what’s next? care, vulnerability & disclosure – a research project

So. Flanked by my children, who have shared their childhoods with the gestation of my Ph.D – a rather demanding sibling – I trotted across the UPEI stage Saturday and had this fancy hat bestowed upon me.

I am now either a right official Ph.D or Head of Gryffindor, one or the other. Either way, it was officially my mother’s very Best Day Ever.

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With the end of a Ph.D comes one question – “what’s next?”

It’s an entirely reasonable and utterly terrible inquiry. In spite of increasingly-regular calls for changes, the long road of the Ph.D tends to veer to the straight & narrow production and acculturation of scholars to a profession that, frankly, has little room for them. Not all Ph.Ds want a tenure track position within the academy, certainly. But those that do face pretty grim odds…and have for some time. And while work in industry may be a far more lucrative option for some, opportunities vary drastically depending on discipline and geographic location and mobility. For those of us based in small, isolated, single-university towns with two young dependents and absolutely zero industry, “what’s next?” tends to be a rather painful confrontation with every Life Choice we’ve ever made.

Unless we get lucky.

I am, for the moment, lucky. I have an ongoing half-time Coordinator’s position at my university, and last week, I began a half-time post-doc with one of the people I like and respect most in my field, George Veletsianos, Canada Research Chair at Royal Roads University. I get to do the post-doc from here in Charlottetown. It’s the kind of research I do best. And so I count myself extraordinarily lucky, even while in the same breath I note that two half-time jobs does not a pension make and Dave & I have big decisions to make in the coming year. We are entertaining possibilities. But for the moment, I get to do good work with people I have great regard for, and I have An Answer to the question, “What’s next?” So glory be.

But there is a safety and security in the public position of “graduate student” that disappears once you get the funny hat. Even if the grad student label is pretty infantilizing for mid-career scholars, it’s still a form of protection against the assumption that you oughtta have a full-time academic job, if you’re any good. Once that student status is removed, you’re left standing naked at the precarious and contingent intersection of contemporary academic employment and the narratives of meritocracy that still fuel a great deal of graduate training. In a prestige economy, it can be risky to acknowledge your lack of prestige. Or your financial insecurity, or your hunger, or your part-time job at Starbucks/Walmart/ that pays the bills.

This is one of the positions that George and I want to explore in our first research project together. It’s a study of disclosure, care, and vulnerability in networked scholarship – an examination of the effects of sharing challenges online.

This is where you come in, dear readers.

We are speaking to people in higher ed about personal and professional disclosures they’ve made within social media networks, and the vulnerabilities and the expressions of care that have resulted, as well as what those experiences have meant for them as individuals and scholars. We have begun by looking at more personal disclosures – physical and mental health challenges, personal losses and life adjustments, identity factors. But my own ruminations on what is speakable online have left me curious about whether it may actually be riskier for scholars to talk about their professional difficulties than their personal ones, in identity spaces as public and traceable and searchable as social media platforms.

So we’re wondering…want to be involved? :)

Our formal invitation is below. The link to the consent form is in paragraph 5…if this research speaks to your experiences in any way, we encourage you to check out the link. Your voice is welcome, and appreciated.


We are inviting PhD students/candidates and academics to participate in a research study that we are conducting entitled “Academics’ use of social media: care and vulnerability.”

While the research community has studied the use of social media for teaching/research, we don’t know much about how these technologies are used by academics to share the challenges they face, express their vulnerabilities, and experience care online.

If you have disclosed a personal OR professional challenge that you have faced on social media (e.g. blogged about: being denied tenure, a dissertation committee conflict, or underemployment or adjunct challenges), we invite you to participate in this study.

We believe that these experiences are significant to share and discuss and we would love the opportunity to interview you to learn and write about your experiences.

If you are interested in participating in this study, please visit the following page to read the consent form that provides more details about this project: http://survey.royalroads.ca/index.php?sid=44151

We understand that this topic is very personal and discussing it with us may be difficult. If you have any questions or concerns regarding this study, please don’t hesitate to contact us. We would love to talk to you more about it.


George & Bonnie

Dr. George Veletsianos
Canada Research Chair and Associate Professor
Royal Roads University

Dr. Bonnie Stewart
Post-Doctoral Fellow
Royal Roads University/University of Prince Edward Island

the story of education: a Grimm fairy tale

The other morning I woke up to a flurry of Twitter conversation that had unfolded while I slept.

A woman in Australia talking to a woman on the west coast of North America. Another person in Ireland chiming in, flagging other names, leaving little mentions dotted across the globe. Somewhere my name got included and by the time I was up and ready for coffee, they’d left a trail of @s: some with external links, some about the #wweopen13 MOOC that’s just gotten underway – a course I’ll be teaching a week of come November – some broader, more meatily philosophical. That’s what Twitter offers me, people. Random enrichment opportunities while I sleep.

A trail of breadcrumbs to follow.

One of the links in that trail the other morning was this post, titled Being Tongue-Tied and Speechless in Higher Education: Implications for Notions of (Il)literacy #metaliteracy. The blogger, Paul Prinsloo, was new to me, though I’m now following him on Twitter (dude, I look forward to occasional further trails of @s emanating from South Africa. No pressure).

I read it and a shock of recognition flooded me. I waved weakly at my screen, a silent “me too” across half the globe to someone I’ve never met. Because in it, he talks about aphasia, or the inability to speak. Not clinically, but not metaphorically, either. Educationally, professionally, participatorily.

“It seems as if I lost my ability to speak spontaneously, to form words or name
objects. Even when I could find the words, the words got lost or lost their meaning
before they reached my fingers…As the frequency of my blogs during 2013 declined,
I increasingly became aware of being tongue-tied.
Many times I would start with a title for a blog or a first paragraph
only to lose interest or lose my way halfway through the second sentence.
Words, concepts, images would race through my mind but somehow the coherence,
the rationale for blogging was lost in the inner noise and confusion.”

Yeh. That.

I haven’t *really* blogged here in what feels like a very long time: I’ve been using the site sporadically to share ideas or post updates on my thesis proposal, but I haven’t really been digging deeply and publicly into ideas in the ways I found so powerful for years. Oh, I was always irregular in posting…but it wasn’t for lack of voice.

Until recently. Part of the radio silence came simply from work – I was focused elsewhere, on the long-form spelunking of a second thesis proposal. Behind that was a complicated story of voice and my own failure – in the first thesis proposal – to apprehend or master the forms of language and presentation implicitly expected of me. I did not fully understand the extent to which my own voice and formal Academic Writing did not/would not mix. Another few months and forty-odd pages later and a go-ahead to go ahead and I think I’ve learned a lot on the journey, thank you very much. But the process itself was a quiet, internalized one.

My silence hasn’t been mainly personal, though: rather, it stems from same uncertainty of speech writ large and broad; a pervasive, sinking sense of not knowing the contexts into which I speak and write and share my ideas.

Last night I went to a small community gathering of educators, and a colleague said: “the conversation around education has become a skills conversation. We’ve lost the story we’re in. We’ve lost the sense we’re in the same story.”

Over the last year – particularly the more I followed and unpacked the hype cycle of MOOCs – the more I felt like I no longer recognize the story of education as it gets told. Or enacted in policy and curriculum design. Or reported in the news.

I have been silent because I no longer felt like I knew how to talk about any of it. And Prinsloo reflected me back to myself, adrift.

“As higher education institutions respond to changing funding
regimes, increasing accountability, demands from the marketplace and employers
as well as students as customers and consumers; many staff members may
experience something alike to aphasia, being tongue-tied and at loss of words.
Their experiences resemble the experiences of many migrants or
refugees trying to respond to and negotiate sense and meaning in foreign
and uninviting dominant cultures and narratives. At the end
these staff members stumble from one performance agreement to another,
failing to speak out, possibly giving up believing that
speaking out may make a difference.”

Yeh. That.

It’s hard, when your voice feels wrong-footed and shaky, to use that voice to ask others if their experience is similar. I mean, what if it’s just you who feels like education’s become a place you no longer know? (Okay, and the dude who wrote the article and the colleague who sent it, but hey, let us not extrapolate from a sample of three). What if precarity is treating everybody else just fine and they can see the forest for the trees and are clear who the witch is?

What if it’s you?

Worse, what if it’s them and they lure you into their gingerbread house and eat you?


(If you mostly know me from Twitter, this probably sounds ridiculous: I’m hardly tongue-tied. I talk enough that people talk back to me while I’m sleeping. But Twitter is still relatively ephemeral and requires little time investment in any given speech act. Emotional investment, yes…but not the time. And I think that’s key. Monetization and consolidation of bloggers under major banners has redistributed focus/limited time to paid opportunities. Mobile tech means less deep engagement with the links and threaded ties that makes blogging rich and serves as its citational, networking engine. So people fewer people blog in a personal voice, in a personal space, and fewer comment, and that cycle is in itself a vicious circle.)

Blogging leaves far more of an imprint for misinterpretation than, say, the breadcrumbs of Twitter. Blogging requires you to dare to paint a map, in your own voice. Is that becoming too costly, in the fray of contested meaning-making that education has morphed into?

Is having that kind of voice becoming the equivalent of sticking your head up and shouting “Here I am, witches! Come and hunt me down?”

Still, I want to know. Do you write, still? Are your practices shifting? If you think out loud, in public, do you still do it long-form, for free? Do you know what story we’re in, or where the woods end?

I don’t have a nice tidy conclusion for this post. I just wanted to say I am still here, thinking, collecting breadcrumbs, trying to share a few, for others to maybe wake up to tomorrow. In the midst of the changes and pressures sweeping all of us in higher ed at this juncture, I count myself hugely lucky to have this kind of network to help me make sense of my world. Perhaps the breadcrumb trail won’t lead out of the woods. Perhaps some crumbs lead to the dangerous candy house. Still. Your voices remind me that I don’t wander alone.

Participate or Perish?

I’ve been thinking a lot about institutions lately. In trying to trace a narrative line through the sturm und drang around MOOCs and all that they make visible, I’ve been digging into institutional histories, trying to understand what the hell happened in the last thirty years. Who switched the terms of the game of higher education?

I’m looking at you, market forces.

For those of us raised in the world that Stanford researchers in the 70s called ‘the New Institutionalism’ – a world where education’s entire organizational structure was understood to place it firmly “beyond the grip of market forces” (Meyer & Rowan, 2006, p. 3) – it’s all gotten rather bewildering. Many managed not to notice the stealth incursion of for-profit institutions and Pearson into the world of academia (related: the student populations these corporate entities have served, via ESL textbook empires and “the MBA you can probably get into” ads, have not been the white middle-class that still codes “default university student” in North America. Ahem. Just sayin’.). But MOOCs, with their posh ties to Harvard and Stanford and their grandiose claims of revolution, sorta blew that stealth game out of the water.

MOOCs as Enclosure
This past week alone, Coursera moved into professional development for teachers and announced a partnership with Chegg, an online textbook-rental company, to connect MOOC learners with select, limited-time access to texts from large publishers. As Audrey Watters notes, these shifts are  beginning to look like the enclosure of education against the very openness that MOOCs began from: “What was a promise for free-range, connected, open-ended learning online, MOOCs are becoming something else altogether. Locked-down. DRM’d. Publisher and profit friendly. Offered via a closed portal, not via the open Web.”

This enclosure is about profit models, not learning. And it profits few, in the end, because – as I got het up about in Inside Higher Ed last week – the societal mythology of education as value really only functions if institutionalized credentials in some way tie to social mobility and lucrative work.

That’s not the game we’re in, anymore.

But here’s the thing: MOOCs are a symptom of change in higher ed, not the source of it. We need to find ways of talking about this enclosure of openness by profit models, without conflating these forces with online ed in general or even entirely with MOOCs.

Because we will not resist the corporatization of education by standing solely for conventional institutionalized models. That horse has left the barn. But in online practices there may still be ways to protect and preserve some of the broad societal concept of the “we” that institutions were intended to enshrine.

MOOCs as Symptom: Networks + Neoliberalism
Basically, this is where we are: traditional institutional education is being encroached upon from all sides. And the big MOOCs conflate the two primary forces for change: networks and neoliberalism.

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This is an ugly slide – I kinda like to call the clip art “retro” – but it’s the best illustration I have at the current moment for what I see actually happening to higher ed as we’ve known it. From one side, what George Siemens terms “the Internet happening to education,” or the networked opening of what was conventionally the closed domain of knowledge. From the other, the market incursion into the sphere of education, with its attendant ideological leanings towards the measurable and the profitable.

Last week, Dave & I went to two conferences together. We do the majority of our conference travel independently, so even getting to be at the same events was kind of exotic for us: being invited together was a treat. But blending our two separate strains of thought into a single keynote for the second conference was something we haven’t done in a couple of years, since all the MOOC stuff blew up.

We bickered about process: that’s par for the course, for us. We’ve worked together as long as we’ve known each other, and while our ideas and even perspectives tend to complement the other’s, our ways of getting there are pretty much opposite. (Sidenote: our writing on the MOOCbook has been pretty much two solitudes, enabling us to continue our lawyer-free relationship.)

But in the process of pulling together, between the two of us, three hour-long presentations to be delivered over the course of three days, on separate but intertwined topics, something converged and snapped into focus.

I’ve been looking at networks from an identities perspective for a few years now, trying to understand who we are when we’re online and what it is about this whole experience that actually matters, from an education perspective. Dave’s been wending his way through an exploration of rhizomatic learning as a way of navigating uncertainty within an era of knowledge abundance. Both of us have been thinking a lot about MOOCs and what they mean for change within higher ed. Hell, most of our household income comes from academic institutions, so the current budget crunch hits home.

But it became clear this week that our work needs to be about finding ways to use networks to push back against the neoliberal vision of the future of education. About making clear that the two do not share the same set of interests.

The conflation of the two is everywhere. Salon has an interview with Jaron Lanier today that makes the case that the Internet killed the middle class. Lanier’s arguments conflate networks with neoliberalism, making the latter invisible as a force unto itself. Sure, there are places where networked practices rely on neoliberal approaches to the world, in the sense of Foucault’s “entrepreneur of the self.” And neoliberalism often co-opts networked practices and naturalizes the perception that the two are one and the same.

But I don’t think they are. At least…I don’t think they inherently are.

Whether they become so is up to us. Particularly those of us who share the values espoused by public education. We need to build our learning and teaching networks, share our ideas and our questions and our practices and what works and doesn’t, and refuse to be enclosed.

Institutional concepts of educational practices enclose easily: that is their nature. The transition from institutional models of the classroom to a massive for-profit textbook magnate’s version of the classroom isn’t really much of a transition, except in what gets lost in terms of public values.

Networks don’t actually enclose easily. Hence the idea of “participate or perish” that Dave & I came up with the night before our keynote at #WILU2013 in Fredericton: a new academic imperative for our times.

Don’t just publish, because the institutional models are encroached upon and becoming enclosed. Participate. Make things different. Don’t wait for it to be your “job:” that’s institutional thinking. Institutional jobs won’t be there if we let the profit models gut education entirely.

Here are our slides from WILU2013, which trace some of these ideas through our own research lenses.

And here are the slides from my Spotlight Speaker session at CONNECT2013, where I focused in more detail on the participation and networking side of things: on how to go beyond institutional identities. Help yourself.

(Postscript: the “Education is Broken” Narrative as Sniff Test)
I want to return to this one in more depth…but a quick thought. The phrase “education is broken” gets thrown around a lot in the current educational climate. It is, in a sense, one of the key reasons neoliberalism and networks get conflated: it’s the area in which they agree. 

But from one perspective, the idea that education is broken is a learning claim. From the other, it’s a credentialing and business model claim.

If you’re in the process of learning to tell the difference, don’t necessarily run from anything that claims education is broken. Rather, ask what aspect of ed it frames as broken. Is it the learning? You might be looking at a network. Is it the profit model and the structure and the means of offering credential? Probably neoliberalism and enclosure at work.

You’re welcome. ;)

MOOCs are Not the Enemy. Sorta.

So. I stood up in front of a whole room of academics and theorists and grad students with funky glasses this weekend and said the word “MOOC.” And nobody threw a single tomato, which surprised me.

My presentation for Theorizing the Web 13 at CUNY was entitled “MOOCs are Not the Enemy: Networked, Non-Imperialist MOOC models.” Or in simplest terms, “cMOOC is for cyborg.” Ahem.

The Cliff Notes version:
My base premises are these: privatization is bad and colonialism is bad and globalization is as shady as it’s always been and there are lots of totalizing systems at work in higher ed these days, old and new. But talking about these things through the lens of MOOCs increasingly seems to devolve into binary arguments against one totality while half-defending another, until it feels like the proverb about the seven old blind men and the elephant. A MOOC is a snake! cries the one holding the tail. No! It’s a sail! shouts the one with the ear in hand.

More Than is Dreamt of In Your Philosophy, Horatio
Both the elephant and the MOOC defy simple metaphors, because they’re huge. MOOCs make visible the intersection of a snarl of complicated axes of change and power relations in higher ed, so reifying them into a single axis – even if it’s the dominant one – leaves too much of the picture out. A MOOC is a course that is massive and open and online in some way and beyond that, for the moment, I’m agnostic.

Not because I’m not aligned: I am aligned. But because I think the conversation is too important to foreclose. There are a host of valid criticisms of MOOCs of all kinds, even the ones I really enjoy, and I want to be having those conversations and talking about the forces driving different MOOC models and driving change in higher ed. A lot of these forces scare the shit out of me, for the record. But I think – as I’ve heard other people say (I’d thought it was Cathy Davidson but I can’t seem to find a link) – that MOOCs are a symptom of these forces rather than the problem in and of themselves.

So dismissing MOOCs outright, or insisting on talking about all MOOCs as if they were one hegemonic thing rather than a still new and shifting collection of phenomena, shuts down the possibility of doing something more with them.

It gives the conversation over. I’m not ready to do that. I don’t want to give over – yet, at least – to the idea that anything about MOOCs is inevitable.

Beyond the Borg Complex
To be sure, we can’t be in higher ed today without being to some extent subject to the changes being wrought by privatization and globalization and the undermining of the narrative of public ed and the public good. These logics constrain budgets, shape policy, affect how what we do is taken up and the roles available to us.

The most dominant MOOC models embody a lot of these forces and logics. So they inspire vitriolic response: we don’t  want to be the kind of subjects they seem to impose on us.

Or some of us don’t. In the ongoing Shirky/Bady back & forth about which end of the elephant is more equal than others, Bady pegs Shirky’s “it’s happening anyway, might as well adapt” response as a form of what Sacasas calls the Borg Complex, a determinist “resistance is futile” fatalism combined with a neoliberal identity approach.

But that conversation is still a binary. And leaves Bady to some extent defending the traditions of that other totalizing system, the conventional patriarchal and elitist mythology of “schooling” that many open online educational efforts exist to challenge.

I end up nodding hopelessly at the beautiful prose of the both of them and thinking about narrative escalation in pre-World War I Europe. With all this grandiose buildup, the Triple MOOC Entente and the Triple MOOC Alliance carve out increasingly opposed territories until I wonder if Archduke Ferdinand’s been shot yet and the bloody inevitability can just start, already.

Or we could explore MOOCs from a cyborg perspective.

A cyborg is not Borg
The Borg is an all-swallowing collective that cannot be resisted, a totalizing force.

Haraway‘s cyborg, on the other hand, is what might be termed a networked individual, illegitimate offspring of what Haraway calls the “informatics of domination,” but still subversive to the very forces that created her. S/he is an ironic hybrid of human and technology who breaks down binaries that otherwise seem naturalized and totalizing. The cyborg recognizes in technologies the possibility of “great human satisfaction, as well as a matrix of complex dominations. Cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves.” (1991) The cyborg is complicit, a part of this digital world. But s/he is never entirely subject to its terms: s/he is not without agency.

The cMOOC as cyborg
So on the plane down to Theorizing the Web, as I finalized my slides, I decided that the first c in cMOOC stands for cyborg.

(I mean, I know it *actually* stands for connectivist. That’s as it should be. MOOCs were founded on the connectivist principles that knowledge is distributed and generative, and I think for MOOCs to actually capitalize in any sense on the affordances of digital technologies and not merely transfer traditional approaches to learning into the online space, those two concepts are important lodestars. And the original MOOC was built not only on George Siemens‘ and Stephen Downes‘ work developing connectivism but was actually a course ON connectivism and connected knowledge: the cMOOC model is connectivism incarnate.)

Because I’ve had the (sometimes admittedly discombobulating) pleasure of working with and in and around this grassroots model of MOOC for a few years now, I have a vantage point that many of MOOCs’ detractors don’t: I have lived experience of a model of MOOC that isn’t corporate, or colonial, or – most importantly – totalizing. And I think cMOOCs and other networked online learning opportunities and efforts that attempt to destabilize some of the institutional or corporate or globalizing tendencies that dominate much of the MOOC conversation (and many MOOCs themselves) may offer a cyborg approach to massive, open, online learning: it may offer a model of subversion.

cMOOCs, even as cyborg, are neither a perfect model or a panacea for all the challenges higher education faces. But  they emphasize participatory, networked, distributed approaches to learning that challenge and subvert many of our inherited cultural concepts of schooling. They encourage learners to generate knowledge, in addition to simply mastering it. They are a way to re-vision the conversation in terms that neither deny the possibilities of technology and networks nor give over entirely to the logics and informatics of domination.

They are MOOCs that undermine some of what MOOCs seems to be coming to mean, and in that, I think there is both power and potential.

current/ongoing/historical cMOOCs & their open/online/hybrid kin:
(including even a Coursera course that tries very hard to subvert its own conditions of production)

#etmooc (Educational Technologies MOOC – ongoing and amazing, just entering topic 4: check it & join in)
#moocmooc archives (two separate week-long MOOCs on MOOCs)
#ds106 (not a MOOC, but an ongoing, open, public course in digital storytelling via University of Mary Washington)
@dukesurprise (a for-credit Duke course with an open, public component)
#inq13 (a POOC or Participatory Open Online Course through CUNY on inequalities, with an East Harlem focus)
#edcmooc (a Coursera course in Elearning & Digital Cultures offered by University of Edinburgh that runs more like a cMOOC)
The MOOC Guide – Stephen Downes’ master resource of most cMOOC-ish offerings from the beginning
#change11 archive (the mother of all cMOOCs: 35 facilitators each took a week to explore change in higher ed)

There are lots more, I’m sure – happy to add if people want to send examples.