Casting Out Nines: An update and a look ahead

Greetings. I’m writing this little missive that is about my blog Casting Out Nines. Since it’s about my blog, it doesn’t really belong on the blog and so I am putting it here for posterity. I’m writing this because I felt the need to explain why I hadn’t blogged in a couple of months. I also wanted to write so I could get my own thoughts in order as I get back into blogging. Writing for an audience is good for that.

If you get bored with this, that’s OK. But if you read this and it sparks some thought you’d like to share, I’d love to hear it.

Two months ago

My last post on the blog was in August. I wrote a post on work-life balance (that I thought was pretty good). After that post, I had plans for what to do next. I was going to turn that post into a series. I was going to write up some reports on the newest iteration of the flipped calculus course. I was going to do a series on GTD for academics. I was going to start a weekly series of reviews of technology. I had a lot of plans and a schedule for rolling them out.

But something funny happened as I was doing all this writing and making all these plans: I discovered that I had no interest in actually doing any of it. It was more than writers’ block — it was being just plain tired of blogging, a sense of being done with the whole thing.

So I stopped.

Why did I stop?

I don’t really know, to be honest. It’s hard to trace it all back to one thing.

Part of it was the sheer busyness of this semester. In addition to my teaching, I’ve been super busy on the speaking front (as I write this I am on an airplane coming home from a gig at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, CA). I’m coordinating a research project. I was nominated for a university teaching award and had to write a big dossier/application for it on short notice. Lots of stuff. Busy at home too, with kids in soccer and choir and math club and so on. Busy. As in, writing-in-incomplete-sentences busy. Throwing a regular blogging schedule on top of that just made me… really tired.

Another part of it was a feeling that I’ve said all this before on the blog. I was beginning to feel like I was just repeating myself over and over, that there was nothing new or useful in any of the stuff I had planned to do. Especially about the flipped classroom, a subject that is dear to my heart, anything I tried to write had been done before — in my own posts, sometimes, and without me realizing it until after the fact. The feeling that I’d come to a plateau.

And since I’m not writing this at the Chronicle right now, I will go out on a limb and say that a significant factor in my hiatus was that, frankly, I was sick of dealing with that certain subset of the commenters who tend to crowd out discussion on CHE blogs generally speaking. If you’ve read some of the comments I get, you know who I am talking about. These are folks who pervade all discussion with a black cloud of negativity, sometimes outright hostility. I can’t account for their attitudes. I think many of them have been burned by higher education and yet still persist in working in it, so they have a deep-seated sense of resentment towards students, toward the profession, toward anybody who might suggest that things can change for the better. When I say sick I do not mean this figuratively. Sick describes the state of my own soul and attitude about blogging having tried time and again to engage these people in discussion. It sucked the energy right out of me and I was just tired.

So… am I quitting?

I thought about it. It definitely crossed my mind to close down the blog, thank the Chronicle for all its support and work, and just take a year off to refocus, retool, and then ultimately relaunch under a different name and possibly with a different focus.

Or not. Just quit entirely and never look back, focusing my writing energies on research and speaking and so on.

I definitely considered all options, but ultimately the same thing kept happening whenever I’d just about made up my mind to do it: People would tell me that what I wrote somehow made a difference for them.

I don’t deserve to be able to say that. All I’m doing when I blog is brain-dumping ideas, many half-baked and all of them unsolicited, onto an unsuspecting internet and seeing what happens. I don’t really polish my blogging like some people do. I’ve been known to say that editing is for the weak.

And yet:

  • This weekend two different people at Cal Poly came up to me, thanked me for writing on the blog, and asked me specific questions or made specific comments about specific things I wrote months ago that stuck in their minds.
  • At the Joint Meetings last year more than one person sought me out to say something about my posts and talk to me about it.
  • I’ve gotten at least a couple of invitations to come speak or consult with faculty in the last year that happened specifically because of stuff that ended up on the blog.
  • I’ve gotten more than a couple of emails, completely out of the blue, from people I’ve never met to thank me for some offhand comment or unedited blog post I put up once.

So I don’t know how or why, but the blog has and is having a positive impact on people — higher ed types, students, high school teachers, parents — and just seems wrong to stop. It seems more right to change things up, fight the tiredness, and get back in the saddle.

Interlude: Clarifications

  1. About those commenters: Let it be known that I like it when people have specific, principled criticism about my ideas and my writing. My blog is called “Casting Out Nines” because casting out nines is a rudimentary error-checking algorithm — and that’s how I view the blog. I write stuff, throw it out there, and then smart people pick it apart and whatever survives moves forward. Debate and disagreement can be good.
  2. BUT: Constant engagement with unrepentant negativity is bad for the soul. And, it’s too easy. There’s enough negativity in higher education already. Higher ed does not need any more of it. I certainly do not need any more of it. I’ve gone down that road before and it’s not pretty.
  3. The Chronicle of Higher Education has been an excellent partner in blogging and this is not about them. When they approached me in 2010 to join their then-new blog network, I’d been self-hosting CO9s on a platform like running a business out of my garage. They took me on, agreed to handle all the backend stuff, and gave me complete say over what I write and how often I write it. I owe them a lot of things, but first of all my thanks.

What’s next?

What’s next is that I am relaunching the blog effective immediately with some important changes in how I handle the experience, and with a clearly articulated framework — I hate the term “mission statement” but that’s sort of what it is — for what I am doing and why. Keep reading.

Important change 1a: Social media is now my comment section.

Starting with the next post (coming this week) I will be adopting the practice of using social media as the sole means of interacting with others about my posts after they are published. I will begin placing a blurb at the bottom of each post that says something like:

To continue the conversation, follow me on Twitter @RobertTalbert or on Google+, and share this post using the links above.

I might add Ello to the mix.

Why am I doing this? Because consistently Twitter and Google+ have provided me with a much stronger signal-to-noise ratio when it comes to feedback than the blog’s actual comment section. Also, see the next:

Important change 1b: My involvement in the comment section at the blog is done.

Commencing immediately I am no longer doing anything with the actual comment section. At all. I am going to let that section police itself. But I will not be checking the comment section.

Why am I doing this? Because it was getting to the point that when I saw there were 36 comments on a post, my stomach began to lurch and I began to think about how much time and energy I’d have to spend wading through and dealing with negativity. Not critical comments as such (see above) but the constant, soul-sucking negativity that I’d somehow grown accustomed to finding.

Also, the commenters to whom I am referring do their thing precisely because it takes no effort whatsoever to do it. The comment section on CHE blogs has, for far too long, represented an easy way in to promulgating a black cloud over everything in sight. It’s lazy. If these people really have principled alternatives to offer, let them get on Twitter or start up their own blog, rather than take the path of least resistance.

For those readers who do show up and want to offer insights, or just agree with me and have no negativity in mind — thank you, but talk amongst yourselves, argue well with the haters, and get on social media or your blog if you would like to interact with me about it.

Another option here would be to turn comments off completely. I may yet do that. We’ll see.

Important change 2: I am making a personal commitment to making the blog focused on positive messaging and content that is intended to build up and encourage.

Because the negative comment situation is partially my own fault. In one recent post, for instance, I compared the life’s work of a professor to an automatic blackboard cleaner. In other posts, I’ve been caustic, snarky, preachy, or needlessly critical. This is not the public face I wish to put forward.

I have this document called my Personal Life Plan that is exactly what it sounds like. It’s an idea from Michael Hyatt. Within that document is a Professional Vision statement — a summary of what I would like my professional persona to look like. When looking back at some of my past posts, I noticed that the message I was putting out in the articles was at odds with the vision I have for myself. Instead, they ought to be mutually supportive, like vectors that pull in the same direction. It hasn’t always been this way but I am committing to fixing that.

Important change 3, not really a major change but a shift: I’m probably going to blog less about the flipped classroom.

The flipped classroom is a big deal, it’s something I have worked with a lot, and I have a lot of things to say about it still. But I think the time for blogging about it all is coming to an end except maybe to start highlighting what other people are doing. It’s part of that feeling that whenever I write a blog post, I’ve done it before. It feels as though I am blogging about the flipped classroom and nothing else, when in fact I have a lot of other things I’m interested in.

What I am thinking of doing instead is taking all this stuff about the flipped classroom on the blog and writing a book, where everything I’ve said about the flipped classroom is condensed into one place for people to use as a reference or a starting point, including things I haven’t blogged about yet (such as the nitty gritty technical details of things). Jon Bergmann wrote an excellent book on the flipped classroom for the K-12 people but there’s not much out there for higher ed types. (Although I just contributed a chapter to a book that will come out in a year or so; it’s going to be quite different than what I have in mind.)

Offloading my flipped classroom thoughts into a book will free up space, both textual and mental, for me to blog about other things that I find interesting and possibly the readers do too.

To repeat, I won’t STOP blogging about the flipped classroom but I want CO9s to be about more than just the flipped classroom.

And now, a mission statement

Casting Out Nines is my blog. It is my means of expressing my thoughts and ideas to the general public, to whomever wants to hear. I write on the blog with the following specific purposes in mind:

  1. To discuss issues at the intersection of teaching, learning, and technology with a general inclination towards the STEM disciplines (mathematics and CS particularly).
  2. To highlight issues of interest in each of the above areas individually. In teaching and learning: Issues of specific pedagogies, classroom practice, and professional life. In technology: Implementations and reviews of technological tools and their use in the classroom.
  3. To promote positive messages about teaching, learning and technology through such means as interviews with STEM people and educators; reports of good work happening in higher education that might not make the regular news; to summarize work being done that shows potential for positive impact on teaching and learning.
  4. To digest and report on interesting research in teaching, learning and technology.

The overarching purpose of all this is to improve the collective understanding about student learning and faculty work, especially in teaching in the STEM disciplines and in the use of technology — and to make a positive difference in the lives and work of those involved in these areas.

To this end, I’ll be committing — really trying! — to publish articles of interest at least a couple of times a week that pertain to the topics above.

Also to this end I am committing to fostering a positive cloud of discussion around the articles. When criticism appears, to the extent that the criticism is principled and constructive I will engage with it. This engagement will take place in the public social media sphere where all can see and all can participate, and where casual negativity is not encouraged.

The blog will be something that refects my own professional vision — to maintain a positive, encouraging, entreprenurial, “can-do” attitude about the work of teaching and learning that is infused with curiosity. I’m not always on the mark with this but it will be what I, and my articles, aspire to.

The final word

Thanks for sitting through all this. If you’ve read the blog, I appreciate it. If not, I invite you to come on over some time. I’m looking forward to getting (re)started and seeing what happens.

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