Closing general session at ELI 2008– a few first thoughts

For days now, I’ve been mulling over this session, and the Twitter response to it while it was happening. (I was there and in that Twitter stream.) Jim’s post and the extraordinary set of comments it elicited have catalyzed my own efforts at response here.

It turns out that I have very conflicting responses. I’m sure I’ll have more as I continue to think about the session and its aftermath. I post these responses in an effort to keep my thoughts going. I have no ironclad conclusions to offer and I look forward to more conversations as I try to sort things out in my own mind.

I thought at the time, and still think, that Bob Young was not just ignorant of his audience, but at least mildly contemptuous of it. One colleague afterwards said to me that Young had been “baiting” us, and I think that’s right. I’m not a fan of confrontational ha-ha’s, particularly at the end of an event that works so hard to encourage mutual support, inspiration, and optimism–and not just through feel-good boosterism, but through thoughtful, open, determined conversations that have the essentially hopeful mission of education at their core.

When it became clear that Young had not prepared any remarks for us, that he had nothing to show us beyond the front page of, I was at first mystified, then insulted, then angry. I also thought he was just a little too calculating in his constant self-deprecation, most of which took the form of sniping at school and academics generally. That’s not to say that school and academics don’t deserve attacks–I’d be the last to say that–but I thought his remarks were shallow and dismissive and unhelpful. That he felt he’d wasted four years on a history degree, without a single teacher or classmate or reading making any apparent impression at all, suggests not just that he feels thrown away by the educational establishment (as many people are, to be sure), but that he had a chip on his shoulder the whole time, and one that he wanted us to admire.

Then he started in on the “damn idiot students,” and I felt my gorge rising. This was my fifth ELI/NLII meeting, and I’ve never heard such casual cruelty from the podium.

Yet the nagging question remains: did Bob Young’s inexcusable behavior justify my own snarkiness on Twitter? No. There are some forms of solace that don’t really soothe anything, and I wish I had not been so free with my own anger and dismissiveness on a public forum that would represent ELI to the world. As one colleague often says of such behavior, it just “feeds the beast.” I knew better.

That said, there was also an attempt on Twitter to engage with Young honestly and seriously. There were moments of meaning as well as reaction. But it’s quite true that in the moment, emotions were running so high that communally-fed reactions outpaced communal meaning-making. And in the Twitter environment, those reactions have a long tail that they wouldn’t have if we had simply met for coffee afterwards and vented. I’m certainly not proud of my own snarkiness and venting on Twitter during the event, no matter how helpless (and hopeless) I felt as the runaway train careened down the tracks. These thoughtful responses from another colleague who was not there, but who saw the Twitter stream in action, are a valuable lesson for me in the destructive potential of the backchannel.

But there’s one other thing to note here. A keynote speaker has an enormous responsibility. At these moments, the entire conference comes to a point of focus on one speaker, one set of ideas, one address. ELI 2008 was full of enormously talented speakers, and any of the featured speakers would have been a much better closing keynote than Bob Young was, though I’m sure no one on the program committee had any idea Young would do what he did. But back to the point. Time slots on a program are always precious, especially when so many wonderful ideas and speakers are in circulation. I think we all felt an enormous wave of disappointment (this comment eloquently describes the feeling) that an extraordinary opportunity had been discarded by a speaker who seemed to have no sense at all of the gift he had been given. The program committee, acting on our behalf, gave him a treasure, a great privilege, and to him it appeared to be no occasion at all–nothing to rise to, nothing to answer, nothing to value. Instead, we got jokes about his inadequate speaker’s fee and the relative IQs of his various audiences.

This should not have been just another day on the IT circuit for Bob Young. This was a chance to engage with one of the best chances at academic transformation on the planet. We came to learn. I think we would have responded well to challenges, even to thoughtful provocation. Perhaps Young’s educational experiences really have scarred him to the point that he cannot be open or serious in the way he presents his own ideas, at least to an audience like ELI. But on that day, in that room, I felt hollowed-out and disheartened.

I won’t try to justify my own backbiting on the backchannel. I can’t, and I’m sorry for it. But it’s important to realize that Bob Young is not the only one who’s been made fragile by his educational experience. By analogy, if any of us was invited to speak for 45 minutes to a provost or president, to say nothing of a room full of them, would we do what Bob Young did? We know how rare and precious these visionary opportunities are.

Only at the end did I feel Bob Young was making any real attempt to connect with us, or engage seriously with ideas. When he shared his thoughts about keeping the MIT Press thriving in the midst of the challenge posed to its business model, I believed him, and wanted to hear more. When he told the story of the librarian who implicitly chided him for checking out so many books, and told us that this was the only teacher who had ever made an impression on him, I felt real sorrow over the way he had been cast aside by his own education, and I wanted to hear much more about how he had kept his head high and his determination alive in spite of being told again and again how he didn’t measure up. In a conversation after the session, another colleague said that Young should have led with the librarian story. I thought that a brilliant idea. Think of how the entire talk would have been reframed as a critique of academic processes and dismissiveness, but with the positive direction of imagining a new educational community that finds the brilliance in each student, and encourages real curiosity and intellectual diversity. That would have been a talk worth hearing.

Bob Young clearly has that talk in him, and he clearly has vital stories to share. Why didn’t he choose to give that talk and share those stories with us? At the end of it all, that’s the question that haunts me most.

10 thoughts on “Closing general session at ELI 2008– a few first thoughts

  1. Having just returned from a conference that energized me, I can understand your frustration with the speaker’s closing remarks. Too bad. I wonder what he was thinking when he prepared his speech.
    Your back-channeling thoughts are interesting, and I experienced some of that at my conference. When do the tweets take on a life of their own, and is the ease of posting, the seemingly anonymity of the comments (though not really at all) the reason people tend to put it all out there? Everything is public.
    Thanks for your reflection here, Gardner. I was intrigued by your tweets during the conference, and this further explanation answers some questions.

  2. My read on the talk was quite different — Young is first and foremost a business man, working a new model opened up by the emergence of Open Source software. Lulu represents a new business model as well, nothing more — it really has nothing to do with transforming scholarly communication per se. If that happens, then great, but this is not his concern. He’s all business.

    Coming from the business world, he has no connection at all to the endeavors of academic technologists, who toil within the much less dynamic confines of the college campus, where budgets are tiny and work gets done through collaboration (and forbearance) and not financial incentive. Added to that is the instinctual aversion toward organized education that Twain expressed in his remark, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” So, what he saw before him at ELI was a bunch of bureaucrats who will, in spite of all the blue sky talk about transformation, do nothing to change the institutional constraints that contributed to his bad educational experience because they cannot. Their (our) hands are not on the levers.

    One imagines him thinking: “You want Learning 2.0? I’ve got your Learning 2.0 right here … ” and imagining, perhaps rightly, that if we really got what we wished for in this conference, then the entire academic apparatus would crumble before the juggernaut of long tails and mashups and social software applications, which would effectively displace the need for a residential campus of any sort. Think of Lulu as the library and blookstore of the future which, in collaboration with Wikipedia and MySpace, provides the services necessary to turn any home into a school, with learning extending into a life-time, just-in-time, distributed intelligence model. Why on earth would you need a school or college in the traditional sense then?

    In the end, I think the selection committee made a mistake in choosing Young to speak not because they picked the wrong man, but because they made the false assumption that education — a genuine, liberal arts education to be more specific — has some intrinsic connection with Web 2.0. It is an assumption that we cannot make because it is not a fact, but an ideal. That is, it is a form of life we have to build ourselves — and in doing so, realize that we are occupying contested territory. Young does not stand in this territory, and Lulu is but a mirage of an oasis we are looking so hard to find.

    Web 2.0, however you define the term technically, is essentially a new way of doing business, and is driven by the rush of capital to fill the void of vast new markets. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as good arguments for democratization and the liberating effects of technology can be (and are being) made about *this* transformation — about which, read the other Polyani. But let’s not assume that because digital natives do certain things with cell phones and web sites, or that because it has become ridiculously easy to engage in audio and video media production and distribution, that our role as educators and academic technologists is to adapt education to this trends. It is rather (or also) the reverse — to adapt technology to education, to make a dialectical stand with respect to these changes, and to thereby produce a third culture worth working for.

  3. Patrick,

    In all fairness, this twitter event was not akin to ‘wilding’, ‘destruction’, ‘feeding the beast’, etc. It was just the playfulness of this space amplified and decontextualized. And I am a bit afraid my post will be read as an indictment of twiiter rather than musing on its dynamism. For I really had, and still have, no larger issues with what happened in that Twitter stream, for I believe I have a strong sense of the spirit in which it was said. And I saw the talk afterward onoine and found it dreadful, unlike Colleen.

    The twitter stream really doesn’t look like burining wreckage to me, and I would hate to see this move towards some moral high ground against the free and loose flow of ideas on Twitter be the last word on this subject. Yet another frontier closed and professionalized for our homogenous pleasure. teh vitality and candidness of Twitter is really the only thing that truly keeps me interested in it, if that goes so does the experiment.

  4. Jim,

    I agree that Colleen’s description of the stream as “wilding” was a bit too severe, and I also agree that Bob Young’s talk was dreadful. I also think that the stream’s intensity was sometimes playful and sometimes more sharp-edged and overly demonstrative, at least on my part. In my post, I was trying to make the point that a backchannel shouldn’t feed on its own negative energy to the point that the discourse degenerates, even if (as was the case here in my opinion) the speaker really does deserve all the rotten tomatoes. Better to step back, breathe, and critique more comprehensively.

    I’m all for the free flow of ideas, but within a civil framework. Even the casual Twitter stream shouldn’t leave all civility behind. Now, I don’t think I left all civility behind during that dreadful session–I don’t think anyone did–but I know I was so angry and disappointed with the speaker that there were moments I felt like doing nothing but deriding him with a succession of snide remarks. I let a little more snidery go through than I think I should have. That doesn’t mean I want Twitter to lose its vitality and candidness–but some kinds of candor tear down more than they build up. I felt I went a little too far down that path, and that’s why I wrote what I wrote.

    My Twitter stream that day was a flow of reactions, not a flow of ideas. Reactions have legitimacy too, of course, but too much of the time that day I was just venting.

  5. Dear Gardner,

    I enjoyed and learned from the session- though my vantage point was limited (I was really only following the tweets of 2 folks in the room for Bob Young’s talk). But over this past week I learned a lot about Bob via the web and in conversation. Good character in a story we need to pay attention to maybe. All in all, I felt part of a conversation and a learning adventure that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

    I don’t have those kind of conversations in Facebook. But it’s easy to see how twitter could go that route too- full of sound and fury signifying nothing. But so far I still mostly like it.

    My best, Keira

  6. Even though, in my opinion, Young was at best a poster session case, giving him that tribune made me realize his company is very important to academic. A lot of our professors are narrowcasting, and publishing on Lulu might be a good way to get visibility in a niche market.

    On my behavior on Twitter, I think the vibe of the room escalated in Twitter. I am not especially proud of my tweets, but i’ve learned to behave in a public space. Instant messaging doesn’t have that kind of reach. It’s a new technology we must try to master…

    I posted my thoughts on my blog btw:

  7. O Gardner:
    I crave your eloquence. If I were more eloquent, not to mention more aware of cultures of deconstruction, I might have had a tougher skin for the Young-skinning. I’ll officially take back ‘wilding’, substitute ‘snarky’ and acknowledge the collective anger in the crowd that I couldn’t see, hear, feel, experience.

    It’s happening too fast: Twitter, txt messaging, cell phone use, social space walls…we don’t have a baseline yet. “Remember the human” didn’t work at ELI. My response: I’ll let my students figure it out.
    I’m changing their assignment next week. We’re going to create a Wiki netiquette guide. Feel free to drop in and contribute:

    Let me know if I described the problem correctly. Change or add if I haven’t. Maybe 18 young people know something we don’t.

    Twitter? Like Quentin, feeling misunderstood at the end of Absalom, Absalom, I yell out here that “”I don’t. I don’t! I don’t hate it!”
    I don’t hate Twitter.

  8. Hello Gardner,
    I was at the (now infamous) Bob Young session at ELI. While disdain for his audience certainly leaked out (prompting much reaction in the twitter zone) so did his story, bit by bit, but we weren’t really listening.

    Before my battery ran out of juice- I tossed the Mark Twain quote into the twitter stream ” I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” I made this contribution as I was thinking about a couple of things: How challenging it must be for him to stand before a bunch of educators (somewhat akin to standing before your oppressors) and how interesting his story must be. After all, he has achieved (at least outwardly) some measure of success in his life. What led him here?

    And when the Twitter talk took a turn for the aggressive, I felt empathy well up. After all, he’s just a guy with a life, a job and a history – like the rest of us. But (as Colleen points out) we didn’t remember the human. Twitter magnifies and reinforces the side conversation, so when it goes sideways – it goes big.

    Then something remarkable happened. You stood up and (with the tone of a caring friend) asked Young to share something about his experience – and we perked up. That’s when he began to tell the real story. Did you convey the empathy that was necessary to set the stage for a real interchange? Did the Twitter talk somehow inspire that question or provoke that empathic response? These are the questions that I’ve added to the stew in my own head about the whole event.

  9. Pingback: Remarks on ELI 2008 | The Transducer

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