Austin Skyline at Dusk by Randall Chancellor
Right now I am sitting at work, watching the minutes tick by until I have to field a call from a distance learning company to see if I can cajole them into paying me a living wage. Later I’ll have to squeeze in another phone call for a research position. Both jobs are in Austin, Texas. I live 1,500 miles away, and I’ve told my interviewers that I’ll be living in the city by the last day in September. That’s one day after I turn 26 and get booted off my parent’s health insurance plan, and one day before my landlady can legally evict me from the condo I’ve been living in, which she suddenly decided to sell.
I feel like I am going to puke.
I’ve known for years that I wanted to move away from Virginia, just for a while, just to get a feel for life somewhere different. That way if I chose to settle in my home state, it would be exactly that: a choice. Not the default I’d accepted because I’ve been here my whole life.
I felt something similar about the college I attended, too. I showed up at the University of Mary Washington in August of 2009, hauling boxes into Virginia Hall, because it was affordable and close enough to home that my folks wouldn’t worry about me.
I’ve often wondered what my post-college life would look like if I’d gone to the painfully expensive communications program I got into, or the “private ivy” that turned me down.
Ultimately, I can’t know. But I can tell you what did happen to me because I went to UMW: DS106.
Because of that class, I made my first gifs. I helped write, act in, and produce a radio drama. I learned that CSS and HTML are not impenetrable barriers to creating beautiful, functional websites. I was surrounded by incredibly supportive professors, staff, and students who made my work and ideas seem valuable. I got to speak to UMW faculty about the importance of professors building their own websites. I came as close to writing a thesis as I probably ever will on edtech and OER, topics about which I found myself suddenly, vibrantly passionate. I was having scads of fun and learning just as much. For a year, I had confidence, and in quantities I’d never possessed before.
And then I graduated.
Pretty much immediately, my plans for the future seemed distant and stupid. I fretted about the practicality of getting an MFA and eventually dropped it, more from sheer inaction than actual choice. I got an internship and part time jobs and eventually landed a 9-to-5 in a mad scramble to move out of my parent’s basement.
I wasn’t blogging. I wasn’t writing. I wasn’t creating anything at all. For the last three years I focused every ounce of my energy on working, getting paid, and moving out.
And in the space of three months, I broke up with my partner, my job fell apart, and my landlady announced she was selling her condo.
Suddenly the idea of moving halfway across the country seemed not just inviting, but imperative. Of all the cities I’d considered, the one that called to me the most was Austin. Incredible art scene? Check. Booming job market? Check. Silicon valley without the price tag? Double check! With my whole life up in the air, it seemed like the perfect moment try and start over someplace far away.
In the midst an insane cross-country job hunt, I realized that making a career as a creative professional all but requires a current online portfolio. I knew I wanted to set everything up through Reclaim Hosting; after all, it was founded by former UMW prof Jim Goom, the dude who started DS106. I had a feeling the folks I’d worked with at UMW would be willing to help me if I hit any snags. What I wasn’t prepared for was the immediate, delighted “welcome back!” I got the second I started talking about the project on Twitter.
I can’t think of another educational experience I’ve had–heck, any experience I’ve had–with that degree of staying power. The generosity of everyone I’ve talked with in the last two weeks has stunned me. The joy I’ve felt at getting to discuss edtech again and fiddle with new CMSs has stunned me. I’d gone from radio silence to reclaiming my college domain and buying a new one, reconnecting with a bunch of former teachers, and even adding my thoughts about DS106 to a book chapter about educational technology.
As I was blissfully ignoring my work and writing up a short novella for Michelle Pacansky-Brock about my experiences as a DS106 student, I found myself staring at a possible answer to a question I’d never been able to figure out:
What would you do all day even if nobody paid you to do it?
Well, crap, wasn’t that exactly what I was doing? Writing about educational experiences instead of processing yet another document?
I think maybe, just maybe, this might be the thing I’d do all day. I might share ideas about learning and communication, about stories that matter, about why agency in digital spaces is so vital. I might really, actually, for real this time, learn to code. I might make gifs of misbehaving cats.
The generous community that blossomed around DS106 has reminded me of that confidence I felt in my senior year, and helped me to feel like even after three years AWOL, I can still consider myself #4life. It’s given me a boost of joy during a crazy time, and new projects to focus on that I forgot I loved. It’s made me feel a bit less nuts about picking up my life and moving it halfway across the continent, because if nothing else, I’ll have this space to talk about what I’m doing, what I’m learning, and why I think it matters. I’ll have resources at my disposal to keep learning, no matter what (or where) I am in life. I might even have a couple people who are willing to read along and see what happens. I doubt I’ll have the time to dedicate as much thought as I want to this, and I have no clue how much or how little it will seep into my professional life. And the closer I get to moving, the more I worry this is all going to be a tremendous mistake. I’m nervous. I’m shaky. I still feel like I’m going to puke. But I can’t know for sure unless I dive in, right?
After all, the point of DS106 is that you must have the audacity to try.