Jesse Stommel

Pedagogue, Technologist, Open Educator

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Leaving Wisconsin


Increasingly, I think the work of education is activism not teaching.

I was born in Madison in 1976. I left Wisconsin when I was 6 years old and grew up in Colorado. I came back to Madison in 1999. After a year working at a bookstore and living on Blount st. near James Madison park, I decided to turn down an offer from the UW-Madison English graduate program and went back to Colorado for my Ph.D. I was offered more funding at CU Boulder, more teaching, and (most importantly) more opportunities for training in teaching.

Two and a half years ago, I moved back to Wisconsin for a tenure-track faculty position at UW-Madison.

It has been fraught. And now I find myself leaving again.

For anyone following the news about the gutting of public education in the state of Wisconsin, this announcement probably doesn’t come entirely out of the blue. But I’m surprised at how quickly I’ve found myself surrounded by cardboard boxes.

I’ve accepted a non-tenure-track position as Executive Director of Teaching and Learning Technologies at University of Mary Washington, a public liberal arts institution in Virginia. I will be starting in October. Taking this job was an easy decision. I’m challenged by the shoes I’ll fill and excited about the people I’ll work with. Because of them, I knew within one hour of the start of the campus visit that I would accept the job if it was offered.

But leaving Wisconsin is still hard. Some of the first words I wrote to a close colleague in May when the dominoes here began to fall: “I’m intensely loyal. I don’t abandon ship, but I looked around today and just saw water — no ship.”

There are many reasons I’m deciding to go:

  • In a few short months, Wisconsin has gone from being the only state to protect tenure and shared governance in state law to being the only state to limit tenure and shared governance in state law. I’ve been less disheartened by the fact of this and more by the lack of response from University of Wisconsin leadership, in spite of nationwide calls for active resistance.
  • Our leaders have insisted we’re “safe.” It is one thing to take down tenure. It’s another thing to take down tenure while insisting tenure is “safe” and “nothing will change.” And it’s yet a third thing to take down tenure while saying tenure is “safe” and have people actually believe it. We are in George Orwell territory in the state of Wisconsin. I am concerned for UW-Madison, and I am even more concerned for how this will impact other UW institutions, the state system, and public higher education as a whole.
  • I have said before that I believe tenure is a red herring. This is a politically-motivated attack on the values that underlie tenure at the University of Wisconsin: job security, academic freedom, and shared governance.
  • About six months ago, when UW started to feel pressure, I was told to “be careful.” Since then, I’ve been advised many times to compromise my work for tenure (or to just do different work altogether).
  • The institutional climate at UW-Madison has suffered. It has become, quite frankly, an unfriendly environment, and my own efforts at collaboration have been repeatedly frustrated. Public scholars have come under direct attack. In our work as educators, we must leave no stone unturned, and suddenly there are snakes under some of the stones. And, in order to do our work, we now have to put our jobs at risk.
  • The Wisconsin Idea, the principle that the work of UW extends beyond its own borders, is what brought me to this institution, but the commitment to it is being directly challenged. Again, the harder part has been the lack of a strong and collective outcry. Many have been caught up in abstraction, guarding the words — ones like “tenure” and “truth” — while their meaning has been stripped.
  • My work — the work I was hired to do — has not been supported. While I was initially assured that digital work for broad public audiences would count, I was later told I should wait to do that work until after tenure and focus on traditionally peer-reviewed publications for academic audiences. In January, the following bolded words were sent to me in a letter for my official file: “The Committee wants to send a clear message that what matters is tenure, what matters for tenure is peer review, and work posted on the web is not considered peer‐reviewed.”
  • Finally, because of the current budget cuts, my husband is being laid off from the spousal hire position he has held at UW-Madison. He was officially notified about his impending layoff in the subject line of a calendar invite: “layoff meeting.”

This is not what I expected when I moved my family to Wisconsin two and a half years ago. When I took this job, I thought I’d be here for life. I was born in this state, my closest mentor was born in this state, and I have some of the most daring and brilliant colleagues here. We have collaborated in spite of systems that have made that increasingly difficult. I remain awed by what we’ve built together.

I’m awed by Sage Goellner’s resolute calm. Sage is doing the kind of outreach scholarship and teaching that brought me to UW-Madison. Few understand the Wisconsin Idea as deeply as she does. I’m awed by Sarah Marty’s ability to keenly balance what would drive anyone else into a frenzy. She has taught me to build things bigger than I thought I could build. I’m awed by Chuck Rybak’s resolve and moved by his sadness. He has spoken words I couldn’t find. I’m awed by Sara Goldrick-Rab’s willful optimism. I’m awed by Brianna Marshall, Joshua Calhoun, Lisa Hager, Jason Lee. I’m awed by every single one of the students I’ve met and worked with. These people are the reason leaving is hard.

Still, the community of UW has changed, and the changes will have a direct effect on the learning that can happen here. The attacks on shared governance, tenure, and academic freedom are part of a divide and conquer mechanism that deters all of us from advocating for each other. I am in favor of lifting up non-tenure-track faculty, students, and staff so that universities are not caste systems with an oppressed contingent labor class. I am not in favor of making everyone and everything in education adjunct.

I keep seeing the word “unfortunate” used to describe the situation at UW. This is not the right word. What’s become of education in the state of Wisconsin is not fate, accident, or misfortune, but has been carefully coordinated and calculated. How about instead we use words like “horrific,” “appalling,” “insidious,” “treacherous”? There is nothing strategic about understating what’s happening to the UW System.

This announcement is more anthemic than I intended it to be. I’ve been incredibly passionate in my love of this place, and so I find myself equally passionate now as I think about my next steps.

Many of my UW colleagues are fielding similar offers or are also thinking about next steps. Some will make the decision to leave. Some will have that decision made for them. Students will be left without mentors. Faculty will be left without collaborators. Education will be left without advocates. Not everyone will leave. Not everyone can leave. And, hopefully, all of us that do leave — and those that stay — will keep fighting.

[Photo, “Still Silence,” by GollyGforce]


Dear Chronicle: Why I Will No Longer Write for Vitae


Dear Chronicle​–

I recently accepted a job as a columnist for Vitae from the Chronicle of Higher Education, where I’ve published two columns in the last two months. A draft of my third column is due today. I won’t be submitting it.

Unfortunately, Vitae continues to publish “Dear Student,” its student-shaming series, also referred to as “professorial tough love.”

Here’s some tough love of my own.

The concerns the series has focused on are petty and pedantic, and nobody is being well-served by the content on display (not students, not professors, editors, the Chronicle, the other writers for Vitae, the job seekers visiting the site, or the job advertisers using the service).

The great concerns of teachers featured in this series:
“it’s February and you didn’t buy your textbook,”
“no I won’t change the grade you deserve,”
“my class began two weeks ago and you just show up now,”
“your ‘granny’ died and I have absolutely no compassion.”

On textbooks. Education should be about dialogue, conversation, community. We do not invite students into an educational environment by admonishing them. Our classes should have more valuable tickets for entry than textbooks.

On grades. They’re a red herring. Any teacher that regularly gets caught up in power and control struggles with students over grades has missed the point.

On a student showing up for a class that started two weeks ago. The work of gatekeeping is anathema to the work of education. Our classrooms should have more doors and windows, not less.

On grandmothers. The statistics are compelling: “grandmothers are 20 times more likely to die before a final exam.” Here’s a better statistic: it is 100 times kinder to err on the side of giving students the benefit of the doubt when it comes to dead grandmothers. And we need to consider whether there is something about the educational system that has put students in the awkward and uncomfortable position of feeling like they have to lie to their teachers.

Everyone that comes into even casual contact with Vitae’s “Dear Student” series is immediately tarnished by the same kind of anti-intellectual, uncompassionate, illogical nonsense currently threatening to take down the higher education system in the state of Wisconsin.

The word “entitlement,” used pejoratively about students in two of the four articles, needs to die a quick death. College students ARE entitled — to an education and not the altogether unfunny belittling on display in the “Dear Student” series.

This series is not effective satire, not a useful kind of venting. This series plays to the insecurities of its audience in a way that feels opportunistic. Academic job seekers are concerned about their current and future livelihood. They are oppressed by a system that calls 75% of its labor-force “unnecessary,” “contingent,” “adjunct.” The “Dear Student” series turns that oppression, and the most snickering part of it, upon students.

What everyone working anywhere even near to the education system needs to do:

  • Treat the least privileged among us with the most respect.
  • Recognize that the job of a teacher is to advocate for students, especially in an educational system currently under direct threat at almost every turn.
  • Laugh at ourselves and not at those we and our system have made most vulnerable.
  • Rant up, not down.

Giggling at the water cooler about students is one abhorrent thing. Publishing that derisive giggling as “work” in a venue read by tens of thousands is quite another. Of course, teachers need a safe place to vent. We all do. That safe place is not shared faculty offices, not the teacher’s lounge, not the library, not a local (public) watering hole. And it is certainly not on the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education, especially in Vitae, the publication devoted to job seekers, including current students and future teachers.

I won’t stand beside this water cooler. I won’t encourage anyone else to come near to it. Until “Dear Student” has ended its run and the Chronicle has published a public apology to students, the words right here (in this “Dear Chronicle” letter) are the only words of mine the Chronicle has my permission to publish on Vitae.

While I’ve closed the comments for this space, the original conversation is archived here.

[Photo by perlaroques]


2014 Recap: Critical Pedagogy, Zombie Pedagogy, Digital Pedagogy


First, if you haven’t already, meet Emily Dog.

In addition to the stuff I wrote here on my own blog, I published a hodgepodge of stuff elsewhere in various media in 2014. I’m gathering much of it here. I started doing this in 2012 and then again in 2013, mostly as a way for me to keep track of what I’m up to. But it’s also turned into a way to introduce people to some of my favorite places to hang out on the web (and to the amazing collaborators I’ve worked with over the year).

Keep Learning
1. The rest of this list is in no particular order, but if I had to pick a favorite of all the stuff I wrote this year, it would be this: The Pedagogies of Reading and Not Reading
2. Collaboration — Learning Collectively (w/ Sean Michael Morris)
3. Tools for Collaborative Writing (w/ Sean Michael Morris)
4. E-mail Pedagogy and the Cascade Effect
5. What is Good Writing?: A Meditation on Breaking Rules and Grammar Pedagogy
6. Is It Okay to be a Luddite? (w/ Sean Michael Morris)

7. Hackademic Guide to Networking (w/ Charlotte Frost)

8. Technologies of Meta-Learning, Trust, and Power: Interview with Jesse Stommel
9. MOOC MOOC: Dark Underbelly; or, How a Cave Troll Can Help Revise the Syllabus of Education

10. The Adventures of MLA Dog (w/ Mary the Dog, my favorite collaborator of all)

In Print Books
11. “Monsters that Matter: Things that Rise in the Contemporary Zombie Film” in Unnatural Reproductions and Monstrosity: The Birth of the Monster in Literature, Film, and Media
12. “A Kaleidoscope of Variables: The Complex Nature of Online Education in Composition Classes” in Critical Examinations of Distance Education Transformation across Disciplines (w/ Chris Friend and Sean Michael Morris)
13. “The Course as Container: Distributed Learning and the MOOC” in Global Innovation of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education: Transgressing Boundaries (w/ Sean Michael Morris)

Hybrid Pedagogy
14. Critical Digital Pedagogy: a Definition
15. If Freire Made a MOOC: Open Education as Resistance (w/ Sean Michael Morris)
16. Hybrid Pedagogy, Digital Humanities, and the Future of Academic Publishing (w/ Sean Michael Morris)
17. Toward an Interactive Criticism: House of Leaves as Haptic Interface
18. One of my favorite things I wrote wasn’t actually an article at all, but one of the prompts for MOOC MOOC: Dark Underbelly, a course-like thing I co-taught at the start of the year. I wrote several prompts for the six-week MOOC, but one in particular has stuck with me: MMDU: “I Would Prefer Not To.”

I’ve never been a fan of slides (aside from showing a film still here and there), but this year, I decided to get my head under the hood of the form, so I made 12 sets, all of which I published openly to the web. Here’s a few which I used for keynotes in Manchester and Colorado, a workshop in Singapore, and talks in Switzerland, Wisconsin, and D.C.:
19. Rewriting the Syllabus: Examining New Hybrid and Online Pedagogies
20. Zombie Pedagogies Embodied Learning in the Digital Age
21. Digital Pedagogy is about Breaking Stuff: Toward a Critical Digital Humanities Pedagogy
22. 12 Steps for Designing an Assignment with Emergent Outcomes
23. New-form Scholarship and the Public Digital Humanities
24. If Freire Made a MOOC: Open Education and Critical Digital Pedagogy (w/ Sean Michael Morris)


12 Steps for Creating a Digital Assignment or Hybrid Class


For a series of workshops, I devised the following prompt for creating a digital assignment or hybrid class. (Most of these tips can apply to any assignment or class, not just digital ones.) Digital Pedagogy is a recursive process, a constant interplay between building and analyzing what we’ve built — between teaching and meta-level reflection on our own process. While step number 6 below explicitly suggests bringing students into the process, I would advocate bringing students into the conversation as early as possible, even from the outset — helping to build the syllabus, outline the objectives of the course, design activities and assessments, etc. I always start my planning for the semester or quarter at the end of the previous one by asking current students to help reconsider and redesign the course for the next term.

Questions I ask myself when creating a digital assignment or hybrid course:
1. What is my primary goal for students with this course / assignment?
2. What is my digital pedagogy? How does my goal for this assignment intersect with my broader teaching philosophy?
3. What tools that I already use (analog or digital) could help me achieve these goals? (It is often best to use the tools with which we are already familiar, rather than turning to the shiny and newfangled.)
4. In order for this activity / class to work, what gaps do I need to fill with other tools / strategies?
5. Is my idea simple enough? What can I do to streamline the activity?
6. What is my goal beyond this assignment / course? How will the activity (and my pedagogy) evolve? (In other words, don’t feel like you have to meet all your goals during the first attempt — think of the process, from the start, as iterative). Think also about how you can bring students (their feedback and the fruits of their work during the first iteration) into the continuing evolution of the activity / course.
7. Go back to step 1 and work through these steps (and likely several times).

The next steps are pointedly “below the fold” and outside the first recursive loop, because assessment should never drive our pedagogies. Rather, good assessment is driven by good pedagogy. Thus, I continue by asking myself:
8. Does this activity need to be assessed? Or does the activity have intrinsic value? We should never assess merely for the sake of assessing. As I’ve said before, teachers often grade in many more situations than grading is actually required, but we should avoid with a gusto any impulse that turns students into mere columns in a spreadsheet.
9. Is there a way to build the assessment into the assignment? For example, can I have students reflecting on their process inside the activity itself? Can my assessment arise organically from within, and as part of, the learning activity?
10. What additional assessment strategies should I use? (These might include peer-assessment, self-assessment, narrative feedback, peer review, points, a rubric, letter grade, or some combination.) External summative assessment should be a last resort, a necessary evil (in some cases). I firmly believe the goal of education should always be better learning and not better assessments.
11. What is my goal in assessing student work?
12. Go back to step 8.


The Postapocalyptic Humanities and the Decay of the Digital Human


This video was created for the Higher Education Academy #teachDH summit. It is also a preview for my upcoming keynote at the Higher Education Academy’s 2014 Arts and Humanities Conference: “Toward a Zombie Pedagogy: Embodied Learning in the Digital Age.” For the video, I was specifically asked to imagine a utopian or apocalyptic vision for the Digital Humanities, and I responded with a bit of both. In the process, I also highlight the amazing work of students I’ve had in Digital Humanities and Multimodal Composition courses, including short films like “Zombie Proof,” a custom font inspired by House of Leaves, a digital remix of a poem by Emily Dickinson, and more.

The Decay of the Digital Human from Jesse Stommel on Vimeo

Some sources for the video:

“The Digital Humanities is About Breaking Stuff”

“Hybrid Pedagogy, Digital Humanities, and the Future of Academic Publishing”

“Vulnerability, Contingency, and Advocacy in Higher Education”

My chapter “Toward a Zombie Pedagogy” in Zombies in the Academy: Living Death in Higher Education

“Pity Poor Flesh: Terrible Bodies in the Films of Carpenter, Cronenberg, and Romero”


And the text of the video:

The entire educational system is undergoing a swift and certain decay. We usually attribute the word “decay” to dead things: road kill decays; a fallen tree decays; cadavers decay. Whether living or dead, all human bodies also undergo decay. Our hair decays, our skin decays, the teeth in our mouth decay. The process of decay is, in fact, necessary for the breakdown and replacement of dead matter with new life.

We are in a state of constant reanimation, reinventing ourselves intellectually, emotionally, and culturally, but also repairing physical damage, replacing dead cells with live ones, and collecting more and more layers of flesh all the while. We grow old, wrinkle, rot, reek, and break little by little; our organs fail, our skin cultures fungi, and our guts host hundreds of bacteria species. Our body contains more dead cells than live ones. And 90% of the living cells in our body are critters like this one, the follicle mite, which lives in the eyebrows and eyelashes of 50% of adults.

Many of our technologies live upon us like these parasites.

We’re losing our individuality, our singularity, more and more as our identities proliferate like screen names in the glow of our computer screens. And, going against the grain, I would argue that none of this is such a bad thing after all, and instead offers increasing opportunities for mutiny — to rise, not from the dead, but like the dead.

Specifically, the humanities help us reconsider our embodied relationship to technology. The digital humanities, then, must be both about using digital tools for humanities work and using humanities tools for digital work. Far too much work in educational technology and Digital Humanities starts with tools, when what we need to start with is humans.

The digital humanities is about breaking stuff. And the post-apocalyptic rubble of higher education offers an opportunity, not to start entirely from scratch, but to sift thoughtfully through the rubble, examining the pieces as we rebuild.

What we have is a moment of play, in which some will mourn the radical decay of the humanities (as we once knew them or thought we knew them) even as others fiddle gleefully with the haptic interfaces of their mobile devices.

Literature, film, and other media are continually changing, and the ways we interact with them are also changing. As we imagine a digital approach to the humanities, we must look back even as we look forward, considering what media has become while we simultaneously examine the hows and whys of its becoming.

And at the center of the digital humanities should be an emphasis on individual and collective agency, which means advocating for marginalized teachers, scholars, and students. This is how DH can and should innovate, not through competition, clearcutting, and hype cycles, but by listening intently to more (and more diverse) voices. The digital humanities needs to be about generosity — about breaking brains not hearts.

This potential is captured here by a former student and collaborator, Lans Pacifico Nelson, who paints with the words of Emily Dickinson to reveal the ways our work in the digital humanities becomes an archeological dig, a nibbling at the stratum of the digital to discover in our technologies what is voraciously humane.

[Photo by Thomas Hawk]


Twitter Pedagogy in 140 Characters or Less


I’m presenting a workshop on teaching with Twitter at the Sloan Consortium Emerging Technologies for Online Learning (#et4online) conference this morning. We’ll be playing around on the session hashtag (#et4online63931). My title of this post, “Twitter Pedagogy in 140 Characters or Less,” is not meant to suggest that I can summarize Twitter pedagogy in 140 characters or less, nor am I going to even attempt that here. Pedagogy is not reducible to 140 characters. Pedagogy is, in fact, not reducible. However, it can (and does) happen in spaces as small as 140 characters. Pedagogy is praxis so it looks to the larger philosophical implications of teaching but begins at the level of practice in the smallest maneuvers — the smallest gestures. What we ask to be called. Where we sit in a classroom. The online platforms we decide to use. The first word of our syllabus. A single tweet.

I’m here collecting some materials I’ve created about teaching with Twitter:

A handy-dandy guide to getting started on Twitter (

An article from Hybrid Pedagogy: The Twitter Essay

A Storify about Teaching with Twitter including details about a Twitter fishbowl activity and more info. about The Twitter Essay

Another article from Hybrid Pedagogy about using twitter for Promoting Open Access Publications and Academic Projects



[Photo by mirando]


Vulnerability, Contingency, and Advocacy in Higher Education


I find myself increasingly unwilling to rest on my own privilege. In August of 2013, I accepted a tenure-track position at University of Wisconsin-Madison. I’m working in the Division of Continuing Studies, advocating for lifelong learning and what I call the “public digital humanities.”

In my previous position, I was Faculty and Director of a new Digital Humanities degree program at Marylhurst University, a small liberal arts institution in Portland, OR. I had taken the job with the belief that it would be my career for 10 years or more. It was a full-time position with benefits, not tenure-track but within a system that was described to me as “tenure-equivalent.” My colleagues seemed collegial, the campus was lovely, and the students are some of the best I’ve worked with in my 15 years of teaching.

Ultimately, though, I discovered that my position was, in fact, deeply contingent. As the financial woes of the institution mounted, the mistreatment of faculty, and especially adjunct faculty, increased. What I discovered was that as people got scared for their own welfare, they began to more tightly guard their perceived territory, whether administrative or scholarly. The work I value most — collaboration and interdisciplinarity — suffered and was at times even actively discouraged. The treatment of adjuncts was downright appalling. Tears were not unusual at committee meetings.

This was the environment in which I wrote my proposal for this MLA 2014 panel. My goal in this piece is to unsettle assumptions about how academia should operate in the wake of widespread exploitation of contingent laborers. For me, every aspect of higher education is either suspect or somehow implicated: hiring practices, administrative bloat, disciplinarity, traditional academic publishing, double-blind peer review, the notion of a terminal degree, and the tenure system itself. Too much of the system is designed to defend the status quo and reinforce the mistreatment of a 75% majority of the academic labor force. This is, quite frankly, not healthy for any of us, whether on the tenure-track or not.

In December 2012, the academic journal I founded, Hybrid Pedagogy, hosted a Twitter chat about The State of Higher Education and Its Future. During the discussion, I tweeted: “We need more tenure-track & full-time faculty willing to advocate for their colleagues & students. #highered needs more bravery.” Within a couple days, the tweet had been retweeted 41 times and favorited 10 times, which is telling, calling attention to the need for not only adjunct faculty, but full-time faculty, to rise up in active resistance. The best pedagogues take risks, and we need curriculums, hiring practices, and protections for contingent faculty that encourage those risks.

During another Twitter discussion, I tweeted: “Higher education pushes out the exact wrong people. Those wrong people are about to rise up. We need more right leaders of wrong.” (The ensuing conversation storified.) Educators need advocates and need to be advocates. We can’t just notice the problems, but must take specific action to solve them individually and institutionally. There are various stakeholders in this conversation (including students, administrators, and faculty), various folks we need in the room as we make and implement strategies for resisting the spread of business models for education that rely insidiously on contingent labor. And full-time faculty must be willing to take risks in support of their adjunct colleagues and students. In many cases, this kind of advocacy looks less like marching, writing, or speaking, and more like listening.

Throughout Fall 2013 and Winter 2014, Hybrid Pedagogy has been publishing a series of articles focused on our role as pedagogues in a system wherein education does not always lead to opportunity. In the first article from the series, “A Lecturer’s Almanac,” Katie Rose Guest Pryal offers a harrowing account of her experiences as a contingent laborer, a litany of seemingly mundane grievances, the collective weight of which becomes quickly oppressive. Tiffany Kraft, in her article “Adjunctification: Living in the Margins of Academe,” describes her experiences in “extreme adjuncting,” hoping with her story “to tip the elephant in the room.”

From its beginning, one of the goals of Hybrid Pedagogy has been to create these sorts of conversations, which build bridges across systemic divides in education, making connections to facilitate productive action. The issue of academic labor is deeply interwoven with any project that attempts to promote good pedagogy. We simply can’t create an environment that enables student agency as long as our educational institutions do not support the agency of teachers.

Our work in the humanities is a scholarship of resistance, predicated on our being humans, not mere cogs in a machine. We need to support (financially, politically, and emotionally) the faculty most passionate about teaching and learning, while making alliances across disciplines and between community college teachers, K-12 teachers, contingent faculty, tenure-track faculty, academic staff, and students. “Being tenure-track doesn’t mean we should wait seven years to speak out on adjunct labor conditions. We need to take risks and speak out now.” The current hierarchies and political economies are becoming, more and more, at odds with a humanist ethic. We must make the humanities — and higher education — viable for the digital age in ways that value the work of teaching and learning. The bravery we need right now is to champion the people doing that work.

The text of this talk is drawn from a motley crew of sources. Parts of it appeared in a co-authored article by myself and my co-panelist Lee Skallerup Bessette, her voice inside of mine, and my voice in hers. This story can’t be told by one person, and not by a small panel of people, but only by a cacophony of voices, a gathering together — of sounds, of ideas, of intentions. Some of this work is loud, a rage against the dying of the light, and some of it is quieter like the space between this sentence and the next. This work is not and can never be faceless. We no longer have the luxury of resting on the privilege of our own anonymity. Real bodies — bodies that ache and bruise and die — are doing this work, fighting in classrooms, online, and at institutions — institutions that don’t always fight for them.

So I can’t give this presentation by myself. As a single body. These words require many more voices than just my own to make them go.

Chuck Rybak writes, “The emo­tional ter­rain of the higher ed work­place, or any workplace for that matter, is real. How we treat people mat­ters.”

Tressie McMillan Cottom writes, “Many of our most strident debates of highered’s labor system do not speak as eloquently about how that labor system intersects with institutional racism, if they speak about it at all.”

Sean Michael Morris writes, “I am an orphan of the academy. Beached on the sand at the M.A., employed only ever as an adjunct instructor at two-year colleges, generally looked at askance in the heady company of academics, I am the horse that didn’t make the derby.”

And Brian Croxall at MLA in 2009: “I’m sorry that I can’t be delivering these comments in person.”

What scares me most are my deeply contingent colleagues — adjuncts, staff, and students — who aren’t or soon won’t be able to deliver their comments in person for more distinctly physical reasons, because their bodies — all our bodies — are fragile. Limbs break. Organs give way. Cancers go untreated. Bile and pus and blood refuse to be contained. This is our humanity, the humanity our talks about labor must acknowledge.

And it isn’t that we should build harder and harder armor around ourselves. Advocacy should not look like an impenetrable phalanx. Just the opposite. We must work together, and not just from a place of politics or administration. This is as much about how we are made professionally vulnerable by the corporatization of education, as it is about how making ourselves even more vulnerable — by taking risks and being honest — will help us find a way forward. We need to actively ensure that academia is a safe place for the contingent among us to speak openly about their professional lives without fear of losing their livelihood. We need to gather together in number so our pedagogies and politics can be safely laid bare.

I recently tweeted, “If bigger and bigger bits of our “wellbeing” is what makes it go, I suddenly feel like all of education is contingent.” This in response to a blog post by Kate Bowles, “Irreplaceable Time.” In that post, Kate describes the physical burden of academic labor and what it has literally wrought upon her own body. She describes “the corporate culture of team-building that is so reckless with people’s time and trust.” And she concludes, “you don’t have my consent to use my remaining time in this way.” If we’re contingent, we labor. If we’re tenure-track, we labor. And rarely are we called on to labor for each other’s mutual benefit.

As I write this, Kate Bowles is my hero. Tiffany Kraft is my hero. Katie Rose Guest Pryal and Lee Skallerup Bessette are my heroes. They’ve said to me what I can’t always say to myself. We must be brave. But we must also take care. “What we need,” Kate writes, “is the courage to put work itself at risk.” For her — for myself — I will, if necessary, fight to the death of my own tenure.

This is the text of my MLA 2014 presentation, “Right Leaders of Wrong: A Revolution in Higher Education.”

[Photo by Ack Ook]


2013 Recap: 24 Articles about Contingent Labor, Online Learning, and Academic Rigor


I’ve done more to keep my own site up to date this year than last, but like last year my year-end recap is more about the work I did elsewhere. Here’s an archive of my writings from out and about on the web. I’m especially proud of the collaborative writing I’ve done this year. Lots more of that planned for 2014.

1. Promoting Open Access Publications and Academic Projects
2. Beyond Rigor (w/ Sean Michael Morris and Pete Rorabaugh)
3. How to Build an Ethical Online Course
4. The Digital Humanities is About Breaking Stuff
5. MOOCagogy: Assessment, Networked Learning, and the Meta-MOOC (w/ Sean Michael Morris)
6. Pedagogies of Scale (w/ Sean Michael Morris)
7. The Discussion Forum is Dead; Long Live the Discussion Forum (w/ Sean Michael Morris)
8. Why Online Programs Fail, and 5 Things We Can Do About It (w/ Sean Michael Morris)
9. A Scholarship of Resistance: Bravery, Contingency, and Higher Education (w/ Lee Skallerup Bessette)
10. Decoding Digital Pedagogy, pt. 2: (Un)Mapping the Terrain
11. A Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age (w/ John Seely Brown, Betsy Corcoran, Cathy N. Davidson, Petra Dierkes-Thrun, Todd Edebohls, Mark J. Gierl, Sean Michael Morris, Philipp Schmidt, Bonnie Stewart, Sebastian Thrun, and Audrey Watters)
12. A User’s Guide to Forking Education

13. The Collective Weight of Contingency

14. MOOC MOOC! The Interview (w/ Sean Michael Morris and Jessica Knott)

15. How to Crowdsource and Gamify Your E-mail

16. Collaborative and Public Writing Techniques for Google Docs (w/ Charlotte Frost)
17. A Scholarship of Generosity: New-form Publishing and Hybrid Pedagogy
18. Ongoing series on “How to be a Hackademic” (w/ Charlotte Frost)

19. Digital Pedagogy and MOOCification: Notes (w/ Sean Michael Morris)
20. Digital Pedagogy and MOOCification: a NITLE Seminar Storified (w/ Sean Michael Morris)

21. The Right Leaders of Wrong

22. MOOC While You Sleep

23. When the Zombie Looks: The Human Being Undone in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead

24. Toward a Zombie Pedagogy: Embodied Teaching and the Student 2.0


On the Horrors and Pleasures of Counting Words


Good writing is not reducible to numbers; the word count for the expression of an idea can’t always (or even usually) be determined in advance. Ideas fit all kinds of containers, some small, some large, some book-shaped, some made of 1s and 0s. When I aim for a specific word count (or ask students to aim for a specific word count), it’s not because I think there’s something intrinsically meaningful about lining up a certain number of words. It’s not because 500 words amassed are somehow better than 25. But knowing the size of a container can give us a sense for what and how we might fill it. 500 words looks different than 25 words, and 500 words feel different coming out of our mouths or fingers. For the same reason, it’s sometimes (but certainly not always) useful to pre-determine the genre for a piece of writing, the shape of the container, before sitting down to construct it.

When Sean and I decided to create Digital Writing Month — to construct this MOOC-ish, course-like thing — the goal was less about rallying folks toward a symphonic mission to beat back a veritable dearth of words. I’m not interested in bringing piles and piles of words into the world, no matter how unassuming or placid. In fact, I recently argued in a tweet that preserving everything is equivalent to throwing it all away, piling or hoarding rather than picking or curating. A landfill is not an archive.(Granted, some landfills are more beautiful than others.) Kenneth Goldsmith argues in his book Uncreative Writing (an excerpt of which was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education): “With an unprecedented amount of available text, our problem is not needing to write more of it; instead, we must learn to negotiate the vast quantity that exists.” In short, we don’t need more words, just new configurations and more imaginative renderings.

Elizabeth Kate Switaj writes, in “The Problem with NaNoWriMo”, “In the culture that produced NaNoWriMo and which NaNoWriMo in turn produces . . . wordcount rules. Numbers become the primary goal. When hitting 50,000 words in a month stops being just a fun challenge or a way to jump start your writing and actually begins to seem virtuous, art becomes simply production.” At their best, challenges like NaNoWriMo and DigiWriMo ask participants to think critically about their writing practice and they gather together writers from around the world to do this work together. The word count is merely the occasion, a catalyst for a much larger conversation.

In the comments after our interview on the NaNoWriMo blog, someone worried about the “volume of drivel” that digital writing makes readily available, to which I responded: “I think it helps us to be attentive to the number of words we’re putting out there and what each of those words is doing in the world.” For me, Digital Writing Month is less about pushing toward a goal of 50,000 words and more about considering the various sizes and shapes of the containers my writing inhabits. I didn’t choose to do an entirely new or ambitious project for DigiWriMo (except working with Sean to design and facilitate the course itself). What I did find myself wanting to do, though, was closely examine the digital work I already do.

I started by cut-and-pasting all the tweets I wrote during the month of October into a document. I decided to include both original tweets and retweets. One could argue that I shouldn’t count retweets, because the words in them aren’t mine; however, the act of retweeting is sufficiently generative (at least for me), moving words deliberately into new contexts, toward new audiences, and at (usually) very specific times. During October, I tweeted 10,134 words, or the equivalent of over 40 double-spaced pages, all from my personal account (@Jessifer), which is only one of 5 twitter accounts I currently maintain.

Gathering all these words into a wordle gives me a sense for what they might be doing collectively in the world. Among the 10,134 words, there are happy words (like “uprising,” “good,” and “thanks”) and strange words (like “giraffes” and “MOOC”). I tried to find some sad words, but couldn’t. As it turns out, I don’t really use sad words on Twitter. The words “digital” and “pedagogy” loom large, as do the words “students,” “words,” and “media.” There are also lots of friends (including @slamteacher@allistelling, and a certain duck).

Looking at words in this way is not indicative of what those words are actually saying. Still, there is a joy and curiosity for me in studying the texture of words made distinct from their contexts, words gathered up into a more celebratory sort of landfill. After my work with the tweets, I cut-and-pasted the body of every e-mail I sent in October into Word Counter and learned that I wrote 32,366 words of e-mail during the month. [determines to murder e-mail dead] The most prevalent word was “will,” used 264 times. In total, I wrote the equivalent of 129 double-spaced pages of e-mail during a single month. In tweets and e-mail alone, I logged 42,500 words, suggesting that (with Facebook, Hybrid Pedagogy, and other academic work) I easily do more than 50,000 words of digital writing each month already.

For me, the goal of this experiment, then, is not to produce more words but to make those words more my own (and more fully in conversation). I’ve determined to carve space in the day to write not because I have to, or because it would be impolite not to, but because the work feeds me in some important way.

I’ve also determined that it’s impossible for me to separate the writing of words from the other compositional work I do, designing web sites, uploading photographs, making short films, etc. In “Digital Writing as Handicraft,” Tanya Sasser writes, “Blogs allow writers a kind of aesthetically intimate relationship with their material that they have not had since medieval monks embedded doodles in the margins of their illuminated manuscripts.” The writing I do online is in the margins of something much bigger, a project that has its lovely tentacles in everything else I do. The words I’m counting are not the ones I type but the ones I make surface — the hyperlinks, the notes for future projects, the comments, the shares, the replies and retweets, all the words that don’t end up in landfills.

Some tools:
750 Words:
Write or Die:

And some additional reading:
Julie Meloni, “Wordles, or the Gateway Drug to Textual Analysis
Geoffrey Rockwell, “What is Text Analysis?
Elizabeth Kate Switaj, “A Penguin, A Duck, A Digital Writing Month

[Originally published as part of the course content for Digital Writing Month.]


Twitter Vs. Zombies: New Media Literacy & the Virtual Flash Mob

Digi Cave

by Pete Rorabaugh and Jesse Stommel

While institutions ponder how to make excursions into new media more efficient and profitable, the pedagogues at the digital table must push the other side of the envelope. We should be creating critical and reflective sandboxes that invite learners to set their own goals, make mistakes, collaborate, and improvise.

In November 2012, we created and hosted Twitter vs. Zombies, an epic zombified experiment in Twitter literacy, gamification, collaboration, and emergent learning. On the site, the event was described as: “Part flash-mob. Part Hunger-Games. Part Twitter-pocalypse. Part digital feeding frenzy. Part micro-MOOC. Part giant game of Twitter tag.” The game had emergent rules and was unleashed in the days leading up to an invited talk we gave at the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke University. Our thesis was three-fold: that Twitter vs. Zombies would function as a lightning-fast version of a connectivist MOOC; that it would build a community of engaged players who would co-develop the game; and, foremost, the players would learn more robust ways to use Twitter. It worked. With little advance promotion, the game inspired 6,500 tweets on the #TvsZ hashtag, had 160 officially registered players, and led to 2,500 pageviews on across three days.

A game intended for short bursts of play with scores of people, Twitter vs. Zombies is a social media adaptation of Humans vs. Zombies, a massive game of zombie tag played on college campuses around the world since 2005. In attempting to organize a community around the concept of digital literacy, Twitter vs. Zombies doesn’t rely on the exigencies of traditional schooling. The game offers no certificate or diploma, but an opportunity to connect with others, to compete, and, foremost, to play. Twitter vs. Zombies makes learning voracious and lively by inviting new (and often wild) modes of interaction.

The game throws players together under a common hashtag (#TvsZ). The first step in forking the rules of the on-ground Humans Vs. Zombies game for Twitter was to reimagine the hashtag as an in-game action. Twitter vs. Zombies begins with three possible in-game actions: #dodge, #swipe, and #bite. A player can #dodge (protect him/herself) or #swipe (protect other players from) a zombie attack once every hour. After a player becomes a zombie, he or she can #bite a human registered in the game once every 30 minutes. The game begins with a Patient Zero, who can, for a short period of time, #bite humans without restriction. The game’s scoreboard is an openly editable Google Doc where players manually update changes to their status (“human” or “zombie”) and record kills (successful #bite attempts). The basic mechanics of the game are: 1. register; 2. tweet at least 10 times per day; 3. include #TvsZ in every tweet with a game action; and 4. try to stay human or try to turn as many humans to zombies as possible.

When the game first began on November 9, 2012, at 4pm EST, players almost immediately started improvising, turning tweets into poems, constructing tiny narratives, and changing their Twitter avatar pictures to represent their new zombie status. Players built their tweets to include appropriate hashtags, action tags, and made meaningful sentences like this tweet from Giulia Forsythe: “@savasavasava I’m yummy all right, but please try a nibble, not #bite. I’m just not ready to be a zombie tonight. #dodge #TvsZ.” They began changing their statuses on the scoreboard to things like “Zombie-Narwhal” (@drjaxon) and “Zombie Totoro” (@briancroxall). Quite quickly, the game was not its rules, but the improvised narrative that arose around the constraints of those rules. And the proliferation of the hashtag #TvsZ was the catalyst.

The game evolved considerably over the course of three days, and the rules became significantly more complex. Every 12 hours, we released a new rule or action tag, all of which are archived on the game site. Ideas for new rules were crowdsourced and ranged from blogging for a 1-hour immunity (#safezone) to uploading pictures of household items that could stun a zombie (#weapon). By the last day of the game, players had contributed scores of blog posts, photos, and Storifies. One of the most ardent human players, Bekah Hogue, was ultimately turned to a zombie and recorded a video message for the humans she left behind. Gerol Petruzella composed Twitter Zombie Style, a #TvsZ adaptation of Gangnam Style. By eschewing explicit outcomes, players were intrinsically motivated to investigate Twitter and its capacities. The learning was happening under the radar, the layers of which were revealed in the 6,000-word crowdsourced reflectionsgenerated after the game. With all the user participation and content, #TvsZ looked a lot like a connectivist MOOC.

Social media users develop network competencies equivalent to the networks they join, and in conjunction with research puncturing the idea of “digital natives” over the past decade (for example, “Digital Natives: Ten Years After” by Apostolos Koutropoulos), the exposure, or even immersion, in new technologies does not translate to fluency. A network of one’s friends, who may only use the network for communicating short personal messages will not push a user into new competencies. Without the impetus to follow, share, or tag in new ways, the user might simply replicate the functionality of a voicemail or a text message, thus missing the larger social and cultural potential of a network like Twitter. “If students live in a culture that digitizes and educates them through a screen,” as Pete suggests in “Occupy the Digital: New Media and Critical Pedagogy”, then they benefit from classroom practice that “empowers them in that sphere, teaches them that language, and offers new opportunities of human connectivity.”

Through the discipline of critical pedagogy, expertise and fluency take on different meanings. Paulo Freire’s contribution to the field of liberatory education re-imagines rigorous inquiry as an innate pursuit, decoupled from educational institutions which serve to maintain status quo hierarchies. In their introduction to Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed in Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution, Levana Saxon and Virginia Vitzhum write that “[Freire] flipped mainstream pedagogy on its head by insisting the true knowledge and expertise already exist within people” (246). Connectivist scholars like Dave CormierStephen DownesGeorge SiemensBonnie Stewart, and Alec Couros have demonstrated that this sort of democratic pedagogy can live rigorously online.

We wanted Twitter vs. Zombies to create a flexible system for learning how to use a specific social network and to study how the users of that system would adapt it for their own creative purposes. As the game advanced from the use of simple actions (#bite, #dodge, and #swipe) to more involved activities like blogging and photo-sharing (#safezone and #weapon), players within the game constructed a collaborative narrative of the simulated apocalypse. Each new rule, built “on the fly” as the game progressed, tried to engage increasingly complex skills. Over the course of the game, players new to Twitter learned to tweet with a hashtag, insert a link into a tweet, build lists, follow other users, publish media to WordPress and YouTube, watch individual feeds, use Twitter as a collaboration tool, direct message, and archive content in Storify. They wrote to save their lives, they negotiated, and they reflected on their learning about a tool from both within the tool and outside it.

Because of its scale, the game had to be self-governed to a large degree, and the rules emerged based on careful deliberation by the community. Players weren’t working for a grade, nor did they demand an umpire. They answered each other’s questions about the rules, made judgment calls collectively, and worked toward consensus to solve problems. Certainly, a healthy portion of the #TvsZ players were already heavy Twitter users, but many were not, and by experiencing the game together, players were able to learn from each other’s digital skills, creative adaptations, and strategies.

In February of this year, students in Pete’s class at Georgia State University in Atlanta combined forces with the students in Janine DeBaise’s class at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry to host Twitter vs Zombies 2.0. This student-organized project introduced a new pedagogical layer to the game; it involved preparing students for the kind of administration and composition necessary to host an engaging online experience. As part of their work for their classes, they constructed, moderated, and studied their own version of the game. The project immersed students in web design, network building, and narrative construction. Twitter vs. Zombies 2.0 collected 134 players from around the U.S., Canada, Ireland, the UK, and Germany.

There is nothing all that reasonable or systematic about the game Twitter vs. Zombies. What we’ve done is create a frame, a loose architecture from which narratives, epiphanies, relationships, and learning might arise. They do arise, if the players are voracious and expressly self-selected. The game offers the opportunity for them to map their own space for improvisation within it. The fact that the rules begin as a simple triptych but evolve via crowdsourcing allows players freedom within the frame but also the power to hack the frame itself. The crowdsourcing is integral to the play. Outcomes should not be wielded like weapons. We argue that mass-collaboration is essential to what we do as pedagogues, asking students to band together in deconstructing the hierarchies implicit in most educational institutions (hierarchies difficult to unseat without a mass of bodies working in concert, of which we as teachers become merely an arm). But the best learning activities also break the division between those inside the institution and those outside, confusing the boundary between who’s in the class and who’s not in the class. Thus, the frame of the class is just as primed for hacking as the rules of any “game” we might devise within it.

In A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown define play as “the tension between the rules of the game and the freedom to act within those rules” (18). This is exactly what Twitter allows, and why we’ve chosen to make it such a central component of our pedagogies, not because it’s the only space where this can happen online, but because it serves as a model for all the collaborative work we do, developing skills that ripple out into what we do in Google Docs, in WordPress, and even within (preferably open) learning management systems like Canvas or Edmodo.

Our work on Twitter vs. Zombies does not attempt to lionize the Twitter platform so much as the creative potential of the users it enables. The most successful connectivist MOOCs, rhizomatic learning, and mass collaborative pedagogical experiments endeavor to promote methods over tools, communities over canons, and agency over assessment. Our work in classrooms, in professional learning networks, in open access publishing, and in Twitter vs. Zombies reflects our respect for the rigorous commitment to learning that a community can leverage for itself.

In this way, play is critical inquiry — of the content of the course, the rules of the game, and the learning itself. Through exposure to uncertain parameters, communities, and outcomes, participants in the game automatically find themselves analyzing the game in order to play, to win, or to survive. This makes them active co-designers of the game, critics of it, and players all at once.

Within this collective of players and learners, there is no central authority handing down the rules. Contrary to the professorial, banking model of education, the rules arise from the mob. Thomas and Brown note that within a collective, “there is no sense of a core or center” (53). Each learner becomes both an explorer and an integral part of the intellect of the game. Each becomes their own source of authority, daring to improvise in order to make sense and meaning from the learning environment.

Cormier’s video session for the recently concluded ETMOOC reflects on the motivation for his first experiments with communal, negotiated learning. “The whole point of rhizomatic learning [for me]” he reflects, “was to take some of the great creative outputs that come from community learning and apply them to a structured classroom.” The design goals of Twitter vs. Zombies were similar; we wanted to create an environment that treated players simultaneously as students, community members, and storytellers. It was an experiment that was committed in equal parts to critical pedagogy, digital literacy, connected (or rhizomatic) learning, and play.

[A selection of tweets Jesse Storified immediately following the first iteration of the game.]


Participant Pedagogy


Learning is a stunt. We learn best when asked (or when we ask ourselves) to do something at first unimaginable. This is exactly the reason I’ve begun to wonder whether classrooms should be made to look more like reality cooking shows. On these shows, tasks (like the “Quickfire challenge” on Top Chef) have discrete parameters, sometimes only vaguely defined. “In 20 minutes, you will make _____ using _____ without doing _____.” It’s often as simple as that. The tasks are not mapped for contestants. There are no examples, rubrics, or assessment criteria. The chefs are given a space, ingredients, and tools, but they are not given elaborate instructions. They are not told which tools to use or how to use them. After a 20-minute flurry of chopping and fire, the chefs are not evaluated objectively, nor are they scored on some predetermined scale. The judges pick the winner by taste, noting their impressions — their subjective experience — of the food. Meanwhile, viewers judge the contestants by the character of their flurry, the keen slice of their knife, the quips they spit as they juggle arugula and salmon meat.

One of the rules of most reality cooking shows is that the chefs are not allowed recipes. They are expected to improvise in the moment — to follow unexpected twists w/ unexpected food. They are subjected to feats of imagination, as should students be. I recently found myself in an exchange with a student about the “formatting requirements” for an essay assignment. She was rather insistent in her demand that I reveal my expectations, whether or not the paper should be 12 pt. font, double-spaced, w/ 1” margins. My response was that I had no specific demands for the work — that she should format her assignment in the manner that felt right to her. What’s most important, I said, is that she give careful consideration to both the form and content of her work, but that I had no pre-determined or arbitrary set of formatting requirements. My instructions were intentionally vague, providing only just enough detail to make something happen, ideally something I couldn’t plan for.

It is often a force of will for me to keep from explaining — to keep from providing details that carve out the space for learning too distinctly. What I expect from students, more than anything, is that they take their learning into their own hands — that they do the (often difficult) work of finding the right tools and the right recipes to meet the very loose demands of an open-ended task.

I ask students to be participants in, and not subjects of, their own learning. In Chapter 3 of Net Smart, “Participation Power,” Howard Rheingold writes, “In the world of digitally networked publics, online participation — if you know how to do it — can translate into real power. Participation, however, is a kind of power that only works if you share it with others” (112). Digital space allows for (and even demands) a new level, and a new kind, of participation. There is no “head of the class” in an online learning environment, not even the illusion of one. Students must, instead, construct their own strategies, without a recipe, in the moment. And they should even be called upon to help map the terrain in which that can happen.

Teo Bishop asks, in “A Letter From a Hybrid Student,” “What is the place for a student in a discussion about learning in the digital landscape?” Put simply, pedagogy is the domain, first and foremost of students. Teaching is not an act with any intrinsic value. It’s only useful insofar as it works to facilitate — to build a space for — learning. However, student-centered does not mean teacher-absent. The notion of participant pedagogy does not undermine or eliminate, but rather clarifies, the role of the teacher, which is to model — to embolden other learners to experiment more (and more wildly). The other role of the teacher is to provide a safe space for the activity of the class — a safe space for the risks students are asked to take.

The phrase “active learning” has become a cliche’, because all learning is necessarily active. It simply isn’t “learning” if it’s not. The term “participant pedagogy” suggests something more than just active learning. It suggests learning that is both active and also reflective, both lively and also voracious. Howard Rheingold calls this “deliberate participation” (145). Critical pedagogy asks teachers (and institutions) to examine their own practices, but it also asks students to examine those practices and to mold them to fit the specific needs of their specific situation. Learning demands both intentionality and play. Likewise, the contestants that come out on top in reality cooking shows are the ones that don’t merely follow directions but carefully and creatively reimagine them.

The Questions at Hand:

  1. How do you respond to the various assertions here?
  2. How does the rise of hybrid pedagogy, open education, and massive open online courses change the relationships between teachers, students and the technologies they share?
  3. What would happen if we extracted the teacher entirely from the classroom? Should we?
  4. What is the role of collaboration among peers and between teachers and students? What forms might that collaboration take? What role do institutions play?

Some More Stuff to Read:
Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel, “Participant Pedagogy: a #digped Discussion” and the storify of the ensuing #digped chat.
Howard Rheingold, “Toward Peeragogy
Pete Rorabaugh and Jesse Stommel, “Experiments in Mass Collaboration
Anya Kamenetz, The Edupunk’s Guide to a DIY Credential
Stephen Downes’s review of Kamenetz’s guide.

[Originally published as part of the course content for MOOC MOOC]

[Photo by PROSunchild57 Photography.]


MOOC While You Sleep


Online learning requires a meticulous attention to the container and the permeability of that container. We need to recognize that the best learning happens not inside courses but between them. Every course must outgrow its container. Digital pedagogues learn best by forgetting — through continuous encounters with what is novel, tentative, unmastered, and unresolved. It’s especially important that we open our discussions of the future of education to students, who should both participate in and help to build their own learning spaces.

These are words I have spewed upon the internet over the last year, as I struggled to grapple with rapid changes in thinking about education and online learning. It began with this, the last sentence of the first paragraph I wrote publicly about MOOCs back in July 2012: “A MOOC isn’t a thing at all, just a methodological approach, with no inherent value except insofar as it’s used.” In this 2012 article, which marked the birth of the MOOC MOOC monster, I argued that MOOCs were monstrous, potentially gangrenous, but also trainable.

MOOCs and open education, even prior to the now infamous year of the MOOC, have always asked questions of me, demanding I think about teaching beyond the bodies perambulating in and out of my face-to-face classrooms. My work as a teacher does not begin and end at that threshold. Almost every course I’ve taught since 2001 has lived to some degree openly on the web. No matter if this sounds overly-abstract or sentimental, I must say that teaching has always been, for me, deeply ethical work. It is something I find myself doing whether I’m being paid for it or not. It is something I promise to students even after our classes are done. It is something I do not just for the paying students at the institutions where I work. Teaching is something I do in the middle of the night when I wake up sleepless.

Over the last year, I’ve watched education rise and I’ve watched it fall. I’ve made things go, and I’ve watched them sputter listlessly to a halt. I’ve learned as much from education’s successes as I have from its failures, both of which have been grander than usual for me this year. The MOOC, in particular, has made for many a sleepless night, demanding I lay my pedagogies bare and reexamine the lot of them.

I’m an insomniac. I wear a wrist-band that monitors my sleep, and it reports hours of sleep per night for the week so far: 6h 47m, 2h 42m, and 4h 57m. I’ve had chronic insomnia my entire life. When I was younger, I thought it normal that my personality was subject daily to the pitch and throw of my head upon a mattress the night before. In college, I missed many days of school for lack of sleep. I’ve developed coping strategies, taken various medications, and I’ve mostly conquered this beast, though not entirely, as this week’s data reports.

A 2012 study, published in Nature Neuroscience, found that humans learn while they’re sleeping. And it isn’t just that sleep reinforces learning, forming neural pathways and helping move information from short-term to long-term memory, but that we can actually retain information from new stimuli experienced during sleep.

And so if learning is my vocation, then being concerned for the sleep of my students and fellow teachers is germane to my work. I don’t want to make better MOOCs. That is not my goal. The question I want to ask here is: how can we create learning experiences that persist beyond our ability to make them go? What kind of ethical learning experiences can we create that persist beyond the bounds of the course — and beyond the bounds of the institution that offers the course? Can we create discussions that spread beyond our ability to facilitate them? What pedagogical techniques can we use as teachers (and as learners) to make more space for our own sleep? What work is worth losing sleep over?

Some proposed tenets:

  • The teacher’s voice is not the fulcrum upon which the discussion tilts. Even as we build and guard space for discussion, we must think carefully about when and how we step back. If my goal is to foster a persistent community of learners, it is important that I not make that community reliant upon me. It is important that when I think about “peers,” I number myself among them — with all the accompanying possibilities and responsibilities.
  • The teacher must be willing to “abdicate authority,” which means actively (and visibly) stepping off the stage. This does not look like absence but a reimagined sense of presence. It also does not mean that we should diminish our own expertise. Rather, the development of new expertise (not championing of existing expertise) becomes the focus. We must also interrogate the nature of authority, recognizing that abdicating authority is itself an act of authority.
  • We should build learning experiences that make our courses permeable, asking students and ourselves to do work both in the classroom and also in the world. A course should live outside the institution in which it’s housed, beyond the semester during which its taught, and even off the continent where it’s born. Creating conversations that bridge continents and time zones has been something I’ve found well-worth losing sleep over.
  • We need to create flexible learning experiences with multiple points of entry. This means recognizing that every learner is different, has different skills and background, and that rubrics and outcomes are only maps and not destinations.
  • Sometimes less is more. Can I say just enough to inspire a dialogue but not so much that I shut it down? Can I build a platform just big enough for something to emerge safely upon it? Can I design an assignment with just enough guidelines to inspire something truly generative? Can I model the first motion in a series of motions and trust learners to fumble their way through the rest?

More Stuff to Read and Watch:
Pedagogies of Scale by Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel
The Complexification of Education by George Siemens – on xEducation a forthcoming book by George Siemens, Bonnie Stewart, and Dave Cormier
Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century by Cathy N. Davidson
Cathy Davidson on Shifting Attention
Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson

[Originally published as part of the course content for MOOC MOOC: MOOCification.]

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