This is the end, though not the end at all, and we have a little informal rule about not using terminating language, of the story of Networked Narratives, a course, and much more than a course.
I start here, standing quietly in the dark, in a closet-like room adjacent to the classroom at Kean University where this course takes place.
Waiting for a moment long anticipating.
It’s a party, they are eating food. I can hear the laughter of our students, and my colleague Mia Zamora, explaining how sad it is that Professor Levine is not joining them for the last day of class. One voice laughs, “I bet he’s behind the door!” Mia responds, “No, he’s out walking his dog now. He just tweeted.”
This is a moment I have been anticipating for months. You see, our course does a lot of it’s activity but is not an online course. While our students participate and do activities online, in their blogs, in twitter, in hypothes.is, they meet every week in this room. It is I who is online, beaming in by Google Hangout projected on a screen in the classroom, me from my home in Arizona. I can see them, but only the first two rows clearly. I know their names, voices, I know who arrives bit late because they rush here from school.
About three months ago I learned I was attending the Creative Commons Summit in Toronto on April 28-30. As I was starting to plan my travel, it dawned on me that the airport in Newark, is only 20 minutes from the Kean campus. It would be an easy hop to jump from Toronto there on the leg home.
Thus the surprise moment.
Waiting for it.
We had framed our course around the idea of asking a question of what it might mean to consider ourselves as “digital alchemists”- applying the notions of curiosity, experimentation, mixing digital elements, in the elusive search for the magical essence that makes digital stories effective, how narratives leverage networked affordances.
The surprise today was not total; I arrived Sunday, and had already met some of the graduate students in the class. Mia had scheduled a meeting with two of them Monday afternoon in the campus Starbucks, and she went in and met Hailey and Marissa. I waited in the hall a bit, entered in the side of the lounge area they were sitting in. They looked up, and I said quickly, “Do you mind if I use this seat?”
Hailey’s eyes flickered from recognition to confusion, and then the smiles busted out. Similar moments followed when I entered the research class Mia teaches on Mondays. Some just smiled and got it, others jumped a bit in shock. Selfies happened.
On Tuesday, Mia and I made a trip to Manhattan, to walk a bit on the Highline Trail and to see some of the protest art and just enjoy the Large Apple energy.
We also shot some video footage I used in our weekly “intercept videos” the series we made that allude to some possible supernatural entities that intervene in our course. We played with reality, this being the transformation / return from the “mirror world” to this one.
And Wednesday I finally walked out of the closet to clue in the rest if the students. Mia told them I was texting that I had found the portal to Arganee, a doorway.
— Kean Writing Studies (@KUWSP) May 6, 2017
Some of them had figured it out (Alex had seen me on campus) and told Mia she was a bad liar. The surprise mattered not nearly as much to have his un-expected moment together.
I have a lot more I want to write about the course experience, but that needs to come after this emotional high. This course has been significantly more than “content” or “resources” it’s been an intense explosion if student creativity and sharing and connecting in a way I have never seen in a class. This was both for the group of us that was in the room every week and the larger circle of our network of open participants plus the colleagues/students we visited during our Studio Visits and Bus Tours.
This week marked the end of our April “world building” experience where we asked students to create alternative identities (avatars, twitter accounts, hypothes.is accounts) as “digital alchemists”. We asked them to inhabit their characters, to give them voice. Their goal was to expand their digital media skills through a series of open-ended activities, through an invite from the characters of Rebeg Maesotro and M Prophetissima, the entities behind the “hacking” of our class videos.
These entities from a different world suggested the state of their world was connected to ours, that the violence and civil decline in the latter was affecting theirs. They spent time in a middle place we called “Arganee” more or less an alchemy lab. The common language is story and narrative, and as digital alchemists, our students were told if they can explore and improve their media skills towards goal of using them for activism, it would help both worlds.
It was a story, after all.
This last week the digital alchemists were asked to write a blog post that was a “letter” to their “friends” in this world (we nicknamed the non-alchemists as “goaafy” – that is a world you can unscramble via at ROT13 cipher, a small skill we introduced). In that letter, they shared what they learned in Arganee and how they think it might help the goaafy one.
Following a lesson we learned in our Bus Tour to the Young Writer’s project, we invited our students to read out loud either their letter or any other creative work students wanted to. It might sound banally simple, but this act of public reading of creative works is very powerful, to give voice to words, to give them shape and character.
And oh is there talent in that room.
Our students did not disappoint. Two of our students have more or less invented a dialect or code language for their digital alchemists, a unique presence.
— Tycho Limecinder (@LimeChimera) May 2, 2017
Some shared recent poems or selections from short stories they are writing. Others chose just to listen and give appreciation and feedback.
I am going to fail in conveying what this in person experience meant and felt like. We have so many transformative facets in this course; from what the students relate in terms of how it has affected their writing or academic interests, to some of them sharing indicators of ways they were dealing with personal challenges.
A number of them have expressed true sadness the class is nearing it’s end. We made of a show of warning them not to use the “o” word, that this is far from over. If you truly developed a sense of community in a course, it does not evaporate when the grades go in the system.
I cannot say enough too about my own experience co-teaching, co-conspiring with Mia. I have known and respected her as a colleague, but we have become deep friends through our months of weekly video chats. I had the opportunity to meet and stay with her husband and two boys Her older son Jude, who was home-schooled this year, as a 10 year old, was a key participant in our class (there is another long post to be made about the opportunities of including children as co-participants in open courses).
Mia and I walked and talked each day on the forest near our home, both course planning and life talking.
How often does co-teaching evolve into a strong friendship? Our experience was way more than co-teaching or syllabus splitting.
For their last course requirement the students are writing response letters to their digital alchemists as blog posts in their own blogs, reflective of the course experience:
Your work this week is to compose a blog post that is a response to the one sent to you from your digital alchemist friend in #arganee. What did you get from that message? How will you carry it out? What will you do with your digital alchemy going forward?
These are the points you should include– but write in a letter format.
- What works are you most proud of? and why? Be sure to link or embed any media.
- What most surprised you or challenged you in this course? What was most difficult? How did you deal with that? What did you learn from these discomforts?
- What advice would you give to future alchemists who might take this course?
- What did you learn about working in a networked experience with people outside of class? What kinds of interactions with the open participants or people in other places we met most influence you?
- What learnings, ideas, actions will you bring back from the journey to #arganee that you can apply scholastically or civically to your everyday world?
And also we told them they would have roles as “alchemist elders” in a future offering of NetNarr. There will be another if we have our way.
Mia and I have plans to be writing up more on our experience, likely in the DML Central. But we have bigger plans. Since she is headed off in August for a year as a Fulbright scholar at the University of Bergen in Norway I am going to be leading a group of five of the NetNarr gard students for their MA thesis seminar next year. Mia and I are thinking of running something like an open seminar, where students blog their progress, and we will connect Kean students with the ones Mia is working at in Norway. And in Spring 2018, we hope to run another iteration of NetNarr between Kean in new Jersey and Bergen in Norway.
It’s even farther than not over, the alchemy and mysticism are only beginning.
This has been one of the most rewarding, exciting, course experiences I have been part of in a long while. It was not massive. It was not even funded. It was not featured in any glossy ed-tech magazine. We had a small but insanely connected group of open participants who completely modeled the spirit of open (as in not needing any academic definitions) courses.
This is an image that appears at the end of our week 15 video and bears some backstory. This is the classroom our class met in; I took a photo from more or less the view of students sitting there. I also took a photo looking back into the room, which was more or less my view when I was there in Google hangout (I have to say the room has much deeper dimension than it looks on video, in terms of feet but also presence). They looking at me looking at them looking…
The script in the board is actually from the whiteboard in the Kean University Writing Project office… I noticed what looked like the students working out the ROT13 encoding of #netnarr into #arganee.
Netnarr is Arganee is Netnarr is …
And the Alchemy is us.