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

Open Access, Public Intellectualism, and Academic Reform

January 3rd, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

(This post is cross posted on the HASTAC site where I’m a HASTAC Scholar)

I’ve participated in many discussions about academic scholarship, and needless to say, many of them are boring. They are boring because much of what is written in the academy is for such a small audience that I often struggle to connect it with my own interests; however, this doesn’t mean the scholarship isn’t interesting to someone. Reading through Bauerlein’s Chronicle of Higher Education piece as well as John Carter McKnight’s brilliant discussion of academic scholarship supply and demand, I wanted to write about something that’s been bothering me for quite some time.

Many of the problems I have with higher education stem from antiquated and, seemingly, modernist notions of what it means to be in the academy and how research is defined from discipline to discipline. I don’t want to get into a debate about what constitutes research and what doesn’t; however, I would like to say that unless a scholar is willing to step back from their own ego and attempt to understand the context, then academics in higher education will continue to be dismissive of others’ research because they don’t understand it.

Academics have too long been removed from public view, and they have too long allowed their research to be secured behind Mordorian walls of arrogance. As long as academics continue to propagate their separateness from the rest of society, they will continue to draw the ire of those outside of the academy. But, what should the role of an academic be within a society? What can we actually do now to enact change?

Open Access

I believe open access is one of the most important issues facing the struggling and antiquated 21st century academy. Open access is at the root of how the academy defines knowledge and who should have access to knowledge. People outside of the academy should freely have access to knowledge and those within the academy should not hold the sole domain over knowledge. I’m quite adamant about this point because I often hear other academics either complain about the uselessness of open access or the lack of open access publications in their discipline preventing them from turning their research into open access knowledge. Even more troublesome are the academics who support open access, yet they don’t submit to open access publications, despite the availability of those publications within their disciplines. The last issue is of particular concern to me because it feeds into the pretentious and, often, hypocritical nature of the academy.

Not only is open access critical to the current academy, but it could be critical to the future of the academy. It’s important the academy’s work be available to those outside of it. In the age of transparency, it should be fundamental that academic work is automatically open access and freely available to anyone. The question shouldn’t be,  why should we make academic work open access; it should be, why shouldn’t we make academic work open access?

I’m not unaware of the economic issues surrounding open access and for-profit publishing, but why should the academy, largely a non-profit enterprise, support for-profit seclusion of knowledge? The academy is in the business of discovering and disseminating knowledge, not burying and limiting access to it. The hypocritical nature of the academy is frustrating, but academics should be supporting, not just vocally but through submissions to and publishing in open access publications, open access issues because knowledge belongs to everyone, and discovered knowledge will not be put to productive use while locked away behind the academy’s almost impenetrable walls.

Moreover, academics who support open access but don’t submit their work to open access journals and publications are doing a great disservice to their discipline and the profession as a whole. If you support open access, then you should submit to open access journals and publications. It’s important for academics to end hypocrisy in the academy by first starting with themselves. There are plenty of open access journals and publications to which academics can submit.

So, there is no excuse for academics, especially in the humanities and social sciences, to not make their work open access and freely available to everyone.

Public Intellectualism

Coupled with my adamant support for open access, I believe academics in the 21st century must be public intellectuals. Academics must be public figures, and they must shed light on their studies, work, teaching, and research. Every academic has access to the Internet and technology to make their work public and to engage in intellectual debates in broader contexts.

Higher education can no longer afford to be the haven for the elite, pretentious, and dismissive. The academy cannot afford it economically, socially, or culturally. When academics sequester themselves, they alienate themselves from the very public, which could benefit from their work. Does this make any sense? Does it make sense to devote your life to researching a subject to only share that passion with a tiny and, perhaps, even insignificant few? No, absolutely not.

Academics should work to engage the public through public writing and debate. They should not be afraid to jump into the fray of public opinion because public intellectualism will save higher education. It will save the academy through good works, public writing, and publicness. If academics put themselves on the front lines to address issues affecting higher education and the broader public, then they will find engaging, resourceful, and intellectually stimulating causes and audiences.

Moreover, if academics venture out of their sheltered offices and hallowed halls, they can show the public the great value of the academy, from the niche to the every day. (Lawrence Lessig, anyone?) Higher education’s contribution to society is important and noteworthy, but academics must highlight and show the public the importance and noteworthiness. The public cannot be expected to just divine the academy’s contributions to society; the academy must let them know.

Academics should write publicly about their work through blogs, newspapers, wikis, and other public venues. They should engage in public debates about issues on which they are knowledgable or passionate. Academics are not inherently special; individuals will move in and out of the academy much in the same way as people move in and out of a dinner party. One person will leave only to be replaced by another. However, what will hopefully exist beyond those individuals is the academy and people they affected and the knowledge they discovered and disseminated.

Academic Reform

The academy is in need of reform, and I believe the two aforementioned issues can help higher education knock down some of the walls surrounding the mythical ivory tower. Academics should be pushed to publish their work in venues not kept by paywalls and guards. They should be encouraged to connect with the larger public audience, and they should be urged to highlight all the good the academy contributes to society. I fear if the academy does not tear down the walls that separate it from the rest of society, then higher education as it currently exists will continue to rot from the inside and, in the distant future, be discarded as nothing more than an antiquated institution out of touch with the current century.

Update (01/04/2012): It recently came to my attention via a colleague on Twitter that Jonathan Becker posted about these issues with a similar argument six months ago. Becker is in a different discipline than my own, and this may be one reason why I wasn’t aware of his excellent post. However, I think it’s telling that there are people talking about these issues across disciplines, and we need more posts about the subject to really create change. Becker’s post is excellent, and I encourage you to read through it.–TMK

Graphic by the author and photos by Flickr users Jo Naylor and ami_harikoshi, respectively // All Creative Commons licensed: CC-BY

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