Sunday, January 11, 2004

My So-Called Teacherly Space

Emily Nussbaum's story in today's NYT magazine, "My So-Called Blog," sizes up the social significance of blogs for teenagers. Reactions have already posted here and here; I agree with craniac at Kariosnews that the article has a few good bits. One of those bits, in my reading of the story, involves the allure of cheaply controlling an extrabodily image of oneself, one's space, even devising ideological signposts to create a meaning-filled site.

At heart, an online journal is like a hyperflexible adolescent body -- but better, because in real life, it takes money and physical effort to add a piercing, or to switch from zip-jacketed mod to Abercrombie prepster. A LiveJournal or Blurty offers a creative outlet with a hundred moving parts. And unlike a real journal, with a blog, your friends are all around, invisible voyeurs -- at least until they chime in with a comment.

Since my teenage years have passed and I have no need for new piercings (although a haircut would be nice, maybe later today), this aspect of Nussbaum's feature has me thinking about the implications of inexpensive control and image management in teaching. I have been working on a blog for a class I'm teaching this semester, the second in our FY composition sequence, so notions of switching up, of designing an "outlet with a hundred moving parts" resonate the utility of blogs in higher ed. This is especially true for many institutions where room assignments change from semester to semester or where adjunct faculty share plain offices with one phone line, if they have any office space at all. The class blog--with its dialogic nature, design and content--extends the course beyond the sanitized, often neutral meeting place of the classroom by enabling it with a sustainable, personalized ideological decor. What's more, the decor is, by and large, participatory--shaped by all members of the class. Through design and use, the blog can affect the identity crises that encroach on our work-space and status in higher ed, esp. in cases where work-space and status are, at times, unfair, ill-conceived and subject to gross fluctuation. It doesn't fully absolve these issues, but, as it did for the subjects in Nussbaum's story, blogging can provide relief. Cheaply.

Bookmark and Share Posted by at January 11, 2004 11:09 AM to Dry Ogre Chalking,On Weblogs

Re: participatory design

If only the new presentation classrooms had such a design. Interesting that we should be able to create such space out of singing electrons, but we purchase ducks-in-rows desks to destroy the interpersonal activity of our high-tech classrooms. What is it about watching a glittering screen that seems to require we all face forward, yet one-on-one with that same screen we can create a certain type of dynamic participation?


Posted by: acline at January 13, 2004 12:03 PM

You're right about the issue with seating dynamics in f2f, tech-enabled classrooms. The arrangement still privileges the knowledge-disseminating locus at the front of the room, perhaps even elevating the technologized information to supreme (or, in the very least, super-human status...reminds me of mighty Oz). Fitting that I'm reading and re-reading _Technopoly_ whilst thinking about this issue.

The least we could do is to ask everyone (students, deans, etc.) to read and ponder Foucault's "Panopticism" before so relishing the arcane spatial dynamics literally "built" into our smart classrooms. Rigid, mono-directional seating? I'd take a swivel (better yet, a bean bag chair) any day. -DM

Posted by: dmueller at January 13, 2004 3:29 PM

The decisions about classroom furnishings are usually made by Purchasing with advice from College Services on my campus. When new student desk/chairs were recently purchased, staff who passed by were asked to test them out. When I suggested to the decision maker that chairs that slid easily into different groupings would be great, she quickly noted that students would wreck them in no time. So cost efficiencies trump pedagogy even in something like the student's seat.

I've gotten all my students in one section of comp on blogs this term. I'm not sure what all we'll do with them. They are the first on campus to be provided blog sites so it's all an adventure. But I do expect it to deepen the kind of community we develop f2f.

Posted by: John at January 13, 2004 11:49 PM

Yes, Purchasing. Our campus is in the midst of upgrading classrooms from the old, traditional sort to what's being happily labeled by the administration as smart classrooms--as if the space itself is enriched by the presense of the projected computer monitor. Maybe it is.

One trade-off in this move toward smart spaces is the disposal of perfectly functional, mobile, all-in-one chair-desks (hard wood, a century's-worth of scribblings and carvings chronicling the history of student distraction/disinterest/disenchantment/boredom in whatever came before smart classrooms. These were easily arranged into different patterns, well-suited for group work, front-facing rows, circles, horseshoes--pretty much anything.

So the old chairs, which have filled the dumpsters around campus from time to time, have been replaced by two-seater chair desks--all plastic and pressboard, and they weigh a ton. They look nice, sort of futuristic even, but they are (on the inside) a bit cheap, certainly not made for moving into varied seating patterns. I was in a room last semester where some of the Education classes were moving the chairs-desk-stations while a few social scientists (who taught in the same space, different hour) murmured that a perfectly linear order was not being restored at the end of the class period. It became a space-in-flux. The wear and tear--after just one semester--was noticable and the space never seemed to be arranged into any sort of order. One could barely walk through the room. Of course, I've witnessed this tension elsewhere and in classrooms that weren't so smart. The irony, I suppose, is that in the transition toward smart spaces, only the computer technology seems to matter. The rest is all about recreating a Star Trek-like set with whatever few dollars are left after buying the expensive computer equipment. -DM

Posted by: dmueller at January 14, 2004 7:16 AM

You mention the conflict between "linear" chair faculty and "discussion" chair faculty. We go through that here from time to time. I've tried to articulate a fairness principle in this regard.

As best I can tell, the orderly rows approach was created by custodians somewhere along the way. They had only one model of classroom arrangement and it could be replicated in every classroom. This may suit the lecturers who just want the students to sit here and not snore. But along come the small-group discussion faculty and the whole group sits in a circle faculty, and we have quiet warfare.

The presumption is that the row approach is some natural default to be returned to after every class. Here's my fairness principle: each class makes one move. However you find the chairs, you arrange them to your liking and leave them that way for the next group.

Of course, I've tried this fairness principle on the toilet seat deal at home (each person sets it where they want--one move--and the next does the same) with less success.

Posted by: John at January 15, 2004 6:56 PM

I don't know very much about the history of seating arrangements; suppose it might have some connection to pews in churches, which often doubled as schoolrooms in communities where a separate building was not fiscally possible. It makes sense, too, that rows and columns are easier to clean around and independent seating makes phycial misbehavior more visible: disconnected seating discourages contact.

Your rule of fairness has never been articulated where I work (although it might have been, and I'm not always in the know), but it seems fair and logical. One move per class is reasonable, and I haven't had too much trouble on this front, since I'm always willing to rearrange at the beginning and again at the end if it'll keep everyone satisfied.

Toilet seats--you're right--are a different matter. Ice cube trays, too.

Posted by: dmueller at January 17, 2004 1:04 PM