102 Ideology, Performativity, Disruption, and the Uncanny as a Student in Open Education

Jessica Chretien

During the last semester I got to spend a lot of time learning about and participating in conversations about Open Education in the PSU community, but also in the larger national, and even global, Open Ed community.

What is Open Education? Well Open Ed is… pretty broad and always up for debate, always being reworked. A lot of Open began with the faculty and staff at institutions of higher education working to make textbooks affordable for students, or to eliminate cost all together. Open Ed specifically focused on OER, or Open Educational Resources. At the core of Open Ed is often a belief that knowledge should be open–it should be accessible, it should be shared, it should be unconstrained by various forces. As Open has developed, it’s expanded into many values and practices, with a particular focus on Open Pedagogy and the critical examination of the traditions of creation and consumption of knowledge in higher ed classrooms.

As I become more involved with Open Ed, I find myself concerned particularly with certain critical approaches to teaching and learning. Since this semester started, I’ve had the chance to attend several events on campus, hosted by the PSU Open CoLab, directed by Robin DeRosa. I had followed Robin’s work with Open Ed for months, until in January, I saw that the Open CoLab was going to become a distinct place/ hub for Open Ed on campus, and that they were going to be hosting “Fast Blasts” to familiarize faculty and staff with the practices of Open Education (and the Open Ed online community), Interdisciplinarity, and Project Based Learning.

After seeing these events posted on Robin’s Twitter, I finally decided to introduce myself and ask if I could come watch these “fast blast” sessions, as they were only targeted at faculty and staff, and I wasn’t sure I could attend. Of course, Robin immediately told me that she would never host an event through the Open Co Lab that students weren’t allowed to attend (which I figured would be the case anyway).

During the semester, I went to all four of the different fast blast topic sessions; three presentations that were part of the interview process for the Instructional Designer that PSU was/ is hiring; and next week I’ll be attending one for the Interdisciplinary Studies Chair. At almost every single one of these events, I was the only student present. I observed the presentations, I took notes, I thought a lot about what was being said by presenters and other attendees, I asked my own questions, I gave my own critiques, I contributed my own ideas from my “official student” perspective.

In addition to all of this, I joined the Open Ed Twitter community and thought about, asked questions, critiqued the ideas that people from all over the world were putting forth, and sometimes even added my own in the middle of this vast community of people I didn’t know at first (but have started to know).

I also spent a lot of the semester in conversation with my professors about pedagogical practices in the classes I was currently taking with them, or just in general. In short–I spent a lot of time thinking about and trying to challenge the education that was being given to me: what content was being presented and how it was presented, what assignments I was given and what learning outcomes I was supposed to be achieving, and the general notions of authority in the student/ teacher division/ hierarchy.

When I think about what theoretical concept to relate this experience to, I feel like I could relate it to pretty much every thing we’ve talked about this semester.

Above all, though, I have distinctly felt uncanny and dissonant during this experience. In my group’s lesson on ideology, we tried to challenge the ideological structures of authority in higher ed, and our classroom specifically. We looked at the different performative aspects that both teachers and students carry out that reinforce this structure and we tried to disrupt and question them. We sat at the front of the class and we directly asked the class to have a discussion on whether our professor’s authority was absolute and unquestionable and about how our perception of her authority affects our discourse–while she sat on the side, silently observing it.

In this activity, we disrupted out assumptions about the roles we play–in what ways are we significantly attuned to our professor’s affirmation, her directions, her assessment of us, etc., and what does it feel like to not have those things? Does the structure fall apart? Later, Dr. Goode told me that after the lesson, she got back up to stand in front of the room and instruct everyone and she felt strange, she felt like she was “shimmering” and that it was strange to have to jump back into her performative role of authority, and to have everyone just go back into their own roles without hesitation, as well.

After we disrupted this ideological structure and became more aware of the performativity we enact constantly, it produced an uncanny feeling–the boundaries that are seen as “natural” and unquestionable were dismantled (however briefly) and one could say that it created a strangeness that separated us from the previous Ideological State Apparatus we had enacted so fully–there was now a small awareness that we are essentially acting an ideology out without questioning it, or without completely believing in it.

This class lesson was very similar to the experience that I’ve had this semester as I attend faculty events and participate in them as though my authority is in some way similar to their authority. The boundaries between my roles become increasingly blurred and the performances that I carry out on a daily basis become increasing apparent to me–as I still am (in a sense) forced to continue the ideological performance.

This involves a lot of context switching, a lot of moving in and out of different group associations–I talk differently about my experiences when with faculty than I do with other students. Taking an active role in my education means learning in detail about the “background” assumptions, goals, methods, etc. that my professors use to shape my experience and my education (and therefore, my life). This felt/ feels exceptionally strange because I know that I’m the only one in my classes having that experience.

More and more I don’t feel as though I fit the tradition role of “student,” and I obviously don’t fit the role of “faculty.” How people see me shifts, depending on what context I’m in: am I in the classroom, looking to the front, in reverence? am I in a professor’s office hours, questioning whether I agree with an assignment, or discussing the entire class’ development/ progression or the class dynamic at a level that most students are not? am I talking with another faculty member about the concerns I have about another teacher and what/ how I want to bring up with them? am I in faculty meetings, listening to people I immensely respect deliver a presentation, and then after, raising my hand and critiquing/ challenging the methods or content of their presentation in front of a bunch of people with more “authority” than me? am I doing all of this, and then going back to a classroom where I’m expected to not question my professor as intensely as I did in the other context?

One of the most uncanny experiences is the way that many of my professors are (very fortunately) encouraging me to question, to be engaged, to disrupt this structure–but the awareness that it might have its limit. The awareness that I am technically still in a position of lower authority, and that my disruption is, in a sense, always dependent on how my professors perceive that disruption and how they handle their own reactions to these challenges.

In Open Ed we talk a lot about the anxiety that both teachers and students experience when trying to shift these power structures–the structures are predictable, they are comfortable. I am always aware that I can only challenge this system if the people I am challenging feel stable enough to be challenged, and have the time and energy to also question this structure. To not live within the ideological structure, we are required to do work and energy to rethink our bias, our performance, our roles, our practices in all forms. I am aware that burnout is always around the corner, and that a default to the traditional structure is easier in times of strain; I am also aware that the more I try to challenge, the more strain I create.

Despite this, I have accepted/ engaged in, and indeed, worked to actively create, a narrative of hope and community with people that I know directly hold power over me (whether it is through formal grading practices, or in the way I value their opinion and probably want them to validate me). I legitimize their authority over me quite regularly, and often I am very grateful that I’m encouraged to challenge these systems–in fact, I’m so grateful that I often tear up with gratitude at my fortunate circumstance at being surrounded by people who are so critical of these systems.

But underneath this, as I take this class, I wonder about the narrative that I am purposefully perpetuating–in what ways does it work to cover up the real power structure underneath that I am inscribed into, day after day? I wouldn’t say that I want not to feel community in Open Ed, because I very much do depend on that sense of community, but I do think it’s important to pay attention to uncanny sense that all this disruption is, in some ways, performative, is always precarious. That my “freedom” is still dependent on formal authority, but even more interestingly–is dependent on me challenging structures in a way that still ultimately preserves this “community.” At present I feel supported in this, but always, I do know that I may overstep my role–and that’s a pretty uncanny awareness when my “role” is constantly being blurred and depends on the context.

In this way, Theory helps me express this feeling, this underlying concern/ awareness publicly–on Twitter, in person, and in this post. Theory helps me notice, question, and work within the contradiction and uncanniness that is–blurred roles; undefined, precarious, and contextual authority; and a narrative that potentially seeks to preserve communal unity even when it is not as unified as the narrative needs it to be.


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The Student Theorist: An Open Handbook of Collective College Theory Copyright © 2018 by Jessica Chretien is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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