December 9, 2012

MOOCish Writing

Filed under: MOOC,writing — jrice @ 3:20 pm

The thing is, I never took first year writing. I showed up to freshman orientation in the summer of 1987 (my father took me along to a business trip he had planned in Gainesville), and went to see my advisor after skipping a great deal of the orientation. “I don’t want to take 1101,” I said. “Why not?” he asked. “Because I already can write.” “Ok,” he said. The idea of a writing course didn’t interest me; I had always done well in writing. I took a 2000 level America Lit survey instead (I had already read all but one of the required books on my own in high school), and on the first day of class, the professor said, “I see some of you have not taken first year writing and are freshmen. You should drop.” I didn’t. I got an A. That was the sum of my knowledge of first year writing until 1997 when I enrolled in graduate school. When told that there were no jobs in American Lit (what I thought I would study), I switched to Rhetoric and Composition even though the only Rhet/Comp person on faculty had just arrived as an Assistant Professor. I had no clue what Rhet/Comp was, but I knew that I liked to write, I never bought into the interpretation game that dominated all of my literature courses in college and high school, and I wasn’t going back to school to not get a job after four or five years of study.

I’ve wondered what this anecdote means for me today. I wonder, in particular, what it means within the negative and positive hype surrounding MOOCs and other online proposals that offer higher education an imagined future. The easy answer is: nothing. There were no online classes in 1987. There was no Internet for me to use. The largest class I may have taken was an intro Biology course in which I sat near the front and enjoyed the professor’s lectures (I remember him showing up to class sweaty form his bike ride to work; he used his sweating as a moment to explain how the body cools off when overheated – now I understand why I sweat so much!). Most medium sized classes – maybe 40-50 students – were lecture courses. I took notes. I read the notes daily before class. I seldom studied for exams since I had already absorbed my note taking throughout the semester. College was mostly taking notes, reading them over daily, and answering a blue book question at the end of the semester based on those notes.

The thing is, most of the MOOCs discussions I read are highly non-personal. Since we are all (mostly) academics commenting on a very academic moment (online education), I wonder why the responses are highly impersonal and cold. There are, of course, limitations to personalizing critical responses (making everything about me, denying larger context). But since we have such a strong familiarity with the subject matter (we went to school for a long time and still are involved in schooling as teachers), why the distance? Nigel Thrift finds a response in an article he read in the New Yorker. Kris Olds reduces MOOCs to the abstract issue of territory. Bogost responds to Thrift by wondering what the McDonald’s of higher ed might be. I, instead, am thinking about that moment during orientation. I’m thinking about the advisor who easily accepted my refusal to take first year writing. I’m thinking about my arrogance in believing I didn’t need any further instruction. I’m thinking about that first English course at a land grant university, a course I was told would be above my head, and yet, I had read all the novels already in high school. My first day of university education, and I was already with the familiar, the impersonal. I had barely ventured far from home.

MOOCs suggest distance made near. Social media is all about making the distance near. The status update re-imagines McLuhan’s sense of total involvement by making all news and information personal. We are all bound to one another. But we aren’t as well. Our desire to understand the nature of a possible or even existing online educational apparatus is limited not by personal insight that some anecdotes provide  (“I never took first year writing”), but rather from the dependence on hermeneutics. In other words, we scramble as educators and critics so that we can interpret what this MOOC stuff is all about.  Only a couple of voices, a far as I can tell, have registered for or even completed a MOOC course. And few voices contextualize the online experience with an experience outside of romanticism (“I cherish seeing students” “computers cannot replace face to face interaction”) or generic critique (“the corporatization of the university”). Maybe we need a mix of “when I was in college” stories as well. Maybe we need more anecdotes.

The thing is, MOOCish writing might benefit from anecdotal writing. My discipline reacted in the 1960s against criticism and research by embracing the personal. And then, twenty years later or so, rejected the personal altogether. And this rejection, it seems depersonalizes academic writing and understanding to such an extent that we are forced to always, as Barthes writes, reflect on how everything must shudder with meaning. Not everything, of course, does. Meaning takes time to develop. A MOOC means something, but it does not necessarily mean, as we are often told, the end of higher education. Not all meaning is grand in gesture, as Barthes also reminds us regarding his love for pissing in the garden (he just likes it). Impressions, emotions, pleasure, etc. play roles as well in how we interact with moments. We don’t all have to be Thomas Friedmans or Slavoj Zizeks pretending to understanding everything political moment in the world all the time.

I found my experience in a MOOC boring. I also found my three years or so pursuing a B.A. at two different universities fairly boring as well. As much as I love teaching, I didn’t enjoy being a student. When we attended CPR classes in State College prior to our daughter being born, my wife was flabbergasted at how bad a student I am. I paid so little attention (on such an important issue) that I had to retake the test at the end of the class to earn the certification. I’m sure the college student running the course thought I was a moron or bad parent to be.

Steve writes that he’ll probably sign up for this course. I probably will as well. It sounds relevant to what I do for a living. It’s likely I won’t do the assignments again (as I didn’t do in the World Listening course).  When we didn’t have phones or laptops and I was an undergraduate, I drew. I drew all over my notes. I was bored. I anticipate being bored in any situation in which I watch videos of lectures, write two to three paragraph responses, and go to a message board to post.  I get bored too quickly, at times, with the never ending predictions of dool and gloom or “the other” is out to get professors (out to get us with online education, part time labor, corporate influence). Academia suffers from what any organization that has to hire thousands in order to function but can’t figure out how to make a profit to do so would suffer from. And now, some have an idea that they believe will help solve the revenue stream dilemma. They may be wrong. But the idea sounds more plausible than what I hear locally (Value Based Budgets).

A conclusion (a solution, a resolution) suggests that the distance has been shortened.  It suggests that everything shudders with meaning. “I conclude,” we might say, “that MOOCs are merely an extension of the fast fooding of higher education.” I suppose that statement feels good to utter because it claims, as Colbert might say, truthiness. Instead of a conclusion gesture, I’d rather see a series of anecdotes, incomplete fragments that don’t necessarily lend themselves to larger (and supposedly, more important tales), but rather stand as unconnected narrative moments.They might shed light on some aspect of being in a MOOC or not. I’d rather we unbundle critique and grand gestures of summation and knowing. We can unbundle the shuddering of meaning. Anecdote  Anecdote. Anecdote.  Fragmented moment. Fragmented moment. Fragmented moment. Or some other variation of the personal. The MOOC may be a gesture toward the grand (10,000 student courses, imagined profits), but online writing often goes in the other direction: the tweet, the status update, the blog post, the filtered photograph, all of which shorten the virtual distance somewhat.

My other anecdote these days comes from Indiana University where, as a senior in 1991, I was given an email account. I had no idea what email was. My computer in my apartment wasn’t hooked to anything but the wall. But I knew that if I went to a campus lab and sent an email to my girlfriend, she would get it and could respond. I didn’t know that there was a world outside of campus I could write to as well. So, I wrote silly notes that were of no consequence. She got made at me for not being personal.

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