We make (good) textbook . . . seguro que hell yes!

Several years ago I was invited to Jahrestagung der Locumer Initiative Kritischer WissenschaftlerInnen, an annual gathering of leftish German scholars and intellectuals in Hanover, Germany. In the days before the gathering, my German comrades kept repeating, with rising excitement, the phrase, “soon, we make seminar.” Indeed, after trundling out to a hostel in the heimat-saturated, Lower Saxony countryside, I realized that “making seminar” required a whole different environment and context than the classrooms and lecture halls of the nearby University of Hanover.  “Making seminar” was somehow connected to but also different from the kinds of things that went on in institutions.

I confess – – every time my German hosts invoked the excitement of “making seminar,” I kept flashing back to a couple of lines from a Flaco Jimenez foot stomper: “Yo tengo una esposa bonita, que linda/She makes good menudo/Seguro que hell yes!”  Odd as the association among German lefties, fiery debates about the Bologna process, neoliberalism, and Flaco’s boisterous celebration of la mezcla tex-mex might seem: we made damn good seminar in Hanover.

Since the Locumer gathering, “making seminar” now substitutes for “having class,” “class meeting,” “class scheduled for computer lab” (i.e. we will be “making seminar” in the computer lab). etc., every time I “teach” a graduate seminar.  I like the pedagogical and ethical implications behind the subject (“we”) and the verb (“make”) of “we make seminar.”  In fact, my borrowing from my German colleagues has become the object of much, generally sweet, student irony:  “I can’t make seminar tonight, professor, because I’m making germs” or “Can we make seminar in a bar for our last class?”.  (Seguro que hell definitely!)

This past semester, a group of undergraduates and I “made good textbook.”  (I’ve already outlined some of the rationale for DIY digital textbooks elsewhere.)  This is a kind of after-action report on Democratic Vistas: A Digital Anthology of American Literature.  E.g. what has the student-creation of a digital textbook taught me about teaching, learning, and technology.

Community.  The course in which we made our textbook was a pretty standard upper-division American literature survey – – about 45 students, about half were English majors, a curricular goal of introducing students to the breadth of late 19th century (1865 – 1914) American writing.  One major wrinkle: we met once a week for 150 minutes.  One of my great fears was that once-weekly meetings would discourage the kind of intimacy (among students, between students and texts, and between teacher and students) that more regular meetings can encourage.  So, one purpose behind the digital textbook was to create an on-going sense of connection and community within the class over the six days we wouldn’t be meeting.  To help buttress this community-building function, I also implemented a BuddyPress site as a kind of backstage venue for talking, planning, and organizing our MediaWiki site.

In fact, the “community machine” of wiki plus BuddyPress worked fantastically.  By the second or third week of the semester, as students began to master wiki markup and BuddyPress, I was able to surrender my more bureaucratic duties to the self-organizing activity of the students.  I would set general goals: “Let’s get the Whitman pages done by April 1.”  But, the students used BuddyPress, the talk pages of the wiki, and computer lab time to trade contact info (I watched one day in the lab as a group of students phoned a missing class member and cajoled him into finishing up his draft wiki page.), parcel out tasks, organize work flow, and comment on pages in process.  A month into class, and the wiki-induced community effects were achieving noticeable purchase within the classroom – – as students referred to other students’ work and often huddled together before and after class in their “wiki” groups.

Writing. Students in the class did a lot of writing, but very little “conventional” writing.  In other words, writing in the class shifted from the emetic five-page essay to continuous, formal and informal, writing.  Students drafted and re-drafted their wiki pages.  With some simple guidelines about where to find good information, they also began researching and experimenting with relations between context and text.  This is a tricky relation for students (and many professors).  Yet, because the wiki encouraged a more “processual” approach to writing, I was able to give pretty much constant feedback about how well or not so well I thought context and text were working together.

Two things seem important to me about the digital writing involved in Democratic Vistas.  First, by thinking of their writing as doing something real – – e.g. as creating a textbook that would endure after the class (a “bid for immortality,” as I told students), the students were able to really understand the authentic, heuristic nature of “purpose” in writing.  That is, rather than just pile on facts about America in 1855 as they wrote about Whitman, students gradually learned to think of facts within a purposeful frame:  e.g. “What kind of information about 1855 will help readers understand Whitman’s poem more deeply or fully?”  For me, this was a real breakthrough in understanding how to “teach” context: students can accumulate tons of information, but typically need much more time trying to understand and make this information relevant and insightful.  Encouraging students to see that information (research) is not an end but a means (to helping other readers better understand the text) unlocked a whole series of big ideas and discussions about understanding texts, making sense of context, and how readers read.

Second, the more continuous modes of writing involved in the wiki enabled me to shift my role from grader to something more like a coach or tutor.  By replacing the idea of final product with an ongoing process, the wiki diffused the traditional apocalyptic narrative of writing and evaluation – – in solitude, students produce and present a finished essay; teachers deliver a final judgement on this artifact, thus mystifying even as they supposedly elucidate the act of learning.  Instead, the wiki encouraged a kind of “versioning” model of writing: students drafted, I responded (as did other students), students drafted again, I responded, and so on.  To be honest, this felt so much better and more like real teaching than the conventional “terminator” role allotted to teacher evaluation.  Likewise, the versioning approach discouraged ideas of “bad” and “good” writing (and “bad” and “good” writers); this binary was replaced by writing, more writing, and the idea of “better” writing.

The ignorant schoolmaster. In his account of the schoolmaster, Jacotot’s, discovery of the “method of emancipation,” Jacques Ranciere describes how Jacotot had to first overcome the “myth of pedagogy”: “the parable of a world divided into knowing minds and ignorant ones, ripe minds and immature ones, the capable and the incapable, the intelligent and the stupid.”  Jacotot amazed his 19th century colleagues by demonstrating that illiterate, working-class parents could “teach” their children how to read.  This achievement, according to Jacotot, depended not on schooling or knowledge but first on the political act of emancipation: learning required that “every common person might conceive his human dignity, take measure of his intellectual capacity, and decide how to use it.”  In short, “winning the future” demanded first a total embrace of radical egalitarianism.

The success of the digital anthology rested on a similar, if not so radical, gesture of egalitarianism.  I asked students not to think of their wiki work as “proving” something to me, nor as an opportunity for me to correct them.  Instead, I asked the students to think of the digital anthology as a place to cultivate their own expertise, as a place that served as a durable, public record (or trace) of their knowledge making.  It was important here, I thought, to erase myself from the dichotomy of ignorance and knowledge.  The students were accumulating and demonstrating their expertise for other readers – – for the vast, anonymous “audience” of the web.  My job was not to annotate, measure, and evaluate their ignorance (and so re-inscribe the gap between their “stupidity” and the teacher’s “intelligence”), but instead to collaborate with them on cultivating their novice expertise.

The chronotope of education.  The institutionalization of education within school constructs learning (and teaching) in irreversible, narrative time.  Syallbi unroll across semesters, fastening the temporality of learning to the empty, progressive time of days, weeks, and months.  There is no necessary logic to this basting together of learning and calendar time.  Learning unfolds within distinct, different, collaborative and singular temporalities.  Chaining these temporalities to the heteronomous time of the “semester” is a contrivance, an institutional convenience.

The ongoing engagement with texts, language, ideas, writing, and collaborators in our digital anthology disorganized the institutional chronotope of learning (and teaching).  Students kept working on their Whitman pages long after the syllabus had moved on to other texts; and, students began and continued working on their “author” and “text” pages well before they appeared on the syllabus.  Retrospect and prospect became confused, and the digital anthology seemed to create at least two different “classes” – – one that sauntered through the syllabus week by week and the other that floated above the syllabus and happened all the time, or at least whenever students, or myself, engaged with texts, contexts, and each other.

In a way, the digital anthology spatialized time.  It created an environment or platform for teaching and learning, rather than a “course” (especially in its basic meaning of a route, direction, or path).  This posed some very interesting logistical problems.  For instance, in what ways can (and should) the spatializing time of the wiki be coordinated with the irreversible time of the semester?  Can the syllabus be junked in favor of something more like a book club, where course time is organized by attention, interest, and engagement?  If the chronotope cultivated by the wiki works to encourage more authentic learning,  perhaps the classroom becomes less a means (or tool) to ensure progress through the syllabus and more a place to connect texts and textual meanings in different, shifting, and provisional constellations – – of theme, form, context, etc.  Perhaps, this is one place where the post-course era begins.

Accept no substitutes. Despite the inducements of the wiki, there is no substitute for the embodied, dynamic, physical space of the classroom.  The “no significant difference” school of distance learning would have us believe in the possibility of an either/or logic of the virtual: because there is no “difference,” either “online” education or “face-to-face” education can deliver effective “outcomes.”  The digital anthology project demonstrated the simple-mindedness of this rhetoric.  Our wiki enriched the classroom, and the classroom enriched the wiki.  Each was a necessary condition for the success of the other.  In fact, rather than undermining the classroom, the wiki’s tendency to liberate the classroom from the conventional chronotope of education opened up new possibilities and questions for the value of embodied experience.   And, it’s these possibilities and questions – – most centrally, how can the wiki “environment” reorganize and create new classroom chronotopes – – that will guide next semester’s re-versioning of Democratic Vistas. Seguro que hell yes!

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