About two weeks ago, I attended yoga for the first time, I’m sad to say, in months. I walked to the studio seeking out two hours of suffering and total escape that I can’t seem to achieve on my bike. When I’m on the bike commuting, I’m worried about cars. When I’m on my mountain bike, I’m worried about how long my companions have been waiting for me. When I’m living my daily life, I’m easily distracted, and that style of yoga is the only elegant reprieve from the gerbil wheel of my mind and thoughts.
When I got to the studio, I laid my mat on the floor, and promptly fell asleep until the teacher turned on the lights to start class. Turns out, everyone in the room except for me and one other person were there to celebrate the last class of a fellow yogini. The teacher began by apologizing for the tears that were going to fall during our class. Apologies, she said to the two of us, this was not going to be a typical class, we’re losing a member of our community. She complimented the yogini, a beautifully fit woman leaving Portland for a job in Seattle, for her unwavering dedication to the studio. To their community. This final practice was going to be the yogini’s 2,704th class. Clearly by the tears in many peoples’ eyes, she was going to be missed.
The departing yogini then spoke up and said, “It may sound impressive that I’ve taken so many classes, but I want all of you to know that it’s never gotten easier. This yoga is never easy. Everyday feels like my first class. It’s important to protect this space as a place where we all feel safe to learn. None us ever become experts yet we continue to do this together. That’s what has mattered to me. We continue to do this together.”
None of us ever become experts yet we continue to do this together. That is, truly, what matters. I was pretty moved by her little speech, and of course, I left studio thinking about teaching, learning, and leadership.
Here’s the thing.
When I work with folks newly interested in open education, I’m sometimes seen as an “expert” and it’s an uncomfortable place for me. I’m kind of a hack and charlatan who is willing to stand in front of people—like that yogini above—to share what I know. To share what I don’t know. To fail in front of people. To share ideas that I can’t prove will work. The most important part of what I do (hopefully) is to try to improve the conditions of where and how we learn. Together.
A year ago, I had a meeting with a book publishing agent, and ten minutes into our meeting, I could tell she was totally confused by what I care about as an educator. We met at a coffee shop, and I was presenting about OER as professional development.
Here’s my title and blurb:
Book Nerd, Meet Tech Geek: The OER Movement Improves Faculty Development
In my work as the Director of eLearning (tech geek), people are often surprised to learn that my background is in English studies (book nerd). Learn how open educational resources (OER) provide pathways for student-centered success while fostering collaborative professional development among faculty members. Discover strategies learned from starting a small grassroots OER movement on campus that will help you avoid common pitfalls and failures.
I need to admit that I remixed that title several different times in 2015 (it was a busy year). I now know that sometimes book publisher folks send agents looking for “talent” at academic conferences. She was a lovely gal, and she bought me a coffee. So tell me, she said, who is your ideal reader?
Anyone who thinks I remind them of Joan Didion?, I thought. Community college leaders who are looking for ways to substantiate funding for professional development centered on OER. I want leaders to care about adjuncts since they teach most of our courses, I said oh-so-academically.
Describe your perspective on OER. What’s your most effective method of gaining that audience’s attention?
I stand up on the table like Sally Field as Norma Rae with a sign that says UNION & OER, I thought.
Well, I try to understand their local barriers to this kind of radical change in pedagogy. I try to empathize. I talk about decreasing textbook costs as a catalyst for major change in higher education. I think this movement will progress in three phases. We’ll start with textbook costs, then we’ll address pedagogy, and then we’ll save adjunct teachers from burnout. It’s not that cut and dry, of course. There’s more to it than that, and it’s not a linear progression of transformation. It may not happen in my lifetime. When I can, I generate data from both the students and the teachers, I said oh-so-academically.
Hmm. So let me get this straight, how does OER connect to professional development? How does a teacher put a line on her CV about this work?
Somedays, I think CV should stand for Crap-tastic Vocation instead of Curricula Vitae, but I didn’t say that. Well, it’s not work that is directly valued by institutions at this point in time, but I believe in the future it will be. Someday. In the meantime, it’s the only meaningful professional development that I see that directly connects to the student experience. More importantly, it’s the only radical choice for adjuncts seeking true academic freedom in horrific labor conditions. I don’t have the data to support this, but I’d like to tell a story about why this work is valuable. How I’ve witnessed real change in the way people teach.
Okay, she said, so would you provide a business plan or some sort of metric for administrators to follow? Do you have charts that would accompany your narrative?
Who would ruin a good story with a chart or a business plan for the love of cats? Sheesh! The Quant Kills The Qual in My Heart: A Memoir. No. If that’s something you think is necessary, I think I could create something like that with a little help of my friends. (Oh my gawd, I’m citing Ringo Starr. Deep swallow of the coffee to end this meeting. I looked at my watch).
Chances are, if we publish this book, she said, it will take three years or more to publish. How will you work to keep this idea relevant in the meantime?
Wow. Is it too early to start drinking? I started packing up my things. I’m not sure what I’m doing is like that. I don’t own this idea–there is a community of people who care about these goals. Hopefully in four years things will be a lot different than they are now. Somebody somewhere could have a much better idea than me, and I’ll help them.
We shook hands. Exchanged cards. Smiled pleasantries. Promised to be in touch. I never heard from her again.
Here’s the other thing: I’m kinda done with academic publishing cycles. It’s part of that Crap-tastic Vocation (CV), and it’s part of the gig. You see, I had this realization playing Giant Jenga in a bar in Austin with two lovely colleagues. As we played a good game while chatting and laughing, I got to thinking. I think I’d rather focus on the piece-by-piece of what feels like progress rather than focusing on the performance. The game of the academic performance just seems like a waste of time.
For those of you unfamiliar with Jenga, it’s a game where you start with a tall tower of blocks and you take one block from the bottom few rows and you add it to the top. Eventually, you end up with a precarious mix of balance and hope (like yoga). Depending on who you play with, you might get help from your competitors. It’s a fun group game where you accept that one of you will lose with great flair and spectacle. The tower will fall. It will be messy. A group dynamic can take over where you help one another. Best of all, you can have a conversation and digress as long as you remember who’s turn it is. You can heckle and help one another. It’s fun for a community of people.
Or you can play with competitive types who offer no assistance. You’re on your own. There will only be one winner. The process is not as fun with these folks. Winning–or forcing somebody else to lose–is the most important action of the game. That’s not so fun to me. You focus so much on the tower that the block-by-block seems a means to the end rather than the purpose.
The tower will fall no matter what. Block by block, we will figure it out by trying to build something different. Block by block, we will figure it out. Either way, it’s going to be messy.
I’m kind of stuck on this Jenga metaphor about leadership, but I’m not sure what I have to say about it. For now. Maybe you will, dear reader, and that’s the beauty of open education. We share as we learn. Block by block. If I can go back to the words from the beloved yogini above, then I have my conclusion. For now.
This ______ is never easy. Everyday feels like my first class. It’s important to protect this space as a place where we all feel safe to learn. None us ever become experts yet we continue to do this together. That’s what has mattered to me. We continue to do this together.