De-Legitimization

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People with broadly similar goals often operate under different theories of change. Some people believe change comes from moving fast and building things, and a lot of it does. Some people think it comes from laying the intellectual and policy foundations that nurture desired results, and that’s true too.

Most massive changes require approaches at a variety of levels. I’m not a fan of the conservative revolution of the 1980s and 1990s in the U.S. but I am a student of it. And what you see if you look back to the 1970s is an unlikely alliance of rabble-rousers, charming demagogues, and eggheaded think-tanks all working in ways that the others don’t necessarily appreciate, but all ultimately pulling in the same direction until the perfect storm is launched with the election of Ronald Reagan.

What we are watching now on the Republican side of this American election is largely the fraying of that alliance. The policy wonks are disgusted by the activists, the activists are disgusted by the policy wonks, the politicians are loathed by everyone. And while this has been true a while, the new twist is de-legitimization. You saw this in the de-legitimization of Obama (he’s not really our president, there is no birth certificate, the election was rigged). But once Frankenstein’s monster is put together it doesn’t do your bidding for long.

Over time the differences in the theory of how progress gets made began to seen be through the lens of de-legitimization. Republican legislators who believed that a government shutdown was not the best way to overturn Obamacare — well, it wasn’t that they had a different theory of change or sense of what was possible. It was that they were corrupted, indistinguishable from the Obama establishment. They’d been bought out, co-opted, charmed by Satan’s silver tongue.

The circle of who was considered a legitimate actor began to narrow to only those who compromised nothing, and the pressures of this process intensified expectations of the base while cutting off the opportunities for compromise that might make true progress possible. The lack of progress then only confirmed the base’s feeling they we being sold out by those above them.

The odd alliances of the past 40 years were held together by winning, and without wins they began to deteriorate. The circles of the legitimate activists shrunk, as they positioned themselves not only against Obama, but against the establishment, purging first the RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) and then those that refused to adopt obstructionism. The “elites” began to lash out at the base, confused that they were suddenly outside the circle that they themselves had helped draw.

In short, they had created the perfect Perpetual Disillusionment Machine: unrealistic expectations fueled rigidity which sabotaged results which convinced the different actors that there was even more corruption than they had thought, leading to further purges, which led to expectations being even higher, and so on.

I suppose I should get to my point.

The Open Education Movement (if it is a movement) is not the Republican Party of 2016. On that timescale I’d actually place us somewhere around 1978. We’re young. We’re starting to win. It feels like something big may be coming down the road. This is an incredibly good place to be, especially when your mission is making education more responsive to the needs of students and educators, more liberating, and more suited to our networked age.

We all have different theories of change. Unsurprisingly, most people’s theories of change support the contention that their unique gifts (whether those are policy analysis and engagement, building things, designing good UX, or promoting the heck out of existing technologies) are the lynchpin of the movement. It’s funny how that works out like that!

And so we argue over where we should spend our effort. Why? Because there are limited resources. You can put a builder or a thinker in a keynote. You can fund open textbooks or open pedagogy. We notice that some parts of the movement get more press and some get more money. We notice that open textbooks are taking off while open pedagogy is still mostly below the radar. We get upset, maybe, at these divisions. And all this is good and right. You can operate for decades like this and most movements worth anything do.

Where it falls apart is at that line of legitimacy. You have to assume your allies have good intentions and are being thoughtful and reflective about their practice. You have to treat differences in approach as differences in personal theories of change, not as tests of moral fiber. That means engaging respectfully with the person’s underlying assumptions instead of challenging their motives or character. And not only engaging with those assumptions, but doing it with the understanding that they have thought as long and hard about about their chosen path as you have about yours. I know a lot of people in Open Education. Navel-gazing is our national sport; I don’t think we’re in danger of being too un-reflective anytime soon.

At the risk of offending nearly everyone in the community and ending up horribly alone let me stop sub-blogging for a moment and name names. Things that Jim Groom has tweeted in the past couple weeks have implied that George Siemens has engaged in ethically dubious action by speaking to people in China about his very human and anti-authoritarian take on analytics (Release the Transcripts, George!). George responded by writing some lines in an otherwise lovely tribute to Gardner Campbell that were taken to imply that Jim Groom’s particular knack at generating enthusiasm around difficult to understand concepts was really a form of self-aggrandizing limelight stealing. (UPDATE: George says in comments that he had no particular individual in mind)

I can’t say this was what either intended, but that’s how most people read each.And it’s indicative of a tension that’s been brewing for a few years in the community, and seems to be boiling over more and more frequently.

It’s fun to believe that the activity we engage in is the center of the universe or the lynchpin of the movement. I “know”, for example, that Wikity is going to change EVERYTHING because all you peons are thinking TOO SMALL. I have to “know” that, because that precious delusion helps me rationalize the Saturdays I spend at Starbucks trying to get my spaghetti PHP code to work when I’d rather be home making music with the new Reason 9 beta. I have to delude myself, at least a little bit, to get it done. We all do.

And that’s fine.

But we don’t have to bring that delusion into our work together, and we certainly don’t have to see people working problems from a different angle as ethically dubious or narcissistic agents. We can’t call allies sell-outs and then wonder why our movement is so ineffectual or fractured. And we can’t treat people racing ahead as bomb-throwing proles. Because the truth is that none of us is the center of this thing. We need all the talents, we need the multiple approaches. We need people who make change possible, and we need people who provide the intellectual and policy substrate to make that change last.

In closing Gardner Campbell is awesome and love to see him getting his due, everyone else is a genius too, if you don’t like George’s list of people promote your own list because a lot of people don’t get their due in this industry, but for the love of God stop trying to attribute different tactics among allies to questionable ethics or self-interested motives.

Also, if you need a boost of idealism, read this extended Washington Post article on how Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C. recorded “Walk This Way” and changed what got played on the radio forever. I’ll let you draw your own analogies.

———

UPDATE: As noted above, George says he didn’t intend to single out Jim. I take him at his word there. I do think, however, that underlying story here is still the same. These flare-ups happen against a background of tension that seems to have been growing in the past few years (just look at the tenor of Open Ed year over year).

The solution is not that fucking hard. Assume good faith. Attack people’s theory of how things change, and even their actions, but stay away from motives and character unless you are sure you know the motives (you don’t) or truly believe their character is the root issue (it probably isn’t).

And yes, implied counts as much as said, so cut a broad swath.

 

 

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13 thoughts on “De-Legitimization

    • Well, I meant it to be a bit self-mocking. We could all use a bit less mockery and a bit more self-mockery these days.

      • And thanks a gazillion for the WaPo epic on Walk This Way. Woah. How sausage and music are made. And the rappers chewing out the old white rockers for drugging it up.

      • > I’d self-mock but I suck at it.

        Nice.

        > And thanks a gazillion for the WaPo epic on Walk This Way. Woah. How sausage and music are made. And the rappers chewing out the old white rockers for drugging it up.

        I think Jon Becker shared that with me. Sometimes the stream brings us very nice things. Too much to express about that article to summarize though.

  1. Thanks for these reflections. “Assume good faith” is a terrific mantra by which to operate in a rapidly evolving technical and social landscape in education and technology. Many of us have a vision of openness as a means to create opportunities for learners and improve equity in society. There are different views around how to achieve this (remember the Downes/Wiley discussions?). Different views are fine, but a sense that we are “winning”, as you note, helps to keep uneasy coalitions together.

    The contested space is now enlarged due to for-profit players. I have spoken out against self-aggrandizing in the edtech space for quite a while. The whole MOOC crowd (Thrun, Koller), adaptive learning (Ferreira), and others are frequent points of criticism on my blog and in my presentations. I don’t like people taking disproportionate credit for work of others and I often call it out. I’ve been able to work well with people like Downes, Cormier, Wiley, and others largely because they are driven by a vision of the world that they would like to create and not focused on self-promotion.

    None of this is a shot at Jim Groom. I have never disparaged Groom in a presentation or conversation. I frequently reference DoOO and his work in talks. I included it as an example of where technology in learning is going in a recent report. At UTA, we are customers of Reclaim. I have a clear history of supporting him.

    But something odd happened following my post. I *did not* have a particular person in mind. Does Jim fit some of my descriptions? Likely. Was that my intent? No. There are many innovators who fit the profile of people that I was ranting against better than Groom.

    Then things went personal. Groom responded to my post with an interesting post of his own. I was surprised that he interpreted things the way that he did. It was intended to be a post honouring Gardner. I had some DM and email conversations with people familiar with the VCU situation, and it upset me that leadership at VCU is so uninformed about what innovation looks like. They will, in a few years, end up buying the capability, that Gardner was helping them develop, from a vendor. And another little piece of higher education moves to the market.

    But I am at a loss as to how to proceed. Clearly Groom is upset. He has communicated this rather clearly in his posts and somewhat less clearly on twitter (other than the “fucking cowards” tweet. That one was also clear :)). I’m getting to the stage where I “protest too much” on this. I’m finding that I’m tempted to mentally justify and rationalize my comments with logic that I know wasn’t there when I wrote it. And if I lose honesty to myself, then I’m kinda screwed. I’m also feeling increasingly defensive regarding the things being said about me regarding this and have the desire to jump in and assert that my comments are not being accurately interpreted. But then I realize it’s an emotional topic that evokes something behind the scenes that I don ‘t understand. So I’ll stay to marginally measured engagements on blogs :).

    To return then, to the issue: People like Gardner need to be recognized and honoured because they interact with leadership at a senior level and people listen to them. As you note there are other people doing different work that is also important. Kernohan’s comments on twitter resonate: there’s enough love to go around.

    Thanks again for your always thoughtful posts.

    • The line that struck everyone wrong was

      “I recall a presentation that Gardner did about 6 or 7 years ago where he talked about the idea of a cpanel for each student. Again, his vision has been appropriated by others with greater self-promotion instincts. ”

      This just seems so close to what Jim is doing, and appropriated is the wrong verb for that since Jim (in addition to being a great promoter) is a classic riffer — he can take a core idea and spin it out into an amazing variety of projects. That’s innovation too.

      No one needs to go around wearing a hairshirt over this, and honestly my guess is that it will never really come back together. As you say, though, you’ve been a promoter yourself of Jim’s work in almost every venue I’ve seen you present. So to my mind it’s a gaffe — we’re not writing books on these blog posts, we don’t do fifth edits or pass things off to an editor. So sometimes we choose the wrong verb in the wrong context, or sometimes our subconscious takes the wheel a bit in strange ways.

      Ultimately you hope that actions speak louder words. We’re not CNN, we don’t have to loop an unfortunate word sequence on repeat. We can hopefully point to the history here, which is mostly good, and move on.

  2. I agree with the idea of “assume good faith.” But I hope there is a bigger lesson for us all to learn here, and that is the danger of harsh words aimed at vague targets. When harsh words are aimed at vague targets, they become explosive and uncontrollable like hand grenades. You might launch them at one target and then get surprised when they hurt an unintended bystander. Its best not to lob them in the first place.

  3. I definitely see this tension and while I love my little niche of the open world, I know it’s important to value the broader effort and the different aspects of that movement that are being emphasized by others. Great post – thanks.

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