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MMDU: Unpedagogy

 Published on February 18, 2014 /  Written by /  3

Πάντα ῥεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει ~ Heraclitus

MOOC MOOC: Dark Underbelly (MMDU) is a rambunctious series of discussions about the past, present, and future of higher education, focusing on topics rising directly from Cathy Davidson’s distributed #futureEd experiment and its various offspring.

Learning must catch us by surprise, demand of us a compromise, a suspension of disbelief. Learning reminds us that we’re always a little bit stuck, but also that we have the ability to see our way out.

Last week, I was stuck in Washington DC under the oppressive gray clouds of winter storm Pax. But rather than be shackled by the conditions, I used the opportunity to visit museums and monuments. In the “Our Lives” area of the National Museum of the American Indian, I found myself surrounded by voices. They emanated from the multiple television displays, from audio that played only in this part or that part of the exhibit. The voices seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere. Ghostly, musical, they washed over me from every direction — north, south, east, west, from above and from below — giving the impression of omnipresence, of never being alone or separated from those voices. And yet this was a presence as invisible as it was ubiquitous, as nascent as it was ancient.

The museum itself lacks corners, and so the exhibits are labyrinthine. I wandered from place to place, sometimes circling back again to see what I’d seen before, but now from a new angle, a new context. Unlike other museums and exhibits, this one is not linear. There are no chronologies to guide people through history. Instead, everything happens at the same time. As a very white, Western visitor to the museum, I was asked to look at information in ways more flexible, more circular, more intuitive. I had to unlearn how to participate in the act of being in a museum.

In her lecture 4.3 for this week’s “History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education” MOOC, Cathy Davidson describes unlearning as “the ability to just take change… as a challenge we can meet.” In other words, when our happy, operational paradigms are confronted by a novel approach or new evidence (“Pluto isn’t a planet” “Instruction does not equate to learning”) we have the opportunity to respond to that confrontation one of two ways: as learners or not as learners. We can plant our feet and don our Pluto Pride tee-shirt, or we can smile, shake off the old dog complex, and discover a whole fumbling, beautiful universe of not-planets.

Unlearning is really only the decision to keep learning, and never to rest on any laurels that have outlived their use. Whether we are students, academics, post-academics, or (dare I say it?) someone whose life never has nor never will intersect the academy, we are all learners. It is only when our attitudes calcify that we forget — that knowledge is fluid, that experience and perspective differ in valuable ways between us, that the times they are a-changin’. And so, as we look with trepidation and fear and derision and excited enthusiasm toward a future of higher education that does not look like its past, it is our natural capacity as curious learners that will see us through.

More than simple survival through change, though, unlearning can be seen as activism, even advocacy. As our institutions stand rigidly in their traditions, it is the unlearners who can raise the battle cry for adaptation, for improvisation, and for play. It will be the unlearners who not only embrace new paradigms and novel approaches, but who bring them unabashedly to the university, the high school, the MOOC, the senior center, and classrooms of every shape, size, ilk, and brood.

This week’s #moocmooc chat will deal with the matter of unlearning, and how we as academics, #postac, #altac, students, and learners are never innocent bystanders in the educative process. In a confrontation with something new, we must respond. We’ll consider questions like:

  1. How do we want to define unlearning? Or should we? What are examples of unlearning with regard to our jobs, our professional relationships, the expectations we have of ourselves?

  2. How can we make unlearning a part of learning in the first place? What is a pedagogy of unlearning — an unpedagogy?

  3. What does unlearning look like in our classrooms? What shapes does it take or exactly not take?

  4. Why do we choose not to be unlearners? What are the stakes involved, and why are we unwilling to risk? In other words, when are we our own worst institutions?

Enter the #moocmooc fray on Twitter this Wednesday at 7:00PM Eastern to discuss these and more questions. Check to see when to join us in your time zone. And, if you’re unable to participate this week, there’s more MOOC MOOC ahead! See our original announcement for info. about the 6-week discussion series, and don’t fret if this is the first chat you’re joining — here’s a recap. And feel free to get the discussion rolling in the comments below.

[Photo by familymwr]

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3 Responses
  1. You are all probably quite sick of hearing from me but I thought I’d still add my two sense to this really wonderful post, Sean. I love what you write here and the Pluto-allusion is just so great. Whole missed and missing planets! Great.

    I’m going to add a twist and hope it might get some conversation going. I have spent a lot of my life interested in Buddhist practice and other forms of meditation. I am also a huge advocate of Derridean deconstruction, Simmel’s and Brecht’s defamiliarization, and Stuart Hall’s contextualism. That’s a lot of different ways to place “unlearning” into a tradition that has to do with conscious, calculated, introspective self-assessment of one’s own blindspots–or, even better, hybrid pedagogies (to borrow a fabulous term) of connection where communities of difference force us to become aware of what we are not seeing. Seeking out such experiences is part of unlearning. Not being afraid to venture forth is part of unlearning. Realizing that “failure” is also “experimentation” and being willing to experiment is part of unlearning. And being able to see that one’s best practices often embody one’s worst propensities–habits, reflexes, automatic responses, efficiencies, focus, and monotasking-monomaniacal-expertise–is unlearning. Of course I am being a tad tongue-in-cheek. But just a tad. Expertise, focus, determination to get to a goal, and nothing-can-stop-me-now derring-do too often obscure turmoils within us or, worse, obscure what others have to offer. Being aware of those limits and being willing to ask ourselves “what am I missing?” at exactly our most fluid, focused, expert moments is a real skill. Unlearning, in other words, is never automatic. It’s the opposite of automatic.

    All this is why the original title of Now You See It was “katsu.” My trade publisher didn’t exactly love it that I wanted to call the book by a Japanese word that defines that moment in meditative practice when you think you are doing it so well, you are monotasking so perfectly, you are just the best meditative there ever was, surely you are on the way to Nirvana, to transcendence, to Buddahood. That’s when the wise master hits you on the shoulder with the switch: katsu! It’s the moment that makes you aware that your certainty of your focus is getting in the way of true meditative practice. It’s the thunderclap that turns a life around. Unlearning, to me, is as decisive a practice as all that, not just getting rid of one’s worst habits in order to make room for better ones, but a systematic embrace of that process. I can’t wait for conversation. I’ll still be in class during MOOC MOOC but perhaps we can get some of the class members to chime in. Many thanks for starting this and giving me something to unlearn tonight.

  2. Reading all this, I first thought of that well-known Pablo Picasso quote: “Every act of creation is first an act of destruction”. But do we have to take apart, unmake, or destroy our institutional constructions (figurative and literal) before creating something shiny, new and improved in its place? Perhaps what we need to do is better captured by the term “upcycling”, which wikipedia defines as “the process of converting waste materials or useless products into new materials or products of better quality or for better environmental value”. Let’s upcycle HigherEd. We could all sign up for a bit of self-improvement as part of the process.

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