#change11 Teaching and the Voice of Protest

I wanted to write this very first blog post about week 11 of the #change11 MOOC. This week’s facilitator, Jon Dron, has invited participants to reflect on how technology liberates and constrains how we learn and/or teach.  So I began thinking about how I structure my courses, the tools—blogs, course management systems, email—I have used and some of the tools—web radio, Twitter, Onehub—I may use next semester.

But I can’t write about one of those tools today because I write this inaugural post just two days after fifteen protesters/students were arrested in the lobby of the main building of my school, Baruch College of the City University of New York (CUNY). And I’m drawn to meditate on what it means to raise a voice—what it means in particular to me as a teacher of writing, currently researching creativity in higher education and planning my spring 2012 advanced essay writing course, in which I intend to explode categories of writing.  More on these topics—creativity and categories of writing in higher education—in the coming weeks.  Today: protest and voice in school.

Here is the official statement from the “Student Week of Action in Defense of Education” in response to the events at Baruch last night.

I’m thinking about this statement today alongside a blog post by Will Richardson in which he responds to the Wall Street Journal article, “My Teacher is an App.” (I came across Richardson’s post on this #change11 post to the Junct Blog–a little insight into the circuitous ways we read today.)

Richardson debunks the Journal article’s claim that ‘education is being “radically rethought” by the online and “blended” options that are available to students.’  He counters, “the only things being rethought here are the delivery models of a traditional education and, most importantly, the financial models to sustain it and make lots of money for outside businesses who see technology and access as a way to not only line their pockets with taxpayer money but also bust the unions that stand in their way.” So, yes, Richardson is sounding a bit reactionary here, jumping rather quickly to online and blended education as a form of union busting. Still, I’m interested in the forces that he puts into tension: schools and teachers (those delivery models of a traditional education), “outside businesses,” and unions.  I see those forces at work and in tension all the time at CUNY.

That’s why it’s compelling to read Richardson’s spin on the Wall Street Journal article alongside this paragraph from the Student Week Of Action statement, linked above:

The students and teachers of the CUNY system stand with all of those who believe in the mission of public education, and the crucial importance of education for the public. We stand against those who seek to privatize an institution that was established to serve the most disadvantaged of New Yorkers. And we refuse to passively accept a program of tuition increases that would disenfranchise our students, whom we love and we fight for every day of the week. We do our jobs based on heartfelt and hard-won principles; we study in order to be better citizens and workers, we teach to be better citizens; and we ask that the city’s police, firefighters, public employees, teachers, transport workers, shopkeepers, students, factory workers, service workers, care workers, health workers—THAT THE WHOLE CITY STAND WITH US.

Calling on the city workers and (implicitly) their powerful unions to help protect CUNY’s public mission against the encroachment of privatization echoes Richardson’s tension between education, public good (right, access), and private control (gain).  It’s a considerable tension—and not only for those of us invested in public and/or higher education. As new forms of course management and course delivery; more standardization of curricula, materials, assignments, and outcomes; and “streamlined” assessment tools for placement and advancement continue to emerge—and as they are unflinchingly embraced by more and more institutions—education becomes increasingly narrow, closed. Corporate backers and suppliers step in to shape the culture of education occupied, but no longer driven, by students and teachers and their experiences, incentives, and goals.

Somewhere near the heart of this tension is my belief that creativity has to be more prominent in our classrooms, that to teach toward opportunities of creativity means resisting the move toward standardization that limits curricula and notions of writing from grade school on up.  Creativity is imperative because the world is changing, students today are writing in ways and spaces that didn’t exist a few years ago, and communication will surely continue to evolve in ways we’re not able to predict—but our assignments and approaches to writing are boxed into unnatural, old-fashioned, and uninspiring forms.  I’m sure Jon Dron’s thinking about technology, and how it liberates and constrains, will speak to me this week as I rethink my own assignment and course designs.  But I’m stuck, today, on voice, on protest and its creative potential.

Richardson urges educators to raise their voices:

Look, not for nothing, but if we don’t start writing and advocating for a very different vision of learning in real classrooms, one that is focused not just on doing the things we’ve been doing better but in ways that are truly reinvented, one that prepares kids to be innovators and designers and entrepreneurs and, most importantly, learners, we will quickly find ourselves competing at scale with cheaper, easier alternatives that won’t serve our kids as well.

I support and seek to help define a “truly reinvented” education aimed at helping students be innovators and learners.  And I believe we’ve entered an age when direct advocacy and, yes, protest are key to defining literacy and learning in ways that resist the strong arm of an industry that wishes to manage—in cost-effective and quantifiable but not necessarily educationally sound ways—curricula, course delivery, and assessment. How can I produce a scholarship of advocacy for literacy and learning, for access and advancement? How can I teach my students to raise a voice in ways that resonate with them, their lives, interests, and viewpoints?  These are the questions that bring me to consider technologies for learning.  Does a technology advance my goal of helping students choose how and where to enter—and creatively shape—a conversation that matters to them?

I gotta say: I don’t really care if my students learn how to correctly document a source in MLA style or if they use a good signal phrase to introduce a quote or if they know the difference between a comma and a semi-colon.  I’ll probably keep teaching those things as they come up because I know that in certain contexts source use and mechanics of writing matter, and I want my students to have access to tools that shape the opinions of readers. But I know these lessons may not “stick,” and I don’t think it really matters if they do. If, however, I can help my students understand the power of their voices and the potential of their creative endeavor—to discern how and when to exercise that power and potential—then I have done something of value with the tools available to me.

I’m still working out what my truly reinvented approach to teaching looks like. I joined the MOOC because I’m always working it out, together with my students. I try something or propose something and they tell me—through their interest or resistance or willingness to experiment or not—how it’s working.  I try to keep flexible. I try to teach my students why it’s important to be flexible and inventive in the face of all those forces and standards that threaten to stifle alternative voices and squeeze the creative juices right out of our bones.

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