A Monday Disguised as a Tuesday and The Wisdom to Know the Difference

I watch from the curb as two people pull out onto the road, just past my broke-down Volkswagen. The passenger forgets that she set her tumbler filled with freshly-brewed coffee on the roof before she got in, shutting the door and putting on her seat belt.


Screeching to a halt, she pops out of the car and scurries to swoop it up. Realizing I’ve watched the sequence unfold just a few feet away, she tucks her pride in with her shirt before she gets back in the car.

“It’s a Monday disguised as Tuesday,” she quips. “Didn’t you know?”

I did.

I watch the speed-limit break as they pull away down the road toward Starbucks.


An hour before I watch the tumbler take a tumble, I pop down into my car, finally ready to cruise home and get some much-needed work done. In routine fashion, I slip the key in the ignition, turn around and hug the passenger seat, gazing out the rear-window before I back up.

I turn the key and nothing happens.

I look back and blink twice.

I try again. Nothing. Not a click, or a thud, or a sign of life. In fact, the key won’t even turn all the way. Rather quickly, I deduce that the ignition switch that I just had installed in my 98 Jetta must be frozen and that I won’t have a car for 24 hours. I wiggle the steering wheel; I put the car in gear; I hold down different combinations of clutch and break as I try to get the key to go full-circle.

Still nothing.

Having done this dance all summer—as the proud owner of what will soon be a licensed historic Florida vehicle—I get on the phone to AAA, grateful that I renewed my membership last week.

Not too much later the tow-truck driver arrives in a behemoth. Trucks like the one he’s driving could easily be featured on an episode of Ice Road Truckers and would be good for just about any roadside assistance…

…except for squeezing my car out of the caddy-corner spot on the narrow street it’s stranded on in the middle of rush hour traffic. 30 more minutes snail by and I sit on the curb drinking a Seagram’s Ginger Ale, before I see a smaller truck with a wench pull up, position itself accordingly, and hoist my car to salvation.


A few hours before the not-starting and hoisting, I’m sitting in Mikey’s Bakery and Café devouring a Reuben and a Diet Cheerwine. Their selection of “Old Timey” soda is second to none — an open invitation for me to make a weekly lunch date with myself. I’ve already finished the kettle chips, which were good, but not as good as the pasta-salad I had asked for.

It’s damn good pasta salad — enough to disappoint you when you don’t get it.

“How is everything,” asks the kid-who-works-there.

“Fine,” I say, with a mouthful of pastrami, too exhausted and worn down by the midday Tampa heat to complain.


Two hours before I sit down to sip on deliciously rendered cane-sugar soda and unrequested potato chips, I find myself sputtering around the neighborhood, making stops at every-other telephone pole. I’m armed and dangerous with a fist full of fliers and a heavy-duty stapler. Looking for strategic ways to display “Lost Dog” fliers is a sad day to spend an afternoon, particularly because I get acquainted with the other slew of missing pups whose banners, judging by their water-logged and sun bleached condition, have been flying for more than a few days. I start to wonder: who really gets lost when a friend is missing, furry or otherwise?

Telephone poles have to be the most analogue of mediums, seemingly incapable of the kind of feedback that soothes the soul in times of distress, whether by wood or by wire. We’re all lost when we lose a sense of confirmation that’s so vital to our being human in the world.

I get out every so often, leaving the car running in the middle of the road, undoubtedly agitating drivers on their lackadaisical lunch break who would rather not swerve out of the way. I whistle and yell, listening for a response, searching high grass in hope that out of nowhere the pup will show up. The reality is that my yells only beckon to other neighborhood dogs, all to ready to answer back in a language I can’t understand. I stand their clueless, wishing I could ask them if they’ve seen the little guy who went foraging on his own a few hours ago.

Stopping by my colleague’s new house, I ask if she’s seen him but looking at the tears in her eyes I know the answer before the words leave my mouth.

“I feel like I’ve lost a child,” she whispers, sitting on the stoop.

I’m all too familiar with the feeling. I reach out and give her a hug, telling her that everything will be alright, wishing I believed it more than I did. She smiles for a moment and we go back to sitting, staring straight ahead.


At 5 o’clock the evening before, I get home from school and say hi to Simba, my fuzzy white-and-tan Persian/Maine Coon buddy who greets me by the door every day. Dangling bags and holding books, I flop them on the couch as I reach down to pat his soft head and give him some love behind the ears. He does his usual sashay around my legs, wiggling his tail in excitement, as if to say his ready for treats and some brushing.

“Alright buddy,” I say, loud and in that tone he knows means he’s about to get what he wants. “Come on.” We both walk briskly into my office and he hurls his pantaloon-legs on the table I’ve put there specifically so he can watch me work from across the room. I lay out 5 treats in the corner, which he gobbles up nearly as fast as I devour a sandwich in the 20 minute break I get between classes. I gently scratch his raised back and softly pull his tail through my fingers as I head to the shower.

He follows and moves into his box, so I turn away to give him some privacy and slip under the hot water for a much needed after work-out rinse. A few minutes later, I turn off the water, step out, and see his tail. It’s in the same spot it was in before I got wet. He looks back at me, mixed up in distress and confusion, as if to say, “I don’t know Dad, it just won’t come out.”

In the next 30 minutes he moves back into the box three times, spending all of the time in between nursing the gap below his belly. It’s swollen and seems tender.

“Something’s not right,” I tell myself, grabbing the phone and calling a friend who knows more about illness and animals than I do. She tells me to keep an eye on him and give me the number to a vet.

“If he doesn’t get better in a few hours, you should probably take him in,” she says. “It’ll be expensive—“

“It doesn’t matter,” I tell her, cutting her off, “Simba’s the healthiest cat in the world. I don’t know what I’d do if something happened to him.”

“Well it could be nothing,” she tells me. “So don’t worry just yet. But let me know how it goes, ok?”

I hang up the phone worried and upset. Darting to my computer I find others who describe the exact same symptoms. “Get him to the emergency room right away because you’re cat might die” is the last thing I read before I snatch him into my arms and rush down the steps to my car, heading north and calling the Vet as I drive.

I’m frantic, on the phone, shifting gears and stomping on brakes through what’s left of rush hour traffic. “You’re doing the right thing,” the receptionist says. “We’ll see him as soon as you get here.” I drop the phone on my lap, shift into 4th gear and tear through cars, keeping my hand on Simba’s belly, telling him everything will be fine. Surprisingly he’s not worried, which makes me worry more and realize that I’m really talking to myself.

After a few hours in the emergency room — with the vet techs telling me that he’s the “best looking urine-blocked kitty” they’d ever seen, and me asking the same questions over and over again — I make it home and sleep for a few hours. In the morning I get the call that they’re going to keep him for another day to keep pumping fluids into him and insert a catheter. “Otherwise,” the vet says, “he should be alright.”

For the first time since I walked out of the emergency room I stop thinking about the “Do Not Resuscitate” form I signed before I left. I get off the phone and notice a text message from a colleague asking if I can canvas the neighborhood with fliers. “They’re in your email,” she says.


We can’t help what happens to us when bad turns worse. In times of trouble and grief, it seems like we can’t avoid the harrowing “Why” that points a finger at us, charging us to figure out in some narrative order what’s happening, how it’s happening, and what to do next. Most of the time it seems like the mundane everyday sequence of things—which always lead to more things good and bad alike—are nothing more than events that punctuate our experiences, building them up just so we can be let down. Sometimes the interconnectedness of those things that happen appear to be prearranged, unrelenting, or unfair, escalating the pressure we feel to perform the best version of ourselves in the face of uncertainty at the very moment when that best version is something we’re not.

Famous folks like to suggest that we should try to do everything in life, but only ever in moderation. In my experience, that’s an idealist’s version of the way things tend to transpire: Everything happens, and it happens all at once. So yes, we do everything, but moderating that everything is hardly ever a choice. It’s great to be an agent of destiny, which is truly a virtue in the world we live in, but time and time again we find ourselves resigned to a story not of our own making and a world of experience that tries our sense of dignity.

On the worst days—what for lack of more eloquent language constitutes the shittiest of days—we might find ourselves pinned down by an unforgiving universe when the “minor events of daily life [are] unsettled or unsettling” (Zaner, 2004, p. 113). Since we can’t help to make sense of these episodes of our lives as we live them, often times finding meaning in them right before of immediately after they happen, it’s as though we’re dammed to the eternal consequence of the chaos we find ourselves amid. Sometimes it’s unclear whether or not what we wish will happen will or can prevail (p. 122).

I can remember as a little boy, trying to ride a wave in the ocean that was too big for me—way over my head—and finding myself tumbling again and again under a breaking tide, fighting my way up only to grasp the air that would give me the ability to keep fighting through the surf for the rest of the day—or week, for that matter—or however long I had in the water.

That breath of fresh air, in the chaos, among the crashing wave that puts us in distress when one thing after another throws us down and pulls us into the undertow is what can remind us that we’re not totally lost. It’s the grace we find twisted up in circumstances of grief, illness, and escalation that can remind us that an essential part of life is its tragedy. It’s up to us to remember that tragedy is all too certain, just as it’s always starkly unfamiliar when we confront it. It’s up to us to “refuse to give up or get out of the way” (p. 126).

Those times when we live with the constant, face-to-face reminders of ourselves seen by others—of our failings and misfortunes—we don’t have to remain resigned to our seeming fate, despondent yet reaching for dignity. We can look to others and communicate in trust, undergoing a sort-of moral transformation that changes our perspective (p. 139). We hug, have a sincere handshake, or sit side-by-side with another, and it’s their presence that supplies the air we need to keep breathing, fighting through the worst of it so we can go on and struggle through the rest; so we can go on, hoping for the best.

When we find those moments of joy and pleasure—maybe in a day where nothing goes wrong—we can realize in hindsight that everything that happens—good or bad, tragic or comic, awe-filling or gut-wrenching—is proof enough that we live in spite of the persistent possibility that all could be lost at any moment, for any reason, or for no reason at all. Be it the case that we find ourselves completely lost, we won’t be around to know it anyway, so the tragedy is worth all that living it entails.

We need our pain to remind us of what’s good, and that means incurring trouble as it comes. Of course, the most we can ever hope for is a certain realxedness to experience, something someone else famous once said (Becker, 1973).


Sitting outside at 3 in the morning, I can’t stop the memories from pushing past the nickelodeon in my mind. I see all of the times I can’t recall otherwise, remembering all of the versions of myself that I’ve been, and realizing that Simba’s been the silent observer to it all. He’s never failed to be there at night or in the morning, always by my side, not worried about what I’ve done or what I’m going through, but constant in his resolve to love and be loved back.

I do nothing but hope he’ll be ok. The breeze picks up and the trees shutter for a moment just as I’m reminded of the prayer they teach those people who go to those rooms on Thursday nights, to help each other cope with a life full of trouble:

 Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.


Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. New York: Simon & Schuster

Zaner, R.M. (2004). Conversations of the edge. Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press

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A Monday Disguised as a Tuesday and The Wisdom to Know the Difference by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.


The Digital Playground

We’re supposed to be playing games. We’re not. We’re starting a fight.

People argue and the rhythm beats against my skull. They toss ideas back and forth like a game of catch with a ball that’s easy to throw but difficult to throw back. The more that people argue, the less they mean and the more they attack one another.

I want to do something fun. That’s why I’m here—why we’re all here—to begin with. We’re supposed to learn through play. Instead, the back and forth of confrontation sails overhead, competitive, taunting, and demeaning. I put my hands against my temples, waiting for the ball, following along—annoyed but still attentive:

“I’m just sayin’.”

Someone yells, tossing the ball across the room.

I’m just sayin’!”

Louder, throwing with more force.

I’m just sayin’.”

It’s falls to the ground and someone picks it back up.

The ball passes in front of me, way above my blood pressure, making me tense. I’m not sure how to play when people fight. I’m a bigger fan of dialogue, where everyone plays along. When people contribute easily, included in the game—connecting with others as they share ideas, suspending assumptions. Playing fair and, for the most part, playing nice.

This is not that. This is people fighting over a ball…


“But students aren’t that smart. They want things to be easy and they don’t want…”



“Do you know how ridiculous that sounds? Really, I mean you can’t honestly believe…”



“You can’t say that! That’s not necessarily true! Studies show that people don’t care…”


Classes like this are ruined from the start by too many personalities pulling in every direction. Discussion is disruptive; dialogue is meaningful; but here learning is reduced to miscommunication. Though no one’s in charge, no one takes turns because everyone has something to say. And someone always gets left out.

In dialogue, when one person wins, everyone wins.

That’s just the way that it goes. I hate being the person who’s unsure if they’ll get to play. I make others know that I’m not going away. I assert my presence and take a firm stand. I struggle for attention among strong egos. The need to be hears comes before good ideas and competition trumps decorum. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m abrasive—that I get animated when I feel threatened. Motivated by malice and cursing under my breath, I look for ways to break the rules and stay involved, get my words in edgewise and find a way to throw the ball.

I get loud and speak out of turn. I interrupt just to digress. My chest is tight from my heart to my neck, suffocated with ambition, the empathy strangled out of my words. Hot with anger I hold my breath, biting my tongue in half at the sour taste as the room gets heated.

I realize that I’ve had it all wrong: This isn’t play; this is people fighting with guns

I grip my desk to control the expressions on my face. Someone takes a shot at me, pulling me into the fight. Thrust into the open, I’m mocked by a person who’s got a way with words—criticism with a real need to be “right.” On guard, I pull back, holstering hasty ideas, taking my finger off the trigger, thinking about escape and there’s bedlam in my mind, generating thoughts too raw to express, harboring words in steady production as I prepare to draw. It’s only a matter of time before things get loud and ugly and I don’t want to miss the point when I get my chance take my shot. Animosity is churned into gunpowder, held back with bated breath and the smallest spark of excitement is explosive enough set me off.

People draw and fire, the room filled with smoke—hot air pouring from the barrel of their tongues. Others take cover, taking shots at each other, not sure where their words will land. Good ideas are slaughtered and threads of conversation murdered—maimed into assertions with no conclusion or point. A few people throw out terms in a desperate measure of defense, hurling boulder-sized words like “agency” and “autoethnography,” struggling to get a grip on what they mean as they fight to survive. They kick up dust with forcible gestures, echoing no one but themselves in the absence of wisdom and commonsense.

“I can’t believe that you think this is a…”


“You have no clue what it’s like to teach a class with a…”


“How can you say that knowing that people don’t…”


“That’s unbelievable! I don’t know where you get this kind of…”


My vocal chords shake, ringing shots out like bullets, shattering broken silences with hammering arrogance, bigger and meaner than others. A shotgun loaded with aggression, blasting away, spraying everyone, everywhere, all at once, silencing the crowd, commanding attention in rapid fire, pumping out shot after shot.

“What you’re saying doesn’t actually mean anything! You haven’t said a thing this entire time! You just keep talking, over and over, repeating yourself, filling the air with noise…”


Pairs of eyes left blinking, targeting me with uncomfortable glares, holding their ground but not firing until the smoke clears. I stare back, queer and awkward—exposed but steady and my voice reverberates in my mind, filling a moment of sudden silence as a small stream of smoke sneaks up my side. I see that I’ve missed the target. I see that I’ve shot myself.


For a moment, there’s silence and then calamity ensues again. Conversation buried in the sarcasm of some new untenable game. Balls fly and guns blaze, but I pay them no mind. I opt out and disengage, shut-off by the imaginary world I’m forced to inhabit in a class that’s gone wrong. It’s not a game worth playing or a fight worth fighting—not on this playground, anyway—and not with these kids.

There are other ways to learn and have fun.

I abandon the group to go off on my own, resigned to keep my thoughts undisclosed. Staying quiet, I notice a few others doing the same.

This is people playing alone, together

Sliding open my computer I close my mouth. A gust of air-conditioned air cools my face and bits of imagination fill the room. My attention shifts into the virtual ether as I focus online, soothing interactions that don’t provoke humiliation.

My fingers do the talking, translating angst into social commentary. I climb over rungs of posts. I perch atop wifi bars, connecting networks of discussion in a jungle-gym of information. I peer through the glass of my screen, sanguine as others argue and fight. I reflect on my thoughts and respond at my discretion, productive as I communicate with distantly intimate others, learning to play on my own.

I open Twitter to observe the class-feed—our back channel of the discussion. I check lists of followers, scroll through posts, tweeting once every few minutes. There’s affirmation in the network; it explodes with creativity—forming scores of information that swing by my mind. I monkey around with others online, retweeting interesting links as I go, playing follow the leader as we all climb back to where we started.

On Facebook, my newsfeed rolls and I explore the slow churn of “conversation.” Others keep pace from the far reaches of my network and classmates make room for each other as they voice their opinions. They’re see-saw encounters, falling silent in-the-flesh while speaking up out of body, finding a way to collaborate and even smile.

I post comments that I overhear from the argument still going, using classmates’ words in puns and metaphors. I’m the captain of a ship that sails through cyberspace, passing by computer screens—windows into the very classroom setting on every desk. Quiet jeers of delight keep us moving as oblivious classmates walk the plank. Status updates and newsfeeds wash over them, drowning their cynicism in virtual presence. Other typed voices chime in, playfully layering intelligent anecdotes with humorous quips, cheering me on. Together we’re a crew and a therapeutic subtext, escaping a mutual dissatisfaction in the creative commons of our own devices.

Voices fade into the distance as I ascend deeper into the blue and alabaster of Facebook, Twitter, and Google, finding footing in complex thoughts, pounding out responses on my keyboard in a field of text. I swing between applications, more invloved and emphatic, each time curling my feet behind my chair and pushing myself to new heights of participation. Tweets and retweets, posts and likes, all accumulate in affinity. Digital ideas re-place verbal accusations and typed enunciations elicit response. Fresh thoughts infuse with new discoveries, engaged in intellectual contention, swinging in tandem, building a cognitive surplus of trust, feeding ambient generousity that adds value to reality—freed from the bondage of the classroom, surrendered to the digital playground.

The same people are talking but fewer are listening, and everyone’s more engaged with themselves. I can see fingers moving, smirks on faces with heads bent as they type and press and drag their ideas across a screen, exploring new worlds in parallel play, meeting others they’ve never given a chance any other way. They play on the equipment—finally unafraid to get along. Clicks and ticks welcome the sounds of silence.

Images from the past flash across my mind…

I’m in a desk, in 5th grade, staring out the window on sunny afternoon. The teacher talks about something I don’t understand, but the wind has got my attention. I don’t want to understand him so I tune it all out; I don’t want to pay attention as much as I want to play. I’m longing to be outside, where it’s warm and air is clear; where the wind blows leaves with the smell of cut grass, and ants gather under swing-sets flexing in a rhythm. Others kids fly off of monkey bars as they hit the ground running, laughing and pulling at each other. People toss a ball, seeing who can throw the hardest, impressed at how good they all are. Friends on seesaws bounce and giggle as cops and robbers run around by.

I wish the classroom was the playground, or the other way around—and I want to understand why that can’t happen.

Light floods through the window, casting networks of shadows on the floor. And there’s no need to fight, just good reasons to laugh. We play hide and seek, moving on and offline, together bringing the playground into the classroom and the classroom online. There’s so much more out in the digital wide open—so much more we can do together  because play is the deepest lesson that we can learn.

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The Digital Playground by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

That Extra Little Push: Providing Technology That Does What It’s Supposed To

“Hey can I ask you a question?” I ask the unsuspecting student working behind the counter at the USF library.

She gives me an unsuspecting stare.

“Do you know if the new iPads that everyone seems to be checking out have a library app?”

“You mean an app for our library? No. Not that I know of. You just have to get on the website.”

“Aha. Thanks.” I walk away with my books, confused as to why, exactly, so much money was spent on a whole slew of touch-screen, mobile devices that serve no different purpose than the laptops you’ve always been able to check out.

Using an iPad without an app is, in a lot of ways, like making toast on a stove-top. Sure, it’ll work, but it takes longer and you might get burnt.

This is a typical problem, not just at USF, but one that’s observable most anytime new technology is introduced somewhere. The logic is simple: New technology may be all great and powerful – much like the Wizard of Oz – but if it’s not used for it’s potential, it’s introduction is undermined immediately. Like the man behind the curtain, the user finds that the smoke, fire, and other aesthetic wonders are just a gimmick.

Others, like Steve Wheeler, have said this better than me:

“The technology in any given school can be as high quality, shiny and compatible as you like. Technical support can be second to none, and all the support in the world on offer, but if the teacher is not convinced of its usefulness, forget it.”

If I had a dollar for every time he was right about technology and education, I wouldn’t have the immense amount of debt that I do today.

What he’s suggesting doesn’t just apply to teachers – it goes for University systems, administrators, and students commissioned to put technology in the hands of people who may need simple guidance on how to use it efficiently and advantageously.

Why not commission someone to design a USFLibrary app for the new fancy armory of touchscreen, easy-access tablets that countless tuition dollars were spent on? How about something that helps people navigate the stacks of (often) scrambled collections? Something that lets people collaborate with others in the library quickly? Place an order at Starbuck’s? Track the RFID’s that are already in all of the books, so they can be found when they’re lost in the oblivion of the sorting area? How about a real time map for the Bull Runner bus service? Or a weather tracker for the folks locked away in the upstairs dungeons studying hard for exams? How about a badge system that would encourage people to be better students, go to the writing center, or find other students in the library working on a similar topic so they could work together? Certainly USF has the financial and human resources to put something like this together without much effort. Certainly they have programming-savvy grad students who will kindly offer their indentured servitude for a deadline extension or a vitea line.

If you want to be a technology leader among Universities, that little extra push to make something work like it ought to work is what it takes.

iPads and phones – and other types of mobile technology – are not just about the “bells and whistles” or keeping up with the appearances; they actually do offer extended capabilities to students, staff, faculty that could so easily (and cheaply) enhance learner capacities, save time and energy, and disseminate information – which, lets be honest, would cut back on everyone’s stress level. Why take advantage of automation id we use it against ourselves?

All it takes is a little direction, a little know how, and a little digital literacy. Before you know it, the entire enterprise of going to a library, which is already disorienting and intimidating to many students, will change.

This much I know: Show anyone how to use an iPad once, and they won’t forget; provide them iPads that can be used the way they were intended to be used and you’ll start to leverage social media to an educational advantage.

How do I know? It’s already being done. Elsewhere.

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That Extra Little Push: Providing Technology That Does What It’s Supposed To by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Move Your Body to Move Your Mind

I often tell people that we should offer lecture classes to undergraduates (particularly Freshman) at the gym. In my mind, I see a lecturer positioned in front of treadmills; the various screens that typically display ESPN and Dr. Phil are adorned with Prezi’s or SlideShare presentations.

“Wouldn’t it be great,” I usually say to other academics, “if you could take your required history or philosophy course while you jogged, or powerwalked, or went to town on a rowing machine? Don’t you think students would listen better and learn more? Their brains are technically functioning at a higher level when they’re working out.” At that point, I get dirty looks and contentious laughs.

“Ya right,” people say.

When I ask why they think it’s a bad idea, they usually say something like “no one would sign up for that” or “I listen to music at the gym.” I have to wonder what’s so different about listening to someone discuss complex ideas that may actually be new or interesting as opposed to Nicki Minaj. Or is there some innate human desire to hear the same top 40 song you heard yesterday blast through your eardrums during work-outs?

I, for one, listen to lectures as I run, or lift. I would do it while I swim, but I haven’t saved enough money for the underwater phone protector or the waterproof headphones. But X-Mas is right around the corner…(cough*Mom*cough)….

A recent NY Times article explores the monotony people feel toward excersice.  Drawing from a number of psychological studies, Jane Brody concludes that the average person chalks working-out up to doing something hard, challenging, or generally unenjoyable. Yet, study after study reveals that people who do excersice on the regular are happier, more productive, and less stressed.

I can attest to the latter. Moving your body is not just a way to fit into that shirt you bought last winter when you were certain you’d be in shape by now. It’s a way to move your mind – to keep your mental state positively charged, resilient, and upwelling with new ideas that motivate you to improve the conditions which help you sustain whatever it is that you do. And, reflecting on the shape my relationships are in since I’ve started working-out on a daily basis, I’ll argue that it makes you a more pleasant person to be around.

Look – I used to be 100 lbs over weight and then I chose a profession that forces me to sit down all day long. That is the personal-health equivalent to making toast while you take a bubble bath. Sitting and staring in front of my computer screen most of the time, I suffer from the same hand to mouth disease as the next person. And I am much more concerned with gettng my thoughs in order and well-formed (because it makes me money and pays off my mountain of college debt) than I am worried about the shape my love handles make when I wear shorts just out of the dryer. But I’ve found that a lack of attention to one important aspect of my life (I’m suggesting that my bodily health is one of them) has a direct impact on another (I’m suggesting that financial/mental health is just as important).

As a technology user and graduate student, I’ve found a way to reconcile the Cartesian Dual that tortures my soul. It’s a dilemma that’s not just mine alone – I know for a fact that a “longing for” combined with the “lack of” motivated, enjoyable, routined exercise plagues the majority of my colleagues. And most of them can’t seem to understand how I stay on top of my work (which involves immense amounts of intensive reading, writing, blogging, teaching, and incessant talking) as well as work out everyday (which most of them assume is an exaggeration, I’m sure).

I’ve turned their excuses into a solution. All it takes is a phone and headphones:

1. Don’t listen to music when you work out; listen to open courses, lectures, podcasts, or something intellectually stimulating. Teach yourself how to pause and fast-forward so when you need to talk to someone or shift your focus for a moment, you can get back on track with minimal interruption.

2. Download an app that lets you easily record yourself. You will be shocked at how incredible your ideas are at the peak of your workout. You’ll also get a kick out of hearing your winded self say words with more than 3 consonants. Go back and listen to these as a warm down – or, just throw them away. The magic is really in the talking-through-it.

3. Use a standard note taking app to write down any idea that comes to mind. This is especially great to do when you stop running, pause the workout, or are waiting between machines at the gym. I actually write a load of emails while I workout and sometimes – I’m not embarrassed to say – I write poetry. How ’bout that!

These three suggestions are easy, make working out more productive, and, at least for me, seem to keep the same old routine fresh and exciting. Everyday. As an academic, you might find these suggestions helpful, but I can assure you that what I’m suggesting translates to any vocation that involves learning. You could just try it out for the hell of it. Who knows? I bet you find yourself motivated and inspired at the same time.

And that’s not an exaggeration.
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Move Your Body to Move Your Mind by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at nicholasariggs.wordpress.com.

Digital Interruptions: A narrative about dialogue and technology

This story is part of a paper I’ve been working on for sometime. For folks not privy to narrative inquiry as a research method, this is a narrative excerpt loosely based on an actual experience I have had. The paper will eventually feature excerpts like it and the stories of others. By illustrating what it’s like to live with technology – where human interaction is parceled by social media – my hope is to find a unique and provocative way into a discussion about what Sherry Turkle (2011) calls “a war with ourselves” against the “seductive simulations that propose themselves as places to live” (p. 296). Taking a social psychological approach in her book Alone Together: Why expect more from technology and less from each other, she fears the larger, social narrative that  threatens personal intimacy and eliminates the essential place that solitude has in everyday life. As a result, commonplace hyperbolic use of technology in social settings, she argues, may foreclose on moments when we could be in dialogue with ourselves, each other, and the larger world.

Dialogue, in the words of Martin Buber, is a possibility that may or may not arise between people who “turn toward” each other as they “turn away” from those things in life that occupy their attention, time, and resources. For both Buber and Turkle, being in dialogue – whether with oneself, with others, or with the world-at-large – is what makes us human. It’s in the spirit of this conversation that my exploration of digital interruptions begins, exposing the realities of humanness in a digital world.


Class is over. The teacher is passing back papers as students filter through desks neatly arranged in rows, heading toward the door as quickly as possible. Like water down a drain, they move, fluidly, swirling around desks and out the door, spilling into the hallway. He looks up at each as they pass, sorting through messy stacks of papers. One of them stands in the way, blocking others who make faces at her as they pass.

She’s brunette, wears glasses and holds her backpack by a strap as it sits at her feet, taking up another body’s worth of space. She’s oblivious. By the looks of her droopy eyes and lazy presentation, she’s tired. Too tired. One after another, students trip on her bag as they brush past, unapologetic, some not even noticing. The teacher intervenes.

“Do you want your paper?” he asks, holding it out like bait, trying to get her to move. Her head dropped and her arms bent, she furiously mashes buttons with fingers and thumbs, typing away on a Blackberry. He stares, hoping she’ll feel the gaze and look up.

It’s a stand-off.

“Wha-?” She lifts her head, half pronouncing words, still texting as they make eye contact.

“Here, take this and get out of the way. You’re gonna get run over.” He motions her to come near. She looks at him confused with an open mouth and a blank stare, doubling her finger speed.

“Okay. Just a minute,” she says, “I’m deep in text.” She looks back at her phone, suspending her finger in air to hold his patience, shifting her weight to one leg. He turns away and shakes his head in surrender, cracking a smile in disbelief as he sets her paper on his desk. A minute later, she’s bright and attentive, waiting for him.

They meet with a smile.

“‘Deep in text,’ eh?” he asks, ribbing, pointing out her play on words. “Can a person be ‘deep in text’?”

She wakes up a bit. “Sure! Haven’t you ever had a conversation with someone over text that just couldn’t wait?”

“I suppose so. Not in class, though!” He points out that texting in class is against the rules, playing teacher for the moment. “What could possibly be so pressing for you to text in my class?”

“I was talking to my Mom. She teaches kindergarten and started a new job today. She was really nervous when she left the house.” Grabbing her paper, she heads for the door, leaving him surprised and impressed as he shuts down his computer and he follows her out.

“Funny,” he says, “I wanted my Mom to learn how to text so she’d quit calling every day. Now I get a text every hour, on the hour. I’ve created a monster.” She laughs as they walk out of the building.

“Maybe you should text her more often, or at least text her back. I’m sure it would make her happy.” She’s probably right, he thinks. That probably would make it less irritating. “See ya!” she says, wrestling her bag for a key and sunglasses. They walk in separate directions.

He thinks about her suggestion. A few steps later his thoughts are interrupted as his pocket vibrates. Stopping in the middle of the sidewalk he pulls out his phone and checks his messages in a single motion: <Mom>.

Just then, a student on a bike whizzes by, almost hitting him, cursing at him as he passes. They trade unfriendly glares and he steps off the concrete, into the grass, out of the way. Looking down, he laughs at the irony, catching the attention of some tired students who carry cell phones, hurrying past.


Turkle, S. (2011). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. (1 ed.). New York: Basic Books

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Digital Interruptions: A narrative about dialogue and technology by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Digital Pedagogy: 2 Fears of Teaching Naked

I never realized that I was teaching naked. In fact, I’ve been doing it all summer.

Though there are all sorts of ways to construct a digital pedagogy, one powerful approach begins with pulling the plug. (Fyfe, 2012, para 20)

Paul Fyfe’s recent article in Digital Humanities Quarterly addresses some significant issues related to digital pedagogy. For him, teaching is “digital” not because computers are present in the classroom, but because it is hands-on, creative, dynamically emergent, and, for all intents and purposes, analogous to a place students and teachers want to be. Fyfe explores teaching strategies that utilize technologies beyond the walls of campus buildings, digitizing the whole experience of being a student. On their own, outside the classroom, students use technology to work on projects and collaborate. They blog, podcast, perhaps collaborate by annotating a shared document. This frees up time (and space) inside the classroom for learning in the “non-electronic senses” (para 8) where conversation carries the lesson, which emerges as students engage with each other about course content. Even with the use of minimal technology in the classroom – say, a screen projection of a text for collective reading – digital pedagogy is about peeling off the layers of institutional authority that normally conceal students’ desire to learn faithfully and teachers’ ability to really teach.

Hence the “naked” in teaching naked – being “exposed” together. Keep your shirt on, though – it’s not about skin and underwear.

It’s about finding ways to leverage technology for what it’s worth, freeing up the time people spend together, in the flesh, to expose the limitations and possibilities of learning. What results is a vulnerable situation where those involved – students and teachers – negotiate the tensions of learning together. This, of course, takes students who are willing to show up for more than just a grade – those who find value in the relationships they have with their own learning experience and their classmates – and teachers who don’t just show up to train students – those who abandon the “it has always worked” lesson plan and discover the lesson in the conversation with students, asking questions that guide group thinking and encourage participation.

As a teacher it’s scary to be in that sort of situation – where the plans are loose and the conversation can go wherever students take it. It takes a lot of trust and humilty. It also insists that they take it somewhere. The last things students want in a classroom is to be bored, and in this ideation, if they’re bored they share the burden. Excitiment from improvisational course content that emerges from student and teacher interest does, however, get a little scary because everyone has to tolerate a certain level of ambiguity. It’s sort of like white-water rafting – you have to trust the people in your boat to work together, paddling, steering and staying on board.

There are two primary fears that I’ve experienced this semester as I’ve (unwittingly) implemented Fyfe’s suggestions:

Fear of Participation

First, teachers have to be comfortable relinquishing some of their authority over the course, authorizing students to learn on their own and trust that they’ll remain engaged beyond the classroom. I’ve learned that a good way to guarantee student participation is to use blogs, vlogs, and wikis to explore course content. Asking my students to produce a 200 word blog each night (or to contribute minimally to a 20 sentence wiki) is the equivalent of a math teacher asking students to show their work. 200 words ain’t that much, really. Students know that both I and others can see they’re contribution and are waiting to respond – which is also part of the assignment. This leads to a rich conversation online the night before class, which usually builds on the conversation from the day before. There is a collaboration-driven ethos established among a small group of people working in this way – not unlike that discussed by Jono Bacon (regarding Open Source) and David Bohm (regarding Dialogue in small groups). The result is an ongoing conversation about course content that doesn’t feel like a class conversation; in fact, it feels like something that would happen on Facebook, but with better links to helpful sources and less inflammatory language. What zaps the fear of participation in this scenario is that digital tools expose whether a student does or doesn’t engage with the class. Of course, it won’t ensure that each student does every assignment, but it does mean that they learn at their own discretion, visible to everyone, which encourages others to follow suit.

Authorizing Student Expertise

The second fear stems from opening up class time for interaction, conversation, and constructive activities. There is, above all other things, a fear of engagement in any intimate group. Attend a high school dance or pep rally – you’ll see. Guiding a conversation among students, who are both excited and knowledgeable, takes a lot of energy and a substantial amount of risk. Sometimes I actually know less about the conversation at hand than the students do. It’s uncomfortable, certainly, to let loose the reigns and allow students educate each other, mainly because the expectations in a traditional learning environment involve the teacher  dictating course content and  authorizing the right answers. In fact, digital pedagogy necessarily rearranges these expectations so that each person decides what counts as “right” and “wrong” during conversation. Enter critical thinking skills. In nearly every instance, the validity of less-than-insightful claims made by less-than-involved students are regulated by others in the conversation. This often leads to rich debates – productive as long as people are respectful and prudent. Teachers have to trust their own abilities to intellectualize and mediate discussion as they roll with the conversation, nudging it toward important issues that  ought to be discussed. They are not, however, in control. Avoiding conversation-placebo – where conversation is promised, people sit in a circle, and the teacher still lectures, usually from a chair with more pronounced gestures – is the hard part. In my experience as both a teacher and a student, when teachers feel exposed and their authority is brought into question, they tend to work very hard legitimating themselves and the lesson. Nothing could be more counterproductive in a collaborative situation.What derails the assumptions that may lead a teacher to dominate a conversation is simple – sit back, let the students carry the conversation forward, and arrive at the silent realization that being a teacher doesn’t negate your being a student, ever.

In the very least, being able to identify these fears (more like strategic obstacles) can help a teacher approach a class in a digital way, encouraging students to take ownership over their learning, utilizing technology in ways that make the whole experience more engaging.  Now, teaching naked might not work for everyone or for all courses. I can’t imagine any way that science or math could be taught in this way; I also don’t see tenured lecturers dropping their drawers of PowerPoint slides and popping a squat in the crowd.  Then again, maybe I’m mistaken. What I do know is that courses in the humanities and social sciences can be more collaborative, engaging, and…well, digital.

Just don’t take off your clothes.
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Digital Pedagogy: 2 Fears of Teaching Naked by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at nicholasariggs.wordpress.com.

3 Reasons Students Should Blog

I took a risk this summer by integrating a lot of technology into my classroom and it paid off.

Steve Wheeler has been a big influence on me because he talks about the ways new technology can change how students learn and teachers teach.

I wanted to take his advice and get my students to use more technology. I was worried they wouldn’t be as tech-savvy as my colleagues and friends think. I was worried about the digital divide – that the stereotypes weren’t true. It’s no secret that social media is something for “young people” – because age somehow determines a persons’ ability to be social, or understand how to push buttons and navigate LCD screens. Right? Because cell phones are like video games. Right?

“Show of hands – how many people in here have a cell phone that connects to the Internet and has some sort of audio or video recording device?” I ask.

All hands go up.


They all laugh.

Guess there is some truth the “age = social media likelihood” equation.

My biggest fear this summer was introducing elements to my course that were contingent upon social media. See, I have this “crazy theory” that students writing papers – essays, to be exact – is not necessarily productive. It doesn’t foster learning.

A student writes a paper, they turn it in to me, I read it, make comments, and give it back whenever I find time to get through all of them. A few weeks go by. My comments reflect the untenable demands of reading hundreds of pages of poor grammar, bad sentence structure, re-typed arguments from Wikipedia, and undeveloped thoughts that have nothing to do with the matter at hand. About half of the class reads what I write. I know this because half of the class usually leaves their marked-up papers behind when they leave the room.

No one really learns much of anything in this situation, no matter how much effort we all put into the papers. It’s a crazy theory, I know, but I have good reason to believe it – beyond a desire to save some trees.

“Hogwash!” You say. “Now you’re just being hyperbolic, Nick! Essay writing is a traditional staple of a good education. I did it! You did it! Who are you to change it?”

I’m a person who takes risks. A person who cares about my students actually getting something out of the hours we spend together, and a person who wants to keep myself excited about teaching and reading student work.

I decided to have my students write blogs instead of papers. There were a few things I discovered that made the risk worthwhile and makes my theory seem not-so-crazy after all:

1. Students can critique each other’s work. In a traditional write-a-paper-and-the-teacher-hands-it-back format, students only get one person to read their work. Me. My sole perspective – though informed by a few years of teaching – is not the only one that has value in the classroom. Also, with my workload as a graduate student there is just no way that I can hope to give solid feedback to all of my students and remain deeply invested to doing my own work. Sadly, a few student papers usually fall through the cracks with blanket responses like “Great!” or “Rework this section” or “unclear” as I transition back to my own reading and writing in the wee hours of the morning. In my humble opinion, this type of alienating language (and practice) should be left out of any learning environment and educational experience. Reading my student’s blogs, I’ve found that they give each other both positive and critical feedback that go into deeper detail than I could ever imagine doing alone. This type of dialogic process, I’ve found, contributes to the ethos of the course and everyone’s enthusiasm for having an opinion and learning something new.

2. Students get to write less, I get to read less. Any educator who is being honest will tell you how much they dislike having to read so many student papers. It isn’t that they dislike reading or dislike their students – it’s that reading so many papers so incredibly similar is tough to stay enthusiastic about. A 100 word blog is big enough to articulate a single idea with a bit of rigor and some hyperlinked sources (like this one). My students are writing 100 words at least 3 times a week, usually in response to some video I’ve posted for them to watch. I make them find other sources on the web to back up their argument. I also make some suggestions when I assign the video (via email) about what they should consider, in both form and content, when they respond. They’re also required to read and comment on at least one classmate’s blog for every one they write. This ensures that everyone gets feedback. Of course, I read and comment on all of them. All of this takes me (and them) less than an hour, and we do it 3-4 times a week. After a 6 week course, that’s 1800 words written per student in about 18 precise, nuanced arguments. You can’t really shake a stick at that! I have to admit that the shorter reads and the salient points are addicting to go through and comment on as a teacher. It’s a lot more fun than doing my own work!

3. Covering uncharted territory. The worst thing for teachers and students to cope with is boredom. By the time students are college Freshman, most have taught themselves how to sniff out a reused lesson plan and give a teacher what they think is  “good work”. Most of the time, it means regurgitating someone else’s point of view about a given subject. Many teachers trust their time-tested activities and lessons, falling back on the same examples and lectures they’ve used for years in a row. To be blunt about it, nothing could be less productive and worse for the education system, overall. No one learns unless they get somewhere new in their thinking. Production is not reproduction. I started the semester assigning a video about changing education paradigms by Sir Ken Robinson and had no other plans. After reading their responses, I realized that the vast majority had something to say about Robinson’s claims on ADD/ADHD diagnoses. It’s a compelling argument that tapped the core of class interest. Recognizing their interests, I assigned a video from Thomas Szasz about the dangers of calling mental illnesses a disease. The responses were enticing, thoughtful, and provocative. This led to even more uncharted ideas for out-of-the-classroom thinking, learning, and writing. The course content emerged through the blogs themselves.

For people who aren’t educators or care less about teaching, maybe none of this means much. But we were all students once. We should all take a moment to think back to our youth – to our education – and try to remember what we disliked about it. What if we’d had new social media technology? Could using it in our classrooms have changed our minds about school, or learning, or those things we thought we were interested in but decided to leave behind because they were boring?


The thing I suspect most students really dislike about education is this: that their teachers are afraid to take risks, to engage them, to look for new, exciting ways to understand what they want to learn. Call me ridiculous, but I think that students want their teachers to enjoy teaching as much as they want to enjoy learning. Most new technology is already in our pockets because we enjoy using it for work and play. It’s fun. Why shouldn’t we figure out a way to use it in the classroom? Learning can be fun. It can be productive, too.

Maybe we can all learn how to learn with each other as we learn to use social media, together.Creative Commons License

3 Reasons Students Should Blog by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at nicholasariggs.wordpress.com.