Thursday, April 30, 2015

Yes, Content IS People: a post for #Rhizo15

Through a series of Twitter coincidences, I ended up having a back-and-forth just now with Gardner Campbell about the readings for Connected Courses. I had to confess that I didn't do a lot of reading for Connected Courses; I tried to keep up with reading the blogs in the blog stream and following the Twitter stream, which is also how I am approaching the Rhizo15 experience, focusing what time I have on reading the blog posts that people share. In fact, my first big Rhizo15 self-assigned task was creating an OPML file of all the blogs I could find both to read AND to share: Rhizo15 Combination Feed in Inoreader. So many blogs!!! And please add your blog if you are not there already!

And then I realized that this is relevant to the challenge for this week in Rhizo15 re: content. There are not assigned readings for Rhizo15 as there were in Connected Courses ... and that is totally fine with me. It's the blogs of the other participants that are really alive and important to me for the purposes of the (un)course experience. Yes, CONTENT IS PEOPLE:

So, at least for me the content emerges in the conversation itself rather than being defined in advance, even tentatively defined in advance by assigned reading lists. That is something that really makes sense to me in an un-course experience, which is how I saw Connected Courses (although I now see from Gardner Campbell that he hoped it would be more course-like) and which is how I see Rhizo15 (which seems very content - conTENT - with being an un-course).

Including some things while excluding others: that is exactly the problem I have with traditional class content, just as Dave emphasizes in the challenge for this week (and by the way, I absolutely love the open-endedness of Dave's challenges... they are totally working for me):

Now, in my own courses, it's . . .  complicated. Unlike Rhizo15 or Connected Courses, my students have not shown up out of sheer curiosity. They have shown up because they are required to take General Education courses, and that is what I can offer: University of Oklahoma upper-division General Education, Western Humanities and Non-Western Humanities, taught fully online. My classes always fill up pretty much instantly because there are a lot of seniors who need Gen. Ed. to graduate, and online is the option that fits everyone's busy schedule.

So, yes, for those courses, I do have to define some content. But my goal is to offer LOTS of choices to the students as the content goes (trillions of choices, ha ha, as I explain here in the introduction to the Myth-Folklore UnTextbook). More importantly, the REAL content of the course is what the students themselves create, as I explain here: The Shift from Teaching Content to ... Teaching Writers.

A big part of what finally prompted me to create the Myth-Folklore UnTextbook last summer was all the great projects my students had done in the past. Working with them on their projects over the years had made me aware of the kinds of stories that really appealed, along with the great public domain resources available to make those readings part of the class. So, I created the Myth-Folklore UnTextbook last summer, and the transformation in my classes this year as a result was AMAZING: students used to have a choice of 2 readings each week in that class, but now with a choice of 16 readings each week, week after week, the energy level was just buzzing, and now by using the feedback I have gotten from the students (they rate each unit), I will be able to add more/better units in the future.

And this summer, I am going to try to transform my Indian Epics class in much the same way (I made that my own Rhizo15 subjective in fact; details here: Summer is Coming). Epics are less modular than mythology and folklore, so it is a challenge... but in a big epiphany in December, I realized that it would be possible to make an UnTextbook in Indian Epics, and I've gotten feedback from students this semester that will help me do a good job with that this summer.

Here's the thing about content, though: even if I do an awesome job, including all kinds of wonderful things for the students to choose to read, I will also be excluding things... but then it will be students to the rescue! Because WITH THEIR PROJECTS the students will be bringing in all kinds of stories and topics that I did not find room for... not because I wanted to exclude any of those stories or any of those topics, but just because I ran out of time/space, or because of my own ignorance.

So, even with the UnTextbook, it will always be the students who are keeping the class alive and wild, going beyond any reading list I could ever create in advance, bringing in the topics and stories they care about the most. And by seeing what they bring to the class, I get better and better ideas of what to put into the UnTextbook. And around and around we go, in a circle of reading virtue!

Read on! Write on! RIGHT ON!!!!!!

And thanks to Gardner for prompting me to quickly write up this blog post tonight. I've got some ideas in here I need to unpack in more detail... but it's a start. :-)


  1. I agree re #ccourses and had that convo w Howard and Mimi early on during (don't remember if u and i were close at the time) and they toned down the "required" tone of rdgs. It was kinda nuts coz they were not only recommending entire books (like 5 books/unit) but also not all open access stuff.
    I do think that having rhizo14 as my first cMOOC made it my default mode: focus on connecting w ppl thru their blogs rather than thru any privileged reading set by some authority. Whichis why this semester i let students find their own readings and realized it may be the best way to make sure they read! Let them find (a useful skill in and of itself) and reflect on material they like within the loosely framed subject matter. I am probably subconsciously influenced by earlier blogposts of yours. Love ur pedagogy. Wish more ppl were like u!

    1. Oh, Maha, if you can connect with this, that really means a lot to me! In the different spaces where we have met up online in the past year or two, I see so many things you do that are really inspiring and energizing, so if I can share some of that energy back with you, I am really happy. For me, having courses that are blog-driven makes so much sense, and that is the ideal I am striving for with my students, too, although it's more of a challenge since the idea of blogging is often totally new to them and it's so different from the other classes they are in. But this year of using Blogger, with each person having their own individual blogs, was so much better than when I tried to use a group blogging platform (Ning). So again and again, it just seems if you loosen things up, let people choose, let everyone just be themselves, so much good stuff happens. Each time I've "let go" with the class in some way, only good things have resulted.
      I started working hard on the Indian Epics UnTextbook today and in so many ways it is alive with the presence of past students whose stories I remember and who are inspiring me in my own content choices. I just included a whole page on the sage Agastya, for example, because of a really great appearance by Agastya in a student's project this semester (oh, it was the same project which also had Mahabali: SMALL WORLD), and I am doing a piece on Rama's sons Lava and Kusha because of a project last semester that was all about them, and on and on. Again and again, my choices are the product of the choices that past students made and which are influencing me even now. So exciting!!! I am really lucky that I get to keep teaching these same classes every semester so that they are filled with more and more "ghosts of semesters past" ... in a good way! :-)

  2. You are always an inspiration, Laura. I've shared your wonderful online resources with teachers. I covet your content! And the icing on the cake is the imagery accompanying everything. Your untextbook is like a Wunderkammer.

    1. Thank you, Tania!!! And that is so cool that you would invoke the Wunderkammer: that is the name of my friend Dirk's AMAZING Pinterest. If you have not connected with him already, he is fabulous. Here's his Google+ page, and here's his PInterest: Dirk Puehl at Pinterest. He's at Twitter also: Wunderkammer@DirkPuehl.


(I have limited this to Google accounts only, but no word verification; meanwhile, if you want to contact me directly, you can do that too!