Resources and Regeneration

This past week, I attended the third Northeast OER (Open Educational Resources) Summit at UMass Amherst. (For a general report on that, see Matt Reed’s write-up for Inside Higher Ed, or, for a whole variety of views, check out the Twitter hashtag #NEOERSummit2019.) I presented a 25-minute talk titled “Gift Economies in the Gig Economy: Imagining Solidarity, Cooperation, Coalition, Refuge, and Regeneration”, the slides and notes for which you can get here.

In the presentation, I offered five words that, for me at least, seem useful as values for open education, the values in the presentation subtitle:

A checklist of five words: solidarity, cooperation, coalition, refuge, regeneration

I settled on these words by asking myself what it is underneath the Open Education movement that appeals to me. The answer was that ideas of openness appeal to longstanding values I’ve held for almost all of my life, values embodied by those five words. (If I had wanted to be buzzy, I would have chosen words that all begin with the same letter, or that create a fun acronym, but I think that tendency too often deforms our ideas, leading to imprecision and superficiality.)

There wasn’t much time in this presentation to explore these ideas beyond the superficial. That’s fine, as my goal was not to get into the details, but rather to offer the words as provocations to see what they might spark in listeners’ imaginations. At the end of the presentation, I showed a list of readings that seem to me to explore and develop these ideas (some separately, some together). Here are the various items on that slide:

Most of those are self-explanatory, but there are a few I put on there with the intention to cause anyone who sees them to think, “Huh? How does that relate?” The biggest “Huh?” is probably Isabella Tree’s Wilding: Returning Nature to a Farm.

Wilding hasn’t yet been published in the US (NYRB will be releasing it this fall), but after I read a review of it in The Guardian, I immediately ordered a copy of the UK edition from Book Depository. I sought out other articles about the rewilding project at Knepp Castle, the subject of Tree’s book. I watched videos. It was all thrilling, and not just because I wanted to destroy the lawn at my house and try to let something more ecologically healthy grow. It was thrilling because it offered a sense of regeneration, a sense of hope against the fact of destruction.

Hence my interest in thinking about regeneration as a value. We live in a world where much has been destroyed, much is being destroyed, much will be destroyed in the future. In the presentation, I said, “How might our work allow refuge, how might it regenerate what deserves to be regenerated, what has been lost or abused or so marginalized as to be nearly beyond perception?”

I like the concept of regeneration because it helps us move toward a kind of systems thinking, even an ecological thinking. That isn’t the only reason I put Wilding on the list, though. I also like the concept of rewilding as a way to think about the challenges and dangers of progressive, learner-centered education. Allowing students more freedom and choice within classes feels to me a bit like letting my lawn grow wild. The neighbors might look on, aghast, because no matter how often you tell them that all of the science says monocultural lawns are ecologically awful, we’re so conditioned to see a neatly-trimmed lawn as wonderful that vastly more healthy landscapes look, to many eyes, like chaos. Similarly, we’re so conditioned to see certain educational practices as good and necessary that one of the greatest challenges for anybody who, for instance, wants to de-emphasize grades is first convincing colleagues, students, and administrators that it won’t be the death of all education.

The kind of teaching I find myself drawn to is a kind that requires the teacher to step back a bit, to let go, to trust the experience, to not be a control freak, to know that a lot of good things will look really messy. Similarly, rewilding asks us to let go of our idea that we can manicure the environment into perfection. In both situations, we must readjust our idea of what a healthy landscape looks like.

Rewilding is just one part of regeneration, though. I’m equally interested in thinking about regeneration in the terms I offered in the presentation: seeking ways to find what has been lost; to strengthen and heal what has been scoured, scarred, strip-mined, abused; to bring back toward the center of our perception what has been marginalized.

This idea will remain abstract until we talk about how the idea of regeneration fits within particular educational practices. (A topic for another time, or your own time.) Here, I think about one of the main topics of my OER Summit talk: gift economies. In his classic study of gift economies, Lewis Hyde writes that both gifts and commodities have an energy and motion to them, but the energy of the commodity is toward profit, whereas the gift is toward something else:

If the commodity moves to turn a profit, where does the gift move? The gift moves toward the empty place. As it turns in its circle it turns toward him who has been empty-handed the longest, and if someone appears elsewhere whose need is greater it leaves its old channel and moves toward him. Our generosity may leave us empty, but our emptiness then pulls gently at the whole until the thing in motion returns to replenish us (p. 29)

The energy and movement of gifts is a complex topic that requires pages of explication in Hyde’s book, but it’s well worth thinking about when we think about regeneration, because one tool of regeneration may be the energy produced by a gift economy, the energy of generosity.

This sense of regeneration is visible in some of the questions Kathleen Fitzpatrick asks in the first chapter of Generous Thinking (a book I happen to be reading at the moment, and about which I expect I will have more to say later):

What if the expertise that the university cultivated were at its root connected to building forms of collectivity, solidarity, and community both on campus and off? … What new purposes for the university might we imagine if we understand its role to be not inculcating state citizens, nor training corporate citizens, but instead facilitating the development of diverse, open communities — both on their campuses and across their borders — encouraged to think together, to be involved in the ongoing project of how we understand and shape our world? (pp. 44-45)

Refuge and regeneration go together for me (in the presentation I proposed that they are “outcomes of care”). At the moment, I see the whole list of five values as linear: we need solidarity for there to be any hope of cooperation; we need cooperation if we’re going to be able to build coalitions; we can achieve meaningful refuge by building those coalitions; there can be no regeneration if there is not first some sort of refuge.

I don’t want to go too far with the abstractions, though. I intend to use these values as a lens for assessing my own work and goals. Instead of asking a question I don’t really care about, like, “Is this really an Open Educational Resource?” Open is nice, but it’s not a quality I care about unless it supports and strengthens other values. Silicon Valley techbros have long been infatuated with the idea of “open” this, that, and another thing, often to the detriment of society and the planet.

I am able, though, thanks to the five values I proposed, to ask questions I do care quite deeply about: Does this tool contribute to, or at least not undermine, solidarity, cooperation, coalition, refuge, regeneration? Is my behavior congruent with these values? Am I helping to make any progress toward these ideals?

Solidarity.

Cooperation.

Coaltion.

Refuge.

Regeneration.


Image: “Death and regeneration in the foothills” by Kevin Dooley, Flickr

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