Monday, October 11, 2010

Blogging about blogging

From Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
"Art and transformation!" -Ryan B.
Last fall, this blog - Restorative Theology - was born. It came into the world in the context of a class called Research as Art and Transformation, taught by Howard Zehr and Paulette Moore at Eastern Mennonite University's Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, where I'm working on an MA in Conflict Transformation. Well, Paulette has asked me to come back to the class this year and talk about the RT blog and how I used it for my research project last year. I'll be going into their class this afternoon to do just that for about 45 minutes. To get ready for that, she sent me a list of questions which I typed up bullet-style responses to, but then thought it would be fun to put the questions and answers about the blog here on the blog itself.

This post isn't about the content of the research project itself (For that, see all other posts related to this class: PAX 524). Rather it's about the question, "Why a blog?," since blogs were just one media/platform option for doing research in this class. So read on to get a feel for the how's and why's about the project that helped give birth to this here blog...

What motivated you to do a blog as your final project?
I've been a techno-geek for most of my life. It's not too far from the truth to say that I was born with a keyboard at my fingertips. I was copying computer code out of magazines for my Commodore64 before I was 10 and have been online in some form or another since the early '90s. For the past ten years I've been the developer and leader of a message board-based virtual community on my band's website, (Sadly, that little community is being shuttered at year's-end.) Since blogs became popular in '02/'03, I've been a regular reader but had never maintained one myself. So, simply put: It was the natural choice for my final project. I had also been dabbling in digital audio/music production for the better part of a decade and had just gotten into digital video production. All these things just converged for this project.

What was most challenging about the class?
For some people, complete creative freedom is a sublime gift. For others, it is a crippling nightmare. I tend to sit somewhere in the middle when these situations arise. For this project, the possibilities for both content and form were wiiiiiiiide open from the get-go. This freaked a lot of people out in the class. Luckily, I had a fairly clear idea of what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it from the beginning. But as one of the few token techies in the class, I was enlisted to help people flesh out their ideas for their own projects, listening to them struggle to adapt content to form, form to content. Blogging is more than just a medium, it's a platform for various media, textual and televisual. So it won't do to simply say "I'm going to blog." This was hard to communicate to people struggling at multiple fronts in their project work.

How did your understanding about what research is evolve?
When my wife was in college at the University of Kansas, I took part in a music/memory-oriented quantitative research study, so I had a taste for being a subject for a research project. Oh, and when I was in high school, I took part in the focus group studies that (I assume) helped NBC decide to keep ER on the air after its pilot. Other than that, in my experience, "research" basically meant writing a boring paper for a class. So I was fascinated to wade through the qualitative, but especially the arts-based research (ABR) material for this class, and imagine the possibilities. I have a natural and persistent inquisitive nature about life in general, so the qualitative-ABR approach seems to jive with my personality and interests as well as my technical and artistic skills, and drive to creativity.

What risks did you take?
I talk about this more in my closing reflections for the project, but I'll briefly mention here that there has been some sour inter-departmental experience here at EMU, between (but not limited to) the two programs I'm studying and/or working in: the Seminary and the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. One of the things I hoped to do in this project was to construct something that could serve a bridging function for understanding and future dialog between theologians and peacebuilders (in the academic-vocational sense). Whether this happened on any level remains to be seen (although see story in next question).

What did you get out of doing a blog that you would not have if you had done a traditional research project?
The multi-media (isn't that word redundant?) nature of blogs offers all sorts of ways to mishmash/mashup not only research findings, but also ongoing reflections throughout the research process/journey itself, and offers a way to invite others to co-create along the path. If used well, blogs can be wildly creative and collaborative.

The reach of a blog can also sometimes be surprising. For instance, while digging through the posts for this class in order to answer Paulette's questions, I thought, "Hmm...I still agree with my findings, and they still seem relevant." So I sent a link listing all posts related to this project to the new dean of the seminary, Michael King. He has described himself as a bridge-builder and I thought my reflections on Seminary-CJP would be helpful. Within an hour he responded, telling me he had actually already read my posts in-depth while he was still a candidate for the dean's position! My response to him: "'ve just made my week."

What is the state of your blog now?
If you're reading this sentence right now (you know you are!), then that answers this question. This blog continues to be a great place for me to reflect on my faith journey and vocational-intellectual project, which I often describe as "theology and peacebuilding" or better: restorative theology. My experience here has helped open doors to blogging elsewhere, such as the seminary's Work and Hope blog, and a young Brethren collaborative blog, Feetwashing and Foursquare. Through manual publicizing and the use of RSS, this blog gets integrated into Facebook and Twitter, offering another venue for conversation to develop around the topics I'm blogging about.

A few weeks ago, my pastor helped germinate a fun idea that combined telling jokes and getting scholars to theologize through this genre of humor. After a few days of e-mailing scholars, both here at EMU and elsewhere, this topic came to fruition: Post-Christendom theologians and the craft of lightbulb-changing. So this is one example of how a blog can be a canvas on which to paint all sorts of fun and serious work, sometimes simultaneously.

With the closing of my little virtual community I mentioned above, Restorative Theology looks to have a bright future, even well after I'm done with grad school in a few years.

How does blogging and being aware of social media and technologies fit into the field of peacebuilding?
This question is a bit hard for me to answer because I've never worked in the professional field of peacebuilding. How I come at this question works like this: As a disciple of Jesus Christ, a follower on the Way, and a member of his body (the Church), I am first of all concerned with being faithful to all that entails. A not-insignificant part of what it means to be Christian is to be a humble, peaceful witness both within and outside the Church at large. So as that kind of peacebuilder, I see this blog as a form of ministry and witness to the faith I proclaim and attempt to live out.

So it's an opportunity to have intelligent, peaceful dialog about the intersections of the Christian faith to all sorts of things, including peacebuilding. It's based on an awareness developed in long experience that the internet can be a very non-peaceful place. So to do this blog as faithful, peaceful witness is to be swimming against the current. Hopefully I do it well. May it be so...

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