Thursday, January 8, 2009

Give me some change AND I'll touch you.

The decision to move to the United States in the mid '80 and to start college at Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts was an easy one. It was the transitioning into American culture and knowledge that was difficult. Growing up in a wealthy social democracy like Norway, didn't help I have to say. I knew virtually nothing about poverty. I had traveled a lot, of course, but living the extremes of wealth distribution is something very different.

I am not saying that money makes or breaks a person, but in a social democracy you "get" that no matter what you do, no matter who you are, no matter what you think, or how big or small you are as a social entity, you matter, you count, and you make an impact. To me, that consciousness can be the only explanation for the fact that so many Norwegians read 2-3 newspapers a day. And, why, despite its size, the country offers so much foreign aid and serves as a site of asylum for so many refugees and exiles. In fact every news event creates a stir in Norway, as if the nation could be at risk or could possibly be involved in some measured way. 9/11 and the Anthrax scare, I remember, had the Norwegians taking extraordinary precautions. It was almost as if they believed that the global hierarchy of national importance went something like this:

1. United States of America

2. Norway

But I am all the way at the end of a tangent here.

I remember coming to Mount Holyoke for the first week of school and becoming friends with women whose cultural context and drives were very different from mine. There was literally a fight for attention. A competitiveness-- an assertiveness with a hard, sharp edge--seemed ultimately to define "the mattering" of my fellow students. There were hungry beasts all around, uncaged suddenly, as if the absence of men, they who were the source of all oppression, they, them, their absence would finally mean my presence as woman. We called it feminism. But our culture refers to it more broadly in terms that coin the concept of individualism.

"Mattering," it seems to me, goes beyond this form of individualism. Because, if you know you matter; if you know you are a contribution merely by being a living, breathing, conscious entity on this planet, there is an ease to the ways in which you move, the ways you interact with and impact the world and those around you. That ease of the "I" as "resource- centric" stands in stark contrast to the " I-or- them-centric" culture we know as American individualism. (My hunch is that all the self-debilitating, the cutting doubt people carry, on the one hand, and the self-aggrandizing chest beating of the massive egos we witness in our global culture, on the other, stem from this "I-or- them-centric" cultural stance.)

As second semester starts at Duke University, I remember a button my Mount Holyoke friend, Sunny, wore on her coat. Scribbled hobo writing on a tiny round button read: "Give me a quarter or I'll touch you". I thought it was funny then, though I didn't really understand it. The button, now, 20 years later, takes on a new meaning as I embark on a new semester.

My biggest challenge this semester is not the new class, a new syllabus, or the new tools for learning. I have put together a syllabus that requires students to participate through social media networks, blogs and Web 2.0 in the generation of pubic knowledge. Keeping abreast of these networks and the technologies that allow them to function is a challenge, certainly, and strange as it is to me, I have come to realize that I am the one teaching my students how to create a blog, how to sign up for and follow conversations that shape-shift our perceptions at lightning speed on Twitter. I talk to them about how to connect, to learn and to communicate responsibly in public space. And adamantly and passionately argue alongside my amazing colleagues for participatory learning in the Humanities (I swear, by the way, now that I keep going off on tangents anyway, that I'm getting a Cathy Davidson tattoo right next to my Joan Copjec one! It is going to have her Cat-in-the-Stack avatar smack next to it again !)

As I look out at the faces of the students in my classroom I realize that it's not the technology nor the networking that is daunting, though overwhelming to start. I know that if I can learn to be a bird on a wire and twitter tweet tweet o_O, so can they.

Dimming the lights enough for them to see the screen, I look into their eyes one more time and it's like a jolt of electricity going down my spine. I suddenly realize that my challenge is not the material. My challenge is to have my students get that they are a contribution: "Give me some change!" *" I'll touch you" Odd or even: each one of them is a contribution. I am that I am the difference.

So, here I am picking up Paulo Friere. once more.

Ps. Check out these stunning contributions to participatory learning and knowledge production and exchange in Humanities:

Cathy Davidson's 3 part blog on Digital Media and Participatory Learning (Humanities 2.0) and Twitter at the MLA

Matthew Gold on the Rise of the Digital MLA

John Jones on the MLA Twitter panel: