• College Ready Writing

    A blog about education, higher ed, teaching, and trying to re-imagine how we provide education.


#dlrn15 – A Story

An imperfect reflection on a conference. 

October 20, 2015

A conference is a strange, liminal moment: you leave your normal life behind for a concentrated experience that is both closely tied and completely disconnected from said normal life. The experience itself is at once invigorating and draining, both feeding you and feeding off you. How do you manage that transition in and out of the space, of the experience, of the time? We move and are moved.

I’m on a plane, stuck on the tarmac, watching my phone battery leak away before I’ve even left the ground. But I see it, a talk from a conference on the other side of the world, come across my Twitter stream. It’s a face, or rather an avatar, I recognize well, and one that I always stop and read. It loads just as I have to put my phone into airplane mode, and I leave from one place to another, pressing pause on one larger story to see and experience another story, somewhere in the middle, that is both larger and smaller.

But we never really leave our stories entirely behind, do we? We carry it with us, at least I hope we carry it with us, and we don’t ever really get to erase them, no matter how hard we try. And sometimes those stories are so powerful, we lose sight of all the other stories out there.

It is strange, for me, to show up in the middle of a story you didn’t realize how central you are to the narrative. To come to a place where everyone knows your name, despite never meeting any of them before. We were challenged at the beginning of the conference to try and make sure that our “we” didn’t lead to a larger space of exclusion and inadvertently creating a “them.”

When did I get to be part of a “we”?

We heard about gardens and streams as analogies of how we view the digital, particularly in education. An analogy, which is a central part of telling a story. Figurative language. That can exclude, but to me, it made me feel like I was home, among the people who matter. Which was jarring. And can be blinding. But I push and I provoke and I speak confidently, and I don’t think I apologize once.

There is strength to be drawn from the we.

I realize that we are all there because we somehow managed to write ourselves into this narrative, what we hope is a counter-narrative to all of the stories about higher education and technology today, for better and for worse. We all in our ways, big and small, through our research, through our actions, through our words, worked to make some kind of change to the narrative and to our own situations.

I talked about the university as a Gorian Knot with tangles of people in different roles, being lost and caught in the system, all wanting to tell their stories, and offer their help and support. Don’t forget that middle-layer, I said, the staff, who are neither administrators nor faculty. Take care to listen to them, take care to work with them. Take care to listen and work with us.

But all of our words get lost, get tangled during these conferences. It wants to be a garden, but is often too much like a stream. A rushing rapid. Voices not present, voices heard and also muted. We pushed, we pushed back. What did we do? What did we accomplish?

We told stories. Stories are data, stories point to where data lives and is being ignored. And thanks to Kate Bowles, we’re collecting stories. We take care to listen, to the words, to the feelings, to that which we don’t know and haven’t seen. Yet.

But then what?

I’m home now, back to my real life, back to being a mother, a (part-time) professor, a staff member, an avatar on Twitter, back to where I always thought was outside. I press pause on my teaching, in part because I need to pause, and realize the students probably need to, too. But also because I want to help them understand why stories matter.

I take the piece I found on the plane, a presentation, I emphasize, and I ask the students to read it along side a short story we’ve already read and discussed, The One About the Coyote Going West. How do they intersect (myth of California, tech, going West, (neo) colonialism and imperialism) but why does that matter? Why juxtapose these two disconnected, through time, through genre, through proximity?

Because both make the point that stories matter. A lot. And that Master Narratives are powerful things. And that sometimes putting two (or more) stories up against one another, we can perhaps finally remember or learn or at least realize that we need to pay attention.

So. Let me start this story again. I’m on a plane, heading west, to Silicon Valley, to (maybe) solve the problems of higher education. Instead, we share narratives, most importantly, counter-narratives. We come away reshaped. It’s a room full of tricksters, troublemakers, punk rockers. This was never my story. This was always my story.

I come away realizing that my story is much more powerful than I ever thought possible. I am not alone. We will re-write this story, we will take it and reshape. There is no one counter-narrative. We want one because the Master Narrative is so strong. But it’s going to take all the stories, all the points of data. In each retelling, each instance of both telling and listening, the story changes, the story evolves, and I believe we get closer to the place we want ourselves to be.

This is for every single person at #dlrn15 I met and who hugged me and I hugged back and who reshaped me and told me all the ways, implicitly and explicitly, I reshaped them. This story doesn’t end here.


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