DIY U: Take 2

So in the airport waiting for my flight to the UK I tried to bang out some quick thoughts upon finishing DIY U, only to retract them within minutes of publishing them (though apparently not before Google managed to catch a copy of it).

I retracted the first draft because I realized how important the issues are and I wanted to be clear, for my own sake, if not for yours.

My first reaction, which I largely covered in my initial retracted draft, is that Kamenetz’s book is not a bad one at all taken as a piece of popular journalism aimed at documenting a specific crisis in American higher ed and three different emerging responses to it, variously “artisans” (those working on systemic transformation of higher ed), “monks” (edupunks and open ed types who, whilst often still inside the very institutions they are critical of, are portrayed as promoting education outside the confines of the institution) and “merchants” (those looking to privatize and profit from the crises of cost and quality facing higher ed). I think critics who have chastised for citation errors and the like are basically nit picking, and I honestly believe (based partly on the focus of Kamenetz’s first book) that her desire to raise a clarion call about cost and “quality” issues in American post-secondary education is sincere, and that she is not a particular booster of the privatization of learning. But…

I want to go further with my reservations than I did in the first draft. And while I enumerated them as two in that first draft (that the book was too American in focus and that it only pays lip service to it’s title “DIY U”) these are really two aspects of the same concern.

A first take on this concern would be that while I respect the analysis focuses on cost (and to a lesser extent “quality”) as legitimate concerns, especially from the student or “consumer” perspective, that the role of higher education, it’s value and placement in society, is too complex to be reduced to these few considerations or to be approached from only those perspectives. This is not a particularly damning of Kamenetz, though – we live in a world surrounded by reductive analyses, always collapsing distinctions and differences in order to “get to THE point,” “get things done” etc.

And some will claim that’s just the way the world is, and that resisting this is just more evidence of my “monkish” nature. Maybe. But therein lies my larger take on my concern, and again, it is unfair to unload this on Kamenetz’s work specifically, because it is no more guilty of this (and possibly even less) than most analyses; but the concern is this, that while we can and do make these kind of global analyses of problems and solutions (because indeed, there are no private language games, we can and do recognize commonalities), we need (indeed I’d say MUST, but I step back) to resist the urge to collapse any of our own specific contexts into these global analyses and solutions. And this is why I think the rather short-shrift given to “edupunk” belies a misunderstanding of the profundity of its origins; because, just like it’s predecessor “punk,” edupunk must kill itself off; it is ALWAYS local, ALWAYS specific, contextual, grassroots, emerging. “EDUPUNK” IS DEAD. LONG LIVE EDUPUNK! It is an urging towards a relationship of learner, teacher and knowledge that is NOT simply instrumental, a constant examining of “relating” itself.

In a discussion on twitter, Mikhail Gershovich and I described Jim Groom as “an American Pragmatist” which he took really badly. But I believe this (and Jim, PLEASE correct me, as this is really new thinking for me, and I know I am positing a lot) is because he understood us to be meaning the colloquial sense of the word, often taken to mean “utilitarian,” which is almost the exact opposite of what we (and I believe he) intended. No, I think both Mikhail and I were talk philosophic Pragmatism that refuses to collapse contextual specifics into meta-narratives. Now inasmuch as this approach still holds on to Ends, albeit the Ends specified by the specific context, I can see a tension between this and my above description of edupunk. And if I haven’t totally lost the plot, then hopefully this is something Jim and others can help me work through, but again, I think, always resisting the urge to meta-narrative, to resurrecting “Edupunk.”

So, monkish? Well, at least, if not totally barmy! I mean, how do you implement a plan of national reform on the back of this? Well, you don’t. Not that it’s not needed, but if you take seriously the ideas of autonomy, of nodes, of emergence, then at best you figure out how to un-bundle while not falling prey to the conservative lie, the myth of the individual. And this is where I think we progressives, if I may, need to take seriously the charge that network learning panders to autodidacts; not because it must be true, but because for it not to be true means accepting that some learners may want to simply get a credential, just “get the job,” and that if we are to contract for their teaching, it needs to be a negotiation, one that includes informing them of the possibilities but actually listening to what they want, and finding the agreement in between. That, it would seem to me, would be truly edupunk. – SWL