Orality, Literacy, and the Education Commons

Note: This post is my reactions to the assigned readings in the LCC Literacy and Education Faculty Learning Community this week.

I’ve always felt myself a stranger in a strange land academically. I’ve been intimidated by the thought of academic writing. Writing is so, so central to academia and I’ve thought or seen myself as writer. I never had a college-level comp course unless you count “Business Writing”. I placed out of college comp and I largely skipped all my senior year English classes in high school.   The Econ Masters thesis was 6 years in gestation. The dissertation? Started 3 of them and, well, we’re still waiting.

The irony is I have a BA in Speech & Rhetoric. I won a prize in grad school for best economic writing (yes, I realize that can be considered an oxymoron). The key here is that I wasn’t writing. Not in my mind. I was speaking. Years of college speech & debate and decades of presentations & meetings taught me to make speeches. My rhetoric studies were in a Speech department, not an English or Composition department. Everything I’ve written is largely a speech  I hear myself making. It’s all oral rhetoric. I can talk. Podiums, meetings, seminars, and the TV camera are my comfort zone.  Keyboard or pen? Not so much.

animated minions clapping excitedlySo when I saw that our first two readings in this “literacy” FLC were both about orality, I got excited – fist-pumping excited. Speaking. Listening. Oral. Now we’re talking. Literally.

Barton and Hamilton refer to the tyranny of writing over orality in the academy. They recount how the study of rhetoric, dating back to ancient Greece,  started with the oral tradition but the necessity for written artifacts (texts) to facilitate the study of rhetorics led to a domination of the written text over the oral:

The impression grew that, apart from the oration (governed by written rhetorical rules), oral art forms were essentially unskillful and not worth serious study.

Reading this, I was reminded of the story of the growth and emergence of higher education I read earlier this summer. Lowe and Yasuhara document extensively how in multiple ancient civilizations, the library, a massive collection of written texts, was the seed around which centers of higher learning grew. These library collections of texts attracted scholars. The scholars taught and learned from each other using the texts. Eventually, centuries later these collections of scholars centered by the library of texts became universities and colleges.

I’ve presented and written about how this academic, scholarly tradition is effectively a commons.  What’s relevant for this discussion about higher education as a commons is that the core activity of higher ed, teaching and learning, is primarily oral.  We prefer oral. We teach face-to-face. Seminars and conferences are built on dialogue, the oral. Even when we teach online, we add video orality and discussion forums.  As academics, we love the oral back-and-forth. We naturally gravitate to the oral tradition for teaching and learning.

Yet we also write and read. The necessity of producing the “artifacts” of learning, the texts, articles, and books that document our learning for future generations, perpetuates the “library”, the corpus of scholarly texts.  There is, or should be, a virtuous spiral here. We engage the texts by discussing, talking, presenting, and arguing. Then we write what we learn, adding to the corpus for future learners. We pad the shoulders of giants with writings for future learners to see further.

Barton and Hamilton cast written literacy as a tyrant. Ong observes

socially powerful institutions, such as education, tend to support dominant literary practices. These dominant practices can be seen as part of …institutionalized configurations of power…

I see this happening in higher education today. The curriculum is no longer what is taught and learned, the course of learning. It is a document, a written text, a “master syllabus”, a set of standardized “learning outcomes” to be measured and recorded. The “course” is no longer what a professor does in class, or what students do, or what activities they perform. The “course” is now a set of files and documents contained in a “Learning Management System”. Pedagogy, of course, being the dialectic between teacher and student is primarily oral. The literacy practice of written curriculum and textbooks ascends and pedagogy recedes

This domination of the written in the curriculum serves the purposes of the capitalist and the market. The market and the capitalist in particular is the enemy of the commons. The logic of the market commoditizes and standardizes everything. It is about things, goods and resources, not doings, like people and activities. Texts can be commoditized. Oral tradition less so.

I am excited to see where this faculty learning community takes not only me, but us. After all, it’s all about the dialogue to me.


Barton, David and Mary Hamilton (2000). Chapter 1:Literacy Practices. In Situated Literacies: Reading and Writing in Context (pp 7-15) Available at: http://e503.weebly.com/uploads/8/6/2/3/8623935/situated_literacies_-_ch._1.pdf

Lowe, Roy and Yoshihito Yasuhara, (2017) The Origins of Higher Learning Routledge: Taylor and Francis. https://www.routledge.com/The-Origins-of-Higher-Learning-Knowledge-networks-and-the-early-development/Lowe-Yasuhara/p/book/9781138844834

Ong, W. J. (2002). Chapter 1: The Orality of Language. In Orality and literacy(pp. 5–15). Retrieved from https://lcc.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx? direct=true&db=lfh&AN=17442153&site=ehost-live

Goals, A Non-News Announcement, and Preview of 2019

So this is just a self-indulgent note to my readers as to what to expect this year. Looking over the stats I see I didn’t achieve last year’s Don’t Call It A Resolution.  Twenty-some posts is way more than I thought I had done last year. A few were good ones of which I’m proud. But many were just posting slides from presentations and there were way too many good-topic posts started and then left to whither in the drafts folder.

Goals:  Write More, duh

So this year, I’m attempting to write more – again.  Only this time I’m making some in-person group commitments that should force the issue.  One implication is that I’m likely to jump around from topic to topic a lot more this year.  It may be economics of money creation one day and critical pedagogy the next, all followed by ramblings about the commons or accessibility and out-of-league mumblings about literacy.

The Announcement: Open Learning Faculty Fellow

It’s really kind of non-news event since I’ve already let many of my friends know, but as of last fall I’m now the “Open Learning Faculty Fellow” in my school’s Center for Teaching Excellence. It’s a 1/2 time appointment, so I’ll still be teaching a 1/2 load. Basically, I’ll be continuing the Open Learning Lab, our name for our Domains of One’s Own effort.  I’ve been doing this for 3 years but it’s all been “experimental” and tentative – meaning semester-to-semester. The school I teach at has finally committed to “institutionalize” this experimental effort and locate it in our Center for Teaching Excellence.  Doing a DoOO at a community college has been a, um, “learning experience”.  In some ways, it’s been chaos for 3 years, but I think we’re finally breaking the code on how to do it in a 2 year school with limited funds and over-loaded faculty.  I’m really excited about this new position and the opportunities it provides.  It’s going to bring additional work, though. Not only do I have the Open Learning & DoOO stuff now, but I’m also getting involved in redesign of what amounts to critical pedagogy/inclusion development efforts and our UDL/accessibility initiatives. Good stuff, but lots of work. I hope writing about it will help me and maybe I can help somebody else by documenting my mistakes (how else do we learn?).

Preview: The Topics for 2019

One of the barriers to my writing more in the past has been my insistence that a post be some kind of fully thought out argument – conclusions, not in-process thinking. That usually led to loooong posts, few and far between. I’m going to see in 2019 if this old dog can learn a new trick. I’m going to try to write my thoughts in shorter pieces. They’ll be less complete. They’ll be more a window into what I’m wondering – more wonderings than conclusions. We’ll see if this works.

So among the topics you can expect mixed up in the coming year:

  • Economics – especially macro posts. I’m teaching a face-to-face class again for first time in 4+ years. I want to shake up my previous lecture- and theory-heavy format and spend more time on the rhetoric of economics. That means I’ll need to post current stuff and help students critique it.
  • Literacy and Education – Leslie Johnson (@mtflamingo on the Twitter thing) has organized a hybrid Faculty Learning Community group at LCC this semester. I’m not only supporting the online portion through our Open Learning Lab, but I’ve decided to participate. That means reacting to a lot of readings.  You’ll know those posts from the category /hashtag #literacyflc.
  • Commons and Higher Ed Governance/Policy – I’ve really got the bit in my mouth for researching & studying the concept of higher ed as a  commons.  I talked more about this back in my Shelter post.  The OpenEd18 post on Commons  was only the start. I’ve got a big stack of notes now and Lord willing, I’ll get it in writing this year. My spouse insists it’s the beginning of a book. We’ll see. I know I’ll be updating it at OER19. It’s the passion right now.
  • Accessibility and Critical Pedagogy – These are the high priority initiatives in the CTE, so I’ll be sharing my thoughts as learn. So far, the more I learn, the more I realize how much more I just don’t know.

Conference Hopes:

The conferences I’m planning on attending/presenting – not including the ones we present on campus as part of the CTE:

  • LAND – Michigan Liberal Arts Network for Development for MI community college folks, Feb 6-8. I’ll just be listening.
  • OER19 – Ireland and Galway here we come! Accepted to speak about the Commons and the connections to pedagogy and open.
  • Domains19 – Reclaimhosting is getting the gang together again.  I’ll be there, god willing in June.
  • WPCampus – always a worthwhile WordPress conference in July.  Not sure yet where or when exactly, but I really hope to make it again. It’s become my go-to “wordcamp”.
  • Digital Pedagogy Lab – UMW in August, of course.  I went last year.  I really hope I can repeat, but depends on some issues at the school.

The rest are all just aspirational at the moment. We’ll see.

  • Michigan OER Summit – usually in September at some Michigan CC.
  • Lilly Teaching Conference – Traverse City in October
  • OpenEd19 – Phoenix at end of October. Can’t believe this will be my fifth year. As David Wiley says, I’m old-timer now.
  • OE Global – Milan around Thanksgiving time.  Gee, if I’m really good, maybe Santa comes early and finds a way for me to go to OE Global.  We’ll see….