How Good Can a Course that Follows a Standard Textbook Be?

[Note: this post marks my attempt to rejoin the Open Learning ’17 conversation, from which I’ve been absent for several weeks. We’ll see how it goes; fitting even one more thing into any semester is a challenge, and I’m juggling several “extras” this semester.]

The post title is deliberately a bit provocative (and, of course, riffs off of Steve Greenlaw’s  “How Good Can a Free, Open Source Book Really Be?”, one of the readings for this week’s discussion of Open Educational Resources (OER)).  But it’s also an honest question, one which I hope can shift the perspective of our conversation about OER and quality a bit.

In reading Steve’s three posts chronicling his adventures in writing a free, open economics textbook for OpenStax, and the questions raised by the endeavor, I was reminded (and not for the first time during the past year of exploring OER and the conversations surrounding them) just how much pedagogy, and pedagogical assumptions about how courses do or should work, differ from discipline to discipline.

At least at the five fairly-varied institutions where I’ve taught, English classes, whether in literature (my original field of study) or composition (my primary pedagogical field) are rarely structured around following a textbook from beginning to end.  Sure, we may choose readings from an anthology, perhaps one with some contextual material or discussion of subjects like genre or symbolic language, or perhaps assign a handbook covering grammar, citation, and/or research techniques, but it’s not common, at least in my experience, to structure a class around working our way through a textbook, chapter by chapter. Even when English teachers do adopt a textbook, we tend to mix and match textbook material with outside material, skip around, and pick and choose.  Assignments and activities are more often created by the instructor than taken from a textbook.

This doesn’t, of course, keep publishers from creating composition textbooks, complete with ever-increasing amounts of the “ancillary material” Steve mentions in his second post, and urging us to require our students to buy those textbooks (first-year composition is a huge market, even bigger than the one made up of introductory economics students).  But textbooks just don’t structure or define the introductory composition course in the same way that it sounds like they do in other disciplines, including economics.

This is even more true of the course that has formed the backbone of my teaching load for the past 17 years: English 302, Advanced Composition, a required discipline-aware writing class that students ideally take around the beginning of their junior year.  Because 300-level composition courses with similar learning goals are rare, we don’t really fit into an existing market (though this doesn’t, of course, keep textbook reps from trying to convince us that they’ve got the perfect book for our class).

The class is, however, a huge one, with over 100 22-student sections taught each semester, and the instructor community is correspondingly large (even with many of us teaching 3 or 4 sections a semester).  A few of us do assign and use textbooks, but we’re even more likely than English 101 teachers to pick, choose, and adapt the pre-existing materials we use, commercial or not (as a group of us discovered last summer, there aren’t really free, open textbooks that fit the class exactly, either; given our experience with commercial textbooks, this wasn’t a surprise).

Mostly, especially when it comes to assignments and activities, and often when it comes to instructional/informational material as well, we create our own curricular materials. We also share materials with each other, and adapt each others’ materials to our own particular approaches to teaching the class (which has common course goals, and some common kinds of assignments, but allows individual instructors considerable freedom within those parameters).

We’ve begun to formalize this ongoing process of collaboration with the project we began last summer: the English 302 OER collection (currently housed on a Blackboard organization site, so I can’t link to it, but we plan to move our materials to a public platform soon; for the moment, here’s a copy of the proposal we wrote for a GMU 4-VA grant to support some of our work last summer).  We’ve found that the philosophies behind OER specifically, open education more generally, and creative commons licensing in particular fit very well with the community of collaboration we’ve already built, and even help to solve some minor problems with the existing culture of sharing (for instance, it’s useful, come salary/promotion review time, to have a way of identifying, via a licensing statement, who originally wrote an assignment, who adapted it for a different disciplinary “flavor” of the class, who created a slightly different version that works well with a different assignment sequence, and so on).

At the same time, we’ve begun to articulate a standard of quality which the collection and the course represent, and which we have to some extent taken for granted: our students’ learning is guided and facilitated by materials that are selected, adapted, and/or created, and are regularly revised, by the same people who interact directly with the students who use the materials, and the work those students produce.

When you think about it, that’s a very different scenario, and a very different standard of quality, from a class in which students use curricular materials created, and perhaps even selected, by someone whom they will never meet, and who will never meet them, or see the work they produce, or hear the questions they ask, in response to those materials, and inw which instructors have no power to change materials that are not working well.    Of course standard textbooks are revised, and presumably there’s some form of feedback mechanism that informs that process, whether it involves instructor surveys, or review by selected instructors of chapters under composition/revision, or application of knowledge gained through the scholarship of teaching and learning.

But we’re still talking about a mass-produced product, necessarily designed to work for the majority of students (but not necessarily adapted for any particular local population), and fully revised comparatively infrequently, with limited information about how well it works in the classes in which it’s assigned.  In food terms, commercial textbooks are Big Macs, or Budweiser in a can, produced in factories far from the end user, and shaped by customer surveys and maybe focus groups, not gourmet burgers or craft brews created onsite by the same people who interact regularly with the customers.

So why do commercial textbooks exist at all, given their fairly obvious deficiencies in comparison to locally-produced materials?  I can think of a few good reasons (in addition to explanations such as custom, inertia, and the various structural factors that tend to perpetuate a lucrative market once it exists).  Textbooks, and the process of creating and selecting them, help to define the current consensus within a discipline about what students, especially introductory students, need to know, what vocabulary they should be using, etc. That’s useful when those students eventually encounter people who took courses in the same major at other schools, or even took other sections of the introductory class at the same school.   Some standardization is useful.  Textbooks also relieve individual instructors of the need to reinvent the wheel; it wouldn’t be very efficient for each instructor to spend time writing his or her own textbook from scratch (and English department chairs and writing program administrators are regularly reminded just how inefficient nonstandardized classes taught in many small sections are, from the perspective of the university budget).

In  many ways, OER offer the best of both worlds: instructors don’t need to reinvent content that already exists, but they’re free to adapt, revise, and remix to meet the needs of their local student population, on a schedule that works for them and that population (and as Steve points out, even standard textbooks from OpenStax are revised more regularly, with more direct input from users, than printed commercial textbooks ).  As Steve also points out, OER are also affordable (free, or at-cost if students want a hard copy), so the students actually obtain and use them (that’s another major reason composition instructors are moving away from the commercial textbooks and handbooks we did use; even though English and comp textbooks are much cheaper than, say, the average science textbook, many students have decided textbooks are just too expensive, period, and no longer even consider buying, or budgeting for, them.  In many ways, commercial textbook publishers have destroyed their own market, and it seems unlikely that they’ll be able to reconstitute it).

But an open textbook, even one which an instructor has adapted to local needs, is still to a considerable degree a generic, mass-produced product (perhaps a hamburger-helper dinner with some extra vegetables and a favorite spice or two added by the home cook?)   If we were looking for the ideal, truly the highest standard of quality, wouldn’t we be producing all our own curricular materials in-house, adapting them for our particular student populations  (or even for particular students — a goal which Nelson articulated in Computer Lib/Dream Machines, and which some forms of computer-aided-instruction, perhaps somewhat paradoxically, attempt to meet)?  Do the reasons we don’t create materials locally derive primarily from concerns about quality?  If we didn’t start from the assumption that a course should be structured around a preexisting textbook, whether commercial or open, how would our conversation about what makes a course “good” change?



Nelson part 2: of teachers and curricula

In the time between writing Computer Lib/Dream Machines in 1974 and being interviewed by Gardner Campbell in 2014, Ted Nelson seems to have become a bit more sympathetic to teachers (or at least a bit less inclined to attack them/us directly).   In 1974, he presents teachers as holding considerable power in, and power to shape students’ experiences within, an “educational system. . .committed to the fussy and prissy, to the enforcement of peculiar standards of righteousness and the elevation of teachers.” While “most teachers mean well,” he writes, “they are so concerned with promoting their images, attitudes, and styles of order that very little else can be communicated in the time remaining, and almost none of it attractively” (Computer Lib, p. 309 of New Media Reader reprint/excerpt).  By 2014, he describes teachers as less powerful, trapped  within and limited by rather than shaping the system, ineffective in part because they are “so overworked, so boggled by appalling administrative crap” (c. 6:40+ in the video linked above).

One villain, however, remains constant in the two presentations of Nelson’s ideas: the curriculum.  “A child arrives at school bright and early in his life,” Nelson writes in 1974. “By drabness we deprive him of interests. By fixed curriculum and sequence we rob him of his orientation, initiative and motivation, and by testing and scoring we subvert his natural intelligence” (Computer Lib p. 308).  In 2014, responding to Gardner’s initial question about the current state of education, he speaks of a school system which reduces education to a “system of curricula, of gradation, of . . .attempting to stamp out homogenized minds,” “reducing knowledge to a small number of testable points” (c. .55+).  Later in the interview, in a discussion of the “oceanic mind” and the importance of understanding the “big picture” by seeing connections between ideas that are traditionally relegated to different fields of study, he reiterates that “taking a course is not necessarily the best way to learn something” (c.15:50 -17.25).

I agree with that final statement, especially for people who — in a phrase that comes up frequently in discussions of the promise and pitfalls of MOOCs, have learned how to learn.  I also agree — as I suspect most teachers do — with Nelson’s critique of an educational culture in which the standardized-testing tail often seems to be wagging a dog that represents every other part of the educational process.  Finally, I recognize and value the interdisciplinary nature of learning; in fact, the class that most shaped my college and professional career was an interdisciplinary class – women’s studies – taken during my first year of college.  In part as a result of that class, I spent a good deal of my time in college questioning the literary canon – an established curriculum of sorts, represented by which texts were and weren’t included in anthologies, or, in many cases, available in print at all, except, perhaps, in obscure corners of the library stacks, or in the rare book room.  As a result of that experience, I have some sympathy for Nelson’s questioning of set curricula and their value.

At the same time, I’m not so sure that Nelson’s proposals are quite as much of a departure from existing approaches to teaching, or from the idea of a curriculum, as he suggests. For instance, I notice that the learning space Nelson envisions as an alternative to single-path Computer Aided Instruction (CAI) seems itself to be a carefully curated space, with constrained rather than infinite choices. While the student chooses the “sequence” in which (s)he encounters the “interesting and clear” material, and also “the most appropriate form of testing available” (Computer Lib p. 313)  – from, presumably, an existing menu of options — the experience described seems more akin to exploring a well-designed hyptertext encyclopedia (perhaps one with abundant links to primary documents and more in-depth secondary sources), or perhaps the early AOL environment, than to trying to make one’s way unaided through the World Wide Web, or even the stacks of a large university library that has been collecting materials for a century or three (reading reviews of the Bronte’s novels, in bound copies of the periodicals that had once served as recreational reading for mid-19th century Harvard undergraduates, was another transformative experience of my first year in college).

And as Vannevar Bush points out, as the amount of available material representing the sum of human knowledge increases, so does our need to find paths through that material, and to seek help from others in tracing those paths. And what is a curriculum but a path blazed by others?  And do we not learn to blaze our own paths in part by using the methods and following in the footsteps of our predecessors, at least until a better way of doing things occurs to us, or something a bit off the established path catches our eye?

As a college freshperson, I was ready to be enthralled rather than intimidated by the stacks of Widener Library in part because I’d been guided (by excellent teachers, in the privileged environment of small, mostly discussion-based classes) through an established, more constrained curriculum in high school – the AP American history curriculum, with its emphasis on Document-Based Questions (DBQs).  Through my experience with curated sets of primary documents and pre-set questions, I learned that primary sources existed, and what kinds of questions I could use them to answer (though those questions, even in my girls’ high school, were never, as far as I can remember, about gender).

When I decided I wanted to explore ideas about gender and authorship in the mid-19th century for the assigned research paper in my Women’s Studies class, I was able to combine the experience of answering questions by analyzing primary sources and the particular perspective of the class to frame a question that was still somewhat outside the norm for English studies in 1983.  Similarly, I was able to combine skills and information from my education so far — the knowledge that primary sources in general existed, and could be used to answer research questions;  the information, most likely gleaned from lecture or class readings, that the Bronte’s novels had been reviewed while the gender of their authors was still a matter of speculation; and a general sense of how to search for periodicals (that was probably when I discovered that the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature had a 19th-century counterpart) — to locate those evocative bound volumes (rather than the microform copies that, based on past experience, I had anticipated). And, during the later years of college and eventually in graduate school, I was able to continue refining those research and analytical skills, and applying them to finding and reading texts increasingly distant from the established (though then as now ever-changing) canon.

Would I have learned even more from my early experiences with DBQs if the texts had been arranged in the sort of environment Nelson describes, rather than sequentially in printed or photocopied packets? Possibly (but we did a good bit of jumping around in those printed packets, and sometimes our teachers supplemented the printed packet with additional photocopies).  What about if there had been no set questions?  I’m not so sure about that; at least in this case, I’m pretty sure I benefited from having questions (and even, on occasion, answers) modeled for me before I went on to construct my own, often quite different, ones.

Would I have gotten less from my high school experience if the teachers had followed an even more constrained, and constraining, curriculum, or if (as seems to be the case with Nelson) I had chafed more against institutional structure of any kind?  Quite likely.  But at least in my experience (which, like Nelson’s, is a data set of n=1), it worked quite well to move from a constrained curriculum and a very structured day to an education that challenged some of the assumptions of that curriculum, and a course schedule that allowed me considerable time to explore readings, libraries, etc., on my own.

It’s also worth noting that even Nelson’s proposed system is not quite the guide-less free-for-all one might assume from the “no more teachers’ dirty looks” mantra, or the declaration that “anyone retaining his natural mental facilities can learn anything practically on his own, given encouragement and resources” (pp. 308-309). The qualifiers here — “practically,” “given encouragement and resources” — though easy to gloss over, are crucial.

The quality of the “resources” provided — by someone’s labor, whether one calls it “teaching” labor or something else — is central to the success of the project.  If there are no “teachers,” per se, in Nelson’s system, there are still creators, or at least choosers, of “clear” materials to be made “available” and even “attractive” to the learner.

“Encouragement” is also key, and also hints at the presence of implicit if not explicit teaching.   “Encouragement” and “on his own” are at odds; if someone is encouraging you to do something, you’re not truly doing it “on your own,” even if it feels like you are.  In fact, making it feel like you’re doing it on your own can be one of the subtler forms of encouragement, and of teaching.  Think of the five-year-old who declares “I did it all by myself,” and the parent who builds confidence by refraining from contradicting that declaration — or perhaps, if (s)he fears the child is becoming dangerously overconfident, smilingly adds “well, almost” (or “practically”).

It also seems likely that, in the process of choosing, these behind-the-scenes creators would imagine some (though perhaps not all) of the paths students might take through the created or chosen materials, and create or choose additional materials that would enhance that experience.  So, as with the five-year-old who picks what to wear from a parent-curated wardrobe,  the freedom the student feels is perhaps not so great as (s)he imagines, nor is the range of possible questions that can be answered infinite (for instance, if someone had created a collection of literary texts for study using Nelson’s model c. 1982, it might or might not have included many texts by women, or by the other noncanonical writers whose work I’ve studied).  However, in making their way through a well-designed set of constrained materials, students may well develop the skills they need to include materials outside the original set in their inquiry (on the other hand, if the original set of materials is too carefully curated, too selected for “clarity” and appeal, they might not; this is an ongoing challenge for educators seeking to create engaging, accessible instructional materials, and also to help students apply skills learned in carefully-designed environments to messier real-world situations).

Finally, are the people who create, collect, and to some extent arrange the collections of materials Nelson envisions teachers (or perhaps, in the parlance of an academy where the creation and “delivery” of curricula is in some cases becoming separated, instructional designers)?  And is the collection a “curriculum,” perhaps by another name?  For that matter, is Nelson himself, with his interest in the creation of engaging learning experiences, a teacher, or least someone who thinks a lot like a good teacher?  I’m not particularly interested in getting hung up on vocabulary, but I’d answer yes to all of these questions – Nelson describes a well-designed, usefully constrained, inquiry-based curriculum designed by thoughtful teachers engaged in – yes, Dr. Nelson – a creative process in which he himself is also involved.

Nelson: starting with the cover(s)

[Note: I’d love to include an image of the covers of Computer Lib/Dream Machines here, since they’re fascinating, and yes, images can aid understanding, especially when they represent the phenomenon under analysis.  But Nelson asserted copyright in his work, and that copyright still applies. I could probably use Wikipedia’s rationale for reproducing a low-resolution image.  But instead I’ll link to DigiBarn, which has some nice images of both the covers and some inside pages, scanned and posted with permission from Nelson. A google image search will turn up some additional (apparently unauthorized) images, including ones which show how the two covers connect, especially the intrusion of the superhero figure’s foot from the cover of Dream Machines onto the cover of Computer Lib]

In an attempt to feel a bit more caught up with the ongoing conversations in Open Learning 17, I decided to look ahead to the reading for week four (I like to think about things for a while before I write about them).  It looks like we’ll be reading excerpts (tba) of Theodor H. Nelson’s Computer Lib/Dream Machines, so I skimmed through the full(er?) version currently linked from the syllabus, trying to get a sense of the book(s) as a whole.  I found myself thinking about the information on the covers, including titles, subtitles, and illustrations.

The result, below, is some combination of a rhetorical analysis (courtesy of my current professional identity as a writing teacher), a gender analysis with particular attention to historical/cultural context and the book as an object (concerns common to my original fields of research/study), and the musings of someone who was just beginning to be culturally aware in 1974 (I was ten when the first edition of Computer Lib/Dream Machines came out).  There is also something of a trail, as I attempted to answer a research question using the affordances of the internet, a tool which, as we’ve noted, in many ways resembles the systems of knowledge-recording and building imagined by Bush, Engelbart, and Nelson himself.  So here’s the question, which came to me almost immediately on seeing the title, and the date of publication:

Why did Nelson choose Computer Lib as one of his titles? More specifically, what were the resonances of “lib” for him and his (possible/projected/ideal) reader(s)? 

My own immediate association, based on my somewhat-hazy memories of a 1974 spent living in the Northern Virginia suburbs, is with “women’s lib.”  Based on those associations, and on the androcentric perspective some of us have noted in our historical readings so far (Bush and Engelbart),  I was surprised.  Have we arrived at a reading which will display some awareness of, perhaps even sympathy for, contemporary gender struggles?  Or perhaps, thanks to age and/or location, I’m missing some other contemporary uses of “lib.”  How to answer this question?

I decided to look for other book titles from the early 1970s with “lib” in the title. This, as any librarian could have predicted, turned out to be a difficult search, since “lib” plays multiple roles, especially in databases of books: a part of many common words, an abbreviation for “book” or perhaps “volume,” and a part of the phrase “ad lib.” (which shows up in the titles of a good many music scores, among other things).  My attempts to search google books didn’t come out very well; I either came up with far too many results or far too few, with the “too few” identified as such in part by the fact that they didn’t include Nelson’s book.

WorldCat seemed to work better. Though I’m still not entirely confident of my results, it seems that most other books with the word “lib” in the title published in 1974 and indexed in WorldCat (eleven in all, that I could find) referred (positively or negatively) to the women’s liberation movement.  The two exceptions were closely related; there was one reference to “kids’ lib” and one to “gay lib” (a bit more skimming of results suggests that “gay” was the second-most-common word combined with “lib” in book titles in the early 1970s; looking back through 1970, I also found “city lib,” men’s lib,” and, most intriguingly, “mule lib,” which I didn’t explore further, lest the research trail become a rabbit trail; I do have student work to respond to today, which might explain some of my enthusiasm for this research digression).

So it seems that my memory/impression is correct: in 1974, “lib” was most often combined, in popular parlance, with “women’s.”  So why did Nelson choose to include it in one of his titles?  At least from my initial inspection, his work doesn’t seem to have an explicit gender focus, and one might even imagine that his primary imagined readers were men.    Were the cultural resonances of “lib” for him and/or his projected readers positive or attractive?  In my memory, “women’s lib” was more often than not a term of derision or dismissal, but, once again, cultural positions vary, and my memories stem from a particular time, place, and status.  Some authors who chose to include “women’s lib” in their titles clearly felt positively about the movement themselves, though some seem to have anticipated some resistance from some of their readers. Was Nelson simply looking for a shorthand term for “liberation,” and seized on one that was current in the culture, without considering its other associations?

I’m not sure of the answer, but I’ll be mulling this bit of cultural context, and its possible relevance (or not) as I take a closer look at what’s inside the book.

Similarly, I’ll be wondering about the fist: black power symbol?  anarchist symbol? general symbol of protest?

And the subtitle of Dream Machines.  The most likely referent for “minority report” seems to be a 1956 Philip K. Dick story (later made into a 2002 movie of the same name), but a quick google search on “minority report” plus each of the years between 1970 and 1974 revealed another reminder of the women’s liberation struggle: in 1972, a minority report played a role in the fight to seat more female delegates at the Democratic National Convention.

I should probably be wondering more about the superhero (Superman?) figure. For some reason, that’s the element that least engaged my attention, but it, too, certainly plays a role in constructing the immediate message of the book-as-artifact.  It seems possibly a bit at odds with the fist on the other cover (wasn’t Superman pretty establishment?), but maybe not?

Finally, I find myself wondering about the subtitle of Computer Lib, and what messages it sends to a possible/projected audience.  “You can and must understand computers NOW” is both encouraging/empowering (“can”) and prescriptivist (“must,” combined with the typographically shouted “NOW”). Some might find it inspiring, others offputting. Personally, I’m leery of gurus who not only assert that I must free myself, but also are eager to tell me exactly how to do it.  It’s a stance that seems both self-absorbed and lacking in self-awareness, and that does not inspire me with confidence that a self-appointed potential mentor has my best interests at heart, or is even much interested in me at all except as an object on which to project his own interpretations and ambitions.  In short, I don’t usually buy or read books with statements like that on the cover (except, perhaps, if I’m interested in them as historical artifacts).

A similar tension can haunt our attempts to be leaders in implementing open learning in formal teaching and learning contexts, especially for those of us who teach exclusively required classes.  Do students want their classes to be open, by whatever definition of open? If not, do we feel comfortable asserting that we know better than they do what’s best for them?  Perhaps we do, but we need to be aware that that’s what we’re doing, and of the potential contradictions involved in doing so.  Teachers have very real power in the classroom, and we can’t  give it up entirely, though many of us can to some extent choose how we use it to shape the teaching and learning contexts for which we’re responsible.

Based on Computer Lib‘s somewhat contradictory subtitle, I find myself wondering, again: to what sort of readers did Nelson think this message would appeal?  Or, alternatively, wasn’t he thinking that much about appealing to a potential audience?  This volume, at least in its external trappings, looks a bit like a manifesto, and manifestos, for all their explicit desire to persuade, are often devoted as much to expression — giving the author(s) a chance to work out ideas in writing, and to place them where others can see them — as on the sort of persuasive communication that tries to meet a reader where (s)he currently is.

The book (or at least some of Nelson’s key ideas — a somewhat separate thing) has clearly had lasting impact, or we wouldn’t be reading it.  So at some level, whatever its quirks and apparent contradictions, it succeeded.  At the same time, as we consider the idea of open education, and how and whether we promote it, and to whom, it may also be worth looking at Nelson’s covers as an example of an attempt to play the role of leader/mentor/teacher, and to ask ourselves which parts of his approach we might choose to emulate (or not), and why.

And a few further thoughts added on 2/12:

Figuring out when blog posts are finished, and what to do with further thoughts, is definitely going to be an issue (because, as the tag line above indicates, writing leads to thinking which leads to writing, and so on).

Mulling over what I’ve written above, I think my overall reaction to Nelson’s covers is that, despite the briefly-promising “lib,” I’m finding myself very aware that I’m not part of the book’s imagined/intended audience.  Had I encountered it any time in the 10 years after its initial publication (so, during my adolescence or young adulthood), the cover would have signaled to me that it was intended for someone who read MAD magazine and superhero comics — or, in other words, my brother, not me (I say this realizing that plenty of girls and women read MAD and comics, but still, there are clear gender patterns there, certainly in target audiences and signaling of same, even as actual audience demographics are/were more complicated).   There’s also an appeal to what I read as adolescent rebellion that I wouldn’t have found appealing, even as an adolescent (I think that’s more temperament/personality than gender).  None of the above observations will keep me from reading what’s inside in the present day, but they definitely provid a context for my reading.

On a broader but connected scale, as a participant in this cMOOC, I find myself struggling a bit with how to respond to the readings. On the one hand, the class is “open,” and the conversation/discussion is presumably meant to be what the participants, collectively, choose to make of it. On the other hand, the readings provide something of a structure and implied logic/focus for the course, and I find myself feeling pressure (mostly internal) to figure out those patterns, and to respond in kind.  (In the last few weeks, readings seem to follow/chronicle the history and development of the internet as a means for humans to store, share, and develop ideas, and to invite us to consider that history from the perspective of the present day, in which we have versions of these once-imagined affordances available to us, and are trying to figure out how to make them work for us and our students, and — a slightly different and perhaps more “open” approach — trying to help our students figure out how to make them work for themselves.

But for whatever combination of reasons (and the larger political climate and the conditions of my own employment definitely play a role — probably a larger role than any details of the class or its readings), I find myself drawn in the readings to mentions of gender and divisions of labor, especially the division between what Bush terms “creative” and “repetitive” thought, and to thinking about how those divisions continue, and how they apply to work done by faculty and administrators in contemporary teaching/learning environments. That focus feels “off track” in relation to the implied trajectory of the class suggested by the readings.  At the same time, it’s very much “on track” when it comes to my own interest in and concerns with open learning, which center around how and whether those at the bottom of the faculty hierarchy can participate in, and possibly benefit from, the “open” movement.

So I think I need to go back and wrestle more with Bush and (probably to a lesser extent) Engelbart, as well as to write more about the English 302 project, in what ways it is “open,” and how the participants hope “open” can work for us as well as our students.


In Medias Res

I’ve been meaning to start a blog – a blog with this title, in fact – for several years now, but haven’t done it. Part of my hesitation stems from an awareness that a blog is a public space, part of my public online presence/persona.  That awareness both evokes a healthy (I think) caution, and brings out a bit of lingering perfectionism (an impulse that still rears its head at times, despite being mostly vanquished by fifty-plus years of life, including several decades of teaching a 4/4 writing-intensive load; continuing, however slowly, my own research and writing; and doing my best to keep up with an ever-evolving list of other interests and responsibilities).

I’ve also gotten caught up in weighing many of the usual questions faced by aspiring academic bloggers: whether some degree of anonymity/pseudonymity would be wise given my lack of tenure (and lack of eligibility for same); how to balance that caution with the desire to have a public voice; how much of the rest of my life, identity, and interests to include.

In the end (or at least for the moment), as my “about” page indicates, I’ve decided on including all the identities/perspectives (or at least all the ones that currently come to mind), and trusting to academic freedom for any protection I may need (perhaps an odd decision at what feels like a particularly perilous moment, but there’s also something to be said for living out the values in which one believes, and the peril – either from increased government intolerance of dissent or from the ongoing influence of forces driving the growth of academic precarity — does not, at least at the moment, feel personal).  I will also do my best to exercise some discretion in what I write about and how, balancing that with an impulse that goes back at least as far as the perfectionism – to describe things as I see them, even if that makes others, or me, uncomfortable.

The immediate precipitating cause for my finally starting the blog is a desire to participate in Open Learning 17, a cMOOC sponsored by Virginia’s Faculty Collaboratives Steering Committee (itself a part of a larger American Association of Colleges & Universities initiative).  Behind that, there’s desire to write about the English 302 Open Educational Resources (OER) project in which I’m involved (of which I will write more anon; for the moment, there’s a brief description on the “about” page).  Since I’m late getting started on the blogging portion of Open Ed 17, my blog posts are probably going to lag a week or more behind the reading schedule, or I may skip around a bit in the interests of participating as fully as possible in the conversation.

In the longer term, I expect this will also be a space to write about a variety of topics, including teaching and learning more generally;  using digital humanities techniques in the classroom (physical or virtual);  contingency in academia; and my ongoing research, mostly into abolitionist authors Emily Clemens Pearson and Harriet Jacobs, and my attempts to convey the results of that research via both traditional publication and digital humanities methods.

Beyond that, we’ll see: Biblical exegesis and/or theological reflection?  Political reflection ?(!?).  Pictures of flowers (or flooding) from my community garden plot?  Reflection on just why I find towpaths so alluring (but don’t visit the one a mile from my apartment nearly as often as I intend)? At the moment, all possibilities are open.