Tag Archives: participatory

Engaging Academics and Reimagining Scholarly Communication for the Public Good: A Report

We are pleased to announce the release of “Engaging Academics and Reimagining Scholarly Communication for the Public Good: A Report,” which summarizes the work we accomplished in 2013.

JP365 Report Cover

The report highlights:

Much of the work we produced is available on our website and is all licensed under Creative Commons for reuse (CC BY-NC-SA). We encourage you to incorporate these resources into your own scholarship, activism and teaching.  Please join our email list to stay up-to-date on our latest work!

You can download a PDF of the report here or read it online.

British Modernism and the Public Intellectual

It’s the beginning of a new semester as well as the new year. There are new faces in my classroom, and taxes are due. And, with JustPublics@365, the figure of the public intellectual is very much on my mind.

A couple years ago at a weekly Friday departmental talk, I was surprised when a very respected professor bemoaned the dearth of contemporary public intellectuals. We have no Voltaires, he said, and as a culture we are suspicious of too much erudition. Another professor joined him to urge us, graduate students in this public university, to publish outside academia because really, hardly anyone is reading your 30-page article in the leading academic journal in your field. “You have to get yourself out there, and heard by a wider audience,” they exhorted.

Listening to them, I wondered: I teach between 50 to 90 students per semester; isn’t that “public” enough? Each week, my inbox floods with notices of talks, exhibitions, readings, screenings, and panel discussions that I look through and delete—there’s just not enough time for everything. It seemed, in the small circles I moved in, that there were too many public intellectuals. If only these academics stayed home a bit more and did a teeny bit less, I might have the leisure to make it to more of their events.

It’s been a few semesters since this gripey reflection, and I now realize how different my experience is from, say, that of my students. Consider the results of a brief, informal survey: Only a handful of hopeful engineers in my community college classroom had heard of Stephen Hawking, whose author photo from A Brief History of Time (1988) was one of the most significant images of my childhood. My film studies class had a few young people who lived and breathed film, though a majority would have trouble locating the Angelika. But the biggest challenge by far is with my English literature students, who study literary theory and British modernism with me. Few public intellectuals are spouting insights based on structural linguistics or psychoanalytic criticism, and even fewer reference nuggets from James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, and the like. To my students, the value of the material we cover is purely personal because, they see, there’s no place for that kind of language or discourse in the so-called real world. If there are “text-to-world” connections (such a favourite in pedagogic short-hand) between the classroom and the rest of lived experience, well, those connections are largely restricted to out-of-the-box ideas about romance and relationships, not job decisions and work ethics. In a kind of mental extension of the Levittown mentality, the personal is separated from public life, matters of head and heart firmly distanced, and although my students acknowledge that the literary modernists had pretty good things to say about interpersonal relationships, I’m also told in no uncertain terms that the “modernist mood” is no help at all with practicalities. We measure out our lives with coffee spoons, but what good does it do to point it out?

http://classconnection.s3.amazonaws.com/901/flashcards/124901/jpg/head_butt1304882691036.jpgMark Halsey, “A Short History of Modernist Painting” (1982)

All of which would have upset the modernists at least a little. Although modernism is most famous for being difficult, snooty, cold-hearted, and abstruse (to pick only the nicer adjectives my students supply), modernist writers were eager to be part of larger dialogues and the bigger picture. They felt the need to “Make it new”—not only for themselves, but for the culture as a whole. George Orwell, one of my dearest literary figures, was so committed to political action that he volunteered for the Spanish Civil War and was shot in the throat for his pains; he also managed to get a lovely book out of it. Eliot, for all his erudition, was intimately concerned with steering the intellectual climate of interwar England. The stultification they experienced, the alienation, loss, emasculation—all this was meant to draw in the unwary reader and then pull the rug out from under them, so to speak, and make it impossible to read any run-of-the-mill mush in quite the same way again.

In Nightwood, Djuna Barnes writes about failed relationships (among other things) and why we fall so stupidly in love with the wrong people over and over again. But really, she’s talking about education and the incipient danger of gender stereotypes:

“We were impaled in our childhood upon [unsuitable, stereotypical lovers] as they rode through our primers, the sweetest lie of all, now come to be in boy or girl, for in the girl it is the prince, and in the boy it is the girl that makes a prince a prince—and not a man. They go far back in our lost distance where what we never had stands waiting; it was inevitable that we should come upon them, for our miscalculated longing has created them. They are our answer to what our grandmothers were told love was, and what it never came to be; they, the living lie of our century” (145-6).

This passage is startling in its use of semi-colons, but further, it manages to succinctly connect fairy tales and children’s books to complex questions about gender (“princes” and “princesses”), identity (“a prince—and not a man”), illusions (“miscalculated longing”), and family structures (we inherit the dreams of our grandmothers, which seem so much more benign than those of our mothers). I like to spend a good bit of time in class discussing how our training molds and shapes us, and annoy students by suggesting that all this education is really designed to leave them (us) quiescent. I say, borrowing Barnes’ irony, that you “take away a man’s conformity and you take away his remedy,” leaving him like “the paralyzed man in Coney Island who had to lie on his back in a box” (155) as gawpers passed by. As we read, we find that these insights are from a middle-aged cross-dressing drunk, the false Dr. Matthew O’Connor. Social commentary with a dash of raucous melodrama: who wouldn’t want to read this book cover-to-cover?

All of which is to say, the modernists are no longer in the public eye, and maybe they are as over-intellectual as my students claim, but that doesn’t preclude their relevance today. One of the missions of JustPublics@365 is to invite participatory voices from beyond the academy; I propose we extend this “beyond” to those chilly, austere, literary modernist works that urge us to think outside and behind, to probe and question, to declaim the system even as it teaches you to speak. BLAST.

MOOC to POOC: Moving from Massive to Participatory

JustPublics@365 wants to reimagine higher education.  One of the ways we’re doing that is by re-thinking the graduate seminar and rethinking online education.

Recently, Thomas Friedman in an op-ed for The New York Times proclaimed “nothing has more potential to enable us to reimagine higher education than the massive open online course, or MOOC”. The New York Times dubbed 2012 “the year of the MOOC.”  In the context of New York City (and outside of academia), the term is pronounced “mook” (a derogatory term). Aside from the racism this term perpetuates, from our point of view the “MOOC”-model has lots of other problems.

Chiefly, the MOOC-model misunderstands how learning works. Often times, the “massive” forms of online “learning” rely heavily on lecture-delivery as the key pedagogy.  In this model, technology is used to amplify the reach of one lecture. This turns the many-to-many communication of the Internet back into the one-to-many broadcast model of television.  Perhaps fittingly, when television first emerged as a technology, there was lots of talk about the way “educational television” was going to revolutionize the way people learned. It didn’t change much, as it turned out.

The way Friedman, among others, talks about MOOCs is that they are a way to educate lots of people from a distance for “relatively little money.” As the education system is rapidly defunded, what is to be left for educators and their pupils besides the satellite dishes, computers, and “facilitator” Friedman describes.

Many are similarly jumping to support MOOCs as a money making venture, ignoring the actual purpose of education to envision new business models. Perhaps not surprisingly, lots of administrators in higher ed are jumping on the MOOC bandwagon, which many others are resisting.

We have a different idea. We wanted to create something participatory, rather than massive.  Something that engaged with people outside the academy, as well as with those inside.  That’s part of why we created the participatory, open, online course “POOC” – that we’re launching today.


51646126_7d7406b036(CC Image from Flickr)

To us, the most exciting thing about the Internet is not that we can amplify old lectures in broadcast fashion, but that it enables all of us to create knowledge in new ways, connect with those beyond the academy, and try to transform entrenched forms of inequality.

The course grew out of a discussion about interdisciplinarity at the Graduate Center among colleagues in the Advanced Research Collaborative (ARC). Several faculty there, under the able leadership of Don Robotham (Anthropology), began talking about all the great research being conducted at the Graduate Center that had some connection to the topic of “inequality.”  From there, a small group of people began to put together a syllabus for a multi-disciplinary, graduate-level seminar that pulled together diverse conversations about inequality.

In the seminar, the overall questions we want to explore are: What does inequality look like in 2013?  How might we imagine our future differently if we did so collectively? And, given that we are situated at this particular historical moment in which technology is changing many aspects of the social world, we wanted to also pose the question:  How do the affordances of digital technologies augment the way we both research inequality and resist its corrosive effects?

Then, as Co-PIs Chase Robinson, Matt Gold and Jessie Daniels, developed the proposal for the JustPublics@365 grant, we began to talk about incorporating something like a MOOC, although we had a lot of concerns with the MOOC-model.  Mostly, we wanted something that embodied the spirit of the Graduate Center and CUNY, a public institution with a very clear sense of serving the public as part of its core mission.  We also sit at 365 Fifth Avenue, in the heart of New York City, so we thought that the course should incorporate some of the vibrancy of our urban setting.

Over the summer months, a series of conversations got us thinking about situating the course in a particular neighborhood within New York City.  The organizers wanted to focus on a specific neighborhood in NYC in order to keep the discussion of “inequality” from getting too abstract and too far removed from people’s everyday lives and very real experiences of inequality.  In preliminary talks about the course, we realized that a few members of the #InQ13 collective had ties to East Harlem, where we either live or work.  And, finally, there was a shared sense that East Harlem has a rich, multi-ethnic tradition of citizen activism that everyone could learn from, but that is not widely known. So those original seminar questions were joined by another one: What can working with East Harlem teach everyone about the most urgent political economic issues of our time?

Part of the challenge in developing and launching the seminar is that we didn’t see many models of MOOC-s (or other open, online courses) that were geared toward a graduate-level.  There is an inherent tension, then, in having an “open” course that also aims to foster a discussion and create assignments at a fairly high-level of difficulty, at the same time it is attempting to involve community members.  We think it can be done, but we don’t think it’s probably very well suited for audiences on anything like a “massive” level.

And, one last note at this initial juncture about the “POOC” vs. “MOOC.”  While there’s a lot of talk about these as a “new business model” or threatening the business of higher ed, based on our experience this seems highly unlikely.  If you take a look at the #InQ13 collective – our “credits” page, if you will – there are some 19 individuals listed there.  It took at least that many people to create and launch this POOC (no doubt, we left some people out).  While this is an interesting, even fun, way to “do” education, I don’t see this as threatening the livelihood of current professoriate.  If anything, this kind of teaching could be the next jobs program.