we have time for learning just enough to play just a note or two in the music of the spheres?

No, I don’t know where that professional activity would go on an annual report or CV.

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The Odyssey Project: Further Discoveries

First Page of Change article

Nearly two years ago I wrote about “The Odyssey Project,” in a post outlining a grant proposal submitted to the MacArthur Foundation in 1997. The proposal was not funded, but the idea lived on, and became what Jim Groom would later brand “A Domain of One’s Own.”

Turns out my idea emerged even earlier than I had remembered, in fact just before I left Mary Washington for a brief sojourn at the University of Richmond.

I’d completely forgotten that I’d described the essence of the idea in my essay “Education, Information Technologies, and the Augmentation of Human Intellect” (Change, The Magazine of Higher Learning, 38:5, 26-31, DOI: 10.3200/CHNG.38.5.26-31). The article appeared in the September/October 2006 issue. To the best of my recollection, I’d finished the revisions by June or July of 2006, or early August at the very latest.

Here’s what I wrote at the end of that essay:

What About an Odyssey?

Do all these new opportunities add up to something greater than the sum of the
parts? I believe they can. Imagine a project called “Odyssey,” named after Homer’s great epic. Upon matriculation, every student would be assigned a certain amount of Web hosting space that would act as a virtual server, containing open-source tools that would allow blogs, wikis, image galleries, content management, discussion forums, and even survey generators to be installed, maintained, customized, backed up, and uninstalled easily and quickly. (Such tools already exist at inexpensive web hosting services such as By creating, revising, and modifying the resulting Odysseys—supported by teachers, fellow students, information-technology designers, and any expert or fellow learner with whom they come into contact—students would consider what an education is (or might be) and master the tools of its construction.

Although it would include coursework, the Odyssey would take the learner, not the course, as its central organizing principle (my thanks to Martha Burtis for this idea). All of its elements would thereby pull together an otherwise fragmented, connect-the-dots education into a set of integrated experiences. The Odyssey, begun upon matriculation, would not end at graduation but would reflect the education one creates for oneself during a lifetime of learning. More than a narrowly academic exercise, this Odyssey would contain meaningful links to social networking sites such as Flickr, Facebook, or whatever the student virtual hangout du jour happens to be. And of course Odysseys will link to other Odysseys.

The Odyssey could be an education’s foundation and capstone. Colleges and universities would distinguish themselves by the resources, guidance, and enriched contexts they place at the service of these Odysseys and their writers. Others could read it; the evidence of the work we do in a community of learning would be plain to see. But the learners would control access, deciding for themselves, with the guidance of advanced learners, which kinds of growth are served by sharing the narratives of process and which by proceeding privately until the curtain is ready to go up. The work students chose to display as evidence of the quality and extent of their education could be routed to potential employers or used as data for university outcomes assessments.

What would be the focal point for this Odyssey, the metaassignment that would give it some overall shape and purpose? To reconceptualize the self in view of civilization and civilization in view of the self and its unique agency. That, I take it, is the implicit goal of all education and the ongoing task of civilization itself.

I look back at these words from fifteen years ago and I wonder at the energy, ambition, and hopefulness they express. I remember being that person.

I can also see how exuberantly wide-ranging my “resources” were, even then. I’ve always wanted to discover, demonstrate, and use these complex connections. I’ve always thought that the Web encouraged and empowered this connectivity.

Resources for Change article

Most importantly, I still believe that “odyssey” is an apt metaphor, and that these ideas take the notion of e-portfolio (itself an archaism … but I digress) and raise it to a much higher and more interesting level.

The context for the Change article was a moment in which participatory culture offered a glimpse of ways in which creation, communication, reflection and awareness might be part of the same complex web of activity, a kind of mindfulness that would gain purpose and direction from opportunities for creation and sharing. That mindfulness would not happen automatically. Participation in itself (like the term “interactive”) does not necessarily lead to good outcomes. A “like” button increases participation; where has that led us? But participatory culture within environments rich with integrated domains and structures encouraging reflection and mindfulness can set up all sorts of lovely feedback loops, reciprocalities, and serendipitous encounters.

I still think that, in spite of everything, even as my optimism continues to ebb.

My heartfelt thanks to Executive Editor Dr. Margaret (Peg) Miller for the opportunity to write the essay for Change.

My thanks also to André Craeyveldt, whose “Internet Doorway” was the lovely image that accompanied my article. (You can find the image at the article link, above.) I’m grateful as well to the editorial and design staff at Change in 2006 who worked with me on the article and presented it so handsomely in the magazine.

And my thanks to the “dream team” at Mary Washington, along with our leader Chip German, for the odyssey we shared for a little while, all those years ago.


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Anniversary Documentary, 2021

With thee conversing I forget all time,
All seasons and their change, all please alike. 
Sweet is the breath of morn, her rising sweet,
With charm of earliest Birds; pleasant the Sun
When first on this delightful Land he spreads
His orient Beams, on herb, tree, fruit, and flow’r,
Glist’ring with dew; fragrant the fertile earth 
After soft showers; and sweet the coming on
Of grateful Ev’ning mild, then silent Night
With this her solemn Bird and this fair Moon,
And these the Gems of Heav’n, her starry train:
But neither breath of Morn when she ascends
With charm of earliest Birds, nor rising Sun
On this delightful land, nor herb, fruit, flow’r,
Glist’ring with dew, nor fragrance after showers,
Nor grateful Ev’ning mild, nor silent Night
With this her solemn Bird, nor walk by Moon, [ 655 ]
Or glittering Star-light without thee is sweet.

Paradise Lost 4.639-656

I met Alice Woodworth on Tuesday, June 18, 1974 at about 8:30 p.m. on the terrace of Spencer residence hall at Mary Baldwin College (now Mary Baldwin University). About ten days ago Alice Woodworth Campbell and I took our son Ian and our daughter Genevieve (Jenny) to see that place, the very place, an original place. Their origin, eventually, though Alice Woodworth and I did not embark upon our romance until several years later.

More precisely: three years, one month, and three weeks later.

On that day, with the encouragement of Karen Baldwin (thank you, thank you, Karen Baldwin), Alice Woodworth appeared at the ninth reunion of that 1974 summer school. I had arrived at the reunion the night before. The next day, Saturday, August 7, 1977, I drove from the place I was staying to the site of the day’s festivities, parked my car, and walked to the spot where everyone had gathered.

And there was Alice Woodworth, sitting beneath a tree.

Alice had appeared briefly at the Richmond reunion in 1974, but not since. We had not been in contact at all during the intervening years, with the exception of a friendly postcard or two. But on this day, there she was, unexpectedly and overwhelmingly there. In that moment of surprise, I knew something had come over me, but I didn’t know what that meant. All I knew was that it would be a fine thing indeed to go say hello to Alice Woodworth, and catch up with her after three years.

And so our conversation began.

My dear friend Steve Chu made a photograph of that beginning. It’s rare to have such a document, an image of the beginning of a life together. (Thank you, thank you, Steve Chu.) It’s rarer still to remember knowing, in this moment you can see in this image of Alice Woodworth and Gardner Campbell well into their third or fourth hour of conversation on August 7, 1977, that something had happened. But I did know it, and I knew it on April 22, 1978, when I asked Alice if she would marry me, and I knew it on July 14, 1979, when my April question and her April yes became our July vows.

And I still know it, today.

47 years after our first meeting, 43 years after our betrothal, 42 years after our marriage.

44 years after the moment documented below, an image of a moment from my first conversation with the love of my life.

Happy anniversary, Alice.

With thee conversing I forget all time


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Father’s Day 2021

Today the topic is courage.

My father was not the strong silent type. No Gary Cooper, he. My dad had narrow shoulders (as do I), he was a worrier (as am I), and while he would clam up about some things (when we’d ask him if he’d ever smoked, or if he’d ever voted Republican, both of which he would deny and then stop speaking), he was not what you’d call taciturn. In fact, he was sometimes pretty expansive in his talk.

But I do remember being surprised, several times, by just how powerful his grip could be, and how much he could lift. In retrospect my surprise is surprising, even shocking, since my dad was a laborer pretty much all his adult life. Laborers get strong–and sometimes, also, damaged along the way. But before that, strong. Callused. Burled. So I really shouldn’t have been surprised that my dad was physically strong, even though he didn’t look it.

These days an even deeper strength comes to mind, one I didn’t understand at the time and only now, as I get older myself, begin to appreciate. That’s the strength you see in the photo below.


That’s a snapshot of a new father. My father. In one arm he holds me. I’m nearly three. In the other arm he holds my brother Fred, who’s not more than a few months old.

This new father is 53 years old.

Being a father is tricky. Being a good father is trickier still. Being a good father and starting on that path at the age of 50 is strong. Continuing on that path at 53 is stronger still.

So today, I remember a father whose strength was hiding in plain sight. Whose strength is visible in his utterly joyful expression that is also, it must be said, somewhat nervous. But then, courage doesn’t mean not being afraid. It means being afraid and doing it anyway. So I have learned, and so I remember as I look on the strong arms holding me here.

Happy Father’s Day.

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Paradise Lost Readathon 2021: An Epic Opportunity

Paradise Lost Readathon, Spring 2021

Via Zoom

The Schedule:

Saturday, April 17, 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. Books 1-4

Sunday, April 18, 6 p.m. – 10 p.m. Books 5-8

Saturday, April 24, 2 p.m. – 6 p.m. Books 9-12

A Dr. Campbell Milton reading-aloud-together tradition since 1994. This year in three parts. All are welcome! Come when you can and leave when you want, on one or two or all three days.

If you don’t have a copy of the text, you can find it on the Web at the Dartmouth College Milton Reading Room: Note: we don’t read the “arguments,” that is, the prose summaries at the beginning of each Book.

This will be quite the experiment. Here’s how I’m thinking it’ll work.

I’ll set up a recurring Zoom meeting for all of us readers. You’re welcome to come by anytime and stay for as long as you like. My only rule is that if you’re in the meeting, you must read aloud, at least a little! (And no fair ducking in and out to avoid the reading—Milton will shake his head, sadly, even in his beatitude.) I’ll us one Zoom link for all three sessions. I’ll have a waiting room—Zoom requires these—so when you join, you may have to wait a little bit for me to see that you’re there and click on the little “admit” button. I will be vigilant, so the wait shouldn’t be very long at all.

The biggest problem with this virtual experience will be how to know when you’re supposed to be reading. When we’re physically co-located, we sit in a circle and thus we know when we’re the next one to read. Each reader relies on a significant/substantial pause from the current reader as a signal that Now It’s My Turn.

Clearly that won’t work very well in Zoom, unless you like Zoom collisions followed by colliding apologies followed by … nervous silence. And of course we’ll all have different “orders” before us on our screens with regard to who reads next.

So we’ll do a different disruption, one that at least can become familiar and thus, I hope, less annoying as time goes on.

Each reader should read somewhere between 50 and 100 lines per turn. Fewer than that and you can’t get much momentum going. More than that, and there aren’t enough opportunities for other readers.

When you’re done reading, please either look up and nod or smile (if you’re on camera) or type “done” in the chat if your webcam is off. In a pinch, or if you’re on your phone, you can just give your last word a real big emphasis and then go silent—and we’ll get the message.

After a reader finishes, I’ll come on just long enough to call the name of the next reader. I’ll keep order based on the order on the Participants list. So be listening for when I say your name!

One more Big Ask: folks, please stop reading at a period, not just at the end of a line of verse. If the line ends with a period, that’s great. Often, though, the sentence (which ends with a period) does not end with the line, and if you stop at the end of a line and the sentence isn’t over, the next reader has to pick up in the middle of a thought, and That’s Very Awkward.

If you’re interested, shoot me an email (gardner.campbell AT, with @ substituted for AT) or if you’re reading this on FB, send me a private message, and I’ll send you the Zoom link. I’d prefer not to put that link out too publicly, for reasons I won’t cite but I hope are obvious. (If not, I can explain in the email.)

I always ask participants to contribute to a Readers’ Journal during these readathons. This time I’ll invite comments, responses, reflections, etc. in the chat itself. I’ll be recording the sessions so I can keep the chat and have a memorial of the event itself. I will not circulate any part of the recording without the consent of the participants involved. The only exception is any part in which I’m speaking, in which case I’ll crop out or completely obscure everyone else’s face. That’s a promise.

I think that’s it. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to ask.

I do hope you’ll join us!

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The sage on the stage

Recently I couldn’t help myself. I suppose that could apply to many recencies, if that’s even a word. Couldn’t we go to some special hotel to work on taking the long view, one with a sign outside that said “No Recencies”? Ah, digressing already. Where was am I?

A colleague whom I very much respect tweeted out her commitment to student-centered teaching as opposed to teaching-centered teaching. I replied with a tweet about one of what I’ll call my “new heresies” (although they’re really not new), that I myself favored the both-and. Teachers and students in the center. An interesting Twitter exchange followed, and I promised to explain myself a bit more, so here we are. No longer digressing.

Over the years I have become less and less swayed by this-not-that characterizations of responsible, responsive, effective teaching. For example, we are advised to be the “guide at the side” rather than the “sage on the stage.” (This isn’t exactly what my colleague meant, but I hope she’ll bear with me.) I understand the dichotomy, born of the experience of grand pompous windbags reading from yellowed notes oblivious to the presence of young, disengaged, and sometimes eye-rollingly contemptuous would-be learners in the audience. Or, as one of my own former teachers said in my presence, later in life, to my dismay but not my surprise, given my experience in his class: teaching undergrads is 75% talking about your research to a captive audience.

Undeniably expert, but a cartoon sage on a cartoon stage. Precisely, ugh.

And yet.

Why on earth would anyone pay thousands of dollars to be in the presence of anyone but a sage over fifteen weeks of demanding work on unfamiliar material? Notice that sagacity overlaps with, but is not completely synonymous with, expertise. In fact,  “sage” is one word with two separate meanings and two distinct origins, one of those happy accidents in language that makes a hermeneut like me playfully imagine, “coincidence? I think not.”

Oxford English Dictionary time: a sage is a person who is “wise, discreet, judicious.” Sage as an adjective, as in sage “advice or counsel,” is “characterized by profound wisdom; based on sound judgement.” It’s hard to imagine profound wisdom or sound judgment without specific knowledge, and lots of it. Expertise is necessary. But not sufficient. As I tell my students, if they think I am subjective in my grading, they are correct: it is my subjectivity that makes me valuable to them, as it is the seat of my judgment. There are no guarantees available about the soundness of my judgment–never any guarantees about that sort of thing. What we as human beings have instead of guarantees is a great cloud of witnesses, those from whom I learned what judgment involved, and for whom I demonstrated my own partial but developing powers of judgment. That is, I have somewhere on the order of 40 or 50 teachers who have judged my work over the years. I would say that around half of them qualified as sages, maybe more. Of those sages, all were different, all brought varied temperaments and approaches to the classroom, all brought varied temperaments and approaches to the task of sharing their sagacity with me in a way that would encourage whatever latent sagacity I might have to develop to its fullest extent.

This process continued, with growing intensity and deepening levels of specific expertise, as I went from elementary school, to junior high, to high school, to college, to graduate school. And the most intense contact I had with sagacity was the dissertation, the moment in which I had to wrestle most intensely with distributed sagacity (i.e., the critical conversation) in its bewildering, contradictory, repellent, and attractive forms, all the while apprenticing myself to one particular set of sages (my dissertation director, my second reader, my unofficial guide and mentor) and prepare myself to be in a formal encounter with at least two sages I had not worked with at all, during what we call the “defense.”

Again, no guarantees. The process does not automatically generate sagacity. Profound wisdom and sound judgment are not the sorts of “outcomes” (even to use that word in this context is to demonstrate its risibility) that can be confidently “designed” for (see above). But the long series of testimonials, endorsements, encouragements, shaped by genuinely profound wisdom and sound judgment and sometimes buffeted and bruised by the limits of my teachers’ sagacity and the strange, unpredictable emergence of my own developing powers of judgment, finally added up to enough of a vote of confidence to bring me into the profession.

That process, in turn, makes me the professor who offers courses of study within a curriculum, courses of study that students enroll in as they progress through a degree program.

Sadly, too many students cannot imagine what I’ve just described. Many of them have no idea that there is such a journey, or what it involves, or how it touches on the very journey they have undertaken. Many, too many, have little sense of their education as a journey. Rather, their education appears to them as a set of concurrent and sequential tasks, assigned by those who have the power of assigning tasks. There is no journey. There is only a conveyor belt. The end of the conveyor belt is the reward of–oh, greater lifetime earnings? social capital? the chance to build conveyor belts for those who follow? grim thoughts, I confess, but perhaps not unwarranted.

So yes, teaching is teacher-centered, and thus also student-centered. The sage demonstrates sagacity, and elicits its development in others. The sage performs sagacity, where “performance” means not falsity or arrogance but (so I delight to imagine) the primary meaning of the word, per the OED: “to carry out.” to “discharge” a “service” or “duty.” As an intransitive verb, again per the OED, “perform” means “to do, carry out, execute, or accomplish what one has to do or has undertaken; to carry out one’s function, to do one’s part….”

In these senses–and why not perform them?–the act of performing is an act of deep service to the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us. That surrounds me. Mrs. Wills. Miss Spraker. Mrs. Lane. Mrs. Parker. Mrs. Dixon. Mr. Barnhart. Miss Byrd. Mrs. Arnold. That’s a partial list of the sages who saw me through as far as seventh grade. The list goes on, quite a ways. One of the gifts of age is also that I can see, however grudgingly (still) because of certain flaws and temperamental mismatches in both of us, that probably other teachers had sagacity that was real even if fitful or lost on me at the time. One of the other gifts of age is my own fitful but undeniably stronger powers of discovering sagacity in those who do not immediately display it.

So the stage becomes the place in which the teacher’s sagacity can be visible to all, and thus made present, and thus made meaningful, performed (sagacity is individual but valuable primarily in relationship). Anyone who’s ever attended a great performance of a great play will know that the stage, by some weird alchemy, makes a certain distance and a certain mode of display into an occasion of profound connection, one that could not occur without that nexus of heightened reality framed and made radiant by a proscenium, or thrust into the house, or perhaps surrounded by witnesses as it centers the very space of performance, and by centering that space, empowers what for the poet John Donne characterizes the power of love itself, the power to make “one little room an everywhere.”

I am most grateful, then, in my own journey, not for breakout rooms and report-outs (valuable as they can be), or for think-pair-shares (catalytic as they can be), or polls, or any of the myriad ways in which we rightly encourage what we sometimes confusedly call “interaction.” I am most grateful for those sages who performed where I could see them, and thus could mysteriously be with them, could fill myself with the savor of their sagacity and then, as Hopkins once wrote of the effect of great art, be inspired to “go and do otherwise”–not in reaction or rebellion, but in accepting my duty, now, to perform my own profession, infused by theirs, but distinctly, for better or worse, my own.

You’ll see what I did there with that word “savor.” “Sage” is also a spice. Unlike the “sage” above, which comes from the Latin sapere, to be wise, sage-as-spice comes from the Latin salvia, a “healing plant.” To this day, though the OED warns the usage is “Now rare,” a sage can still mean “A kind of herb or medicinal preparation of herbs.”

My sages keep saving my life. The medicinal wisdom they performed then, they perform for me still, evermore, beyond measure.

As every grateful acknowledger must acknowledge, the remaining faults are my own.


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Meeting up with myselves

During Lent I blogged every day. I can’t imagine I’ll keep up that pace, though that may simply be a failure of imagination on my part. But I do hope the habit of blogging regularly has settled back into my working and dreaming self.

I’ve mentioned before that a return to blogging reawakened my sense of the network as a tool for conviviality, to borrow Illich’s phrase. That’s been a very good thing, as my experience of that conviviality had eroded quite a bit over the years, probably since about 2008–though the erosion was imperceptible at first. Blogging, reading, linking, commenting–not branding or gathering the tribe, but conversing–these are nourishing things.

Eugene Eric Kim undertook a similar season of blogging last year, and his delightful blog post appeared in my revitalized network this year. My learnings are much like his. More conviviality there; thank you, Eric.

I’m also feeling more prepared to dive back into my work on Doug Engelbart, and hope to restart the Framework interview series over the next few weeks. I’ve got some great interviews “in the can,” so to speak, and I have some ideas about more interviews … so there will be more on the way in that area, I hope.

And last but by no means least, I’ve felt more connected to my earlier self, my pre-pandemic and my pre-exile self. As I work with students, I find myself googling phrases I could dimly remember like “the perfume of an idea” (apt meta-experience, there) and rediscovering long, thoughtful posts some Gardo fellow had cast onto the waters many years ago. Not a bad chap. He did okay. I’ve even begun clicking on the algorithmically generated “related posts” that show up beneath my new posts, and been surprised by the connections between then and now. Surprised, and sometimes dismayed as well … it’s discouraging to see those places where not much has changed, aside from people become even more entrenched and loud in their various Positions.

But all in all, it is good to be reacquainted: with blogging, with steady writing, with friends on the network and what they have to say. With myself.

So, at the conclusion of a new beginning, greetings and felicitations!

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