Back to School

Late August for academics is time to return to campus.  And returning to campus is, invariably, an occasion for thinking both about what one accomplished (and didn’t accomplish) over the summer and about what one needs to accomplish (and would like to accomplish) in the coming year.

For me, it’s a good time to assess what I’ve done with this blog during the last three months and think about where I’d like to go with it in the future.  On the positive side, over the summer I posted something original to the blog almost every week, in some cases relatively substantial pieces of writing that I would not otherwise have produced and of which I’m moderately proud.  The long blog post about my family’s history in Rowan County, North Carolina, for example, gave me an idea for a book I’d like to write; and in some of the shorter pieces I did, like the ones on Henry James in Northampton and Walker Evans in New York City, I felt I was developing the voice of a digital essayist, a voice I found liberating and unpredictable.  The pieces on elm trees in my vicinity and ways of traveling to Williamsburg gave me a chance to engage my physical environment even as I was sitting at home writing.

In the end, blogging has been for me, first and foremost, a way to publish my own work on my own terms.  It’s also been a way to develop my skill in integrating words and images: this summer I learned about capturing screen images with Snagit, uploading my own movies to YouTube and embedding them in blog posts, creating customized Google Maps, using the slideshow feature in WordPress, and locating and citing images from the Internet.  These tools have changed the way I write, and expanded the kinds of things I can do with my writing.  I’m excited to share all that with students this fall.

There were disappointments, too.  I wanted to do more with audio and podcasting.  I wish I had experimented further with iMovie and developed greater skill in that application.  I thought about trying to promote the blog through social media like Twitter – but then either lost nerve or interest.  And, although the blog has found readers I wouldn’t otherwise have found as a writer, it didn’t turn out to be a blog in the interactive, dialogic sense, a space for lively exchanges with diverse others about current events or controversial topics.  It became rather a place to develop and share my own writing, writing that ended up being rather traditional in many ways, except that it was self-published, contained numerous multimedia components, and was readable by anyone with an Internet connection.

2013-06-04_08-35-39But what’s ahead?  I had freedom to write this summer in ways I won’t have in the coming months, when research, teaching, and other obligations will press more heavily on me.  But I’m hoping I can keep this blog going, even if I will have to shift and shape it to fit new needs and conditions.  For one thing, I’ll be firmly embedded in this corner of Western Massachusetts for the foreseeable future – living in Northampton, working weekdays in Amherst.  I’d like to use the blog to help me think through what it means to live somewhere like that: how we are nourished by the places we inhabit and what obligations we have to help sustain those worlds.  I’ve already been thinking about all that since last spring when my university selected Colin Beavan’s No Impact Man as the “Common Read” for entering first year students in 2013-14.  I was on the committee that chose the book (as well as the books that preceded it in 2012-13 and 2011-12), and I have been writing about it on another blog since March.  Up to now, that project has been for me mainly about reading; but with Beavan coming to campus today to talk to new students, and the next six weeks being a period of campus-wide focus on sustainability, all leading up to our own “No Impact Week” from October 7-11, I’m realizing that I need to do more in my life to lessen my impact on the environment.

holyoke_busThe place I’d like to start is how I get to campus every day.  When I first moved to Northampton in 2006, and for several years thereafter, I was good about riding the free PVTA bus to campus.  But I gradually got out of the habit and have since been commuting by private car – adding to traffic, pollution, parking congestion, and my own stress.  I’d like to get back on the bus.  But am I willing to give up the convenience of driving, in my own car, on my own schedule, in order to participate in a project that will likely have a negligible impact on global warming and other problems?  After all, I’ll be teaching late in the afternoon this semester, so the Minuteman Express won’t work; and the bike path from Northampton to Amherst will be under construction most of the fall.  Can I make this change?  We’ll see.  Perhaps I’ll use this blog to chart my own “No Impact” fall in the Pioneer Valley.

deanbook_101602_05Another obligation I’ll have this semester, of course, is to my students.  Last year, when I taught English 350: Expository Writing, I themed the course around place and created a class blog for sharing the students’ writing.  Looking back on that blog now, I realize how much I’ve learned about digital writing since then.  I’m looking forward both to helping students do more with technology in their own writing (as well as learning from them about such matters) and to developing new projects of my own as I write with the students in the course.  My hope is that we’ll all develop our own digital spaces for reflecting on, and intervening in, the world and that we’ll inspire one another to write in ways that both take advantage of new media and technologies and help us take better care of the world around us.

RS20_chapel_100101_1-scrFinally, I’m working now on a book about higher education – specifically, the past, present, and future of the bachelor’s degree in U.S. higher education.  That may sound like a far cry from the kinds of things I’ve been blogging about this summer: elm trees, East 61st St. in New York City, antebellum North Carolina.  But in fact, the recent “crisis” in U.S. higher education has been, in part, a crisis about the cost of traditional undergraduate education in this country – especially the kind of undergraduate education that takes place in four-year residential settings.  My study of the bachelor’s degree is ultimately, then, a study of campus – what it is, what it’s for, what are its current problems, what are its future prospects.  In a blog about place, I can’t keep ignoring the one place that has been so important in my own life – and that is, seemingly, under such threat right now.

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