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This week in ModPo I have been introduced to, moved and disturbed by Langston Hughes’ poem, – Dinner Guest: Me. Langston Hughes was a Harlem Renaissance anti-modernist poet. Dinner Guest: Me is a compelling poem. At one level it looks so simple; at another it is clearly anything but.

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Langston Hughes, “Dinner Guest: Me”

I know I am

The Negro Problem

Being wined and dined,

Answering the usual questions

That come to white mind

Which seeks demurely

To Probe in polite way

The why and wherewithal

Of darkness U.S.A.—

Wondering how things got this way

In current democratic night,

Murmuring gently

Over fraises du bois,

“I’m so ashamed of being white.”

 

The lobster is delicious,

The wine divine,

And center of attention

At the damask table, mine.

To be a Problem on

Park Avenue at eight

Is not so bad.

Solutions to the Problem,

Of course, wait.

This poem was written in the context of a long history of racism in the USA, a system of racial subordination commonly known as Jim Crow and the question posed by African American intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois – ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’.

In the poem, Langston Hughes, a negro poet is at a ‘high society’ dinner party where all the other guests are white people. He knows that despite the ‘polite talk’ he is perceived as the Negro Problem – not necessarily hated, but a problem with a capital P.

I cannot pretend to understand what it feels like to be in this position, but the poem does raise the question of whether and how a minority voice can be heard. Langston Hughes was wined and dined at a ‘society’ dinner, but still his voice was not heard.

This situation was even more appalling because the dinner hosts seemed to have the best of intentions ‘in their terms’, but did not seem to recognise that they had all but ‘silenced’ the minority voice.

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 The issue of the minority voice is not only a racial issue. It can be seen everywhere and in any situation where alternative perspectives are not welcomed or listened to. This is particularly disheartening when it happens in learning communities and even more disheartening when there appears to be a lack of awareness or concern for those who have been ‘silenced’.

This is a significant problem for open online learning. How do we know whether the voices being heard, i.e. those that are present, are representative of the wider community? How do we know how many people feel their voices have been silenced? Where does the Problem lie?

The second topic (unit) of the ccourses MOOC (Connected Courses. Active Co-Learning in Higher Ed) is Trust and Network Fluency .

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Each unit in ccourses lasts for two weeks. For me this is good. For those who want to do a lot of reading – and there are plenty of resources listed on the ccourses site – then there is time to do this. For those, who simply want to interact with others, or think about the topic and reflect on it, this is also good. Reflection takes time as we can see from Mariana’s blog post in which she reflects deeply on trust, privacy and interaction in networked environments. It is a great post and has prompted me to respond, but also to add some of my own thoughts.

What happens when trust breaks down in online relationships? At the very worst level your life or career can be destroyed as in the case of Kathy Sierra – but even at the level of just one relationship the damage can be irreparable. (See Kevin Hodgson’s blog post).

Perhaps the answer is not to assume that trust in an online environment is a possibility. In a post a few years ago Stephen Downes wrote of person to person trust

We don’t trust each other (and we shouldn’t). Spam, viruses and phishing are the most manifest cases of this sort of breach of trust. Consequently, we have attempted to create walls around ourselves – spam filters, social network buddy lists, so-not-call registries. We seek control over the flow of information into and out of our systems through technology over which we have less and less control (because of the needs of the other forms of ‘trust’).

He concludes that

….. for the network to work, we must all give up control – but at a measured pace, in step with each other, to avoid one element of the other abusing this greater openness

Give up control. Keep in step with each other. Is that possible?

In our research into emergent learning, trust is one of the factors we consider to be essential for emergent learning in open learning environments. We discuss it in terms of the tension between competitive self-interest and mutual respect, support and growth.

Perhaps it’s competitive self-interest that we must give up, rather than control. Competitive self-interest can lead to voices that are ‘too loud’ in the online environment. Mariana writes about the ‘silencing’ effect that some online personalities can have, either through overt harassment or simply by being over-present and dominating every conversation.

How do you cope with the person who is not overtly harassing, not a troll, but whose voice is too loud in the online environment, given that people’s perceptions of what constitute a loud voice differ? This is something I used to discuss with teaching colleagues in the past when we were just beginning to run online courses. i.e. how present should we be as online tutors and what should we do about the over-present dominating student. Gilly Salmon describes this type of student/online learner as ‘The Stag’ and suggests giving them a job to do, which keeps them busy enough to prevent them from ‘spamming’ their fellow students. But not all dominant voices online are students. What of those everyday users of the internet who are trolls or who are simply always ‘in your face’; then the only alternative response is to walk away, as Kathy Sierra has done, or ‘unfollow’ or ‘block’ i.e. to disconnect.

But where does this leave the development of skills of systemic dialogue that Mariana talks about?

The more choices to be ‘public’ one makes, the more likely one will find people who disagree with one’s world view and are unable to engage meaningfully with disagreement. The open web does not come with a built in facilitator to teach people the skills of systemic dialogue.

We need more meaningful dialogue and less shallow answers.

Trust should not have to mean always agreeing with each other and establishing cozy echo chambers. In fact quite the opposite. The people I trust the most both on and offline are those I can speak my mind to and who will engage with me in what I perceive to be meaningful dialogue. They do not have to agree with me, but neither do they attack me. There is as I mentioned above, mutual respect, support and growth.

I have a lot of sympathy with Dave Snowden’s comment that he made in a talk to the Change11 MOOC and which I recorded on my blog at the time

Negative stories carry more learning than positive stories. Appreciative Inquiry is often unethical and used in inappropriate contexts; it tells people what stories they are allowed to tell.  Open space is also like this in that it rewards consensus and punishes dissent. Anyone who survives in an open space does so because the only people there are those who listen – everyone else votes with their feet.

So trust in the online environment is a complex issue. It should not be taken lightly.

2014 is the 100th anniversary of the publication of Gertrude Stein’s masterpiece TENDER BUTTONS. and this week Modern and Contemporary American Poetry course (ModPo) participants have been studying the work of Stein as well as other modernist poets.

In the introduction to Stein on the ModPo site – the course leaders have written:

The difficulty of deriving any sort of conventional semantic meaning from the short prose-poems that comprise Tender Buttons turns out to be, for many readers, a helpful inducement to read for other kinds of signifying. As we hope you’ll see from the video discussions in this section, such difficulty need not excuse us from close reading. Stein’s poems really can be interpreted. They might eschew representation, but by no means do they turn away from reference.

I, with many others, recognise the difficulty of understanding Stein’s work. I have decided not to agonise too much. My experience tells me, that whilst the value of hard work cannot be disputed, there also needs to be a readiness for learning.  As Charles Bernstein said at the end of the special live webcast broadcast to celebrate the 100th anniversary…

‘The key is not to puzzle it out, but to let the figurative plenitude of each work play out. This work is not invested in pre-determining structure or in precluding or abstracting meaning.

Tender Buttons does not resist figuration but entices it and the work is rife with linguistic and philosophical and philosophical investigation as well as an uncannily acute self-awareness of its own process.’

 

In this video, nine poets each talked briefly about Tender Buttons:  Laynie Browne, Lee Ann Brown, Angela Carr, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Ryan Eckes, Jason Mitchell, Juliette Lee and Charles Bernstein.

It was fascinating to hear how they each approached the difficult task of reading and interpreting Gertrude Stein’s work. Three of these poets, in particular, caught my attention.

Lee Ann Brown read Glazed Glitter with such a lively passion and love of words that it was contagious. If you want a lesson on how to close read and glean multiple interpretations, her reading starts at 11.40 in the video.

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Juliette Lee read just one sentence from Rooms in Stein’s Tender Buttons.

Star-light, what is star-light, star-light is a little light that is not always mentioned with the sun, it is mentioned with the moon and the sun, it is mixed up with the rest of the time.

Juliette starts talking about about 46.30 in the video.

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She related this sentence from Tender Buttons to a passage from Gaston Bachelard’s book The Poetics of Space .

Space that has been seized upon by the imagination cannot remain indifferent space subject to the measures and estimates of the surveyor. It has been lived in, not in its positivity, but with all the partiality of the imagination. Particularly, it nearly always exercises an attraction. For it concentrates being within limits that protect.  Gaston Bachelard (1994, p. xxxvi)

Juliette questioned what constitutes rooms and space and suggested that space invites authorship. Her interpretation of Stein was a personal one related to her own search for understanding, and her questions about ‘space’ resonated with my ongoing search to understand space in relation to learning.

Charles Bernstein. I, who know very little about Gertrude Stein’s work, would have found it helpful to listen to him first. He starts speaking at about 51.00 mins into the video.

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Charles explained that Tender Buttons is ‘the touchstone work of radical modernist poetry, the fullest realization of the turn to language and the most perfect realization of ‘wordness,’ where word and object are merged.’

‘It is a work of textual autonomy…. Words do not represent something outside of the context in which they are performed. The meanings are made in and through composition. Meaning is not something to be extracted or deciphered but something to be responded to…. The more readers can associate with the multiple vectors of each word or phrase meaning, the more fully they can feast on the unfolding semantic banquet of this work.’

At the time of listening to this webcast, I am steeped in my own research, analysing data and searching for meaning. These discussions about Stein’s work have made me realise that essentially she was a researcher too, a researcher into the origin and influence of words – the influence of words on words, as well as the influence of words on us.

Perhaps all researchers need to be aware of the influence of words, the multiple interpretations and narratives that can be told and that they can hold, and the potential for divorcing words from their meaning.

Lots to think about here. I am still miles off being able to understand Gertrude Stein’s work but I feel that I am one step forward from last year when I wrote about what I was learning about learning from Gertrude Stein. So that’s progress!

Screen Shot 2014-10-04 at 10.53.42Source of image: Modern and Contemporary American Poetry MOOC (ModPo) course site

There has been a really interesting discussion this week between ModPo’s leaders, Al Filreis and Julia Bloch, about the progress of this year’s ModPo course. For me the fact that they continually reflect on what works and what doesn’t work in ModPo is a model of good practice in teaching and learning. The added bonus is that they openly share this, so that other educators can learn from it too.

In this discussion they discuss the first ModPo assignment (the 500 word essay on Emily Dickinson), peer reviews, some notable discussions in the forums, what is coming up in Week 5 and what is the value of ‘massive’ participation (30000 +) in ModPo.

I particularly enjoyed the discussion about assignment writing and peer review.

Assignment Writing

This is the third time ModPo has run, and over this time Al and Julia have come to see the limitations and risks of the assignment review rubric and how a rubric can dampen the potential for a good assignment. They say that they noted how a rubric wasn’t able to cover some of the fabulous close reading of poetry that was/is being done in ModPo. I can relate to this having in the past marked assignments that are clearly much better than the rubric that is being used to mark them. I can also relate to their discussion because I know from experience that the first time an assignment is given, it is unlikely to be completely ‘fit for purpose’ and will need ‘tweeking’ for the second, if not the third, use. Eventually it becomes a good assignment which both tutors and learners understand and which allows learners to reach their full potential. I always used to worry about the first run of an assignment and whether it would be fair on the students.

Al and Julia also have a wonderful discussion about the meaning of the word essay. Julia points out that the word ‘essay’ comes from the old French word ‘assai’ , or ‘essayer’ meaning ‘to try’, ‘to examine’, ‘to test’ . So an essay is a practice, not the final word. At this point their poetic selves take over and they describe an essay as a finger exercise, an etude, a venture, a fugue, an unfolding dialogue; people riff, expand, post variations, in call and response mode.

Peer Review

Discussion of the word ‘essay’ led naturally into a discussion about what Al called ‘the dance of peer review’. A person ‘assays’ forth, someone pulls back, then comes forward and meets you half way, there’s a bit of a dance, a fugue, a give and take.

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A dancer in virtual space performs with her reflection (Source of image)

‘It’s not that you learn and then I judge whether you learned, but rather you ventured forth and I came to you, and we’re together trying to figure out how this works. You are allowed to change my mind.’ (Al Filreis)

Al pointed out that this type of peer review is possible because the course is ungraded, non-credit bearing, free and open and that through this, improvement of the course is a communal activity. The course gets better as people learn how to respond. Al and Julia have seen better assignments this year as a result of this ongoing, iteratively reflective process.

I think this is all about feeding forward, rather than feeding back.

I dwell in Possibility   by Emily Dickinson

I dwell in Possibility –

A fairer House than Prose –

More numerous of Windows –

Superior – for Doors –

 

Of Chambers as the Cedars –

Impregnable of eye –

And for an everlasting Roof

The Gambrels of the Sky –

 

Of Visitors – the fairest –

For Occupation – This –

The spreading wide my narrow Hands

To gather Paradise –

I love this poem by Emily Dickinson, brought alive for me by Al Filreis and his teaching assistants in ModPo, the hugely successful Modern and Contemporary American Poetry massive open online course, now running for the third time.

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In their close reading Al and his team unpick this poem line by line and almost word by word. They also discuss the poem in relation to Walt Whitman and his poem ‘Song of Myself’ .

It has occurred to me that if Dickinson and Whitman were students in the ModPo course, then Whitman would probably get his certificate, but Emily Dickinson probably would not. Why – because Whitman would have been all over the discussion forums like a rash, but Emily would have eschewed this activity. Participation in the discussion forums is a requirement for a certificate of completion in ModPo. (I realise that this is a personal perspective, but that’s what ModPo encourages – alternative perspectives, right or wrong).

In this age where there is almost a ‘tyranny of openness and interaction’, where openness seems to mean we have to be willing to interact with anyone and everyone, I can relate to Emily Dickinson’s resistance to open her house to just anyone. She seemed to recognise the relationship between filtering out unwanted distractions and the potential of dwelling in possibility with others who could engage with her seriously. I am not sure whether she recognised the value of solitude and contemplation or whether this was a necessary part of the age in which she lived, but she seemed to appreciate that selective interaction would for her be more productive. It would be possible to enter her house and dwell with her in possibility, but only through hard work, and then the sky would be the limit.

I would have liked to be able to enter Emily Dickinson’s house. I would have worked hard to gain entry. She sounds like the kind of woman I would have valued knowing, but I also appreciate that from her perspective, she might not have opened her door to me – and that would be OK. For me it would be important to have a mutually respectful and meaningful relationship, not one dictated by the edicts of the age. OK I know that ‘edict’ is too strong a word, but hopefully I’m allowed a bit of poetic license here :-)

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Visiting Venice is an experience I wouldn’t have missed; travelling with a wheelchair user made it all the more interesting.

I hope that this post might help other wheelchair users who visit Venice – a city that is so worth a visit, if only once. However it’s worth remembering that just as each person visiting Venice will have a different perspective from their individual unique position, so too will a disabled traveller. Each wheelchair user will have different needs and different mobility issues. This post is being written from the following perspectives:

  1. From the travelling companion of the wheelchair user – not the wheelchair user himself.
  2. Considering a wheelchair user who can get out of the chair and stand up, with the support of another person, a stick, or wall, or whatever is close at hand. This wheelchair user can also walk a few steps with this support and even climb some steps. If the steps are too high or steep then his feet may need lifting. So ideally this wheelchair user needs to avoid more that one step.
  3. Considering a wheelchair user who needs a disabled bathroom and bedroom with hand rails, strong furniture that can be pulled up on, no rugs/mats or slippy floors, space to move around in, in a wheelchair, and a chair with arms.

Venice, we knew before we even set out, is not wheelchair friendly. That must be why in four days we could count the number of wheelchair users we saw in a massively crowded city on the fingers of one hand and some of those were people with broken legs, or the elderly, who simply couldn’t walk far – not necessarily people whose lives were governed by their wheelchair – although who can judge from simple observation.

So here’s what I learned.

Ideally your hotel should be in a position where there is no bridge (with steps) to cross to get into it. Ours could only be reached by crossing a bridge with steps, whichever direction we approached it from. When booking in advance, we couldn’t find a more accessible hotel, with a room available. But all over the world we have always encountered people more than willing to help. In total we crossed the bridge 8 times (leaving the hotel in the morning and only returning in the evening) and only had to climb the steps twice. On every other occasion a group of kindly volunteer tourists lifted the chair plus occupant over the bridge. Thank goodness for a light wheelchair user who watches his weight!

Your hotel should have access with no steps (when we got over the bridge, there were no more steps to get into the hotel!), a lift (yes), they should be expecting you in a wheelchair (no – they claimed to have no knowledge of this although we had a copy of the prior email communication) and they should have the promised walk in shower available (no – the hotel didn’t have any walk in showers, only showers over baths – impossible for our wheelchair user). But the hotel did provide a big room with plenty for space for moving around in a wheelchair.

Normally, it’s ideal for wheelchair users to be centrally located, so that you can walk from your hotel to see the sights and not have to pay for taxis, which are not only expensive, but also require a lot of effort to get into and out of. In Venice centrally located means Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square), which is mobbed by tourists, making moving around in a wheelchair difficult. It would probably be easier to be less centrally located. There are quieter areas which are easy to reach by Vaporetto (water bus) –  and there is always help around to get a wheelchair onto and off the Vaporetto.

You don’t need to do a massive amount of research before hand to be able to find your way round Venice, but a couple of good maps will be a real help.

  • First you need the Accessible Venice Map. On it’s own this map is not enough, but it is very useful for showing which Vaporetto stops can be used by people in wheelchairs.
  • This Vaporetto map needs to be combined with a tourist map, which shows exactly where the canals are. It’s no good stepping off an accessible Vaporetto only to find that you can’t go anywhere because you are immediately confronted by a stepped bridge over a canal. Paper tourist maps (which is what we used) are easy to get from your hotel or tourist information when you arrive in Venice.
  • Even the two maps together will not show you where there are ‘steps’. Some streets which have no canal bridges, still have steps. For example, our maps seemed to indicate that we could walk/ride from Rialto to Piazza San Marco with only one canal bridge to cross, but in fact there were lots of steps at the end of streets which prohibited us from doing this.

There are plenty of quieter spaces to visit in Venice where you can still get a real sense of the place. These are the places we visited and found were wheelchair accessible.

Piazza San Marco – this is not quiet. It is mobbed with tourists, but even so, not to be missed. Even the crowds can’t detract from the beauty of Venice. If it rains (we experienced 3 thunder storms in Venice) then the square is flooded – not easy for wheelchair users. The Basilica is accessible in part, if you go to the back entrance, but you still need to get up some steps – so we needed help with this. Thanks again to kind tourists. The Palazzo Ducale is more accessible. We avoided the queues by getting there as it opened on Sunday morning.

Arsenale and Giardini are both accessible by Vaporetto and quieter, being residential areas. There are plenty of streets to walk/ride in these areas without crossing canal bridges and at Giardini is the La Biennale di Venezia exhibition site which is accessible to wheelchair users. We saw a wonderful architecture exhibition.

Rialto on the Canal Grande is accessible by Vaporetto, but is not wheelchair friendly once you get there. The streets are very narrow, there are lots of tourist markets and the place is very crowded. We didn’t stay long.

Campo San Tomà also on the Canal Grande is accessible by Vaporetto and is a lovely, tranquil place to explore, although the churches etc. were not accessible. In fact few of the churches, museums or galleries were accessible, but that’s not a problem if you are happy just to wander and soak in the atmosphere. It’s also worth bearing in mind that some of the eating places are not easily accessible.

Accademia was our final stop along the Canal Grande – accessible by Vaporetto. We were there on a Monday afternoon when the museum was closed  but according to their website this museum is wheelchair accessible. The good thing about this stop is that you can walk right across to Zattere on the other side where you can get a different Vaporetto to return to Piazza San Marco (where we started from) or elsewhere.

Getting to and from Venice.

We arrived by train from Vienna and then got a Vaporetto to Piazza San Marco which is where our hotel (the one with no bridge-free access!) was located. The main thing to remember here is to only take the luggage that you can physically carry – as you will most likely have to manage this yourself and walk some distance with it. In our case this consisted of a full sized rucksack which I carried on my back, a small rucksack for the back of the wheelchair and a hand luggage sized suitcase which we put on the wheelchair user’s knees. It would have been impossible with anything more.

We left Venice by the airport Vaporetto which takes one hour twenty minutes from Piazza San Marco. There is plenty of help getting onto this Vaporetto, but when you arrive at the airport there is a 7 minute walk to the airport. Another reason to travel light.

So Venice is not for the faint-hearted wheelchair user – but it is possible, and it really is one of those once in a lifetime must see places. It is stunningly beautiful and it is possible to see a lot in three days without too much hassle or rush.

See also Venice for the Disabled – a site which provides less personal and more comprehensive advice and there are other websites which provide information, but we found that we just had to go and work it out as we went along. I’m not sure that a lot more prior planning would have helped – but that is a very personal perspective.

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Why I teach

I agree with Gardner Campbell – trying to explain why I teach feels like an impossible task. Not only is there the underlying assumption that we all know what we mean by ‘teaching’, but my many years of teaching experience seems to make the task harder. There are so many ways in which the question could be answered.

Also, like Gardner Campbell, I can remember clearly the exact point at which I realized I wanted to be a teacher. I was at University in my first year studying physiology. Those were the days of chalk and talk. Hundreds of students in lectures looked at the back of the lecturer as he wrote in chalk on a blackboard and we frantically tried to copy everything down. But for physiology we also had a seminar group and we were tasked with giving an individual presentation (no such thing as group work in those days) on a topic of our choice to the rest of the seminar group. We were not given any advice on how to do a presentation. My topic was ‘pain’, i.e. the physical process of experiencing pain. I not only loved researching and preparing this short presentation, but I loved giving it too, and it was a revelation to me that the rest of the group listened, seemed to find it interesting and know what I was talking about. That was the start.

Since then I have taught across all the age sectors, and also been a teacher trainer in Higher Education. My ideas about how to give presentations, how to teach and more importantly how I learn, have of course significantly changed over the years, as you would expect. As others have noted, teaching is about learning.

I wasn’t sure how to approach this task, or even whether to approach it at all. I ended up quickly ‘brainstorming’ the ideas that matter to me, just jotting down words as I reflected over my past experience. I then had to think about how to present these. I wanted to avoid a list (difficult as I am naturally a list person!) which would suggest some sort of hierarchy, but equally I didn’t want a map.

I have been thinking about Mondrian since I went to see an exhibition of his work at the Tate in Liverpool last month.

The exhibition was wonderful and whilst I was already familiar with Mondrian’s work, I had not thought before about the possible significance of the horizontal and vertical lines in his later work for my thinking about teaching and learning. For Mondrian these horizontal and vertical lines related to the elements of masculine and feminine in the world around him. He was looking for balance, equilibrium and harmony, but not symmetry. He was also concerned with space and in particular ‘empty’ space and the duality of opposing elements. For me all these ideas relate to breadth and depth in teaching and learning and the work of the right and left brain (see Iain McGilchrists work on the divided brain). They also make me think about open spaces and multiple paths for learning.

So Mondrian’s painting – Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red 1937-42 – seemed like an appropriate fit for some of my thoughts about why I teach.

This question has been posed in Unit 1 of the Connected Courses. Active Co-Learning in Higher Ed open course. There have been lots of interesting responses to the question. See the Googledoc created by Helen Keegan.

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