Ça Depend

We all carry trace fossil’s within us–the marks that the dead and the missed leave behind. Handwriting on the envelope, the wear on a wooden step left by footfall; the memory of a familiar gesture by someone gone, repeated so often it has worked it own groove in both air and mind: these two are trace fossils too. from Underland, by Robert MacFarlane

This past week, I checked out MacFarlane’s book from the library. I mean, not the actual library, but from the Libby App supported by my local library system, and it’s one of those books I want to read one chapter at a time because there is so much to think about. He’s taking me to places where I can’t travel right now, while also teaching me new things about the connection of the subterranean, and in a broad strokes, The Natural as Supernatural. I picked this book up soon after I read Into The Wild again, a book I decided I should read because John Krakauer does such a fantastic job of describing wild places and the super natural. I wanted to see if I would change my mind about McCandless, and his story, though truth be told, I don’t remember much from when I first read it. Other than I know I’ve met a dreamer or ten like him. I found the book to be just as much about Krakauer as it was about his subject, and just as much about an America that no longer exists. He was also responding to the people who took the time to write him about the flaws in the article he published prior to the book, and he explores his own near-death escapes.

I laughed out loud when Krakauer describe Thoreau as “prissy” but I noted that he had several quotes from the Transcendentalist throughout the book. This one, in particular, I loved:

The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow I have clutched.

from Walden

The prissy dig reflects the disappointment a lot of us have when we learn that at Walden, Thoreau had people who delivered him food, and he really had kind of a dandy Air B-n-B package deal not far from civilization. Unlike McCandless, who tragically starved to death, Thoreau lived like a writer-in-residence. What I loved about reading Into the Wild, this time around, is I appreciated Krakauer’s depiction of the people he met during his research. That’s what makes the book so good. It’s a snapshot of America that I think has disappeared. Like you can’t be a bearded broke hippie sneaking your canoe across the border of Mexico and get back into America without a passport these days. You can’t disappear without some real foresight of discarding your cell phone and ATM card. Surveillance cameras would find you. In a lot of ways, when I first read his story, I was really angry at how wasteful this middle-class kid was who had an excellent college degree (he graduated from Emory) and a nest egg of an unfathomable amount of money to me that he donated or burned. In 1994, I rarely had more than a few hundred dollars at a time, so I thought he was dumbass with a death wish.

What I appreciated about Krakauer’s book now that I’m a woman of a certain age, is the story of his quest to live freely or to embody what I think the French mean when they say “que sera-sera” (what will be will be). Into the Wild, in my second reading, is about a young man’s search for another way of life. I find it really fascinating he made the trip into the Alaskan bush without a map, without a lot of things that really made him quite stupid and careless, but also really brave. Think what you will about how that kid died, but I’m a bit fascinated by his quest. I can totally empathize with an East Coast kid who had no idea how big rivers in the West can get late in the summer when you’ve only seen rivers recede in the heat of summer time. Krakauer uses McCandless’ story to examine the questions of a youthful spirit and that was so hard for me to see when I was younger. In my darkest moments (and I’ve had a few lately), that’s The Search that I think I’m writing about in my book.

Quick update on the book: I’m revisiting a few chapters, and I’ll get back to posting a chapter this week. Krakauer inspired me, along with a few other writing prompts, to get back to writing more descriptions of the woods. Call it the prissy Thoreau in me who is sheltering-in-place.

attribution and great Air BnB copy

Today I’m socially distancing from everything, and then I’m going to pick up working again tomorrow. I need a break. It’s now almost two months since I’ve left the 15 miles radius of my house (I’ve ridden my bike to Lake Samish and back), and just to record how I am doing, I’ll share that I had two pretty dark weeks of not sleeping more than three hours at a time, crying at weird times, and days of despair from about March 11 to the end of the month. Then on the last day of the month, I discovered Leslie Jordan’s post that went viral (we need a new word this, right), and I laughed so hard, I cried. I know a guy who yelled at his mama just like Leslie (southern drawl and all), and I lost my shit laughing. I have to admit, I miss being around people who use “y’all” when referring to the singular. Leslie’s Insta helped me that day. April, so far, has been much better.

I’m not saying I’m better. I’m not saying I’m okay. I’m not saying I’m not okay. I don’t know what I am, but I have been able to show up for (most of) the people who have needed me throughout the past few weeks. I feel ten tons of gratitude that I have a job. I’ve gotten a pretty solid grasp on the work I’m doing, and I feel like I’m contributing to the vision I’ve been hired to help build. And then at the end of the week on Fridays, I tell my husband that it’s my “longer run day,” and I bust out crying at the end of every mile. That’s like five or six miles, my watch beeps to alert me it’s the end of a mile, and I bend over to catch my breath and I cry. New workout routine! I wipe my face on my shirt since you shouldn’t touch your face, and I start running again.

I’m on Week Four of this cycle. During this time, I’ve PR’ed and improved my time per mile, so this is a wonderful surprise. When I walk in the door puffy eyed, the Mister thinks it’s exhaustion or he’s just not saying anything. And let’s be clear. I have a love-hate-mostly-hate relationship with running. It’s something I do to stay in shape, and I like it once I hit the second mile. It’s easier. And with this I’ll-have-good-cry-at-the-end-of-each-mile, I can roll into the weekend, and I do other things like write and read Brah-fest books like Into the Wild.

True Confessions: I’m sad to not be mountain biking right now. I’m honoring the “No Gnar” to not take the chance of being injured and needing an EMT who can be used elsewhere by the sick. I usually follow the “No Gnar” rule, just to be clear, but I’m also using this as an excuse to not see all of the logging that’s been done. Bellingham, a few years back, rejoiced that we’ll still have access to Galbraith when the mountain sold, but they have logged it so extensively–it depresses me. I’ve heard all kinds of reasons why they’ve done more logging than they originally promised, but it’s all bullshit to me. I believe the PR logger folks told the community what they wanted to hear, and then they logged the fuck out of the mountain anyways. People rejoice about the new views to see the bay as the silver lining, and that’s wonderful for their Insta. Good for you. The loamy goodness that makes that mountain magic is almost gone. You need big trees for that kind of hero dirt, and really within five or so years, all of the trails close to town will be blown out dust bumps with manicured trails like SST that folks who love “the gnar” seem to think is mountain biking. They’ll make nice gap jump photo shoots for the bike magazines, but the riding will suck ass. But I hear you little Brah and people who want flow trails (yawn): Ok Boomer.

There are other mountains to climb nearby via gravel roads, but I just don’t trust my focus on the bike right now. I’m also not road riding either. Hence my Grouchy McGrouchstein here. Last week, I went out for the 30 mile loop, and one-third of the cars that passed me smelled like weed, the other third were driving unbelievably fast, and the other third smelled like weed and they were driving fast. Road riding does not feel safe, so I’ll have to wait another two weeks or so until the weather gets warmer so that I can go out early early early to beat the Weed Smokers and the Too Fast Too Furious. They don’t typically ride at first light, so I’ll hit the Gandalf Hour, as I like to call it. Until then, I’m running. 

Okay, so what is the point of this post? Right.

I wanted to talk about online learning. Teaching that involves the internet to meet either in real time or not at all. Synchronous or asynchronous–as we say in the Biz–which are words we need to lose because they do not make any sense to students. Here’s what I’m wary of (among other things, but let’s focus on one). I don’t like the use of the phrase “Best Practices.” I’m sure others have written about this, so this probably nothing new. I look into this later, so don’t @ me. While talking to a teacher last week that I’ve never met in-person but we’ve worked together a lot online, I snarked out my most cohesive thought for these uncertain times, if you will. I said, “Best Practices Are The Worst.” (A Memoir).

We had a good laugh. My colleague wrote it down in our notes. I jotted it down in my work journal, and I wrote a bit more about it later.

Here’s what I wrote:

Best practices assume that you’ve had time to practice.

When teachers are new to online and/or technologies, it’s hard to adopt the pedagogical idea behind the tech at first. When people tell you about a best practice for them, they’ve had a lot of time to test it out. Use it. Revise it. 5R it, if you know that language. They can make it look it easy because they’ve had time to think about it and do the thing. For instance, everyone talks about discussion boards as “a best practice” for student engagement (oy!), and let me tell you, I thought the same thing until I had to do a discussion board as a student. I had been assigning and grading discussions for years as a teacher, because it was a best practice.

It was a much different experience as a student. I hated it with one teacher and loved it with another. One teacher, a good one, engaged with our ideas and spent a fair amount of time curating our questions and adding her own thoughts. There were eight of us in the class. Graduate level students. Engagement was high. Motivations were clearly stated from the beginning by the teacher and the students.

The other teacher, the one I really disliked, never engaged with us at all. In fact, I had a sneaking suspicion he wasn’t even reading what we wrote. I started writing questions to him in my posts, and he never answered them. Goshgolly, that guy was lazy as hell. There were 20 of us in the class. The discussion board counted “as participation” and he provided no rubric or way of measuring our level of participation (even though the class was about Assessment. I shit you not). Every week he had a different requirement. Post once, respond twice. Post twice, respond five times the next week. Post once when the spring vernal equinox moon rises, and respond seven and half times when the Leo rises into the second house of Virgo. Don’t @ me about astrology, just roll with my point. Most discussion board assignments are bullshit. Busy work. Something that mirrors “attendance” but betrays the true potential of asynchronous collaboration.

Anyways, these two Best Practices changed the way I used discussion boards in my class from there. But can I tell you for sure whether I think discussion boards are a best practice? As the French say, Ça depend. 

It depends.

After I reflected on my experience as a student, I thought a bit more about “Best Practices,” you know, as a phrase. As A Thing.

What are the best practices of teaching online? Nobody really knows. Really smart people are doing research and trying to sort it all out, but we really don’t know. We’re working on it. Truly. I work on it everyday. I think I’ve got some good ideas that may help people that I’d call a Best Practice until we learn that it sucks or that nobody is using it. Lately, I’ve been thinking about PowerPoint slides as “teaching manuals.” Like, what if we use the notes in PowerPoint slides to sneak in tips on teaching strategies? I never used PowerPoints as a teacher, but I love writing them from already existing materials. I love the idea of a new scared teacher reading my one-two sentences of advice and thinking it’s a good idea she can make better. We’ll see.

We’re certainly not prepared for this moment. For These Uncertain Times. That phrase is like we’re living in a fucking Jane Austen novel instead of a nightmare bred of late capitalism and greed.

We’re not really sure about a lot of things right now. I’m not really sure of a lot of things right now.

I spend a fair amount of time preparing materials for online teaching, hybrid, and face-to-face for disciplines I don’t teach. It’s truly extraordinary. I feel so lucky.

If we gain one thing from this moment, I hope it’s this. 

People are seeing things they used to be able to ignore. Folks with tenure feel precarity. Folks are reading emails from their technologists and asking them for help. How much time it takes to move a class online. To teach a class. To homeschool a child.

People seem to see abstract concepts like Time. Labor. The Poor. 

 Will anything change as a result of what we’re learning now?

Ça Depend. I have to have to hope that we will learn. That’s my personal best practice. That’s my best idea. To learn. To practice.

For now, I’ll leave you with another quote from MacFarlane, that word wizard:

Into the underland we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lost, and that which we love and wish to save.

About Alyson Indrunas

Always learning about instructional design, educational technology, professional development, adult education, and writing.
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