MOOCtopia#2: authority and the institutions of education

Davidson 2.1

We are a bit behind on Cathy Davidson’s History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education MOOC, but no doubt, to your endless delight, we can reveal that the transcripts for all those who are not signed up are available here.

In week two we heard about the “filters” through which we view history (on which more to come) and we also heard about institutions.  Those we have, says Davidson, we have inherited from the “industrial age”:

People always talk about learning for the future and learning the future together, but often when they talk about education, they’re extremely conservative about wanting to change the institutions of education … Today we are going to be looking specifically at the third information age [mass printing in the industrial age], and some of the big ideas that thinkers were interested in, in that time period. We are going to see how those ideas translated into actual structures, the apparatus of learning of the industrial age, that we’ve pretty much inherited today.

However, although she critiques the “institutions of education” and “the apparatus of learning of the industrial age”, it strikes us that Davidson herself relies very heavily on the credentials and authority conferred by exactly these structures – which are in turn used to reinforce a kind of branding of the course and the “movement” that participants are invited to join.

In the first week of the course Davidson was keen to emphasise that this MOOC would be different to other MOOCs. It would not be a top-down “doc on a laptop”, but rather we would – true to HASTAC’s motto – “learn the future together”. Yet despite these pronouncements of democratic engagement, Professor Cathy Davidson herself is central to the construction of this course. Not only do we find her image blazoned across each video preamble – in week two we found her listening to an iPod in a state of semi-ecstasy – but throughout the lectures she continually performs her authority by appealing to the credentials conferred by the very same “apparatus of learning of the industrial age” that she is keen to replace. We hear over and over again of her positions in high ranking elite universities (TWO Chairs, her time as Vice-Provost), her book publications (twenty!), what she found in the archives, her various awards, her membership of the National Council of the Humanities, and of course her founding role at HASTAC.

The centrality of these ‘traditional’ institutional forms to this performance of authority highlights a number of aspects of the “learning together” message that are troubling.

The first is concerned with the question of “who gets to speak?” While “difference” is proclaimed as a key element in the course, participants must do the work of bringing this “difference” to the table themselves, rather than expecting to see it included in the course framework or even to build the core part of the course together. As Kate Bowles argues in an excellent dissection of Davidson’s uncredited use in her first lecture of the 19th century etching of Bungaree, an Aboriginal man and – following complaints – its subsequent removal from the course materials: “removing the image just confirms who gets to deploy authorial entitlement here: who decides, and who is decided for.” Here, the process of “unlearning” and “disrupting” of dominant narratives that is repeatedly invoked by Davidson and by many course participants, is itself co-opted and then erased in a process not dissimilar to that which characterised the appropriation by European science of the identities, knowledges and land of men like Bungaree in the first place.

This leads to a second concern tied up with the places of authorial speech. As widely noted, Coursera and EdTech are dominated by consortia of elite universities from across the world, but centred in the United States. Not only do we see the authority of institutional markers enacted, but the global dynamic that places the U.S. in a position of cultural dominance is reinforced. While there’s work being done in physical locations outside the United States, U.S. institutions still appear to be leading or dominating the discussion. As Kris Olds and Susan Robinson detail in their excellent blog, GlobalHigherEd, the geographies of MOOCs are far from flat. And there is a temporal dimension to these uneven geographies as well. Those institutions who have long held status, power and money, are able the better to continue to reproduce it – sometimes, as we see here, in the language of contestation and change.

In the “Future Ed” course, this issue of speaking position is replayed in the material selected for each video. The historical narrative Davidson offers is focussed on examples from the United States, such as with the emphasis on the novel as an example of print culture, rather than the newspaper, or even the novel as it appeared in other contexts. Questions of time and cultural context are elided here. Not only did very few people across the world have even basic literacy at the end of the 19th century, but individual reading always sat alongside other practices that shaped and conditioned it: public posting of notices, group reading, oral cultures, song, and multi-lingual exchange, not to mention the control by states and religious groups of publication and education well into the present (one might think of internet censorship in China). If Davidson seems vaguely aware that many of these extra-American dimensions are being excluded or downplayed, not only does it fail to influence the universalising narrative we see in the videos, but once again, it is participants who are asked to do the work of revision.

There is an inherent tension to all education.  It prescribes, at the same time as it enables; it relies on authority, even as it facilitates challenges to it. Failing to recognise either part of this paradox puts the whole undertaking at risk. Institutions of education are at their best when they acknowledge this tension, and work to bring these two, seemingly contrary forces, together in dynamic and creative exchange.  Despite its pronouncements, it’s not yet clear that this is something the “Future Ed” MOOC achieves.