We May Need to Amputate

Sean Michael Morris

The ability or inability of a group or culture to progress is in direct relationship to the proliferation of aphorism within it. General statements of fact and abbreviations of great wisdom are misleading in that they censure further inquiry and discussion. The brilliance of our predecessors was never meant to be carved into stone monuments, but as a point from which our own meditations should depart. When we rest on their laurels we languor, we enjoy a tenure of torpor. We cannot attend old leadership any more than we can wait for new leaders. We must take the lead.

I talk to leaders every day. Because every day I am in contact with teachers who have an array of backgrounds, an array of pedagogical stances, an array of fears and beliefs. I hear teachers write about their students — encouraging them, disparaging them, condoning and cursing them — and I hear teachers write about their profession, usually from a perspective of discontent, of everything being not-quite-right. Teachers are spooked by their institutions, they’re intimidated by men and intimidated by women, no one is paid enough, and the list of crises in education seems impossibly long. Tenure and money are not solutions, online education is fraught, every single person deserves better treatment than they receive. Sisyphus had it easy.

But I talk to leaders every day. Teachers are among the most educated of any population. No one receives an education without solving some problems — from dorm roommates who store dead pets in the freezer to plumbing the depths of pre-Modern mathematics, our educations have been about untying knots — and no one comes to teaching without solving even more. We are more skilled than Sisyphus, cleverer, and not nearly so doomed.

I am in favor of speaking plainly. And more and more, bold outcry has become the norm. There is no use in being surreptitious on the internet; nor is there in education. We are not only educators in our classrooms. We are educators at lunch. We are educators at dinner parties. We are educators when we shop, volunteer, and raise our children. We are educators when we write. In “Academic Cowards and Why I Don’t Write Anonymously,” Tressie McMillan Cottom writes that: “this moment in time is woefully thin on leaders. I hope they emerge soon. And in numbers plentiful and intersectional enough that it ends highered’s history of the most marginalized risking the most for the benefit of the many.” Though her article ministers with a forthright compassion to those who are afraid to express themselves, her call to speak out is none too subtle. And she is right. Leaders must emerge. Or, perhaps more to the point, leaders must begin to recognize themselves.

There are a lot more leaders than we think. We are each better leaders than we give ourselves credit for. And it will be in bold speech, voices in the desert, that we’ll recover our community of problem-solvers.

In the introduction to her MOOC about the future of higher education, Cathy Davidson says that “Far too little has changed inside our educational institutions, in the US and internationally, to prepare us for the demands, problems, restrictions, obstacles, responsibilities, and possibilities of living in the world we inhabit outside of school.” She calls for us to begin rethinking the way we educate, to return to the blank page, the beginner’s mind, to rediscover how learning happens. Education needs different objectives than it did when the current system was invented; and so, just as we would for a course with an evolving set of outcomes, we must continually rewrite the syllabus of education. Cathy’s MOOC proposed one space for that revision to begin — and it is a branching, disparate, distributed space, not localized inside her course alone. It is, as she said, not a MOOC, but a movement.

I dislike MOOCs. I have lain abed with them too long and we are both tired from the intimacy. But there is one thing I cannot deny about our copulation: it has been far from ordinary. I’ve said many things about MOOCs during our affair, ending with this from “What is MOOCification?“:

The MOOC has created debates about the ownership of ideas, the sharing of resources, the role of the teacher and learner, the notions of authorship and collaboration, the sticky mess of FERPA, and much more … In these ideas, notions, messes, and themes lie new pedagogies waiting to wake up. In them lie the potential to change the way we teach to better match what is really going on in learners’ lives and in our hybrid culture.

Andrew Ho and Isaac Chuang, of Harvard and MIT, have learned something similar from their intercourse with the MOOC. According to reporter Michael Patrick Rutter, they hold that “the rise of MOOCs has sparked and encouraged experimentation in teaching and in pedagogical research, benefiting both teachers and students.” Most important here is the idea nascent in these observations: that education has become a place of experimentation on a grand scale, for good or bad, and that our classrooms, our journals, our conferences are transformed into a surgical theater.

If higher education is ailing, it is only because its many doctors have not applied themselves to its resuscitation. This is not a system that will care for us forever. It is a relationship that requires nurture and aid. The stacks of books upon which our universities have been built molder and decay. The digital makes walls into screens and debates into tweets, yet is less hale than our hallowed halls. Neither the analog nor the digital will preserve us. We are not a university unless we are colleagues, unless we care for the adjunct among us, unless we elevate the student, and unless we make friends as an act of radical political resistance.

Josh Boldt has said, speaking specifically of the decline of tenure, that “as of right now, things are not looking good. While we worry about the erosion of tenure (which affects a very small proportion of academic labor), the entire profession is crumbling. It’s like painting your living room while the house burns down.” He goes on to insist that collaboration will be essential to solving higher education’s problems, that we cannot worry about hereditary hair loss when the victim’s in a wheelchair. And he calls for help (if sardonically), when he offers “tell me how we can accomplish tenure for all and I will shake your hand. The person who figures out a way to make this happen would be a true hero.”

Education’s new leaders won’t be heroes, though, they will be field medics. Jesse reminds us, in “A User’s Guide to Forking Education,” that we must “let the voices of authority proliferate rather than congeal.” And we’re going to need many opportunities for training, safe places with warm bodies, where new procedures can be tested and learning can occur. I’d characterize that MOOC of Cathy Davidson’s as valorous because it advocates a pragmatic optimism that is the only remedy for what ails higher education. Davidson is not a Pollyanna. She knows we may need to amputate. If what needs to change ever will, it will ride on the shoulders of hard work, determined effort, and not a few more disappointments.

Being a leader will not be easy. It will take effort to begin rolling up our sleeves and bending our intellects to the matter at hand. It will no longer be enough to point out the leaky faucet; we must forge the wrench that will fix it. And if anyone can, we can.

Hell, we could run this place if we wanted to.

I talk to leaders every day. I publish leaders upwards of three times a week. Read them. Write your own words here. But be mindful: one day, you will be excerpted, so make your aphorisms discontent. You will write brilliant things. Let those things raise hell.


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An Urgency of Teachers Copyright © 2018 by Sean Michael Morris is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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