One Foot In, One Foot Out

I wrote this in response to Institutionalized by Mike Caulfield and following the Jim Groom and Mike C. conversation.  And frankly just trying to keep up as others are also posting about this!  See Stephen Downes‘ piece and Maha Bali’s, The Sustainability of Open.

This is not a new debate. And may be one of those non-debate debates, like nature/nurture.  One of the oldest struggles that activists have had in any movement is whether to work ‘in or out of the system’.  And if Open Education is a movement, it needs its activists – inside and out.

Not sure who Mike is accusing of “romanticizing the fact they are poised against the institution”. And maybe he means us tenured, full professors who have and still enjoy a very decent salary.  But it hasn’t always been an easy road for many of us to get here. And this is especially insulting to people who have had to fight institutions every step of the way for their very life.

The real argument here isn’t institutions vs. not institutions- but who gets to have a say over how these institutions are run, who gets to set the priorities, who has the power.  Also, there seems to be a real misunderstanding here of equating ‘non-institutionalizing’ with rogue individuals just working on their own.  But activism has been about organizing groups of people – want to call that an institution? Whatever.  Do huge groups of gay rights activists in the street, for example, constitute an institution? By the way, it was that kind of activism that eventually led to institutional changes like legalizing gay marriage in the U.S.

“You can’t make real and lasting change without reforming institutions.” says Mike. But as any good feminist understands, the pressure from OUTSIDE of the power-holding institution is what leads to the institutional change.

 “Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference—those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older—know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.” 

Audre Lourde, History is a Weapon, The Masters tools will Never Dismantle the Master’s house

Especially for those of us that work in so-called public institutions, the influence of the voice of most of the people inside of those originally well-intended institutions is being increasingly eroded and replaced by a corporate top-down structure.  Why?

“But we don’t have any money”! -seems to be the excuse.   Nobody seems to have any money these days. Not schools, not communities, not local businesses.


People working inside of higher ed institutions who have watched them close down, or are watching the very essence of teaching and learning slowly and deliberately being defined and controlled by a consumer model are not just ‘romanticizing’ about being ‘poised against the institution’.

Perhaps the piece in Jim Groom’s post that needs the most attention is his link to Audrey Watters, The Education Apocalypse.  To me, these are the questions:  Why is public support for Higher Ed eroding? To what extent has this been engineered by profit-motivated corporations seeking a new base of untapped consumers?  And what can we do about it?

Open Education has the great potential- if we do it right – to make crystal clear, the connection between what students are learning in their universities AND the value of that learning to the public commons. As our institutions become increasingly defined by corporate structure, we will more and more need to collectively organize outside of them to effect the changes necessary to get this message through.

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8 thoughts on “One Foot In, One Foot Out

  1. Love this post and esp the reference to Audre Lorde and the master’s tools – it’s very helpful to make the broader link to activism beyond this particular topic. Also of interest, though, is that eventually you’re still hoping for activists/advocacy groups to influence policy. Like gay marriage. Like laws against discrimination. Which reminds me that Mike mentioned some examples of that also (he edited his post later so he may have lost some?).
    But I hear you on the term romanticize. I get why Mike used it and with reference to Jim specifically but also i get why it offends/bothers you.

  2. I feel a bit misunderstood in this post.

    In 1998, I started Transcript Media, a web side-project to my day job that took material from public domain sources and offered it to educators to use for free. This was before Creative Commons, before MIT. It was one of the early open education sites, put together out of my own open activism.

    In 2006, I started Blue Hampshire, an attempt (largely successful) to push the Democratic Party in New Hampshire to the right, and force the NHDP to deal with activists. Among other things, our “Citizen Whip Count” on the marriage equality vote helped flip weak Dem Senate votes positive when the marriage equality vote had died in committee.

    Here’s how the citizen whip count worked. We put up on top of the site’s home page who had announced which way they were voting on the marriage equality bill. And then we had all of our readers focus on getting a response from the “no comment” Senators on how they planned to vote. When they got an answer in the affirmative, we put it up on top of the site and they stopped getting calls. (We got angry emails from the head of the NHDP for “harassing Senators”, but we flipped the votes in the end).

    Starting in 2013, I have worked three years with decentralizing wiki, working with the inventor of wiki. Most people can’t understand what this means, but the problem with wiki is it has to be hosted with someone, usually an institution, and if that someone goes under or pulls the plug, everyone loses their work. In other words, wiki is to vulnerable to institutional whims. When I started working on this, most people didn’t understand the problem — why would you create a system where every person had their own copy of a wiki? Why not just have a centralized wiki?

    More recently we’ve worked with students at my institution, and given them the tools they need to make their case about Open Education at the State House. They’ve testified at hearings, proposed legislation, and conducted research. Our entire open strategy here has rested not on top-down administration edicts, but on amplifying student voice and empowering interested faculty. We didn’t have a system-wide mandate, or even a structure to tap into. We built it from scratch here, from student voice and faculty interest, without a dollar of support until this fall.

    I’ve worked my whole life on decentralized solutions to things that run outside the system, and I’ve been successful at it. It’s what I’m known for. I’ve even been an innovator in that area. So I really appreciate the response, and I’m trying not to sound touchy (I know, I’m sounding touchy) but I’m not sure how anyone who knows me could read that post as a dismissal of decentralized, extra-institutional approaches.

    But when you work deeply in decentralized activism and technology, you come to realize, eventually, that your talents are not the only talents that matter. The best coalitions have people who know how to work things from the outside and have people who can work things from the inside. I think if you read my post again you’ll see it’s not an attack on decentralizers; it’s a plea from a decentralizer to recognize that we need a variety of talents to get this done. I feel like the post is very clear about that.

    Maybe people just don’t know my work as well as I think they do. But as I’ve read replies to me that have explained facts about activism, decentralization, and federation, I’ve really been at a loss at how to reply. I’m sure you’ve been splain’d before about something you’ve spent your life on. It’s an odd feeling.

    As far as the romanticization, it’s there in Open EdTech. Jim has a whole brand built around the idea that domains are the new indie rock, and names servers after seminal bands on indie labels. I think that’s really smart, and it gets people excited. But I also think it sometimes wrongly labels people working inside the institution in less cool ways as the schlock rock of the Open Ed world, and I don’t see it that way. Someone laid out the budget line that funds DoOO, someone funded the position that signed the approval. Someone talked to the registrar about FERPA concerns, and rewrote policy guidance. Someone tied authentication into a single sign-on system. Someone thought to provision every student in an orientation program with their own site. Someone figured out the LTI to embed the blog in Blackboard, for those who wanted to go that way.

    My point is that in the great OER/OpenPed divide, which has been around for at least a decade now, the OER folks are often good at the institutional stuff, and we could learn from them, maybe even ride in their slipstream occasionally. My radical idea is really that some people have different talents than I do and that those talents are useful too.

  3. Mike, I do know exactly how it feels to be ‘splained’ to about something you’ve spent your whole life on. I imagine many of us do. (You have no idea the number of people who try to explain to me about brown recluse spiders and their distribution in NH or not – they do NOT occur at all in NH by the way just in case anybody reading this cares). So I do apologize for any unnecessary ‘splaining’. I think we are saying the same thing- we need people to work both inside and outside of institutions (and it probably doesn’t matter who is considered most cool or not).
    I am curious about my own lack of familiarity with your activist work – in spite of the fact that I was one of the founders and key organizers of the coalition in Cheshire County, NH, and our committee, and members, consisted of just about everyone I knew that had been very active in LGBT issues in Cheshire County (for decades in some cases). Maybe some of our members worked with Blue New Hampshire, but you and I didn’t work directly together.
    Of more interest in this dialogue, to me, is my lack of familiarity with your Open Ed activist work before and during your time here at Keene State College. I’m sure much of this had to do with my attentions being focused in many other directions, but I don’t recall any OER or Open pedagogy initiatives at Keene State College. There were probably some workshops that I missed, but I mostly remember things about LMS’s, google hang-outs, using clickers in the classroom, and reading books about disruptive innovation. If there was something much bigger, none of us at KSC would have missed it.
    So when I read recently about how you were one of the early inventors of the concepts of OER and Open Pedagogy (and I am not being facetious when I say this- it doesn’t surprise me, I always thought you were a fucking genius)- my thoughts race to – why the hell wasn’t Keene State at the center for this stuff then??? We would be so much further ahead than just a glacial speed USNH-ATSC OER initiative if there had been a significant ‘outside the institution’ bottom up faculty movement instead of the top down approach of the then-administration. And your skills and experience in activism just makes my feelings about this even worse!

    1. As far as the Open Ed stuff in Keene we actually did push it quite a bit, but what admin wanted was (for both practical and political reasons) for us to be seen as offering a variety of things, not just one thing. We lived a fragile existence in CELT and it was thought (I think) best to be seen as driven by faculty concerns, not internal desires.

      We *did* do a lot with Open Pedagogy though. With Therese in sociology we made (over a number of semesters) a public wiki on the issue of homelessness that was meant to be a one-stop shop. We assisted Maggie Walsh with her community mapping. I think we also had Matthew help you with the Biology notes wiki (or am I thinking of someone else?). We had Tracy Mendham share her class’s feminist blogging with the campus (at I forget what the big name event was). We launched a WordPress instance available to all faculty for class blogging and got a number of faculty on it, although we could never make it a broad success. (It was shut down in 2012). I conceptualized, pitched, and co-produced Larry Welkowitz’s “Remixable MOOC” in Psychology, a MOOC that allowed others to disassemble and reassemble it in any way they thought possible.

      Those are some of the more successful projects, but of course we had more failures.

      As importantly, I think if you dig into the roots of the current USNH project, I am probably there in spirit. Mel was broadly supportive of the system doing something around open based on my conversations with him. Jenny and I talked daily about this stuff, and we brought Jim Groom up to Keene State for the first academy at Jenny’s suggestion, but based on my personal friendship with him. (He actually stayed on my couch for two of the three days he was here). Jim had, the prior year, invited me down to give a plenary at UMW’s similar event, so he really couldn’t say no. I’d say on the whole that CELT as a whole was exposed to a lot of this stuff before it became better known due to my involvement with that crowd.

      (As a matter of fact, we had Jim Groom present years earlier, via videoconference, at Keene State’s Faculty Development week in 2008, just before I left for MIT. It was in the science auditoriums, and I think outside of Gordon, Melinda, and Mel maybe three people turned up. Jim talked about the power of giving students websites — in 2008).

      You can talk to Jenny about it and get her take, but I think what she’ll probably tell you is that I was always passionate about this stuff, and constantly trying to get it going, but apart from a selection of smaller successful projects, it was difficult to get wheels under it, because so much of my time was devoted to things that had institutional priority, like ADP and the general education transition (I got pulled into helping design many of the general education rubrics on never-ending committees).

      I also tried to give Matthew, when possible, the more interesting projects, because we were desperate to keep him.

      And so I’d say that in some ways it’s an example of what we’re talking about here — we were doing this stuff, we were looking for people to do it, but without the bullhorn and focus of the institution it always got stuck in the “free time” drawer, and it just wasn’t enough to build a movement. Additionally the politics of having to have a center that was seen as not having a specific ideology or focus other than “varieties of good teaching” held us back a bit, but that was the reality of the time. So much of how that center got put together in the first place was the idea that it was going to provide support for Ann Rancourt’s work with the integrative curriculum, and so that’s what I ended up doing much of the time.

      Finally, it was just too early. Sometimes being ahead of your time is a waste. Bringing Jim and Martha Burtis into faculty dev in Spring 2008 he just seemed a bit like a weirdo to some. Three or four years later people were starting to get it. We had a WordPress multisite in 2010 (one of my first acts was to set it up) and it withered on the vine — six years later maybe you’ll succeed with DoOO. I worked with a bunch of faculty to integrate open materials into their classroom, but the materials were not so good in 2012. Four years later they are better.

      So maybe all that stuff. But Jenny could probably give you more info.

      Sorry for the late reply, BTW. I’ve remembered to check off the notify me of comments by email box.

    2. Oh — I realized I forgot to talk about marriage equality. Unfortunately, we pulled the plug on the site a few years back, but you can still find traces of what we did.

      The bill that eventually brought marriage equality to New Hampshire was actually announced first on our site (Blue Hampshire), by the sponsor Jim Splaine who was one of our most dedicated members:

      This has Jim’s text:

      Jim’s post on our site was covered nationally by the LGBTQ press, but many in the major press didn’t think it stood a chance. Throughout the process, Jim used Blue Hampshire as a primary vehicle for communicating out the status and prospects of the bill, including public missives to the Governor.

      Later we moved from awareness to strategic targeting of both the Senate and Lynch. This is a page with a screenshot of our Whip Count, which other sites used to target calls:

      It was probably our best idea in the history of the site.

      If you search Google for “Blue Hampshire” and marriage equality you can also see the coverage we generated, though again, our own pages are sadly offline.

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