Sunday, September 12, 2010

St. Paul Bicycle Tour

This morning, I rode 39 miles through the streets of St. Paul.  Cars waited for me to clear intersections.  Smiling police officers waved me through red lights.  Every eight miles or so, there was water, coffee, lemonade, and bagels waiting for me.  I shared the roads with an estimated 5000 other cyclists.  We were participating in the St. Paul Bicycle Tour

What I love about these events is that you see all sizes, styles, and attitudes.  There were wee ones, probably no older than a year, being towed around the city in their parents' bicycle trailers (and at least one woman used her trailer to tow her French poodle, who rode sitting on its haunches, head on a swivel).  A woman in her sixties passed me on one uphill (no comments, please).  People rode touring bicycles, road bicycles, BMX cycles, mountain bikes, and creative inventions of their own (including one four-wheeler that was propelled by a person doing something akin to a Stairmaster workout with his legs and Nordic classic skiing motion with his arms: it looked like a sloppy mess, folks, but he made it all 39 miles).  There was lycra (lots o' lyrca), cotton, and at least one case, blue jeans.  There were skinny people and large people.  There were happy, singing, and joyful people, and there were some grumpy ones who just wanted to go as fast as possible - they saw anyone else's participation as just an impediment to their goals.  So it goes.

I registered this morning and paid $46.  What did I get in return?  Clear roads, friendly volunteers, and St. Paul's finest monitoring the busier intersections, plus regular and well-staffed water/food stops and music at the end of the ride.  Any money beyond what it takes to cover the costs of the event ends up with the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, whose mission is "to provide leadership and a unified voice for bicycle education, advocacy and efforts to make Minnesota more bicycle friendly so that more people will ride bicycles more often."  I can support that.

It's a fine line between participating in a community event and civic engagement, but I chose to see what I did today as civic engagement.  With my money and time, I supported a community event that not only was great fun but it also builds community.  We see each other cycle; the people along the rode see us cycle.  Maybe this will inspire someone whose Schwinn is hanging in the garage or whose Trek is dusty from disuse to hop on a bicycle.  Maybe they'll take their kids around the neighborhood.  Maybe they'll ride to work one day, and if they like it, maybe they'll do it again.  Maybe they'll drive more attentively around someone on a bicycle.  Who knows?  I do know, though, that there is power in numbers, and the numbers today were impressive. 

And now, some shameless familial promotion: my daughter and her husband recently completed an E2E ride during which they rode from Land's End in Cornwall, England, to Dunscanby Head in Scotland (or end-to-end on the British Isle, thus the catchy acronym).  She's been blogging about her experience at A Carpetbagger's Tale, and her final posting from Dunscanby Head - That'll Do - is a pleasure to read (if I do say so myself).

It's Been A Long Time

I started teaching summer session classes on the first of June, and I haven't written a posting for this blog in over three months.  It was an unintentional but perhaps inevitable hiatus. 

So now I am back, and I have been thinking about the blog for awhile: how best to use it, what I want to include here.  I have two themes that I'd like to explore in the months to come.

One is exploring the day-to-day civic engagement that my colleagues, students, and I experience.  Too often, civic engagement is described in high-falutin and formal ways: voting, participating in a political meeting, running for office, writing one's congressman or -woman.  All of these are important expressions of one's civic engagement, but I think this view unnecessarily limits our understanding.  So I am going to try and do something about that.  If you find yourself interested, I'll be tagging those posts with "day-to-day civic engagement."

Another theme I want to explore has to do with a new post that I have at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.  I am the Social Responsibility Assessment Coordinator for the 2010-11 academic year.  The college is in the 2nd year of a three-year assessment effort of one of its core competencies: Social Responsibility (the others are Communication, Critical Thinking, and Personal Responsibility/Life Skills).  There is some really amazing work happening on the campus with inspired faculty members designing and implementing Social Responsibility components in their courses and assessing the results.  I am going to share some of them with you in the coming months.  If you find yourself interested in these posting, I'll be tagging those posts with "MCTC Social Responsibility."

And away we go!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Public v. Private: Pew Research and new Facebook settings

I have written about public v. private issues as they play out in social media in the past, and I have used exchanges with my seventeen-year-old daughter as an example.  She and I had another interesting exchange last night.

She is looking for a bathing suit for the upcoming summer, and she and her mother had a disappointing first try at finding something that a) fit and b) was inexpensive.  So my daughter went on Facebook with a request, asking people for advice about where she could find a bathing suit.  She even listed her price range.

At supper, we started discussing Facebook again (the family is pretty tolerant about these forays).  My daughter and I are not Facebook "friends" - she thinks it would be creepy.  That said, I told her that I saw the posting, and then I corrected her about her price range.  She blew up - "How did you see that?  That is so wrong!"

Of course, I took an inordinate amount of glee in this (what's the use in parenting if you can't tweak your teen-ager every once in a while?), but I couldn't explain to her why I could see this posting without being her "friend."  Is it because I might be a "friend of a friend?"  Then again, isn't everybody?

I think that Facebook's new privacy settings will make it easier to manage the level of privacy, but I doubt that our individual digital footprints will shrink.  Part of what makes Facebook so successful is the massive network (400 million worldwide), maintained on the back of people's personal information and data.  They won't slay the dragon that breathed fire (and $15 BILLION+) into the network.

(Even writing this post makes me a little uncomfortable, writing as I am about my daughter, my spouse.  I know that I can leave them unnamed here, but that that information is probably a search engine, a couple of search terms, and three clicks away for anyone who wants to track it down.  That is unnerving.)

I still maintain that young adults have a different notion of public and private, but that certainly doesn't mean that young adults somehow care less about these boundaries.  In fact, the Pew Internet and American Life Project's new report "Reputation Management and Social Media" (26 May 2010) provides evidence that young adults care deeply about these distinctions, and at least when it comes to social media like Facebook, they are more cautious about their digital footprint than older generations.

I like what  danah boyd wrote in her post "Pew Research Confirms that Youth Care about Their Reputation" (26 May 2010):
Of course, reputation and privacy always come back to audience. And audience is where we continuously misunderstand teenagers. They want to make sure that people they respect or admire think highly of them. But this doesn’t always mean that they care about how YOU think about them. So a teenager may be willing to sully their reputation as their parents see it if it gives them street cred that makes them cool amongst their peers. This is why reputation is so messy. There’s no universal reputation, no universal self-presentation. It’s always about audience.
As a writing instructor, I applaud boyd's observation, since it is true of ALL writing and speaking: audience is everything.  Often, when our communications fail to accomplish what we set out to do, it's because we have misjudged the audience's needs and expectations.

My daughter is "out there" with her friends, and when I see what my younger extended family members are making public on Facebook, some of them are even further "out there."  That said, none of them are especially pleased that an old fuddy-duddy like me can see their "stuff."  They think it is "sick" and "perverted."  My retort is that if I can see it, who else can see it?  "Inside conversations" on social media are rarely "inside":  it is more like having a conversation in a fish bowl or a cage at the zoo - people who wander by can stop and listen, stop and read, at their leisure.

Take a moment to look at the graphics below, courtesy of the "Reputation Management and Social Media" Pew report.   There's more where that came from.  If you are interested in how the different generations approach social media, this is a great report to read. 

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

I just finished Dave Eggers' Zeitoun (San Francisco: McSweeney's Books, 2009.  335 pages) today, and it's still swirling around in my mind.  Eggers chronicles the lives of the Zeitoun family in the days just prior to and immediately following Hurricane Katrina.  The Zeitoun children - Zachary, Nademah, Aisha, Safiya, and Ahmad - play important cameo roles, but the narrative focuses on the parents Kathy and Abdulrahman.

The Zeitouns own a painting and contracting business in New Orleans.  Abdulrahman immigrated to the US from his native Syria.  Kathy, born and raised in Baton Rouge, converted to Islam before they met and married.

As Katrina bore down on the city, Kathy and the children left New Orleans, first to stay with her family in Baton Rouge but later to stay with friends in Phoenix.  Zeitoun elected to stay.  He wanted to guard his house, his business, his rental properties, and his client's properties.  When the storm hit on Sunday, 28 August 2005, it devastated the city.  What would happen in the days, weeks, and months to come would wreak more havoc on the Zeitoun family than anything that Katrina could muster.

I won't give away any more than this because I want you to read this book for so many different reasons.  Eggers has a mission, and it is to bring to light the wrongs of the world so that readers might act (you might recognize him as the author of What is the What.  Zeitoun makes one appreciate all that one has in life; it should make you angry (or else you probably aren't reading closely enough); it makes one wonder how things could have gone so terribly, inexcusably wrong in New Orleans.  The narrative is told from the perspective of Kathy and Abdulrahman, and their strength in the face of the chaos and madness is inspirational.

I spent some time in New Orleans last fall visiting my daughter and son-in-law, who live in the Marigny district.  Despite a tough time of it as a teacher in the Recovery School District, it's clear that my daughter loves New Orleans (see this posting for her departing-New-Orleans elegy).  While there, we spent time on Bourbon Street and  Jackson Square, and we spent some time visiting my son-in-law's sister in the Holy Cross neighborhood of the lower Ninth Ward.  It is a remarkable city, unlike any other I have seen in the US (or anywhere else, for that matter).  Architecture-wise, cuisine-wise, culture-wise, it's a  national treasure. 

That said, it's seems a messed-up city.  Institutional racism seems impenetrable.  Corruption seems endemic.

Yeah, yeah, I'm a Northerner with all of the naivete and distance that comes with that label.  Still, it's hard to argue with Eggers' description.

What happened in New Orleans?  What broke?  Why?

More importantly, how do we make sure that what happened never happens again?

Read Zeitoun.

Zeitoun jacket cover                                                                                   
McSweeney's Books

All other New Orleans photographs courtesy of the posting's author

Monday, May 24, 2010

danah boyd strikes again: "Quitting Facebook is Pointless"

danah boyd is a researcher at Microsoft Research New England and a fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society.  Her blog is called apophenia, and I just discovered it a few weeks ago.  If you use a news aggregator, then you really ought to aggregate apophenia - it's great stuff.  She's in the middle of a series of article critiquing Facebook and in particular its new privacy settings.

danah's writing is smart and humorous, and her research is top-notched.  As I noted in a previous blog, her writings about the public v. private tension in Facebook is really what I would have liked to have written.

The current post - "Quitting Facebook is Pointless" -  is provocative (and if you take the time to read the comments, you'll get a clearer sense of why it is provocative).  She's suggesting that, even after one critiques the myriad of problems with Facebook, it is pointless to quit Facebook, that those who quit are just the techno-elites - the digerati as she calls them - who were never the primary users of Facebook anyway.  Many who have commented disagree and argue that quitting is effective.

Having just started my Facebook page, I don't anticipate quitting anytime soon.  Nor do I plan, after having read boyd and others, to use Facebook as a classroom tool (a site for classroom examination, yes; a tool where I ask everyone in class to use Facebook, no).  For now, at least, this is where the juice is, for better or worse (and the "for worse" category seems to be growing).

boyd's recent posting is fairly long - I learned a new abbreviation last week, "tl;dr," which stands for "too long; didn't read," a response I am afraid I elicit too frequently with my lengthy posts - but it is worth it for so many reasons.  I encourage you to take a peek at it.

Update (25 May 2010)
Jenna Wortham's article in the 24 May (Monday) edition of the New York Times is titled "Rivals Seize on Troubles of Facebook."  Wortham highlights a number of start-ups that could become alternatives to Facebook.  These in Appleseed, One Social Web, Crabgrass, Elgg, Collegiate Nation (a subscription-based service), and UmeNow (sorry - no link yet)

The article is a nice compliment to boyd's blog posting.  There are many alternatives to Facebook, but none of them can compete with Facebook's "more than 400 million members and a $15 billion valuation" (B1).  For instance, if you follow the link to, it is a very pleasant, welcoming screen, frankly more aesthetically pleasing to me than Facebook's login screen.  That said, Wortham notes that "has just 20,000 registered members" (B1).  It's tough to compete with the Facebook monster.       

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Facebook and Privacy . . . I don't think so.

Yes, I am fixating on Facebook. 

I saw this graphic in the New York Times last week, but I was reminded of it again when I read danah boyd's posting, "Facebook and Radical Transparency (a rant)"  Of course, in the incestuous blogosphere world, I came to danah's posting via another posting from Will Richardson titled, "Teach.  Facebook.  Now." 

Take a moment to follow the link to the graphic from the New York Times, and then tell me that you can make  sense of it.  The beauty of this, of course, is that the creators of the graphic are striving to explain (and in the process simplify) Facebook's new privacy settings. 

This is discouraging and a bit overwhelming for me.  I have modified my privacy settings, but I am also trying to remind myself why I got on Facebook in the first place: to be out there with the 400 million others who are out there.  Facebook is a private enterprise, but like bars and bowling alleys and stadiums and, yes, even most religious institutions, it is a private enterprise where the public is meeting.  Unlike the bars where my father's generation met or the bowling alley of my youth, however, the scale (the volume, the profits) are definitely not the same.  Of course, the privacy issues are significantly different, too.  My father's generation didn't even have to share their name with someone at the local watering hole.  I think I paid cash at the local bowling alley while flirting with the girls in the lane next to us (or, more accurately, trying to flirt:().  Gutter ball.   My father's footprint was literal, as was mine as a youth.  My daughter's digital footprint, by comparison, is Sasquatch-like.  

I'll end my giving a shoutout to Will Richardson's blog, Weblogg-ed.  Will writes about Web 2.0 issues for the K12 crowd, and his stuff is consistently solid and provocative. 

I know less about danah boyd's blog, but if this posting that I have read is any indication, it needs to become part of my RSS aggregator.  Actually, this posting is the posting that I would have loved to have been able to write - ahh, so it goes.  AND, to top it off, she ends with lyrics from Ani Difranco - how cool is that?  Seriously, those of you reading this and who are interested in the way that Facebook shakes up our understandings and practices of public and private must read boyd's posting (and you won't be disappointed if you follow all of the links).

Friday, May 14, 2010

Facebook, Teachers, and Students

 Allie Shah wrote a nice piece in Friday, 14 May's StarTribune titled "Why Can't We Be Facebook Friends?" Her description of the muddled boundaries returns me, once again, to some of the questions that I wrote about in a previous post regarding the challenging ways that social media forces us to think about the public and private dimensions of our lives.  This news article shapes the conversation in a very concrete light: should teachers have their students as Facebook friends?  Check it out and let other readers here know what you think.

If you are looking for some wonderful irritation in your life, by all means read the Readers' Comments at the end of the article.  That's probably fodder for another posting - the role of Readers' Comments in today's journalism - for another day, but I have been thinking about interactive journalism for awhile.

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Thursday, May 13, 2010

College, Inc.

Colleagues Shannon Gibney and Lois Bollman directed me to this fascinating Frontline episode titled "College, Inc."    Other blogs have addressed "College, Inc." - check out, for instance, the 10 May Brainstorm posting from the Chronicle of Higher Education.  That won't keep me, however, from adding my thoughts to the conversation.  The documentary does have a bias (don't all documentaries have a bias?), which becomes clear only minutes into the 55-minute program.  That said, it is pretty engaging, and it got me thinking.  Here are some of the nuggets:

  • John Sperling, a graduate of Cambridge, left traditional academe, moved to Phoenix, developed the University of Phoenix, and is now a billionaire.  Some of the key differences between UoP and traditional colleges and universities include non-tenured faculty (instead, faculty work on short-term contracts; they are essentially independent contractors), courses and programs are developed in a matter of days rather than months or years, and funding comes from a combination of investors (UoP went public as the Apollo Group, Inc.) and Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) dollars.  In other words, while a for-profit endeavor, UoP draws significantly from taxpayer-funded federal dollars.
  • According to Martin Smith, the "College, Inc." correspondent, for-profit colleges typically cost 5-6X more than public community colleges and 2-4X more than public four-year institutions.
  • According to Mark DeFusco, a former UoP director, UoP budgets 25% of its profits for marketing, while faculty are paid somewhere between 10% and 20% of the budget. 
  • Although for-profits account for 10% of all higher education students, for-profit students account for 25% of all FAFSA dollars. 
  • An astonishing figure - one that I need to research - is $750 Billion in outstanding student debt.  Someone in the documentary commented that this debt has the potential to undermine the economy in ways comparable to the sub-prime lending fiasco that we are still experiencing.
There are many interesting characters portrayed in the documentary including Michael Clifford, the former rock-and-roller/drug addict turned born-again for-profit education entrepreneur, the aforementioned Mark DeFusco, and the nervous, defensive Harris Miller, one of the for-profits' chief lobbyists. The person who fascinates me is the documentary's voice of reason Barmak Nassirian, who is associate executive director for external relations and a lobbyist with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO).  He is a paid lobbyist like Harris Miller, but their personas and ethos are remarkably different.  Where Miller seems incredibly uncomfortable (like a sophist arguing what he knows is his weakest argument), Nassirian comes off as well-informed and direct.  I understand that documentaries create sympathetic and unsympathetic characters, and that Nassirian is clearly the sympathetic character that the producers want to present.  I get that.  That said, I found Nassirian's arguments compelling and in the end persuasive.  Miller, on the other hand, seems a bit slimy and unprepared.  (To be fair to him, a quick search of his name led me to some really interesting articles.  For instance, there's a respectful posting written by one of Miller's frequent opponents at the Center for Immigration Studies blog.) 

There's so much in this documentary to unpack, and an already-too-long blog posting is probably not the place to do this.  As a public community college instructor, I have watched as more and more for-profits have been enrolling students that in the past probably would have appeared in my classes.  I've had a number of former for-profit college students complain about their for-profit college experiences.  I have always been suspicious about education-as-business (we have a different bottom line than 3M or Microsoft or the pizza shop in my neighborhood).  None of those concerns disappeared while watching "College, Inc.," but none of them increased either.

Instead, I am left still thinking about a telling exchange four minutes into the show between Martin Smith and the education venture capitalist Michael Clifford.  Smith asks Clifford, who never attended college, if he has the "credibility, the bona fides" to transform higher education.  Clifford answers honestly: "No, I don't, but I'm doing it."

I hear Clifford's words, and I am left thinking, yes, he's doing it.  We who work in not-for-profit higher education can and should continue to critique the for-profit efforts, but it is incredibly important that we recognize that for-profit higher ed. efforts are happening, they are incredibly profitable, they have 10% of the higher ed. student population and that percentage will continue to grow, and - this is most important - they are changing the college landscape, primarily through their online education efforts.  We will never, ever go back to the face-to-face classroom in the same ways that we did before the online revolution, nor should we

How we respond to this changing landscape will determine whether or not not-for-profit higher education will be relevant in the years to come.

If you have 55 minutes to spare (and even if you don't), watch "College, Inc."  It is definitely worth your while.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Accidental Billionaires and the Public/Private Dimensions of Facebook

Yesterday, I finished reading Ben Mezrich's The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, a Tale of Sex, Money, Genuis, and Betrayal  (New York: Doubleday, 2009.  260 pages.)  To be honest, I was a bit disappointed.  It is more like Entertainment Tonight than it is, say, a probing Frontline episode.  There is considerable emphasis on personalities (Eduardo Saverin, Mark Zuckerberg, Sean Parker) and how frequently they were able to get drunk and have sex (often at the same time) because of their genius and success.  The backcover blurb really does declare the focus of the book:  "They just wanted to meet some girls . . . ."  Plus, the book doesn't really conclude as much as it just ends.  If you want to know more about Sean Parker (one of the people behind Napster), Eduardo Saverin (the initial money behind Facebook), or Mark Zuckerberg (the computing genius behind Facebook), I suppose Accidental Billionaires might interest you.  If you are looking for something a bit more insightful about Facebook and its impact on society, this isn't the book (nor, to be fair, does it purport to be).

However, it did prompt me to reflect about my own nascent efforts in online social networking.

I started a Facebook page recently - go ahead, invite me - after putting it off for some time.  I had (and still have) reservations about privacy, and not just about how Facebook would have access to some of my private data, which they would use to their benefit (I have purchased enough things online that I am pretty sure that I am well-known as a consumer to those who wish to sell me their goods).  I am concerned about that, but in the end I was also interested in the way that Facebook forces (or should force) its users to think about the difference between public and private.

My distinction between public and private comes from my experiences in and reading about community organizing.  There is, for instance, a great chapter in Edward Chambers Roots for Radicals (New York: Continuum, 2003) that essays the distinctions.  It's a useful distinction, recognizing how our expectations are different in these two spheres and how we live our lives in both realms: it is not an either/or proposition.

The example I like to use when discussing this regards my now-seventeen year old daughter.  We negotiated terms when she asked to have a Facebook page.  Three weeks after she started her page, her older sister contacted me with concerns about the photographs.  I looked at them with my seventeen-year old, and we started to delete them.  They were innocent enough: just a few teen-agers at a beach in bikinis.  Safely ensconced in a family photo album, they would not have garnered a second thought.  On Facebook, however, there was no control over who would see the photos.  For me, it was a clear case of those public v. private lines being crossed.  For my seventeen-year old, however, it was more traumatic.  She was clearly upset with me, and when I asked why, she declared that the photos were "her," that they were a key tool in the way that she represented herself to the world.

I thought about this for some time.  I do think that the net generation does have a different sense of public v. private (as well as a different sense about many things related to technology).  As an instructor working with the net generation, I figured it was time to launch that Facebook page and see what happens. 

So here is what I can see so far.  Much of my extended family is now part of my online social network (for better or worse:)).  That's nice.  I have nieces and nephews and cousins with families of their own, and I can keep in touch with them via Facebook.  I have a few people from Azerbaijan who are part of the network, relationships I made on a recent trip to the Caucacus region.  Finally, there are a few of my work colleagues in my network.  Most of the action is, to date, family related.

I can see how Facebook can help shape movements and facilitate organizing.  I just haven't experienced that aspect yet.  I am also curious about others' experiences with Facebook beyond the familial or a circle of friends.  That's where I am at now.  If things change, I'll let you know.

Accidental Billionaire book cover
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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Front yards and public spaces

I have been thinking about my garden a LOT lately, probably too much.  It is my currently preferred distraction.  Instead of reading and writing at my computer while developing some serious upper-back pain, I can be outside getting my hands dirty, building garden beds and planting seeds that will grow into beautiful and healthy plants that my family and I can eat.  I love that.

My spouse and I are debating about the front yard. I have big plans.  She has legitimate reservations.  My plans include eliminating grass (which, frankly, isn't so much grass as it is weeds) and replacing it with fruit trees, flowering plants, and a patio.  Her reservations are primarily aesthetic (whatever we do needs to look nice) and economic (whatever we do needs to add value to the lot so that it is not an impediment when it comes time to sell). 

Part of my motivation for the big plan is rooted in my urge for more public life. Here's the backstory:)

We live on a quiet St. Paul suburban street, and our front yard is maybe 40' by 30'.  When we moved here in 1998, there were two older ash trees in the front, but most of the area was grass. We have slowly been removing the grass.   One ash tree came down in 2002 because it was dying, and the other ash tree came down in 2008 for the same reason. This left a large chunk of chewed-up yard that we addressed by spreading mulch and wood chips over the blighted area (it's not much, but it kept the weeds down).

In addition, the middle of the front yard kept flowering with crab grass, and no matter what we did, we couldn't get the stuff to die.  We removed the sod, dug down 6"-12", and found . . . chunks of asphalt?!  We think that the current sod was placed on top of driveway asphalt waste.  Fabulous - our own private brownfield.  After we removed the sod from the center of the yard, we added some compost and mulch, bordered it with recycle planks from a deck remodeling that we had done recently, and planted two apple trees: a Macintosh and a Harrelson.  Last year, the Harrelson produced enough apples that we ate four pies, and my son grabbed an apple on his way to school for all of September and a big part of October. 

This is what the yard looks like now (photos taken from the roof of my house looking south). 

I have big plans for the rest of the front yard.  I want to remove the sod between the apple tree bed and the maple-and-lilac bed; I want to place another apple tree - maybe a Honeycrisp? - to the south of this new bed, and I want to place another apple tree (or maybe an apricot tree) to the southeast of the current bed, and I would encircle both trees with the current garden beds to create one large garden bed with four fruit trees, a large lilac bush, and a beautiful maple tree. We could plant lovely native plants, some flowering plants, tomatoes, pumpkins, squash, zucchini, . . . whatever we like.  I would like to create a stone patio between the house and the apple tree bed, complete with comfortable chairs and a fire stand.

I won't disclose the nature of my spousal negotiations except to say that this is not a done deal, and that I will have to be persuasive.  It's a good debate, and I respect her position.  I know she respects mine, too.

So what does this have to do with a web site that professes to be about civic engagement?  Quite a bit, actually.

Dennis Donovan, the national organizer for Public Achievement, likes to talk about how our houses and landscape architecture have changed the way that we interact with one another.  His words inform my thinking about my own front yard.  In fact, I'd like to think that my landscaping efforts are an example of trying to return to something that was once fairly common: the front yard as a public space.

Today, at least in the suburb where I live, most of the action is in the backyard.  My 1970s split-level home is a perfect example of this.  The backyard is big enough for a full-size volleyball court (and we take advantage of this every summer), and there is still room left over for five 4' X 8' garden beds along the back fence.  Attached to the second floor of the house is a deck overlooking the backyard.  When we are on the deck, we barbecue, read, listen to a baseball game on the radio, enjoy the sun, and watch whatever is happening in the backyard, but it is essentially a private endeavor. Even the interior of our house orients itself to the backyard: the dining room and living room windows both face north and the backyard. No one accidentally wanders into our backyard, and if they did, I would be suspicious or surprised.  The backyard is a private space.  Granted, I will speak with my neighbors over the back fence.  Often, this is when both of us are outside, working in the yard.  That's pleasant and arguably public, but it is a very small public sphere.

There was a time when the dominant orientation of a house and yard was the front yard and the street.  Front porches faced the street.  Flower gardens and shade or fruit trees dominated front yards.  One can still see this orientation in much of older portions of St. Paul and Minneapolis and in some of the newer, smaller sub-divisions in our neighborhood.  This orientation means that people are in the front yard.  This promotes interacting with neighbors who are also outside, working in their yards or walking down the street. This has happened to me repeatedly since we started working in the front yard a few years ago.  People will stop as they walk by and comment on the yard.  Teen-agers who normally ignore the middle-aged guy in the split-level at the end of the block (that's me) say "hello" when they see me hunched over a tomatoe plant.  The new young couple down the street who walk their dogs have said "hello" many times, and I suspect that in the not-too-distant future, they'll stop and we'll talk.  Drivers slow their cars when I work near the curb (ever seen The World According to Garp, the sledgehammer scene? If you have children, and you live on a street, then you can appreciate Robin Williams' character's response to speeding cars). Unlike the backyard, it wouldn't surprise me if interested people wandered into my front yard to have a chat while I was working.  When I am done gardening in the front yard, I will relax on the stone patio, admiring my handiwork and watching the world go by my house.  In public.

This argument for more public life, coming from an admitted introvert, is surprising even to me.  I think that when we are in the front yard, and we can see others and be seen by others, it adds a layer of humanity to what we do.  It reminds us that we live not by ourselves in our homes but that we live amongst others.  This makes us think and behave differently. We become more conscientious about how we live our lives amongst others.  I think that's a good thing.

How do you use your front yard?  How much do you encounter your neighbors?  Is the notion of your front yard as a public space something that appeals to you, or do you prefer to keep your home and yard private, not public?

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Magnificent Ambersons

Jim Groom recently posted his thoughts about an excerpt from The Magnificent Ambersons that rang true for me (follow the "posted" link to view the excerpt and read Groom's ideas).  The clip displays a brief conversation about the impact of the automobile on society.  I won't repeat Groom's summary nor his analysis, but I strongly encourage people to view this.

As a late adopter of technology, I try to remind myself of why technology (and especially social media like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, this blog, and so on) can be useful.  I just got off the telephone with my friend Ben Fink, and we talked about how technology can actually add to my humanity, such as when I posted about Kurban Said's Ali and Nino, and my friends and colleagues in Azerbaijan commented, and in doing so extended my monologue into a dialogue.  That adds to my humanity.  I hope that it adds to theirs.

However, there are times, too, when social media and technology can be dehumanizing, and I am painfully aware of that.  The mindless emails that we must read and respond to because they are part of our jobs: the endless voicemails that need to be heard and the ensuing telephone calls that we will make, often to a disembodied outgoing message; the blog posting that will be read by . . . no one . . . .  I recognize this.

The Joseph Cotton soliloquy in the short clip is brilliant in its balancing act.  Even though Cotton's character played a role in inventing the automobile and now sells them, he is distinctly and brilliantly ambivalent about what it means (not indifferent but ambivalent).  It's not a matter of being a technology champion or a luddite: it's a question of how technology can connect us rather than divide us.

What has the computer and social media done for you?  Has it isolated you or connected you?  Are you primarily a consumer of social media or are you a creator?

Image from jovisala47's photostream
Flickr Creative Commons

Friday, April 23, 2010

Kurban Said's Ali and Nino

I finally finished reading Kurban Said's Ali and Nino: A Love Story, a gift from my Azeri host, Vali Huseynov.  The novel was published in 1937, and Kurban Said is likely a pseudonym.  The novel was most likely a collaboration between the Baroness Elfriede Ehrenfels and Essad Bey, who was born Lev Nussimbaum in Baku, Azerbaijan, but took the name Essad Bey when he converted to Islam from Judaism as a child. 

Like most love stories, this one ends tragically; however,I enjoyed the book not for its love story but rather for its depicition of Ali and Nino's cultural conflict.  Nino is a Georgian Christian living in Baku; Ali is an Azeri Muslim.  Their love symbolizes the meeting of the West and the East. 

I once asked Vali if Azeris think of themselves as Europeans or as Asians.  He told me that this book actually begins with this very question.  Even in the conclusion, the author describes Baku as the place where East meets West, although this is more an expression of the war during which the Russians overtake the newly independent Republic of Azerbaijan (for +70 years until Azerbaijan gains its independence with the fall of the Soviet Union).

It is probably an unfair or absurd question to ask.  And yet, it is not without precedent in the USA.  When I was a little boy, it was not uncommon for us to identify ourselves to each other by way of our ethnically hyphenated ancestry.  I was, depending on the audience, Irish-American or German-American.  I think for my grandparents' generation possibly and my great-grandparents certainly, this split identity was something tangible, as tangible as the accented English on their tongues.  Today, my children don't think this way.  In fact, they are often perplexed by the question, "who are you?" as if the answer were obvious.

I would love to hear what my friends in Georgia and Azerbaijan they think about the novel (if they have read it) and the question posed by the Russian teacher in Ali's Baku school: 
It can therefore be said, my children, that is partly your responsibility as to whether our town should belong to progressive Europe or to reactionary Asia. (4)


I had a recent series of events that strangely interwove with one another.  While I was in the Republic of Georgia, my Polish friend Ala made a list of films and books that I should know.  One of those films was Katyn, which is a 2007 Polish production directed by Andrzej Wajda.  The film focuses on a Soviet and Stalin atrocity: the massacre of over 20,000 Polish military officers and members of the Polish intelligentsia in the Katyn Forest in 1940.  Immediately after the massacre, the Soviets blamed the Nazis for the deaths.  It was only recently that Russia recognized their complicity, first in 1990 when Mikhail Gorbachev admitted to the Soviet Union's role and then more recently when Vladimir Putin spoke about the Soviet Union's role. (I am embarrassed to admit that I knew nothing about Katyn.)   I took the film from my local library on 3 April, just a day after I arrived in the US.

On 10 April, President Lech Kacyniski, the Polish First Lady, and 94 others, among them Poland's political elite, died when their plane crashed outside of Smolensk near the Katyn memorial.  Kacyniski and his party were flying to Smolensk to observe the anniversary of the Katyn massacre along with Russia's political elite.

I read everything I could about Kacyniski and the memorial service, about Poland in the days after the crash, and then yesterday, I finally watched the film.  It is not an easy film to watch.  It is very beautiful, but it is also gruesome.  The film focuses on the lives of the women whose men died in the massacre, as well as a few of the men who met their end at Katyn.  I watched an interview, too, with Wajda, whose father was killed at Katyn.  I watched a documentary about the making of the film, including interviews with one of the primary female actors Maja Ostaszewska, whose great-grandfather was executed at Katyn.  It felt a bit like viewing someone else's tragic family photograph album.

Poland will survive the loss of Kaxyniski and the others.  Already, there are plans for Poland to have an election yet this year, and there will be a peaceful transfer of power.  However, the irony of the plane's destination coupled with the 96 deaths seems an awfully cruel blow to the Polish people.  

One thing that I did learn on my trip to Georgia and Azerbaijan is how well-respected and -loved the Polish people are in that part of the world.  Poland has been quick to assist these new democracies with financial, humanitarian, and cultural resources.  That experience, along with my more recent readings and viewings, have given me a newfound respect for Poland and its people.  Poland's democracy and its destiny are inexorably linked to its history.  May their future be bright.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

'Point of No Return'

Ramadhan Pohan is a member of Indonesia's Parliment.  In Norimitsu Onishi's 20 April NYTimes article "In Indonesia, the Internet Emerges as a (Too?) Powerful Tool," Pohan is quoted as suggesting that "[old-style politicians and bureaucrats] don't realize that in terms of democracy and freedom of expression, we've reached a kind of point of no return," referring to recent political activity in Indonesia taking place on . . . Facebook and Twitter.  Onishi outlines four different instances where social networking altered the political course in Indonesia, which has the third greatest number of Facebook users (behind the US and the UK).

Readers of Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody will not be surprised.  Nor will the young people of Moldova, who used Twitter to rally an anti-government rally of several thousand last year (follow the link to read Nathan Hodges even-handed analysis in Wired).

None of this seems random.  As someone who has organized events in the past, I am always interested in how people are finally drawn into an action.  Moving from "interested" to "acting" is a major leap.  Something about social media, it seems, motivates connected people to make that leap.

Long ago, I discarded the Field of Dreams adage that "if you build it, [they] will come."  Experience has shown me time and time again that simply building something (an event, a gathering, a blog!) does not ensure that people will actually appear.

Through social media, there is a group of people who have built the types of relationships that we who aspire to community organizing desire.  Social media is the conduit for this group of people to learn each other's self-interest and then to act on that knowledge to create "happenings" (with a nod to Geoff Sirc)  that draw people into the action.

(Speaking of Sirc, after meeting with him a few years ago about student writing, my colleague Gill Creel and I came away with an apt aphorism: follow the fun.  Social media is one of the places where the fun is happening.)

Check out the new research offered at the Pew Center for the Internet and American Life.  Young people use their cell phones as a texting machine more frequently than they use it to make telephone calls (unless they are calling their parents).   They are motivated communicators.

I still use my cell phone for the banal telephone conversation (I don't even use texting).  I still use email as my primary mode of communication with others.  That said, I am trying.  I have a blog (but so few people respond that I feel like Don Quixote, tilting at windmills).  I created a Facebook site (and my 17-year old does NOT want me as a Facebook "friend").  I tweet - rarely - on Twitter, but if this blog feels quixotic, Twitter feels positively surreal: I am on top of a hill yelling "Hellloooooo . . ." to millions of fellow twitterians, waiting for a response. I could wait a long time.

For all of this (what is this? indifference? rejection? ineffectual use of the medium - that's my guess), I still want to find out what's happening here.  Somethin's cookin', no doubt.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Death of Education, but the Dawn of Learning

It had been a while since I checked out the work that colleagues at Minnesota Campus Compact are doing.  One of the more exciting developments is the Center for Digital Civic Engagement blog that John Hamerlinck has been nurturing.  I find it exciting because it is melding two interests that fascinate me: social media/technology and civic engagement.  For a taste of what the blog is about, I encourage you to grab a cup of coffee/tea/milk/water (whatever) and go to the posting titled "Why this technology conversation is important to educators."  It's a short 5+-minute video that says what others elsewhere have been suggesting for awhile: technology is transforming education, and we in education have been generally slow to react.  The title for this posting is a direct quote from the video.

Those interested in civic engagement served straight-up without the technology focus should view Minnesota Campus Compact's other blog, Campus in Community.  

Both blogs are testaments to the interesting and important work that Minnesota Campus Compact is doing.

Props to Aaron Spiegel, MCTC Student

Aaron Spiegel was recently honored by USA Today as member of their 2010 All-USA Community College Academic Team.  Aaron was a member of MCTC's Student Committee on Public Engagement (SCOPE) in 2008, where he learned the basics of community organizing.  Truth be told, he came to SCOPE with considerable organizing instincts and skills.   He is one of the top student organizers I have had the pleasure of working with in my almost-30 years of education.  Congratulations, Aaron!

A Public Achievement Coach's Reflection

I read with interest the By the People's recent posting, which is the reflection of a college student coaching a Public Achievement team in Milledgeville, Georgia (USA).  John Fogelman's story is a good one, not rose-colored but truthful in its assessment of public work as hard work, work that changes coaches as well as team members.

I think all Public Achievement coaches will be interested in this story, but I want to invite my Georgian and Azeri friends in particular (as well as the Public Achievement crew at MCTC) to read John Fogelman's "Ups and Downs of Public Work" posting. Please comment there to let John and others know what you think.

'The Disaggregation of Higher Education'

Will Richardson, whose Weblogg-ed is a must-read for anyone thinking about that Texas-sized intersection of technology and education, recently wrote about a New York Times Magazine article titled "An Open Mind" by Kate Hafner. I won't repeat Richardson's analysis, other than to recommend it to all of you reading this blog. 

Instead, I want to draw some attention to some of Hafner's points that ring more loudly and true for me as a community college instructor.  Hafner writes,
But just 9 percent of those who use M.I.T. OpenCourseWare are educators. Forty-two percent are students enrolled at other institutions, while another 43 percent are independent learners like Mr. Gates. Yale, which began putting free courses online just four years ago, is seeing similar proportions: 25 percent are students, a majority of them enrolled at Yale or prospective students; just 6 percent are educators; and 69 percent are independent learners.
Think about those numbers:  43% of MIT OpenCourseWare users are independent learners - people not necessarily associated with an institution of higher education, people who . . . just . . .  want . . . to . . . learn!  IN certain circles, I have been accused of being a pie-eyed optimist, but I'll admit that I find this number incredibly heartening.   The other big number - 42% of MIT OpenCourseWare users are students at other higher ed. institutions - strikes me as remarkable as well.  These users want to learn as well, but they are using the resource to enrich the learning that they are experiencing elsewhere (one with a grade attached to it).  These could be the students that I teach (if I do my job well).  Hafner describes some of the work being done with the Carnegie Mellon's Open Learning Initiative,where the learning is shaped for"'someone with limited prior knowledge in a college subject and with little or no experience in successfully directing his or her own learning,'" These resources are exactly the kind that can benefit many of the students whom I teach.

The title of this posting comes from a David Wiley quote within Hafner's article.  I invoke it here because it captures what I have been thinking about for some time now, which is the morphing of higher education.  There is a part of me that embraces this change, the part that applauds collaborative learning and a different kind of economics for learning.  There's another part of me that wonders how I'll keep up with the changes, how the morphing of higher education will morph me. 

I encourage you to check out Richardson's blog (bookmark it, RSS it, make it your home page) and read Hafner's article. 

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Mingachevir's PA Team "Charitable Youth" Wins National Azerbaijan Award

Through the email listserv created by Shukufe Nacafova, I was informed that the Public Achievement team Charitable Youth, mentored by teacher Gulnaz Hajiyeva and college student Elvin Aliyev in Mingachevir, Azerbaijan, recently received a national award in Baku for their ecological project to keep the River Kura clean and pure.  I am hoping that Gulnaz, Elvin or their team will comment and let us know more about the project.  (In a comment on the Shutterfly web site, Gulnaz writes that the team won a silver medal at the event.)

However, what I appreciate about this team is that they have taken their public work to a new degree and level of public-ness, first by pursuing the national award (which, in and of itself, is a meaningful way to add meaning to a Public Achievement team's public work) and then by winning the award.  Gulnaz writes that the local television station has given air time to describe the team's accomplishments and that many people who did not know about Public Achievement are now asking many questions.  This is a great way to spread interest in Public Achievement., which in turn I hope spreads enthusiasm for young people and civic agency.  I applaud the team members of Charitable Youth and their mentor Gulnaz Hajiyeva!

With Gulnaz's permission, I have uploaded a series of photographs to my Shutterfly site, which you can view at

As usual, I invite you to comment, either here or on the Shutterfly site.

Like many, I have been touched, both by the outpouring of emotion over the death of Poland's political elite this past weekend and by the stability of the Polish people and their new government in light of this tragedy.  I will be writing a posting about this in the days to come.

Until then, be well.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Thomas Goltz's Chechnya Diary

I finished Thomas Goltz's Chechnya Diary over the weekend. I highly recommend this book (as well as Georgia Diary and Azerbaijan Diary) if people are interested in reading about these three remarkably interesting countries and regions.   However, I read the Goltz Caucasus trilogy out of order.  This posting briefly summarizes all three books and provides a short review of Chechnya Diary.

The first book in the trilogy that Goltz published was Azerbaijan Diary (M.E.Sharpe, 1999).  He does an admirable job of exploring the early Post-Soviet years in Azerbaijan, tracking the rise and fall of the popular political leader Elchibey, the rise and power of Heydar Aliyev, and the ethnic insanity of Nagorno (Mountainous) Karabagh, the still disputed portion of southwestern Azerbaijan that is currently occupied by Armenia.  It's 496 pages long, I finished it on my flight to Tblisi last month, and there was no way I was going to tote that tome back to Minneapolis: I left it in Vali Huseynov's capable hands and bright mind.

The final book in the trilogy is Georgian Diary (M.E. Sharpe, 2006).  The central story is the fall of Sukhumi and the secession of Abkhazia from Georgia in the tumultuous Post-Soviet years, a battle that left a profound mark on Goltz's worldview.  Goltz also writes about the political battles and includes the rise and fall of Gamsakhurdia and the eventual rise of former Central Communist Party bigwig-turn-champion of "democracy," Eduard Shevardnaze.  My recommendation: if you read only one of the trilogy, Georgia Diary is where you should begin.

"'The observer affects the observed.' --Essence of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle."  This is how Goltz's Chechnya Diary (Thomas Dunne, 2003) begins.  The middle book is, in many ways from a literary perspective, the most intriguing.   The other two Caucacus books are bold and broad attempts at examining nascent independence in two complex societies/cultures/countries.  Both books are filled with photographs and multiple maps of the region, as well as detailed descriptions of events and critical analysis.  Chechnya Diary strikes me as the most difficult for Goltz to have written.  Instead of multiple maps and photographs, there is but one graph: a hand-drawn map of Samashki, a small Chechnyan village and the focus of Goltz's story.  Samashki is home to Hussein and his family.  It is also the site of a a bloody Russian double-cross, one where the Russians first assured the villagers that if they cooperated that they would be spared, but in the end, the Russians "clear cut" the village.  Hussein's story plays against a background of rebel leaders and Moscow chaos, but unlike the other two books, Goltz allows Hussein's story to represent the larger Chechnyan story.  It is a profile writ large.

What I appreciated about this book was Goltz's willingness to disclose his own ignorance of Chechnya, its complicated history, its difficult language.  More than once, Goltz wonders why he is in Chechnya, and more than once, he comes very close to dying while covering a war that very few people outside of Chechnya understood nor cared to know.  What does a journalist do when writing stories that no editor is interested in publishing?  Eventually, Goltz is able to get the "money shot" (essentially, five minutes of video framing dead bodies in Samashki), and he goes from jounralist pariah to a man in demand, including a nomination for the Rory Peck Award.  The attention and attendant prosperity is not without complications, since Goltz recognizes that his prestige comes at a steep human price.  The book ends with a desperate call from an exiled Hussein living somewhere in Kazakhstan, asking Goltz to speak with him, that Hussein can trust no one else, and Goltz admitting to the reader that he had yet to make the trek because he was finishing this book.

There are other books that present a more "objective" perspective about Chechnya, but if you are looking for a book that shows the limits of "objective" reporting, of how war effects those who report war, and how both the observed and the observer are shaped and altered by that relationship, Chechnya Diary is a perfect book.

You can read more about Thomas Goltz and his work at his web site.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

You can see more photographs of the Azerbaijan and Republic of Georgia trip

at my new Shutterfly website.  Who knows?  You might be in one of those photographs!:)

As usual, I'd love to hear from people.  Please use the "comment" feature at the bottom of the postings to let me and the readers know what you think.

Georgia and Azerbaijan - Concluding Thoughts

Map Photo by lyndonK2's photostream
Flickr Creative Commons

It's Thursday, 8 April, and I spent part of this morning reading a New York Times article titled, "An Insurgency Evolves in the Caucasus Region as Wounds Fester," which describes the resurgence of violence in Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia, all resistant Russian states just over the Caucasus mountains from Georgia and Azerbaijan.  While tracking down the link to that article, I found another NYTimes article about the unrest in Kyrgyzstan, a Central Asian country just across the Caspian Sea from Azerbaijan.  Almost daily since I returned to the US a week ago, I have been reminded of how tenuous normalcy and daily routine can be for the people of the Caucasus region, and I think about the people that I met and the lives that they lead, and I hope nothing but the best for all of them.

This will be my last posting devoted primarily to Georgia and Azerbaijan.  I have written about Public Achievement and Theatre of the Oppressed.  I have written about my eye-opening trip to Ganja and Mingachevir, Azerbaijan, as well as Public Achievement site visits to Mtshketa, Gori, and Borjumi in Georgia.  I also wrote about passport and visa anxiety, as well as my jet-lagged staggers around Tblisi the first couple of days, entries that don't really warrant back-links:)

I want to devote today's posting to some of the incidental encounters that have stayed with me.

A day trip to Mingachevir from Ganja in fog so thick I could not see more than a 100 meters - the clouds lifting in Mingachevir - driving to the reservoir, the sun warming our backs, our faces - Lale and Gulshen running here and there with the wonder and enthusiasm of children - looking over the water to the mountains and thinking it looked not unlike water and mountains I'd seen elsewhere (the Ozarks, fall 2009; the Black Hills of South Dakota; mountain lakes in Colorado).

Visiting Vali Huseynov's classroom in Ganja - participating in an English conversation class with Azir, Rabim, Zaaur, and Aynur with a map of the Midwest spread on a table, me ranting about Lake Superior, the farm land where I was born, the Twin Cities and the Mississippi River - Vali's generosity, hospitality, and protective spirit, him asking if I wanted to see "both sides" of Ganja, and me eagerly acquiescing - discussing his Fulbright college plans for the US, knowing that Boston University was his first choice but selfishly hoping he'd select the University of Iowa:)

Look as Esmira's smile.  Look at Edgar's smile.

Me, a bit anxious about crossing the border from Azerbaijan into Georgia with the none-too-friendly Azeri border guards - a middle-aged woman with a nasty cough and a long pea green overcoat uses sign language to say, "Follow me.  I'll stay with you" - she waits with me while the border guards laugh at my passport photo, while an Azeri border guard in broken English tells me that he trained in Texas; she walks with me the one kilometer dirt-and-occasional pavement path to the Georgian checkpoints.  I smile and wish that I had taken the bloody time to learn how to say "Thank you - thank you so very much!" in Azeri.

Charles Merrill, the son of the man who created Merrill-Lynch, good and dear friend to Julie Boudreaux of MTO (the group that sponsored my trip), sitting on a wall in Borjumi with Kurban Said's Ali and Nino in his hand - Charles, who started progressive schools in Boston and St. Louis, author of numerous books, now an abstract watercolorist (there's a framed painting that survived the checked baggage flights home that's waiting to be hung somewhere in my living room) - Charles, who at 89 years of age is still fascinated by the world around him, and me hoping I can be that curious and open when I am his age, inshallah; Charles, whose self-deprecating sense of humor can light up a room.  Charles and Julie walking arm-in-arm in Gori, all of us a bit thunderstruck by the hometown monuments to the Man of Steel, Josef Stalin.

Rodami Tsomaia, translator of the mono-language trainer, me.  She, fluent in Georgian, Russian, English, and who knows what else.  Me, smiling the first time she completes a thought of mine without me saying anything.  Me, speaking with someone after a workshop session and waiting for Rodami to translate, even though she was nowhere to be seen and I was speaking to a fellow English speaker.  Wondering if she would like to study in the USA, knowing that she could,  and the responsibility that comes with that.

Salty soup broth (just the way I like it), meat filled dumplings, garlic oil, and chives.  Large steamed noodle dumplings filled with salty broth (just the way I like it) and ground meat, eaten best with a loud slurping noise.  Khatchapuri (cheese pie) and kata (flat bread stuffed with spinach), sour yoghurt drink to wash it down.  Eating while walking the Tblisi streets.  Raw bacon served at breakfast, and Ala telling me that "you don't know what's good!"  Bread baked in outdoor, round, concrete ovens, eaten hot and fresh, like school children on an outing.

Sitting on Main Street in Ganja, and feeling two strong feelings: one that I stand out like a tree in the prairie, that it couldn't be much more obvious if I were wearing the redwhiteblue USA flag around my shoulders AND two that the small town streets looked like the small town streets back home: could be Alexandria, or Sauk Centre, or Mora, or Duluth, or just about anywhere.

Sitting in an airport and wondering how the Twins finished the spring exhibition baseball season and thumbing my wallet schedule.
Looking at photographs of my family when I felt just a little bit alone.

Wondering when I can return.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Using Theatre of the Oppressed as a Public Achievement Learning Tool

I became familiar with Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) approximately the same time that I became familiar with Public Achievement (1998 - 2000), so in my mind, these two pedagogies (and I call them that because for me they have always been about different ways of teaching and learning) frequently compliment one another.  Along with a number of colleagues from the Courageous Conversations Theatre of the Oppressed group at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, we began analyzing how we could use TO to enrich and deepen the work of Public Achievement (PA).

The training in Georgia was the first time where I could build TO into PA training over a period of time longer than a quick one-hour workshop.  Over the course of three days, the participants enjoyed a series of TO games and exercises (those interested in a great introduction to TO games and exercises should read Augusto Boal's Games for Actors and Non-Actors; those interested in the theoretical underpinnings of TO should read Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed).  These included the circle and the plus-sign, the three greetings, the basic image, Colombian Hypnosis (multiple variations), push-and-pull, stop-walk, Image Theatre, the images-in-transition, and a truncated version of the Rainbow of Desire.  For the sake of this posting, however, I will limit my discussion to just a few of these games and exercises.

Colombian Hypnosis and Push-and-Pull   Colombian Hypnosis and its variant push-and-pull have always been two of my favorite games.  Colombian Hypnosis asks one person to be the hypnotist by placing her hand six inches from the face of the person being hyponized.  The hypnotist then moves her hand and the hypnotized must follow, keeping his face six inches from the hypnotist's hand.  The two never touch (although you'll notice that Shahnaz to the left "cheated" just slightly:)).  Variations add additional people to the activity, increase the distance between the hypnotist and hypnotized, or play with different postures.   These first two photographs show a chain of people involved
in Colombian Hypnosis.  We used Colombian Hypnosis as an introduction to the Public Achievement roles of mentoring and mentor coordinating.  I wanted them to see how they used their bodies to analyze what it means to "mentor" or "lead" or "facilitate," what it means to "be in control" or "to follow."  In the discussion that followed the activity, participants spoke of forms of resistance to roles, of how working together made the activity "more beautiful," of how hard it was to both follow and lead at the same time.

A variation of Colombian Hypnosis is push-and-pull.  To the right, you see Maia doing this exercise with Badri (or at least Badri's hands and forearms:)).  I was struck by how assertive, even aggressive, some of the participants were.  When demonstrating with Shahnaz, she almost pushed me to the ground before grabbing my wrists and pulling me up!  I had done this game maybe 50 times before this, and that had never happened (even when I played with Nickia Jensen, who is someone to be reckoned with:)).  During the discussion, the participants talked about the ambiguous roles prompted by the game (who is following? leading? who has the power?  what does it mean to exercise power?).  It was good stuff.

The Images-in-Transition
Another exercise that we used was the Images-in-Transition to introduce a discussion of the Public Achievement core concept of power.  Briefly, people form small groups and create two body sculpture/images: one depicting powerlessness and another depicting powerfulness.  I will let you determine which is which in these photographs:)  The groups then form their "powerlessness" image and, over the course of thirty seconds, morph the image into the same "powerfulness" image.  We had to do this exercise twice to get it right.  The first time, all four groups were done after five seconds.  I tried explaining the reasoning behind
moving slowly: that change normally takes time, that I am asking them to self-consciously and critically feel the change, that - frankly - it is more fun to do this exercise slowly (an entire book could be written on the subversive nature of fun - actually, it probably already has been).  When we did it again, the images were very powerful indeed.  I saw the look of surprise and awe on a number of the participants' faces.  I was so moved that I had to work hard to keep from tearing up (yeah, I'm a softy - so kill me).  The discussion about the exercise was rich, and this led seamlessly into the core concept discussion of power.

Rainbow of Desire  The participants over the three days were so willing to engage in TO exercises that they inspired me to lead an exercise I had never done before; in fact, I had only learned of the exercise Rainbow of Desire  from Nickia Jensen the week before I left.  In short, one person volunteers to describe briefly a long-term problem that they would like to overcome.  That person recognizes the need to overcome the problem, has perhaps even tried to solve the problem, but has been unsuccessful in doing so.  The person on the far right is the volunteer Jeyhun, whose problem is that he Facebooks five hours per day.Jeyhun then describes what he desires when he is on Facebook: for him, it was both recognition and praise.  Two more volunteers came to the front and strike poses.  Above right, Vali (far left) is Praise, and Elvin is Recognition.

Then, Jeyhun describes what fears keep him from solving the problem: he says that it is Indifference of others to him (portrayed by Salome, photo left, middle character) and Rejection (portrayed by Asia, far right).

Next, Jeyhun has discussions with his Fears and his Desires.  At one point, Recognition has a discussion with Rejection (an editorial aside: Asia was absolutely fabulous and indomitable as Rejection!).  In many ways, this exercise was the most fascinating one for the participants, but it was also my least successful facilitation.  I was trying to use the exercise to introduce the Public Achievement core concepts, how the core concepts are merely abstractions until we give them meaning.  Only because the participants were so engaged and analytical (not because of any adept facilitation on my part) did this exercise work well.  I am glad that I did this, however, because it taught me much about the potential for this exercise.  I thank Asia, Salome, Jeyhun, Elvin, Vali, and the participants for being my teachers.

I don't mean to argue that Theatre of the Oppressed is some magical tool to help train Public Achievement concepts.  Instead, this training has reawakened in me a line of thought that connects creativity with democracy.  For the emerging democracies of Azerbaijan and the Republic of Georgia, after 80 years of rule by the Soviet Union, I argue that building a democracy is ultimately a creative act, one that asks citizens to think and behave differently.  For the still-young democracy of the United States, I argue that keeping democracy vibrant requires powerful acts of creativity to contest media-packaged and consumerist-driven models of democracy.  If democracy is going to survive and thrive, it requires the citizen's creativity.  For me, then, Theatre of the Oppressed is a useful tool in this effort.  What might it be for others?  Music and song?  Drawing, painting?  Architecure?  Landscaping, gardening?  Sculpture?  Dance?  Think about it.  I know that I am.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Ben Fink and Nickia Jensen for their bright minds and insightful analysis regarding the use of TO within PA, and I also must recognize Chaka Mkali and Dennis Hopkins (D-hop), Minneapolis community organizers at Hope Community, for helping me think about TO within the larger community organizing world.  Finally, Sonja Kuftinec at the University of Minnesota has been a wonderful teacher - her criticism and analysis has helped to make the Courageous Conversations work better.

I welcome all comments, but I am especially interested in the TO communities' response to this work.  What do you think?

Tomorrow, Thursday, 8 April, I will write my final posting about the work in Azerbaijan and Georgia.  It will be mostly a traveler's/tourist's impressionistic rendering of what I enjoyed.  Then, folks, I really need to "return" to the work here, not least being filing my taxes, which are due 15 April!