The Forests Still Burn

“None of us expected the future to arrive so soon.” ~Ira Spring, providing the historical perspective about fire lookouts in Washington State.

This post is the first of three that I plan to publish this week. My plan is to describe a parallel I’m seeing with teaching and learning, the history of fire lookouts, and the federated wiki. Ready for this, readers? It’s kind of out there.

Back in February, my friend sent me an email inviting me to go to the Evergreen Mountain Fire Lookout. I read the trail description and agreed that this was a beautiful spot we should check out. When we were first planning on going, I only thought of the view and the elevation gain of the hike. Little did I know how much history I would learn thanks to this trip and it’s now a bit of an obsession with me.

First of all, you need to know that Washington State is currently suffering through a terrible fire season. Forest fires are a natural part of the evolution of forests, and it’s a necessary part of biodiversity. There are trees that will not release their seeds without the heat of fire. Lightning strikes happen or people make mistakes; forests burn. The trouble, of course, is when these fires threaten humans, communities, and our homes. The stories of loss and devastation this summer is almost too much for me to take. Despite all of our technology; Mother Nature is reminding us of how little we can control our environment. My first recollection of learning about forests burning was the 1988 Yellowstone National Park fires.

I remember reading the newspaper and being fascinated by the size of the fire. I had yet to travel to the western United States, so I didn’t have an idea of the scale of the western states. The images haunted me. The helicopters. The devastation. The sad photos of displaced animals. The story of hawks hunting in burning brush. People dying. This was the drought that challenged the park policy of “let it burn.” The flames kept growing in one of our national treasures.

Five years later, I was a park employee hiking through those charred woods and the wildflowers were unlike anything I’d ever seen. It’s was a spooky beautiful landscape that I couldn’t get enough of seeing and exploring. Hikers were warned to stay away from “black ghost trees” that could fall on you should you disturb them. I remember touching the bark of trees and they felt like greasy charcoal. I remember seeing an owl perched high on a branch of a black dead tree. The suburban city girl I was quickly changed her mind that forest fires were not pure evil. They are part of nature, and that is a stance I hold to this day.

What troubles me deeply, of course, is the loss of human and animal life and the destruction of communities when these fires are out of control. This summer in Washington State, the fires have been just that—out of control. Our neighbors to north in Canada and to the south in Oregon and California have also suffered through an unnaturally hot dry summer. I have friends who live in these communities. I love their forests. Their downtowns. Their culture. Their firefighters. Their trees. Their skylines.

I tell you all of this because I’ve been going down the rabbit hole researching about fire lookouts, how I could teach people to use the federated wiki, and the importance of technology we could use to collaborate to solve problems and/or to learn. I’m currently on holiday until September 8, and I had decided to work on an article about hiking to lookouts. I have plans to write presentations for the fall. I also have some plans to go off the grid backpacking in Olympics after doing some vacationing in my hometown with my bikes–there are no long hikes in the North Cascades right now. It’s too dangerous.

So here I am, I’ve got my whole holiday planned out. Hobby Jobs, here I come! Then I saw a tweet from Mike Caulfield about his educational technology course along with an invite to folks who are using the federated wiki. C’est moi! When I first read, Kathryn Shultz’s “The Really Big One” I was thinking about forest fires and fire lookouts. When the earth shakes, fires will burn, the writer warns us. I have a lot of friends who grew up in this state, and their response to this article was “Meh. I’ve been hearing that my whole life. It’s really well-written and interesting. I haven’t been to Seaside, Oregon since I was a kid…” Meanwhile, I was like, “Holyhell! What?! Wait. What?! You’re reminiscing about a beach town and shit might be going down big time! Aren’t you the least freaked out about this? Didn’t you guys live through the explosion of Mt. St. Helens?”

Didn’t you grow up where they’re are hurricanes and tornadoes? they snarked. Whatevs.

A couple of people tweeted about how cyclists will be better off should the earthquake come. Anyways, the friends I talked to were underwhelmed, but I kept thinking about this article when a couple of books showed up from my blitz order of fire lookout history books from the public library.

Why have so many of the lookouts disappeared? Was it the advance of technology? Did people vandalize them? So I took some notes in the federated wiki thinking maybe I’ve got an idea for a hiking article. It’s been awhile since I’ve done this kind of writing. To hell with the article (for now), I’m going to take another approach. I’m going to try to create a few pages in the federated wiki that may be of interest to Mike’s students and I’m going to continue with my fire lookout article research. But first, I want to add some context on why I’m interested in this course, Mike’s use of the federated wiki in a class, and maybe just maybe how this all connects to the history of lookouts. 

The course that Mike is teaching seems similar to the course I took for my M.Ed. that changed everything for me. I almost dropped out of my program because I heard a lot about this class and I deemed it a waste of my time. I sent an eloquent (I thought) appeal to my advisor about how I didn’t need this course. I substantiated that I already knew everything this teacher was planning on teaching and that I wanted to do an independent study. He never returned my email, so I put that class off to the very end. News came that the teacher retired and they hired a tenure-track professor to teach it. She won a grant to be an early adopter of Canvas and I rejoiced when I looked her up and read about her interests.

I entered the course, however, with a really really really bad attitude. I blogged about this and now that I reread my thinking, I sense my budding frustration with education programs. For the most part, I experienced classes where they made students create hypothetical situations to apply what they’ve learned to a situation that they may face in the future. David Wiley brilliantly summarizes these assignments as ‘disposable assignments’ and I was lucky because I had almost eight years of teaching experience to draw from when I started this program. I watched my new-to-teaching colleagues struggle to make up scenarios. Struggle to reflect on things that may or may not happen. And we were bored out of our minds reflecting on our reflections about our reflective learning. “Renewable assignments” such as what Mike is proposing is exactly what is needed in education programs.

And yes, I can see how you may see these “renewable assignments” as a new buzzword and I’ll be the first to agree those terms in higher education are annoying. But are they harmful? Yes and no. Jeffrey Young, in Buzzwords May Be Stifling Teaching Innovation, lists current buzzwords and the survey responses of Chronicle readers. Here’s the thing, that I thought of when I read this article. Depending on your upper-administration those terms either help us in educational technology or they hurt us. If your upper-administration trusts you to help teachers experiment, then rock on, those terms allow them stay out of your way. They don’t have time to learn what they are, but they know it may be worth while exploring if you advise them.

If your upper-administration micro-manages your every move and doubts your expertise and vision, then those terms are going to hurt you. It’s even worse if they think you’re attracted to ideas because you’re ambitious. Should you work in an environment where you lack support, it’s in your best interest to define these terms before the upper-administration does in the form a grant or an initiative. Let’s have a beer or five and talk about this sometime. 

And really, there are too many problems in higher education to count, but let me tell you something, if there is something we need to burn down to the ground, it’s the way we teach future teachers.

I caught my first glimpse of the problem when I took a course at a local university on the state tuition waiver. They had rejected me from their College of Education PhD program and I wanted to know if I was truly outclassed by the people who got in. Who beat me? What did they have that I didn’t? What can I do to improve? So I showed up for the first night of the course after teaching three composition courses at two different colleges, and as I listened to people introduce themselves. I realized I was the only person in the room with any teaching experience. The rest were students hoping to become high school principals yet none of them, I mean, not a one, had any classroom experience. They were all bilingual and had impressive undergraduate credentials, and I realized that on paper, I could never compete with their applications. As the class progressed, I started to really pay attention to the professor and her teaching assistant. They were working on an article together and our class was an experiment for them. And that’s cool, but I never felt so stifled as a student. They both had to approve my works cited before I could write my paper. When I tried to explain that I tend to write and research as I go, they shut me down with the threat of a bad grade. They needed to give me a stamp of approval for what I would cite. A blog post, for the record, got the red pen. “Not peer reviewed” despite the 20 or so articulate blog responses and tweets from scholars in the field. That not-scholar-enough-blogger was George Siemens [WTF, right? Insert laugh track here]. 

In short, I was in a class of future leaders who had never taught before and the teachers were more invested in their publication than our learning. We didn’t use any technology other than Microsoft Word in that class, and despite all of the great information we could have used from the Internet (it was 2007), we were limited to certain databases and sources. I walked away with a paper that was unpublishable in any peer-reviewed journal because I had to include first-person reflection and I swallowed the acute realization I’ll never get into an R1 school. Oh, and yeah, I got an A.

This story connects to why I’m interested in the federated wiki for three reasons and let me use some educator-speak to explain. 1] I have a lot of formal education experience with certificates and degrees. The curriculum was set by the institution and accredited. All that jazz. 2] I have a lengthy history with non-formal learning with my personal interests. I’ve taken classes on avalanche safety, trail-crew work, sewing, astrology, candle-making, stained glass cutting, and cyclocross racing, to name a few. Every course had a somewhat organized set of outcomes with an expert who changed the curriculum based on the learners in the class. Jazzed up learning! 3] Where the magic and joy happens for me as a learner is when my learning is informal, or what I prefer to call self-directed learning. (If you know this debate, I don’t agree that informal learning is unintentional whereas self-directed learning is a type of informal learning that is purposeful and truer to my pedagogical worldview. In short, it’s semantics and it’s confusing to people to explain the difference between informal and nonformal).

Think of learning in three ways: formal learning helps you get a job (The Man), informal learning helps you grow as a person in your community (The People), and self-directed learning is pure selfish blissful learning for learning’s sake (The Self). Now before you want to tear apart my explanation because I have really simplified these definitions, let me explain. Our goal in higher education, for the best educators, is to have students experience informal and self-directed learning and love our discipline the way we do in the formal setting. We want them to be lifelong learners. Citizens who are interested in improving the world we live in. We want them to find meaningful work. 

But I’ve got to tell you, nothing kills that self-directed spirit more than a set curriculum. Nothing puts out the fire of curiosity like dull formal education. Maybe you’ve been out of college for awhile. Maybe you’ve had some joy with MOOCs. Maybe you’ve just started college. Maybe you’re an administrator. Maybe you’re just starting graduate school. Maybe you’re questioning if I am just too pessimistic. Maybe I’m way off. Here’s what I know.

If I had to think of a song that summarizes how formal education feels to me after years and years of it, I’ve got a song for you. You know that point where Johnny Rotten from The Sex Pistols says “No fun” over and over againI know Iggy Pop sings this song too, but he makes “no fun” sound cool and kind of badass loner-like. Johnny, however, back in his prime, tells the story of gritty, nasty, boredom–a frustrating lack of joy. No fun. No fun. My babe, no fun.

And this lack of fun–No Fun!–really frustrated me when I started to research writing. That class, for most students, is the last English class they will ever have to take. And they hate it. Adjuncts, by and large, are the ones who get stuck teaching it. Students walk into the class with the same bad attitude that I described above about my Ed Tech class. I’ve been researching since fifth grade, they think, and now I’ve got to take this class? I realized early on I was not going to win students over with my love of the written word. Who gives a rat’s ass, lady? English majors are suckers! I want to be a nurse/engineer/chemist/etc. and this class might kill my GPA.

So I took another approach as a teacher. Instead of droning on about the syllabus the first day, I asked them to write for about five minutes about what they liked to learn about using the Internet or magazines on their free time. When you’re not doing homework, what do you like to learn about? I’d then write on the board their responses everything from making homemade baby food to World of WarCraft to hunting to make-up techniques to dirt bike racing. Depending on what I was into, I’d write my hobby job research. I’d then ask them to write the three big questions that they have about their interests and where they would look up information. By then, class would be over and I’d ask them to come back with a list of their sources, their three questions about their personal research, and any questions about the syllabus. Are you going to collect this, they’d ask?

If I collect it, does it change the way you would do it? I’d ask. Silence.

At that point, I’d laugh and give my first “You’re in college now, I want you think for yourself, speech. If you do everything for grades, college is going to be a huge waste of your time.” Most of the students would relax. A few would drop my class the second they could get to a computer. There were always one or two who would stay behind class completely freaked out that I didn’t give them a rubric or written instructions for their homework. These were students, I realized, that had never found the joy in self-directed learning. When I collected their what-do-you-research-for-fun, they listed academic-type research connected to their future profession. Maybe that was fun for them, but I don’t think so.

So how does this connect to my learning about fire lookouts? I’ll return to this in my next post and I’ll link my new pages in the federated wiki. 

photo credit:

photo credit:

For now, here’s what I’m thinking: this past weekend, I hiked to Lookout Mountain Lookout and I sat outside reading the log book from visitors that dated back to the mid-90s. There were pages and pages of reflections from strangers who wrote things similar to what I would write. They also wrote things I would never think of and that got me reflecting on my use of the federated wiki and my own education. I forked a couple pages by taking photos of them.

I was having a lot of fun even though the mold in the books made me sneeze every ten minutes. I realized I rarely experienced some of the serendipitously fun learning I’ve had in the last year when I was a student.

The federated wiki works like that log book. You leave your thoughts for others. That history is left for somebody else. It’s a bit of The Self and The People. And imagine, Mike Caulfield’s students are going to get formal credit using the federated wiki. I then stared into space for who knows how long. That’s why I love the backcountry.

The wind picked up, so I went inside to read Ira Spring’s Lookouts: Firewatchers of the Cascades and the Olympics, the first edition. 

His opening paragraph describes how in the 1930s, the fire lookouts were a cutting edge technological solution to the problem of wildfires in Washington State. He describes how they built a network of lookouts staffed by people who communicated by hiking, horse travel, radio, and mail. They saw themselves as pioneers saving their communities from natural devastation and the destructive forces of wildfires.

Then technological advances such as the helicopter, satellite communication, and other communication tools left no need for the fire lookouts. Many of them have been destroyed or they remain in various states of disrepair. This history has almost been erased, yet there is a great deal we can still learn.

Spring’s tone is full of melancholy as he reflects on this lost history, “None of us expected the future to arrive so soon.”

None of us still expect the future–be it an earthquake or another natural disaster– to arrive so soon. The future arriving soon. Think about that.

We now have technology to help us, right?

And yet the forests still burn. The forests still burn.

About Alyson Indrunas

Always learning about instructional design, educational technology, professional development, adult education, and writing.
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1 Response to The Forests Still Burn

  1. Pingback: Disasters & Bicycles | Spoke & Hub

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