Scholarship and Practice

Embracing Entanglements: Exploring possibilities of non-traditional scholarship

Tanya Elias

Oakeshott (1989) described the university as a place made up of three classes of people, “the scholar, the scholar who is also a teacher, and those who come to be taught, the undergraduates” (p. 25). Despite years of ongoing dedication to my studies, however, I cannot comfortably locate myself anywhere in his description. I am neither scholar, nor teacher, nor undergraduate; I most often sit on the fringes of academia. For most of the past 25 years I have studied at a distance, physically and ideologically disconnected from the university as a place.

My open education journey began when I took two courses by correspondence, as it was called at the time. Since then, my non-traditional, non-placebound scholarship has both shaped and been shaped by my life studying outside a classroom while also working full-time and raising five children. What began as study via open education has slowly become the study of open education. I am currently enrolled in a Doctor of Education (EdD) program at the University of Calgary, where I am often reminded that my historical and personal connections to the field of open education are deeper than for most. At the same time, my current scholarship represents a hobby rather than a professional career goal or aspiration. I have been asked many times, “Why would you undertake doctoral studies if you do not want to work in higher education?” I usually struggle to answer. What I do know (or think I know) is that I have found a comfortable-discomfort wedged into a strange space between the “real world” and academia, a space of possibility and agency. The boundaries of this space are blurry, ill-defined and messy. It is my own scholarly universe(ity), complicated and entangled.

University as Open

The meaning of “open education” has shifted over time and continues to lack a consistent definition (Stracke, Downes, Conole, Burgos, & Nascimbeni, 2019). Over the past 25 years, I have experienced this shifting meaning first-hand. Despite the often-cited connection between the beginnings of open education and the advent of the Internet, my early studies were supported by older technologies including telephone, mail and print. This iteration of open education sought to transcend limitations of distance, place and time. Its was an open education of flexible, self-paced learning; an open education that allowed the completion of courses outside a program; and an open education that was interested in reducing the barriers to entry. It was an open education that enabled me to continue my undergraduate studies while living 3,000 km north of the closest university (see Anderson 2008).

As I began my graduate studies, I experienced an open that involved online learning in cohorts. During that time, I researched open as a mechanism for increased accessibility (see Elias 2010, 2011) and participated in research on the use of open educational resources (OER) in a project that I would later come to recognize as a form of open colonialism (see Richards, Marshall, Elias, Quirk, Ives, and Siemens 2010). Later, I explored openness in terms of data (see Cooper, Berg, Sclater, Dorey-Elias and Kitto 2017) and informal online learning spaces (see Poellhuber, Andereson, Racette & Upton 2013). My doctoral work has explored open software, the work of early open pedagogues (see Paquette 1979 and 2005 and Katz 1972) and the implications of scale within open education both big and small (see Elias, Ritchie, Bowles & Gevault 2020). Because of these varied experiences, I use the term “open education” freely, not as a signifier of a singular experience but as a complex system of these many open educations.

Kanuka (2008) pointed out “incongruence and inconsistency in action between and among instructors, administrators, and students, and the ensuing disagreements that revolve around the means rather than the ends of education.” (p. 111). Lee (2015) noted that this pre-existing theory-practice gap had been intensified by neoliberal forces to intensify disjunctions “between potentially oppressive power relationships among stakeholders in higher education, unlike the rhetorical claims that simply promote online education as a revolutionary solution” (p. iii). These disjunctions, incongruencies and inconsistencies are the lived experience of my adult life.

My many open educations have defined my educational and career paths and my ability to support my children. They have often governed my sleep schedule; they inform my current doctoral work. They have opened some doors and closed others. I chose to study first general studies, then instructional design and open education largely because that was what was available at reputable, public institutions. Fully online programs were then, and largely remain, the exception. Inevitably, for-profits, foundations and venture capitalists have filled the void, embracing and then driving the open education agenda, often in troubling directions (Elias 2019). As a result, I am keenly aware of the realities, debates and controversies that surround the field of open education.

Throughout my studies, I have been deeply connected to my studies and worked closely with professors; I have developed friendships with other students, and I have connected with researchers and practitioners from around the world. My open educations and the learning opportunities they have provided always seemed like enough.  I spent little time thinking about the physical university campuses attached to my studies. It never occurred to me that something significant was missing.

University as a Place

It wasn’t until I worked briefly as an educational administrator on a university campus that I learned about the ideological connection between academic scholarship and the university as a place, as described by Oakeshott (1989). For three years, I worked with people who loved physical, place-based universities. They saw universities firstly as places, physical structures that had been intentionally built away, set apart, from the non-academic world. They further suggested that the ongoing existence of university campuses was, in fact, a testament to their strength, stability and resilience. For them, the university as an institution and as a physical place were inseparable.

I was intrigued by these suggestions of connections between the university as an institution and a physical place; I looked deeper. The literature supported these contentions. Egerton Ryerson, principal of Victoria College in 1842, proclaimed that “the university should be a place of learning; but it must also be a place away from ‘the din of controversy’” (as cited in McKillop 2001, p. 16). Almost 150 years later, Oakeshott similarly emphasized the importance of a  university as place.

What distinguishes a university is a special manner of engaging in the pursuit of learning. It is a corporate body of scholars, each devoted to a particular branch of learning: what is characteristic is the pursuit of learning as a co-operative enterprise. The members of this corporation are not spread about the world, meeting occasionally or not at all; they live in permanent proximity to one another. And consequently we should neglect part of the character of a university if we omitted to think of it as a place. A university, moreover, is a home of learning, a place where a tradition of learning is preserved and extended. (Oakeshott 1989, p. 24)

In 2020, echoes of these ideas persist. Weller (2020, April 22) noted that higher education remains organized around several core principles including “bringing people (staff, students) to one main location” and co-locating “all aspects of education…including content (lectures), resources (library), support, socialisation, accommodation.” Zimmerman (2020) expressed ongoing skepticism “about whether we can transmit our ‘real’ selves with our laptops. We’re people, not pixels. And teaching—and learning—are personal acts, which simply can’t be simulated on a screen.” Laporte and Cassuto (2020) went further and concluded that “continuing with virtual learning threatens the entire concept of the college experience.” Within the context of the place-based university, the more things have changed, the more they have stayed the same.

University as Suddenly Displaced

Given the traditional focus on the place-based university, it should not be surprising that when the physical place became inaccessible due to Covid-19, universities sought to immediately replicate their set-apartness, or rather have faculty and students replicate it, within the “comfort” of our own homes. “Zoom” and “zoom(call)ing” have suddenly become part of our lexicon. Weller (2020, May 14) lamented the focus on the heavy use of synchronous, online lectures. With this shift, has come a flood of advice on how to behave and what to display. Kiser (2020), for example, wrote a troubling article in which she advocated for keeping up the appearances and endeavoring “to not be the generation that allowed its integrity to crumble as we caved to laziness, disorganization and unprofessionalism.” Others have offered advice on how to rigidly structure at home days into rigidly separated work and home blocks of time (Pallavi, 2020). Bowles (2020) suggested that “we’re being coached on the propriety of what’s in shot because our lives are cluttering the view of the employer’s virtual estate.” In the emergency online pivot, physicality as represented by our backgrounds have proved to be tremendously important.

University as Classes of People

Beyond the importance of the place for the university, Oakeshott (1989) described three classes of people within it, scholars, scholar teachers and undergraduate students. Each of these classes plays a part within the university. Scholars were those who “may be expected to devote an unbroken leisure to learning” (p. 24); the scholar who was also a teacher “imparts something without having to expressly teach” (p. 27); the undergraduate was the “neither child nor adult… freed for a moment from… the burdensome distinction between work and play (p. 29). As noted in the introduction, I find none of these classes of people as defined by Oakeshott to be a comfortable fit. I have certainly crossed into adulthood and, despite my ongoing involvement in the study of the field of education, I have never taught a formal class. I therefore have nothing to contribute with respect to the “technical” aspects of education. Finally, my scholarship is certainly not one of “unbroken leisure,” but rather one that is fragmented and not so neatly tucked around other roles and responsibilities.

Or as People Falling Apart at the Seams?

Bowles (2020) noted:

We know that the equation of visible domestic demands and “falling apart at the seams” isn’t a novel or emergency framing. Parents have known this all along. People who manage work with disability or chronic illness or caring responsibilities or what we coyly call “mental health issues” all know this. We are only ever a heartbeat away from our professional competence being judged as “falling apart at the seams.”

In a paragraph, she captured my experience as a student, scholar, professional and parent, one that predates the pandemic by decades. And while her words speak to my lived experience and what I know to be true, such ideas are rarely evident within the scholarly literature. Instead, where matters of emotional labour and care are discussed, they are addressed only insofar as the classroom and work of the teacher, responsibilities outside the scholarly world, rendered invisible.

Bowles continued:

When we come back from this, let’s remember that we learned that having lives beyond our work is neither distracting, ludicrous or embarrassing. Our lives are just what they are. And if we can continue to see the impact of this, we can really start to think about rebooting a much fairer and more inclusive university system, including for our students.

To me, what she is describing is a system of education that is firmly rooted within our own realities, one that not only acknowledges but embraces the messiness and complexities of our lives beyond the university as a place.

University as Entangled Education

I do not devote “unbroken leisure to learning,” but rather learn in fragments of time. I study and write in between the cracks of my work and life. I work full-time for a technology company. I am a single, and would argue full-time, parent. These are my professions. The former pays the bills, the latter is my life; though they are not without their struggles, I love them both. I fit my scholarly activities into broken bits of time that is not as much “spared” as woven through, entangled with, everything else.

Writing this chapter has been an exercise in embracing these entanglements. I began composing in my head while I worked on converting the garage into an additional bedroom. As I worked, I thought about what it meant to make space for my two not-quite-adult children who had returned suddenly and unexpectedly with their own ideas, needs and judgements. Their school and work and lives had been disrupted, so they came home. For an indeterminate period of time. Suddenly, the house I had bought five months earlier was too small. We needed more space. As a result, the garage conversion project that I had intended to undertake in a few years, began. Early on a Saturday morning while all five kids slept under the same roof for the first time in years, I began the work while they slept. As they awoke, they came down to help, all with their own ideas as to how the project should proceed; my children tend to make my small world better, not easier.

As I worked, I thought about open education. What did it mean to care within the context of open education? Might care in the open involve welcoming the not-quite-invited, making space for unexpected people and ideas that don’t quite fit? Maybe it also involves finding ways to balance the needs of these new arrivals with those already comfortably established at home? Doesn’t care involve a willingness to start the difficult work alone, while others sleep or are otherwise preoccupied? And then ceding the control to the others because that’s how they learn, all the while knowing that if they mess it up or lose interest, they will expect you to fix it or continue on without them? Who wants to undertake that amount of care for strangers? I wondered and smiled.

A few days later, I continued my disjointed writing process in my room. My middle son burst in to inform me that he had completed his Grade 10 English test online. He had written an essay about post-secondary education. I laughed about the similarities in our tasks. I paused from my writing to read him sections from Oakeshott, Bowles and Morrish. He said, “Exactly!” We talked about the ideas for a while and laughed before I turned my attention back to my writing, his ideas still bouncing in my head. I considered the politics of citation (Ahmed, 2017) as I noted that his contributions carry no formal attribution. Not long after, my oldest daughter came in to ask what I was doing. Was it work? Was it school? Well, no… It was just an extra bit of writing because… She looked at me skeptically, rolled her eyes and left. Why do I do the the things I do? I wondered and smiled. I kept writing.

Another burst of writing took place on a Sunday morning a week later. I wrote as I listened to song requests from and played by some open educator-friends on ds106radio. My flow paused when Are you all right? came across the airwaves.

Am I all right? I wondered. Yes, I think I am.

Another pause came later when, in response to my song request Radio Gaga (inspired by my son while working on the garage-turned-bedroom), someone else tweeted a video of a conference talk about the benefits of small-scale approaches to radio. My writing became a process of connecting the disparate dots flowing through work, kids, music, voices and the odd flurry of tweets. It is within this entanglement that I find meaning.

Learning as entangled. I should note, that although I have only recently begun using the term “entangled” to describe these connections, this embedded, overlapping and interconnected approach to open education is nothing new. After beginning my studies at a place-based university all those years ago I quit, thinking academic study was not for me. It was only after I accidentally tumbled into open education that I learned that I loved academic study when it is connected to the world, my world.

I fulfilled my undergraduate English requirement not in a lecture hall but reading the books from my children’s literature class to my kids at bedtime, the exact place those texts were intended to be read. Up until then, reading had only for me been about the plot. Skim and scan. Gather the details as quickly as possible. Repeat. Reading those stories out loud to my kids, slowed my reading. It forced me to pay attention to the word choice, the cadence. The silences. With my kids, I learned what it really meant to read. It is a lesson I have not forgotten. I recently pulled one of those books off the shelf and started reading it out loud to my youngest daughter.

Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of the head behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think about it. And then he feels perhaps there isn’t. (Milne, p. 3)

In a world moving too fast in all the wrong directions, the cadence of reading Winnie-the-Pooh as he bumped down the stairs, accepting his fate while also feeling there ought to be a better way, seemed an appropriate response. In that moment, my youngest daughter, not yet born when I first read that book out loud to her siblings fifteen years earlier, became our classmate, learning with us. She brought the book to bed with her that night to keep reading it on her own.

Some time later, I took a women’s history course. It included an opportunity to do primary research. I gathered stories from my mother-in-law and her mother about growing up on the land, while they played games and sang songs with my kids. Scholarship became storytelling, or perhaps more to the point, storytelling became scholarship. It was something that we did together, four generations sharing in two languages. In another course, I analyzed my great-grandmother’s journal written while homesteading in the Yukon. Several years later, I studied children’s media and explored two TV shows, Lizzie McGuire and Arthur, favorited by my kids at the time. It took ten years for me to complete my undergraduate degree. During that time, my family did not stand by and support my studies, but actively participated, learning with me and teaching me.

My family encourages me. Last year, I thought about quitting my doctoral studies. My son was also struggling in school so he made me a deal: If I didn’t quit, he wouldn’t either. My studies continue. Later, I joked about writing a long paper that no one would ever read, and he promised that he would read it, even if no one else did. I do not know why my current studies matter to him, but they clearly do. My studies and family and work, intersected and interconnected, have always been defined by tightly woven connections of experience, exploration and relationship. These learning experiences were possible only because they occurred within the entangled “din of controversy” rather than in a university, by a scholar set apart.

Intellectual traditions as entangled scholarship. By embracing my entanglements, my studies have been at least as much about bringing non-academic thought into my studies as sharing in the other direction.  I believe in an approach to scholarship that is set within a complicated and unstable world, a world full of distractions. An approach to education that is set within the world might be one in which our classmates are our children, our co-workers, our families and our friends; it might be one that pushes us to locate and analyze our own texts and to honour voices in our lives that might otherwise unheard or be forgotten, one in which we create artifacts to be shared with those closest to us. It might encourage critical exploration of the “distractions” and maybe find that the message is in fact in the “mess.” Todd (2015) described a desire to “hear a whisper of the lively and deep intellectual traditions borne out in Indigenous Studies departments, community halls, fish camps, classrooms, band offices and Friendship Centres” currently under-represented in the scholarly literature (p. 7). I believe that my entangled scholarship has afforded me exactly that, an opportunity to notice the wisdom that surrounds me, in a variety of non-academic forms. Is it possible that I learned more because of the absence of lecturing heads? What if education was more open to these non-traditional forms of wisdom? What about the lively and deep intellectual discussions taking place among Black Lives Matters organizers or Mi’kmaw fishermen exerting their rights? What opportunities to learn are missed in the university as a place set apart from controversy?

Academic freedom as entangled. I have grown increasingly comfortable in my non-traditional scholarly space, one unbounded by either place or specific job expectations. I have also been struck by the stories of prominent women leaving academia. In sharing her story, Ahmed (2016) said: “This is my story. It is personal. The personal is institutional.”  Similarly, describing her own decision to leave, Morrish (2017) stated, “This capriciousness of managerial commitment to academic freedom means that to be a critical scholar is to live with uncertainty… So I decided to reclaim my academic freedom—outside the academy.” As I read the stories of these tremendous women, I wonder why anyone would question my choice to remain comfortably within the world rather than set apart in academia?

As I finished my final edits on this chapter, I was in the process of guest facilitating a discussion forum for an instructional design course at my old school, Athabasca University. The professor who was teaching the course taught me the same course when I was a student. She has included several papers I wrote during and after the course in the syllabus and invited me to participate. Unlike Oakeshott’s (1989) classes of university-people, I recognized myself in these students: adult learners balancing busy lives with their online education, drawing on their varied experiences, learning from one another and from others beyond their cohort. It was a privilege to learn with and from them, if only for a week. In the course, I recognized something else, my old student avatar complete with my oldest son sitting with me, then eight. Now at 19, due to limited options he is enrolled in his own online classes. Has he added his own avatar to his course shells? I wonder and smile as more of the disparate dots are connected.

Embracing My Entanglements

My “scholarly hobby” has become the place where all of my carefully constructed contexts collapse, not under the surveilling gaze of a university, but simply because it is time. Time to embrace and celebrate the tremendous value that my many entanglements bring to my studies. Time to appreciate that I have the freedom to follow my interests, unencumbered by worries about tenure and future speaking engagements. Time to shed the guilt about all the other things I am not doing while pursuing critical research and reflection. Beyond my own self-interest, I believe it is time to recognize students, teachers, scholars as well as those in the middle and outside spaces as different, but equal. It is time to embrace the fullness of experiences in ways that extend our agency in our lives and in our studies, in ways that enable us not to preserve but to question and challenge the tradition of learning. Time to actively engage in controversy and celebrate our entanglements.


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