Of Insights & Supernovas

Some days, I think I am a very slow learner. Today is one such day. Today is also a day when a whole lot of things I’ve been thinking about have collided in a supernova of insight.

In a recent blog post, I mentioned the idea (of a scholar/writer whose name eludes me) that teachers need to become public intellectuals. I’ve been thinking about what that might look like.  Naturally, I began thinking about it on a personal level. What does it mean to be a thinker, a writer, a teacher? What does it mean to do this in a university– and outside of it, i.e., in a classroom or as a parent of a student? Who gets to do this? How does one begin– is there a specific path?

The traditional path has been the PhD, a process shrouded in mystery and the appellation “Doctor” a source of awe and admiration among colleagues, family and friends (and/or the conviction a PhD student is really a fool as well as mentally unstable). At least, I’ve found the process mystifying. I’ve always seen that the questioning and explorations that comprise the work of scholars seeps into social and cultural policies, practices, ideas. Recently, though, I’ve realized the PhD process is an internship in thinking, training to add to and influence a base of knowledge in a particular area.

Think of institutions of higher education as medieval guilds and doctoral students as the hapless apprentices (and/or indentured servants, whipping boys & girls, etc). And yet, I have no doubt that my own knowledge base and approaches to thinking are radically different than they were when I started this degree program.

The traditional path of producing and distributing ideas has been the academic journal. The traditional mode of shaping the ideas and thought processes of others has been  the lecture.

I’ve never been very good at traditions. I start to chafe inside what often feels to me like chain mail: heavy, hot, supposedly protective, yet ultimately the cause of a kind of exhaustion that holds you in place as you get overrun in battle– or trapped in social and cultural ways of being that have nothing to do with your deepest convictions.

OK, that might be extreme, but you get my drift. Are there other ways? In this digital age, I think so.

I think of the philosophy of openness that encourages people to put their ideas out there for anyone to see, consider, use– blogs! Open access “scholarly” journals! Invitations to add add one’s own ideas, information, experiences to someone else’s research! These things are very disruptive to traditions of who can be a thinker, a writer, a teacher.

If you have a good idea, for example, you can propose to lead a session for the K-12 Conference Online. If you’re curious, you can join in a MOOC. Fed up with educational policy or trends? You can seek like-minded colleagues, read about what others believe and do (see my blogroll). I think of information that circulates widely via the Web and is remixed so that new ideas are constantly emerging. Remixed by anyone and everyone, no matter the age, gender, education level, political or religious beliefs, etc. I think of the multiple modes we have available so that we can design communication in a way that expresses us: video, podcasts, portfolios, blogs….

/I think of the abundance of seminars, classes, panel discussions, conferences we can access online, people we can meet, discussions we can have, and work we can take up together– without having physically met. I think of Nings, like the English Companion Ning. Blogs. Wikipedia & other wikis that build new knowledge through collaboration of people who share a common ideology or passion. Discussion forums. Web sites like the National Writing Project’s Digital IS.

I knew all this. I just didn’t understand that we’re in an era where being a public intellectual is an option for everyone. Me included.

The risk is in putting your ideas out there to begin with. That scares me to death. I don’t want to expose my ignorance, the gaps in my knowledge, the holes in my education. I’m thinking this blog can be a place for me to practice thinking, especially about the reading I’m doing, putting my ideas into the flow of the Web, taking the kinds of action than can transform the way I see things, and maybe contribute to some other kind of change.


The Thinker © Metal Chris  Used via Creative Commons License

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Armor with matching Chanfron and Saddle Plates steel engraved gilt silvered and damascened in gold Italy (Milan) 1600 CE © Mary Harrsh Used via Creative Commons License

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