First thoughts about Common Book 2015

This post is written to and for my Fall 2015 Univ 200 students, although anyone involved in our thoughtvectors courses, including students in the five other sections devoted to our course theme, and all outside participants and colleagues, are also, really, a part of my larger audience.  The beauty of a blog post is its promise of unseen readers, after all.

I have been thinking about origin stories this summer in preparation for teaching Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman for another course I’m teaching.

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Origin stories are stories rooted in history.  Wonder Woman, it turns out, has a pretty fascinating origin story, as many on our campus have learned by reading the VCU Common Book.  I was never much of a history buff in my past life as a student, maybe because the people in charge of “history” focused so much on the wars and the winners that I never identified too much with the narratives.  However, like Jill Lepore’s sub-title suggests, it turns out that histories are often full of secrets.

The first time I watched  PBS’ “Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Movement,” I was riveted by the stories of the civil rights movement, stories that had been ignored, or flat-lined with bland optimism, or shrouded in dark closets in the high school and college history courses I took.  I read Lies My Teacher Told Me, James Loewen’s critique of twelve leading high school history text books and their blatant misinformation with a new kind of fury.  I was angry because history had been generalized, boring and presented as a collection of facts, when in fact it was rich and messy and full of human passion and mistakes and floundering.

Origin stories are the same: they are never linear or easy, and the truth of those stories cannot be simply watered down into a few easy paragraphs like they do in the history books that fail us. (Wonder Woman’s history took over 400 pages for Lepore to tell).

But what do history and origin stories have to do with your Univ 200 class?  Can a course even have a history?  And if it does, why would its history matter to you, as a student currently enrolled in that course?

Your particular online section of Univ 200 has a history, and that history is too rich for me to summarize in a single blog post.  Before you enrolled in this course, a pilot of this course ran in Summer, 2014, a fully online cMOOC, taught by six different instructors, and connected by a shared website, thoughtvectors.net.  The six connected courses read the same readings, shared the same exploration of the early digital dreamers who imagined the internet as we know it today, and shared many of the same assignments. In addition to the 100 or so students enrolled in the course, we had over thirty outside participants, and lots of others watching and reading with us as we went along. This course is archived on the thoughtvectors.net site, and on Twitter by searching the #thoughtvectors hashtag.

When history is filtered through the lens of someone else — for example, through my lens — someone who taught the course last summer, and is invested and excited about teaching the course again, it alters that history, right?  What’s important, then, is for you to spend time browsing, exploring, and clicking around (sort of like the online version of “hanging out”) on thoughtvectors.net.  Likely, if you spend enough time there, you’ll begin to see the history of this course emerge for you, and you’ll find that the course’s history holds the individual passions of all the thinkers who came before you — the great thinkers we will read, like  Vannevar Bush and Ted Nelson) to the thinkers who teach and who have taken this course.

We are asking all of you in the five thoughtvectors sections to immerse yourself this first week and weekend in the archives of this course — to hang out in the place of its origin.  It’s low-stakes fun, really.  You get to lurk and try to figure things out with no one looking over your shoulder, and you get to find pieces of this course’s history that are interesting to you, for whatever reason, and think more about them in your own blog post.

Your goal this weekend, just as your goal for this course, really, is to find what is of most interest to you, and move toward it — constantly move in the direction of “maximal interestingness.” Then gradually, each week, use the course concepts you learn to help you consider, rethink, and shape your own interests into an Inquiry Project for the course.

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Moving toward “interestingness” may feel an odd way to begin a course, but it isn’t really. To take anything from a new experience requires a sort of latching on to the bits of the experience that resonate for you.  Finding like-minded thinkers, or finding people who share ideas that you have never thought about before, ideas that may challenge you, make you curious, make you want to know more — these are the marks of a connected learning experience, whether it’s just a good conversation with a friend, or a classroom space that creates opportunities for genuine dialogue, as the thoughtvectors Univ 200 sections this Fall aspire  to do.

A core ethos of the course, like the ethos of early and current digital innovators, is to stay open to possibilities and surprise discoveries.  Your first assignment is to linger, hang out, explore, and lurk to learn on thoughtvectors.net. Then find a thinker.  Find a thinker, a blogger that presents compelling, engaging, surprising, maximally interesting writing and ideas, and profile that blogger in your first blog post.  What did this thinker say that you found fascinating, and why was it fascinating to you in some particular way that it may not be fascinating to others?  Where did your mind go when you read this blogger’s ideas?  What questions pushed at the edges of your imagination after reading this blogger?

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In my welcome email you will find information about setting up your own Rampages blog, if you have not already done so in a previous Univ course.  I will also direct you to the course syllabus on the thoughtvectors.net site, as well as give you other important information necessary to begin our online learning together.  In the meantime, find a thinker.