Thursday, January 24, 2013

Irish scribes and the challenge of #ETMOOC

ETMOOC 2013 comes at a very good time for me. I am currently on a year-long sabbatical from my sociology professor role at Eastern Oregon University, and my major focus is learning as much as I can about emerging educational technologies and new media. I am new to most of this, and I admit that I have devoted more time to collecting information about these technologies and their social consequences than to learning how to use them. It is hard, anxiety-producing work to step out of comfortable patterns, and my technology-related brain muscles are still quite weak. Sometimes when I am practicing a new tool, the instructions just swim around in front of my eyes and my brain checks out. As a high achieving academic sort, I have to smile (with gritted teeth at times) that this isn’t something I can just get by osmosis. But I count on patient friends with more experience in these things to keep me going. That’s the most specific reason why I’m here and what I hope to gain. Another reason has to do with what sociologists call social location.

What brings me, with my particular history, at this time in history, to this shared learning space? I’ve been thinking about the anxiety of scribes at the dawn of the printing press age (who not only saw their life profession threatened, but probably found those printing presses quite incomprehensible). These thoughts led me to revisit a book by historian Thomas Cahill, who offers evocative images of 5th century Irish monks, sitting in the woods, by the sea, or in small rock shelters, hunched over whatever quality of vellum they could find, carefully copying Greek philosophy, natural history and Judeo-Christian scriptures as the conquering Germanic tribes destroyed the precious libraries of the decaying Roman Empire on the continent. Cahill argues that the efforts of these focused technicians (who were also artists and commentators) preserved an essential record of human endeavor and thus “saved western civilization.”

However accurate this historian’s grand tale, this story helps me reflect on my background and context--my “social location.” I am descended from people with the names of O’Brien and Powers who joined the mass migration from Ireland to the United States during the mid-19th century “Great Famine” following centuries of British colonial oppression. These poor immigrants survived in their adopted country as mostly nomadic day laborers and field hands well into the latter part of the 20th century, and gained minimal security with the advent of welfare state provisions under U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt. They taught me only two explicit prejudices -–I shouldn’t trust either the English or the Republicans (I try to unlearn both, but there are surely residuals). As the first in my family to complete a college degree, I remain keenly aware of the injuries of class, even while attaining an advanced degree in Sociology and tenured professor status at a small rural state university in Oregon, and serving on statewide boards and commissions making policy for higher education in the state. My early association with the Catholic Church, and its social justice teachings, propelled me both deeply into the Church (as a member of a women’s religious order), and out of it --when it became too difficult to reconcile my growing feminist consciousness with the Church’s official views on woman and leadership. (Check out cartoonist Mark Fiore's provocative interpretation).

Throughout my studies and teaching, I have been drawn to investigating the uses of power and privilege and their often oppressive consequences. I know I have a lot to learn about my own complicity, as a white, educated, western citizen in continuing inequalities around the globe. So my history, my culture, my gender, race, and social class all come together here, providing a partial lens through which to view digital divides, open source publishing, and the transformation of education. The sharing perspective, which comes through so strongly in the invitation to this MOOC, resonates strongly. Spreading these tools around, sharing conversations about how the tools can contribute to better learning and living—sounds great to me. I am reminded of a quotation attributed to Auntie Mame that I first heard uttered by Barbra Streisand in the 1969 film Hello Dolly. In Streisand’s version, “money is like manure. It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around, encouraging young things to grow.” An earlier version of this sentiment is attributed to 17th century Francis Bacon, which only emphasizes the sharing made possible by the Internet. I’m in.

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