Hamilton the man and Hamilton the musical are both concerned with historiography and legacy—how we view, understand, and remember the past. As Aaron Burr notes in “The World was Wide Enough,” “History obliterates in every picture it paints.” You have no control over who tells your story, and after death, your story is all that’s left. What’s left other than the memories we helped make before we exited the stage? What is our ultimate legacy beyond the things we create and the words we leave behind?
Is it any wonder then that Hamilton would write like he was running out of time? He was. So are we all.
I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago when my wife and I had the amazing opportunity to see In The Heights here in Richmond. That musical came from the genius mind of Lin-Manuel Miranda before he gave us Hamilton: An American Musical. And, at the end of In The Heights, there’s a part of the Finale where we hear a similar theme of legacy.
At the end of the show, the main character, who had been dreaming of a life out of the rat race in New York City and in his parents homeland of the Dominican Republic, reaches the realization that he needs to stay in New York. He needs to be the one to “tell the stories of the neighborhood, his home.”
So it seems pretty clear that Miranda is drawn to this theme of legacy, and more specifically who gets to tell our story after we are gone.
In a post from a few months ago, I wrote about pigeonholing myself and finding my lane as a scholar. I continue thinking about that, but Lin-Manuel Miranda now has me thinking about it from the perspective of legacy. When I’m done (formally, at least) professionally, what will my legacy as a scholar be?
Maybe I’m just being a typically neurotic Jew1, but I can’t stop thinking about this existential question.
Increasingly, I think we have more control over our legacy than in the past. That is, we can be conscious of the digital bread crumbs and artifacts we produce and leave behind, and we can even attempt to curate them on the fly in the form of ePortfolios and by tending to things like our Google Scholar profile (which I have failed to tend to). This gets to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s questions about who ultimately gets to tell our story. More and more, we can shape how that story gets told.
But, mostly, I believe that our legacy is not something we can really control; it is in the perceptions of others. All we can do is do good things and good work and hope that people remember us for having done that. I often tell myself that good things happen for good people who do good work.
Thus, my focus moving forward is on being a good person and doing good work. The rest will take care of itself2.
As I transition back to being “just” a tenured faculty member, I spend much of my time thinking about how I want to spend my time come Fall. While this transition is not of my own choosing, I have come to see it as an opportunity to get back to my roots and values as a scholar and an educator. I now know what courses I’ll be teaching in the Fall, and I look forward to getting back to teaching graduate-level courses which I haven’t done in over 4 years. The last four years as a university administrator and leader of faculty development and online learning initiatives have given me some new perspectives on teaching and learning and equipped me with some new tools and ideas to incorporate into my teaching.
I have also come to see this transition as an opportunity to reinvent myself as a scholar. My tenure portfolio was built around scholarship focused on, broadly, educational technology at the K-12 level. I was one of a small group of scholars housed in a department of educational leadership who studied and wrote about educational technology. My scholarly work lived at the intersection of technology, leadership, and policy all with a focus on equity. Staying that course would be the easy road, and the group of like-minded, like-focused educational leadership professors hasn’t gotten any larger; there’s enormous need for more research around leadership and policy around educational technology within the K-12 system.
However, having spent the past 4 years in a leadership position largely focused on distance education, I find myself really wanting to focus my scholarly pursuits on distance education in higher education. As a scholar, I have long struggled with the expectation of having a sufficiently narrow research agenda. That works against my natural intellectual curiosity. That said, I also understand the need to be efficient with the limited time we have for research, and I value expertise which is a natural result of sustained, focused scholarly activity around a bounded area within a discipline. In fact, I think I understand this better now than I did even 5 years ago as a faculty member.
This is also a good time for me to focus on distance education in higher education because my department, Educational Leadership, is expanding our offerings and adding programs in higher education administration. Most immediately, we are adding a higher education-focused cohort to our Ed.D. program, and there are plans to develop a masters program in higher education administration. We are in the final stages of hiring two faculty members focused on higher education.
“Distance education in higher education” is still a broad area and I’ll need to really find my pigeonhole. As a starting point, I have applied for research leave for the Spring ’18 semester and internal funding to engage in a research project that I can’t say much about right now. I am still waiting to find out if my leave application is approved and/or if I won the competition for internal research funds. Those decisions will largely shape how I go about my scholarly pursuits over the next 12-18 months.
Furthermore, I want to get back to my roots in the politics of education and as an educational policy analyst. From my perspective, the vast majority of the research on distance education in higher education is focused on issues around teaching and learning. This is critically important, of course. Additionally, there’s a lot of research trying to get at “effectiveness” of distance education. I understand why that’s being done, but it’s not of particular interest to me right now. Where I think there’s a real gap is in good critical policy analysis around distance education in higher education. According to Diem et al. (2014):
Critical theories facilitate the exploration of policy roots and processes; how policies presented as reality are often political rhetoric; how knowledge, power, and resources are distributed inequitably; how educational programs and policies, regardless of intent, reproduce stratified social relations; how schools institutionalize those with whom they come into contact; and how individuals react (e.g. resistance or acquiescence) to such social and institutional forces.
What might critical policy analysis around distance education in higher education look like? In an article today in Inside Higher Ed, Christopher Haynes writes,
“Online education aspires to more than the predatory neo-liberal nightmare its harshest critics make it out to be. While there are many questions yet to be answered, online education is promising, effective, and vital to the health of contemporary college and universities.”
That strikes me as an ideal prompt for critical policy analysis. If Haynes is correct, how to explain the following language from other recent Inside Higher Ed articles? In an article about class sizes in online courses, we get the following statement:
“These are business decisions,” said Stephen C. Head, chancellor of Lone Star College, meaning that if an online class doesn’t have enough students to earn the institution money, it won’t be offered. After that hurdle is cleared, colleges have to consider whether the academic needs of the student are met, Head said.
Then, in an article about a nationwide survey about the online education market, we see this:
“One of our basic premises is that online education is a business, and it is establishing itself at the majority of two- and four-year institutions,” Legon said. “As it joins the mainstream, one would want to ask how this fits into the organizational structure of these institutions, the budgeting, agenda, priorities for investments and development, and how it affects the role that faculty and staff play — just a variety of issues that come together to make online learning a viable, long-term aspect of higher education.”
How do we reconcile Haynes’ claim about neoliberalism and the language of the stakeholders above? And that is language just from the last couple of days just from one publication. We need some good critical policy analysis here.
I am fortunate in that Dr. Katherine Mansfield is a departmental colleague at VCU. She has done a bunch of really great work around critical policy analysis in education and I have an opportunity to learn and hopefully work with her. I look to Kat, my other colleagues, and you all, both of my readers, to help me as I begin nesting in my pigeonhole.
Yesterday, VCU, the institution for whom I work, announced the hiring of Tressie McMillan Cottom as an Assistant Professor of Sociology. This is a huge win for VCU and for our sociology program. I’ve come to know all of our tenure-track sociology professors and they are an awesome group. They are top-notch scholars who have also demonstrated a deep commitment to creating engaging learning experiences for undergraduate and graduate students. Adding Tressie makes this team extra fierce.
Tressie is an amazing scholar; a “public intellectual” in every sense of that term. The announcement by VCU barely begins to capture it, and the “About” page on Tressie’s website doesn’t do her work justice. So, on her own, Tressie adds enormous value to the VCU faculty.
But, I argue that we’re not just hiring Tressie on her own. That is, it has been said1 that “these days,” when hiring someone, you’re also hiring her network. That has always been true, to some extent, and perhaps even more so in academia. But, now, in the age of the social web, how we build, engage and use networks has changed dramatically. Veletsianos & Kimmons (2011) coined the term “Networked Participatory Scholarship” to mean “…the emergent practice of scholars’ use of participatory technologies and online social networks to share, reflect upon, critique, improve, validate, and further their scholarship” (p. 768). Tressie is an exemplary networked participatory scholar.
Back in 2011, Jo Van Every posed the following question to academicians: “How do you build an academic audience for your (published) work?” She went on to write, “Bloggers actively build an audience for their blogs. Newspapers actively build an audience for their newspaper. Are you actively building an audience for your scholarship?” Per her own website, Tressie’s “…public writing has appeared in Inside Higher Education, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Slate, Dissent Magazine, and The New York Times. Additionally, she has appeared on NPR and Dan Rather Reports.” By writing for publications such as The Chronicle, Slate and The New York Times, Tressie;s work is necessarily accessible by large audiences; they expose her work to mass audiences.
But, Tressie doesn’t stop there in building an audience for her work. She is a prolific blogger and a very active participant on Twitter. As of the writitng of this post, Tressie has 12,763 followers on Twitter2. That’s a few million short of Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber, but for a sociologist, that’s quite a following. On any given night, you might find Tressie tweeting about House Hunters on HGTV, but, from my perspective, Tressie uses Twitter as a platform to build an audience for her work. Twitter is a tool in Tressie’s toolbox of networked participatory scholarship.
What are the implications of having such a significant following? When Tressie went public with the news of her hiring on Twitter, she was making the news publicly available to her 12K+ followers. Given the ephemeral nature of Twitter, it’s not the case that all of her followers saw the tweet at that moment. But, also as of the writing of this post, Tressie’s tweet announcing her hiring (see below) has been favorited 344 times and retweeted 84 times. That latter number is significant because a retweet is a form of signal amplification. It means that after Tressie told her 12,763 followers, 84 other people passed along the news to their network of followers. There’s certainly overlap in those sets of followers, but network effects mean Tressie’s news about her hiring was pushed out far and wide. This is the power of social media and network effects.
— tressie mc (@tressiemcphd) January 13, 2015
Furthermore, it’s not just the sheer size of Tressie’s network that is important. Who is in her network matters, too. So, for example, when the great Audrey Watters tweets about Tressie’s appointment, it is made available to her 27,323 followers:
Today was the best day because Tressie got a kick-ass job. — Audrey Watters (@audreywatters) January 14, 2015
And, Ryan Brazell from the University of Mary Washington sent out a tweet that speaks to Tressie’s draw as an academic:
VCU’s Sociology program was already in my short-term hopes/plans. Now that @tressiemcphd is there? Y’all. Y’ALL.
— Ryan Brazell (@ryanbrazell) January 14, 2015
Ryan doesn’t have a huge Twitter following, but I’m certain that Tressie is known to Ryan almost exclusively through Tressie’s work in networked participatory scholarship. Finally, for the purposes of making my point about networks here, there’s Jennifer Vinopal tweeting today about a job that’s available at VCU Libraries. Jennifer is a librarian at NYU and didn’t just share the job posting on Twitter; she pointed out to her followers that they might be particularly interested in this job because they’d get to work with Tressie:
Tressie kindly credits me with initiating the process that led to her appointment at VCU. I don’t know if that’s exactly right, but it’s worth noting that I’ve never actually met Tressie in person. I know her only through screens. I know her only because our online networks brought us into contact with each other.
So, needless to say, I can’t wait to meet Tressie face-to-face. And, by virtue of network effects, I’m certain I’ll get to “meet” the tremendous network of Tressie’s that we’ve effectively hired as well.