Thursday, September 29, 2016

BACK TO SCHOOL: An adventure both new, and familiar

There are certain things I always associate with "back-to-school."  Even in the weeks before the official turn of the season, the air begins to crisp, the trees display colorful intent, and the world begins to taste different - spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, and just a touch of clove. I love this change equally to its spring counterpart.  I know it is more than a little trite but, seriously, it always brings to sensory memory the smell of new leather shoes, the perfection of a fresh box of crayons, and the pride of this year's sparkling lunchbox.

The last time I was actually going back-to-school was decades ago.  Yes, life itself is one big classroom, and learning is a constant. I will not deny that philosophy.  But there are certain rituals associated with back-to-school, and I find I am engaging in them in a new way this year as I prepare to add to my weekly schedule auditing a college class online through the University of Washington iSchool.

Great orientation area, with the friendly bot greeter -
he blinked hello at me.
There was an orientation.  I will be attending this class in the online virtual world of Second Life©. Even though I have been a resident for over eight years now, I walked through the nicely organized orientation pavilion and did all the exercises.  I learned a few things that I did not know, which gave me joy just like that new box of crayons used to. We just delivered my 20 year old nephew back to the real world main campus of this University last week. The well thought-out, clear and efficient orientation pavilion at the iSchool felt akin to the highly efficient, congenially staffed move-in process in Seattle. It's like Brandon and I went back-to-school together.

So already this experience is fulfilling my three basic objectives for any learning experience, which are:
I knew that!
  1. Have things you already know validated. (I knew that!)
  2. Learn something new that immediately engages you. (I didn't know that worked that way!)
  3. To have the grace to accept concepts that don't seem to have immediate application, or which might be counter to where you are now with grace, and without judgment. (you never know when they might become relevant)

The other thing I did was a little silly.  I got my avatar a purple hoodie.  I didn't find a lot of "Husky wear" on the Second Life Marketplace, so I bought a purple hoodie and saved an outfit on my avatar for wearing to class in accordance with the purple and gold U of W traditions: purple hoodie, jeans, yellow high top sneakers.  I'll probably show up for class in other things, but this will be my default choice.  It didn't smell like new leather shoes, but it felt like it.

Me and my hoodie
There is no lunchbox equivalent to my experience so far.  I have read the pre-class materials the Instructor sent, logged in to the online class sheet and completed the pre-class assignments.  I have had the text book, which the instructor emphasized he would not require me to read, for months thanks to a friend.  I decided to read ahead, not because I think I can learn anything out of a book alone.  No, no!  Been around the block too many times to fall for that. It's that I realize my brain is a little more full than it was during the Reagan administration.  It takes me a little longer to read, and absorb new ideas, especially ideas written in an unfamiliar jargon. I want to read the text without pressure, and then read it again in tandem with the students in class.  There is a secondary motive to this: I have learned over the decades that you learn something new every time you read a text.  So I plan to double my comprehensive mileage. I'm not just reading this text to fulfill an assignment - I am reading it to learn.

So why am I taking this class? There are many people who would rightly suggest that I don't need this class.  It won't get me an immediately higher paying position, it won't give me status (not that either of these would be unwelcome to my market value), and I already have considerable experiential knowledge in the area of study: Immersive Information Environments. I don't even receive a grade. There will be no University transcript evidence that this ever happened.

I have learned that not everyone is blessed with a linear path in life.  My sister is one of the lucky ones.  She entered the University of Puget Sound over 30 years ago and got her degree in Psychology, went on to get her graduate degree, and has worked in her field ever since.  By contrast, I entered Willamette University in 1980 with the intention of getting degrees in history-political science and going on to Law School.  I came out with a degree in theater design, and an incomplete MFA. 

Thanks to Andrew Duncan who I nabbed this shot from
to prove I did make it to the Leader Board
My occupational path has been circuitous: leading from scenic painting and design, to project
management, non-profit administration, fund development, and fiction writing among others.  You might rightly call me a Jill of many trades but mistress of few (because there ARE a few things I do not just well, but to excellence). Yet by some typically odd twist of fate, all these things that I have done over the years feed into what I am currently doing in virtual worlds: forging a new path for myself in untested waters.  It feels like the right thing to be doing, and like not a single experience has been wasted since high school. It's like I have been going down a checklist of things I needed to learn about, and they were all leading to right here - or maybe close to right here, and this class will help me drill down on that.

Will this back-to-school turn out to be the right thing?  Sometimes you have to walk down a path in order to find out if it is the right one.  So I am tugging on my yellow high tops, unafraid, and heading down this path to see where it takes me.  My personal objective is to see if I can find the theoretical tissue behind what I already know through the skin and muscle of my experience.  If that is successful, it will give focus and greater intention to the skills I already possess, helping me to do so much more than just admire the flora and fauna along the way.

I hope Mom packed me peanut butter and jelly!


To see one of the virtual education projects that I am working on, which happened unexpectedly - one conversation turning into another one by accident - watch this video sample.  We're beta testing this concept this school year.  Leave a comment if it interests you.


  1. Caledonia Skytower is auditing our i466 Immersive Environments class at the University of Washington. She is conducting live theater on our Second Life Island, and her contributions as a set designer and theater personality are providing enormous value to the students.