MOOCs, Language, and Corporatespeak

kent-brockman---insect-overlords-66140I started writing this post a couple of weeks ago, so by now the links are a little out of date, but still of value. Also, the university system I work for is is among those who just signed on with Coursera, the MOOC thing has been pretty heavily with me lately. So…

Josh Honn, a digital and academic librarian
fellowing at Northwestern, has written a fabulous post called “On MOOCs and Against Inevitability,” building on recent presentations on MOOCs and for-profit institutions of higher education by Aaron Bady and Tressie McMillan Cottom (see Bady’s longer version of his presentation, The MOOC Moment and the End of Reform, and the un-ad-libbed-from text of McMillan Cottom’s presentation, Profit, HigherEd and Lessons on the Prestige Cartel). Honn takes as his initial point of entry the magazine Library Journal, a journal which I confess I do not read, for all of the same reasons Honn gives for his ritual read-through-toss-on-floor of the magazine. I did, however, happen to read the article he analyzes, “Massive Open Opportunity: Supporting MOOCs in Public and Academic Libraries” when it turned up in my Google Reader feed (oh, Google Reader, our time together is so short now…) and was pleased to see Honn’s rant against it on Twitter, and then to see a longer-form treatment of it.

Disclaimers: there are so many things I could say about MOOCs that have likely been said, and said better, elsewhere. This isn’t a comprehensive list, but Aaron Bady is critiquing them, and the crisis of higher ed in California in general, at New Inquiry; Jonathan Rees at More or Less Bunk is doing a fantastic job of critiquing the MOOC movement from the (much-needed) perspective of a labor activist/historian; Historiann recently posted a terrific essay by Susan Amussen and Allyson Poska on gender and power in MOOC creation and discourse, in response to the ACLS annual meeting’s panel on MOOCs; Undine at Not of General Interest and Leslie Madsen-Brooks at The Clutter Museum have also been critiquing the phenomena. Kate Bowles at Music for Deckchairs has written thoughtfully on MOOCs and other aspects of education and technology. And those are just among the blogs I regularly read; I’m not at all meaning this list to be all-inclusive (absolutely need to explore Audrey Watters’ Hack Education more thoroughly!). My Twitter feed is full of faculty and grad students expressing anti-MOOC sentiments. Most of the blogs I read regularly are academic blogs. Many of the people I follow on Twitter are academics. Anti-MOOC arguments are pretty much endemic in my online life. I think this is a good thing.

(Was that paragraph a historiographical one or what? Before I can say what I want to say, must cite the secondary sources!)

But the Library Journal piece, and, more specifically, Honn’s critique of it, crystallized something that’s been nagging at me for years. Honn invokes McMillan Cottom’s call for better, more complex storytelling, and finally, I suddenly had words to describe this: since I started library school, I’ve been struck by how much librarianship often seems to authorize a narrow, utilitarian model of storytelling, increasingly reliant on corporate buzzwords (change! innovate! … so many imperatives without objects, which to me always seem problematic. Do! Be! Act! Huh?) Since I had little to no exposure to library history, I can’t say that this always been the case; to me, it seemed related to my program’s embrace of technodeterminism/technoutopianism, so I’m rather hopefully inclined to consider this as a historical development specific to this time period. This language issue is why I tend to steer clear of mainstream publications like American Libraries or Library Journal: I feel like I’m reading the same stories over and over again. I feel like I’m hearing the same language, the same tired tropes, the same phrasings over and over again. (Repetitiveness of those two sentences intentional). Chris Bourg’s excellent talk Beyond Measure: Valuing Libraries also gets at this issue of storytelling, swiftly taking apart the common perceptions of what librarians do and calling for different stories about what we do.

(Confession: I’ve never been crazy about the Neil Gaiman quote Bourg cites, for exactly the same reason she gives: the unrealistic expectations it creates, the fantasy of the magical reference librarian. I prefer to think of myself as helping people learn how to find stuff better, not so much to give them The One Right Answer To Rule Them All. Another reason I dislike quotes like that is inherent in Bourg’s slight typo (I think it’s a typo?): she refers to infallible “reference libraries” instead of “reference librarians“: it always makes me uncomfortable when work done by people—librarians, staff—is represented as being done by “libraries.” This fabulous tweet from a coffee shop hints at that little… “agency”… problem.)

And, something I’ve also been noticing but haven’t been able to enunciate: the tropes and phrasings that feel most wearing to me often seem rooted in market language. They’re based on commercials, on advertising copy, and so on: in that sense, they’re likely meant to be repetitive, familiar, perhaps even comforting. I’m not necessarily singling out librarianship on that, as I think it’s a trend in our culture in general. It’s just that I don’t think it’s a particularly good trend, as I do think it limits the terms of our discourse in some powerful ways, one of which being that there’s no ground for real critique; critique ends up falling into its own set of familiar tropes. If you’re not for “change!”, if you’re not rallying around “adapt or die!” (a truly horrifying rallying statement for anyone involved in education, which is supposed to about facilitating growth, not forcing people into some so-called “evolutionary” process which technocrats have decided is The Future), then you’re a Luddite, a fuddy-duddy, in need of conversion, and if you don’t see the light, y’know, YOU AND THE WORLD YOU KNOW WILL DIE.

Uh… yeah.

bert2Another thing (among many) that jumped out at me in the Library Journal piece was its tone. The piece opens by referring to a librarian expressing embarrassment at having to ask the “dumb” question: what is a MOOC? There are no dumb questions; Library Journal is here to help! I am probably biased, because I am currently rewriting a paper about postwar educational film, but the tone of the piece reminded me of the tone of those films: “You and Your MOOC.” “Our Friend, the MOOC.” “Getting To Know Your MOOC.” And so on. As Honn notes, the story goes on to gloss over critiques of MOOCs, taking a strongly pro-MOOC stance and outlining all the possible ways that academic and public librarians can assist patrons taking MOOCs… in much the same way as the old duck-and-cover films do not call into question the Cold War arms race or even the realisticness of surviving an atom bomb blast by climbing underneath a desk.

But by positioning the article and its author as an authoritative source of information for the librarian wondering what all this MOOC talk is about, the article shuts down further inquiry. No further research is necessary: you’ve been duly informed! Further research—even just plain old googling—might turn up more nuanced information. (Though the first thing that turns up in a Google search for “MOOC” is a largely uncritical Wikipedia entry). The buzzwords have been assembled, lined up, placed in their correct order. Now we know what a MOOC is: how do we prepare for it?

With the stakes always being portrayed as being so high (adapt or die!), how can we as librarians—or as human beings—operate out of any emotional state other than fear and panic? Unless, of course, we can present ourselves as, or ally ourselves with, the people doing this prognosticating: we must identify with the people who Know What The Future Is. If we ally with those people (corporations? as big scary people?), however, then their prognostications become self-fulfilling prophecies. I suspect that people who claim to know what the future is are depending on other people’s uncertainty and willingness to do anything to assuage that uncertainty, to make that future into a reality.

But to get back to Honn’s analysis. This seems like the money paragraph:

In our never-ending drive to make ourselves relevant, we often forget that what makes us most relevant, like our faculty colleagues, is our commitment to critical engagement with sources of information, forms of technology, and an active understanding and defining of our place in the ecosystem of academia. To that last point, when we embrace MOOCs we not only neglect the views of many (most?) faculty and students that this is not a good thing, but we also actively participate in the dismantling of our own values. We stop telling our own story, instead embracing someone else’s.

This almost perfectly puts into words what I found so enormously troubling about library school, and what I continue to find troubling. I didn’t feel like there was much opportunity for critical thinking or analysis, though that varied considerably by professor. I had an excellent professor who I had some important, interesting exchanges with (he’s since left the program); I had a good (but incredibly unpopular) users course where the professor talked quite a bit about third-world digital-divide issues; I had another professor, heavily technoutopian, who shot down anything she didn’t agree with and who refused to teach about at least one stance which she didn’t agree with. But generally, the inevitability of an all-digital future was pretty much a given, and the tone of the program was oddly self-congratulatory about it: we were already occupying the future! Yay!

Certain kinds of critique were acceptable and expected, but I felt like it was pretty clear what those critiques were, what language they could be expressed in, etc. I did feel like I was supposed to be speaking in a very specifically defined language. When one professor wrote in an assignment that “signs of human effort would be viewed with skepticism,” I was completely, utterly lost for at least one moment, since, for a historian, human effort is a pretty important concept; also, how exactly does one complete an assignment without engaging in some human effort? I was also powerfully struck by how much the rhetoric I was hearing echoed free-market ideology: the market was going to save everything. Invisible hands were everywhere, which to me seemed ripe for critique, but there seemed to be no language and no space for that. Even if I’d brought it up, I would have been speaking in the wrong language (Historian) and would have had to fumble to translate what I was saying into “Information,” and I had the sense that there might not be words in Information for what I was trying to say.

I agree with Honn that our role should be “critical engagement with sources of information, forms of technology, and an active understanding and defining of our place in the ecosystem of academia,” but my specific training was low on the “critical” part for its practitioners, beyond encouraging critique of those unenlightened souls who find technoutopianism problematic, and so on. And yes, to what extent is technoutopianism rooted in a kind of corporatespeak, and how can we critique it without access to other kinds of language? And is it not the job of education, higher and otherwise, to teach discursive skills and practices, to further analysis, critique, and expression? I want to say here “humanities education,” but surely all disciplines involve specific discursive actions, practices, expressions.

To get personal, this sense I have of having to speak in a flattened, market-oriented rhetoric which trumps or resists critique, may be why I felt almost completely unable to write poetry when I was in library school, and why it continues to be difficult now. I have always had a large vocabulary; I was a competitive speller as a kid (if i hadn’t tripped on the word “scurrilous” I could have gone to the national spelling bee; my guess “scurulous” rendered me the St. Louis metro area runner-up). My parents adore word games and my mother in particular has always had a rich ability to play with language and sounds. I like linguistic playfulness, I like words layered with meanings, connotations, hints, echoes, allusions. I don’t want everything to sound like a commercial. My dissertation was on nineteenth-century poetry: give me florid and emotive! And yet I feel like if I indulge all my right-brain floopery (there’s a Mom word!), I’ll be unfitting myself for operating in the more controlled vocabulary/style of Information. (And yet I am also convinced that that floopery is helpful for teaching, as it helps me break out of LIS jargon and talk more directly to students and faculty about how to find resources).

So I greatly appreciated, more than I could adequately say at the time (very arguable that this post is adequate, but it’s better than my earlier state of mind, which involved sputtering and saying “Yes!” while reading the post: dare I say, echoing rather than responding), Honn’s noting that we as librarians, by supporting MOOCs, are supporting corporate interests, are in effect telling/repeating corporate-created stories. Honn argues—correctly, I think—that Library Journal‘s acceptance of the inevitability of the MOOC shows libraryland’s too-easy embrace of what amounts to service to corporate entities rather than to a larger academic mission… and pushes us to go against actual faculty and student interests as well. And by “larger academic mission,” I mean the mission of the university to educate and enhance the lives of its students and community (including its faculty—I always feel like there’s an implicit assumption that faculty can only teach, not learn and grow themselves) and to facilitate the creation of new knowledge at all levels. One way or another, I’ve been in the academy for almost my entire life, and I believe in those values. MOOCs to me seem to have brought the corporatization of higher education to a uniquely sharp focus: it’s as if logic and critical analysis have been abandoned altogether. As I commented at coldhearted scientist the other night, I really want to fight this stuff for all the good reasons, labor reasons, pedagogical reasons, but also because I want education to be a place where critical thinking, nuance, and analysis can continue to thrive… so that we aren’t all reduced to listening/reading/speaking in flattened, two-dimensional, corporatespeak.

(Also, I’m categorizing this post under History of Education as a way of containing the MOOC by historicizing it. It is a moment in the history of education. It is not the end of that history).

4 thoughts on “MOOCs, Language, and Corporatespeak

  1. Thanks for the link & this thoughtful essay. Lots to think about here, but I’ll just note that your essay helps me understand better why almost every time I write about my skepticism of online ed and my disgust for the advertising-copy slogans driving MOOCworld, I get someone in my comments section saying, “I did an online MLS/MLIS and it was terrific!!!” I guess when you pay tuition to these programs, they throw in the Kool-Aid for free.

    • Ironically, my program was very proud of being an in-person program. There were some hybrid classes, and you could take selected online courses on topics not offered at my school through a consortium, but otherwise, all f2f. Some classes served less Koolaid than others, to be fair, but the program in general was heavy on technoutopianism. Very, very different from taking history courses, at any level. I almost did take a graduate history course there, which would have been quite a contrast.

  2. This is such a helpful post for me–it has really helped me understand why it is that the language of inevitabilty, including the appallingly trite “adapt or die” sloganeering, has left me feeling so annoyed that I can’t think in whole sentences. I’ve been reading and reading the same articles as you, generally agreeing with most of them, but I really couldn’t put my finger on what has become quite so overwhelming until I read yours. Your connection of poetry to critique has created a space within which I’m able to think. Thanks.

    • Thanks! I’ve found so much clarity in your blog (there’s more I’d like to say sometime in response to your “In the Grupetto” post) that I feel honored to have provided some helpful space!

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