Exit Through the Ivory Tower
Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.
And for me (much like art) teaching, learning, and 21st Century digital pedagogy should both bring comfort to the restless and disrupt the comfortable.
So I ask…are we doing enough?
This post may very well be the most important professional reflection I’ve ever written; both because of the gravity of the events which preceded it, but also because of the yet-to-be-realized downstream effect these events will ultimately have on my future. This post comes at a time when I’ve decided to transition away from an employer and institution into which I’ve poured roughly a quarter of my professional life. Metropolitan State University of Denver has been as much a home to me as any literal home I’ve ever inhabited (rife with the familiar dysfunction and drama you’d expect from a modern family). And while there will certainly be acutely directed references, calling anyone out publicly or criticizing anyone directly is far from the intention of this post. Instead, I intend to share my truth, and in doing so, shed a unique and faint glimmer of light on yet another challenging life experience. In doing so, It’s my hope that I might positively (or at least usefully) influence others, and in the process, learn something new about myself. That is, after all, as close to the meaning of life as I’ve ever been able to discern.
Over the past year (and as I wrote about recently), I’ve witnessed the emergence of a number of metaphoric elephants within the room we call higher education — undeniable, yet seldom addressed truths that have both captured my attention and now moved me to take what many might consider to be rather defiant action. Long-standing, hierarchical organizations are inherently maladaptive, especially for those looking to quickly craft diversions away from tradition and “the way it’s always been.” Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately depending on your view), I’ve always been interested in unapologetically catalyzing cracks in social norms, curiously prodding at the unexplored, and creating ripples of disruption in systems of legacy and tightly structured power. Turns out this innate (almost reflexive) impulse of mine is much like pouring water into the existing viscous oil of institutionalized education. I look towards my inner Kipling in wondering if never the twain shall meet.
So as I look back and try desperately not to place blame (human nature really is a bitch), I return with frequency to a rather familiar realization that the colleagues and leaders who represented “opposition” over the past year or so, and ultimately drove me to resignation, were often just as handcuffed by the systemic shackles as I was. Yet still, I’m left wondering…what could become of an otherwise floundering system if a handful of courageous leaders placed unrelenting trust in the motivated, well-intentioned activists, street artists, and deviants willing to work creatively towards discovering the adjacent possible, and can such bureaucratic systems retain enough of these educational vandals long enough to even find out (for now, sadly, my answer is no)?
There have been many moments of late when I shouldered a majority of the blame for my soon-to-be jobless discomfort. I acted selfishly. I overvalued the intangibles. I didn’t focus enough internally. My time management sucked (ok, it kinda did at times). But as I walk away (at least for now) from a professional reality which I truly did (and perhaps one day still will) respect, admire, and love, I’ve all but disposed of any lingering notions of self-doubt. In just a few years time, I worked tirelessly (and perhaps also naively) hoping I might play a small part in shifting one of the most entrenched cultures humans have ever created and known. So regardless of the ultimate outcome, I can now say with complete confidence that it was not for a lack of trying.
- I conceptualized and helped actualize an innovative new personnel and project management schema, the Agile Instructional Design Network (AIDNet) and associated, tokenomics-inspired, Course Design Xchange (CoDeX).
- I personally overhauled and brought renewed life to a previously stagnant (now regionally anticipated and respected, though also now likely to evaporate in my absence) professional development event, the Teaching and Learning with Technology Symposium.
- I provided strategic guidance and wrote a significant portion of a grant which led to MSU Denver receiving $100,000 to help promote the adoption/adaption of Open Educational Resources.
- I conceptualized, crafted a proposal and white paper, and curated a team in support of FlexchainEdu, which became one of 10 winning projects selected by the Department of Higher Education for the Edu 2030 Challenge (a project receiving ongoing national interest and publicity).
And while compiling this far-from-comprehensive list feels ego-driven and boastful, it also creates lasting satisfaction and contentment around my decision to part ways. Through all of these projects (and countless others), not once did I feel as though there was unrelenting institutional encouragement to charge forth and explore the potential to create lasting change. Again, perhaps to nobody’s fault given the system within which these projects were born, but it still hurts to look back and realize how much human potential for inspiration was (and still is) being left on the table.
Great organizations don’t hire skilled people and motivate them, they hire already motivated people and inspire them. ~Simon Sinek
Towards Discovery of the Otherwise
So as I exit through the gift shop of a still rigid ivory tower, I hope my story shines a light (however dim) on the need to support the courageous street artists (armed and ready with their cans of paint); those audaciously pushing back against our structured systems. We certainly need to support and empower the students who show interest and resolve in standing up against authoritative oppression and inequities, but perhaps more importantly, we need to support the foundational scaffolding that surrounds them (i.e. faculty and staff). It’s difficult to know what horizons we might reach by offering motivated freedom, legitimate re$ource$, and political air cover to those truly interested in exploring (creating?) the future, but rest assured that continuing to build towards yesterday will be the easiest way to never know.
I still believe that we can create a future which is otherwise, but if we’re to do so, public education (and our shared praxis and pedagogy) can’t involve more dialog-driven, action-free committees. It can’t be anchored upon a learning management system (especially not Blackboard). There’s no room for online education fees (or a host of other “pass the buck” fees for that matter). It mustn’t be blindly driven by AI, big-data, and emotionless analytics. Toxic echo chambers and identity politics must be confronted. And administrative overhead has to be replaced by honest measures of creative expression and accountability. Awareness isn’t enough; these matters are urgent!
Instead, we must work towards developing what Sean Michael Morris calls, The Habitus of Critical Imagination (this should really be a mandatory read for all educators, but especially those who, like me, share a much deeper appreciation for, and understanding of, MSU Denver).
We need to fully expose the potential of global digital networks. We need institutional partners willing to pilot blockchains and decentralized credentialing systems. We need interoperability and open standards across information systems. We need data ethics and art departments to emerge with a frequency equal to those of computer science. We need to model discomfort and vulnerability for our students by constantly and intentionally seeking out the unexplored edges of our professions and practice — and we must do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
For all those with which I’ve had the pleasure of working, laughing, and perhaps on occasion, crying, I hope our paths will cross again soon. Until then, please continue supporting your local artists, activists, and educational vandals. The future (at least in my eyes) truly does depend on it!