Category Archives: Blogs and Blogging

A Nice Place to Visit

“Virtual space is a place to explore identity.”

—Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (2018)

The other day my friend Marie visited this blog, The Far Field, and then sent me an email. “You always make the reader feel welcome,” she wrote, “and on your site it’s as if the world had slowed down. It’s a nice place to visit.”

I’m interested in this description of the practice of writing on a web log as a way of slowing down–of thinking aloud, learning through exploration, making connections, and organizing the activity of the mind at work. This creative discipline of forming sentences and paragraphs, with perhaps the incorporation of other media, brings me back to one of my digital inspirations, the Hoarded Ordinaries project. “Writers, like children, are not dissuaded by the uselessness of hoarded ordinaries,” Lorrianne observes”; instead, we cultivate a collector’s sense, trying to capture mundane moments on a string of words.” After all, reading and thinking, observing and writing, are deliberate activities. They slow us down.

At the same time, Marie’s comment has me thinking about the writing I do with my students—short-form essays on my course blogs  written to create time and space to slow the fast-paced obligations and responsibilities of my professional life. In thinking and writing it is as if time indeed slows, as if eddies form in the flow, capturing  an ordinary, or maybe extraordinary, happening in teaching and learning. Might a course blog, too, be a nice place to visit?

Increasingly our minds are less focused—or so we tell ourselves. We are distracted, we say, by technology and the hyper-pace of modern life. Our attention to the things happening outside of our heads leaves us less attentive to the ways that attention shapes us. More importantly, our attention is increasingly appropriated in public and, more and more, in digital space. As Mathew B. Crawford writes in a fabulously interesting book, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, “our predicament is that we engage less than we once did in everyday activities that structure our attention” (23). Crawford is interested in skilled practices that establish what he calls “ecologies of attention.” His larger claim is that our environment constitutes the self and that attention to the world beyond our heads is at the center of this formative process.

What I find most useful in this line of thinking is a potentially more capacious and generous approach to our increasingly mediated lives. Blaming technology for appropriating our attention simplifies what is a far more interesting and enduring idea that the self is autonomous and striving to free itself by controlling the external world. Crawford calls this “autonomy talk,” with roots in Enlightenment epistemology and moral theory

which did important polemical work in their day against various forms of coercion. Times have changed. The philosophical project of this book is to reclaim the real, as against representations. That is why the central term of approbation in these pages is not ‘freedom’ but ‘agency.’ For it is when we are engaged in a skilled practice that the world shows up for us as having a reality of its own, independent of the self. . . . (27)

One of Crawford’s interests is how when someone is engaged in a skilled practice the world shows up, as it were. Skilled practices are deliberate, and even when fast-moving, or dynamic, depend upon a kind of slowness. The ways we frame our relationship to the world in terms of freedom and constraint are as persistent as they are debilitating.

When we write, too, we are attending to the world. But if we think with the fiction of writing as a solitary practice or private act, we are thinking again with the idea of the self is autonomous and striving to free itself by controlling the external world. Sitting and writing in solitude we obscure writing as an embodied practice at once socially and historically situated.

Before Marie wrote to me I had a vague idea that the writing I was doing on my course blogs was what some people call a “flipped” classroom. But the flipped strategy flops as a description of what is actually going on when I write with my students about the literary and cultural materials we are studying together. For the challenge is to understand the social and rhetorical activity of writing through asking students, as well as myself, to to think with these materials on the open web.

If writing is a way of learning, and we are asking our students to write in the open, then we should be writing to learn about the practice of teaching, and we should be doing so in the open as well. If in fact virtual space is a place to explore identity, then we should join our students in this exploration.

Writing on the open web begins with the very real possibility that the words you are putting together might actually be read. When we write we are always writing for particular purposes (even though we may not always be clear what those purposes are) and in shaping words we are putting together for imagined or unanticipated audiences; and we are always writing with the words and ideas of others, using existing strategies and genres and tools. In addition to understanding writing as a collaborative activity there is important work in understanding what writing does—or can do. The idea that writing is a way of one’s sharing understanding of one thing or another underscores writing as a constitutive activity. Writing is poetic in the fundamental sense that when we write we are building and constructing ideas through the act of thinking. And because writing is a cultural activity that mediates the process of thinking, writing might be understood as a way of claiming the contents of one’s mind.

Thinking aloud about ideas and materials with students—for me most often the words of a poem, a sentence or paragraph of student writing, a surprising turn in class, or a reflection following a class meeting—has become a practice of thinking about what I am doing, and why, in medias res. Might a teaching philosophy emerge in the network of relations of each unique group of students rather than a statement written antequam aliquid incipit? Might methods of teaching be predicated less on mastery and expertise and more on discovery? Might we resist habit and routine by implicating ourselves more fully in the activity of teaching as learning through writing with our students about the subject we profess?

In so doing, teachers build networks of connections beyond the timelines generated by algorithms that filter and present virtual reality in a ready-made stream. Teachers model for students learning beyond the closed design of learning management systems. And teachers guide their students in understanding their complicity in the accelerated streams of social media platforms designed to surveil and to sell. If we are going to argue for a poetics of digital identity, fluency, and citizenship as necessary elements of twenty-first century learning then teachers should be building their own identities, fluencies, and citizenship.

Days in the Open

I am becoming increasingly aware of a conversation that I did not know I was a part of. Or perhaps it is that I am finding my way through what I am doing to a conversation. And I am thinking of the “unending conversation” Kenneth Burke describes in his 1941 book The Philosophy of Literary Form:

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.

The conversation is about teaching and learning. Although the quaint parlor I am asked to imagine is now a stream of thought made possible by digital networks.

51fpky2zjsl-_sx336_bo1204203200_After a conversation about openness and education the other day with my friends and colleagues Jenny and Karen, for some reason a book on my shelf caught my eye—a collection of essays by Doug Robinson, A Night on the Ground, A Day in the Open. As it happens, Doug’s writings from the 1970s include “Running the Talus,” an essay that was profoundly inspiring for a young man exploring the valleys and high peaks of California’s Sierra Nevada.

(Cover art: Lake Basin the High Sierra, Color Woodblock Print, Chiura Obata, 1930)


But Doug’s words bring back more than just adrenaline-fueled days in the mountains before this twenty-something mountaineer headed off to try school—those hundreds of peaks climbed, twenty-pitch days on a granite wall, day-long trans-Sierra runs, high mountain traverses, deep powder days, and backcountry ski descents.


In the mid 1990s I became interested in more visible (open?) teaching and learning. Reading a Report published by the Modern Language Association published the year I completed graduate school, making-faculty-work-visible , led to a series of attempts to come to terms with the surprising ways that academic disciplines diminish the value of teaching and pedagogy. I presented three talks on making teaching and learning more visible: in 2001 in New Orleans, “Pedagogy in the Public Domain,” in Chicago, “Open Pedagogy and the Public,” and in New York, “Narratives from the First Year: a Plea for Visibility.”


Looking back, I see myself groping toward an understanding of (and a mild impatience with) teaching as a mostly privatized practice. When I returned from a sabbatical in India, these interests emerged in my scholarship, specifically in an essay I wrote as a guest editor to a special issue of the  journal PedagogyCenters and Peripheries, and in my teaching, as I began experimenting with opening up my classroom. Inspired by my friend and collaborator Sean Meehan, notably his dynamic teaching blog Comp|Post, I put my course syllabi and materials on the open-source platform Word Press.

As a result, all of the writing in my courses was visible. Everyone—the writer, the teacher, the classmates, and anyone else who might be interested—had access to the intellectual work of a college professor and students in the classroom. Sean also helped me to see a course not only as open, but also as an ongoing project. Each course would frame the core questions and problems that arise in the study of what I was teaching. The course process—the materials, my teaching, student learning, and the writing they produce—would be visible for anyone who might be interested. Students could see what their peers were doing. And the materials the students were producing would persist.

I began teaching differently in the open as well. I found myself writing on the course blog before class sessions, preparing myself for my time with students, thinking aloud and modeling for students forms of thinking and writing I want them to do. Following class sessions, I was writing as well—reflecting on the intellectual work of the students, making new connections, and openly processing my way to the next class session.

This pedagogical emphasis on process—and on sustaining thought so that students have the time to struggle through the process of formulating and developing their thinking—led me to us more sustained intellectual projects that allow students to experiment with writing conventions while developing (and claiming) their emerging voice. Students were reading books in my classes, as always—the real books that need to be read and that I was trained to teach. But students were also reading on web-based portals, repositories, and archives. My students were making use of web-based resources, from writing guides and handbooks to digital archives, such as Calisphere, the Walt Whitman Archive, the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA)NICHE: Network in Canadian History & Environment / Nouvelle initiative canadienne en histoire de l’environnement.



I drove down the Freeway
And turned off at an exit
And went along a highway
Til it came to a sideroad
Drove up the sideroad
Til it turned to a dirt road
Full of bumps, and stopped.
Walked up a trail
But the trail got rough
And it faded away—
Out in the open,
Everywhere to go.

—Gary Snyder, from Left Out in the Rain

In 2010 I wrote Professors, Students, Blogs that described my use of blogs for teaching. In addition to Sean, I was inspired by a former colleague who keeps one of the most consistently interesting blogs on planet earth, Hoarded Ordinaries. Lorianne inspired me to use a blog in the way I am right now: making visible my intellectual work professing at a public liberal arts college.

img_1007And I was learning from my students. One day a graduate student stopped by my office to ask whether she might not write an essay in my American poetry class. She wanted to create a hypertext reading of a poem called “Piute Creek.” This was fifteen years ago and I did not really know what she was proposing. But without hesitation I said yes. What she made was powerful. Her work has stayed with me, though the site was built on a server that is no longer there. Another of my students, working on an individualized major in Writing in Biology, made a blog called Creative Biology. And a student doing an independent study called “The Ecology of the New England Garden” captured some of what she was doing on the blog Regional Roots.

In the spring of 2013 I wrote a blog post called Digital Compost to make visible some of the emergent technologies and their uses in literary and cultural studies. More and more, I was directing students to digital archives and repositories to access primary documents. I was sharing what was rapidly becoming available with my students who are studying at a public college that had not been able to provide access to these kinds of materials.

img_0834More and more I am spending my days in the open. My writing course Searching for Wildness was the first course that I designed to persist as an ongoing intellectual project. The course is organized around texts, questions, ideas, and histories, as all good humanities courses are. But the course is open and active. Each group of students who signs up for the class is contributing to an ongoing cultural project of understanding and making meaning.

Out in the open. Everywhere to go.


This past spring I designed and taught an interdisciplinary American Studies course on the natural and cultural history of California. California Dreaming focused on the natural and cultural history of California. I asked students to explore a simple question that becomes more and more interesting as you think with it: What explains California?

I borrowed the question from the journalist Phillip L. Fradkin’s book The Seven States of California: A Natural and Human History. Each student was asked to design and implement a project on the natural and cultural history of California. They were asked, first, to connect their own interests to materials in archives and on the web. Second, they organized their primary materials into that would help to explain California. They wrote essays, created Word Press, Tumblr, Wix, or other web-based sites to describe the primary materials they had gathered as a body of work–describing the objects and artifacts, making connections, and telling a story that expands and deepens our understanding of the natural and /or cultural history of California.

mcl-mammothThe students explored California through places and bioregions, individual histories and collective narratives of identity and culture, ideals, and representations. Students explored the historical myth and material reality of the Golden State through indigenous cultures and narratives of exploration; waves of immigration and demographic change; the presence of racism and multicultural history and identity; water, orange groves, and agribusiness; cities and suburbia; political corruption and capital crimes; money and Hollywood moguls; technological booms and busts; film, fiction, and fashion; popular music and poetry; sex, drugs, rock and roll; narratives of self-actualization and alienation; the emergence of surfing and skateboarding; skiing, mountaineering, and rock climbing; television, sports, and celebrity culture.

Their research projects—their answers to the question, “What is California?”—offers evidence of the generative intellectual work that is possible in the open, even in a first-year college course.


This summer I spent a week in Asheville, North Carolina at a course development workshop in preparation for co-teaching a multi-campus, team-taught, distance seminar in digital scholarship with professor of English Cole Woodcox from Truman State University.


Public Access and the Liberal Arts: A Narrative History, or NAPLA, is funded by the Council of Public Liberal Arts (COPLAC), with support from the Executive Director of COPLAC, William Spellman. The course idea emerged a year earlier in a COPLAC Digital Humanities Workshop at the University of Mary Washington that brought together faculty from Keene State College, Sonoma State, University of Montevallo, USC Aiken, Midwestern State, and Truman State to design distance-learning, digital humanities courses.

img_0836Our digital humanities project is documenting the emergence of the public liberal arts. Similar to the Story Corps project started in 2003, the course is about digital storytelling and the narratives of selected COPLAC institutions. Students are capturing the stories and life experiences of students, alumni, staff and faculty, and constructing a digital resource that captures the history and the prospects of the public liberal arts. As designers and editors of the digital archives, students are deepening their own sense of place in higher education and making visible the history of the liberal arts at the institution in which they are studying.

img_0837Our primary course objective is for teams enrolled at COPLAC campuses to research and represent the histories of their local campus. The context for this research will be the 1944 G.I. Bill and public access to higher education and, later, increased public access to liberal arts education. The objectives of the course are to 1) build an online archive of oral histories by alumni, faculty, staff and current students; 2) use digital tools to produce a layered, web-based narrative that includes audio and video stories, images, maps and documentary evidence of their home campus and 3) collaborate with faculty mentors to integrate their web site projects with a main COPLAC site to make visible the story of the public liberal arts. Our vision for this public storytelling project is to offer a digital resource for current students, alumni, educators, administrators, development and admission offices, historians, archivists, and the public in general.


Interested in knowing more? Visit the NAPLA Course Site to check in on the action. I’ll also be sharing more here as we get further along in the course. 



From Kohler’s Medicinal Plants,  a rare medicinal guide published by Franz Eugen Köhler in 1887 in three volumes.

Strigidae: A Journal of Undergraduate Writing in the Arts and Humanities

About a year ago I began working with my colleague Kirsti Sandy on a peer-reviewed online journal dedicated to publishing the written work of undergraduate students in the arts and humanities. And this winter we launched the journal Strigidae. The journal welcomes submissions of writing in the disciplines, creative nonfiction, poetry, and fiction. We will also publish clips of musical, dance, or theatrical performances and original artwork with accompanying artists’ statements.

Strigidae, of course, refers to the largest of the two families of owls (the other is Tytonidae) that live in terrestrial habitats across the world. I came up with the name of the journal when I was thinking about the association of the owl with the Greek goddess Athena and wisdom, but also the understanding of the owl as a nocturnal messenger, a symbol of illness, or a harbinger of death. A suggestive symbol for a journal committed to the exchange of artifacts and ideas, we agreed. The owl happens to be the mascot of Keene State College as well.

The special inaugural issue, “Written Bodies/Writing Selves,” is now available in the Mason Library’s Digital Commons. The second issue of Strigidae will appear in 2015. A call for papers will be circulated this spring.

The Aspect Magazine Project

Another project on which I continue working with students is the Digital Archive of Aspect Magazine. This fall I added a series of Project Links, including a Description and History, a Project Overview, Information about the editorial process, and a supplemental document “Remembering Ed Hogan.” I am looking forward to building the archive over the next few years as part of my upper-level courses in English and American Studies.

As the President of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE)  I was one of the project directors that created a new web site for our international association. My work involved working with a team of web developers we hired to design the site, the Managing Director of our Association, Amy McIntyre, and a small group of ASLE colleagues. I spent many hours of my sabbatical leave writing content, soliciting and editing member and project profiles, course profiles, and helping to represent a broad vision for interdisciplinary work in the “ environmental humanities.” I drafted a New Mission Statement for the association that was subsequently approved adopted by the Executive Council, a Vision and History, and a Message to Members. I continue to work with our members to create new course and member profiles. The most recent is a Profile of Robert M. Thorson, University of Connecticut Professor of Geology and Affiliated Faculty at the Center for Integrated Geosciences.