the story of education: a Grimm fairy tale

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

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

A trail of breadcrumbs to follow.

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

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

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

Yeh. That.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeh. That.

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

What if it’s you?

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


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

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

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

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

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

28 Comments the story of education: a Grimm fairy tale

  1. Neil

    If there is any place where I most lose my voice, it is in comments. I am getting used to the type of involvement that social media is best at — sharing tidbits without much commitment and involvement. Writing comments takes work, and why risk saying anything interesting, unless it is on your own space? We want the most engagement with the least amount of trouble, so we end up connecting through sharing than daring to speak in our own voices. It is why curators are now more respected online than personal writers. The important voice is the one who shares the best.

    1. bon

      i know there’s a kernel of truth here, Neil…that public amplification and sharing are ways of reinforcing our own identity positions, without the effort…but i’m not totally sold on the idea that it’s “why curators are now more respected online than personal writers.” are they? you may have found me one of my interview questions for my thesis. ;)

      i’d say that what gets too personal is unlikely to be picked up by a major media outlet/distributor unless it’s got the kind of affective/scandalous punch that leads to virality…so in that sense maybe curators have more influence than those who dare make themselves vulnerable, these days. but many of those curators have reputations built on when they DID share their own stuff. still not sure you can start out just by sharing other people’s work and still build trust/credibility. can you? if people have examples to point me to, i’m curious.

  2. Alexandra

    This space, our white space, is a lifeline for me, without exaggeration. Before i logged on and started online writing, all my thoughts were held in a paper journal, making me feel even lonelier than if I had never written them down. I write, I untangle myself, I became clear in the image I see myself… the one always there, but sadly for years and too many more years, I tried to make bend in a direction that would make me likable to others. I don’t have to do that anymore. I have my own real estate, and my words live out in the open there. If someone reads them, I feel blessed, if not… they at least have breath now, and aren’t sitting in a dark night stand drawer. I hear, you, Bon. Lovely, lovely piece, that rings true for me: I am here.

    1. bon

      for me, too. when i get stuff out, i feel…peaceful. usually. unless it’s a testy topic, but even then…it’s different having it out than keeping it in.

  3. Mary Gilmour

    Like Alexandra, this whitespace has an unique value for me. But I think that your analysis of what is happening to personal voices is absolutely correct ( I just put up a short post in the same vein.).
    As to what is happening in the education debate, it is mind blowing and worrying. I listened over the weekend to the Chancellor of my university say that both excellence in research and excellence in teaching were the aim for the future. (He was asking alumni for funds at the time.) Since my daughter and her husband are both professors at a rival Ontario institution of higher learning (yeah, right), I have a first hand view of their struggles to provide even adequacy in both these areas, lacking funding and support.
    And I think that even with funding and support it is hubris to believe that excellence in both areas simultaneously is possible. Faculty, in my observation, have their hearts in one or the other and would not be motivated to tear themselves to shreds to do both at once.
    I have a very simplistic view of education; that it should teach students to think for themselves as they learn how to learn. And I bet I sound like a mostly petrified dinosaur for saying so.

    1. bon

      i hope not, Mary, because your view of education is largely akin to my view of education: that it should, at its core, be about learning how to learn. though worrying that i sound like a petrified dinosaur and trying to trace how that once-radical notion challenging cookie cutter classrooms got pushed offstage by standardized testing does keep me silent sometimes, like i say here. it’s weird, being on the disappearing side of a gestalt shift.

  4. Jen

    I’ve not been able to ‘edublog’ for about 5 years. I just can’t do it. Even if I think I have something other people might like to hear, I can’t make myself log into one of my blogs to write. I regret my previous edublogging. It feels incredibly condescending to me. And every time I try to have a discussion about this, I’m pushed by people who treat me as if I’m the only freak with this issue, and I shouldn’t speak up, because it will prevent others from ‘sharing,’ which is, of course, the divine objective.

    1. Alan Levine (@cogdog)

      I don’t know what ‘edublogging” is Jen. I do not eduthink, eduwrite, or edutalk. But I totally adore your stance because you vocalize freely no matter what channel it is.

      For me, Bon, I cannot not write in my own long form, yet I cannot fully explain why it works. There is something about the confines yet wide openness of that blank text area of my blog editor. It’s the act of writing, often without the destination in sight, that gets me some place, or no place.

      I do not care about being wrong in my past, or having words I meant at one time, that now I would feel differently about. That to being human.

      Yet the funk and the blocks happen, and over the years, for me, the way out is writing my way out.

      We all have something to write/say even if we choose not to do so. I lean on the words of my heroes:

      You’re alone above the street somewhere
      Wondering how you’ll ever count out there

      You can walk, you can talk, you can fight
      But inside you’ve got something to write
      In your hand you hold your only friend
      Never spend your guitar or your pen
      Your guitar or your pen
      Your guitar or your pen
      Your guitar or your pen
      Your guitar or your pen

      When you take up a pencil and sharpen it up
      When you’re kicking the fence and still nothing will budge
      When the words are immobile until you sit down
      Never feel they’re worth keeping, they’re not easily found
      Then you know in some strange, unexplainable way
      You must really have something
      Jumping, thumping, fighting, hiding away
      Important to say

      When you sing through the verse and you end in a scream
      And you swear and you curse ’cause the rhyming ain’t clean
      But it suddenly comes after years of delay
      You pick up your guitar, you can suddenly play
      When your fingers are bleeding and the knuckles are white
      Then you can be sure, you can open the door
      Get off of the floor tonight
      You have something to write

      Keep at it. Please.

      1. Jen

        But this is the exact response that keeps me from doing anything. Forget the word, ‘edublog.’ I really need you to recognize that it’s okay for people to not want to have anything to do with this. Maybe you don’t care about being wrong. That’s nice. But other people do, and those feelings deserve respect. I speak up because I have the privilege to do so. Others are not so fortunate.

        1. Alan Levine (@cogdog)

          Gee, I thought I was saying that.

          I write for me, and I respect what you do or don’t do. what is the problem there? What are the ways my words are taken as compelling you? This is not defensive, I just al most as to how many ways I can try to say I respect your position. Did you miss all the “I” words? This is why I do it.

          I do get a lot out of Bonnie’s writing, and wish to see more. But if she chooses not to, I don’t pass judgement.

          Dazed, confused, and wondeirng.

          1. bon

            i don’t really get why it’s condescending for people to write, to process their thoughts and construct ideas or arguments and share them. that’s the piece that seems – as best as i can understand – to be at the core of Jen’s objections. that and the point that it’s a privilege to be able to do so, which is absolutely true. i’ve been thinking about this all day. i know there’s a false (IMO) “democratizing” narrative that often accompanies various versions of open evangelism, especially in its least nuanced forms or in media accounts of openness, and these narratives don’t account for the power relations and powerful networks that let some of us speak and be heard more/differently from others. i’d love to see all of us with our various voices speak about that. but i don’t know how not speaking helps, so then i figure i must be misunderstanding you, Jen.

            it’s one thing not to want to. i know tons of people who have no desire to write/speak/construct complex ideas /unpack complex ideas. that’s not their contribution to the world. but they still express opinions regularly, via a bunch of media, just not necessarily long-form. some are teachers & knowledge producers in their own contexts. i don’t think their version of knowledge are less condescending, somehow. are they? am i missing something?

    2. bon

      saw this earlier, Jen, and i was going to ask whether the sharing as divine objective comment was in some way part of a larger or previously existing conversation. then i saw Alan’s response and realized it likely was.

      which makes me wary of wading in….but i want to ask a side question, so that i don’t misrepresent/misunderstand where you’re coming from. do you see Twitter as different? the sharing of ideas and what we cobble together of what we know/read/think? do you see teaching/advising people about tech in your day-to-day capacity as different, knowledge-wise? or just a different identity space to stand in? (always identity with me). or is it just the narrative of sharing *as* divine or a good in itself that irks? genuine questions.

    3. Scott Johnson

      Hi Jen, this was for Bonnie yet seems appropriate to your situation–as best as I can understand it. Quotation:

      Five Theories of Change Embedded in Appreciative Inquiry

      >”It is scary to verbalize those basic human desires for community, love, fealty, making a contribution in an organization where that is not the norm. To talk about “how things could be” when no one has ever actually seen them that way is to open oneself up to ridicule and embarrassment. Indeed, if there is a lot of repressed yearning in the system, anyone who names what is yearned for is sure to be ridiculed and shamed as a defense against experiencing that yearning. About the best one can expect is that people will talk about things they have experienced elsewhere, or read about, since they can defend themselves against ridicule by pointing to places where those noble aspirations and intentions are being lived.

      I have found that an appreciative inquiry, where people listen to each other’s stories about micro moments in organizational life where the best in us is touched, can create a unique climate for collective dreaming where the forces of ridicule and repression are momentarily suspended.”<

      I worked in a place for years where people lived and acted as versions of themselves to survive. Its very difficult to recover from the disengagement this sort of environment forces on us. Especially when we are suddenly thrown from it or find our real voice sounds wrong too.

      Sometime it seems cuckoos have left their eggs in my nest and these children I feed aren't mine.

      1. bon

        thanks for this, Scott. the idea of appreciative inquiry appeals to me – i remember looking into it back in an educational context some time ago but haven’t consciously considered it for some time. and i find myself wondering about the platforms we use in networked communications and if there isn’t something about the basic design and affordances of Twitter that tends us toward soapboxing rather than appreciative inquiry, or the approach Jenny framed as conscious incompetence in her post. not in a deterministic way, just in the ways that platforms shape engagement.

        1. Scott Johnson

          Hi Bonnie, (or do you prefer Bon?). My first response at being introduced to Appreciative Inquiry was my usual dismissal of the power of positive anything. Except that having recently come from a job at the most broken place I know, located in a crappy little town in Deep Country Northern Alberta I’ve run completely out of things that irritate me. So why not change a viewpoint and look back at how I myself behaved under the stress of change and bad management and maybe in there (my brain that is) are clues to why others I left behind are so unable to move ahead on anything?

          To me the appreciative thing allows a break from automatic dismissal and to re-humanize many I have no right to criticize for simply trying to survive. It also takes me off the sidelines back into the mess which I secretly liked.

          Twitter sets up an impossible tension between quick response and the aesthetic of the perfect one liner laboured over for years. It produces the kind of anal poetics of a bad tattoo, with the guilty regret for sending such tripe feelings that people just can’t relax into. Personally I see it as an excellent tool for creating misunderstandings and spreading confusion and using it for serious things is a waste of human potential. Wonder if we could use it as a relief from the incessant context we try to hold ourselves to?

  5. Kate

    When I read Paul’s post, I thought immediately of how you had written about the same thing. I’d been thinking myself about how come I was finding it so hard to write, and had exchanged some fairly fragile thoughts about this aphasia with Melonie Fullick. In particular I’d started to wonder whether MOOCs as a topic had somehow made it simultaneously imperative and overwhelming to try to say something sensible. About anything. This was crystallised for me sitting in a fairly weighty national presentation listening to the CEO of a Major MOOC Platform telling us stories of personal salvation won through access to her product. I felt a level of despair at this that I couldn’t name, but that amounts to something else than aphasia.

    But to have been part of that small, chance conversation that you mention has shifted a little obstacle for me.

    In our catastrophic fires, there are specialist teams who work together with nothing but handtools. They’re called RAFT teams, and they’re winched into remote areas to carve new paths and put out smouldering underground fires. This must be the most extraordinary experience; it depends on each of them being a specialist at “walking the black edge”, as they put it. Maybe other kinds (and happenstance teams) of specialists do the same?

    Best to you all, Kate

    1. bon

      interesting, Kate. for me, it’s definitely been MOOCs that have made all the various intersecting axes both come into focus and at the same time blow my brain apart with all their implications and politics: like you say, simultaneously imperative and overwhelming (i might add impossible, from the blank page perspective) to say something sensible. the black edge, indeed. but those teams know what they’re doing, right? they have training that enables them to perceive their place in the larger shitstorm and act in a directed fashion?

      maybe we need a MOOC in that. kidding.

  6. Jeannine St. Amand

    Having just read this: The Personal Brand Myth I thought of you and wondered what you’ve been writing about lately. So now I know, and all I can say to encourage you is please, please, keep writing, to hell with the context. The stories you weave, the allusions you make, your mastery of language – these are your true gifts. Do not let your struggles with the thesis and understanding your professional place and purpose keep you from sharing your ideas. You do not wander alone and you leave the tastiest breadcrumbs through these deep, dark woods.

    1. bon

      Jeannine, just wanted to say thank you for this. i’ll be here…sometimes more, sometimes less. but here. having somewhere to speak is as important as having something to say and a voice to say it in…having all three cohere at once is especially nice, but hey. ;)

  7. Pingback: Living in a state of conscious incompetence | Jenny Connected

  8. Pingback: To Not Speak « Lisa's (Online) Teaching Blog

  9. Paul Prinsloo

    Dear Bonnie et al – thanks for sharing breadcrumbs and especially for your closing sentences – “Perhaps the breadcrumb trail won’t lead out of the woods. Perhaps some crumbs lead to the dangerous candy house. Still. Your voices remind me that I don’t wander alone.”

    Possibly my (our?) silence is voicing (sic) the experience of nausea of having been inside the candy house and suddenly the quick and simple answers of the fetishization of technology made us to stumble out of the candy house back into the wood. Paul

    1. bon

      Paul…you’re right. the candy house of technofetishism driving the big MOOC bus these past couple of years makes me glad to run back out into the woods.

      at the same time, i wonder what i’m wandering towards and if i’m not implicitly expecting another (totally different, not revolting) candy house to materialize? and perhaps i should be building one, but the ground keeps shifting under me and so…i’m never sure if i am, or not.

      under too many layers of metaphor, there’s something here: i believe we need to make our answers, not expect to find them. but in the current educational market, that’s going to be a harder sell to engage people in…and thus the critical mass needed for clarity and building can be hard to achieve.

      still, these conversations help. thank you. :)

  10. Pingback: Finding your blogging voice: lessons from Jack Kerouac | Jenny Connected

  11. Keith Hamon

    Bon, thanks so much for the wonderful post and the sharp insights into a difficult issue for many writers, even the most experienced writers. For me, the key insight here is the loss of voice we feel when any conversation that had engaged us suddenly shifts in tone or direction and becomes something foreign to us. It’s as if we suddenly become the only child on the playground who isn’t in the game. That loss of place in the group can be very distressing and it can feel like our fault, but I’m not convinced that it is. The conversation moved, and sometimes the only intelligent response is to let it go and to disengage in silence. Fortunately, it’s a big playground and there are other games. Your voice has worked some useful magic here.

    1. bon

      you know, Keith…that’s it, in a sense. i have the ongoing feeling that i’m only half-in any of the conversations that are important to me. and that’s okay, in the sense that i don’t expect to fully ever know the lay of the land, but also bewildering because it all seems to get ever more complex, and identifying the narratives people are speaking from and the assumptions behind them feels Sisyphean. (okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration).

      i wonder sometimes if part of the challenge, at least as i experience it, is just the networked nature of communication. in a physically-bounded conversation, you can tell who’s in and who’s out, and who’s being addressed, overtly or implicitly. in a group conversation, online or off, there are norms that all members can reference. in a network, you never know who’s listening or who’s performing for whom, or where the membership ends. perhaps it’s just cacophony i find hard to speak in, for all i value the opportunity to speak and listen and have my ideas shaped in the flurry.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *