if Foucault ran a MOOC

In the mad hype these days about MOOCs – which are Massive Open Online Courses, for those of you either not in higher ed or currently aboard the Mars rover – I find myself that dreary voice in the back of the class repeatedly piping up Hey dudes. MOOCs are not just whatever you decided they were when you encountered the word yesterday. MOOCs have a history.

I know. It probably comes off horribly. We in North America tend to be rather ahistorical, these days.

But when you are tied to a thing and its history and then that thing blows up in scale and the silly word that was coined in your living room is in the NYT and the thing you researched two years ago is everybody else’s New Big Thing and it means utterly divergent things to everybody and yet you’re all in the same messy conversation and nobody’s really sure what’s happening, well, you can only speak from where you are.

Which, in my case with MOOCs, is history.

(Or at least historical. The jury is still out on the rest.)

It’s like being one of those annoying groupies who was around before a band got huge and sold out to The Man and I find myself chirping, I knew MOOC back in the day, you know. When he was Authentic.

Yeh. Shaddup already. I got it.

That is not the history of MOOCs I want to talk about. The one where they started in Canada and are based in connectivist principles that model the operations of the internet, and blah blah blah. I have a different story for you.

It’s about what MOOCs – all of ’em, but maybe especially the xMOOCs and Coursera and all the big ones tied to the elite institutions; the ones currently leaping on board and those about to leap – have to learn from Foucault.

I know. Foucault’s star in academia has been eclipsed of late by the resurgence of focus on all things quantifiable and measurable and ostensibly efficient, but I want to wander, at least briefly, down the road of assuming there’s value in stepping beyond the New & Improved! TM sales mentality that seems to accompany our collective contemporary approach to all things educational.

Because here’s the thing. Most of what we’re on the precipice of exploring in higher ed with MOOCs is not actually new.

Foucault, for instance, had a MOOC in 1970. Or at least a MOC.

For the last fifteen or so years of his career, Foucault taught a massive, open course. Every year. That was one of the terms of his chair at the College de France. He was everything MOOC except online.

The politics of France in the late ’60s when Foucault’s chair was decided upon were such that it was perceived as elitist and unthinkable to keep Foucault, one of the country’s great philosophical treasures, from the people. Thus his seminars and courses were free. They ran from January to March each year. The public had the right to attend: two lecture halls were generally filled for every address he gave.

As technology became available, the lectures were recorded. These have since been compiled and sold as books.

Of course, travel and books are NOT actually free. And presumably there were many in France at the time who – due to constraints of money or time or distance – were nonetheless unable to access their national philosophical treasure, no matter their right.

Still, enough people showed up that it was, apparently, something of a pain in the ass for Foucault. Not because he didn’t want to talk to lots of people, but because talking at lots of people is not the same as talking to them.

He opened his 1983 lecture series – his second-last – on January 5th of that year by stating that “it is often rather difficult giving a series of lectures like this without the possibility of comebacks or discussion, and not knowing whether what one is saying finds an echo in those who are working on a thesis or a master’s degree, whether it provides them with possibilities for reflection and work” (Government of Self and Others, page 1).

He goes on, then, to acknowledge that “in this institution, where the rules are very liberal, we cannot give closed seminars, reserved for just a few auditors…All the same, what I would like, not so much for you but selfishly for myself, is to be able to meet. Off-Broadway, outside of the lectures, with those of you who could possibly discuss the subjects I will be talking about this year, or that I have talked about elsewhere and previously” (Government of Self and Others, page 1).

The thing about histories is that they help us understand what is NOT new about what *seems* new so we can understand:
a) what actually IS new.
b) what is valuable in the difference.

From Foucault’s MOC experience, it becomes clear that the idea of massive and open courses isn’t particularly new at all, though it is rather foreign within the North American academic tradition. The key differentiating aspect of MOOCs, then, is that they’re online.

Being online means they can spread and scale and disseminate knowledge incredibly widely, sure. But 2000 or 200,000 people only really begin to take up the online potential of MOOCs when they connect and network. When they go, as Foucault put it, Off-Broadway to discuss and participate: when the possibility of comebacks between professor and student becomes a reality.

This is the piece that I hope the various institutions currently grappling with the question and challenge of MOOCs take to heart: just using the internet to open another giant free lecture hall? Does not a new learning opportunity make. If MIT and Stanford and the lot are doing it out of their deeply socialist commitment to all citizens having the same access to their learned luminaries, well then, the College de France model may suffice.

But it didn’t suffice for Foucault, in terms of his own growth as a thinker and a scholar.

Now, his whole chair existed for the purpose of those lectures. His funding ensured that he had the time to follow those inclinations to set up an Off-Broadway discussion group with interested learners in the lecture herd.

Do the MOOCs that extend the brand of elite institutions enable and support their faculty in engaging with learners, in making MOOCs more than simply MOCs or massive one-sided conversations, however edifying?

Because that’s what the history of massive course delivery suggests is valuable. And that’s something that the historical MOOCs – the smaller, non-institutional Canadian versions that pioneered the term – were built on: the capacity of the Internet to connect people, in networks.

I suspect if Foucault ran a MOOC today – whether xMOOC or connectivist MOOC or any other model yet to emerge – that’s what he’d be advocating.

Listen up, higher ed.


a genealogy of digital identities

Grope. Stumble. Circle around.

I’m fumbling my way towards the methods & methodology choices that will guide my digital identity research. This week, for the first time, my blurry paths collided hard with current events in the world and the social media sphere.

Tom MacMaster, A Gay Girl in Damascus’ hoax blogger, has personally altered the direction of my dissertation’s methods section.

(Okay, well, him and Twitter. And the mainstream media attention his blog garnered even before he claimed Amina had been kidnapped. And the Orientalism and colonialism and exoticism that still inform how we in the West attend to narratives from the Other, seeing as I doubt somehow that it was a total coincidence that the single identity most Westerners could name from the whole Syrian uprising this spring turns out to be that of…a Westerner.)

I struggle with formalist categories like method. I recognize that they are, in a sense, intended to make things clearer, to parse the broad territory of social science and research and the multitudes therein. For someone like me, more inclined to gradations and overlaps than clear divisions, they confuse. I hover on the borders and boundaries, a millipede with feet in so many camps that headings like “Research Objectives” and “Data” make me feel hopelessly messy, mired in no-man’s-land.

This isn’t a bad thing, only a disorienting one. My work doesn’t fit tidily within the bounds of education alone, or of cyborg anthropology or any other discipline or corner. The straddling that I need to do between discourses and approaches and worldviews helps me unpack methods and methodologies and epistemologies, forces me to continually apply theory to theory in a roundabout kaleidoscope. Patti Lather’s work, which explores validity structures transgressive to traditional scientific methodologies and includes comforting titles like Getting Lost (2007), helps me feel better about the kaleidoscope. My goal, after all, is situated knowledge, rhizomatic knowledge with multiple openings. No one tidy method will ever take me on that kind of exploration.

Every journey has first steps. The two methods I’ve embarked on thus far are themselves straddlers, each bridging the blurry boundaries between methodology and method. One is the material-semiotic method that marks Actor-Network theory and the work of LaTour and Haraway and Karen Barad. The other is Foucault’s genealogy.

It is my understanding of the genealogy of digital identity that I’m going to have to revisit after this week.

Just a few days back, somebody asked the question that inevitably comes up whenever I mention genealogy and social media in the same breath: “How could there be social media subjectivity before social media?”

Sure, the platforms I’m working with date only from 2005 or so. But the shifts in the forms of identity performance privileged during that timespan have still been pretty heady. And digital identity scholarship was huge in the 90s. Haraway’s cyborg metaphor, which informs my own concept of social media subjectivity, is from 1985. The narrative forms and subjectivities that the blogosphere made into mass communications could be argued to have their origins in Montaigne. This rhizome has far older roots than appear on the surface.

Genealogy as a philosophical method isn’t much  different from genealogy as your great-aunt Louise’s favourite hobby: it’s an historically-focused endeavour that operates on the assumption that our present understandings – of self, of our place in the world, of anything – have precedents and ancestors.

In genealogy, delving into the questions of what or who these ancestors might have been and how they operated is an almost-never-ending, always-partial process of unpacking and tracing and exploring, aimed at re-presenting the present in a broader, more complex, and perhaps counter-intuitive light. Knowing you are a descendant of Marie Antoinette, even whilst you traipse the aisles of Walmart, may imbue you with a sense of grandeur, tragedy, entitlement, or irony, depending on your perspective.

Knowing the ancestors of our notions of who we are when we’re online, when we write ourselves into being, when we engage with each other through identities with visible metrics? I don’t know whether that will imbue us with any grandeur – I’m aiming more for irony – but I hope it will help situate the implications of social media subjectivities within stories and discourses more familiar to higher education, so I can then consider the overlaps and challenges facing academia in the near future.

But. But. One of the historical notions I believed I could refer to and then politely consign to the out-of-date heap came roaring back into play this week, with the furor over the Amina hoax.

The purportedly half-American half-Syrian lesbian passing herself off in interviews with The Guardian (the big one,  not the local PEI paper) as “the ultimate outsider” is, of course, actually MacMaster, a white male Master’s student living in Edinburgh.

What that says about white male fantasies of outsider status, the one thing privilege cannot offer, fascinates and entertains me. And affects my perspective on digital identity, because it revives a trope I thought I’d watched die.

In the 1990s, there was a lot of scholarly interest and attention paid to the idea of digital identity. Sherry Turkle and Neil Postman and a whole host of people did fascinating, exploratory work on the emerging digital culture and ideologies of technology and identity and the body in virtual worlds. One of the recurring themes in much of that work emphasized virtual identity and the possibilities of pseudonymous identity performance enabled by computers.

My favourite of these is the story of “Julie” from Allucquere Rosanne Stone’s The War of Desire & Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age (1995). Julie was the extraordinarily successful and popular female persona of a male pyschiatrist in an early CompuServe chatroom. Like Amina’s, Julie’s was a marginalized female persona performed by a mainstream male: Julie claimed to be disfigured and disabled. In a narrative arc rather similar to that of Amina, Julie was ultimately outed by her own excess: while she claimed that her disability left her unable to interact offline with her chatroom community, she wove an increasingly complex narrative of offline antics. The stories created suspicion, and her embodied identity as Sanford Lewin was revealed. The gap between Lewin’s assigned identity and his virtual performance as Julie represented one of the major themes of digital identity scholarship in the ’90s: the possibility of being someone else online.

I thought this particular piece of digital identity ancestry had been rendered largely historical. When I began blogging in 2006, many of the bloggers I read – especially those who wrote about parenting and children – were still pseudonymous. Gradually, that shifted: the digital sociality that emerged out of that blogosphere community is an augmented reality, wherein people regularly meet in person and connect with each other across platforms, including Facebook, which tends to privilege and push towards disclosure of so-called “real” identity. Beyond that, the incursion of capital and sponsorship and the discourse of monetization all emphasized coming out as “oneself,” because a blogger named WineyMommy (names have been changed to protect the innocent) is arguably less likely to get picked up as a writer for the Huffington Post, say. Even if that only pays in reputation and opportunity.

My genealogy, though, will obviously need to consider how speaking the dominant discourse of power impacts reputation and opportunity, even for those purporting to be marginalized voices. It’ll need to reconsider whether even in the neoliberal “Me, Inc” augmented reality of social media, there’s room for performances of subjectivity that don’t match a person’s assigned gender or cultural identity.

Genealogy, as I understand, is about who can speak, and for whom, and to whom. Grope. Stumble. Circle back on myself and revisit. Thanks, Amina, for complexifying things. I’d hate for my methods section to get, uh, dull.

Have you ever had a pseudonymous identity online? If no, why not? If yes, to what extent did this persona line up with your own assigned identity?

Are you the same you across platforms (blogging, Twitter, FB, etc)? What factors affect your decisions about how to present yourself in social media spaces?






the who

Who do you think you are?

It’s hard not to hear that question as an interrogation, a challenge. It’s particularly hard when it’s the subtext running through everything I read. Who are we? How has the way we see ourselves changed over generations, cultural epochs? How does being online impact our sense of ourselves?

Studying identity is like peering into a mirror that reflects a thousand mirrors back: it’s dizzying. The big picture I’m trying to cobble together isn’t about me, and yet it’s my own face I see refracted out from the exploration: a disco ball of Bonnies spinning to the tune of of a lot of big theory words. It’s all heady enough without the inevitable personalization the identity lens brings. Grappling with something so big and unwieldy and…well…self-ish does make me wonder who I think am. In a hundred different ways. Which is only really culturally appropriate if one is fourteen and writing bad existential poetry.

And then there’s the motion sickness. I’m at the point in my Ph.D where the bulk of the required, pre-determined coursework is done or on hold, to an extent. I’m in the privileged position of spending many of my waking hours under my own direction, blindly groping – or so it feels – towards vague concepts that excite and intimidate me.

But the more I read, the more the concepts I started with slip from my grasp, and the ground shifts under me.

Part of me feels like this uncertainty is probably good, that my existing thought and belief structures need to be destabilized in order to allow new ideas and concepts to settle somewhere. Part of me balks at how convenient and tidy this sounds, as if I thought my thoughts eventually formed coherent, integrated entities. Ha. Suspicious notion for somebody working with the partiality and fragmentation of poststructural theory.

But then, blushing at being caught out in my wrongthought, I hear the refrain again. Who do you think you are?

Here’s the thing. I have a whole other blog to tell you who I think I am. Here, I’m going to try to tell you who I think YOU are. Or how I think identity works, at this early, slippery, juncture in the sorting process.

I have been sleeping with Judith Butler under my pillow. In book form.

I started this journey because I’m interested in the idea of digital identity, of who we are when we’re online. What it means to “talk” to people on Twitter. What it means to interact digitally, and form deep connections with people we may have never met.  How writing one’s life can be different from telling it in person, because of what one is allowed to say and focus on. What it means to share our thoughts and life via RSS or tweet or status update rather than email or telephone. Why some of us @reply most of the time, using the medium almost as a party line. What kind of commitments – in terms of time and repeated engagement, in terms of pressure to be funny or interesting or smart – it takes to build and maintain a “self” online, an identity that others recognize and respond to. Whether there’s a digital identity even if nobody’s reading or following.

For Judith Butler, identity is performative. There is no essential, core self: who we are or think we are is created by discourse, what she calls “the limits of acceptable speech” (1997). Discourse is always in circulation, in every culture, though it shifts from place to place and over time, sometimes drastically with drastic events. We are all, for Butler, creatures of discourse and little more. Even the body is understood in her work not as a pre-discursive fact – though she doesn’t deny that we have bodies – but as meaningful to us in terms of language. Even before we are born these days, thanks to ultrasound, we exist within a web of language relations and assumptions that predate and utterly circumscribe our bodies. You are male. I am female. Those meanings are read onto us even before we know we exist, and shape how we come to know ourselves.

Butler disrupts the apparent simplicity of that binary and the concepts of gender and heterosexual norm that it supports by exploring histories of feminism and Foucault, challenging who we think we are by suggesting that the essentialist categories we rely on to explain ourselves have cultural and power-based historical interests propping them up.

(In a few weeks I have to give a presentation on Butler and her non-essentialist identity concepts to a room in which I will actually be the only person generally identified as straight and white. We’ll see how that goes. It’s one thing to destabilize identity when yours is usually taken up as non-problematic for others. It’s another thing to try to do so to a group of people who’ve lived the oppression our society doles out to identities that don’t measure up to the white, heterosexual discursive norm.)

It may seem strange to try to ground a study of digital identity in queer theory, with its focus on bodies that don’t even make it into the online realm. And yet the notion that we perform ourselves with each other, differently according to circumstances and the discourses that limit and frame the roles we understand ourselves to be playing, is for me an extraordinarily useful place to begin examining how and who we are online, and whether and how this who differs from the selves we get to be or play in our so-called “real” lives.

For me, I’m not sure there’s even a divide anymore. Online is one of the places I live and perform. So is the university. So is my children’s daycare, and the grocery store, and whereever else I go. So is my home, and even here my roles vary depending on who I’m interacting with. Some of these selves or performances matter more to me than others, some are more surface than others, more circumscribed by the limits of acceptable speech and by what is expected. But I’m not sure any aren’t real.

Do you believe in a real, authentic core self? How does the idea of performance strike you? And who are you when you’re online?

Who do you think you are?

digital identity, you many-splendoured thing

…And so we begin.

It is a strange thing, after almost five years of blogging, to open up this second door for ideas and conversation. Same blog, different floor. Or something like that. Another facet to living online, out in the open. It’s a conceit, maybe, but one that keeps me honest, keeps me pushing myself to explore.

For five years, almost, I have written myself, in a way, into being through the lens of the personal: my stories of childhood, motherhood, grief, community. My words have been received and reflected back and I’ve become both enmeshed in a rich community and identified with a particular form of expression. All of which, for me, has been positive, extraordinary, even.

But this past fall I began a doctoral journey that is, in a sense, a meta-exploration: I am studying the world of social media and the concept of digital identities – or really, digital subjectivities, how selves are constructed and performed and shaped by this environment. And suddenly, I want to write about that which cribchronicles.com cannot contain.

This will be my “thinking out loud” space, another window into my own digital identity.

A place from which to build another – perhaps overlapping intertwined – community, I hope. Because it is community and connections that keep me living and writing out here in the open. But not everybody wants to read about my torturous slogs through the bowels of Foucault all the time, I realize. Even if I can’t imagine why.

If you do, hey, welcome. ;)

The irreverently Reverend Jim Groom is leading a free open online course on digital storytelling right now: #ds106. I am, as usual, a bit late to the rapture. But I’m along for the ride, because digital storytelling seems to be what I do, and I’m curious about what else it can do.

#ds106 is good timing for me: a MOOC is always an opportunity to connect with people who share similar interests. This MOOC (Massive Open Online Course – essentially, a free and open program of professional development wherein you decide how much you want to put in and get out of the participatory experience) focuses on establishing and exploring one’s own personal cyberinfrastructure. Or, um, sites and networks and places online in which you can, y’know, express yourself. Which seems particularly handy when one is at a crossroads in terms of one’s personal cyberinfrastructure and looking to, erm, franchise. Or just grow. With capital letters.

There’s an assumption in here that I’m struggling with, though.

For all I’m an educator and deeply interested in examing what online spaces make possible in terms of learning and being, my cyberinfrastructure and my digital identity have been highly personal from the get-go. I have only just gone back to school, but neither school nor my longterm professional career in higher ed were my entry point into the creation of a valuable learning network. That link on the sidebar that says “my other site is a story”? That’s where I began building a digital identity: a personal, uncapitalized, only semi-edited War & Peace of digital storytelling and exploration. I have a cyberinfrastructure, one I’m splitting into two this week.

Both Jim and Gardner Campbell – whose work on cyberinfrastructure is the focus of this particular week in #ds106  – are big advocates of having a domain of one’s own. I don’t disagree, in general principle, though D’Arcy Norman and others have raised some very worthwhile counterpoints.

But the big issue I want to take up – especially with Gardner’s suggestion that universities provide servers as a base for frosh, thus enabling them to build their personal empires throughout their higher education experience and then carry them on into, um, life – is that the assumption that a digital identity or a personal cyberinfrastructure or a footprint or whatEVER starts and ends with the educational cum professional experience is…limiting, no matter how well-intentioned.

People’s experience of the digital world doesn’t start and end with education. And to think of it as doing so, particularly in a time when students old and young increasingly enter higher ed with Facebook profiles and other existing cyberinfrastructures of value to them, is to force the educational potential of the digital back into the same kind of circumscribing box that the classroom has served as for years. Over here: education. Over there: your life, whatever you brung to the dance. And never the twain shall truly meet.

The potential I see in being a digital subject who lives and learns online is in the MIX. Helping people build and cultivate the networks and infrastructures they have or desire or know how to value can be just as important to helping them achieve some kind of digital agency as is the possession of their own personal domain.

Maybe I’m doing the exact opposite, here, by opening up this new door into the blog, specifically for my education work. But people form community and come to conversations with particular expectations, and I don’t think that every Facebook contact a university student went to high school with is going to be a contributing member of his or her learning cyberinfrastructure. I do think, though, that part of visioning what those infrastructures look like needs to value what people bring to the conversation at the beginning: the digital identities they come in with, no matter what form these take.