We Make the Conversation By Talking

A Conversation on Myles Horton and Paulo Freire

Posted by Amy Collier and Adam Croom on December 14, 2016

Note: Below is the transcript of a conversation between Amy Collier and Adam Croom that took place on December 12, 2016. Both are involved in an online book club organized by Bryan Alexander on the book We Make the Road By Walking by Myles Horton and Paulo Freire. The objective was to have a conversation and release it in a similar conversational style as the book.

AMY: I know Bryan has done this before. Why did this book hit big? What about this book have we really taken away from and what about it have we bumped against?

ADAM: I like that. Well then how about this: why did you do this?

AMY: I did it primarily because it’s a book that Allison Salisbury had read before and she had spoken highly of it. In particular she said it was highly influential in her approach to her work and I find Allison to be intriguing and she has great ideas so I thought that this is someone who I respect and she is part of a professional circle I respect, so it would be worth trying.

I had never done anything like this before. I had seen Bryan do a few of these books before and I kind of watched from afar but didn’t really feel motivated to join. But it was the perfect confluence of a book I was really interested in–Paulo Freire is someone I’ll always read–and the people involved. I’ve even started meeting people I didn’t know and I appreciate that as well, as it exposed me to more voices than I would have normally would have had. So it’s been really cool. How about you?

ADAM: Similarly, Allison turned me onto it and mentioned that a few people were doing it and I don’t know if I ever actually formally agreed to it. I just kind of bought the book and I figured I would probably read a little bit of it, just enough to see if it was something I was interested in.

The first chapter really struck me and Bryan had put out a post about reading chapter one and I wrote some thoughts on it a week later. I actually went back and reread that blog post and rereading it now I am seeing how much I was probably in the dark I was at the time. I don’t think there was a lot of public discussion. I can see that I was contextualizing a lot saying things like “I don’t know if this is the right way to respond. I don’t know if we’re blogging. Here’s what I’m doing. I hope somebody is listening…” ya know?

And that was really it. And I think quickly from that the Twitter chat happened and other people started posting, and that was really rewarding because I wasn’t so sure as to the right way to participate.

AMY: I think that was something that I, too, struggled with. I say I struggled with it for a couple of reasons. One is that I posted something about participating in the book club on Facebook, and a friend of mine from high school who was one of my best friends (also happens to be named Adam), he’s now an actuary–he’s not in education at all–if he would have read this book and did this with us he would have had a lot to say that would have been new to us and a new perspective to bring.

Adam said, “How do you participate in this thing because I’m really interested?” and Bryan responded saying, “Well, it’s kind of loose and you kind read and posted stuff when you want to,” and that didn’t jive with my friend.

And so there was a really high bar for participation even though there was a really low bar for participation, you know what I mean? To really get the most out of it, I think Adam needed to have some kind of foot in this network already and, for my friends from the outside, that was never going to fit.

ADAM: And I would probably say, to continue the inside-outside metaphor, there are also people in that liminal space in-between inside and outside that it also feels hard to engage in something like that, ya know? And they might even have the means to do so and they are watching from afar.

That was a lot of my reasoning for wanting to do a quote generator. I started building a spreadsheet and trying to organize my head. And so I was thinking from that I could start to distill themes that I’m seeing. I started thinking that while you wouldn’t want to experience the entire book in these quotes, they could be prompts for other people to jump in whether you are reading the book or not and just wanted to react to a thought. I’ve been continuing to think about how do you build more entrance ramps for more things like this.

AMY: Right.

ADAM: And, I’ll say this. I, by nature, I’m a completer. For whatever reason, if I start a project, I really want to complete it. I’ve actually completed three MOOCs because that’s the way I work and it’s sort of bizarre. And so Bryan giving the bar of doing a chapter of week; that’s a lot of work. I’ll follow that but I also recognize that people don’t necessary have time, capacity, or are even comfortable doing it that often. And so how do we think about other ways in which people can participate and it not feel like a closed network doing things in the open.

AMY: Yeah, it’s so funny, because you could look at it and say, and obviously I believe Bryan’s intention was to make this as open and inclusive as possible and so he made it that.

But I think this is one of those age old discussions about scaffolding, right? People say, “Well scaffolding puts too many restrictions on where people end up,” and other people are saying, “Well scaffolding is needed for people who are starting at a very beginning point,” and I like what you said about “on ramps” because I think about different entry points. It’s not about scaffolding because you could end up in a situation where Bryan tells us exactly what to do and that really limits who can participate and it limits what ends up happening. The open endedness of it was nice and wonderful but there needed to be more possibilities for entry points and I really appreciated your generator because of that.

Something that came to mind: I don’t know if you are familiar with Dan Myers work. He was a grad student at Stanford who had taught high school math for a long time, who now works for Desmos, which is a startup in Silicon Valley. He created this 101 Questions site that was a random generator of an image and whenever you would click to generate a new image he would say, “What question does this make you think of?”

And so, in some ways, what I would love to see your generator do would be to generate a quote and then ask people to have a response to it. Have a text input that has either your response to it, or what questions does this generate, or what context is missing here that you would want to see or that you could provide? I think that would be a really interesting way of building the generator into a multiple entry point kind of like where you could just click “generate” and see a quote but you could also respond to it and participate in a conversation like that.

ADAM: That’s a really good point. I think I’m missing the what-to-do-next with the information. In theme of the book, and I think Myles Horton talks about this a lot, which is allowing the community to decide how and to what level they want to participate. So I think that the way things have happened, whether they are the more welcoming ways, it is still a small group of people who have decided to communicate in a specific way, and I think that will still have a significant personal impact.

AMY: The “who is the community?” piece is really interesting because most of the time Paulo and Myles are talking they are talking about a physical, co-located community, right? A geographic and nationality-based, although not necessarily, it was a community that have commonalities of a specific kind and one of those was geographic co-location. That’s not the same set of things that brings this community together and particularly this community around this book. I wonder what would be the ways that you would describe this community? What are some of the words that we would use to describe it?

ADAM: I think about this a lot. I’ve been trying to figure out how to define what my community is. I referenced in a blog post a quote from Gardner Campbell from his OpenEd 2012 keynote. When I think about my community, for whatever reason it comes back to open and open education, and I think there’s something that is central about it. I’ve been trying to figure out what is the idea of “openness” that is attractive to the community and what is it about it that draws us there?” Gardner says, “Open is not simply a quality to adopt or a direction to pursue. Open is attitude towards systems and the desire those systems empower and focus.”

I don’t how that best answers your questions, it’s certainly not direct, but that’s the way in which I start to think about the community; the ethos in which it tries to have. And maybe, ultimately, it fails there. I don’t know.

AMY: No, that sounds right to me. It should be really hard to define, right? It would probably be impossible to define, but the ethos thing is fascinating. I wonder if it’s one of the reasons why every time I go to the Open Education Conference I feel this really strong sense of tension about the communities that are there because there is the open community, and I say that kind of broadly, and then there is an OER community, and those are different things. And, yes, sometimes they overlap and sometimes people are members of both, but there’s something about the ideological and practitioner differences in those two communities. They run in completely parallel, but when they cross paths, there’s tension. There’s a lot of tension. And you would think they would be the same community, but they’re not.

ADAM: You mentioned that you jumped into this because the book came highly recommended from Allison. That sounds like a very normal way to enter into something like this; a person you know has invited you in. The responses that you specifically written to chapters so far seem to be personal. I’m curious was that what you were expecting or was there a moment where the book or the community or a mixture of the two pushed you in that direction?

AMY: I don’t think I arrived at the book with an expectation that it would hit me personally. Clearly, every time I’ve read Paulo Freire’s work, I’ve benefitted from it professionally and what I felt like was the way I approach most books like this: this is something I can use to be better at the work that I do. It can support me professionally and it can support the work professionally. And I’m at a moment where I need this conversation in my life professionally and so I came at it from that perspective.

I think two things primarily happened that changed that. Not “changed that” because I would say the posts have a professional element to them, especially the leadership one, but the results of the election turned a lot of focus back inward because it opened up questions about the work that we do. What are we actually trying to do here? Do we have any chance of success? Am I willing to keep doing the work even if my family is suffering? I’ve come up against my own extended family issues and things like that. So I guess in some ways the election started turning things inward for me.

Then when I started the book and Myles was talking about the missionaries… I don’t know. When I did my dissertation on the experiences of missionary kids, one of the things that stuck out with me, and it’s supported in other research as well, is that missionary kids tend not to be particularly reflective about their experiences. There’s a delayed grief because the life of a missionary kid can be so difficult; so transient and heartbreaking and so difficult.

Typically, missionary kids will defer their grief until some later part of their life where they can process it; where they can reflect on it. I think for some reason this book caused me to experience that a little bit. Both in the sense that those experiences were really hard but also the grief of regret of the work overall.

ADAM: I would say, personally for me, I almost, rightfully or not, leveraged the book as an opportunity to begin to write again. I was coming to a very specific point post-election, where I didn’t know what the proper way was to engage in the professional community. I needed get my thoughts out there in a way that could be speaking to that group as well. I needed a way to process my own thoughts and what was going on my head. For me, it was very intentional. There was a specific way in which I wanted to approach and consume and reflect on the book itself knowing that there is this social-political piece that underpins the entire book.

AMY: So I characterized it as grief; grieving. I felt like there were a couple of posts that you had that I feel like I experienced grief in your words. I wonder how you might characterize it.

ADAM: That’s probably close to how I would characterize it. I think, and you saw this happen within this book, for me to move through something is to build something else, right? So everything that I’m processing, I’m trying to build along the way too. So I’m creating the quote generator, or iterating on it, or a Twitter bot, or whatever. That’s part of the process as well.

I don’t know enough about grief to know if that fits within it. I think a lot of it has to do with being an Oklahoman. We’ve been through so many tragedies whether it’s the Oklahoma City Murrah Building bombing or tornadoes where the time for grief feels minimal because there is a direct need to go clean up. It’s very Oklahoman to want to immediately start giving and help out. I remember this happening during Katrina where it wasn’t even something that was happening in Oklahoma, but there was an immediate feelings from Oklahomans to pack up their cars and head there and see to what degree the can be helpful at all.

I don’t know if that’s the way Oklahomans grieve or process or just simply react, but it’s very much a part of the community; wanting to do something because of the act.

AMY: So you’ve made a couple of Oklahoma connections throughout the book and I wonder where you are with that now. Obviously you just made one now. Are there more?

ADAM: Absolutely. I think specifically come out of an election you start to look at geography in a specific way. We’ve been looking at maps for the last six months to try to understand it. I made specific posts about what was an incredibly heartbreaking part of the election which was Oklahoma not being able to raise teacher salaries and what it was like for me to take my daughters to school the next morning and confronting the fact that we had, as a country, just elected a misogynist instead of the first female president and that I’m going to take my daughter to a school ran by women that will not be getting a raise and here I am feeling like I failed everybody. And then hearing these students projects; these poems of freedom. That specific moment encompassed exactly how I felt immediately afterwards; apathetic towards my political involvement, or lack of I should say, and feeling like I haven’t done enough regardless of if I actually could. I was feeling a deep personal guilt that I wasn’t providing for my immediate family, community around it, and further.

AMY: It’s one of the things I’ve really been struggling with. Reading this book and thinking through the question of how political can and should we and our work be. I’ve never felt much of a connection to American civics. It took me a long time to figure out why I felt different from other American kids when I moved back to the States. I didn’t connect with them and understand their perspective around American government and American civic life.

I’ve always wondered about that and struggled about that in terms of my work. On the one hand, I feel like the role that I should play is social justice and that education to me is one of the ways in which this plays out–and I think that’s all over this book, of course–but it’s also the struggle of the role of the political and the higher education institutions and there tends to be this intolerance of politically-oriented work. And I don’t mean Democrat or Republican. I mean work that overtly intends to overtly change the lives of students in specific ways around their rights and privileges as citizens.

ADAM: You mentioned it’s not Democrat or Republican, but I am curious to the extent that that does influence the ability or lack of ability for higher education to get involved because higher education is portrayed so much by, whatever you want to call it, right-wing media, pundits, as the “left.” I don’t know if that suppresses it within teachers or what it does. But being characterized as this one thing that is very hard to define is going to suppress that from coming out and suppress people from wanting to act in specific ways.

AMY: I think it plays a big role in how welcoming institutions are about certain kinds of work that would feel political and activist. I’ve been really struggling with this question throughout the book because I want my work to be more political. I want my work to be more activist and I want the work my group does to be that. And, yet, I’m not really sure if you can make that kind of space especially in digital learning where you are expected to be a service organization.

There was a moment in the book and I don’t remember the exact quote, but one of the men said that this wasn’t really about imposing views–it was human rights. And that, in many ways, human rights, and they don’t say this specifically, but the assumption underlying that statement is that human rights are unalienable. They are not about political orientations. They are about the belief that people deserve, and the government’s role is to provide, certain kinds of things for its citizen.

And that’s, again, where a Republican/Democrat perspective will diverge over what are human rights are and what aren’t.

So for instance, the Attorney General of Michigan recently said that the right to literacy is not a human right, and I have a huge problem with that. So it is more party-based, I guess, than I would like it to be, but when Myles or Paulo, whichever one it was said, what we are talking about is human rights, it sounds so simple. It sounds so right. Yet we now know after this election season that there is so little shared ground at least between the parties. There are lots of people who have shared ground across parties, but, yeah, it’s ugly.

ADAM: I want to turn to a piece that you were just talking about and maybe this will be our last act in this conversation. You were just talking about the role of digital learning in this. I think the pieces that you’ve wrote delved into this. I’m going to use the word “innovation” because working in the digital space gets equated to technology, which gets equated to progress, and I feel like we are in a space where change isn’t necessarily highly desired, but for whatever reason, “progress” is.

There’s a quote from Chapter 5 in which Paolo is talking in which he says, “We are afraid of risking. And it’s impossible, just impossible, to create without risk­ing. It’s absolutely impossible, but it takes time to begin to risk.”

I’m curious to your thoughts here. I’m not sure what mechanisms need to be put in place for us for protection to work towards social justice or this idea of social change within higher education. I’m not convinced it’s tenure. Tenure brings the “publish or perish” model, which doesn’t do great things for research. What is there for us to be thinking about within higher education for us to move towards this and to what degree can institutions support that?

AMY: That’s such a good question. It’s kind of the ultimate question, right?

It’s interesting that you specifically cited tenure. I remember that I saw a presentation by Lawrence Lessig at Educause many years ago now where he was talking about how a lot of times the principles we believe in are often the right things to believe in but that our execution of processes and operations around those principles are flawed. He cited tenure as an example. He said the principle of academic freedom of scholarship without influence of state governments and money; scholarship for the purpose of science, and let’s just say that very broadly here because what I’m not talking about is computational necessarily, but just for the sake of progress, or change, or new knowledge–that principle is right. That principle is beautiful, but that execution of a process around it, in this case tenure, to protect academic freedom through this thing called tenure, might be a failed execution.

I feel like there is a lot of stuff like that in higher education where we confuse the principle with the process. We say “You can’t get rid of tenure because.” I’m not arguing to get rid of it and I’m not arguing for it, I’m just saying there are plenty of examples where we’ve gotten beyond the principle that is driving the process.

And the reason I say that is because I think one of the answers to your question is that the notion of scholarly work; of inquiry; of trying to understand things more deeply and trying to learn new things and understand the human condition and to do science as its broadly written and to do human inquiry is a fundamental value of our institutions and one when you start to think about as a participatory process, not something that excludes, but is something that everybody in an institution. If every person who is educated or becoming educated has an opportunity to participate in and to help lead, then inquiry becomes a way of social change. Like the book talks about, when people are asking their own questions; when they are a part of the research to understand the solutions, or not even to understand the solutions, to understand the questions better, there’s liberation in that.

When I think about digital learning in our institutions, one of the things that I feel like is missing is an inquiry mode. We see ourselves as a service organization or somebody else sees us as a service organization, and what I think we need in digital learning organizations is much more critical inquiry into the work that we do. That needs to be participatory. Students, faculty, staff need to be involved in it, and it is something that we take very seriously because it’s something that impacts all of us and impacts us in different ways. We should understand how those differences play out.

So I guess that’s a long-winded way of saying, I would like to see digital learning not necessarily become a discipline. I think a lot of people go to that because they think that if there’s inquiry then there is a discipline. I’m not sure that is right either, but I think that it needs to be a space in which we are constantly in a state of inquiry about the digital, technology, and the things we do with those tools and spaces.

ADAM: Anything else we should add? Any burning questions you want to ask me on public record?

AMY: So the title of the book is something that I constantly come back to. We Make the Road By Walking. It’s kind of a throw away in the first chapter and obviously it’s also part of a poem. I wonder what does that look like for you? When you think about making the road by walking what are the voices and the people and the things that you see playing a role in the road that you are walking?

ADAM: I do think a lot about infrastructure. I wrote in one piece about being fascinated by new urbanism, which is this focus on rethinking the way in which we build physical communities and thinking about walkability, how transportation plays into it; about physical space being centered around communities. I find myself more than anything else in my career coming to these questions on what infrastructure we are giving people and how we are leveraging that infrastructure to build or not build towards something; the ways in which infrastructure can influence the level in which someone feels involved in the community itself. That’s what I think about.

I just bookmarked a report about open source, a piece that can came out through the Ford Foundation, called Roads and Bridges: The Unseen Labor Behind Our Digital Infrastructure. It’s a metaphor we constantly come back to within technology. I’m curious as to what roads are being built for us. I feel like we are in a time of technology that is very similar to the building of the interstate which at the moment seemed like the best idea; creating jobs, connecting East to West, while at the same time we are destroying the hearts of our urban communities. Getting back to Oklahoma, we didn’t enter statehood until the 20th century, so we are a state that is built around the idea of the automobiles and the interstates and commuting. What that means for our communities is vastly different than what it could have been had our city been built a hundred years earlier. And we are at a point as a community where we are starting to have conversations about how do we break away from this infrastructure that has been built around us. We can’t think of it just as the road that we are building and walking because we also have to acknowledge the roads that are being built around us; sometimes against our will. To what degree can we reshape what has been put before us and what needs to built into the ethics of that specific process and what are things that build as a community and collectively believe in as a community that we want to see built.

Back to technology, we are seeing this. We are seeing something very similar happen to the web which we’ve seen in every medium. Whereas radio was once an open medium, it became very carefully controlled. Television was the same way. We are seeing with the Internet; a handful of corporations come into control of what is the right and wrong way to use on the Internet. We are going to hit a moment where we have to look at the roads that have been built around us and ask, “What do we rebuild?” and “What does our community believe in?”

AMY: I think that is a great place to end. That was really well done.

ADAM: That’s great. Okay, I’ll stop.

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