Rooster Cogburn and the Educational Frontier

January 10th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

“I do not entertain hypotheticals. The world itself is vexing enough.”–Col Stonehill, from True Grit

5324372705_9b8f2270c9_nMy uncle loves Rooster Cogburn. That is to say, he loves the idea of Rooster Cogburn. My uncle is a wily old man–a retired sheriff, and he has lived a life just as rough as Cogburn. My uncle has been shot, stabbed, ran over, beat up, and suffered several heart attacks. He smokes like a chimney and drinks like a fish.

Despite his many vices, I am quite fond of my uncle. He taught me a lot when I was younger. My uncle is a man of action and not one held to pretention. His word is his bond, and he is rather truthful. I’m relating this story to you because, like Cogburn, my uncle has rode through life hard and without reservation.

Vexation seems to be the treaty of thought, with MOOCs but a blip in a long line of conceptions. Those who know me know that my attitude toward MOOCs has always been suspicious and critical. I find them vexing because many of the intellectual underpinnings of MOOCs are nothing more than a rehashing of antiquated 20th century modernist thinking. Or, perhaps, it is like putting lipstick on a hog. Sure: The hog will leave kisses on your collar, but he will probably still smell of swill and mud.

What’s always fascinated me about the character of Rooster Cogburn–and subsequently  my uncle–is that practical action is always his first thought. Roaming through life with critical eye and sturdy hand, Cogburn is one more concerned with experience than “education.” For him, the world–in all it’s massivity–is his course, and it is open and linked to that specific exploration of the American West culture.

So, it is with this on my mind that I ponder exactly what a MOOC is within higher education. I make no qualms with saying that higher education in the United States is flawed or even broken. It is limping along, like a hobbled and abused dog no longer in his master’s favor. It’s pathetic and disheartening, yet, if we wish, we have the power to affect change. While I do not believe MOOCs equal change, I suppose they do at least spread informal learning to a few more people. If anything, the obsession with MOOCs has led many to wake from their proverbial slumber and realize that MOOCs may not be the way for higher education.

2492032651_cf8866374c_mBut, maybe, MOOCs are the bridge to the frontier, to the place where education is wild and untamed, to the place where educational marauders ride and marshals try to keep order, and, finally, to a place where we can build the vision of education that we always wanted. That bridge isn’t perfect. As a matter of fact, it’s rickety, old, missing nails, chipped, and wouldn’t hold up to much weight, but that’s okay; it only needs to get us across the river and into the new educational frontier–to something better.

Much like Cogburn riding into the frontier, we must cross the bridge and
recognize its limitations. The rush toward MOOCmania is damaging, especially with business interests deciding to tell educators what is and isn’t education. It seems like the only place we can truly change a system that oppresses is to leave it behind, to venture across the MOOC bridge into the frontier, where we are equally likely to fail as succeed. The institutions that hold us, contain us, and prop us up like scarecrows often are not helpful in theorizing the future and practicing in the present.

This rather lengthy thought experiment leads me to think of a future of exploration, where teachers are roaming nomads and leading sherpas. No top, no bottom. There is just the process. No more binaries, no more this way or that way, and no more students intellectually abused by their instructors. In the trajectory of history, ours must be a place of constant vigil, a place of constant safety to which learners return to challenge ideas in a space of constructive criticism and encouragement.

Even though Cogburn wasn’t always positive, he was always a realist with an idealist’s soul. That’s what we need to be. So, while I find many discussions of MOOCs irritating and lacking, I understand their appeal. I understand the main 81103845_bb9b414525_mpedagogies and concepts that undergird them. However, I also understand that they are imperfect, they are more containers for information than knowledge discovery engines, and they are not the future: They are just a way for us to get to the future, to enter that frontier and ride into the sunset.

We need more Rooster Cogburns in education. We need them because they tell us what we don’t want to hear, and we need them because they are honest in a world in desperate need of honesty. The question, then, becomes not how will MOOCs change the world, but, rather, how will MOOCs (and other online learning ventures) help us reach the point where we can build the learning spaces of our dreams–whatever they may be.


Images courtesy of Flickr users Jim_V, NIOSH, and Clinton Steeds, respectively // Creative Commons and Public Domain licensed

Green Glass and Learning to Fail

January 9th, 2013 § 3 comments § permalink

2845637227_f2dba69ea4_mI made a video for #moocmooc. I think about what learning I value most, and how I do things in my classroom. I mention my dad and trades I once engaged in. It’s fun to think about what was, what is, and what can be.

The video is uncut and raw. All I did was put a title and ending on it. So, you’ll see me thinking through my answers, stumbling a bit, and saying “um” a little. I did this on purpose because it’s authentic. I’ll do an edited video later on in the week, so I can use the opportunity to rhetorical analyze both versions, as part of an online exercise in information presentation.

Comments welcomed here and on YouTube. Enjoy!

Image courtesy of Flickr user fireflythegreat // Creative Commons licensed: CC-BY

An Orgy of Blistering Mediocrity?

January 7th, 2013 § 1 comment § permalink

“To educate is essentially to form.”–Paulo Freire

MOOC SquadAs I write this, I’m at a terminal in LAX. I’m sitting–relaxing–and waiting for my red-eye flight home to Minneapolis. I’ve spent the last three weeks visiting my family in Santa Barbara, CA, working on a project, and meeting with some important friends and colleagues on the Central Coast. The fact that I am writing this at this moment exactly where I am is a testament to the power of the digital age. I understand that. I believe in that.

So, it is here–now–that I am thinking about #moocmooc. Well, actually, I’m thinking about all MOOCs. My areas of expertise in my field are digital rhetoric, critical pedagogy, online learning, and the Internet: It makes sense that I have something to say about MOOCs (or at least it makes sense to me). I participated in the first #moocmooc, and, honestly, I wasn’t impressed.

I can be honest with y’all, right? I’ve participated in many MOOCs (both c and x), and I have done so in simple ignorant bliss and through  hyper-aware critiquing eyes. After my time in these environments, I came to the conclusion that many–if not all–MOOCs carry out various forms of oppression and, in Freirean terms, do violence upon participants and leaders. I am very much a critical pedagogue, and I believe that critical pedagogy should be gaining momentum–not falling back. I see a lot of falling back in MOOCs. They often replicate a 20th century learning style and pedagogy that we–as 21st century pedagogues–should be running away from. We can no longer abide the teacher lecturing the students, especially when that lecture hall goes from 300 to 4000.

This is not to say that MOOCs do not have potential. They have enormous potential for informal and supplemental learning. They can never replace higher education, though they may be able to serve as a crutch to our flawed system. My main gripe with MOOCs in general is people thinking they are something new. They aren’t new. I’ve written about this before. In many ways, I feel MOOCs–or the way they are often proffered–are a step backwards. They are often engaged with uncritically and without consideration for the enormous issues of privilege surrounding them. (This is something I felt happened in the first #moocmooc.)

This lack of criticalness has led me to believe that many who offer or set up MOOCs are in serious need of a re-reading for hooks, Giroux, Freire, McLaren, and other important critical thinkers who can help us see both the supportive as well as damaging nature of the place we find ourselves: an orgy of blistering mediocrity. Scholars and business people alike are jumping into the pit of MOOCmania without the slightest thought as to the replicating nature of them.

Consider this: You enter a physical space. It’s a lecture hall, and there are 300 students in the hall. A lone bespectacled professor stands at the front of the room. He glares at the students, and then he begins to lecture. He doesn’t stop lecturing until the end of the class. You have no time to speak with the professor, and you barely know the shape of his spectacles. You leave–run, perhaps–from the hall and disappear into the fog of students outside. You didn’t matter. You didn’t change the world, and no one knows your name.

That’s a pretty bleak picture of how higher education often operates now. This isn’t 50 or 100 years ago. This is now, and we have yet to fix this problem.

Similarly, consider this: You enter a discussion space. It’s populated by people chatting about the work of the course. You smile and stretch. You see the smiling or serious faces of the course leaders. They talk, you talk, others talk, and then some leave. Some arrive too. This dance goes on for hours. But, instead of 300 students to compete with; you now have 1000 students to compete with. They all post, they all fill the discussion boards with entry after entry. They hog the time of the course leaders. They spam your email inbox with new course news. You feel like you have to comment on every discussion thread. You try. You try again. You get frustrated–burned out. You scream. You try to escape some of the reframing of issues over and over again. You can’t make it: You drown. Your lifeless body is found floating between a discussion thread about Twitter Lists and one about how to add your blog to the RSS feed.

Okay, so that’s pretty bleak too. There might be a smidgen of hyperbole in there but not too much.

These are the types of problems facing higher education today, and MOOCs have yet to alleviate any of these problems. Drop-in learning (as I like to call it) is wonderful for those who learn for pleasure and have little else to do. But, we should not only view MOOCs through rose-colored glasses. There are many things wrong with MOOCs, especially when it comes to formal learning and traditional higher education. There are also many good things about MOOCs, especially when it comes to informal and casual learning.

Perhaps the most important thing we should remember is: just because a Stanford professor puts on a (failed?) MOOC, doesn’t mean we all should or that it’s right for higher education in the digital age.

*Pardon any spelling or grammatical errors, as I jotted this down a few minutes before boarding my plane.–tmk

Image courtesy of Flickr user cogdogblog // Creative Commons licensed: CC-BY

2012 Survive & Thrive Conference and Festival

November 4th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Recently, I was invited to the 2012 Survive & Thrive Conference and Festival in St Cloud, MN. It was an event dedicated to the medical humanities, with its theme this year being centered on the heart. It was a fabulous event, and it provided attendees ample opportunities to explore various medical humanities topics. A diverse crowd attended the conference: from medical doctors, to college professors, to writers, to business people, and so on.

I was originally going to read an excerpt from an essay I’ve been working on about suicide and teaching titled, “Red Ink.” However, I was asked to run a workshop, and I jumped at the opportunity to give attendees a safe space to write about healing.

Those who’ve worked with me know that I’m easy going and often accommodating with collaborators. I’m that way not because I like to acquiesce; I’m that way because I find collaboration to be a dance, an odd polka; sometimes you have to give, and other times you have to take.

But, I digress.

Anyways, I put together a workshop focused on writing and healing. It was well attended, and I was told later during the conference that my workshop created quite a positive buzz. I’m always happy to hear that people enjoyed their time with me as co-learners.

Writing is an inherently expressive act. We can’t escape it because at the root of every text is a human, and humans are expressive creatures. It seems current writing pedagogy and theory spurns expressivist thinking. It’s mostly a reaction to the great expressivist movement in the 70s and 80s; from that, we got cognitive writing theory, then we got a combo, and now we’re coming back around to current traditional style writing theory, where grammar is the only thing of importance.

Drawing on the spirit of scholars, like Peter Elbow and Donald Murray, I focused the workshop on the theory and praxis behind writing and healing, identifying experiences on which to journal and why, and continuing practice with the aid of prompts. Importantly, we did lots of writing.

I provided two handouts to the workshop participants. First, I gave them a short bibliography of relevant sources for them to explore about the workshop topic; and, second, I gave them writing prompts clustered around certain themes related to the workshop topic.

Co-learning with these workshop participants reminded me of how powerful writing is in many contexts. Whether it is for healing, for business, or for the public, writing has power, and it can do great things. We should never forget the power of writing because it is an act that can free us all.

For those interested, here are the slides from the workshop:

Image by Flickr user Steve Snodgrass // Creative Commons licensed: CC-BY

Why I Would Tweet Whether You Liked It or Not

October 3rd, 2012 § 2 comments § permalink

Recently, an old debate (well, old in the online realm) reared its ugly head again. The debate centers around one question: Is it right to tweet during a conference presentation? The same question was raised during the 2012 Modern Language Annual Convention, and it seems the debate rages. Apparently, some scholars would rather not have tweet bites (you know? Like a sound bite?) of their presentations sent out on the popular social media platform.

This debate adopted the hashtag #Twittergate, which is a hashtag I’m not particularly fond of because it evokes imagery of Richard Nixon reading his resignation to the nation. That is, it evokes a feeling that something illegal or wrong has been done. I take issue with the hashtag as only a means to bridge the Twitter chasm. It is a symptom of something within the academy, and that thing is certainly not illegal or wrong. It is, however, something much worse: It is sinister. But, I’ll get to that a little later.

Academics Love Silos

Let’s face it: Academics love silos. As much as they suggest they want to be interdisciplinary, their actions suggest otherwise. Academics are odd creatures. First, one will complain about lack of public funding but then will get upset about open access publishing. Meaning, an academic only wants something with the word “public” in it if it benefits them. If it doesn’t benefit them, then they don’t care. Open access publishing is public. Anyone with a laptop and Internet connection can access those publications.

Or, perhaps, an academic will lament their low pay and complain about people not understanding how much work they do but then won’t create dialogue with those same people to show them the work they do. I suppose what’s paramount to understanding the academy is it’s terribly contrarian, and while this isn’t always a negative quality, it doesn’t always lead to much progress academic contexts.

So, it’s not particularly surprising some academics would disagree with someone tweeting their conference presentation. I mean, the idea of letting folks outside one’s own field and the academy entirely hear about your work is absolutely crazy, right?

An academic’s identity is tied to a place, and these places are often disciplines. Even when one academic moves, they still seem tied to their home discipline. Furthermore, these places are walled off from the other places within the academy, which, in turn, are walled off from the rest of society. Does anyone else see a problem here?

It’s getting to the point where I am shocked moats have not been dug around department buildings on campuses, lest a comparative literature person should wonder into the sociology building. These types of issues provide enough ammo to mentally exhaust those inside the academy and to confuse those outside the academy.

In many ways, oppression happens in the places where it should be fought. The academy is one of those places, and the silo is an excellent example. A silo stops entry. It denies. It detains. It shields. It insulates, and it is difficult to scale. When an academic leaves their campus, they often wear their silos on their sleeves as badges of honor. They identify: This is who I am, this is what I know, and this should tell you if I’m willing to engage with you or not. So, taking a kernel out of an academic’s silo as they present is an unacceptable violation of their silo. While this is most certainly not true of every academic (for example: I know many academics who want tweets flying around), it’s so silly even a minority is worthy of discussion.

Don’t Tweet My Work. Oy Vey.

This gut reaction to shield one’s work seems rooted in ego, which is something I’m coming to shortly. But, before we get there, let’s talk about public. First, I abhor the public/private dichotomy. I don’t think it exists, and I’m currently working on a project focusing on its undue pervasiveness. However, this dichotomy shows up often in discussions of social media.

The argument from the “Don’t tweet my work” academic is threefold. First, they hold that their work is still in progress, and therefore it is not ready to be “published.” However, this argument is flawed because “to publish” means to be available to the public. So, by presenting at a conference, an academic is engaging in a form a publishing.

Second, many academics fear their ideas will be stolen, and tweeting will contribute to this theft. This is a ludicrous argument. Other academics do not sneak into sessions to tweet tidbits from the presenter’s talk in order to steal ideas. If we were to follow this logic, then every student who has ever taken notes during a class has stolen from a teacher. Should we confiscate those notes? Of course not. That would just be silly.

Third, academics seem to have a habit for holding onto their work more securely than one holds onto a newborn infant. They do not want to let it go, and many are convinced their work is the best work to have ever graced the hallowed halls of their institution. They believe they are delicate and unique flowers, and their ideas are also delicate and unique flowers. These ideas are beyond reproach and critique. This should not be surprising. We are ingrained with this thinking in doctoral school, and it is quite difficult to break out of it.

The publicness of an academic’s work at a conference negates their assertion that they should not be tweeted. I’m sorry, but if you don’t understand the concept of how a conference is public, then you might need to go back to doctoral school.

But, since we’re already here, let’s talk about it briefly.

An academic conference is by definition a gathering where people openly discuss their work with others. It is a public space. You stand in a room of your peers, you present your work, and then you await feedback. It’s a traditional practice and one that often produces boredom. Still, some people can’t be there and can only follow along with tweets. Others are in different sessions and follow along from there. Or people simply use their tweets as a means of note taking and archiving.

The point is all of these things are permissible at a conference regardless of a few academics’ feelings. All of this happens in a public space where people are often expected to have their laptops open and connected to the Internet. There is no expectation of privacy and to even attempt to force an expectation on an attendee who is tweeting is laughable at best. Why is it laughable? It is laughable because it assumes the academic forcing privacy into existence at a conference actually has the authority to do so. As many know, academics have little authority outside of the classrooms where their students are often held hostage.

Something Sinister This Way Comes

Ego. Everyone has an ego, and it serves both positive and negative functions in our lives. Ego makes us feel like we can do something impossible, but ego also turns us into insufferable prigs. It certainly isn’t that cut and dry; there are a multitude of egotistical states to be found in this world. However, I’ve never encountered an ego quite like an academic’s ego.

It seems egos become inflated in the academy for various reasons. Yet, one aspect seems to happen more often than other types in the course of an academic’s career: selfishness. The type of moralistic and criticalness coming from an academic clinging to their semblances is a dangerous and sinister thing. (This could perhaps be labeled psychologically as the “super-ego” but, for this post, I’m just going to call it “ego.”)

I’ve seen and heard of instances where academics become threatened by the very idea their notions will be shared with public audiences. This mentality reinforces the silo idea of the academy: some are in and some are out. Either way, it is detrimental to the progress of the academy and an enlightened society.

Honestly, when I hear or read academics complaining about people tweeting during their session, I chuckle. I chuckle because I wonder what silliness the academy will show me next week, especially if the silliness of this week is about tweeting. This type of urge to deny access to work in progress or work close to finished can be summed up in a short phrase reminiscent of toddlers: “Mine, mine, mine!”

It’s not my goal to be aggressive, but this attitude is ubiquitous in the academy. It happens a lot, and it seems we still abide it. Why? I don’t know why. I have a feeling, like most humans, academics want to be “liked”; thus, they don’t always confront humanity’s ugliness in the office next to them. I don’t blame them. It’s a hard world, and we all have to get by the best we can.

But, I grow concerned by the idea that academics really think they have power over other individuals in conference sessions. Actually, I find it sort of insulting. No academic of any rank has the right to tell me when and when not to tweet. Period. To assume they do is to highlight exactly how high an opinion they have of themselves.

What I think we forget about conference sessions is the audience is there as a courtesy to the presenter; it’s not the other way around. If I am at your session, it’s because I want to hear what you think. You should be grateful for my attendance because there are 50 other sessions I could easily go to, and in some circumstances, you would then just talk to an empty room. We should always be grateful to our audiences.

The selfishness of the academy is the sinister being of the hallowed halls. If your conference presentation is tweeted by many, then you should jump for joy. If it is tweeted by none, then you should ask yourself, why?

But…But…What About Context? Or Respect?

Finally, we land on the walls of context where those on the outside are the removed proletariat public jockeying for the chance to witness the mighty and hallowed noble academy deliver them a morsel of honeyed knowledge.  The argument being as one tweets, the tweet bites are out of context. The kernel is removed from the cob leaving us an incomplete picture of what transpired.

My comment regarding this is one of interest. Well, it is of interest because I wonder if those who argue something is out of context are familiar with Jacques Derrida: Il n’y a pas de hors-texte (There is nothing outside of [con]text.) Everything exists within a context. Those tweets, while removed from the context of the conference room, now exist within the context of the conference back channel. As such, they mean different things than they once did. This is, however, not a negative thing. It should be seen as a teaser, and something encouraging people to react and engage via Twitter. Sometimes the most profound insight or advice arrives to us in 140 characters.

The argument for context is a trite one. It is almost meaningless because by suggesting one who tweets a conference presentation is removing a tidbit from the context in which it arose is ludicrous. The tidbit still exists within the primary context of the conference room, but it now exists within a different context–a secondary context– as well. There is nothing wrong with this idea, and academics should not be afraid of it. The only difference between the primary context and the secondary context is that academics presenting have absolutely no control or authority over the latter. It is this lack of control that infuriates and irritates them.

This issue of control leads me to the issue of respect. There is the understanding of respect within the academy that because one is an academic they must be granted a certain level of respect. Not to harken back to my childhood with a lovely fatherly idiom, but my grandfather and father have always told me: “You don’t just get respect. You have to earn it, and it doesn’t matter who you are.” I believe this, and it applies to academics as well.

I apologize if this bucks the norm, but just because you’re an academic, it doesn’t mean you automatically have my respect. As a teacher, my students have to earn my respect, and I have to earn theirs. Despite this homegrown folksy advice, we are told if a presenter tells us not to tweet their presentation, we should respect them and not tweet it. Sorry, but I don’t think so.

It’s not my job to bend to the fearful and chest-thumping whims of an academic presenting at a public conference in front of many other academics who are their to do the same. My job, as I see it, is to disseminate knowledge that remains cloistered. I think it is the job of those in higher education to spread knowledge like a virus. Knowledge should spread like the medieval plague, and Twitter is one way through which I cough knowledge onto others.

I would tweet your presentation even if you didn’t like it. I would tweet your public, verbose, and dry presentation even if you glared at me. I would tweet your presentation even if you stood over my shoulder screaming in my ear. The point is it’s not that I don’t have respect for you; it’s just I have more respect for knowledge than for a single academic ego.

I do have respect for people who stand up and release their ideas into a sea of critiques. All I do is prolong the flight of the ideas a little longer and in a little more brevity. Social media has become an integral part of our culture. We should not spurn it.

Lingering Thoughts

Perhaps we need to change how we think about conferences. Academics should go to conferences with the assumption everyone is tweeting their presentation, everyone is working to disseminate knowledge, and everyone is working to spread their ideas. In this way, academics will be better prepared to engage with both face-to-face and digital audiences, and they will come with a presentation they aren’t afraid to share.

A public conference space isn’t a space to hide your ideas. If you do, what’s the point in going? If it were that much of a problem for you, perhaps it would be best to stay home or just attend and not present.

There are options besides attempting to regulate and censor information at a public meeting of intellectuals. The dissemination of knowledge should be our highest priority–not the appeasement of academic aggressors.

Links for Your Edification:

A Storify of #Twittergate

The Academic Twitterazzi

Live-Tweeting at Academic Conferences: 10 Rules of Thumb

An Idea is a Dangerous Thing to Quarantine #twittergate