Amid all the excitement about whether or not Apple have revolutionized textbooks, or reformed the whole planetary education system, or are just pressuring schools and families to buy iPads,* my colleagues are planning to launch three hundred first year university students into public blogging. Might as well do this while everyone’s busy looking the other way.
It’s a complicated decision in terms of future digital waste. And then there’s social risk. There are people who don’t want to be identified in the public domain, for reasons of their own, but assessment does require us to know who they are. Despite the impression given in university marketing, people come to university study from a wide variety of social backgrounds, including our international students, and their confidence in being able to express and think about their own values without offending others is important to us. Then there are those who will find writing in public to be discouraging or uncomfortable, at a vulnerable time. University isn’t compulsory; and any compulsory activity can have the effect of making the whole thing seem worth leaving.
So we need be very clear about why we think this is a useful challenge to take on: why learning how to produce public writing that others want to read is a legitimate university-level activity. Critics of college blogging as an alternative to formal term papers have some stern things to say, as reported this week in the New York Times: “We don’t pay taxes so kids can talk about themselves and their home lives.” Ouch. We need to have an answer to this criticism. (In a very fired up response to Matt Richtel on her blog, Cathy Davidson explains with conviction and evidence why students benefit from learning to write in modes other than formal academic writing, just as we do.)
But still there’s the obvious risk of some kind of dint in the university’s public reputation if the blogging focus turns out to be on what students find lame, confusing or disappointing about their university experience. There are certainly conversations that happen in first year class discussions (as there are on Facebook) that wouldn’t be any university’s preferred mode of self-presentation—but really, these are also signs that things are working as they should.
In the privacy of the classroom, we offer a frontline opportunity for new students to reflect and to rehearse the expression of grievance in a way that achieves change. This is a professional skill that’s valuable in most situations. So much of the trench humour in our conversations is about the recognition that grievances are part of professional life, and we should all expect to need the resilience to deal with frustration. Let’s face it, none of us can find anywhere to park either.
But when writing in public, there’s much more opportunity—and perhaps more incentive—to descend to snark. Writing alone, it’s easy to forget that the situation that seems deserving of your criticism involves real people, doing the best that they can do, under circumstances that aren’t obviously easier than your own.
The standard institutional response is to produce a list of rules, that are inevitably both patronising and inadequate. In trying to cover all circumstances without prejudice, rules for online conduct treat everyone as equally delinquent. Our view is a bit different: that the risk of public writing is an opportunity to begin a wide conversation about how to sustain high standards of empathy, trust and respect in public life. What does it mean to treat the quality of the online environment as one for which we all have shared responsibility, just as we try to do with our physical environment? What’s the best way to explain that trash talk and roadside trash have some things in common, in terms of their impact on human flourishing? Can we do this while still supporting cultures of dissent that are inventive, authentic, and to speak their truth to power?
These are big questions, so I’m taking most comfort from the colleague who reminds us gently that we, and they, must be allowed to fail: the risk of setback is no good reason to retreat.
And I’ve been watching videos of turtles hatching.
Freshly hatched turtles are one of the most likeable among natural phenomena. Tourists flock to them. Unlike many animal young who emerge into a nurturing and closely managed environment, turtles go it alone. The first thing they face is threat. What we love about them isn’t their cuteness, but their optimism. On they charge, up and down the sandhills, dodging seagulls, taking three goes to make it through the waves, and having done all that, they still have to deal with sharks.
But as they struggle, turtles are learning something really important about their location that’s critical to their species survival. They each need to make their own way across the sand in order that the successful few know where to return for breeding, so nature makes brutal allowances for the fact that many will fail. It’s confronting to human observers to watch this calculation play out, but it’s exactly how turtles survive.
The turtles don’t remind me of our new students, as it happens—for the simple reason that most of them will make it, with plenty of help available. The stubborn optimism of the turtle is actually a vision for the long-term horizon for education innovation. Hundreds of academics have made it through the experience of introducing students to public writing online (and if you want to see a really bold project for even younger students, check out David Mitchell’s fantastic QuadBlogging extravaganza).
So as we take our turn at trying something that we haven’t exactly done before, without much institutional help, our job is to make like turtles: to keep going when it’s difficult, trusting in our instinct that the timing for our run is right, and success is somewhere out there in front of us.
* Note to Apple marketing: if you want to persuade parents that your vision of educational transformation is authentic, those iPads you show in the hands of excited children in your imaginary classroom need to have more peanut butter on them, and a few should have either cracked glass, or marker pen on the cover, or stickers, or all three. At least one should be shown left on the floor where someone is about to step on it. Just a tip.