Would Emily Dickinson have been awarded a ModPo certificate?

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 🙂

What poets can tell us about ‘openness’ and ‘sharing’

The ModPo MOOC (Modern and Contemporary American Poetry) is surprising me in many ways, but mostly because in the poems we have studying in Weeks 1 and 2, there seem to be so many connections with my research into online teaching and learning.

I have already made two posts about how these poems have given me new perspectives on emergent learning  and ‘presence’  in online environments.

This week I have realised that I now also have a new perspective on the meaning of ‘openness’.

MOOCs themselves are all about openness, but I didn’t expect poetry to be too.

MOOCs, in their original conception, were intended to be free and open to anyone with an internet access. No registration or ‘signing up’ was required and it was expected that participants would ‘openly’ share their knowledge, expertise, ideas and thinking in the course. Resources would also be openly shared with the possibility of aggregation, remixing, repurposing and feeding forward.

Stephen Downes (who with George Siemens gave us the world’s first MOOC in 2008) has written about openness as follows (blue font is mine):

Openness — the network should have inputs and outputs, content should flow freely through the system, constrained only by the individual decisions of the entities, and entities themselves should flow freely into and out of connective relationships with others. Openness enables the possibility of perception by the network, and fluidity of connection enables the possibility of learning and adaptation.

The system of education and educational resources should be structured so as to maximize openness. People should be able to freely enter and leave the system, and there ought to be a free flow of ideas and artifacts within the system. This is not to preclude the possibility of privacy, not to preclude the possibility that groups may wish to set themselves apart from the whole; openness works both ways, and one ought to be able to opt out as well as in. But it is rather to say that the structure of the system does not impede openness, and that people are not by some barrier shut out from the system as a whole. (Source: Huffington Post)

Openness is about possibility. And here begins the connections I have seen with the poetry we have been reading in ModPo.

Emily Dickinson ‘dwells in possibility’. She is ‘open’ to new ways of thinking, the sky is the limit, but she does have some conditions as to who can share in these. Only those who are willing to put in the work to understand her poetry can join her. This suggests a link between openness and hard work.

Walt Whitman, in his poem – Song of Myself –  is ‘open’ to all, with no selection. Any Tom, Dick or Harry can join Walt in his poetry. For him ‘openness’ relates to ‘all inclusive’, a bit like how ModPo has opened its doors to poets and non poets alike, and every level of expertise, interest and experience in between. BUT – even Walt cannot avoid selection. Every act of representation is an act of selection. So openness is not a free for all or value free.

Lorine Niedecker in her poem ‘Grandfather advised me’ –  relates to this idea. For Lorine ‘less is more’. By condensing her writing to eliminate anything unnecessary or superfluous, even punctuation, she opens up the poem to a wealth of variable meanings. She has not spelled it out for us.  She does not even have a full stop at the end of her poem – the possibilities are infinite.

I learned to sit at desk and condense (Lorine Niedecker)

I think Stephen Downes has understood the ‘less is more’ connection to openness – when he writes that in his courses, it is not the content that is important, but the process, which is much more important than the content.

Cid Corman in his poem It isn’t for want  also teaches us about openness. He too understands that it not the content of his poetry that is important, but the communication, the connection between meaning maker and receiver. Openness is not only about the ability to be ‘open’ but to communicate this in such a way that it can be received. ‘I exist because you exist’ to quote Al Filreis.

Of all these ideas, I love the idea that ‘less is more’ in relation to openness. It seems so counter-intuitive, and so unlike many of the ideas that have been espoused by various bloggers/writers, who equate ‘openness’ with more, more and yet more ‘sharing’.

Some thoughts about ‘Presence’ in Writing and Language

In Week 1 of the ModPoMOOC, we were asked to read Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson’s poems, which are new to me. I have found that they resonate with the research I have been involved in for the past few years. This research has been exploring what we mean by emergent learning and the factors that influence this. (I wonder if I will ever again be able to write the word – This – without thinking of Emily Dickinson!)

In the work we have been doing, which we have called Footprints of Emergence, we have identified 25 factors which we think can be described and discussed in relation to the balance between prescribed and emergent learning. We have arranged these factors into four clusters, one of which is Presence and Writing. This was the last cluster we added in developing this work and it remains the most difficult to articulate clearly.

Clusters and Factors

Clusters and Factors (from Footprints of Emergence). Click on the image to enlarge.

Roy Williams, my co-researcher, has expanded on his thinking behind this cluster in these slides

and also on our public wiki

This past week I have been thinking a lot about what we mean by ‘Presence’. It has been very significant in online teaching and learning for a number of years and I am now finding, through the ModPo MOOC, that it is even more significant in poetry and writing than I had imagined.

A consideration of presence is also central to the work of Garrison, Anderson and Archer. For Garrison et al. a deep and meaningful learning experience is created through the development of three interdependent elements – social, cognitive and teaching presence. They discuss this in their paper

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.

Garrison Anderson and Archer(Source: http://communitiesofinquiry.com/model)

In the paper they discuss the categories and indicators of social, cognitive and teaching presence, which they consider to be the essential elements of a community of inquiry.

This suggests that if we want a deep and meaningful learning experience in any learning environment (ModPo could be an example), each participant needs to develop a social, cognitive and teaching presence.

In the ModPo video discussion of Walt Whitman’s Poem – Song of Myself   – the question of what presence means in writing and language was also briefly discussed. Here, unlike Anderson et al., who seem to assume that there is something we call presence that we need to develop, the discussion was more about ‘what is presence?’  The explanation from the video discussion that aligns with my own thinking was ….. The words of the poem, the language, is the experience. The writer is gone, but the presence of the writer remains.

This fits with a definition that presence is ‘A person or thing that exists or is present in a place but is not seen’.

The person is not there but is there.  And it is easy from this to see how writing can enable this development of presence.

But, what has become clear to me from reading Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman’s poems is that presence is not only in the hands of the presenter, the poet, author, writer, but also in the hands of the reader, receiver, listener, audience.

As Michael Sullivan, a ModPo participant, said in Week 1

The possibility of poetry is indefinite for the writer and thus depends on the reader for completion – Michael Sullivan

For me Emily Dickinson is much more present than Walt Whitman. I feel I can empathise with her. Her words resonate with my thoughts. I have written about the riddle of resonance in learning before, with my colleague Matthias Melcher.

In the work I am doing with Roy Williams on emergent learning we explore presence and writing using the following questions and descriptions

Cluster Presence / Writing
Exploring, articulating and networking yourself, your
ideas, and your feelings
Factors … Solitude & Contemplation
Is the course schedule very busy and interactive, or
does it incorporate space for quiet reflection?
S + Cont Too much inter/activity < … > Personal space for exploring, reflecting on and developing ideas, aspirations and values.
Is all interaction formal and micro-managed, or is
space also provided for casual encounters and conversations?
C. Enc Highly formalised interaction < … > Chance, serendipitous encounters
Does the learning include collaboration / cooperation
in networks, in & beyond the course or event?
Net Formalised, inflexible groups < … > Initiating, creating, engaging with new contacts and groups.
Hybrid modes of interaction
Is the ability to work in, and abstract from, several
modes (text, visual, face-2-face) integral to the course?
Hybrid Mono-media, mono-modal, abstract interaction < … > Diversity and choice of media and modes
In/formal writing & engagement
Is the ability to use a range of forms of interaction, and develop and articulate ideas and perspectives across them, integral to the learning?

(See: http://footprints-of-emergence.wikispaces.com/Factors+and+Clusters)

It is interesting to think that Emily Dickinson (and perhaps even Walt Whitman) didn’t need networks, lots of interaction and different modes of engagement to establish a presence, but I suspect she did need solitude and contemplation and space for this.

Ironically, for a lot of people MOOCs might be the last place you would go for solitude and contemplation. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to establish a presence in MOOCs, but why I can feel Emily Dickinson’s presence so strongly in her poems.

Emily Dickinson and Emergent Learning

Black-white_photograph_of_Emily_Dickinson_(Restored)Source of image – Wikipedia

I would never have suspected that two separate activities this week could come together so closely. At the beginning of the week I was at the ALT-C conference with Roy Williams, running a workshop on Emergent Learning. I have already blogged about this a few times. Attending the conference has meant that emergent learning, which we have been researching for a few years now, has, this week, been right at the front of my mind.

This week also saw the beginning of the ModPo MOOC (Modern and Contemporary American Poetry). I wrote a post about its start. I also dipped into the three Emily Dickinson poems we were asked to read and discuss and during the week have been watching and rewatching the videos in which the poems have been discussed.

I am amazed at how much these poems seem to relate to emergent learning. Al Filreis in one of the videos mentions that he uses the poem ‘The Brain within its Groove’ when he talks to businessmen. I think all three poems could be used to encourage educators to think about open learning as they encourage a shift from a didactic approach, to thinking in terms of infinite open possibilities.

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 –

The words ‘I dwell in Possibility’ and the idea that the sky is the limit, an everlasting roof, in relation to learning, were ringing through my head throughout the ALT-C conference.

‘To tell the Truth but tell it slant’ also relates very closely to be work we have been doing in trying to describe the factors that influence learning and may need to be considered for emergent learning to occur. We have found this very difficult. One person’s interpretation is different to another’s. Each learner’s experience is unique. I have above, briefly selected two ideas from ‘I dwell in Possibility’ to write about – but is this selection an example of slanted truth?  As Al Filreis has said, ‘Any power structure is encoded in the language we use’.

In the ModPo video it was suggested that we have an ethical responsibility for the way we use language, which also relates to the difficulties we have been having in our emergent learning research. Al Filreis describes words as ‘elastic’, but this is so counter-intuitive for many teachers and learners who want everything cut and dried and neatly packaged. With Emily Dickinson’s poems we have to work at making our own meanings more meaningful.

Tell all the Truth, but tell it slant – by Emily Dickinson
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—

And finally ‘The Brain’ within its Groove. Emily Dickinson’s poem perfectly describes the move from the prescriptive zone (learning in the safety of a groove) to sweet emergence and beyond (being out on the multi-pathed plateau of an open learning environment). I have explained this further in a past blog post.  What is wonderful about this poem is the idea that once you have opened the floodgates (of learning), there is little chance of turning back. This must be what every educator, at heart, wants to achieve.

To quote Al Filreis:

This (MOOC) is open learning in the open about the meaning of openness and being open – opening the floodgates

The Brain, within its Groove by Emily Dickinson
The Brain, within its Groove
Runs evenly–and true–
But let a Splinter swerve–
‘Twere easier for You–
To put a Current back–
When Floods have slit the Hills–
And scooped a Turnpike for Themselves–
And trodden out the Mills–

In the same  previous post  I tried to explain why I am so interested in emergent learning – why, as an educator and learner, I have spent hours, weeks and months researching this. Al Filreis has captured it in the following sentences, far better than I have been able to:

With 30,000 participants you have to give up the dream of control, give up the dream of teaching people stuff that they will package and walk away with and be able to point to like a vending machine – with 30,000 people we are so far beyond a pedagogy of I know you don’t, I have you want, I give you take, I speak you listen.

In other words we must trust that learning will be emergent.