the MOOC is dead, long live the MOOC

It’s a brand new year, people. Four days in, and my brain is still rife with metaphors of new-fallen snow and fresh starts and resolute setting of goals.

But for all the rhetorical power of these conceptual flights of potentiality, I am stuck with the distinct feeling that the old year bloody well followed me home and sits lolling about on my desk, laughing at my attempts to clean slate and begin anew.

“Wherever you go, there you are,” an old friend used to say.

Where I am is still last year’s business. In fact, if 2012 really *was* the Year of the MOOC, I’ll be cozied up with last year for the next three months straight.

The night before New Year’s Eve, I joked on Twitter about Dave & I buckling down to work on the MOOCbook before the zeitgeist of the old year passed.

This morning I opened up my poor neglected blog and discovered the draft of this post, begun in July and last touched in late October, titled, in fact, “the MOOC is dead, long live the MOOC.” Apparently the joke is on me.

That’s the thing about MOOCs. They’re so everywhere that I can’t even keep track of what *I’ve* thought about them in the past couple of months, let alone the other copious buckets of ink spilled on the topic.

The whole damn thing has gotten so vast. And I feel as though it’s anathema to the current professional climate to ever admit one is overwhelmed, especially early in the new year, when one is supposed to be washed clean of all that baggage.

But there it is. Wherever you go, there you are.

Looking around at the broad higher ed/edtech scene, I suspect talking about MOOCs in productive ways is getting harder for everyone.

When there’s a clamour of voices, identifying the places and positions people are speaking from, let alone what’s left to be said, can be an assault from all directions. Trying to research MOOCs and write speculatively about what they may imply for higher ed is a lot like working in the midst of a big ol’ maelstrom. Mostly composed of verbiage.

Traditional models don’t suffice. Good research tends to try to be clear about which shoulders of giants it stands upon, and which gap in knowledge it aims to address. MOOCs are still such a moving target that the gaps in knowledge and direction aren’t really yet clear. And news reporting thrives on a heady mix of sensationalism and actual change, both of which are beginning to wear thin.

Because the biggest obstacle to effective conversation about MOOCs is that none of us IN the conversation – even the biggest names – appear to be clear yet on what MOOCs are or can be, or on where they begin and end.

As Dave put it in his inaugural appearance in ye olde fancy Wall Street Journal, “Nobody has any idea how it’s going to work.”

I’d go a step further, beyond the business model aspect of the conversation. I think the challenge with MOOCs, at this juncture, is that nobody has any idea what they are. This makes talking about what they *can be,* let alone their effects on what *is* in contemporary higher ed, rather a challenge.

Roger Whitson nailed it back in August after the first #MOOCMOOC experiment, with his Derridean claim of “il n’y a pas de hors-MOOC”  or There is no-outside MOOC; there is nothing outside the MOOC.

We *know* what we mean when we talk about higher education, or at least, we believe we do. We have a broadly agreed-upon societal understanding of where the perimeters of that conversation lie. In fact, the perimeters of that conversation have traditionally lain more or less where MOOCs begin.

But where do MOOCs end? If we are talking about experimentation with learning online, on any kind of mass scale, are we then talking about MOOCs? How do we distinguish one possibility from another?

A year ago, MOOCs themselves were a rather small experimental niche; a loose but vibrant network of learning focused around principles of connectivism and openness and distributed, generative knowledge. Then Sebastian Thrun opened up the AI course at Stanford: to those for whom MOOCs were familiar, the term fit.

George Siemens called the AI course a MOOC back in August, 2011. The media gradually caught up, because there was no other equivalent term. When Thrun founded Udacity and the hype began to build, the word “MOOC”  followed. And the rest, as they say, is history. Rather accidental history.

One of the most fascinating things about the proliferation of MOOC buzz is the way in which it’s made visible the networks by which media and higher ed make knowledge today.

But here we are, wherever we go. MOOCs mean video lectures. Or they mean distributed, aggregated means of making new knowledge. Or they mean democratization, or disruption, or whatever other Christ-on-the-cross people want to hang their futures on.

So how do we talk about the Internet happening to education without getting hopelessly mired in Wittgensteinian language-games? How do we begin to sort out and advocate for what we want MOOCs to be, when conversations about them tend to immediately point out that participants are speaking from entirely different reference points and hopes and belief systems?

I wish I knew.  That’d be a heady way to start the new year. Instead, all I know is too much is being conflated under this bubble, as if everybody just woke up and noticed the internet might actually be relevant to higher ed. In that sense, I almost hope the 2012 narrative around MOOCs *is* good and dead, much as I doubt the calendar shift simply erased it.

But I also know that this messy, paralytic conversation remains one of the liveliest things I’ve ever participated in professionally, in almost twenty years in the field of education. The idealist in me says that if we don’t know where MOOCs end, then maybe their possibilities are still grandly open.

For me personally, the value of MOOCs has been primarily in belonging: in finding ways to connect and learn and share within otherwise too-broad networks. In that spirit, then, I’ve signed up for two new (connectivist-style) MOOCs this month – #etmooc and the second #MOOCMOOC – in the midst of the book-writing and thesis-researching on the subject.  I’m hoping the more active engagement will help rejuvenate my own sense of the meta-conversation, and where to speak from.

The World’s Biggest Small Town: or, Be the Twit you Want to See in the World

Over the weekend, I delivered my first-ever solo keynote at the always-fabulous Blissdom Canada conference in Toronto. I also got to be David Bowie for an evening, which was also a first. Plus Jian Ghomeshi told me – BEFORE I dressed up – that my hair has a Bowie thing going on. Heady times, people.

My keynote was an exploration of the ways digital media shape who we are and how we operate together in the brave new world of teh Internets. Building on my Digital Identities work for #change11 back in May, I outlined some of the key features – or affordances – of digital media and the selves that emerge when we connect in digital spaces. These selves are facets of who we are, just as the varying faces we wear when we hang out with our kids or our moms or our bosses or our friends are facets of who we are. And much like our various embodied selves, these digital selves are performative, networked, and quantified – but their performances and networks and metrics are shaped by the platforms they exist on. And thus, so are we.

I argued that these selves offer us potential like never before, and also make us vulnerable like never before. Our networks have the potential to be worldwide, and to scale far bigger than any face-to-face network really can. Our performances leave visible traces. The measurements and quantifications by which we tend to judge our effects on others are new and emergent: we’re still learning how the different currencies of attention work in social media.

But my message was this: the Internet – and the social web in particular – is a commons that we need to start actively treating like the world’s biggest small town.

Connections matter. As humans, we need them. And we are making and modelling them every time we talk to each other online. We are shaping the norms and etiquettes of these online environments with our own traces and approaches. And when we treat each other as if there are no bodies on the other side of the screen – as if what we say online doesn’t have real, human effects and consequences – we contribute to making our small town less.

Here’s the slide deck from the presentation: Blissdom Canada will make the video available in the long run, too.

The most interesting part of the conversation, though, really came after the presentation, during questions. I was asked about kids and social media, and I launched into a diatribe that I hadn’t been fully aware I was gestating.

We seem to have decided not to teach kids how to be citizens of the small town.

Stranger Danger!
We tend to try to keep them out as much as possible, tell them it’s full of creeps and strangers (it has some, admittedly), and then when they turn thirteen, drop them legally on Main Street with a whole bunch of panicky warnings about not doing anything dangerous or stupid. Maybe we walk with them awhile, if they’re lucky.

But do we introduce them to our friends? Model for them the positive things that we do in online spaces? Scaffold them into our networks in relatively safe, supported ways so that the picture they get of the social norms of this small town is one of creativity and sharing and humour and being there for each other?

Do we create networks of supportive adults around kids – adults who know them in their day-to-day lives, who know whole groups of friends and can help them navigate the power relations of growing up from a sympathetic supervisory position while modelling humane ways of engaging with each other?


We are so terrified of the spectre of the cyberpredator – and of the possibility of being thought one – that we make it almost suspect for leaders and teachers and adult friends in kids’ lives to want to interact with them online.

I think it does the kids – and all of us – a terrible disservice.

We’ve Abandoned the Playground to the Kids
We’ve known for generations that – left to their own devices – kids and adolescents play with power on their way to learning to be civilized citizens (if they learn…some just consolidate that power. Ahem). But bullying – the extended mis-use of power over another to target and shame – is a part of what we try to mitigate among kids by teaching the Golden Rule in the classroom and attempting to supervise the free-for-all of the playground.

With social media, though, we’ve banned it from schools entirely. The privacy implications – particularly the two-way friending of Facebook, I think, suggesting that the privacy we’re interested in may not be that of the kids – freak us out. So the majority of kids in this society are turning 13, getting a Facebook account (if they don’t have one long before) and wading into the most unsupervised social interaction space they’ve EVER been allowed in, societally, with the capacity for faceless networked mob behaviours and permanent traces of mistakes thrown in for good measure.

On the Internet, You’re Still Not a Dog
This collective blindness, I think, grew out of the once-common belief that there was a divide between the virtual and the so-called real. Early digital scholarship in the 90s investigated primarily closed or at least gated communities whose social interactions online were largely text-based and forum-bound. The tenor of most of the narratives that came out of that era can be summed up in the famous phrase “On the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog.”

There are still a lot of people who treat – and think about – the Internet that way. Grown adults spew crap online as if there were no consequences of their ‘free speech:’ people comment on the subjects of online news stories as if they were vermin of the earth rather than human beings.

The truth is the digital is part of our lives, embedded as one context among many. Sure, it affords different kinds of traces and connections and interactions, as I discuss in the video, but these don’t make it separate.

I want to teach my kids how to navigate this world that’s embedded in the larger structure of all of our lives, and support them as they do.

What We’re Trying, Until We Figure Out a Better Plan
My six-year-old has a blog, and a locked Twitter account. He shares his creative stuff, and says hi to a friend in England, and last spring when I was away at a conference, his Dad helped him send me a picture of his missing front tooth. He left his first blog comment on an adult’s blog tonight, because Annie – whom he had ice cream with when she visited PEI last summer – wrote about this same issue today in reference to my talk.

Our rules for managing this aren’t firm: as we did with our own learning curve when we first went online, we’re making this up as we go along.

But we’re making it up with a fair amount of knowledge under our belts. Dave and I both have strong, longstanding and intersecting networks. We’ve met many of our online contacts. There’s trust.

We have networks, then, that we can gradually scaffold our kids into, in limited but slowly expanding ways. We’ve learned the lessons of boundaries and context collapse; of how to manage the attention that sometimes comes with being online. Hopefully we can pass some of those along in fairly painless teachable moments before the stakes get high, and before the kids migrate to networks populated primarily by peers. While I’m still the person they look to first, I want to teach them.

There are things I don’t like about digital media and what they bring to the fore. I don’t want my son to have to deal with being quantified just yet – though there are ways in which grading at school is already training him towards that, in the offline sense – or with brand or monetization. At the same time, if I can teach him early that part of his brand needs to be “I am kind,” that’s a win. I don’t want him bombarded with the advertising that comes part and parcel with a platform like Facebook, at least yet, though again I’d rather teach him early to unpack and resist the consumer identity his culture will foist on him.

I want to teach my kids to be good citizens, both of Charlottetown PEI and of this world’s biggest small town that is the Internet. I want to model and share with them, gradually and in age-appropriate ways, what it means to be a self online.

Will his presence on Twitter constrain me and my own performance of self? Maybe, though I teach on Twitter now and long ago stopped dropping eff-bombs. If his presence affects me at all it may be to encourage me to be kinder, less catty, all those good things. Not everything I post or share is aimed at him, or even appropriate for him. But even as he grows older and uses the site more frequently, I don’t mind talking about those gaps; about how my communications, like his, sometimes have different audiences.

His presence encourages me to be the Twitterer I want to see in the world. Or perhaps it makes me a twit. But it makes me a twit trying to give my child tools I know he’ll need, online and off.

And I’m okay with that, so far. :)

(Tune in next week when you’ll hear Nurse Janet clutch her pearls and say OMG now you’re talking about Facebook and teens and SCHOOLS?!?! Yeh. That.)

in praise of living in public

It’s October. Late the other night, as I pressed ‘send’ on my oh-dear-god-it’s-finally-more-or-less-done 78 page thesis proposal (yeh, you heard me) and crawled into bed, it occurred to me.

I posted one blog post the entire month of September. One. And an older one got picked up in a bigger venue, which is all very nice. But still.

Neither of them were here, on an address with ‘cribchronicles’ in it.

First time since April of 2006.

I miss this.

I think I understand why personal blogs are supposedly endangered, these days. They’re the hardest kind of writing to do.

Oh sure, there may be less editorial pressure and shareholder/brand accountability on a personal blog than you’ll find if you happen to hit the big time and start writing for HuffPo. And hey, even if you have a readership comprised of three living souls, you can be your own personal media empire and utilize thirteen different stats packages to give you a fully-rounded picture of what exactly that reader in outer Uzbekistan actually finds compelling about your work (I once discovered someone had found their way to my blog by Googling “I am the Walrus”…John Lennon, eat your heart out).

But having a vague sense of what has made people come in the past doesn’t necessarily give you a sense of who you’re talking to. On a personal blog, unlike a media outlet with pre-determined demographics and audience, you have to build your sense of who you’re talking to out of whole cloth.

And just navigating that…especially at first, or when who you’re talking to takes a shift, is no joke.

Michael Wesch and danah boyd and internet theorist people call it ‘context collapse.’

Chances are, when you learned to write, you wrote for your teacher. Or for yourself, maybe, and the vague shadowy posterity who might someday find your peach satin diary when you were no longer around. But you had some vague sense of who to address, and in what register.

This is called ‘self-presentation’: we navigate and manage it, all the time, in human life. Most people speak differently to their friends than they do to their mothers, for instance. And, we address people in power over us from different relational positions than we do cashiers in grocery stores, even if we’re entirely respectful in both interactions. We have what Goffman (1959) called different ‘faces’ for these different facets of our lives. We have lots of faces, and we navigate between them all the time.

We’re legion, baby.

Except on teh Internets. Here, we have to take all the faces we regularly wear and throw ’em into a blender and pancake the resulting mush on like a big ol’ mud mask. And the more we live in public? The more faces get smushed into that mix. We post a status update on Facebook and there’s Aunt Myrtle chortling along with our best friend from college and the person who sits three cubicles away. And, oh yeh, that first slow-dance from seventh grade, the one who got away.

That’s context collapse.

Now, more and more, people navigate it every day. Some use privacy settings to minimize it, or try to keep worlds separate. Others of us cultivate broad public selves via social media channels, and discover along the way that our neighbour likes obscure death metal too, or that Aunt Myrtle actually has a rather raunchy sense of humour.

But every time we sit down in front of the blank screen we have to conjure up who it is we are addressing; to imagine, as Wesch puts it, “the nearly infinite contexts” we might be entering (Wesch, 2009, p. 23)

That’s what makes blogging as just one’s plain old self harder, in a sense, than sitting down and writing for a far larger audience under somebody else’s masthead. There, no matter how thoughtful your piece or how much pressure to rise to the reputation of that publication, you are already handed a voice of sorts to inhabit, a self that is both shaped and backed by a brand far bigger than you.

Not here. Here, you can be anybody. But you have to cobble that self together from the nearly infinite contexts and selves reflected back at you by the disco ball of the blank screen.

It’s what makes the dead-letter pile of all the millions of blogs choking the internet, mostly long-left to molder in silence, still an extraordinary accomplishment in human produsage, in Voice. Those millions of people sat down in front of the blank screen and called forth some place to begin, some face to wear, some self from the thousands of possible selves they could have been on that given day.

It’s easy to forget that, when you get used to blogging, when you find your range of faces and an audience willing to receive them…once you narrow the infinite to a more manageable, visible number.

I’d forgotten, until I closed cribchronicles. Now, adjusting to the quiet lean-to that was this theoryblog having become my only room of my own, so to speak, I sit here staring into the void, wondering who I’m talking to. It’s intimidating as hell.

But it’s also heady stuff, a strange thrill reserved for us, the digitally adventurous. Voyages in self.

There was a kerfuffle over the weekend at an academic conference, about the ethics and etiquette of live-Tweeting academic conference talks and presentations. Dubbed #Twittergate, it’s been the story – and debate – of the week in higher ed. As someone whose first big conferences were mostly social media and blogging events, where a hundred laptops – now more phones and tablets – go into action every time a session gets interesting, I found the whole thing rather…bewildering. Others have both recapped and deliberated it far more eloquently than I could hope to here, so I’ll just throw in my one small salvo.

The academics who don’t ‘get it’? Who object essentially, as some did, to the idea of their work being represented outside of their control?

Sure, they’re ignoring the water-cooler discussions conferences exist to provoke. Sure, they’re conflating a whole pile of prejudices about what the internet is and isn’t and what prestige is and isn’t in a world turned upside down by information abundance. But.

I also think some of them may be grappling with – or maybe trying to fight off – context collapse. They’re clinging to a notion of professional self that circulates in professional, gatekept circles. They don’t want their ideas represented in a medium they associate with the illustrious musings of Snooki, or with litanies of what people had for lunch.

That’s what it all looks like until you throw yourself into that void and figure out who else is out there to talk to.

Maybe they glance our way out here and they don’t see ideas and peers and the potential for networks or connections. Maybe they glance our way and they see all that plus the rest of the infinite mirror ball of possibility and they cannot figure out who they’d ever speak as, here, and don’t want to be tossed into that paralyzing void?

Maybe. Heck, I feel that way sometimes.

What I say to them is what I say to myself when I stare at the cursor pulsing on the white screen, through, trying to reel in some sense of self and direction on which to scrabble forward:

No way out but through. Welcome to living in public.


Digital Identities: Six Key Selves of Networked Publics

Welcome to the home stretch of #change11, everybody.

This week we’ll be looking at digital identities and subjectivities, or – basically – who we are in social media spaces.

I’m hoping this week will be, above all, a conversation: digital identity is always a lived experience as well as conceptual territory, so everyone has a contribution to offer based on their own practices and experiences..

Part of making those contributions a conversation is connecting: I’m not sure where conversations will emerge, but as they do, I’d love to be in them. If you’re new or coming out of hibernation, the #change11 FB group has been a rich space for discussion lately, so I recommend checking it out, and lively debate is very very welcome in the comments here. ;)

If you’d like to respond to any of the conversation on a platform of your own, please link back here so I can find you and join in. :)

The live chat session for this week will be here Wednesday, May 9th, at 11am EDT. I’ll have a few live slides that I’m hoping you can help me by adding your two cents to. I want to know what your practices are, and how you navigate identity in social media spaces.

Digital Identities as Affordances of Social Media: Who are We in a Networked Public?
This week’s discussion bridges from and builds on last week’s topic, facilitated by George Veletsianos. Like George’s work, mine focuses on practices and participation and how these function. George, however, looks specifically at scholars: my interest is in the broader concept of identity and how we are shaped by our digital practices.

George’s work is premised in looking at what Selwyn & Grant call the “state of the actual;” my work straddles both actuality and potentiality.  I am interested in what we do that makes us who we are in social media spaces, thus my concept of digital identity is practice-based. At the same time, I see identity as a lens through which we can examine the potentialities specific to social networks. I use the concept of identity to explore what it is that social software makes possible in practice.

The Wikipedia definition of “digital identity” frames it, more or less, as the set of data constituted by a person’s interactions online, and that specific user’s psychological relationship to his or her data trail.

For the purposes of our discussion this week, I’d like to expand the definition beyond the traces and trails we leave behind for Google to find, and frame digital identities as the selves brought into being by the affordances – the specific structures and norms – of social media and what danah boyd calls “networked publics.”

Here’s a short(ish) introductory video to some of the basic premises of this week’s discussion.
Bonnie Stewart – Digital Identities Intro

Bonnie Stewart Digital Identities


Six Key Selves of Networked Publics
If you’d like to delve a little deeper than just the video, below are six key digital “selves” that I’d like to discuss and explore this coming week. They’re by no means an exhaustive list, so input and additions are very welcome, but they introduce some of the ways in social media norms and affordances impact identity practices. Links offer a bit of further reading – formal papers, blog posts, videos, all sorts of resources – in each of these directions. Following those trails is, of course, optional.

In the livechat on Wednesday, these six aspects of digital identity – and the implications they hold for higher education – will be the focus of our discussion.

1. The Performative, Public Self
The networked self is neither a discrete, unique snowflake that can be examined entirely unto itself, outside relationality, nor a generic group member. The networked self is linked in multiple, complex, individual node-to-node relationships with others as part of an ever-shifting public. It is also performative, constituting itself within that public through its practices and gestures.

Within network publics the performative self experiences both the flattening of hierarchies across space and status (I talked to theorist Henry Giroux on Twitter the other day! And he followed me back! Yay! Access!) and the network theory principle that big nodes are more likely to attract attention and links (Giroux didn’t actually talk back to me. Boo. Sniff. But his semi-celebrity status in the world of academia means he’s always going to have a wider pool of people aware of him and clamouring for his attention).

The performative self in networked publics tends to be conscious of his or her multiplicity and performative nature: Rob Horning’s post on the data self does a very entertaining job of encapsulating much of how this self differs from previous cultural conceptions of identity and subjectivity.

2. The Quantified – or Articulated – Self
In social networks, our network contacts are visible and articulated, and our actions and contributions are quantified. This makes the act of choosing to follow or “friend” another person always already a public, performative statement (see above) and likewise a notch in the belt of one’s personal metrics. Status and scale in social networks are frequently treated as overtly measurable attributes, tracked in clicks and follows and @s and likes by tools like Klout: I have hesitancies about the applications and limitations of algorithms as stand-ins for identity, especially when we begin to think about the self in learning contexts.

3. The Participatory Self
The participatory, networked self is not only mobile and connected, never fully disengaged from the communications of the network, but is able to engage and contribute at a click to the self-presentation of others. This is based in part on the produsage or prosumer nature of networked publics, merging production and consumption: within my networks I am both a creator of my own content but also a consumer of that which my peers produce and share. My relationships are groomed by the constant iterative work of participation, and my comfort with working in isolation towards a final product – as was the paper model of creative work – recedes in the rear-view mirror.

4. The Asynchronous Self
Simply put: I hate when my phone rings. And I’m not alone. Digital sociality practices and networked publics moved increasingly towards asynchronous mediated communications, rather than the interruptive, immediate demands of telephones. Last night, as I tried to record the video for this post, my stepmother called. Twice. I rest my case? ;)

5. The PolySocial – or Augmented Reality – Self
Contrary to much of the digital identity scholarship of the 1990s, which tended to emphasize the fluidity of identity uncoupled from the gendered and signified body – the “on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” theme – the concept of networked publics has given rise to a far more enmeshed notion of reality. Drawing from this, my work frames digital identities not as virtual selves, but as particular subjects brought into being by our relational, mobile interactions in the world of bits and extending into the world of atoms.  My networks and relationships – and therefore my identities – exist within the enmeshed and multi-faceted realities of contemporary human interaction.

On the cyborgology blog, Nathan Jurgenson, PJ Rey et al have done an exceptional job of examining and detailing the complexities of what they call Augmented Reality, or the enmeshed and mutually influential confluence of atoms and bits. Sally Applin and Michael Fischer offer the somewhat differently framed concept of PolySocial Reality to explore the interoperability of contemporary contexts.

And from the perspective of someone who once pretended to be a dog, Alan Levine (@cogdog) has a great video keynote narrating his experiences as a self in the enmeshed world of atoms and bits.

6. The Neo-Liberal, Branded Self
Our social networking platforms are increasingly neo-liberal “Me, Inc” spaces where we are exhorted to monetize and to “find our niche.”  I’ve argued that in these spaces, no matter how we choose to perform our identity, we end up branding ourselves.

So. Six starting places for conversation. Recognize any of these? Do any resonate with your own practices?

And have any of them been part of your #change11 experience? I’m hoping that the discussions this week will serve as a bit of a retrospective for the course, from a polysocial identity point of view: how has participation (even peripheral participation) in a distributed, networked learning experience like this shaped your sense of self?


welcome to the patriarchy, love mom

In the end, after all the days of buildup and song practice and excitement and charging the camera battery, I missed it.

Josephine was in her upholstered seat doing a potty dance of Saturday Night Fever proportions, so I ran her up the aisle to the bathroom. He got called up first.

And so it was his father who captured Oscar walking across his first stage with his first diploma, his “graduation” out of preschool and into the formal school system of kindergarten. Fitting, perhaps.

Felicitations, says the scroll, in fancy letters. I unrolled it and smiled, at the formality of his name printed across the page.

I cringed too. There he goes.

Madeleine Grumet’s 1988 opus Bitter Milk: Women & Teaching, says that schooling serves as the delivery of children to the patriarchy.

I picked up the book a couple of weeks back, just as the kids’ preschool year was coming to a close. As an educator, and a student before that, and now a student yet again – someone who has been wrapped up in some form of the system for 35 years – OUCH.

And yet I nodded even as I flinched, reading the words. Grumet put her finger on the piece of this societal project of education that I’ve never been able to quite name, nor shake.

School is the foundation of much of what many of us IN the system want to see change, in schools and in society.

Schooling is powerfully self-replicating, making almost all of us complicit in its protection of its own practices.

Everyone has an opinion about school. Most of us have critiques of school, and schools, and schooling. But no matter the critiques and the shifts – whole language through critical pedagogy to ed reform and a call for standardization – no matter the politics and policies and the thousands of good intentions and spirited efforts and debates, schools march on, surprisingly same from decade to decade. Especially from the vantage point of a six or seven year old kid.

Think about it. The world of kids in the 1950s was relatively different than it is today. According to our cultural myths, at least, they had mothers at home, were sent outside to play, and had apparent run of their neighbourhoods. They’d never seen a carseat or a DS and most would have had more ashtrays in their homes than screens. Some would have never seen a television. They had fewer toys and books, and from the age of four or five, they were expected to entertain themselves in groups for extended hours of the day. If they’d gone with their fathers to work, which would have been seldom as fathers were not expected to be involved or engaged parents, they’d have encountered masculine, hierarchical environments where people performed discrete tasks.

Less supervision and less attention to their interests, feelings, and desires were simply the norms of the day. They were expected to behave and interact differently from children in this generation.

But when those children of the 1950s went to school, they would have encountered expectations very similar to those Oscar will encounter in September. Admittedly, the disciplinary shift is vast. Oscar’s cohort will not expect to be rapped on the knuckles if they breach the rules of the classroom. But those rules and the subjects they creates – subjects who sit, raise their hands, complete discrete tasks independently, and participate in various overt and subtle hierarchies of skill and tribe and class – are remarkably similar.

In spite of the fact that those rules and skills no longer even make for an advantage in the post-1950s job market. What the educational system seems to do best is reproduce itself, getting further and further from cultural value all the time.

We send them into the school system, most of us, with great hopes. Learning. Education. Talisman words. They promise development of our children’s potential, inculcation into the mysteries of consciousness. The lure of the Tree of Knowledge.

What they get – what we all get – is something…other…than that. We get people who learn their place in our culture. In the – however much I flinch at the word – patriarchy, with its implicit hierarchy of gendered behaviours and classed behaviours and racialized behaviours, even as we in our schools and culture pay lip service to inclusion and acceptance and celebration of difference.

That, in the end, is the worldview of the mothers, of the feminized voices within society.

Grumet’s premise is that it is schools – and female primary and elementary teachers, for the most part – who serve to reinforce the nature/culture binary that privileges masculinized “cultured” behaviours over the intersubjectivity of mothers and children, the living with-and-through-another that marks most humans’ early days.

In school, we learn to give over curiosity to passive acceptance, rewarded by praise. We learn to “other” other people, by grades and behavioural sanctions and the message that classrooms as we understand them cannot seem to fail to impart: Some of You Are Doing It Wrong. Some of You are Not Worthy. Some Animals are More Equal Than Others.

It naturalizes the separation of subject and object, of us and them, me and you. It works because it buries its own traces, creating subjects who believe it is simply the way of the world to stand apart, against intersubjectivity and the interwoven world of shared interests. Schools function symbolically, guiding us to adulthood and away not just from the literal worlds of our mothers but from the symbiosis these worlds and their mutual dependence represent.

      “Contradicting the inferential nature of paternity, the paternal project of curriculum is to claim the child, to teach him or her
to master the language, the rules, the games and the names of the fathers. Contradicting the symbiotic nature of maternity,
the maternal project of curriculum is to relinquish the child so that both mother and child can become more
independent of each other.” (Grumet, 1988, p. 21).

In other words, schooling creates subjects who internalize the subject/object divide that reinforces patriarchy and so-called culture through the knowledge acquisition and gendering processes that schools and teachers are constructed to see as natural. And parents, products and subjects of the same system, go along, delivering our children to the same inequitable and flawed system even as we gripe collectively about its flaws and failures.

I’ve watched it start this year, in Oscar, as he moved to five days a week in a preschool physically attached to the school he’ll attend next year. He learned excellent French. He also learned a lot about what boys should do. About being shy to be wrong. And about colouring in the lines and thinking skies need to be blue. He learned you can’t talk all the way through Circle Time. And he learned how to court the powerful, how to curry favour in a pecking order and how to spot difference that makes others vulnerable. There was something violent about it all. And yet familiar, utterly familiar.

But that is only because I went through the same process myself. As did you, probably. And so the system goes, self-replicating because we don’t know anything else.

So here I am: mother, educator, student of educational theory. And I have the mother of all dilemmas on my hands.

It’s good, part of me says, to know all these things that school teaches. Not the information ones. The social relations. The power rules. Certainly, we expect O not to talk when others are talking here at home, and it’s useful to know how to handle yourself in a hierarchy.

But. But.

Learning these things makes you subject to them, no matter which end you come out on. I learned all that crap so well that it’s taken me years to begin to unpack it, to live without waiting for a grade, for an external deadline, for a sense of how I measure up against others. I do not want this for my children. I do not want them to be like me.

And so another part of me sits watching this march of normativity start up, and blows smoke at the spectacle and asks Really? All these years of trying to critique the system from within, and you’re going to go ahead and subject your own child and children to the whole shebang?

Really? Can you not come up with an alternative solution?

And when I look that voice in the eye, I am ashamed.

We could homeschool, I suppose, or preferably, unschool. I think unschooling is probably – if not necessarily overtly – about trying to uncouple the patriarchy from the educational process. But I am both a product and a purveyor of education in its traditional forms. I have been – gently, maybe, but nonetheless – delivering other people’s children to the patriarchy for years.

A part of what I know how to do, professionally, is a form of serving at the pleasure of the patriarchy itself. I am complicit.

Could I be otherwise? Do I want to be? That, Hamlet, is the question.

I do not believe learning is inherently a patriarchal process, even if the notion of the Tree of Knowledge might be. We do lots of critiques in my classrooms, just as we do in our house. My children, like my students, will inevitably be exposed to the idea that the world and its power relations are constructed, not natural. But could I go further than that, if I were willing and able to carve out the space in this next few years to try to educate my kids myself?

Or would I inevitably replicate what I know, what’s been done to me in the name of learning and becoming “educated”?

Part of me suspects I would. And I wonder if I wouldn’t rather have a nice gentle primary teacher do that to them rather than me?

Part of me prefers my autonomous life, my space. I was no idealized mother, when my children were infants. I work from home, now, but alone. Part of me fears that I do not know how to function without the patriarchal separation of the domestic and the professional, no matter how specious and unnecessary it may be.

In the end, I suspect that I will deliver my children over to some version of a 1950s classroom. Anything else would shock me. And I assume there will be good in it, and bad, just as there was for most of us.

Yet, sitting here thinking about tiny diplomas and the patriarchy and the world I’d like to live in, I recognize that schooling is a choice.

And I marvel and cringe at the power of a system that makes it so difficult for even those of us most deeply embedded in and privileged by its operations to see other options. Patriarchy for the win, indeed.

Do you think Grumet’s assessment is fair?

Those of you who have homeschooled, or unschooled…what was it like? What are its strengths and weaknesses, in practice? Do you end up replicating what you know?

And…what role do you think educational technologies could play in shifting some of the power relations involved in children’s learning? Do the peer-to-peer capacities and real audiences of social media offer any real challenge to the traditional practices of hierarchy in education?