MIT Massive: End-of-term reflections

Being in this class was difficult and frustrating, and I am a little surprised at my choice of words because I also enjoyed it very much, so I think it’s worth reflecting on why this is, as well as how I would describe my progress over the course of the term.

Reasons for taking the class

When I signed up for the class, I had just completed two years at MIT’s Master of Science in Architecture (SMArchS) program in History, Theory, and Criticism, as well as a semester as a PhD student within the same track. It’s my third year here, but it felt a bit like I had just landed a snake on a game of snakes and ladders: after two years of coursework and a thesis, I was saddled with still more coursework. I thought I knew what topics I was interested in exploring further, but I wasn’t certain, and I wasn’t even sure if I was primarily interested in research at all. Part of this stemmed from the fact that during my thesis semester, the parents of a friend in the program died in a tragic accident, and a school-friend of my younger brother also passed away after a long battle with a brain tumor just a few days before my thesis was due. I found myself wondering what all my esoteric archival research was for. Why, really, was I in grad school?

In my SMArchS application, my statement of purpose made clear my hope that immersion in critical and theoretical texts would give me the tools I needed as an educator. I was troubled that while architecture students (I was particularly interested in the case of Sri Lanka) were taught to think carefully about form, structure, and building materials, they were not expected to think critically about the ethical and political dimensions of their practice; I hoped to be an educator who would fill that gap. My research would be a means to that end, rather than an end in itself.

I slowly discovered in grad school that research and teaching do not necessarily have any relationship, but I didn’t really manage to intentionally create space for reflection on where the two might converge. I was also finding myself interested in research that had little to do with my SMArchS proposal (which squarely centered on themes of reconstruction, reconciliation, memory, and justice). Right now, I’m fascinated by post-colonial nation-building programs in South Asia, U.S. cold war propaganda, and the policies/laws at their intersection. I don’t even know how to defend this research in light of my original proposal, except to suggest that looking at Sri Lanka’s civil war in terms of its ethnic dimensions alone is reductionist, and that this work yields an appreciation of complexity.

(That’s my short summary of all the baggage I brought into #MITMassive.)

Before I started at MIT, I was working on a series of theater workshops with children in villages rehabilitated after the Sri Lankan Civil War. The principal of one school thought it useful for the kids to learn languages, and I wondered if there was a way to also teach them remotely (the village is 200 miles away from where I live). I was also part of a leadership course last year that was taught almost entirely online to 100+ young people who had widely varying degrees of access to the internet; I wondered how we might reduce some of the inevitable disparities. I thought taking a class on MOOCs might help me figure out a few strategies for either or both of these ventures. Looking over Justin’s syllabus, however, I was thrilled to discover that the course was really an opportunity to be reflective and critical about histories (in the plural) of “the future of education” and their trajectories (which is, in itself, an indicator of what I’m really interested in). I thought this might be a great opportunity to delve into potential intersections of democratic learning and social inclusion, with Dewey somewhere in the middle (my first research proposal was to dig into this). However, six weeks is not a very long time, and I underestimated how new all of this material was going to be for me, and how much I’d want to sit and think about it all.

Therein lies my frustration. All the readings were provocative and juicy and merited far more time for reflection than I could give. I ended up having to give up on my once-a-week blog plan, and haven’t even been able to manage a post every fortnight. I have completely “failed” in terms of my participation rubric on this front; I’ve even been less active on Twitter than I thought I would, because I didn’t really want to create a bunch of vapid live-tweets (which I sometimes did anyway) but couldn’t quite get to the point where I had something pithy and valuable to contribute. I realize now that I didn’t even put down as learning objectives the things I resorted to doing – annotating my notes heavily and writing down at least 20 ideas for blog posts that I hope I will return to over the summer. I didn’t want to write a post until I had a better sense of what the lay of the land was, but of course at this point the semester has ended and I’m still trying to distil what I’ve learned.

Ideas for future blog posts

While I’m writing this on a plane and have conveniently left all my notes with blog ideas at home, here are some of the ones I’ve dug up based on the annotations in my readings:

– Personalizing education and its relationship to polarizing political discourse: I have a half-finished blog post on this, and it’s related to my interest in “tribe-making” and its implications for social inclusion (after reading Connected Learning report, 29)

– Wrestle a bit with the question of whether children really do commit to learning when left to their own devices and in what circumstances (First and Second Digital Divides, 255); this might be the place to think about Sugata Mitra’s work too. I think one of the deeper questions I want to sit with is – if you’re only framing things in terms of what you want to do or think about, how do you tackle things that you don’t want to do or think about? Maybe this is related or can be incorporated into the previous idea.

– Reflect on ecological and networked approaches to social change: the “interdependence and co-constituted nature of actor and context” (Connected Learning report, 40) reminded me of STS readings I did last term (called Science, Power, and Politics) by Thomas Gieryn on boundary-work, Star and Griesemer on boundary-objects, Latour on the co-constitution of science and politics, etc. I wanted to revisit those readings before blogging any thoughts but didn’t have the time.

– The week before I started the MOOCs class, I created an About page for this website as part of the leadership course I’m taking. I was a bit startled to find that all the things I said I valued (communities of people who are collaborative problem-solvers, critical thinkers, creative doers, and compassionate beings) in Ken Robinson’s Creative Schools (I know he’s problematic, and wanted to tackle him and/or Sugata Mitra/Salman Khan in separate posts) as well as the Connected Learning report (that report was pretty meaty!). Either way, I would like to do a reflective post on what it means to think about education not in terms of individual outcomes and competition, but as adding value through connecting people (Connected Learning, 48).

– A reflective piece on what I think my values and goals are as an educator, inspired by these chunks in the report: “Connected learning [has an] explicit focus on learning linked across school, home, peer, and popular culture. Its key innovation is a focus on the creation of social, cultural, and technological supports to enable a young person to link, integrate, and translate their interests across academic, civic, and career-relevant domains.” (p. 82) and “small-scale, localized, highly networked, sustainable, and socially engaged enterprise sector” (p. 86) because it doesn’t seem to describe the approach of most MOOCs (except cMOOCs) but does get at what I think I care about in teaching, regardless of the presence or absence of technology. Writing the ‘About’ page was so clarifying that I think pinning down what I believe I value as an educator and learner would be very helpful before launching into this summer of teaching.

– Relationships between complexity and chaos and how it relates to the classroom (from the Week 1 Connectivism reading). The discussion also reminded me of Michael Crichton’s little chaos diagrams at the beginning of each chapter of Jurassic Park and I just wanted an excuse to re-read the book.

– The readings talk about “21st century skills”, and references to Dewey include suggestions for creating apprenticeships and “real-world” opportunities as part of education. While I think this is fabulous and valuable, I wonder what kinds of apprenticeships or opportunities you could possibly create for a life of the mind. This is something I want to sit with for longer, but in thinking about the potential “use value” of academia, I wonder if I’m asking the wrong questions. How might you compare the work I do in the archives as a graduate student (and eventually, perhaps, as a professor) that is not immediately correlated to practical outcomes (and is often frowned upon or just not understood, especially in South Asia) and the work that takes place in, say, a multinational tobacco company? Or even a garment factory where the model for production is cheap clothes that fall apart (a kind of planned obsolescence that isn’t questioned enough)? What is useful and how do you define it, and what does that mean for any kind of internship or apprenticeship you do? Perhaps this is really a meditation on the relationship between education and economic systems and how they might “co-produce” each other (so perhaps related to the blog post on networked systems).

Themes: tribe-making and social inclusion + intersections between future of work and arts education

Maybe if I had all my blog post ideas in a row I could more easily trace a theme, but I am already fairly certain of some in particular, given that I also wrote a series of blog posts on things I wanted to work through, if only for myself. As part of the leadership course I was taking, we were asked to frame our work in terms of Simon Sinek’s why-how-what model, so I read his book, Start With Why, on my own time. Much to my surprise, the book made me really angry, and I decided to unpack that in the course of two blog posts (a critique of the book as is, and thoughts on what I thought should be made more explicit). I discovered that apart from his lack of substantive end-notes, I didn’t like how the book never acknowledged the politics of “tribe-making” and I wondered if his articulation of the term was just different from my understanding, or whether I’d just read too much Benedict Anderson.

This led me to wonder how tribe-making was understood in the business world in general, and I then read Seth Godin’s Tribes. In writing about its potential ties to connectivist ideas, found I was still really stuck on questions like whether tribes really needed a leader, and whether there was an ethical dimension to the kind of “exclusion/exclusivity” of tribe-making. While the book was not a bad read, I wasn’t getting to the thing I wanted to know more about.

Lastly, I read Claude M. Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi for my bibliography, and while I am still in the process of writing a post on that, doing all this prior reading and writing beforehand made me better prepared to understand why I liked the book so much. I am deeply uncomfortable with the word “leader” because I’m not actually very interested in being a leader or engaging in leadership as defined by the likes of Sinek and Godin, for whom success depends on ideas catching hold and spreading. Perhaps this is because there is so little that I truly want to be ‘evangelical’ about, except in a few key areas: the constant questioning of assumptions, collaborative work and knowledge-sharing in the face of knotty problems, and general striving for compassion and empathy, even when the people in question seem truly awful. These are not revolutionary ideas so much as a set of personal values. I’m not interested in people agreeing with me or sharing with other people their conviction that my idea is the best idea in the history of ideas. However, this process is fairly vital in the world of business. What I am interested in is figuring out strategies for constructive disagreement, for people to feel like divergent opinions and ideas can be shared in a way that nuances (rather than derails) the discussion. In some ways, I suppose I’m interested in education that looks a little bit like a perpetual reconciliation process, but that can be applied in a fairly general way.

The other theme is a little fuzzier, but I found myself interested in readings on the future of work, on participatory culture, and on digital storytelling; I think this is because my community-based work focuses on theater, and while my primary reason for doing this work is that I think the arts can facilitate reconciliation, I am increasingly interested in thinking about the skills I’m interested in teaching and sharing in terms of how it might benefit the children when they join the workforce (in particular, I think I’m interested in strategies for collaboration). It certainly makes for a better pitch when talking to potential partners, collaborators, and sponsors, and I’m keen on being able to share skills that are useful across a number of spheres. I’m hoping to get hold of Ken Robinson’s early work in the 1970s and 1980s on theater, and arts in schools, to see what insights that team had then.

Also along the lines of strategies for collaboration, I also wrote a post on the kinds of social-good echo-chambers created by lists like the Forbes 30 Under 30, and wondered how social media can be used to break through these silos to amplify new ideas and foster democratic  (connectivist-esque?) exchange. Over spring break, I went for an introductory workshop in design thinking at Stanford’s, and really liked how different the design process from what I was used to in architecture studio – playfulness and strategies for collaboration were baked in, and I could see a lot of connections with theater. Lastly, I went for a retreat called Hive, which employed many strategies for democratic knowledge-sharing and activating people’s areas of expertise. I wrote about the conference strategies I found most appealing, but I am yet to write the remaining three posts in my “four-post series” (on the unconference that I led, on prototype thinking with Tom Chi, and things I learned about myself/my approach to work/dealing with large groups), but I have notes. Later, I interviewed Tom Chi again for another class.

Which brings me to the question of how much of this I should be including as participation for this class. I decided to include links to everything I thought relevant, even if it wasn’t written specifically for the class.

Looking back

This semester, I think I’ve begun to get a real sense of how I function, what my strengths and interests and values are, and how my research and teaching interests intersect. This is why I took the class in the first place, so although I generally failed at sticking to my class-specific participation rubric, I think I got out of this semester what I hoped, and this class was a major part of that. In particular, I did a lot of blogging. This makes me think about how a participation rubric might be more holistic – could you, for example, create a rubric that incorporated your other subjects, other forms of learning (like if I took an extra-curricular improvisation workshop and it changed how I did a presentation in one of my classes, for example)? You can’t really predict how it’s all going to go, and I appreciate that we had to revise our rubric a couple of times. The class was so short, though, that I didn’t feel like I had enough information to make sensible changes.

Based on all these experiences, though, I’m also letting go (very slowly and reluctantly!) of my need for perfection, and I think that trumps any previously-conceived network participation rubric. In that vein, I’ve given myself permission to rebel. The graduate assignment was to annotate 12 sources. I’m not even sure if it said what medium these sources should be in, or to actually read the sources before annotating, and it certainly didn’t specify how long a source should be. I originally wanted to read 12 books, but I thought about how long it took me to get through Whistling Vivaldi while taking notes and how I could just as easily have read six short articles (perhaps even from within his own bibliography) in that time. I have decided that given how much independent learning and writing and reflecting I’ve done this semester – that I personally feel led me to appreciate that book all the more – I am not going to submit a list of 12 “sources” just for the sake of having 12 on the list, because it just feels wrong (it’s also partly why I submitted my interim bibliography so late). I have four books on the list and several more articles, and I’m going to leave it at that. It’s a terrible-looking bibliography, and I’m not excited about some of the sources I do have, but they constitute part of a journey that I undertook this term to understand myself and my direction better, and I’m pleased that I took the time to do it. I also know that this decision might jeopardize my grade, but I’m so excited about everything I have learned that I don’t mind.

Looking ahead

Looking ahead to the summer, I would like to revisit my original bibliography in part. I read Theatre of the Oppressed in 2010, two years before I started my own theatre workshop series, and found myself really uncomfortable with Boal. It didn’t feel very empowering to constantly call people oppressed, and I didn’t know what to do with the knowledge that I was simultaneously oppressed and oppressor, depending on which situation I was in. I didn’t actually read any Freire, though, and I wonder if my philosophy aligns more with Dewey or with Freire. I may also have a different understanding of Boal six years later. I’m not sure yet if this is even a useful investigation, but I look forward to reading some of both and seeing what I think, especially as I actually engage in the act of creating syllabi and teaching workshops for Building Bridges.

I’ve also started pitching a few changes to the Queen’s Young Leaders course I’m taking to create more of a sense that it’s a place for the exchange of expertise, not an online lecture hall. Several of us have already suggested splitting into small groups, which has been implemented over the past month (although I’m not sure about success rates), and I’ve suggested we start off next year’s course with some exercises to facilitate skill-sharing, so that sets the tone for sharing rather than a sense that we have to diligently imbibe what’s put in front of us. Apart from modules led by the participants themselves is my question of how to organize this information (does it need to be organized?) and make it easily accessible for the future. I’m not sure if this is the right question to ask, but I’d like to do a bit of experimenting with Wikis over the summer, as I have a few things I’d like to share with the group from what I’ve learned this term. Lastly, the group is growing at an incredible rate. I think that the program will be taking in five classes altogether (i.e. run for a total of five years), and I am already interested in putting into place something that takes its inspiration from P2P learning circles for when the critical mass is enough for people to congregate in their hometowns or countries, or even work together online.

Finally, you can read my annotated bibliography here.

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