If bell hooks Made an LMS: a Praxis of Liberation and Domain of One’s Own

What follows is the text of a presentation I gave at the Domains17 conference in Oklahoma City, OK on June 5, 2017. I co-presented with Jesse Stommel, Executive Director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies at the University of Mary Washington. Here is link to his half of the presentation. Our shared presentation was titled "If bell hooks Made a Learning Management System."

Virginia Woolf was famously turned away from the (fictional) Oxbridge university library when she tried to enter unaccompanied by a college Fellow, and without a letter of introduction. “Here I was actually at the door which leads into the library itself,” she writes in “A Room of One’s Own.”

I must have opened it, for instantly there issued, like a guardian angel barring the way with a flutter of black gown instead of white wings, a deprecating, silvery, kindly gentleman, who regretted in a low voice as he waved me back that ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction.

The library in question may be fictional, yet the circumstance true enough. Both in Woolf’s time and in ours, the academy esteems itself on who it turns away. Even in an age when inclusion and openness are virtues that sprout from our tongues and on our web sites and blogs and press releases and journals, we maintain an ethos of restricting access to those for whom what we offer we believe would go in one ear and out the other. Perhaps we don’t wish to believe that about our classrooms, about our own teaching, but those who occupy our rosters and have read our syllabus passed muster to do so. And they continue to pass muster to preserve that access.

Only a week ago, I watched a video of a co-teaching team explaining the importance of using a thesis in a final term paper. Using a clever combination of face-to-face video and screen sharing—a “best practice” they learned while attending a professional development seminar probably led by an instructional designer—they highlighted for viewing students various pieces of the assignment requirements, including the driving questions students should be answering. “However,” they offered, “and hear this loud and clear, don’t just repeat the questions in the assignment as your thesis. That’s boring for us.” And from there they went on to explain that “every sentence of the paper” should be relevant to the thesis. “State your argument, and then follow it up with support.”

This was for a graduate class at a private institution. I hope you find that appalling. This sort of pedantic instruction should be appalling at any level of higher education, and is especially so aimed at students who have already achieved so much. In this case, though, it is the thesis statement, the rubric of this particular assignment, the ability to endure the patronizing tone of an instructor: this is muster students must pass if they are to enter our own Oxbridge libraries.

In her essay “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness,” bell hooks writes that her mother once told her, regarding her studies at a majority white university, “You can take what the white people have to offer, but you do not have to love them.” hooks takes her mother’s words as a caution against conformity.

She was saying that it is not necessary to give yourself over to them to learn … she knew that I might be faced again and again with situations where I would be ‘tried,’ made to feel as though a central requirement of my being accepted would mean participation in this system of exchange to ensure my success, my ‘making it.’

Or, even more to the point: “She was speaking about colonization and the reality of what it means to be taught in a culture of domination by those who dominate.”

hooks has much more to say about this, and we’ll go there shortly; but you’ve all been very patient listening so far, and no one has yet blurted out “What has this got to do with Domain of One’s Own?” So, I’ll get to that now.

When Jesse and I first posed the question of our presentation’s title—what if bell hooks made a learning management system—we did so playfully. It was during a discussion at the Digital Pedagogy Lab 2015 Institute, just about one year after we posed a likewise playful question at OpenEd 2014, namely “What if Freire made a MOOC?” But a strange thing happened on the way to trying to answer our question. Or, a few strange things.

First, we recognized almost at once that hooks wouldn’t make an LMS, that the very structure of the LMS, the assumptions upon which it is based, the pedagogies it has baked into it, the way that it reinforces patriarchal, capitalist values would never be worth a critical feminist remodel. Erected as it is from the concrete and girders of a predominantly white male educational psychology, the LMS would essentially need to be razed and the ground laid with new pasture before a space more viable, more critical, more feminist, more liberative could be grown in its place.

Which leads to the second strange thing. If we use that metaphor—of a learning “space” where something may be grown, mantled or dismantled—we don’t have to think too far into a critical pedagogical stance to see that the ground, the organic foundation upon which we might build or grow, is itself problematic. For the ground upon which we are accustomed to building is the ground of the institution, of everything we know about institutionality. And no matter how hard we try to escape it, if we are starting from the same clay, we will end up within the same walls.

And these are not walls built without premise.

Martha Burtis, the Mary Shelley of Domain of One’s Own, says it beautifully when she writes:

the LMS underscores and codifies a set of beliefs and values: with our courses we should build standard interfaces, provide standardized features and tools, and promote, among our students, the expectation that their experiences from one course to the next will be, standard and predictable.

In other words—and Martha, please correct me if I’m wrong here—the LMS is both a product of an approach to teaching, and a technology that produces an approach to teaching. An approach to teaching that is built around standards, expectations, predictability. Martha has also abbreviated the effect of the LMS on teaching and learning to “Standardized features. Standardized courses. Standard students.”

The chicken-and-egg of it, then, is that the LMS is both the doors we built upon the library, and our deep desire—and more, our belief that it is right—to have doors upon the library. And if you don’t think it’s right to have doors upon the library, I would ask Do you grade? Do you measure success against rubrics? And if you don’t do these things, then I would ask Do you teach at a college or university? And if you don’t do that, or if you do that and are a rebel amongst your ranks, I would ask What muster must a learner pass to earn your esteem?

Because if I am right about what Martha is saying, and about what I am in agreement with, the LMS isn’t the problem. And never was.

Plenty of people have contrasted the LMS and the Domain of One’s Own initiative. One against the other, drawbacks to benefits. We love the promise of Domains. We roil at the limitations and oppressive qualities of the LMS. But the problem here is not the LMS—it is that, despite our best efforts at creating other platforms, we still think through our own internal LMS. The problem is that whether we are using Blackboard or teaching in Canvas or building a Domains project, we are most likely not doing thinking that is liberative enough.

The point is not just about platform. The point is about praxis.

Which leads me to the third strange thing that happened on the way to trying to answer our question about bell hooks and the LMS. Our original proposal for this talk was to playfully get at the idea of a learning space so open and so malleable that it would not offend the sensibilities of a critical pedagogy as reflected in bell hooks’ work. But that’s where things got complicated. Jesse said he wanted to start by re-reading what hooks had to say about “radical openness.” And so I read the aforementioned essay, all the while thinking about the LMS, Domains, critical pedagogy.

I was prepared to dive into the warm, welcoming pool of hooks’ thinking. After all, this is the woman who wrote “To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.”

That is not the bell hooks I encountered. And my naivete humbles me still.

“I am waiting for them to stop talking about the ‘Other,’” hooks writes,

to stop even describing how important it is to be able to talk about difference … Often this speech about the ‘Other’ annihilates, erases: ‘No need to hear your voice when I can talk about you better than you can speak about yourself. No need to hear your voice. Only tell me about your pain. I want to know your story. And then I will tell it back to you in a new way. Tell it back to you in such a way that it has become mine, my own. Re-writing you, I write myself anew. I am still the author, authority. I am still the colonizer, the speaking subject, and you are now at the center of my life.'

To imagine the LMS that hooks might build—to go further than that and play at the notion that Domain of One’s Own answers the real problems of social justice raised by her critical pedagogy—would be to enact the erasure she warns against.

And so I can’t talk about that. But I can talk about something. For, like Woolf, my preparation for this presentation wended its way across Oxbridge, running afoul of Beadles and librarians. This unexpected confrontation with hooks gave me pause to think. “you know the little tug—” Woolf reflects, “the sudden conglomeration of an idea at the end of one’s line: and then the cautious hauling of it in, and the careful laying of it out?”

Here is the little fish that swam about in my head, then: that the LMS is an outlook, a standpoint, a conviction. Like it or not, it is in our blood as a product of our privilege and our educations. It is not a cage we put students in as much as it is an artificial playground over which we can be masters. It is, in fact, a learning space, but not for the content we put there; rather it is a space of enculturation into an oppressive educative model which each of us has born the weight of, and into which we each believe, to varying degrees, students should be baptized. The same is true of the classroom, the academy, the professional conference. These are spaces we understand, where we are not marginal, but where we can invite the marginal to participate, to become not-marginal. And this invitation to the middle is an act we say is elevating, is doing good.

But we blur the line between doing good and building credibility. Building credibility looks like doing good. It is amplifying voices. It is giving people space to tell their stories. It is ceding the authority of the podium for another or others to speak in our stead. But if we walk away from the podium and we are proud of our move, if we walk away and we listen to the next speaker with a hearty sense of our own philanthropy (“I gave her my space, and now she can speak.” Which, we can never forget, is different from being heard), then we have certainly built credibility, but have we done good?

And more: if we cede our place at the podium—something both Jesse and I have talked about, and which at least a surface reading of critical pedagogy makes a modus operandi—do we then expect that our same instructional methodologies will be reproduced by those we invite to take our place? Do we expect, say, a student presentation to look, feel, sound, and have the consequences of a presentation of our own? When those of us in control, in power, at the center invite in voices from the margins—Black voices, Latinx voices, First Nation voices, disabled voices, queer and transgender voices, and also student voices—what do we hope to hear? Likenesses of ourselves? If we teach to reproduce ourselves, or the academy or the idea of the “academic”, what good is a room or a domain of one’s own?

Domain of One’s Own—which I love, and which I advocate for at every turn at Middlebury and at Digital Pedagogy Lab—makes moves toward being a liberative digital platform. The genuine openness of its praxis, the ease of access—not to mention the metaphors of gardens, parties, open doors, road trips, and even jazz—all color the project as one with limitless potential for any individual or institution that can afford the cost of hosting (and to their credit, Reclaim Hosting makes that cost very low). However, platforms and tools are not solutions or answers.

The Domains initiative wants to do good. It wants to free us from our internal LMS. But have we changed our practices enough to know how to make Domains a space of liberation? Do we know what a praxis of liberation looks like? Or are we relying on a platform that both proclaims its own openness and evinces that openness to do the practical, pedagogical work for us? What does our Domains praxis look like? Is it instrumental—here is how you sign up; here is how you choose a domain name; here is Wordpress; here are themes, plugins, CSS, PHP. Cool tools, cool projects. So. Much. Cool.

Doing good, liberative work is more than cool, though. The most promising and most problematic thing about the Domains project is that it locates students on the web. Or rather, it adds a digital component to their already complex social location. If I am an educated white male who loves to code, push, pull, fork, tinker, and hack, my own domain will offer me a very different platform—and different opportunities for voice—than if I’m a Black trans woman who loves to code, push, pull, fork, tinker, and hack. Or even, in my case, a gay, neuro-diverse man with a relatively sordid professional history who doesn’t push, pull or fork.

And the point here is not to welcome all people to have their voices heard. I argued last year that:

The answer doesn’t lie in turn-taking, but in changing what it means to speak. Make speaking a collaborative event. There are not enough Chicana voices. There are not enough Black voices. There are not enough First Nation voices. There are not enough trans voices. There are not enough women’s voices. There are not enough queer voices.

But I’m no longer sure that’s the problem. It is not, as I argued last year, that there are not enough voices in academe. It is that there are multitudes of voices we won’t hear because they do not occupy the spaces where we are comfortable.

bell hooks offers this invitation, from the margins:

"We greet you as liberators. This ‘we’ is that ‘us’ in the margins, that ‘we’ who inhabit marginal space that is not a site of domination but a place of resistance. Enter that space. This is an intervention. I am writing to you. I am speaking from a place in the margins where I am different, where I see things differently. I am talking about what I see.”

There are multitudes of voices that we won’t hear because we do not feel safe in their spaces, on the margins. And safe, for educators, usually means expert, superior, capable, competent. When we enter the margins from our roosts in academe, we suffer the surrender of our confidence. In the face of what might be being created in the spaces we don’t occupy, our knees wobble.

After all, we educate our students. We make space for the marginal. We share the podium. We give domains so that others might claim them as their own.

What room would we give Virginia Woolf? How would we advise she furnish it? What features would we point out? And would she take the room we offered her? By offering a room, we make ourselves the lessors. By making space, we claim space. “These are your walls,” we say. “These are your walls that I’ve given you. These are your walls to hang upon them what you would like. I have made them of plaster and drywall. I have painted them. I have put in the studs and I have raised high the roofbeams. But truly, this is yours. I have made you a space where you can be who you want to be.”

But is that truly the most liberative effort we can make? Woolf and hooks both call for a space that is marginal, but not marginalized. hooks writes about a marginality one does not wish to lose,

a site one stays in, clings to even, because it nourishes one’s capacity to resist. It offers one the possibility of a radical perspective from which to see and create, to imagine alternatives, new worlds.

When we encourage students to build a domain of their own in our classes, or as part of their educational journey, we are locating their freedom in a space close to our own. How does this change, how does this diminish, the voices that students speak in when we’re not watching? When we’re not providing them a platform we’ve built? In other words, does Domain of One’s Own do work toward creating an open channel between what students are saying—what’s important to them, what comes deliberately from their lived experiences—and what school asks them to say?

Speaking from the margin is a subversive act, even as it is a liberative one and an intervention. The real potential of the Domains project is not surfaced by our agenda for it, but is buried beneath its premise. With a room of her own, Virginia Woolf wrote fiction that stirred and shook the literary world. She did not say what we wanted her to say, but rather broadcast what she had been saying all along, despite our ears. With a domain of their own, students can speak from the margins—the margins of their social location as female, Black, Latinx, disabled, queer, trans… and as students. Did we create Domains in order to help students put themselves on display? Or did we create Domains so that we could listen? What will Domains become? How do we make sure that the Domain of One’s Own project—writ large, or as it’s enacted at our institutions and in our classrooms—retains its subversive features?

For starters, we need to embrace the project’s subversive qualities. And instead of talking about using Domains in our classrooms, we need to start thinking about how to abdicate any authority and abandon any expectations for how students use their space. We need to design learning where there is no option for oppression. This is an approach that Critical Instructional Design takes. This is the approach that Critical Digital Pedagogy takes. And this begins when we introduce Domain of One’s Own to a class or an individual.

Do we initiate a conversation about a new domain owner’s digital identity? And if so, do we talk about it in terms of digital literacy, digital citizenship (copyright, ownership and authorship, their place in a digital economy)? Or do we begin with questions deep enough that they trouble every age of every human on the planet? Who are you? What is your history? What are your stories? What is your social location and why? What do you bring, what have you left behind, what will you give, what will you take?

It’s not enough to believe that the openness of the Domains platform can do that for us.

Martha Burtis reminds us in “Messy & Chaotic Learning” that:

we live in a post truth world filled with fake news and alternative facts. And all around us, people are pointing at the web as the engine that allowed all this to advance: it turns out that understanding how search engines work is really important; it turns out that understanding Facebook algorithms really does matter; it turns out that knowing how to create and disseminate information on the Web is a very, very powerful force.
And it turns out that we have a lot of work to do.

Thank you.