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If bell hooks made an LMS
Grades, Radical Openness, and Domain of One's Own
Jesse Stommel
@Jessifer
Radical openness isn't a bureaucratic gesture. It has to be
rooted in a willingness to sit with discomfort. The learning
management system is not a space built for discomfort.
Radical openness in education means recognizing the ways in
which the work of teaching is a kind of activism. The learning
management system is not a space built for activism.
Radical openness demands the classroom be a space for
relationships and dialogue. The LMS is designed to make
grading students convenient for teachers—and designed to
facilitate the systematic observation (and scoring) of teachers
by administrators. These are not dialogues.
“Ceding authority is an active endeavor. Dichotomies of
leaders and learners, teachers and students, are only helpful
when they facilitate rather than frustrate dialogue, and when
we acknowledge these roles are permeable, transparent, and
flexible.”
~ Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel, “If Freire Made a MOOC”
For the same reason that we shouldn't presume to (even
imaginatively) build the LMS for bell hooks, we should have
never built these systems for students. We shouldn't pre-
determine the shape of a student's learning environment
before that student even arrives upon the scene.
bell hooks writes in Teaching to Transgress about her
experience in graduate school, “nonconformity on our part
was viewed with suspicion, as empty gestures of defiance
aimed at masking inferiority or substandard work.”
The learning management system is a red herring, a symptom
of a much larger beast that has its teeth on education: the rude
quantification of learning, the reduction of teaching to widgets
and students to data points.
Most teaching practice is unexamined, because teachers in
higher education are rarely asked to think critically about
pedagogy. They structure learning as though students are
interchangeable. They expect content mastery. They demand
compliance with course policies. They wield expertise like a
weapon. They grade.
We can't expect that just building new systems will magically
change our teaching practices.
“My commitment to engaged pedagogy is an expression of
political activism. Given that our educational institutions are so
deeply invested in a banking system, teachers are more
rewarded when we do not teach against the grain. The choice
to work against the grain, to challenge the status quo, often
has negative consequences.”
~ bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress
Even a system that invites subversiveness, like Domain of
One's Own, can't single-handedly dismantle the
institutionalized hierarchies of education.
“Until students see this domain as a space that rewards rigor
and experimentation, it will not promote student agency …
The domains project isn’t revolutionary to the traditional
classroom, but it is revolutionary to a classroom reimagined
around public scholarship, student agency and
experimentation.”
~ Andrew Rikard, “Do I Own My Domain if You Grade it?”
When students take learning into their own hands, they have
no use for learning management systems.
bell hooks means something very specific when she talks of
Radical Openness, and so far the Open Education movement
has failed to tread that particular water. Domain of One's Own
has flirted at the edge of Critical Pedagogy, but giving out free
Domains isn't exactly the revolution Paulo Freire, bell hooks, or
Virginia Woolf had in mind. It's a start.
“Spaces can be real and imagined. Spaces can tell stories and
unfold histories. Spaces can be interrupted, appropriated, and
transformed through artistic and literary practice.”
~ bell hooks, “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness”
What if dialogue were the stuff of open learning and not
content?
hooks continues, “for me this place of radical openness is a
margin—a profound edge. Locating oneself there is difficult
yet necessary. It is not a 'safe' place. One is always at risk. One
needs a community of resistance.” For hooks, the risks we take
are personal, professional, political. When she says that
“radical openness is a margin,” she suggests it is a place of
uncertainty, a place of friction, a place of critical thinking.
“We act—at our peril—as if 'open' is politically neutral, let
alone politically good or progressive. Indeed, we sometimes
use the word to stand in place of a politics of participatory
democracy.”
~ Audrey Watters, “From ‘Open’ to Justice”
With a project like Domain of One's Own, supporting student
agency means advocating for students as they make choices
about their own work—the what, when, and also whether. As
Debra Schleef writes in “Who's Afraid of Domain of One's
Own,” this means, “a choice to keep one’s domain, to change
it significantly, or not to use it at all.”
Grades are the biggest thorn in the side of Domain of One's
Own—and the biggest barrier to realizing its radical potential.
“Grading [undermines] the climate for teaching and learning.
Once we start grading their work, students are tempted to
study or work for the grade rather than for learning.”
~ Peter Elbow
Ranking. Norming. Objectivity. Uniformity. Measurement.
Outcomes. Quality. Data. Performance. Metrics. Scores.
Excellence. Mastery.
The problem is not just the fact of grades but the fetishization
of them.
“Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.” And
then, “if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the
agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law.”
~ Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience”
Usually when I talk of grading, I do so with a caveat, and I point
toward approaches that offer a middle ground. But I want to
argue here that there really is no middle ground with Domain
of One's Own. Put simply, no, you don't own your domain if I
grade it.
Grading a student domain, by any of our conventional
academic metrics, undermines the work:
• Grades are not good incentive.
• Grades are not good feedback.
• Grades are not good markers of learning.
• Grades don't reflect the idiosyncratic, subjective, often emotional
character of learning.
• Grades encourage competitiveness over collaboration.
• Grades aren't fair. They will never be fair.
All of this demands exactly two pedagogical approaches, and
these are what I see at the heart of Domain of One's Own:
1. Start by trusting students.
2. Realize "fairness" is not a good excuse for a lack of empathy.
“There is still so much work to do.”
~ Martha Burtis, “Messy and Chaotic Learning”

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If bell hook made an LMS: Grades, Radical Openness, and Domain of One's Own

  • 1. If bell hooks made an LMS Grades, Radical Openness, and Domain of One's Own
  • 3. Radical openness isn't a bureaucratic gesture. It has to be rooted in a willingness to sit with discomfort. The learning management system is not a space built for discomfort.
  • 4. Radical openness in education means recognizing the ways in which the work of teaching is a kind of activism. The learning management system is not a space built for activism.
  • 5. Radical openness demands the classroom be a space for relationships and dialogue. The LMS is designed to make grading students convenient for teachers—and designed to facilitate the systematic observation (and scoring) of teachers by administrators. These are not dialogues.
  • 6. “Ceding authority is an active endeavor. Dichotomies of leaders and learners, teachers and students, are only helpful when they facilitate rather than frustrate dialogue, and when we acknowledge these roles are permeable, transparent, and flexible.” ~ Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel, “If Freire Made a MOOC”
  • 7. For the same reason that we shouldn't presume to (even imaginatively) build the LMS for bell hooks, we should have never built these systems for students. We shouldn't pre- determine the shape of a student's learning environment before that student even arrives upon the scene.
  • 8. bell hooks writes in Teaching to Transgress about her experience in graduate school, “nonconformity on our part was viewed with suspicion, as empty gestures of defiance aimed at masking inferiority or substandard work.”
  • 9. The learning management system is a red herring, a symptom of a much larger beast that has its teeth on education: the rude quantification of learning, the reduction of teaching to widgets and students to data points.
  • 10. Most teaching practice is unexamined, because teachers in higher education are rarely asked to think critically about pedagogy. They structure learning as though students are interchangeable. They expect content mastery. They demand compliance with course policies. They wield expertise like a weapon. They grade.
  • 11. We can't expect that just building new systems will magically change our teaching practices.
  • 12. “My commitment to engaged pedagogy is an expression of political activism. Given that our educational institutions are so deeply invested in a banking system, teachers are more rewarded when we do not teach against the grain. The choice to work against the grain, to challenge the status quo, often has negative consequences.” ~ bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress
  • 13. Even a system that invites subversiveness, like Domain of One's Own, can't single-handedly dismantle the institutionalized hierarchies of education.
  • 14. “Until students see this domain as a space that rewards rigor and experimentation, it will not promote student agency … The domains project isn’t revolutionary to the traditional classroom, but it is revolutionary to a classroom reimagined around public scholarship, student agency and experimentation.” ~ Andrew Rikard, “Do I Own My Domain if You Grade it?”
  • 15. When students take learning into their own hands, they have no use for learning management systems.
  • 16. bell hooks means something very specific when she talks of Radical Openness, and so far the Open Education movement has failed to tread that particular water. Domain of One's Own has flirted at the edge of Critical Pedagogy, but giving out free Domains isn't exactly the revolution Paulo Freire, bell hooks, or Virginia Woolf had in mind. It's a start.
  • 17. “Spaces can be real and imagined. Spaces can tell stories and unfold histories. Spaces can be interrupted, appropriated, and transformed through artistic and literary practice.” ~ bell hooks, “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness”
  • 18. What if dialogue were the stuff of open learning and not content?
  • 19. hooks continues, “for me this place of radical openness is a margin—a profound edge. Locating oneself there is difficult yet necessary. It is not a 'safe' place. One is always at risk. One needs a community of resistance.” For hooks, the risks we take are personal, professional, political. When she says that “radical openness is a margin,” she suggests it is a place of uncertainty, a place of friction, a place of critical thinking.
  • 20. “We act—at our peril—as if 'open' is politically neutral, let alone politically good or progressive. Indeed, we sometimes use the word to stand in place of a politics of participatory democracy.” ~ Audrey Watters, “From ‘Open’ to Justice”
  • 21. With a project like Domain of One's Own, supporting student agency means advocating for students as they make choices about their own work—the what, when, and also whether. As Debra Schleef writes in “Who's Afraid of Domain of One's Own,” this means, “a choice to keep one’s domain, to change it significantly, or not to use it at all.”
  • 22. Grades are the biggest thorn in the side of Domain of One's Own—and the biggest barrier to realizing its radical potential.
  • 23. “Grading [undermines] the climate for teaching and learning. Once we start grading their work, students are tempted to study or work for the grade rather than for learning.” ~ Peter Elbow
  • 24. Ranking. Norming. Objectivity. Uniformity. Measurement. Outcomes. Quality. Data. Performance. Metrics. Scores. Excellence. Mastery.
  • 25. The problem is not just the fact of grades but the fetishization of them.
  • 26. “Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.” And then, “if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law.” ~ Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience”
  • 27. Usually when I talk of grading, I do so with a caveat, and I point toward approaches that offer a middle ground. But I want to argue here that there really is no middle ground with Domain of One's Own. Put simply, no, you don't own your domain if I grade it.
  • 28. Grading a student domain, by any of our conventional academic metrics, undermines the work: • Grades are not good incentive. • Grades are not good feedback. • Grades are not good markers of learning. • Grades don't reflect the idiosyncratic, subjective, often emotional character of learning. • Grades encourage competitiveness over collaboration. • Grades aren't fair. They will never be fair.
  • 29. All of this demands exactly two pedagogical approaches, and these are what I see at the heart of Domain of One's Own: 1. Start by trusting students. 2. Realize "fairness" is not a good excuse for a lack of empathy.
  • 30. “There is still so much work to do.” ~ Martha Burtis, “Messy and Chaotic Learning”