A Little Learning is …

a dang’rous thing”, at least according to Alexander Pope. He declared that we should “Drink deep or taste not the Pierian Spring.” I, however, think a little learning is a wondrous thing; it can addict you to drinking deep at the Pierian Spring, that is, at wanting to know more and how to do more.

This post is part of a carnival of blog posts hosted at Dave’s Whiteboard. To drink deep at this particular Pierian Spring, check out http://www.daveswhiteboard.com/archives/1724.

Daves Whiteboard / Carnival
Dave's Whiteboard / Carnival

Little Learnings – a Bit at a Time, as Needed

I came to the digital world initially with fear and reluctance at a time when those who knew how the technology worked were seen as the digital specialists. People with a communication background who were enthralled by the communication possibilities offered by the digital world (as I came to be) were invisible to those looking for web expertise. When I was told that part of my writing course would include introducing my students to MSWord, back in the 1990s, I began to look around my college for help because I realized that I couldn’t ask my husband, as I did at home, to come into my classroom (a computer lab) and open and set up the program for me. Besides, he preferred Word Perfect.

So when my college offered half day courses in various computer aspects, I signed up. I took many of the courses, (Word I, II, & III, Web Browser I, II, III, & IV) many times. (My working memory has always been a bit wonky; I need a lot of repetition and/but I get bored easily. Bit of a problem sometimes;->)

I bought books on MSWord and tried to sort out what would be useful for my students. I couldn’t figure out how to figure out stuff in the books. What the @#$%, for example, was this thing that had “Normal” written in it? And why would anyone want to use a “View” called “Outline”? Meanwhile, in my writing classroom where I was ?teaching? students how to use Word for their essays, something interesting was happening. Some of my students were telling their friends, and sometimes even me, some things that could be done using Word. One taught me about Styles and Tables of Content. Wa-HOOOO! (Sometimes translated as “eureka”!)

2009 Version of MS Words Styles
2009 Version of MS Word's Styles

While I didn’t totally depend on the kindnesses of students, I was encouraging social learning in my classrooms, not just because it was a trendy pedagogical approach, but because it helped me where I worked! I was learning from my students that the trendy pedagogical approach of group work was highly effective for teaching writing and computer use, and that it was highly effective for my own learning. They learned how to use a word-processor to make their own writing easier to revise and edit; I learned various aspects of word-processing that I was responsible for teaching, and that I could also use in my own writing tasks.

I was shanghaied onto a PD committee to introduce other professors to the web and other things digital. I knew that I didn’t know enough to be on it, but I was crafty enough to know there would be people on it I could learn from. I attended religiously. There was a woman my age, (shall we say “mature”) who taught humanities subjects and was not a computer programmer or technician, but knew so much about the web’s technical aspects! She had her own website hosted on our college’s server. I was filled with admiration for the way she dressed, and for her knowledge and ability in the digital world. I decided (unconsciously) to take her as my role model. After all, she wasn’t young, male, or a computer programmer, so maybe I could learn more digital stuff and be more like her.

When I tried to learn more, for example HTML code, so I could have my very own website, (hosted on my college’s sever) I was frustrated. I heard about “WYSIWYG” software for creating websites and I was intrigued. A little learning (people can put up websites without learning HTML code because there’s software that lets you do it based on how it looks!) made me hungry to learn how to do this thing that was easier than learning HTML code. (Although I had memorized <b>bold</b> and its companion <i>italics</i>.)

I took weekend courses in this WYSIWYG software, where we followed detailed instructions so we all could produce identical web sites, presumably based on the learning theory that if we followed instructions once, we would know how to use the software. (Did I mention my wonky working memory?) I learned enough to go out searching for easier WYSIWYG software and found Netscapes’s Composer. I was thrilled and excited; I could figure out (with the help of a website put up by a female professor whose name is lost in the mists of my memory) how to put together a web site, and I did, individual link by individual link.

My First Website, made with Netscapes Composer
My First Website, made with Netscapes Composer

A little

  • employment-forced,
  • employment-aided, and
  • social

learning had moved me along, and also taught me how much more there was to learn, and started a dangerous ;-> addiction.

(A young writer I coach likes to say, in square brackets, at points in her novel draft, “much happens here”.)


So my awareness of

  • how much I am a social learner and
  • how manuals and books only work for me after I already know something and
  • how important the web is to human communication (more than the printing press, even!)

has led me to

  • blog and
  • join Facebook and
  • Twitter.

Through blogging and Bloglines I have encountered some people repeatedly, most of whom I’ve never met f2f, but I feel like I know them. Some of them have commented on some of my blog posts and/or “friended” me on Facebook and occasional messages between us – usually connected with education and the web – have made them feel like colleagues – and I need colleagues now that I teach only part-time, and yet still hunger for fellow learners in this rapidly changing communications world. Many of these colleagues I follow on Twitter, and recognize their icons.

Ah Twitter, that time-sink and/or valuable resource, that place for sharing treasures, over-sharing quotidian detritus, and just plain bitching complaining!

So I was again searching for the perfect WordPress template for my edublog (this one) and I found it, except that the body was in serif font! I can’t stand serif font, except on paper, and even there, not so much. I NEED Lucida Grande, or at least some kind of sans serif. (Good audience-aware web design, IMHO, requires sans serif on screens because it’s easier on our eyes.) I poked around and figured out that for U.S. $15.00, I could get an upgrade that would allow me to alter the CSS. (Did I mention how little I know about HTML? Even more about CSS.) I had poked around on Google and found out the definition of CSS and it sounded … interesting. So I used PayPal and got the upgrade. But I couldn’t figure out how to make it work. I tried. I searched and found out more. I even read the FAQs and tutorials. For a break, I opened my TweetDeck and  … complained.

I got a direct message from one of my web colleagues inviting a phone call, called, talked for a long time with both of us looking at both our blogs’ backends (really – not a rude thing at all;->). Eventually, after much help from the phone call  and another book (WordPress for Dummies) I got the sans serif font I wanted in the body of my blog – as you can see!

When I boasted in a later Tweet, I got the kind of feedback I most value –

Feedback on Using CSS to Change My Font
Feedback on Using CSS to Change My Font

Thanks so much Dave!

And when I later got a request for a post for Dave’s Carnival –

Daves Carnival
Dave's Carnival

I was delighted for this inspiration, this opportunity to look at the cascading impact of each bit of little learning, and the generosity of digital colleagues!

So, what’s my point? My point is that real tasks and social colleagues, whether coffee line-up or digitally based, move a little learning into into a deep enough draught at the Pierian Spring, so that we

behold with strange surprise
New distant scenes of endless science rise!

The more we learn, the more we see there is yet more to learn, one small real task and consequent social encounter at a time.

McMaster Reunion

Gargoyle on Hamilton Hall, McMaster UniversityWhen I was an undergrad at McMaster, there were frequent calls for more school spirit, which seemed to mean attending athletic games or residence parties. I was a commuting student, involved with the dramatic society and friends with many of the Silhouette’s writers.  I went to the reunion yesterday, and, of the thousands who graduated in 1968, only 22 showed up. In fact there were more who had died, 82, than those who chose to show up. I wonder why.

Mac was a relatively new university, a former Baptist college that was originally part of U of T. I went because my grandfather had briefly studied at McMaster when it was part of U of T, and because it was the closest university to my parents’ home, so I could commute. Is it because Mac has no long history that none of my year comes back for reunions? The class of ’58 was meeting in the same building, and they had a much bigger crowd, so the short history can’t be the whole answer.

We were students at a time of rapid expansion and I think an increasing proportion of students were commuting. I don’t know if other universities have the same very limited attendance for reunions of classes from the 1960s. ( I’d love to know – if anyone has experience with other reunions from the era.) Maybe it was the times. The much larger, dispersed student body, maybe didn’t have the same sense of belonging to both the academy and to our fellow students. One of the songs popular in the ;60s had the plaintive line, “Why doesn’t anyone stay in the same place anymore?” Maybe as a society we were losing our roots, our sense of being connected to certain places, institutions and surrounding people.

I used to teach with a guy who said Canadians were boring, and that he preferred the campus experience in the States, where people got excited about their teams and their universities. Perhaps that’s part of it. We in Canada were (more so than now) caught between two empires, Great Britain and the United States, belonging to neither, feeling inferior to both. (I took American lit. as part of my English Literature degree, and lots of British lit., but NO Canadian. I was offered one half course in four years, and it was Commonwealth lit., and was only one-quarter Canadian, which everyone “knew” was boring, so I didn’t take it. Many of my profs and the grad student TAs were British or American. There was a subliminal message in that too.) So feeling excited about belonging wasn’t a Canadian trait back then. However, the few times we’ve gone to a Boston University (my husband graduated from there) there wasn’t much of a turnout for his year there.

I remember it being generally accepted by the people I hung out with, the counter culture crowd, that it wasn’t “cool” to be involved with the school spirit stuff. It was, the feeling was, empty of meaning. And I think we might have resented the relatively little attention that was paid to our extra-curricular activities. Our extra-curric. activities led to some very high- profile careers. Eugene Levy, Martin Short, and Ivan Reitman were all part of Mac drama scene of that time, and Peter Calamai and Laurence Martin were part of the Silhouette, the student paper.  All these, and others, started their crafts and careers at Mac. None of them attended, and to be frank, I only went because I had a friend from our year who agreed to go with me.

So would I go to another if I can? Probably, if only out of curiosity. I did chat with some people I knew from back then, and it was interesting. The organizers put our grad pictures on our name tags, which helped a lot, but the people I knew best who attended, had the same faces and mannerism, even if their hair had changed colour, style, and thickness. I still don’t like “ra-ra” stuff, but I loved my years at Mac. I loved what I was learning, both in class and in extracurric. and social activites. I also loved becoming my own person, finding out what I liked and what I was good at. It was a time of personal exploration and, as they say now, personal growth.

I guess I’ll never really know it was some of these reasons, or a combination of all of them that explain why so many people weren’t interested in attending. I wonder if the new pattern of connecting with our pasts is reuniting on with select individuals Facebook rather than by attending reunions where you don’t know who will show up.

Tipping Towards Brevity

Felt Tip EP album coverImage via Wikipedia

My (New) Blogging Pattern

I used to try and blog once or twice a week – and felt badly if I failed to keep my blog current. My earliest blogs were long ruminations, almost essays, using academically correct formatting and referencing. I actually kept two, sometimes three blogs, trying to keep my professional, academic, and personal interests separate. At that time, I got many of my inspirations for what to write about from reading the blog posts I collected, using RSS, through Bloglines.

Too much! It turned a pleasure into a “should” and felt prison-like. Over a period of time I moved to one dominant blog, leaving behind a few orphans. I created a WordPress blog, because I could add niftly little widgets and make my blog both look attractive and work as a repository for much of my life on the web.

This setup was more comfortable, but when I got busy, I still neglected both my Bloglines and my blog.

I joined Facebook, because I read about it on blogs and in newspapers, and my daughter told me to;-> I found aspects of it interesting and handy, but wasn’t all that keen on some parts of it so I took (take) a conservative approach. However, through Facebook I discovered Twitter. And I’m hooked. I love eavesdropping on the partial conversations and I scavenge news and info through the links. If someone seems to be using Twitter without contributing, or is just boring, I stop following them. It’s easy, like sliding away from the bores at a large, noisy party. Then I followed the web metaphor, and I linked my Twitter stream onto my blog. And, copying something I’d seen on other blogs, added my del.icio.us saves to my blog.

The tipping point that I recognized this week was that, although I am continuing to semi-neglect my Bloglines and its inspirations, I now collect the stuff that intrigues and feeds me through Twitter. Then, using my online bookmarking tool, del.icio.us (and diigo, too) I share it. The items I save to del.icio.us now automatically create posts on my blog even when I don’t compose and write one up. I write less, but share as much, I think, but in a briefer, more discontinuous manner. I am, however, increasingly taking the (brief) time to annotate the links I save and share, to create more context.

Maybe my attention span has shortened, or maybe I’ve moved to the efficiencies (Twitter and automatic posting of saved items) that the web creates and encourages. Whatever the rationale I use, I have definitely tipped over into a new pattern of keeping up and sharing.

I think, (I’d appreciate feedback here) that my blog is still useful to others, at least to those who share some of my interests, because what I collect from Twitter (and from time-to-time from my Bloglines account) winds up on my blog through the del.icio.us posts.

It’s what I do now, and I enjoy this pattern.