Love and risk in education: A call to resistance [Part 2]

(This is a rough transcript of my Campus Technology 2016 keynote, given August 4, 2016. Thanks to Stephen Downes for filming & streaming the talk!)


Love in education may look like a lot of things. Here are a few that I will propose:

Love is questionability. It resists essentialism because love seeks to understand each of us at a human level. Everything we do is value-laden and a lens of love acknowledges how power, identity, performance, bodies, culture, and biases play into every part of the educational process, and into every research question, every sample, every algorithm, every interpretation.

I love this quote from Jeff Noonan, who writes some great things about education:

“All successful teaching therefore results in students who love to think and never stop thinking for the rest of their lives…To love to think is identical to feel and be moved by the need to question: the given structure of knowledge in the discipline, its application to the problem-domain of human life that the discipline ranges over, the overarching structures of human social life within which the discipline or subject matter has its place, and the overall problems of life as a mortal, finite being. To love to think means to remain alive to the questionability of things in all these domains.”

I think you could replace the word “teaching” with “education” in that quote and it would be a powerful statement about the need to remain alive in the questionability of what we do in education, what education is about. The minute we stop questioning inequities, the purpose of education, and what tech is or is not doing in our educational systems, we’ve lost.

Love is play. If you know me, you’ve probably seen the videos of my son building Legos with and without instructions. I am going to show them anyway, because I think they show the intimate relationship between love and play.

In Luca Morini’s excellent Hybrid Pedagogy article called “(Higher Education as a Bulwark of Uselessness,” he writes: “we can liberate education by never renouncing the uselessness and playfulness that should characterise true learning, whatever the forms that “play” assumes, be it on a stage, on a musical instrument, with feathers or with an amateur, purposeless digital game we ourselves designed, developed and shared. Anything goes, as long as it eludes the hegemonic criteria of market and productivity, and preserves the voluntary, joyful character of play.”

Adeline Koh in her Hybrid Pedagogy article, “The Political Power of Play,” wrote: “Play is not only not frivolous, but capable of producing serious intellectual work and an activity that possesses deep political power. Contrary to our commonplace understandings of play, I argue that a thoughtful analysis of the political power of play is potentially one of the most fruitful areas for those of us who are interested in furthering Paulo Freire’s “critical pedagogy” — a type of pedagogy that involves teaching both the oppressed and the oppressor of the structural mechanics that create these oppressions.”

Sometimes we distance play from “serious education,” but play can be an opening to education as a practice of freedom.

Love is risk. Once we start to embrace love as risk, and risk as love, risk doesn’t have quite the adverse feeling to it. It feels rather like a completion of ourselves and our work. It becomes the new way we understand ourselves and our students.

Love is resistance. This picture is from a video game I love called Portal. In the game, human test subjects, lab rats, are encouraged to keep submitting to testing, told that robots will replace them if they don’t continue to submit. It’s the kind of language we hear more and more in education. It’s a bastardization of the idea “any teacher who can be replaced by a robot should be” but if we have constrained our view of what teaching is to a transactional view, I can only see us heading in that direction.

We must resist this. I’m not talking about resisting change. There are many things to change in education. I’m not talking about refusing to participate. I’m not talking about things going back to some idealized version of the way things were. I’m talking about having more conversations about what we actually value about education, what we should value, and what it means for students to walk away from our institutions with an education.

Resistance might not just look like “No” (although sometimes it might). It might not always be a refusal to engage. I don’t outrightly refuse to use an LMS…well, sometimes I do. But I don’t outrightly refuse to work with people who do use an LMS. But I refuse to let it dictate how I work with my students. I refuse to stop at compliance. That is resistance. Resistance can and will start in a lot of places, within an LMS…from within our students…in the community colleges, rather than the elites. Don’t tamp that down. Love is in resistance.

What kind of leadership do we need in this resistance?  I’ve been thinking about this a lot.  Believe me, as a senior administrator who preaches love, complexity, emergence, patience, I am often met with concern from people who have adopted a control mentality. An orientation of scarcity that says if you have something I don’t. A mentality that blames faculty and students for being resistant to change without understand the complex experiences faculty and students have in our higher educational systems.

What we need instead is a more caring leadership ethic. Patient, loving, understanding. Willing to take risks. This is not easy to do.

As I prepared for this talk, I began to think about how my leadership does and does not embody the values I believe in around love, risk, complexity/not-yetness, and resistance. I was inspired by colleagues like Kevin Gannon (@TheTattooedProf) who recently wrote “Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto.” I started to think about what my leadership manifesto would look like and how I could maybe write a manifesto that continues to inspire the principles I’ve discussed today.

Here is my leadership manifesto (for now…so far…):

1) SLOW DOWN — In the rush to innovate, change, move faster, we end up ignoring the critical work. We stop asking the questions, “what are we actually doing here? Why? For whom? For what?” Take the time to have critical and meaningful conversations.

2) Always listen and seek to understand. Thich Nhat Hanh wrote: “The more you understand, the more you love; the more you love, the more you understand. They are two sides of one reality. The mind of love and the mind of understanding are the same.”

3) Question all technology. Don’t blindly adopt. Recognize that all technologies embody assumptions, biases, values. Don’t ignore those.

4) Tinker. Don’t calcify because of support. Embrace the not-yetness in what we do and be willing to try things, even how to support them is still emerging.

5) There are no such thing as best practices. There is only learning from others and trying to better understand your context.

6) Talk to people all of the time about this, about your values. Don’t let the dominant discourse in your group be about adopting & supporting tech as if it was something objective and without inherent values, assumptions, hopes, and dreams. Resist the rhetoric of “those darn faculty,” or that we have to change fast and thoughtlessly (even if it’s Boards & campus leaders pushing that rhetoric).

7) So many of the most exciting things happen by putting people in a room together, affirming and resourcing them, and stepping out of the way. Do this more.

8) Love. Unabashedly love. Stop worrying and love. Love even when it’s hard. Love even when you’re not expected to love. Love because we need more love. My favorite author, Anne Lamott, once wrote: “Love falls to earth, rises from the ground, pools around the afflicted. Love pulls people back to their feet. Bodies and souls are fed. Bones and lives heal. New blades of grass grow from charred soil. The sun rises.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to Top