“Any opportunity you get to work with him, you should. Everything Gardner does is amazing!” exclaimed Hillary Blakeley, a dear friend and former graduate fellow at Baylor’s Academy for Teaching and Learning. At the time, I didn’t know how right Hillary was. It was somewhere around January 2010, just over two years ago, that the journey began for me. A journey began that brought me into a passionate world of ideas, excitement, awe, and learning. Wait. But I’ve been in school now for 22 consecutive years (don’t worry, this includes finishing up my Ph.D. this year). Shouldn’t I have already been learning? Well, yes, of course I was. But I’m referring to the kind of learning that doesn’t feel like work but rather like discovery. Discovery and learning – when did the two become so different? Why wasn’t my learning feeling like discovery? Well, lucky for you (and let’s be serious, definitely me) this story brings them back together.
As I was saying, the story of learning and discovery being reunited began in the spring of 2010, the spring I joined the New Media Seminar (NMS) at Baylor University. The NMS was a seminar composed of approximately 15 graduate students, staff, and faculty and was designed to help us learn and converse about the rise and progression of new media, especially as it pertains to education. Joining me in that adventure was fellow ATL graduate fellow, Addy Meira, whose recent post on her own journey through the NMS and beyond inspired me to write this blog post. And leading us bravely and brilliantly onward was our faithful seminar leader and visionary, Dr. Gardner Campbell, who was the director of Baylor’s ATL at the time. And here is where the crux of our story lies – in the passion and joy of our visionary leader.
Well, it didn’t stop there. I got to enjoy even more of the ATL and Gardner on a deeper level. The fortune I stumbled upon that year has now forever changed my life. And isn’t that the way life often goes? Seemingly random occurrences finally accumulate into a grand symphony of change and brilliance? Well, that is exactly what happened in this adventure with Gardner and my fellow graduate student fellows. The adventure continued after the NMS when I got the opportunity to become a graduate fellow working under the mentorship of Gardner. Wow. I did not realize what a glorious experience it would be or how much it would shape future me (which is actually now present me). I still remember our weekly ATL Wednesday night meetings. Myself and the other graduate fellows would gather around the table, led by our noble and inspiring leader, Gardner. It was the first time I’d ever viewed a committee meeting as fun, invigorating, inspiring. Yes inspiring. Gardner has a way to inspire people to live life fully, to be more than what they are, and to feel like their ideas are valued. It was in that incubator of love, passion, excitement, and awe that I really learned to love education and learning all over again. To be perfectly honest with you, this pivotal experience has largely helped define me as an educator today. It has made me hopeful for the future and excited to break the bounds of “ordinary” and “routine” ways of learning into which the academy can so often drift. Instead of being lulled into the sleep of the “norm” or “status quo,” I was reawakened to the joy that lies in education.
Perhaps not surprisingly, that experience of being a part of the ATL and Gardner’s vision only created a domino effect of other marvelous experiences for me to meet brilliant and amazing people who are also passionate about education. People like Michael Wesch, Alan Levine, Jim Groom, and others. I have found myself in this new world of radical system changers who want to redefine and reshape academia to be what it ought to be – a place where students are engaged and learn and PLAY. Yes, play with the information they are taking in. It is an army of educators devoted to the one thing that is most important but often forgotten, our students. In many ways, it’s all so new to me and I feel unqualified to be amongst these brilliant and passionate minds. But then, I’ve got Gardner to do what he does best – encourage me. Build me up. Remind me that I am just as capable and worthwhile. And it’s in that encouraging place that I am strengthened to take on this thing we call higher education.
Well, as life would have it the wonderful season of being in the “Gardner incubator” of love, passion, brilliance, excitement, wonder, and awe came to end with Gardner moving on to the University of Virginia in February 2011. But I have remained with an army of graduate fellows at the ATL who carry the flame, the vision, Gardner left behind. It is alongside these comrades that I fight for radical change in higher education, work to invest in and inspire my students, and kindle the fire of interest and awe that Gardner so carefully tended to while he was here. You see, Gardner, that’s what happens with you. You’re always leaving behind visionaries to carry the vision on in your place.
Recently, I got to go with my fellow visionaries Ashley Palmer and Addy Meira to the annual EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) conference. Side note: these two colleagues and friends have been lifesavers in this season of life. It is so fun and fulfilling to work alongside people who have the vision and say, “YES! Let’s do it! Let’s change higher ed.” It was there at the ELI conference, where after nearly a year of absence, I got to once again meet with my friend, colleague, and mentor, Gardner, once more. I never forget my encounters with Gardner. I forgot how intense, how capable of feeling every emotion, Gardner is. He is constantly in awe, always discovering the world around him. Despite his brilliance (admittedly, the man is a genius), he is always so ready and genuinely waiting to learn something from me. I simultaneously don’t get it but love it. And then I realize this is why he is such a fantastic teacher, mentor, educator, and revolutionary! It’s because he has this unexplainable ability to inspire everyone all the time about everything. I’m still convinced Gardner could make salting my food inspiring! I’m sure he’d go on about the particles and the explosion of taste combinations as this simple element sodium hits my tongue in conjunction with the food. And I WOULD LOVE IT. I would suddenly want to grab all the information I could about sodium. What does the element look like under a microscope? Who first discovered that sodium tastes good on food? And on and on…and so it always has been with Gardner. His ability to ignite the spark of interest and as my friend Addy Meira so brilliantly put it to live in “wonder” about everything is what makes him such a joy to be around and such a fantastic educator. And that’s why people get excited about learning and inventing and doing around him. His utter being creates a force in the environment that is so explosively full of positive energy that you cannot help but be affected by it in return.
If you were to ask me, “How does it feel to engage in a conversation with Gardner?” I would reply with the following. I would say I feel invincible. I feel like all my dreams are possible. I finally feel like dreaming is a worthwhile endeavor, as opposed to something that “takes me away from my work.” NO! Dreaming IS my work. I am here on this earth to dream and to see dreams realized. I feel valued. FINALLY – my ideas are heard and exciting. And as he responds with more excitement, I gain even more confidence and energy to keep growing and changing and thinking and learning and dreaming. I feel like I can change education and the academy. I CAN make it something amazing. I feel loved, in that most genuine of ways. And I feel passionate. And in that passion, I care, which causes me to do things about what I care about. I feel things more deeply. Things are more real and raw to me. It’s like a drug. And that drug is optimism and joy and passion and wonder and it courses through his veins and begins to course through the veins of those around him. THAT is why being around Gardner Campbell is such an amazing experience that gets you to the very core and makes you feel good. Special. Loved. Worthwhile. Powerful enough to change things. And if you’ve ever been around him, you know what I mean.
It hits me. This has to be what my students want to feel like. Invincible. Worthwhile. Passionate. Brilliant. Invested in. Loved. Cheered on and supported. No. No. I stand corrected. This IS what my students are, but I have to help them realize it. As an educator, it is my fortunate pleasure and honor to believe in my students and help them express the true talent they have always had all along. It’s just that somewhere along the way, education started to bore them and no longer believe in them and I have to reignite the fire within them. And if it’s never burned before, well let’s get some flames and get to work!
And so I realized that’s exactly it, that is why Gardner’s students become brilliant and wonderful. It is because they were brilliant and wonderful the whole time, but Gardner cared enough to see it. To water it. To nurture it. I am convinced our world and educational systems are full of too much negativity. We complain about our students, students complain about assignments, and then we educators hate the system. And so it was refreshing at this ELI conference to just be resting in hope again. Hope that higher education can be something really cool.
Perhaps the most memorable moment for me was sitting at dinner with Gardner, hearing him tell the story of when he touched with his own hands (in gloves but still!) an original work by John Milton (for those of you who don’t know, Gardner is a major Milton scholar). And he started to tear up. As soft tears formed in his eyes, I could feel the joy of that moment. I felt like I was a Milton scholar holding an original work in my hands. And I loved it. I loved that he wasn’t afraid to feel those things. I loved that he brought me into his passion. In his vulnerability to really feel awe and joy and passion, he gave me courage to feel more deeply and live more passionately myself. I went on to tell him he had to see the documentary Being Elmo, which follows the life story of Kevin Clash, the puppeteer who invented the character Elmo on Sesame Street. It’s a moving story about his rise to fame. As I recalled the beauty of that film, which inspired me in much the same way that Gardner does, I started to tear up myself. Why? Because I allowed myself to feel that deeply about it. And it was Gardner and his endless positive energy that gave me that courage. All of sudden there I was again, standing as I was just as it began with him, in that incubator of love, passion, excitement, and awe. It is in within an incubator of love and passion and awe and wonder, which I had the pleasure of experiencing two years ago in that little ATL room, that I know my students’ inherent brilliance will shine forth. May we all carry the wonder and passion and optimism and believe in our students as much as my dear mentor Gardner has believed in me.