On critically engaging with other people's writing

June 9, 2009, [MD]

I just finished a blog post about Sean Duncan's PhD dissertation about reuse of learning objects, which was quite critical. And I asked myself for a second whether I should publish it or not. Would it make anyone upset (him, his supervisors)? Was it aggressive or uneccessary? I don't think so. I think part of the reasons I felt uneasy with publishing this, is because I am so used to "haters" and "trolls" on the internet, who will obsessively debate and criticize everything. In addition, while the fundament of academia is critical engagement and debate, there is certainly enough unproductive "attacks", personal disputes and other issues that don't serve to promote scholarship.

However, just as Cory Doctorow is more afraid of obscurity than ebook-piracy, I think that obscurity or indifference is far worse than criticism in academia. If you have worked for years on a product, and it just ends up on a shelf in some library, never to be seen again... And I find this kind of thing happens frequently, at all levels. For example, I attended the Comparative, International Education Society annual meeting last year in Charleston, SC. This is a huge conference, with over 900 presentations given on all topics related to comparative education. Unfortunately, many of the presentations were extremely poor, but I felt that there was very little real engagement with the content, by the audience. Partly, this was probably due to the lack of time (often four 15 minute presentations, followed by just 20 minutes of discussion).

The best session I attended was the presentation of a large project presented by several famous scholars, who had invited a who's who of famous education scholars to read drafts of their presentations before-hand, and give brief comments. One after another, they went up to the podium, and give extremely incisive and critical comments, with lot's of substance and deep insight. In a way, the presenters were being ripped to pieces in all kinds of ways, in another way they got the incredible privilege of having some of the best minds in the world engage deeply with their content. And I also wonder whether the fact that the presenters were also so established, and that everyone knew each other, was one reason why they could be so outspoken... they probably would not have done that to graduate students.

Thinking about myself, I finished my undergraduate honor's thesis) last year on community libraries in Indonesia. It was quite a novel topic, and I was very excited to put it together. I even had it translated to Indonesian, because I believed it was very important that those who were talked about, could also read (and criticize!) the paper. However, although I know that a number of people downloaded the PDF (and mysteriously, it even appeared on the shelves of the Australian National Library), I have yet to receive any kind of substantial comment or criticism about the paper (which is very far from perfect!).

Even blog posts are similar. I always wondered how some bloggers get so many comments on their posts. I know through statistics that there is a nice number of people visiting this blog, many finding it through Google queries, others reading it through feed-readers, etc. Yet, I get very few comments, and even when my blog posts are republished or linked to otherwise, it's usually just in a "this is neat" way. (There are exceptions, for example Downes did give me somenice resistanceabout the role of theories in OER research).

And added thing that sometimes strikes me is the whole hierarchy. What business do I have, as a first year MA student, to criticize the field of OER research, or a PhD thesis? However, as long as you do it in a respectful and sincere manner, I think it is an important part of learning. I never pretend that what I say is the final truth, it is what I think. If it is completely wrong, then better that I say it out, and be corrected. For example, I mentioned that I thought the 45 page PhD thesis was very short. Perhaps this is quite normal, and I will be corrected. Great. Then I will have learnt something.

I gave a talk two weeks ago for a Chinese community of people interested in open education and elearning, and one of the things I talked about was the English-language open ed blogosphere. I might have romanticized it a little bit, but I still believe it's one of the most helpful and constructive "communities" or networks that I've ever engaged with. And one of the elements is that what you say really is much more important than who you are. Even if I am a first year MA student, if I have something interesting to say, people will read it. And although our education system is far from perfect, I treasure enormously the self-confidence of my teachers, almos consistently from primary school until my current MA, who welcome criticism and questioning, and encourage you to not accept things at face value.

So I will continue poking my head out, but it works both ways - my stuff is out there, and I would love for people to tear it apart. Then I'll know, at least, that somebody's read it.


Stian HĂ„klev June 9, 2009 Toronto, Canada
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