“Well… in Who-ville they say…”

One of my favorite books, ever, is How The Grinch Stole Christmas. The best part of that book is:

“Well… in Who-ville they say / That the Grinch’s small heart / Grew three sizes that day.”

Why is this the best part?  Because it means that Christmas wasn’t really stolen after all, that it could never be stolen, not really, not ever. It’s always in our hearts–it’s untouchable. It’s a feeling, not a thing. Feelings can’t be stolen. The Grinch gets that, and it changes him. AND why does that matter? It’s about redemption, resurrection, renewal. It’s moving. It’s about what I keep hoping life is really like. And I’m rarely disappointed. Sure, there is ugliness, but really, isn’t there always something remarkable, too, something that makes us gasp, or wonder, or sigh, or dream? Sydney Carton willingly being executed in place of Charles Darney in Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities… Is there a more moving moment than that one in all of literature? Not for me. It’s why I read books. It’s why I love Joseph Campbell and the power of myth. It’s why I can and do watch Star Wars over and over and over again (despite Jar Jar Binks). It’s the thing about being human that is the most amazing to me: our willingness to give to a cause greater than ourselves, our willingness to see a place where we are needed and taking that place, sometimes at a cost to ourselves or who we thought we were. It’s why I like Rhett Butler so much more than Scarlett O’Hara.

As I think about open educational resources (OER) and how that can or should be a part of my life and to what degree, I think the connection between the Grinch and Carton and me is about how hearts, souls, lives are changed by being open to change, to giving, indeed, to forgiveness. (See how give is a part of forgive–how cool is that? How many years did it take for me to see that? A lot.)

I am smitten with the whole notion of OER and higher education. What it all means to me might be best described by the Grinch hearing the Whoville-ites singing Christmas morning though all the accoutrements of the holiday are missing. I have been locked in tight to what I saw as knowledge, the grasping ownership of knowledge, and who gets it and when, and thought that I needed to be defined that way–even though it felt like a dress that looked pretty damn good on me, but one I couldn’t sit down in. Now I’m beginning to think I understand why the whole thing appeals to me: it’s the word open. It makes my heart grow three sizes. It’s transformative. (Not that I’m small-hearted or bent on stealing Christmas or a drunken British attorney madly and sadly in love with a French girl I’ll never have.) If you looked up “open” online, you’d find a lot of possible definitions for it as an adjective–add in its verb meanings, and you’ll find even more.  Well over 80 ways to think about open. My, my.

So is open redemptive? Why not? It’s not closed, or barred, or covered. It allows passage; it’s extended or unfolded; it’s without restriction; it’s accessible and available; it’s unreserved, candid; it’s free of strictures or hazard; it’s unguarded, bounteous, generous, liberal (it can also be undecided and unsettled–isn’t that just perfect?); it’s free; it’s clear; it’s… open. After hundreds of years of higher education being a closed system–here is a chance for it to become an open system. Or parts of it can be open (not everyone needs to be wide open–in fact, there are some folks I might prefer remain enclosed–even if that sounds petty, I’ll have to just be petty). Didn’t the monks lecture to anyone interested, but those who wanted the “degree” had to pay–and got some special attention for the price being paid? What’s different about open and access and knowledge and degrees now? It’s the essence of what college was and what universities became, yes? Open strikes me as very Medieval really. (I get the trouble with such a system–it’s easy to become corrupt when your only income are students who need something and your ability to eat is contingent upon their funding or not–but the open system has its checks and balances–less like hungry monk-teachers and willing, rich noblemen buying degrees for their second sons…)

I especially like the part in which the guts of higher education becomes available to anyone who wants to learn. I taught a course on Victorian literature and science a long time ago–a continuing education class (for which I was paid $46.73 for eight classes–or maybe it was about drugs, sex, and the Victorians?). One of my students was a plumber. He took the class on a whim but fell so in love with the Brownings that he took time off from work to travel to Waco to visit the Armstrong Browning Library. I wonder if he’s thrilled with the open movement, if he’s one of the students of Khan Academy, if he wanders the cyber-halls of MIT. Wouldn’t it be great if he was, if he did? His visit to the ABL still stands out as a monumental part of my teaching history, a triumph not just for me, but for everyone who teaches, yes?

I often have thought I’d like to go back to school to finish my math degree… there’s no way I have time to do this or could even do it now–I lost some basic knowledge along the way to English professorhood. BUT if I wanted to dabble in math at some point, well, I could certainly do that now, couldn’t I? How lovely. I won’t dabble, not even stick a toe in, but I like knowing I could dive in head first at any time without reapplying to school, filling out painful financial aid forms, finding a parking place, getting to the right building, or buying a $200 textbook I’d only read halfway through.

Open also means resurrection. When all else is failing in one’s life, learning can change everything. Jude the Obscure might not be so obscure if he’d had access to higher education in the way it’s being conceived of now by the visioneers of OER. Doesn’t my heart break for him 1,000 times now, more than when I first read Hardy’s sad sad story? It does. And he’s fiction for heaven’s sake. What if my ancestors (whoever they were, I suspect there were horse thieves or cattle rustlers among them) had access to learning modules that were unbounded, unbarred, unfettered by admission standards, tuition, FAFSA, registration prerequisites, and more? Would I have been different because that culture of learning would have inhabited the very essence of my childhood? I was lucky to be raised in a library with reading as a valued activity, but without real knowledge of educational structures that were effectively closed to a majority of my family, I was all over the place. Still am. I know at least my immediate predecessors were prevented from attending college because it was never an option–farmers from North Dakota, immigrants from Germany (bummer to be German for a good part of the 20th century in America), and Irish from someplace very poor where they starved and when they did have money, they probably drank to forget their cares before they emigrated. Education was something I must have, so I was told, but decisions about what that meant were impossible for me to make… and sometimes still feel like that: anthropologist, historian, geographer, Victorianist, writer, dancer, what? The smorgasbord was too huge, so who could make those choices? Steak, or turkey, or fish, veggies, or pasta. How about 20 years of feasting, and I take a little of everything? The benefit to all that is I’ve never been hungry.

I’ve seen higher education resurrect lives, careers, souls. But one’s savvy about how to work the system is part of that resurrection–or at least it has been in my experience as one in and of the system, so far. Open means something different is possible now. MERLOT, Connexions, MIT are a few of the places one can find open educational resources–and there are so many more folks making open happen (Open University is a long time love of mine–I met folks in England a few years ago who teach for OU–it was wondrous to hear them talk about their students who lived, literally, everywhere… it’s less open than you think: you have to pay a price for admission, but admission is not based on test scores or grades or even really age). In some ways, you have to hunt for what you want in some of these open places, but I see how that could be evolving, too. (I mean, have you seen page one of MERLOT? I was sure I needed a degree of some kind in order to even begin deciphering the contents–overwhelming, to say the least.  And the crawl thing at the top… do we really need that sort of thing? Google really understands me–clean, easy, simple, doesn’t hurt me to look at it–sometimes, it’s even fun.)

So open is good. I want open. I’m dancing with open in Writing Spaces. And it’s a fine dance. It’s about writing. I love writing. I love doing it. For me, for you, for friends, for family, for colleagues, for students. It’s easy, it’s beautiful, it’s all kinds of open for me. It’s without boundary. It’s the light I need for my own photosynthesis. It’s the ultimate dance. But here’s the thing: Writing Spaces is NOT all over the place. The music is defined; it’s writing music, but the dance I do isn’t defined entirely. The content is about writing, but who doesn’t DO writing? I can’t really think about a life that wouldn’t be enhanced by writing. Mine certainly is. Even in aviation, I defined myself by writing and publishing in aviation journals. In extended education, I defined myself by writing and publishing about life-long learning. I haven’t always loved the scholarly path–I have really lived the journalist’s life, writing when and where I felt like it. And though I have fallen out of love with many things–politics, law, numbers (and even people)–I’ve never fallen out of love with writing. Never.

It saves me, it redeems me, it resurrects me, it sustains me. When I need to think, I write, and when I do, my heart grows three sizes. Maybe that’s because I can write because it’s utterly who I am. Utterly. I am the words I write. If that’s not one possible definition of open, what is?

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