One more meaning of open
This post, and all others with the “openlearning” tag, are part of the #OpenLearning17 cMOOC that is ongoing under the auspices of the AAC&U. However, none of these posts are going be very neat reflections on the week’s events and readings, and I’m limiting myself to a short amount of time to compose them and leave them in an attempt to redevelop a discipline of blog writing. We will see where this takes us.
I was reminded a little more than a year ago of what I’ve always wanted “open” to mean in my classes.
I was getting to know a couple of pretty nifty football players in my physics classes at Tennessee Tech in Fall 2015, and was reveling in getting to further my bit of football nerd with guys who played. I remember thinking that this was going to be a bit of fun the afternoon the football player in my PHYS 2020 section dropped by the office to ask a couple of questions about the first exam and the conversation turned towards the end to his high school teammate who was quarterbacking the Iowa Hawkeyes, which of course brings out the BIG TENNNNNNNNNNNNNN  fan in me, because I forever wanna go back to Ohio State, to ol’ Columbus-town. 
I’ve always enjoyed the student-athletes in my classes, and always enjoyed the ways they broke the “dumb jock” stereotypes – especially the football players who owned their science coursework, from the elite linebacker slaving over a copy machine in the library to the placekicker owning a physics lab by sheer force of personality to the wide receiver making the mathematics behind classical mechanics look far too easy. I’ve always felt like I understood the double life those athletes have to lead, and that I’d supported them as well as I could.
I believed that until roughly the afternoon of November 8, 2015.
— Coach Gary Pinkel (@GaryPinkel) November 8, 2015
I’d recognized there had been tensions building at Mizzou all fall, and I think I had heard a rumor or two about a graduate student leader organizing action in defense of both grad students and African-Americans. (Naturally, I was more concerned about the graduate students and whether they’d have insurance on their assistantships.) I know I hadn’t heard a lick about what Concerned Student 1950 was, or how that leader was so alienated by his university’s lack of concern about the racism he experienced on a regular basis that he was moved to hunger strike.
And when that alienation drove players on the football team to tell their coach that they didn’t feel like it was time for games, and their coach (and all credit to Gary Pinkel forever for his immediate support) arranged for that picture to demonstrate that he stood with those players, my lone reaction was “I really don’t have a clue, do I?”
So many others have described that disconnect, but I’ve since always thought Bill Connelly described it best when he described his own experience as a student:
There have always been two Missouri campuses, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say that isn’t unique for college towns. There has always been unofficial segregation, and most of it comes by choice. You gravitate toward that with which you are familiar, even (or especially) when in unfamiliar territory. Maybe that means people from your high school. Maybe that means people of your color.
I was lucky. Mizzou attracts a pretty diverse population, in part because of the journalism school. My dorm floor was made up almost equally of students from Kansas City, St. Louis, rural Missouri and Chicago. I came from a small Oklahoma town that had more Native Americans than African Americans, but I was on a floor with quite a few black students. One became my roommate. Others became good friends.
You can find common ground with just about anyone if you try, and we didn’t have to try very hard. But no matter how similar we were in our tastes and preferences — sports, music, TV, girls, whatever — I was randomly exposed to our differences. One friend had regular meetings with an advisor as part of aid he was receiving to be able to attend the school. Another would act differently when we would encounter a black acquaintance on campus.
Little things opened a window into a different world. Things like attending the NPHC Homecoming step show, where you’re suddenly in the vast minority and having an incredible time.
It didn’t take much empathy to realize the experience of any member of any minority population is simply different. It could still be good or mostly good, but it was going to be different, and there was no way around that. And while every black student gets exposed to a white world while attending college, not every white student gets the same experience.
At one point in my life, I was immersed in the recognition of every different culture that made the modern university. You could not possibly attend Ohio State and not be made aware, and – God bless Elizabeth Gross, God bless her priorities steering admissions to the Biophysics Program at Ohio State – I was in a far more diverse environment than most at Ohio State. Students from all around the country, men and women, never as many students of color as Dr. Gross wanted but dang if she didn’t try. And then the international students, and she could have filled a program with students from China or India with the pile of superior applications from those two countries, but she made a point to push the admissions committee to take applicants from every nation seriously, and Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and the Ukraine and Nigeria and I know for a fact I’m not remembering every example. The student who followed me in my graduate lab was from – of course – Iran.
Having the best program – having the best university – meant diversity mattered. It meant we recognized one another’s voices. It meant we recognized how we thought differently, how we engaged differently with the science.
That was an incredible inheritance for me to receive. And then I moved south, first for the postdoc in Birmingham, then for the faculty job in the deepest Deep-South part of Georgia. And although it didn’t happen all at once, my surroundings began to get progressively whiter, and progressively more comfortable. And my understanding of that inheritance started to fade.
Twitter helped some, forced me to pay attention a little bit better. But the Mizzou boycott snapped me to attention. I felt comfortable, and many of my students felt comfortable. But some might be afraid. Some might be desperately so.
I made a point in my next meeting with my classes to say that this was on my heart, and a guy like me might think he understands but he might not have a clue. And what’s more, he might think it’s cool to be seeing a bunch of football players in his class and enjoy a few yuks with them about the game but he really doesn’t understand a thing about their experience, especially when they’re black and he’s white. And I promised – whenever a need was in front of them, and they felt burdened – to be an ear who would listen.
I have kept that promise imperfectly, perhaps even horribly. I jumped jobs within the year, after all. And even as I left one group of football players behind, I entered into a new class at the new place and couldn’t seem to build the connections with those athletes burdened by that double life anywhere near as much as I wanted. Part of the difficulty is simply the age difference. Once I might have that cool young prof who could do no wrong and who everyone wanted to hang out with. Now I have students who are the same age as my own kids, and I’m the same age as their fathers – or even older. Father Time, the saying goes, is undefeated.
But even in this moment of history – especially in this moment of history – we’re still human, together, in a time where the laws are being torn up and rewritten seemingly to inflict maximum pain on the people who aren’t like me, who don’t share my skin tone, who aren’t my gender. It seems to me that even pointing out the age difference is so much useless whining. We need one another, we need to be working together and not against one another.
I care about so much of this open pedagogy movement, so much about making academic resources available freely (“free” as in speech and “free” as in beer), so much about opening my educational practices to empower learners. But – with all respect to Pomerantz and Peek, and all understanding why I should read an article on the “fifty shades of open” – the meaning of “open” that matters most to me is the open relationship I need with my students.
My student’s lives are important. I don’t need to pretend that they are simply in my classroom as automatons and their engagement and effectiveness aren’t influenced by what happens outside the classroom, what happens in their families, what happens in their workplaces – and yes, what happens in Washington, D.C.
I need to create the space that allows my students to be the most open, the most honest, the most free (and “free” as in without restraints, without judgment, without fear). That doesn’t just matter in humanities or arts classes, that matters in the sciences as well. Students need to be affirmed. Students need to know their experience matters.
And I need to continue to commit myself to the willingness to listen, no matter where that listening takes me.
 BIG TENNNNNNNNNNNNNN, of course, should always be spelled with fourteen “n”‘s. No real reason.
 to the stadium to hear the band, by far the finest in the land