October 25, 2014

Connected Content-ment: Following up on last week's conversation

Happy weekend! I have some time for Connected Courses this weekend, and I really wanted to get back to this tension between content and process that emerged in some comments and discussion this past week. Over at his blog, Bill Benzon published a post this week that was really thought-provoking for me: Learning/Teaching Styles: Connected Courses Exemplars. He also posted a chunk of that over at the "meta-forum" that Gardner Campbell started for Connected Courses: Let’s talk about our course so far. What’s working? What’s not? And those conversations prompted two great blog posts from Simon Ensor: Summer holiday and Are we not content?

That last post is the one that really resonated most of all for me, so I'll start there:

Are we not content?

From Simon's Are we not content? (read that title out loud: brilliant!), we get something that I think we should call Simon's Four Principles. And they are great!

Content is nothing without connection.
Learning is nothing without dialogue.
Education is nothing without morality.
Connection for connection is pretty vacant.

Then, as hopeful visions of learning, Simon invokes these three scenarios for us to ponder:
When an actor performs on stage, there is respect for the authority of the author but there is also respect for the essential role of the audience in bringing the story to life.
When a teacher attempts/learns to transmit knowledge, there must be a respect for the dialogue between himself and the learners - they are sharing in an educational performance. It is for this that I would use the term 'co-learner'.
Aikido for me is an educational model, the master transmits humility to his student in the pursuit of a common journey towards deeper understanding, through a series of learnt movements which only have meaning when enacted together.
All three of these examples show how content can be a means, a medium, for togetherness.

Now, why should that be so hard? Aren't we all "together" in school...? Not really. The sad, strange thing about educational institutions is how little togetherness there really is, how little connecting there is in the form of sustained, back-and-forth dialogue. It is also very sad to see how "performance" has been corrupted to mean, not creating and making things, but instead "taking" things - taking a quiz, taking a test, taking an exam... and being graded.

Scylla and Charybdis

In his comments on Simon's post, Gardner also points out that, in addition to togetherness, there is a dimension of study and practice, and he raises that same issue in response to Simon's Summer Holiday post: "There's more than a shared journey-that-is-the-destination. [...] I just have a hard time with the idea that togetherness itself is all there really is. My old notions that new learning can change the world for the better die hard. The hashtag (our magic bus?) is not the learning."

So what seems to be emerging here is a kind of Scylla and Charybdis of dangers: there is the danger of "all-content-no-togetherness" (as in far too many college courses, especially lecture courses and their digital doppelgangers, the xMOOCs) and there is also the danger of "all-togetherness-no-content" (a social media free-for-all of likes and plusses, but no substance).

As Bill surveys the three exemplar connected courses, he takes this dichotomy and poses it in terms that now bring us very close to the questions I ask myself as a teacher:
Those two things – learning about existing stories vs. crafting your own – are very different. It’s not at all obvious to me that the pedagogical techniques that work well in crafting stories will also work well in learning to analyze existing stories. They may, they may not. But I wouldn’t want to assume so. Nor for that matter, do I think there is a sharp and clear difference between the two activities. There isn’t. But there is a difference in emphasis and in the end product.
(I would add that this dichotomy creates an even more acute crisis in foreign language teaching with the endless debate about whether to teach "grammar" or not.)

Bill then makes a comparison to science and engineering. Again, it's not meant to be something rigid, but he highlights the difference between science and engineering this way: "It’s one thing to use your knowledge of thermodynamics to design and build a more effective automobile engine. It’s something entirely different to run an engine in the lab so you can study thermodynamics."

So, if we now map Bill's examples onto some of the categories that emerged in Simon and Gardner's observations, we end up again with that Scylla and Charybdis of extreme dangers: at one end, the danger of "all-content-no-togetherness" where we know so much and do so little, science without engineering ... and, at the other end, "all-togetherness-no-content," a kind of mad attempt to do things without knowing what you are doing, engineers with no science.

The Story of a Well-Read Teacher

Sadly, my own education is a perfect example of that first danger: all-content-no-togetherness and all-knowing-no-doing. I took one content-heavy class after another as an undergraduate and then as a graduate student: read read read, take test ... read read read, write paper... read read read, take exam.

So I emerged from that education with a love of books, and not much else. I was a very skilled reader, a "well read" person as the saying goes. But what could I do really, besides read...? Not much. I was not even a very good writer. Oh sure, I could crank out a literary analysis (any approach, any style, you name it) in my sleep... and I did. Nobody would ever want to read such papers, though — I didn't even want to read them; I threw them all away. And creative writing? Nope. I had read mountains of novels, short stories, poetry... but I could not write a novel or a short story or a poem. Worse: I would not have dared to.

As a result, I felt like a highly literate fraud. I could analyze stories, but I could not tell them. I knew lots of story science, but no story engineering.

Yet it was true that I really did love books, I loved reading, I loved learning. So much so that I ended up with a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and a university teaching job. I figured that my love of reading was a good thing in and of itself, and I could just ride that wave for the rest of my life. Right?


Wrong. Because when I taught my first class, I found out ... there were students who hated to read. There were students who thought the reading was ... boring.


Let's Make Content

Luckily, the content I was teaching — mythology and folklore — naturally has composition as one of its themes. Mythology and folklore exist as theme-and-variation, driven by improvisation, a connection between storyteller-and-audience. So, after watching the train wreck of students writing analytical papers about reading that they did not enjoy, I went a completely different route:

Let's make content.

Let's tell stories.

Stories BASED on traditional myths and folktales.

So, we were still reading a lot, but now we were reading because we were going to write. No more writer's block: because you have the raw stuff right there. No more boredom, because you are going to tell the story in a way that is not boring! And now you have a reason to read: you are looking for the stories you want to use for your own purposes.

And, luckily for me, this succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. The students wrote such great stories! I loved reading their stories! They loved reading each other's stories! You can read their stories here: eStorybook Central. They had new insights into the stories now that they were storytellers themselves, able to appreciate the challenge of getting a story started, bringing characters to life, writing dialogue, and all the choices that every storyteller must make.


People talk a lot about flipped classroom... and I guess you could say this was my flip: instead of the content being the end goal, the content now became a means to an end... and that end was to tell stories. I've made lots of changes to my classes in the past twelve years, but none of those changes can compare to that one big decision: turning my classes into an adventure in storytelling, where we read in order to write, and we write in order to share our stories with each other. That was the big thing; everything else since then has been tinkering.

This is not to say that I don't care about content. I care about it a lot. But the way I choose the content now is to support the writing-and-sharing process that is the real heart of the class.

So, for example, in my Myth-Folklore class, I spent last summer compiling what I call an UnTextbook that contains a hundred different reading units for the students to choose from: I want them to make choices as writers, and I also want them to realize that they are making choices as readers also. I want them to see a world of stories, full of theme and variation, where the storytellers are constantly riffing off one another in the same way that the students likewise will be riffing off those same stories in brand-new ways. I want them to see that different people like different things; there is no one story that is going to please everybody, and there is no one story that we all must read. We will all write our own stories. And that is... life.

The UnTextbook (new this semester) is helping make the Myth-Folklore class even more successful than it was before, and my project for this coming summer is to find something like the UnTextbook to do in my other class on Indian Epics. The content question is more complicated there (epics! eeek! they are so darn big), but I have learned so much from creating the UnTextbook that I am now full of ideas for how I want to revisit the content in there and mix it up to give students more choice and more variety.

Natura diverso gaudet.

(Tentative) Conclusions

So, I guess my conclusion in response to the great questions people raised about content and process is that by thinking about process, I ended up doing a better job with content too. Instead of content and process being somehow separated, they are now integrated, where the content feeds into the writing-and-sharing process, and that writing-and-sharing process then reinvigorates the content, in a pretty happy back-and-forth for both the students and for me.

As I now go to sum all this up, it turns out that Simon has done that for me already because, when I look at the Simon's Four Principles, I see that there are two principles in particular that are paramount for me:

Content is nothing without connection.
Learning is nothing without dialogue.

And I am prepared to endorse these derivative principles as well:

Connection is nothing without content.
Dialogue is nothing without learning.

Which is to say: for all that I have completely reimagined the reading content of my classes over the past decade, I have never once thought about NOT reading. No connection without content. But I would also never think about doing a class now without storytelling or without blogs. No content without connection.

So, thanks to Simon especially and to everybody else who helped me put my thoughts together today! And now:

Be CONtent ... and be conTENT.

Happy blogging!

Happy connecting!

Felix sua sorte contentus.


  1. Very interesting. While it's been years (decades really) since I was in a lit classroom, I make a distinction between, shall we say, lower division courses and upper division courses. The objective of the lower divisions is to get the students to read the texts and take them seriously. As long as they do that it almost doesn't matter what things they produce to get grades. So if writing their own stories makes them happy and makes you happy, Yippie!

    I'm thinking of upper division courses as being for students who might want to go on for a PhD in literature – crazy though that it in the current job market – or at least for students who take literature seriously and are ready to think about it in a more focused or intellectual or abstract way. The approach here might be more traditional, at least in content.

    1. Thanks for you comment, Bill! These are upper-division courses, but they are General Education; they count for the Gen. Ed. Humanities graduation requirements, but they do not count towards a particular major. That's actually such a relief to me: I feel much more comfortable teaching Gen. Ed. than for a specific major (I used to be in the Classics dept., but that is LONG ago).

      Gen. Ed. at my school is across ALL the colleges, which makes the classes so exciting for me: in a given class I might have engineering majors, opera majors, business majors, meteorology majors, and on and on. As for people going on to get a Ph.D. in literature, not likely. I do get the occasional ... very occasional ... English major, but they are usually delighted to have the chance to do some writing different from the steady stream of literary analysis that they are doing in their English classes already.

      And listen, speaking of Classics, I wonder if we know someone in common: Belle Waring. You mentioned writing for the Valve, so I was thinking you might know her! She and I were in grad school together at Berkeley. :-)

  2. Sounds interesting. Gen Ed is certainly where SSTB belongs.

    Yes, I know Belle, but only on the web. I don't think she ever blogged at The Valve, though she may have dropped in for a comment every now and then – don't really remember. But she blogs at Crooked Timber w/ specialties in rock/pop criticism, feminism, and tales of the Weird South:

    1. Yep, that would be Belle. I'm not quite sure what our Classics professors would make of us now, but we have both landed on our feet. She is brilliant. :-)

  3. Thanks a lot Laura. You help me to see what I wrote unthinkingly. I shall think now. There is one word I would like to reply with:


    1. OH YES!!! Absolutely. I mention the end goal as if we get there, but of course there is no end.
      No end to the writing process.
      No end to the collection of stories.
      No end to the telling of stories.
      So, EMERGENCE is definitely one of those words to keep in mind.
      I also keep thinking about the word VALIDATION which Alan brought up over at Terry's post. I didn't manage to work that into this post, but it seems incredibly important too and I keep pondering it. :-)

  4. Ah yes. Speaking of foreign languages maybe u would like to connect via #CLAVIER on G+?

    1. Not a hashtag I even know. You have made me curious now - I will go explore!

    2. Oh: I have found new plussers to connect with!!! Thank you!


If the comment form misbehaves, you can also find me at Twitter: @OnlineCrsLady. (Sometimes convos are faster and easier there in fact.)