Something to hope for

March 22nd, 2009

I finally took my own advice, and read the latest installment in Randy Bass and Bret Eynon’s blog for the Chron, an installment titled “A Plan to Develop and Spread Better College Teaching Practices.” I’ve long been an admirer of their work, individually and collectively — I met Randy in the early nineties, around work with networked writing programs (does anyone remember those?), and I’ve already referenced Bret’s admirable “Making Connections” project which not only collects and extends previous work on eportfolios but promises to take on much more. One plan they shared to develop and spread better college teaching practices was of course the Visible Knowledge Project, which perhaps more than any other single endeavor, convinced me that going digital was a game-changer for teachers, that it could transform not only the teaching activity but the collaboration and development around such activity in consequential ways, and the overarching reason was there in the title: it made what people were doing more visible, share-able.

Excited by the authors and their title, I was also energized by our own plan “to develop and spread better college teaching practices” with the CUNY Academic Commons. Coming with such high expectations, I confess I found the installment oddly formal and abstract, and that surely is at least as much my fault as theirs. It was unfair to expect a full plan, of course, much less one that spoke directly to our plan. What they did was invoke work that pointed in the direction of a plan, much of it by “almosting” it (to use Stephen Dedalus’s convenient coinage). So they mentioned “repositories such as Merlot,” for instance, but also “focused communities of faculty …. such as the Lesson Study Project at the University of Wisconsin at LaCrosse, or the Faculty Inquiry Network linking California Community Colleges” and “rich exhibits at Inside Teaching, from the Carnegie Foundation, and the Digital Storytelling Multimedia Archive.” They might also have mentioned Project Bamboo, that nascent endeavor Steve Brier described to us at the January CAT meeting, which combines the reach of Merlot with the social networking of some of these newer and more focused projects (but is by no means “there” yet).

The burning question is why these are all only “almosting” what we need as a plan and a structure — why, for instance, you can almost see the virtual tumbleweeds blowing through Merlot. (And the question behind the question is obviously what we can do to make the CUNY Academic Commons do and be more.) Part of the answer, I think, has to do with a word that recurs throughout Bass and Eynon’s blogging: “community.” That’s a problematic word when academics use it precisely because (as  Joseph Harris, drawing on Raymond Williams, pointed out some years ago) it always seems to be used positively. And there’s plenty that is problematic about “community”  — dissensus within, enclosure from without, too-blanket a conception, and often the presumption rather than the fact of community in the first place. These enduring problems with community are complicated by our present situation, the fragmentation of our time and our pursuits, the way “networking” seems to place demands on us more than bestow benefits, etc. We need the Commons to help us forge communities and a larger, overarching sense of community without giving us all the problems that can come with “community.”

I think it (and we) should stand a decent chance for some reasons that are probably worth mentioning (though I’ve already made this so long it exceeds my own attention span). One is the way being part of CUNY situates us: we are connected whether we like it or not by certain circumstances — geographical, institutional, economic. (One thing that defines “real” community is shared problems.) But we are also loosely connected, too loosely in some cases and to some minds. (Nothing is more common in CUNY cross-campus talk than fear of “re-inventing the wheel” — in working long and hard on what another campus has already worked out.) So we have pre-existing bonds, but we also have real needs to bond further. That bodes well for the Commons if we can make it work for us.

And we don’t start from scratch. Bass and Eynon have called for “an R&D division for teaching in higher education,” yet we have that. (It’s just too unorganized to call a division.) When I read that, I was brought back to a meeting the Sloan Foundation set up a few years back between some of us in online education and a bunch of people who do corporate e-training. In introducing the academics, Frank Mayadas (the Sloan program director who set up the meeting) said that we were the ones who had been doing the R&D around new forms of teaching. And we have. What we haven’t done is pull that together. What we haven’t ensured is that those of us who are working on new forms and new modes don’t find/feel that is an isolated and isolating experience. (The first comment on the most recent Bass/Eynon blog installment came from J. Elizabeth Clark of LaGuardia, who said, “We really don’t yet have many digital teaching communities, except for those of us working on similar projects. We really need to move in this direction so that our working lives mirror our teaching lives and our everyday lives.”) If we could use the Commons to bring our work and our needs together, we could do the Commons — but also ourselves — a lot of good.

  1. Matt Says:

    I like your title, George, but an alternate one might have read “A Commons Manifesto.” Yes, yes, yes.

  2. Purely Reactive » Blog Archive » Something to hope for - (as … Says:

    […] Purely Reactive » Blog Archive » Something to hope for – (as … […]

  3. Karen Greenberg Says:

    This is wonderful George! I just wanted to add that colleagues don’t have to go to Georgetown U’s Digital Storytelling Multimedia Archive to learn all about this and see fantastic examples. They can go to La Guardia CC’s “Difficult Dialogues website ( and see samples and documents and videos explaining how and why this tool works.

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