The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

I have this Word doc on my laptop. I use it mostly on planes.

It’s a to-do list I can’t actually access daily as it’s not on my work computer. It’s less a bullet journal than an every-few-weeks-or-months enforced offline focusing tool. In it, I organize the overall long-term arc of the things I’m doing – the seasonal tire change appointments that need making, the talks and travels and invoices, the childcare communications and dentist appointments, the house insurance and taxes and blog post ideas all jumbled in together, the research and review deadlines I need to keep track of. Each bit has a section, mostly disconnected notes, copy-pastes of links. Thought outtakes. Things I might need someday.

The Writing and Reviews sections – the academic stuff, the creative stuff – trailed off a year ago to a full stop.

There are no accompanying quit lit notes, even in the privacy of the Word doc. I didn’t quit. But I went dark because I didn’t know where I belonged or where I was going, and I had nowhere to direct the words.

A year ago, the staff job I’d had at UPEI since before the end of my Ph.D ended. I lost my job. It was no surprise – one of the two programs I was managing needed to be closed, and I recommended as much – but it was quick. And weirdly final.

I was lucky enough to turn one of my side hustles into a short term contract with the government, and I taught sessionally, as ever. I applied for two tenure-track jobs at my institution…and one or two elsewhere. I got one of the elsewhere interviews, but one of their long-term sessionals got the job – which is good and right. I did not get a local interview. I taught a #DigPed lab and I did talks through the summer and I pitched workshops and managed to lead a volunteer committee that put on a province-wide #LearnDay for PEI and I tried very hard to act chill, like a professional in a perfectly normal transition. Or hiatus. Or something.

But I could not write. Not a word of it. I was 45 years old and unemployed, without a pension, seven years after having put myself in debt to start a Ph.D in order to be more employable here in the narrow professional horizons of this small town. (Don’t laugh. I didn’t know better.) I felt like I’d spent seven years gaslighting myself.

I understood I was a fool. I figured I better not out myself as a fraud, too: the one thing still going for me was the privilege of a network-based reputation that got me invitations (and plane trips on which I could break out my Word doc).

If I said out loud that I was basically, finally, fully uncoupled from the academy, would I be tanking that too?

Reputation is hard to eat, but people sometimes do pay well when they fly you far away to talk. So I shut up. My precarity is generational. We had to buy my mother an apartment last summer, due to a combo of crap circumstances – lifelong renter, landlord moving in, housing crisis in the city – and bad timing. I had enough money squirrelled away from speaking gigs for a down payment on a clean little place for her. I was proud of that. I shut up.

In the fall, I went back to the university to a staff job I like. I thought I’d write but I didn’t.

And then the other academic job I’d applied to? They called.

Starting July 1, I will be Assistant Professor of Online Pedagogy and Workplace Learning at the University of Windsor. In Ontario. Right across from Detroit. Totally NOT PEI. Totally cool, though.

Dave signed a contract for work there this past week, as interim Manager of an, erm, Medical Education program. We sold our house. We got our financing on a new house last night. It’s an unfortunate minty-Kermit green but…everything we need. It all still feels vaguely surreal to me, but…everything keeps working out.

People in Windsor seem wonderfully friendly. I am excited to do the job. I get a research fund: I haven’t even had access to a travel fund for years. I GET A PENSION. I GET A PENSION. That deserves to be said twice.

But two weeks ago I was on a plane and I opened that old Word doc and I looked at the blank section where all the ideas used to be. Where I hustled for years trying to turn myself into an academic. Or at least a scholar. And I thought, okay, so now I know where I’m going…I need to start this again. And instead of ideas and itemized plans, all that came out was this big anxious ambivalent jumble that looked like (tl;dr):

I got a tenure-track job (yay!) in a system in which labour is increasingly precarious and even predatory (boo)

I am acutely aware of the privilege and good fortune this turn of events represents

I better do something with that INSIDE the academy to make things different

I’m not sure I know HOW

Actually I will probably do it all completely wrong because nearly thirty years around higher ed has taught me – harshly – that what my mother believed an education meant and would do for me is NOT how academia really operates and this system still replicates and reinforces the precarity of many of us – scholars of colour, LGBTQ scholars, first-generation scholars and scholars without wealth to fall back on, scholars with disabilities (especially invisible disabilities?) – and I have an unfailing gift for going about challenging that shit ALL WRONG because tacit rules

I can learn tho

I am getting kinda good at fake it til you make it

I am increasingly uncertain this is how academic stories even *should* end but I am still grateful

Starting over is scary and the last time we made a major move we got our very first house on the same day I went into labour early and Finn died in my arms eleven hours after birth and omg omg omg I can’t breathe and here I am crying on a frigging plane and do not ANYBODY tell me everything always works out okay thank you full stop

You survive and you go forward, if you’re lucky

I got unbelievably lucky this time

So there we are. Here I am, a raw open wound of outrageous fortune and overwhelm and gratitude. Uncertain of what it means to speak from this place of privilege. But tired of being tongue-tied by my own year-long identity crisis.

Today I added something to the “Writing” section of that Word doc for the first time in a year.

Write a damn blog post, it says. Spit it out. Start again. Hit ‘post.’

Here it is. Forward.

What’s Fit to Print

Sometimes when you have news it’s hard to know how to tell it, especially when you’ve gone quiet and stopped writing and let things pile upon things until you don’t know where to start.

But hey, I have news. I GOT A JOB.

As of tomorrow, I’ll be Program Lead & Designer for UPEI’s new Work-Integrated & Experiential Learning initiative. It’s a change leadership position, at the intersection of the digital and professional learning portfolios I’ve been working on building the last few years. So that’s cool. And it’s PEI-based, working for and with someone I’ve known and liked ridiculously much for YEARS.

(Though we head to Massachusetts for training Saturday, at the uncivilized hour of 6:30am. We’ll see how much we like each other after ten hours in a car.)

I haven’t had a formal institutional position since my last long-term contract ended in the spring. I’ve had four or five different contract jobs in the interim – some short-term, some longer, some research-focused, some teaching or strategy-focused – but no institutional ties beyond the summer course I taught. That felt weird. Precarity is weird.

Precarity is hard to talk about. And there’s not much time to talk in, if you’re lucky, because you’re busy hustling and delivering and invoicing. And waiting. (I knew about that part. I’ve been speaking/consulting for a good few years now. I hail those blessed institutions who pay people fast).

But I always had at least a part-time institutional position or a post-doc or grad student status, something that sorta legitimated me in higher ed. Low-tier ties, but still. Ties. Then I didn’t.

And so suddenly I found myself hustling twice as hard but it was the precarity that kept me quiet. I did work I loved with government and the public service for the first time this summer. But I didn’t know how to talk about it. I got involved in a couple of formal leadership training initiatives for the first time. I led workshops on social media and digital literacy and professional learning, in addition to teaching and speaking and facilitating #DigPed Vancouver. I even designed and led a province-wide participatory event called #LearnDay, as a volunteer gig.

But I didn’t blog about it. Because I didn’t know how to talk about it here.

Not just because precarity is weird but because higher ed continues to feel more like a zero sum game every day. Not all narratives or career paths are legible to those whose labour is more protected than mine has been. And when the end of your story or trajectory is not clear, it is easy for others with more power to write you off, thus limiting your capacity to continue to BE viable outside an institutional identity.

But I am beaming tonight because literally just about EVERY wild little side hustle I’ve ever taken on will inform and enhance my capacity to do this job I start tomorrow. Because it’s that kind of job. Messy. Broad. Uncertain. Exciting.

I’ll still be precarious after tomorrow. My contract is only a year. I still don’t know whether there’s scope for research capacity in the role. But I’m grateful to have the opportunity.

I am also embarrassed by my own giant sigh of relief at sliding back under the falsely protective wing of institutional identity. But there it is. Phewf.

And that’s the news, as is fit to print. It’s a start to finding a place to speak and write from again, I hope.
(It’s also an opportunity to ask if any of you have ties to Work-Integrated or Workplace Learning programs or Experiential Learning programs that I should be checking out, as my role will be to work with my team and with campus and the broader PEI workforce to develop a model. SEND ME ALL YOUR GOOD THINGS. THANKYOU.)

Practice What You Teach: UDL & (aiming for) Communities of Practice in Adult Education

(This post is adapted from the original posted here, as a preview for the 2nd Pan-Canadian Conference on Universal Design for Learning, being held at UPEI May 31-June 2.)

Sometimes, in teaching, a happenstance discovery can shift the course of your entire practice.

UDL was that discovery, for me. In late 2014, I was hired to design and teach a fully online course in adult learning, as part of an Adult Education program I coordinated at UPEI. The learners in the course were primarily instructors themselves, from our local college as well as our university B.Ed program. As an educator, I operate from the premise that in teaching adult learning, I should design my courses to enact and embody the principles they communicate, and so I wanted to make sure the course was built on the concepts it was intended to convey. I wanted to encourage the students to grapple with course concepts from both learner AND teacher perspectives.

In order to succeed in that endeavour, I had to make sure the course was learner-centered, self-directed, and designed to draw out and respect learners’ prior knowledge and interests, all in an online format.

How to bring learners into an unfamiliar online context without reinforcing teacher-centered pedagogies? While I had longstanding experience teaching online, and in participatory settings, doing so while making it all align with the tenets of adult learning was a new and welcome challenge. I felt the course was a powerful opportunity to model meaningful and participatory learner-driven online learning, and so in order to create that experience I went looking for some new and emerging concepts that would help me engage learners. And when I searched for interesting short videos to explore “increasing engagement with students,” I happened on one about UDL.

I liked the way in which UDL offered a broad conceptual approach to inclusivity: a way for me to offer my learner-instructors an approach to meeting their own adult learners “where they are,” without anybody needing to ask. I was new to the idea of UDL, but brief reading led me to a depth of resources, and I included the video and a short article in our course syllabus and our weekly readings. I designed a week of the course around UDL, incorporating the video, some readings, and activities based on UDL principles of “multiple means” – of representation, engagement, and action/expression. But that’s where I stopped, that first year. UDL was just one of a number of one-week topics that I introduced learners to, as a way of opening thinking about difference and engagement.

I hadn’t yet fully begun to take my own advice, and engage with it as both a teacher AND a learner.

A year later, I was offered a second opportunity to teach the course, and the chance to sit back and reflect on what had worked and what I wanted to try to change. I was proud of the positive feedback I’d gotten from students about the first iteration of the class: many learners who’d initially been hesitant about the online format had expressed real appreciation for the participatory and meaningful work we’d done together. I was looking for ways to build on that success, and particularly to deepen the social learning and community of practice elements of the course.

When I went back to the UDL video I’d included, I wondered…could UDL be used to foster and enable deeper sharing and connection among learners? In the first year of the course, UPEI students from Education and Nursing had worked together with Holland College instructors from all different programs – including practical nursing – to share perspectives on learning in common fields and domains. In this sense, the course design was in keeping not only with its adult learning principles, but with what Lave and Wenger (1991) call community of practice. Communities of practice focus on learning together in areas of shared interest – in the case of our class, conversations about shared growth had emerged, based on participatory prompts and design, not only in relation to adult learning and to the common domains in which people taught or practiced, but also in relation to online learning itself.

I knew, as coordinator of the Adult Teaching program, that a few participants in my second iteration of the course had very limited comfort in online and even text-based spaces, let alone with online learning. I had tried hard in the first course to build a sense of social learning and social presence (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000) into the Moodle environment that was our primary site of instruction, but social learning did not minimize the text-heavy nature of forum discussions. I recognized that with this second group of students, UDL might offer me an opportunity to genuinely welcome instructors with low literacy levels, digital and otherwise, into a less exclusive community of practice, and enable meta-learning about online learning at the same time.

So in redesigning the course for its second year, I delved deeper into my own understanding of UDL, and tried to ensure that multiple means of representation, engagement, and action/expression were core to ALL weeks of the class, rather than just the one that covered UDL as a topic. I added more visual and video content to my Moodle design, opened up the assignments to enable a greater number of non-writing-based responses, and created prompts that encouraged learners to connect over their shared online learning curve as well as shared professional interests.

I had a lot to learn. I made an effort that second year, and then an even deeper effort in the course’s third year. If you’d like to hear more about what I tried, and how it worked…come to Bringing User Experience to Education: UDL and Inclusion for the 21st Century! (or check out the Slideshare above – spoiler: UDL had unexpected benefits in terms of making my course more social and further along the path towards a community of practice. I loved teaching all three iterations of this class – the first time I’d taught something that wasn’t explicitly digitally-focused in quite some time – and I loved what UDL fostered in terms of inclusion and participatory engagement.

In my “Practice What You Teach: UDL and Communities of Practice in Adult Education” presentation at UPEI Thursday morning, June 1st, I look forward to outlining how UDL’s minimization of barriers to participation had an effect on my course in its second and third iterations, particularly, and served as a positive contributor to social learning and engagement for the adult learners I taught. I’ll share examples from what I did, and explore some of the benefits experienced in combining UDL with a social learning/community of practice approach in adult education. Hope to see you there!

Digital Identities & Digital Citizenship: Houston, We Have a Problem

A couple of weeks back, I gave the closing keynote in Keene State College’s Open Education spring speaker series.

It was a rumination on Open as a set of practices and a site of identity, particularly for those of us in higher ed. I wanted to consider what it means to engage in digital scholarship – and digital leadership – from an identity perspective rather than a role perspective…especially for those of us for whom the standard higher ed roles and labels of student/staff/faculty may be only partial or precarious, aspirational rather than fully institutionalized.

Now, one of these days I will become one of those people who actually writes out their talks. Until that day, Dear Reader, all I have for you is Slideshare and my tendency to post talks as jumping-off points rather than transcriptions.

Digital identities & citizenship: Leading in the Open from Bonnie Stewart

This particular slide deck is a REAL jumping off point, though. Because I was in the middle of my talk – mouth open, mid-sentence – when an awkward realization kinda opened up in front of me.

The connection I was trying to make between digital identity and digital citizenship in the open? Has a big gaping contradiction in it.

Nothing like a lightbulb moment in the middle of a narrative in front of a room full of people.

The point of my talk was that we need to go beyond thinking about identity in the open – digital identity – and start thinking in terms of digital citizenship.

Identities never generate in a vacuum; we are mockingbirds, mimics, ornery creatures whose Becoming is always relational, even if often in reaction to what we don’t want to be. Our digital identities are no different…and unfettered individualism, as a lens, tends to do a TERRIBLE job of acknowledging the ways collaboration and cooperation make the spaces in which we Become actually liveable.

So the presentation for Keene was about going beyond ideas of individual digital identity to ideas of digital citizenship and the shared commons…while acknowledging citizenship as a flawed framework that brings up issues of borders and empire and power. It was about the fact that we can’t really talk about digital identity without talking about citizenship, because when we’re all out in the open Becoming identities together, we’re shaping the space we all inhabit.

But. If I was right on this point – and I still think I was but hey, you can take that up in the comments – it was the other side of the argument that blindsided me.

I hadn’t fully – until that moment in front of the keynote audience – thought through how digital identity, as a practice, operates counter to the collaboration and cooperation that need to be part of digital citizenship.

This is our contemporary contradiction: identity as a construct in contemporary social media spaces makes for pretty rotten social spaces.

We know this. You know this. Much as many of us appreciate and enjoy aspects of the ambient sociality and community that social network platforms deliver us – shout out to everybody who hit “like” on the photos of the Hogwarts letter we made for my son’s eleventh birthday today, because those likes are, frankly, validating whereas if I parade the letter up and down my actual street I’m just weird – we all know there are fundamental drawbacks.

We’re algorithmically manipulated. We’re surveilled. We’re encouraged to speak rather than listen. We’re stuck engaging in visibility strategies, whether we admit it or not, in order simply to be acknowledged and seen within a social or professional space.

Our digital identities do not – and at the level of technological affordances and inherent structure, cannot – create a commons that is actually a healthy pro-social space.

And yet. And yet. Here we all are.

What I realized in developing the talk for Keene was that I used to write a lot about identity, and digital identities…and I stopped.

In the early days of this blog, digital identity was the crux of the phenomenon I was trying to work out and develop a research approach to: the why and the how of making ourselves visible and public in open, online spaces. In those early days, blog comments were still alive and well and many, many people contributed – generously, chorally – to my understanding of identity in the overlapping networked publics that blogging and academic Twitter comprised, back then. I’d been blogging in narrative communities for years, and had watched how monetization and scale of visibility shaped and shifted not only people’s presentation of self, but their experience of it, in the digital context.

I wrote about six key selves of digital identity. I wrote posts with David Bowie songs as titles. I played with messy ideas like brand and cyborgs and never did write as much about theory as I’d intended when I started out and gave the blog a name. But it was mostly identity that I focused on in those first few years.

And then I more or less walked away.

On the flights home from New Hampshire, I reflected on this; on the fact that even in my dissertation, I took up identity and digital identity but balked around focusing enough on it to theorize it, to fully unpack it. Because I knew it was the wrong lens for the socio-technical scholarly sphere I was trying to explore…but I didn’t know why.

Until I finally unravelled what bothered me about it, in the middle of a talk at Keene.

Digital identity isn’t just the wrong lens for figuring out digital scholarship, or encouraging participatory engagement in learning. It’s actually the wrong lens for building towards any vision of digital citizenship that makes for a liveable, decent digital social sphere to inhabit.

You probably already knew that. But I feel like something finally fell into place…years later than it ought to have, maybe, but nonetheless.

Now the question is how do we really get past identity and build for citizenship, in environments that limit, organize, and shape our sociality in ways we often even cannot see?

Opening the Dissertation: Why We Need to Make Open the Default

I want to talk about open. And academia.

And the outmoded gatekeeping process of the dissertation, world’s most glorified and inflated five-paragraph essay.

Last week was Open Access week, and just before I got on a plane for Australia, Dave & I coordinated a series of Lightning Talks at UPEI about a bunch of different facets of open, and cool things people are doing on campus. There was a GONG. It was fun. I talked about doing my dissertation research in the open…and managed to limit myself to talking for *only* five minutes. There were bets.

Then I went to Australia and talked for waaaay more than five minutes. One talk was specifically on academic Twitter but the other was more me trying to frame out the whole open scholarship thing for folks new to digital pedagogy. I built out an ABC structure that I’m looking forward to digging into more deeply soon…and for the “blasphemy” piece I got to talk Donna Haraway so I was happy.


Then I flew homewards and I was unhappy for approximately 32 hours. I swear the whole “let’s do Sunday twice over with zero connectivity and connections timed so you never seem to go to sleep” gig was harrowing. My mental health and I had to just grimly dog-paddle our way through screaming newborns and back spasms and tiny tiny seats, trying to hang together and forebear. We made it, ragged and ghastly, just in time for Hallowe’en!

Which is my segue into dissertating, because hey…there are parallels.

I am not getting on any more planes this week, though a part of me wishes I were. #OpenEd16 at VCU in Virginia starts today. A Very Large Proportion of my personal/professional “everybody” is there, and while Dave and I had hoped to be too, in the flesh, we are not. Life.

But we are part of a couple of panel conversations about open, including one tomorrow that launches the followup from last year’s #dLRN15 – go check out #SoNAR, the Society for Open Narrative Research.

But this narrative is about the OTHER panel.

Opening The Dissertation: Exploring the Public Thesis Spectrum is Friday afternoon, a hands-on session with Laura Gogia and Jon Becker. I proposed the panel back before I, erm, realized I totally couldn’t go. It was supposed to be us and my committee member Alec Couros and Sava Saheli Singh and Katia Hildebrandt…but. Life. Sigh. Yay Laura and Jon for picking up the slack!

I proposed the panel because for all I shared much of the process of my dissertation research here on the blog, there was a great deal that remained an unspoken long strange trip that no trip back from Australia can hold a candle to.

I want to open up the dissertation to the light of day.

To some extent, this conversation is about open dissertations and open defences. Laura and I both opened up our defences in various ways, with the support of our supervisors and committees, so that our broader networks – who, in both cases, were the subject/s of our research – had a window into the event itself. Mine was livestreamed, right up to the end of public questions. Laura’s was livetweeted by invited guests, right through the committee questions.

Laura, being a visualization wizard, has created a chart around the different decision points involved in opening up dissertation and defence processes to public audiences, and I’m looking forward to participating in the exploration of these – and the possibilities and risks involved – via Google Docs, on Friday. If you’re at #OpenEd16 and you’re in any way part of anyone’s dissertation process, come and join this conversation and help us gather ideas and possibilities!

But. I didn’t actually propose the panel *just* so we could all have a clearer and more granular picture of where we can potentially open up dissertations and defences.

I wanted to open up the question of what – and who – the dissertation is FOR.

Laura’s most excellent flowchart captures many of the decision points in the dissertation process where openness is concerned, but it misses what I think of as perhaps the core one – audience.

Not in the specific sense of the audience who sit in the room or even in front of a screen to witness a colleague outline the work they’ve brought to fruition – but in the sense of the eyes and ears and understandings and policies that thesis work eventually touches and shapes.

The capacity to choose real-life audiences – and to be supported in preparing to *address* real-life audiences – matters. In my day job, I work in adult ed. Done well, adult ed and professional learning are all about meaningful choices and application and authentic audiences for student work.

But when it comes to preparing scholars for the so-called pinnacle of higher education, the doctoral degree, the emphasis FAR too often is on having Ph.D students spend years of their lives preparing a very long, highly-format-focused piece of writing primarily for the audience of their defence committee – THREE TO FIVE PEOPLE, usually – and whoever wants to check the damn tome out of the library in ensuing decades.

Yes, scholars often adapt their dissertations for academic books or papers, but these separate publications usually involve another few YEARS of rewrites and edits from Reviewer #2 before they ever see the light of day.

We need to talk about this, academia.

Here’s my opening salvo for Friday’s presentation in Richmond (complete with sticky note diagrams, sailing metaphors, and upside-down boats):

Long story short, the status quo does not help us make a case for the value of higher ed and expert knowledge. Already we lock away too much of our research in expensive, inaccessible, and increasingly unnecessary journals because we’re attached to our own prestige economies. We miss the opportunity to get that research – knowledge that takes years and, often, public funds to develop – TO THE PUBLIC via policy and media and open channels.

But with the dissertation situation, there’s something particularly ugly about our continuing attachment to familiar forms.

Outside continental Europe, most senior scholars’ concept of the dissertation defence or viva is a tradition of intimate questioning behind closed doors, a rite of initiation, almost.

But…initiation into what?

We are no longer training for the professoriate. Any pretense that that is what the Ph.D dissertation and defence processes are for in their entirety should be met with a Come-to-Jesus about both casualization AND contemporary scholarly practices. We lived in a credential-inflated world, and there are few long-term stable jobs left in higher ed for those who complete even its highest degrees. Even when their tuition and cheap grad student/post-doc labour keeps the system afloat. Full stop.

In my own dissertation work on open and networked scholarship, I found one of the biggest benefits *repeatedly* cited by participants was that cultivating open, public audiences for their work and ideas allowed them to “contribute to the conversation” in their field and in higher ed generally, EVEN WHEN THEY DID NOT HAVE STATUS POSITIONS IN THE ACADEMIC HIERARCHY.

This is where we get back to blasphemy. Haraway (1991) frames blasphemy as a form of faithfulness, an ironic and partial nod to profaned origins that nonetheless preserves the priority of those origins.

What are we being faithful to, when we engage in research, in Ph.D programs, in scholarship? A broken system, or the creation and circulation of knowledge?

How we do dissertations goes a long way to answering that question.

Graduate students embarking on a dissertation should be able to make informed, supported, meaningful choices about who the audience(s) for their dissertations should be.

One of the prime responsibilities of supervision should be helping students select, understand, and reach – to some scaffolded extent – those audiences.

And, OPEN SHOULD BE THE DEFAULT, RATHER THAN CLOSED. That doesn’t mean always, that doesn’t mean without supports. It does mean all of us IN the academy, no matter how precariously, need to learn to navigate various aspects of what it means to be part of the public conversation in our fields, so we can help students find meaningful ways to join in and contribute.

So, as I say in the video, let’s start this conversation. How do we open up the dissertation?