Excellence &…the Wild Rumpus

This week I got to descend upon Ohio – and OSU’s annual Innovate conference – to give a keynote about networks and higher education.

Here are the slides I used to try to tell the story I was trying to tell:

Funny story about that story.

Innovate’s theme for this year was “excellence,” with a focus on, as their site put it, “sharing innovations that let educators re-imagine their instruction without sacrificing pedagogical quality and rigor.”

Now, I’m not in the habit of making claims about excellence. Or innovation, or even rigor, unless I’m in the throes of a formal academic paper in which case I can dig into ontologies and epistemologies and validity structures and make a case OSU’s own Patti Lather would be proud of. A language of excellence and innovation and rigor tends to emphasize performance rather than learning, and while that’s important for funders and decision-makers it doesn’t necessarily map tidily against ideas of connection and vulnerability. My work is still deeply steeped in the logics of the social web, if aware of that perspective’s limitations…and the forces that aim to eclipse it.

But they clearly knew all that. The ad for the talk read:
Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 8.48.18 PM
I laughed out loud when I read that first sentence. And I decided to approach “excellence” with some of the same wry touch they’d brought to the keynote blurb.

I enrolled my kids’ copy of Where the Wild Things Are to help illustrate the story. I talked about networked practice and its implications for higher ed as The Wild Rumpus.

Screen Shot 2016-04-29 at 3.51.29 PM
Where the Wild Things Are won Maurice Sendak the 1964 Caldecott Medal for Most Distinguished Picture Book. *That,* quite frankly, is about as safe a marker of excellence as you’re gonna find in the fraught world of higher ed these days, and not just because it’s a kids’ book: rather, that’s how the prestige economy of recognizable, institutionalized legitimacy works.

People have heard of the book, and the Caldecott medal, so the recognizability of the title and the award would serve as proxies for quality, I figured. If you’re going to introduce all kinds of new practices to a group of academics, best to start from a safe place. A signal that resonates. Kinda like when someone says, “I went to Princeton” or “I published in Nature.” Those titles are signals. I have (shhh…don’t tell) never read Nature and I’ve never been to New Jersey, but I have been acculturated enough to academia that I understand that both the journal and the college signal a level of widely-recognized prestige that I’m supposed to be impressed by.

Because that’s how prestige operates: that “supposed to” interpellates people and recruits them based on aspirational identity…the desire to be the sort of person who *gets* that kind of thing. So in academia, outside of our own very specific disciplines, we trade entirely on these broad, external signals. That’s how academia manages to function as a broad in-group in spite of the fact that most of our knowledge bases are so extraordinarily specialized there’s no way for a chemist to actually tell if a sociologist does good work or not, or vice versa. The signals are stand-ins for the actual knowledge we possess.

Entertainingly though, in the process of establishing broadly understood signals – where people went to school, who they’ve studied with, where they sit in the academic hiring hierarchy, where they’ve published, who’s funded them – those signals themselves get reified and the prestige accorded them comes to seem entirely natural.

Yes, Nature has the highest impact factor of all journals…but how many academics can actually explain impact factor, pressed to the point? Princeton is Ivy League, which means something even to us heathens up in Canada, who totally fail to recognize many of the prestige signals of US academia.

(Imagine the dismay and betrayal I felt when, after half a lifetime of hearing the words “Ivy League” bandied about as Americanized synonyms for “Oxford” and “Cambridge,” I discovered the Ivy League IS AN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE. Huh????


I digress.)

Long story short, I figured Where the Wild Things worked as a proxy for excellence in the tiny context of my talk because while both the title and the medal are recognizable, nobody’s gunning for either. Neither the book nor the wild rumpus – even as metaphor – has been declared the next Great Tsunami or Disruption, so nobody’s career or reputation ride on making sure that everybody is clear how mightily it sucks. Plus the book is sweet and nostalgic and most people don’t really remember what it’s about, they just remember how it makes them feel. Which is also how signals operate.

And *that* is how I tripped my own self up on and almost had to ditch the whole thing half-baked in the middle of the journey to making a case for the networked Rumpus as its own form of excellence.

Because I was thinking of The Wild Rumpus as a metaphor for some of the spaces outside the boundaries of conventional prestige signals, just a fun way of talking about an alternative prestige economy, when I realized I should probably re-read the damn book. RESEARCH.

I’d forgotten, of course. Max – the little blighter at the centre of the story who runs away to the fantasy world of the wild things in his fantasies – ends up wanting to go back where people love him best of all and his food is still hot. The rumpus is joy and freedom and the wild things bow down to his taming, but in the end he sails home to his bedroom, back to normal, back to the glorious comfort of the known.

The Wild Rumpus is just a distraction, for Max. Whoopsie.

But in the middle of knowledge abundance and precarity and disinvestment in public education, a world where over 70% of North American higher education instructional staff were reported to be contingent even back in 2007, I think it’s safe to say that most of us won’t be sailing home to our solid tenured realities when we’re done with the fun of our contemporary Rumpus.

So I made this slide, and turned the story sideways…a bedtime story to wake up conference attendees first thing in the morning. Not a happy ending, but the unpacking of the Rumpus outlines ways to navigate the seas of abundance and change, at least.

Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 10.15.31 PM
***
Post-script: I wish I could say my ideas will change the direction of the ship and bring us home to where supper is still hot.

I tell myself it is wiser to grow up and learn to forage with Wild Things.

I don’t know. The Rumpus has treated me extraordinarily well, but contingency is a flawed and exhausting place to live. The potential networked practice brings to higher ed – the particular versions of excellence it makes possible, the ones outlined in the slides above – are still by far best enacted by faculty and staff with the security to take risks, and iterate. But that’s often not how it works out. Higher ed is an increasingly stratified professional environment, and networked practice may increasingly be seen as a signal of LACK of prestige, as power circles coalesce around the privilege they conflate as excellence.

Maybe THEY are the Wild Things and we can tame them with Max’s magic trick of staring into their eyes and telling them, “Be Still!”

No? Dammit. Now I will not sleep tonight.

 

What Your New Year’s Facebook Posts Really Mean

So I did that Facebook “Year in Review” thing a week or two ago even though I’m moderately sure it serves up some extra layer of data-mining capacity on a platter to Zuckerberg’s new personalized learning minions. Encapsulated in ten photos, my reductive 2015 in review looked…nice.

Really nice. A lot of travel, a lot of family time, a Ph.D earned, a conversation on Twitter with David Bowie’s son. Some excessive (expletive deleted) snow, but otherwise nice.

It left the rejected papers out. The time my son wore the same socks for four days. My posts about alcohol and fascism and friends leaving town all stayed conveniently out of the frame, presumably because Facebook knows these are not the prettiest things upon which to reflect fulsomely at the close of the year. Or perhaps Facebook only *knows* that because nobody much liked those posts.

All in all, it made me appear more or less like an amalgam of the identities I aspire to. Yeh, yeh.

You already knew that about Facebook.

But I think there’s more going on there. Today, on New Year’s Eve, my Facebook feed is a radiant orgy of Auld Lang Syne recollecting the year gone by in (mostly) tranquility and (mostly) appreciation, with a smattering of don’t-let-the-door-hit-you-on-the-way-out, depending on what kind of a year people had & also where they self-identify and perform on the emo-to-chirpy spectrum. It is also, increasingly, a site of exhortations to do better as a society in 2016, a space for calling out the broken social contracts and structural underpinnings that differentiate individuals’ life chances so drastically even in some of the wealthiest countries in the world.

It occurred to me this morning that a thousand years hence, should archaeologists or aliens dig up the remnants of bourgeois North American “civilization,” such as it is, they will be sorely challenged to understand a damn thing about who we were and how we lived without our Facebook feeds.

If we cared about the future, people, we’d be chiseling this stuff into stone.
***

I got a book for Christmas – thanks Santa Dave! – called A Colorful History of Popular Delusions. Like all good gifts for fledgling academics, it has me thinking about work, even while I appear to be lolling in sloth over the holidays.

The book is a cultural history – without excessive depth, but this is not a peer review – of mass phenomena that overtake pockets of society at various intervals: fads, crazes, urban legends, mass hysterias. It details examples of each of these phenomena, from the tulip craze in Holland through the Salem witch trials and McCarthyism, and some of the extenuating cultural factors that generated them.

Two things strike me:

  1. We, as humans, are profoundly adaptable – we have, historically, in matters of weeks and even days, on occasion adjusted the norms and compasses of our societies – in ways that seem almost unimaginable later on – in response to triggers that prey upon particularly cultural powerful fears, aspirations, or repressions.
  2. We, as cultures, are profoundly vulnerable to the narratives that we circulate and enact as members of our societies, particularly surrounding fears, aspirations, and repressions.

What does this have to do with Facebook?

Facebook – and more broadly, social media in general…but Facebook remains for the moment the space of the widest participation across demographics even while targeting ads designed to keep people IN their existing demographics – is the stage upon which the battle over dominant cultural narratives is played out.

Social media is where we are deciding who we are, not just as individual digital identities but AS A PEOPLE, A SOCIETY. Or perhaps, as we haven’t quite acknowledged yet, as almost separate societies within the same geopolitical entities, subject to laws and policies that have differential effects on different bodies and identities. Day-to-day, social media is the battleground for the stories we live by. It is the space where our cultural fears, aspirations, and repressions circulate.

Previously, at least as my book loosely outlines it, these narratives tended to be nursed and cultivated through a combination of institutional and moral edicts, generally protecting whatever the status quo was except in times of upheaval wherein individual voices – or, occasionally, intentional power gambits – destabilized those normative belief systems and identities and galvanized new ones around them, even if only for a brief window of time.

I’m not naive enough to think this means we’re free from our institutions, the media perhaps most outsizedly and dangerously powerful among them in terms of narrative capacity, but as any of us who have had any level of professional media exposure via social media participation can attest, even the media now draw their sense of the tenor of things from social media, even if they insist on repackaging them in binaries in the process.

This is why hashtag activism matters, and why social media visibility is risky and why posting about mass shootings draws out your weird uncle (who otherwise never acknowledges anything you say) in full Gandalf “YOU SHALL NOT PASS” mode, even if Gandalf wouldn’t approve of his from-my-cold-dead-hands politics.

Facebook and the rest of social media are our day-to-day archive of who we are trying to become.

These are our times and they are fraught and sometimes ugly and we move too fast from fad to fad and whiplash to whiplash in the outrage generator that social media creates, absolutely.

Still, I watch people get a little bit more media literate all the time, make the wizards behind the curtain a little more visible, push back against witch hunts in ways that I’m not sure were possible in closed and isolated societies like 17th century small-town Massachusetts.

Sometimes I have hope that maybe this isn’t all just a one-way sinkhole. Sometimes.
***

Which brings us back to the New Years posts. We live lives of inexorable and relentless change, amplified by the bucket lists and planned obsolescences and precarities and excesses the kinds of lives Facebook seems designed to reflect. A lot can happen in a year of living one’s Best Life (TM), after all, and if one fails to reflect on it all with sufficient attention, one is committing the ultimate sin of those aiming for Best Lives. My thoughts on the pressure to live our Best Lives are not pretty.

But when I see our collective New Years wishes and reflections and updates and hopes less in the vein of the “yay me” holiday update of wonderfulness and more in the spirit of a mass ongoing narrative conflict in which we try to influence our peers’ understandings of what has meaning and value, of what our repressions are and what our fears and aspirations *should* be…I’m less cynical.

Bring on the New Years posts and wishes and wrap-ups. Maybe these little outpourings help us focus on bits of hope as we cross into a new turn around the sun, bring collegiality to spaces and identities that are often fraught. Even if the aliens and archaeologists never see it all, maybe it makes a difference to the rest of what they dig up someday.

Happy New Year, friends. :)

inequality & networks: the sociocultural implications for higher ed

Next week is #dLRN15 at Stanford. Months of planning and debating and collaborating (and panicking!) all come together to launch an inaugural conference/conversation on Making Sense of Higher Education: Networks & Change.

It’s all Panic At The Disco around here these days, people.
***

There are some serious high hopes embedded and embodied in #dLRN15. Not just for a successful event – though a successful event is a joy forever, as the poets say. Or, erm, something like that. But success is a complex thing, and hopes go beyond the event.

#dLRN15 is grounded in the kind of quiet hopes most of us in higher ed these days don’t talk about all that much: the hopes that things can actually get better. The hopes that research can be conducted and communicated in such a way as to shape the direction of change. The hopes for a future for the spirit of public education, in a time when much in higher ed seems to have been unbundled or disrupted or had its goalposts moved.

Those kinds of hopes are waaaaay too big to lay on the shoulders of any single event or single collection of people…but still, we got hopes, and they underpin the conversations we’re hoping to start through this small, first-time conference next week. We have the privilege of bringing together powerful thinkers like Adeline Koh and Marcia Devlin and Mike Caulfield as keynotes, plus systems-level folks and established researchers and students and grad students and people from all sorts of status positions within higher ed, all thinking about the intersection of networked practices and learning with the institutional structures of higher ed.

However, there’s one strand of conversation, one hope, in the mix at #dLRN15 that I’m particularly attached to. It’s the Sociocultural Implications of Networks and Change in Higher Ed conference theme, and particularly the opening plenary panel of the conference, on Inequities & Networks: The Sociocultural Implications for Higher Ed. I’m chairing, and the ever-thoughtful George Station, Djenana Jalovcic, and Marcia Devlin have agreed to lead the conversation from the stage.

But we need you.

No plenary panel is an island…and while all of us contributing have our own deep ties to this topic, our role is only to start the conversation. Help us make it wider and take it further. Whether you’ll be there or not, your thoughts and input are welcome on the #dLRN15 hashtag or on our Slack channel, or here in the comments. Throw in.

To me, this is the strand that gets at the heart of what education is for, and who it includes, and how, in a time of massive stress: is the digital helping widen participation and equality? Is it hindering?

If the answer to both is “yes,” WHAT NOW?
***

The aim of the panel is to explore how intersectional issues – race, gender, class, ability, even academic status – in higher education are amplified and complexified by digital technologies and networked participation. While digital higher education initiatives are often framed for the media in emancipatory terms, what effects does the changing landscape of higher education actually have on learners whose identities are marked by race/gender/class and other factors within their societies?

We’ll be sharing and unpacking some of the places we get stuck when we think about this in the context of our work as educators and researchers.

What effects do you see digital networks having on inequalities in higher ed? What sociocultural implications do networked practices hold for institutional practices? What are universities’ responsibilities to students who live and learn in hybrid online/offline contexts?

Please. Add your voices, so that this panel becomes more a node in a networked conversation than a one-off to itself. That in itself would pretty much make #dLRN15 a success, in my mind. :)

the morning after we all became social media gurus

One morning, all my friends woke up as experts.

Or rather, thanks to years of what academia had mostly framed as the gauche and wasteful habit of talking excessively to people who lived inside our computers and iPads, many of us whose social and work lives had merged somewhere in the ether of that Third Place/Space woke up with workshops to give, because…academic service. When what was gauche and time-wasting yesterday is The New Black today, it’s handy to have a vanguard of self-taught experts to teach everybody else how to play along.

But what are all these workshops doing, in the context of the academy? Mark Carrigan posed the question of social media as fashion or fad on Twitter this morning. I retweeted his post. We ended up in a conversation that eventually included another three or four colleagues, from a few different countries. THIS is how social media actually works for me, when it works.

These excerpts carry the gist of the conversation better than I can encapsulate. They also raise questions that I think all of us passing as social media gurus – however unwillingly – in the academy need to grapple with, and soon.

Screen Shot 2015-09-25 at 9.38.57 AM

Screen Shot 2015-09-25 at 8.30.50 AM

  •  Are the workshops helping…or just making people feel pressured to Do Another Thing in a profession currently swamped by exhortations to do, show, and justify?

Screen Shot 2015-09-25 at 9.39.18 AM

  • Does the pressure over-emphasize the actual power of social media and encourage people to dig in against it as some kind of new regime, without necessarily having the experiential knowledge to judge whether it could have any value for them?
Screen Shot 2015-09-25 at 8.29.11 AM
Screen Shot 2015-09-25 at 9.47.25 AM
  • How SHOULD we count digital and networked scholarship within the academy? Should we count it at all?
***
FWIW, I think we should, but I’m very wary of how. And so I wonder what happens the morning after we all wake up as experts, so to speak.

I feel like I’ve been here before. Yesterday afternoon, somebody tweeted an old post I wrote four years ago, back when I’d had a personal blog for years and was trying to understand the shift I was seeing in the economy of social media, from relational to market.

Screen Shot 2015-09-25 at 11.04.03 AM
It was the words “a path into the machine” that gave me a sense of deja vu.
Because one morning back in about 2008 all my friends woke up as social media gurus. We’d been hobbyists and bloggers and it was kind of wonderful but faintly embarrassing to talk about in polite company and then BOOM people started appearing on Good Morning America and it gentrified and stratified fast.

Switch out “brands” for “institutions” up in the pull quote above and we are living a parallel moment in academia, just a few years late. And the the many-to-many communications that the networks were based on risk, once again, being instrumentalized into something broadcast-based and metrics-driven that misses the whole point.

There has been plenty of excellent – and necessary – advocacy for the inclusion of digital, public engagement in academic hiring and tenure and promotions and our general sense of what counts as scholarship.

But the practices that get encapsulated as digital scholarship or networked participatory scholarship straddle two worlds, and two separate logics. One is the prestige economy of academia and its hierarchy and publishing oligopoly and all the things that count as scholarship. The other is social media, which has its own prestige economy.

The overlap goes like this, IMO:
Screen Shot 2015-09-25 at 9.52.53 AM
I never liked Klout’s reductionism to metrics – scale of account, reach of posts. Yet the thing that these two spheres share – their common language, so to speak – is metrics. And while those of us engaged in the complex logic of influence and prestige in academic Twitter *get* that the ephemerality of a tweet that goes viral isn’t the same as a reputation of smaller scale over time, nor does a broadcast account operate on the same terms as a reciprocal account, metrics divorced from context – either on Klout or in citation counts and h-indexes – do NOT get that.

So if those of us giving workshops to the academy about social media don’t make it really clear that it’s more than metrics – and don’t give people the experiential opportunity to taste what a personal/professional learning network (PLN) feels like and can offer – we have only ourselves to blame when the academy eventually tries to subsume social media into its OWN prestige economy.

The morning is now, kids. It’s been now for a little while but it won’t be forever. Seize the day.

How do YOU think we can best engage scholars and institutions in networked scholarship without selling the farm?

In Abundance: Networked Participatory Practices as Scholarship

The second paper from my thesis came out last week, in IRRODL.

I tip my hat to IRRODL…there is something truly lovely about publishing a paper on networked scholarship and being able to share it immediately and without barriers. In actual networks. Here’s the link, Twitter – BOOM. Here you go, Facebook – right there for all the people I went to high school with to enjoy. Whatever. Right there. Just like…like the internet actually works in scholarship!

Oh right.

I didn’t even have to pay any highwaymen hybrid open access rates, which is a blessing, as my institution does not offer funds for that and I enjoy being able to feed my children and other frivolities. I obviously do not understand the oligopoly that is academic publishing. I do, however, understand not paying thousands for things that can – broadly speaking – be accomplished for free. I’ve been trying not to do that for a way longer time than I’ve been playing this academia game.

Sometimes when I read the stuff that comes through my Twitter feed, I actually get the impression that we – “we” being the sub-species homo academicus, seldom the sharpest knives in the drawer of life, oddly – might slowly be getting it. Academic successs is not a lottery, I read today, but a rigged game rife with implicit bias and discrimination. Why, my stars! And then I saw, in black and white, words that said citation metrics “should never be used as the sole criterion to evaluate academics” and I swear little cherubs started singing in my ears.

But while these messages may be making their way through our Twitter skullz they are still not the dominant narratives of a profession in which digitizing journals – thus getting rid of the cost of paper and distribution – has actually resulted in a HIGHER concentration of scientific literature in the hands of a few major for-profit players, even though all the reviewing is done for free by academics who often don’t even have contracts that cover service labour anymore. Uh, brilliant system, guys. I’ll take Boardwalk, please!

And it’s worst in the social sciences…which *mutter mutter shoemakers’ wives something something.*

But we cling to the academic publishing system because it’s a prestige economy. It’s our prestige economy, dammit. And apparently they will have to pry it from our cold, dead, mostly-precariously-employed hands because there seems to be far more attachment to the impact factor of prestigious journals than to the possibility of changing things.

This logic would tell me that open publishing and networked sharing are not in my interest, because they do not fall under the purview of the narrow circle of “what counts” drawn by impact-factor-focused publishing. Yet that impact factor primarily counts because it’s supposed to increase citations and that‘s supposed to count because it’s supposed to help me snag one of the last remaining tenured professorships from the Mad Max landscape of contemporary higher ed…and do please send your tenure lines my way, friends. But. BUT.

This paper is about networks as sites of scholarship. Already. Not some kind of proto-scholarship but actual sites of scholarship of discovery and scholarship of integration and application and teaching – all Boyer’s (1990) categories for the profession. Plus, many participants indicated that their networked scholarship actually fulfills Boyer’s additional vision of a scholarship “beyond the hierarchy of functions” – a more inclusive, comprehensive and dynamic approach to professional practice. Networks are admittedly still supplemental sites, for the most part, because few paying scholarly careers are to be eked out here, and the odds remain slightly better in the institutional game. But in a world where the capacity to distribute ideas no longer requires paper, or printing, or the oligopoly of an Elsevier, it might be cool to at the very least try to reward the IRRODLs of the world and their other handy, hey look you can click this and there’s a paper right there at the end of that link! ilk. It might save our institutional libraries from bankruptcy, even. Maybe.

I probably shouldn’t be saying this out loud. I should be sleeping. I got in a car at 7:10 this morning, fluffed and buffed and ready to give a talk, but my jetlagged body was still under the impression it was shortly after midnight and even though I had practiced deep yogic breathing in my hotel bed for two solid hours I was awake. All. Night. Like Thelma in Thelma and Louise, awake with the kind of raw adrenalin that comes to some when they’re on the lam or me, apparently, when I cross the Atlantic. So now it’s 2am again here. And I am punch-drunk from lack of sleep and from the deep cognitive dissonance the academic publishing monopoly triggers in me, so I will just shut up now and say hey, pssst, click this link if you’re interested in how networks do some of the work of scholarship because the paper is RIGHT THERE, you guys. Because internet.

Magick.